There was a reason Edmond had taken up fishing in his old age. When a man fished, there was nothing to separate him from his thoughts. No chattering women or murmuring men. No seeds to plant or plants to weed or water. No wood to carve, no nails to pound, no livestock to feed and watch carefully lest a kick or bite come your way. A trip out to the pond with his tackle gave Edmond some precious time alone to pick up his reflections, scattered as those in the water after he cast his lure, and re-assemble them into some kind of order.
And if he happened to bring home a fresh fish for supper? That was an unanticipated bonus.
He had many thoughts to be gathering these days. Simon had lost his only child. Rosette was shackled to a man whose conduct was the talk of half the kingdom. Toinette’s father-in-law and his increasing drunken antics were the source of gossip for the other half. Only Pierre seemed to be doing well to an outsider, with two healthy children, a stable job that provided well for the family, and a wife who was both beyond reproach and was making frequent runs to the privy these days, only to wretch into it.
The Mysimaeans, Edmond had heard, had a saying: Call no man happy until he is dead. Edmond had a corollary: Call no man (or woman) unhappy, either, unless you know the whole story. Toinette’s father-in-law was a source of gossip for half the kingdom, but anyone who looked at Toinette bustling about her shop and home and children would know that she hadn’t looked or, she confided to Edmond, felt better in years. Finley’s condition might worry Grady from time to time, but he too was so proud of all that he had accomplished, and all that he would be able to provide for his children, that worry about his father were only a few gray clouds in a mostly-clear sky. Getting away from Finley had been the best thing those two had ever done.
If only all of Edmond’s other children were doing as well.
“Should’ve known I’d find ye out here.”
Edmond turned, tossing the tackle to the side. For his other children, he would have just looked over his shoulder with a grin, but not Simon. Not now. “Simon. Lad.” Without waiting for permission, he enveloped the boy in a crushing hug. “How are ye, lad?”
He could more accurately judge how Simon was doing by a thirty-second embrace than by a half-hour conversation. Simon was too good at dissembling with his tongue and his very body to tell much by talking to him. But a hug, particularly one he wasn’t expecting? There was no way to hide in one.
And now — Simon went stiff, as he had ever since he was twelve and too old for his father’s hugs. But he relaxed quickly, too quickly, even resting his head on Edmond’s shoulder as he hadn’t since he was but a boy. Edmond felt a shuddering sigh that made the tears stand in his own eyes, quickly repressed. Simon pulled away. “Ma around?”
“Aye, but Felix is down fer his nap, and yer ma is makin’ sure he takes it by stayin’ in the room with him.” Edmond winked, and Simon managed a weak smile. They both knew that no sooner would Felix’s head hit the pillow than Cerise would be on the bed and out like a light. But if anybody had earned the right to an afternoon nap, it was a woman who had worked as hard as Cerise, raising four children and all. “Get the other fishin’ tackle — it’s by the door — an’ come join yer old man.”
“Thanks, Pa.” Edmond knew how much was wrong because Simon didn’t argue. Moreover, he didn’t even have time to mull over the problem — just enough time to untangle the line and cast it out into the water again — before Simon came out and did the same thing.
The nice thing about fishing was that you didn’t have to say a word if you didn’t want to — the droning of the water-flies, the blip and bob of the bait, that did all the talking for you, if you wanted it to. And Edmond … well, he wasn’t in a mood for talking. He was in a mood for listening. Simon didn’t need to hear any more worthless, useless platitudes.
And all of the platitudes Edmond could offer would be of the worthless and useless variety, he knew it. The bait bobbed up and down as Edmond let the thoughts slowly seep into him. The yawning ache of losing a grandchild was hell. Edmond knew, too, that he would be seeing Marie again soon, far sooner than Simon could expect to see his sweet baby girl any time soon. But to lose your child — your only child? Edmond had been spared that burden so far. He could not imagine the agony of being forced to bear it.
All things considered, Simon seemed to shouldering it well, if only because he still seemed halfway sane.
But all wasn’t well. No, all wasn’t well. Simon had always been the son of his who was quickest and deftest with his fingers. He’d mastered lacing up his clothes faster than all of the rest of them; Edmond had trusted Simon with a wood-carving knife (with supervision) when Simon was at the age where Edmond was still getting used to the idea of his siblings have meat-carving knives. But Simon’s pole trembled now. The line showed tangles and knots. And what was worse, Simon, who loved his lazing as well as anybody, didn’t seem to care.
He gazed at the water with the blank eyes of a man dead. What could he be thinking? What was tormenting him so?
And how could Edmond make it better?
He was not the parent who forced his children to talk. That was Cerise’s job. She hounded and hectored and nagged until the child gave up all he knew in self-defense. That was not Edmond’s way. Edmond prefer to station himself by the suffering child and wait for him to talk. But sometimes Cerise’s way produced better results. And sometimes children, even grown ones, just wanted their ma.
“Was it yer ma ye were lookin’ fer, lad?” Edmond asked. “Ye know she won’t mind ye wakin’ her up if that’s so.”
But Simon shook his head. “Nah. It were ye I were wantin’ ter see.” He hesitated. “But don’t let Ma know that.”
“Bah,” Edmond chuckled, “there’s times when a man simply needs his father’s advice.”
“That’s so,” Simon agreed, so soft it was barely heard over the droning buzz of the mayflies.
They said nothing further until Edmond felt a pull on the end of his line. He reeled it in, slowly — it didn’t pay to rush these things. The pressure kept up, so it wasn’t an old boot he was pulling up, either. Sometimes he wondered where all those boots came from. Who in their right mind threw such valuable footwear into a pond? At least one could assume that the fish were busy making baby fish when one wasn’t looking, but the boots?
It wasn’t long before he pulled up a nice, big catfish. “Nice one,” Simon remarked.
“Will ye be wantin’ it?” Edmond asked the captured fish wriggled on the line.
“Roma might want some fresh fish.”
Simon hung his head. “She won’t be wantin’ ter gut it.”
Edmond didn’t ask. Maybe Roma just didn’t like that kind of work, or maybe she had enough of it when she was being paid for it. And as for Simon, well, Edmond sometimes wondered how it was that he had managed to get by for so long on his own cooking. But if Roma wasn’t wanting it, it would be cruel to be pushing it on her.
Edmond cast another glance at the fish. A female, getting ready for egg-laying season. Not good eating, then.
Edmond tossed it back.
“What, Ma wouldn’t want it, either?” asked Simon, staring open-mouthed in shock.
Edmond shook his head. “She’s gettin’ ready ter be makin’ little fishies soon. Don’t want ter be eatin’ hundreds o’ good dinners all at once, aye?”
Simon stared at the ripples marking the fish’s point of re-entry. “She — she were with child?”
“Well,” Edmond chuckled, “as much as ye can say a fish is …” He watched Simon’s jaw fall. “Oh, Simon, blast! I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have been remindin’ ye –“
Simon dropped his pole. “Ye know?”
“Er … know what?”
Simon looked away, saying nothing.
“Well, that’s no matter,” Edmond murmured. “Ye don’t have ter be tellin’ me nothin’ ye don’t want ter be, lad. Ye’re yer own man now.”
As Edmond half-suspected it would, that tactic worked well on a son of Cerise. Simon glanced sidelong at the rejected fishing pole, then stumped over to Edmond. His hands were on his hips, his chin jutting halfway beyond his face, when he finally spoke. “It’s Roma. She’s — increasin’ again.”
Edmond blinked far more rapidly than he had intended to. “Already?”
“She — she were before Marie –” Simon looked away.
“Ah.” Edmond only nodded. “That’s a blessin’, son. The new baby will help heal yer hearts whole, Wright willin’.”
Simon only shook his head. “It’s — it’s Marie that Roma’s wantin’. Not …” He sighed. “And then there’s …”
Edmond tilted his head to one side.
“She — she blames the new babe fer … fer helpin’ ter make Marie sick.”
Edmond tilted his head to one side. “Eh?”
“She thinks — she thinks her milk went wrong, or somethin’ …”
“Eh …” Edmond pondered that. “Well, I don’t know if that would be the case, lad. Ye know Pierre and Rosette, they’re less than a year apart. But yer ma was able ter — this is gonna be a bit much fer ye lad, I know, an’ I’m sorry — but yer ma kept Pierre on the breast until he was ready ter be comin’ off it natural-like, an’ neither Pierre nor Rosette were harmed none by it.”
Though Edmond expected some flowering of happiness, or at least relief, to bloom across Simon’s face at that, he thought he could only detect a deepening despair in the boy’s eyes. “But then again, what do I know?” Edmond mused. “It’s Roma’s ma ye’ll be wantin’ ter talk ter about that.”
“I doubt she’ll be wantin’ ter talk ter me any time soon,” Simon sighed.
“She will if it’s about Roma,” Edmond answered. “Ye — ye know that right well, son, if ye’ll only think about it a bit.”
Poor Simon’s face fell further — but what else could Edmond do? Simon had not stopped being a father simply because his child had died. He still knew that fierce, all-consuming love. And he surely would have talked to his worst enemy, if Simon had such a thing, if it meant he could have helped Marie. That would go double for Kata now.
“It’s jest …” Simon started, and again stopped. “It’s jest — she won’t never fergive me fer — fer makin’ Marie sick. If that’s what it is. Roma won’t, neither. She … she won’t.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure o’ that. There ain’t nothin’ ter say ye made her sick, Simon. Nothin’ at all.” And the more Edmond thought about it, the more unlikely it seemed that Roma becoming with child while Marie was still nursing was likely to have contributed in any way to Marie becoming sick. He knew well that Kata Thatcher told all the wives to wait a year, or at least until their babes were off the breast, before trying to get with child again. But if it was true that a new child could endanger the just-born child, then why would Kata only talk to the wives? Why not the husbands? There were many husbands who cared more for their own pleasure than their wives’ health, it was true, far too many, but Edmond had never met a man who wouldn’t find another way to get his pleasure if it meant keeping his own child healthy. No, if there were any chance of that, Kata Thatcher would be shouting it from the rooftops, having finally found a way to keep a man’s hands off his wife while she recovered from giving life to his child.
Not, of course, that Edmond had any room there to boast or brag — and not that Simon did, either. “She won’t blame ye, lad, ye know. Lord — why, if she blamed ye, she’d be blamin’ Roma, too, a little bit, an’ I think Kata Thatcher would drink poison rather than do that. Any good ma would.” He laid a hand on Simon’s shoulder. “So ye ain’t got nothin’ ter be worryin’ about, I wouldn’t think.”
“But — but what if she does blame me?”
The words came out so quickly — so unguardedly — and indeed Simon looked so panicked afterward, that Edmond knew they had been meant to stay in. “Oh, Simon. No, no, she don’t. She might be sayin’ that, but she don’t believe that in her heart. She’s jest as torn up ter bleedin’ inside as ye are — maybe more. She’s sayin’ that ter try ter make herself whole again.”
“But what if she’s right?”
“Ye can’t know that!”
“Sure I can. Tell me, Simon,” he pointed his finger at his son, “were ye ever forcin’ yer wife into nothin’ she didn’t want ter do? Holdin’ her down, havin’ yer way with her whether she would or no?”
“What? Pa, no! Good Lord, what is it ye’re thinkin’ o’ me, if ye think I would — I would –“
“I don’t think ye would, son. I know ye wouldn’t,” replied Edmond. “But if what ye were doin’ was somethin’ that was a pleasure an’ a joy ter both o’ ye, with no thought o’ harm, then there ain’t nothin’ wrong with that. Ain’t nothin’ ter be blamin’ yerself fer, nor herself fer. An’ ye know I don’t think that the new little one ye’ll be welcomin’ soon had anythin’ ter do with poor Marie. Lad, the more I think o’ it, the less sense it makes.”
“But I should have been — careful,” Simon murmured. “Roma wanted me ter be. I know her ma did.”
“Did Roma say somethin’ ter ye? Did she say ter stop? Ter be more careful?”
“No-o …” Simon admitted. Did he sound — disappointed?
“Then ye ain’t got nothin’ ter be reproachin’ yerself with. Ye were a good husband ter yer wife, an’ ye followed the laws o’ the Good Lord and ‘is Church — lad, how could this be yer fault, or hers? Little Marie gettin’ sick … it’s a cross we all have ter bear, aye, but it ain’t no punishment, an’ there ain’t no blame fer it. Fer anybody.”
Simon blinked, his eyes growing as glassy as the deep, still water of the ocean or an algae-choked pond. “But … then, what if — if Roma bein’ with child — what if that didn’t have nothin’ ter do with it?”
“But what … then?”
“What?” Edmond asked. “What …” His eyes narrowed, watching Simon quail and quiver away. He took a page from Cerise’s book. What other choice did he have? “Simon … what is it that’s on yer mind?”
Simon only brought his hands up to his face, shoulders quaking.
“Simon!” Edmond yelped in some alarm, not even casting a glance to the window to see if Cerise might awaken and hear. “Good Lord, son! What is it?”
“Ye can’t tell Roma!” Simon shivered. “Ye can’t never, never, never tell Roma!”
“Tell her what?”
“Swear it! Swear it on the Good Book!”
Good Lord — what the hell is goin’ on? But Edmond, when he spoke, did it as he did everything else: slowly, surely, measuredly. And he would not regret his promise. He knew that even before he made it. Whatever Simon was about to confess, Roma had more than enough problems on her plate for Edmond to want to add another to her plate. “I swear.”
“That — that night — that night Marie died — I went out.”
Edmond blinked. Nobody had told him that Simon hadn’t even been there to say goodbye to his daughter!
“Kata said she was fine!” Simon yelped. “She as good as turned me out o’ the house! She said — she snapped her towel at me, she did, an’ said that if I was goin’ ter be such a thorn in her side, I might as well go! I wouldn’t’ve left if she hadn’t, I swear, Pa!”
Was it the going out that was doing all this? Edmond put his arm over his son’s shoulder and pushed back his hair. “I know, son.”
“Ye don’t know where I went!” Simon sobbed. “I went ter the — ter the — ter the cathouse!”
He went ter a brothel when his baby was sick? It was only the knowledge that Simon needed him — and Simon’s sins were not his to punish — that kept Edmond from recoiling.
“But I didn’t touch none o’ ’em! I couldn’t! I jest — I jest wanted out o’ that house, Pa! That’s all!”
“Oh, Simon,” Edmond murmured. But more than that he would not say. He would have hoped that Simon, the sharpest of his children, would have learned Pierre’s lesson about the brothel and the women inside of it. But there was no stopping the young man from sowing his own wild oats, making his own mistakes.
“An’ Marie — she must have known! An’ that’s why she must have given up!”
“Simon, Simon. That ain’t true. Marie were jest a baby. An’ she would have known ye loved her more than anythin’.”
“Then the Lord knew, an’ that’s why he took her.”
“No. The Lord don’t work that way.”
“How d’ye know that? How can ye know that?”
Edmond had only one answer for that, and so he told it. “Because of Lady Morgause. She had more evil in one of her fingertips than most folks have in their whole souls. An’ ye know what? She only bore three children, and all three lived — an’ long may they live! Because they ain’t stained, they ain’t evil, an’ the Lord Wright don’t work that way. He don’t punish the children fer the sins o’ the parents.
“An’, Simon, let me tell ye one more thing.” He brushed the long hanging bangs from his son’s face and kissed his forehead. “Ye’re me son. I know ye. An’ I know there’s nothin’ that ye’re capable of doing that was bad enough that would make the Lord take yer own sweet baby girl away from ye. No, son. The Lord does move in mysterious ways, but he don’t move in unjust ones. That I know.”
It didn’t seem to comfort Simon, that. If anything, it only made him shake and sob harder. But that was only to be expected. Knowing that it wasn’t his fault only made it even clearer that there were too many things in this world that no father could protect his children against. That perhaps their survival was more due to chance than his efforts or his own qualities. That he was powerless.
Of course Simon cried harder. It was the worst realization in the world. And Edmond was learning that anew now.