And so here Kata was again, in her daughter’s kitchen, tidying up the place, bustling around in the hopes that a clean home would somehow compensate for a broken heart. It wouldn’t; Kata had lived too long to imagine that was possible. But she could clean the house. She couldn’t fix Roma’s heart.
She had lived too long to imagine that she could.
But, Kata reflected as she shook off her hands and dried them on a rag, this time was better than last time. For one, Roma was only napping, not prostrate with grief in the other room, barely having the strength to do more than eat or make it to the privy. For another, Roma hadn’t wanted to take that nap. She’d protested that Kata was a guest, that Roma should be doing the cleaning up while Kata relaxed. But Kata had laughed to hear it, and shooed Roma into the bedroom with a snapping towel and some firm admonishments that a woman in Roma’s condition — and yawning her head off, too — should be taking her naps when she still could.
But — the floorboards were starting to creak — apparently Roma’s naps weren’t going to last that long, prudence or no prudence. “Ye’re done already, Ma?”
“Bah, ye keep this place clean enough that I don’t have to no more than rinse off the dishes an’ put ’em away. Don’t take that long.” She walked over to her daughter and gave her a playful tap on the shoulder. “An’ ye, missie, should have been nappin’ fer longer than it took me ter do that.”
“I tried, but …”
“But nothin’, ye need ter be takin’ yer rest while ye’ve got time fer it. Keep yer strength up.”
“It don’t work like that, Ma. It’s not like ye can store up sleep — hoard it now, use it later — like grain. Or gold,” Roma replied. If it wasn’t for the way her voice changed on that last bit, Kata might have complimented her daughter on her insight.
And if it wasn’t for what she said next, Kata might have pursued the “or gold.” “Besides,” Roma added, “the … the baby’s kickin’.”
“Kickin’! Can Grandma get a feel?”
Obligingly, Roma leaned forward, her just-visible bump taut and firm under Kata’s hand.
Kata had felt the kicks of tens — hundreds, maybe — of babies. It was hard to quiet the knowledge of the midwife and let the instincts of a grandma take over. So she didn’t try. “Where’s he hittin’?”
“He? Ye think it’s a boy?” Roma asked, even as she pointed to the left side of her abdomen, just under her belt.
Kata laid her hand there and felt. Yes — just a very subtle drumming — just what she would expect for this time in Roma’s pregnancy. She rubbed the spot, hoping the little one would feel it and know that Grandma was out there, watching, and would make sure he arrived in the world just fine.
Kata looked up. “Huh? Sorry, wasn’t listenin’.”
“Is everythin’ all right?” Roma asked, eyes widening.
“Sure, hon! Right as rain, it all is!” Kata rubbed Roma’s belly one last time and straightened. “It’s just nice ter feel, that’s all. Ye get kind o’ lost in it. Ye know?”
Roma nodded. “With Marie –” she started. And then she stopped.
Kata frowned. “Honey? Mind if yer ma gives ye some un-axed-for advice?”
“Will ye still give it ter me if I say ‘no’?” Roma asked with what she no doubt thought was a cheerful smile. It was, at least, a smile. Kata would give her that. But to be cheerful, a smile had to reach all the way up the eyes, and Roma’s stopped somewhere around the level of her nose.
So, “Not right now,” Kata answered, truthfully enough, “but I’ll find some way ter give it ter ye before I go home, don’t ye worry none about that.”
“Then I guess I’d better hear it now,” Roma shrugged.
So Kata took a deep breath. “Sweetie, I know — don’t think fer a second that I don’t know! — that it hurts ye ter talk about Marie. Especially with … everythin’.” “Everything,” of course, being little Aileen’s passing. She and Marie had been just about the same age. That was why Kata had dropped everything upon hearing of it and rushed to stay with Roma. Who knew what the death of another little girl so like Marie might have done to Roma’s fragile equilibrium? So far, she seemed fine, but …
But. That was the magic word, wasn’t it, whatever the wizards might say and whatever parents around the world told their toddlers. “But” was the word with the power to change everything that had gone before. Roma seemed all right so far … but “so far” could end at any moment. Just because she hadn’t collapsed yet didn’t mean that she wouldn’t.
“Look, lass, ye’ve probably heard all kinds o’ blather about how if ye remember the ones ye’ve lost, they ain’t never really gone. Lord knows we all got our fill o’ that when yer pa passed, an’ before that with Esmé. So I ain’t gonna repeat it all. But, Roma — the sad thing, the annoyin’ thing about that blather? In a way, it’s true.”
“No.” Roma’s voice was hard, clipped. “No, Ma, it ain’t. Believe me.”
Kata blinked. She wasn’t expecting so stern a denial — still less in a tone that reminded her of nothing so much as her own tone to well-wishers when her mother had died, and again when Esmé had died. She’d thought it, too, when Jeremiah had passed, but by then she had grown enough tact not to say so aloud.
Kata sighed. “I said in a way, Roma. Maybe not even in the most important of ways — maybe not even in a way that makes an achin’ heart feel no better. Believe me, it is. Because …” She sighed. “Because if ye think losin’ someone ye love is hard enough the first time, wait until ye lose ’em the second time.”
“The … second time?” Roma asked, her voice all a-quaver.
“Aye. That’s the day when ye wake up — or ye’re jest goin’ about yer day an’ somethin’ brings it ter mind — an’ ye realize that there’s somethin’ about the one ye lost that ye just don’t remember no more. An’ somethin’ important, mind. Somethin’ like … somethin’ like the way she’d laugh, or a wicked joke she used ter tell in mixed company that ye were always yellin’ at her for, an’ now ye don’t remember the punch line –”
Kata started. “Sorry, hon. I was jest — rememberin’.”
“Yer … yer ma?”
“No. Yer aunt — yer aunt Esmé. After she died, I went ter a bit o’ a … dark place. I was able ter keep it hidden, mostly, but …” She shrugged. “I didn’t want ter remember her, ye see. It hurt too much. When me ma went, I had ter keep rememberin’ her, because I had ter remember everythin’ she had said in order ter use it an’ survive. But with Esmé … well, I didn’t have ter worry about survivin’, because I was doin’ that jest fine. So I didn’t want ter think about her too much, because it hurt. An’ then one day … I thought o’ that joke she used ter tell … an’ like I said, I couldn’t remember the punch line. An’ that — that was like losin’ her all over again.”
Roma nodded, eyes half-lidded — done on purpose, Kata thought, so that she couldn’t read the expression in them.
“But what I was sayin’ … what I was tryin’ ter say is, hon, if ye let yerself ferget Marie, then … then she’s gonna be gone all over again, an’ ye won’t even have the joy of rememberin’ her ter help pull ye back tergether again. Don’t go down that road, Roma. I been down it; it ain’t fun.”
“But Marie didn’t know any jokes,” Roma replied. “And she … she was so little, Ma. I can still hear what her laugh sounded like, but … but …”
“That’s the thing, hon. Ye — ye’ve got ter remember her, because if ye don’t, an’ Simon don’t — who will?”
“Won’t ye? An’ — an’ Cerise an’ Edmond?”
“Oh, aye,we will, but when ye’ve got as many gray hairs as I have — as all three o’ us have! — then yer rememberin’ ain’t worth much. We’ll be the ones bein’ remembered, soon –”
“Ma!” Roma recoiled. “Don’t — don’tsay things like that! Don’t even think things like that!”
Kata let one eyebrow rise and fall, but didn’t pursue the thread. It wasn’t worth it — the poor girl was fragile enough, she didn’t need to think of losing her mother or her gentle father-in-law, or her … well, losing Cerise would be a stress, even if she wasn’t nearly as wonderful a person as Edmond or Kata.
“Well, anyway, what I was sayin’ was — don’t let yerself ferget. There’s more pain down that road than the other one. Trust me. I know what I’m talkin’ about.”
Roma sighed, but she didn’t argue. Instead, she changed the subject. “D’ye think the new baby is gonna be a boy?”
“Ye said ‘he.'”
“Jest a few minutes ago. When ye were feelin’.”
“Oh. I did! Well, when ye’re a midwife with as many years o’ experience as I have, ye learn –”
What Kata was about to say was,It’s best to refer to unborn babies as “he,” because it makes the father and generally the mother-in-law puff up with pride, an’ it don’t do no harm, because if the baby comes out an’ she’s a girl, most of the time everybody is too happy that everyone came out all right ter be rememberin’ what ye were sayin’ yesterday or last week or last month.
She would have thought, but not added, An’ if everythin’ don’t come out all right, well, everyone is too sad about that ter be rememberin’ anythin’ ye said in any case. So either way, there ain’t no harm done.
But she never had a chance to say that, because Roma’s eyes went wide — she suddenly swooped down and grabbed the cat, who was twining around Roma’s ankles — and before Kata could react to either, the side door flew open and a too-cheerful voice cried, “Hello, ladies!”
“Hallo, Simon,” replied Roma, burying her face in the cat’s fur.
As for Kata, she sighed. Poor boy. She wanted to be angry with him for what he had done to Roma — especially when he barged in like that, acting like nothing in the world was wrong — except she thought she knew why he was so relentlessly cheerful and upbeat whenever she saw him. She only saw him when Roma saw him, and if Simon wore a smile that was as brittle as it was wide, then it must be because he was only acting like everything was all right in a desperate attempt to make everything all right.
How could you fault a man for that?
“An’ how’s Roma?” he asked, sweeping past Kata to stare at his wife. Kata couldn’t see his face, but she could see Roma’s — and she could see that Roma wasn’t looking away from the cat.
Roma nuzzled noses with the cat, who swiped a gentle paw in her direction. “I’m fine.”
“That’s good, that’s good. Restin’ plenty?” He turned to Kata with that last bit. “I don’t want me Roma tirin’ herself out fer nothin’.”
Kata felt her eyebrows going up. There were so many things she could say to him … starting with how that air of assumed gravitas really, really didn’t suit him. How trying to strut around like the man of the house, like everything was all right, wasn’t going to get him anywhere. How that question could sound more than a bit patronizing, all things considered.
But she didn’t say anything. Perhaps she was as sensitive to pots and kettles as anyone. After all, given the reason she was here, she really couldn’t complain about anyone else trying to coddle Roma, protect her, and treat her still like a child. It was silly — but they were all playing this game, weren’t they? What other game could they play?
“An’ how’s Roma Jr.?” Simon asked, strutting forward to greet his wife’s belly. He waved, and Roma again leaned forward. She was smiling now, though. It wasn’t a big one — but it wasn’t a false one, either.
“Might not be a Roma Jr.,” Roma murmured. Simon’s head snapped up.
“Ma jest called the baby a ‘he.'”
Simon’s gaze whipped around to Kata, looking at her properly for the first time since he had come into the house. And there was no mistaking the excitement in those apple-green eyes. But soon it was dampened, and Simon turned to Roma with — was that guilt? Kata couldn’t see his face, but she knew a guilty cringe when she saw one.
Poor boy. There was nothing to be guilty about — whatever it was he was thinking. Kata knew well that he hadn’t been quite the father to Marie that Roma had wanted him to be, but … but that was past. And there was nothing unnatural about a young man being excited at the prospect of fathering a son. How many men had she seen swear up and down to their wives that they cared for nothing other than the health of mother and child, only to present them with their newborn son and have to protect the baby’s ears from a whoop loud enough to wake the neighborhood?
Simon’s voice was trying so hard to sound unconcerned that it was strained nearly to breaking. “A — a ‘he’?”
“Aye. That’s what ye were sayin’, weren’t it, Ma?”
“Aye,” Kata agreed. “But –”
“Ye — ye know some midwives’ ways ter be tellin’ what kind o’ baby Roma is growin’ in there?” Simon asked, rubbing Roma’s belly as he straightened, now turning his strained smile onto Kata.
Kata sighed. “Well, I’ve heard o’ a couple … but there’s only one I know that really is right, most o’ the time.”
“Oh?” Simon asked, and even Roma stared at her in surprise. No wonder, given what Kata usually said about the art of guessing the sex of babes yet unborn.
“Aye. Wait till it’s born, then check between the legs. Works almost every time.”
Roma threw back her head and laughed — really laughed! — but Simon’s eyes bulged. “What’d’ye mean, almost every time?”
“Oh, son, didn’t nobody ever tell ye –”
But Roma cut that off with a surprised yelp. “‘Scuse me!” she called, reddening, as she dashed into the privy.
Simon gasped and watched her go.
He turned to Kata with alarm. “Did ye — did she — is somethin’ — she ran so fast!”
“Simon, Simon, Simon,” Kata clucked, shaking her head. “She’s carryin’ a good amount o’ baby out in front, an’ she jest had a good belly-laugh. Ain’t nothing more wrong than she wants ter not have ter be cleanin’ a mess off the floor.”
“But … but she ran so fast.”
“The fear o’ havin’ ter clean will make a lot o’ women run right fast.”
Simon sighed. “But … but with Mar–”
Good Lord, was it that bad? Was she going to have to be giving that same speech to Simon that she gave to Roma? Maybe she should extend her visit — not just to care for Roma, but to care for both of them. “But what, Simon?”
He sighed. “With Marie — she weren’t runnin’ ter the privy this early. Well … at least, she’d stopped, ’cause it weren’t comin’ out the front end. But …”
“I know, Simon.”
“She laughed so hard …”
“Laughin’ never hurt no baby.”
“But she ain’t — she ain’t laughed like that in a long time? What if — what if the baby ain’t used ter it, what if –”
“Simon! Stop with yer what-if-in’! I’m tellin’ ye, laughin’s good. There ain’t a baby in the world who’s been hurt by too much laughin’. Laughin’ helps the ma, and what’s good fer the ma is good fer the babe. Trust me. I ain’t jest some ma spinnin’ the same straw her ma spun her an’ tryin’ ter tell ye it’s gold. I know.”
“If ye’re sure …”
“An’ I’m sure.” What Kata did not add was the second reason why she knew all was well: if there was anything wrong with Roma, wrong with the baby, they would know by now. Roma wouldn’t be able to avoid calling out. But to entertain, even for a moment, the slight possibility of something going wrong would be too cruel to Simon.
Kata sighed. He was as jumpy as a first-time father — jumpier, even. Maybe it was because Simon now knew that the pregnancy and the birth were only the first of the battles, and that there would be any number of battles coming after them that could be lost. Maybe he was imagining that taking good care of Roma now, being attentive to her least little want and need, could serve as a kind of guard against something going wrong with the baby later. But the world didn’t work like that.
What Kata didn’t know was whether it would be cruel or kind to point that out.
It would be cruel, Kata decided. And not just cruel to Simon, either. It might well be cruel to Roma. If Simon got the idea that it didn’t matter how he treated his wife — or at least, it didn’t matter what he did beyond making sure she was fed and rested and had a good roof over her head and warm clothes on her back — then he might stop trying. He might stop trying all the sooner, given how cold and withdrawn Roma was to him. Whereas if he kept trying, Roma might warm up. Kata hadn’t raised a girl to never forgive, especially when Kata had made very clear — in those early days when Roma was convinced that her being pregnant had somehow soured her milk or hurt Marie in another way — that Simon had done nothing wrong.
Well, at least, he had done nothing that had directly or indirectly caused Marie’s death. He’d done plenty wrong. The things he had done wrong the first time around were part of the reason why things were so bad between him and Roma now, or so Kata thought. But at the end of the day, if all babies died when their fathers weren’t treating their mothers as they should, even fewer babies would live to see their first year than did already.
The latch to the privy clicked, and Roma came out, smiling sheepishly. “Did I miss anythin’?” she asked, looking from Simon to her mother.
Simon darted to her side. “No, no! Everythin’ all right?”
“Aye,” she nodded, “o’ course, I’m fine — why?”
“Because …” Simon smiled and patted her hand. “Because ye’re the one who’s most important here, right now. An’ we’re tryin’ ter take good care o’ ye. Right — ain’t that right, Widow Thatcher?”
“Aye,” Kata agreed. “Aye, that’s right.”
Poor boy, she thought, watching Simon smile and nod and pat Roma’s hand, her shoulder, any part he could reach and he thought she wouldn’t shake off. Poor boy. Tryin’ so hard ter do right now.
Hopefully it wasn’t too late.