Deep in her heart, below the level of conscious thought or feeling, Ailís had always felt that her life with Neil was not, in a way, real. It was as if she was a ship and he the port: port was wonderful and restful, but it wasn’t where she belonged. There had been storms before, storms that had beaten against her, broken her mast and led her to limp home. And there would be storms again. This pleasant life, much as she loved Neil and he loved her, simply couldn’t last. If there was anything being the daughter of Finley and Lilé Brogan had taught Ailís, it was that.
And yet …
Finley was dead and gone. And Neil was still here. Maybe — maybe this comfort, this shelter, could last.
She slowly lowered her book and stared into the flames before her. Her new house was warm and snug against the snow softly falling outside. Her old house — the first one she and Neil had shared — had been warm and snug, too, but there had been drafts and chinks in the old wattle and daub. Neil had done his best to find the sources of the drafts and plug them up, but it seemed that for every one that he closed, two more opened up. It was a never-ending race against Old Man Winter that Neil never seemed to win. But this house was new — they were its very first occupants — and Old Man Winter could beat at the doors and windows all he wanted; he couldn’t come in.
Finley had beat on the door of her shelter with Neil, but Neil hadn’t let him come in. And now … Finley was dead.
A couple of tears stung the corner of Ailís’s eyes. But they did not fall. Crocodile tears didn’t tend to fall if there wasn’t an audience to witness them.
Ailís had cried at her father’s funeral — now almost a week past — but in truth, she had been mourning what had never been rather than what had passed. She saw how Neil was with Nellie and Josie, how Grady was with Katie and Nora and how he had been with Aileen, how Berach doted on Leah and Lilibeth. And all of those girls adored their fathers in turn. He was their hero; they were his babies, the apples of his eyes. They always knew they were safe, because if the world turned cruel and unforgiving, they could run to Daddy and he would make everything all right.
Ailís had never had a daddy to run to. Her father had rather run to her: pulling her onto his lap and crying into her hair in his maudlin drunk moods, sobbing how he was a terrible father and a terrible husband and he always would be. Ailís had been to him little more than what Josie’s worn baby blanket was to her. She had never rated as high as a daughter.
And now that Ailís had children of her own, she had to wonder — again and again — how it was that her father had never seemed to realize how much his own children depended on him to make them safe and comfortable. Why had he never even tried to live up to his responsibilities?
She would gladly die for any one of her children. Why couldn’t Finley have just given up the bottle? Or if he could not, if it proved beyond him as it proved beyond so many men — why couldn’t he have tried? If he had only tried …
If he had only tried, maybe Ailís could now be able to mourn the man Finley had been, just as she had mourned the woman her mother had been, instead of sitting her with her book in front of her and mourning the father she and her brothers had never had a chance to have.
“Mama!” called Josie. “Mama, look, look!”
Ailís lowered her book. “What is it, love?”
“I’m like Nellie!”
“Like Nellie? How?”
“I stand on me head! Jest like her!”
“You wha–” Ailís started.
But it was too late — Josie’s head was already on the ground — her little behind straight up in the air —
And then she stood up again! “Ta da, Mama! Ye see? Ye see?”
Ailís chuckled. “Aye, I see, I see. That’s very good, Josie!”
Josie grinned and toddled off to play with the boat that her brother had taken out and discarded.
Ailís watched her and Jake playing for a few moments, wondering. Wondering when it was that Nellie had learned to stand on her head, and who had taught her, and why it was that three-year-old Josie knew this and not Ailís. She wondered, too, if maybe the worst of Josie’s early sicknesses had passed. She had had a tough toddlerhood: one fever or chill or ague after another, poor baby. There had been several times that Ailís had had to steal herself against the possibility of Josie not making it. But she seemed fit as a fiddle now, running about and playing and laughing just as Nellie had.
Pray the Lord it would last. At least Jake and Nellie never got worse than the average childhood sicknesses. Jake had even caught of some of Josie’s sicknesses from her but only gotten half as sick. Strange, how life worked that way.
The front door opened, letting in a blast from Old Man Winter to let him know he was still out there, and shut tight again. “Brr!” Neil shivered as he hung his cloak up on the hook. “Colder than Bledavik out there!”
“Then come sit by me. Get warm,” Ailís smiled. But there was a bit of selfishness that went into that, too. If Neil sat next to her, if she warmed him up … then maybe she would feel a bit more warm and comfortable herself.
“Nah. I shan’t do that ter ye an’ the baby,” Neil replied, grinning in her direction.
“The baby will stay nice an’ warm inside me,” Ailís answered, patting her just-showing bump. As she always did, she felt a tinge — just a tinge — of regret. This would be the first baby her mother wouldn’t get to meet, to hold, to search the little face for resemblances and memories. But — but maybe Lilé would get to meet this baby. Maybe she already had gotten to meet the baby.
“Baby?” asked Jake, drawing both of his parents’ eyes to him.
“Aye, lad!” Neil knelt by his son. “The one in Mama’s tummy! Yer new little brother or sister!”
Jake looked up at Neil rather skeptically, just as Nellie had before Josie was born. Josie had been too little to do much tummy-looking when Jake was on the way, but Josie had been more able to pay attention when Toinette and Joyce were expecting and learn about babies slantwise from them.
“Baby in Mama tummy?” Jake asked.
“Aye, lad, in Mama’s tummy.”
“But Mama tummy too small!”
Neil laughed and patted Jake’s head. “That’s cause the baby’s right small! Size o’ …” Neil hesitated. “About the size of me hand!” Neil wiggled his fingers at Jake.
Jake looked at Neil … looked at Ailís … looked back at Neil. Then he picked up his horsie again and started to bang it against the floor.
Ailís chuckled. “I think he’s a bit young ter be understandin’ the miracle o’ life.”
“He’s gonna get an earful o’ it ere long,” Neil replied, winking. “Ain’t never too young to start learnin’.”
Yes, that was her Neil’s philosophy. It certainly made for some interesting moments for Nellie at school — and Ailís was sure that Neil had told Nora and Leah some things for which Toinette and Joyce might never forgive him — but there was something to be said for it all the same.
“Anyway,” Ailís said, starting to put her book to the side. “It’s N-A-P T-I-M-E, so I’ll jest –”
“Aw, don’t ye fret yerself, I’ll take care o’ it. Come on, lad,” Neil added, grabbing Jake and hoisting him up, “up ye get.”
“Nap time, kiddo. Josie, ye too.”
“No! No nap!”
“Yes nap, Jake — an’ ye’ll feel right better fer a bit o’ sleep.”
And so, brooking no protests from the children — not that Josie was making any — or from Ailís for that matter — Neil got nap time well underway.
Good Lord, what a lucky woman she was! Finley would have no more helped with nap time than he would have helped with nursing. As far as he was concerned, the children were the woman’s exclusive concern unless they did something for which Finley needed to discipline them for. Given the anger that a few cups of whiskey could unleash, the children only rarely did things that they knew Finley would need to discipline them for — but that never stopped him from trying to “discipline” them anyway.
And Neil? The worst Neil ever did to his children was a well-deserved smack to the bottom. There were plenty of old wives at the marketplace who clucked their tongues and shook their heads when Ailís mentioned this. “Spare the rod an’ spoil the child,” they would say, but Ailís’s experience — her brothers’ experience — seemed to suggest the opposite. Too much rod resulted in a thoroughly broken child, and only a half-whole man.
And there she was, back to thinking about Finley. She put her book to the side and sighed.
She had wanted to avoid those thoughts — not because they would make her sad. Because they wouldn’t make her sad. Or because they would make her sad for the wrong things.
She leaned her head against the top of the bench and closed her eyes. Maybe a little nap wouldn’t be too much a dereliction of her duties, though there were plenty of things she could be doing now. Neil and Nellie between them had been a wonderful help, but at some point Ailís would have to go back to being the mother and the wife.
Maybe after a nap …
Her baby sent up a little flutter, and Ailís sat up. “Well, hallo,” she said, rubbing her belly. “Ye’ve been quiet fer a bit. An’ now that Mama wants some rest, ye’re gonna be kickin’, is that how it goes?”
“Kickin’?” asked a voice from the stairs. Neil grinned and hurried over to the bench. “Baby’s on the move, eh?”
“Aye, he is,” Ailís replied.
“He?” Neil asked.
“Jest the feelin’ I’m gettin’.” Ailís shrugged. “Don’t get too excited, though. I been wrong before.”
“Excited? Lís, ye know the only thing I’m excited fer is a healthy babe an’ a healthy ye.” He patted her belly. “Beyond that, whatever ye an’ the Lord Wright decide between ye will be good with me.”
Ailís smiled and leaned her head on Neil’s shoulder. “Have I told ye recently that I love ye?”
“Aye, but I can stand ter hear it again if ye’re willin’ ter say it.”
“I’m always willin’ ter say it. I love ye, Neil.”
“An’ I love ye.” He trailed a thumb against the delicate skin below her eye. “How are ye doin’?”
“Great!” She straightened. “In fact, I was jest gonna get up an’ get started on that mendin’ –”
“No.” Neil rested a hand on her knee, but it held her down like a thousand-pound weight. “The mendin’ can wait. Take the day fer yerself, love. We can help ye until ye’re feelin’ ready ter get back on yer feet again.”
Ailís shook her head. “Neil, ye can’t go on doin’ that ferever. An’ maybe … maybe if I’m busy doin’, I won’t be …” She bit her lip and turned away.
“Aye,” Ailís whispered.
“I know,” Neil replied. “Believe me, love, I know. I was the same way when me parents died. An’ I know what ye were like after yer ma … up with the sun an’ not down until the sun was well away in dreamland. Ye slept like the dead in those days, Lís.”
“Well, there was a lot ter do.”
“There’s always gonna be a lot ter do. But ye’ve got a husband an’ a daughter ter help ye out. An’ Josie will be big enough ter be helpin’ soon, too. And Lís …” Neil sighed. “I don’t know about ye, but I don’t know if workin’ so hard like that helped me much when me parents died. Well,” Neil corrected, “other than the keepin’ body an’ soul tergether part, that is.”
“Always an important part.”
“Right. But we’ve got that covered. An’ I think … I dunno, ye tell me if I’m wrong, Lís, but I think ye’d be better off if ye took a little time fer yerself, ter get yer bearins.”
Ailís shook her head. “I think I’ve had too much o’ that already.”
“Oh, Neil.” Ailís shook her head. “I keep circlin’ back ter the same thoughts, an’ they ain’t good ones. All about …”
“How I ain’t sad because me da died,” Ailís admitted. “I’m sad because — because I ain’t never … never gonna get a real da, now. Like ye are ter the kids — like Grady, like Berach. An’ now me da is dead … an’ he ain’t never gonna be that. Not even a little bit. An’ …” Ailís shrugged. “That’s all I keep thinkin’.”
“Why’s that so bad? Not ter toot me own horn, but it’s true.”
Yes, Neil would say that. For something to be true made up for a lot of sins, as far as he was concerned. Ailís shook her head. “True ain’t everythin’.”
“No, it ain’t. But there ain’t no use pretendin’ that what’s true an’ real ain’t, or the other way about. Lís …” Neil wrapped an arm around her shoulder and pulled her close. “Look, yer da … weren’t the type ter win no prizes fer bein’ a da, if ye don’t mind me sayin’ so. An’ I don’t think ye should be feelin’ bad because ye knew that, an’ ye can’t bring yerself ter be sad fer him as if he were that kind o’ da.”
Ailís closed her eyes and leaned her head on Neil’s shoulder again. “I ain’t hardly sad fer him, though,” she whispered. “I’m mostly sad fer …”
“What’s so wrong with that?”
“Neil! He was me da!”
“Accordin’ ter everythin’ the monks an’ the nuns say,” Neil replied, “those o’ us who’ve left are supposed ter be in a better place, anyway, so we’re only supposed ter be sad fer us.” Neil charitably did not say what Ailís knew they were both thinking: the chances of Finley making his way straight to Heaven after his death were somewhere between “slim” and “none.” At best, he was in Purgatory. At worst … well, Ailís wouldn’t think about the worst. She wouldn’t wish that even on Finley. “So, what’s wrong with ye bein’ sad fer ye, eh?”
“Neil, this ain’t somethin’ ye can solve with logic.”
“Rats,” Neil whispered into her hair. Ailís giggled in spite of herself. “I was hopin’ I could. ‘Cause …”
“Well, ’cause I got another line o’ thinkin’, but ye ain’t gonna like that one as much.”
“… Oh …”
Neil rubbed her shoulder and squeezed her closer to him. “Are ye still lettin’ the things that Brother Andy said get ter ye?”
“I didn’t hear ’em firsthand, Neil. Only got ’em from Berach. An’ Berach … well, ye know Berach.”
“I do know Berach,” Neil replied. “But that monk apologized ter ye all, ye know.”
“With Father Hugh glarin’ daggers inter the back o’ his head the whole time,” Ailís snorted. “Fergive me if I ain’t exactly believin’ all them pretty words.”
“They weren’t that pretty words. Brother Andy don’t have that gift … an’ it’s probably a good thing, given that Brother Tuck has too many pretty words fer one man. Anyway. Even if Brother Andy ain’t gettin’ it yet … so what?” Neil grabbed Ailís’s hips and eased her onto his lap. “Just ’cause he’s a monk don’t mean he knows everythin’. An’ Father Hugh’s on our side, so that makes us right, as far as I’m concerned.”
“Us,” Ailís repeated.”
“Aye — us.” Neil rubbed her back. “It weren’t jest ye who wouldn’t take yer father in. That were a decision we made tergether, eh? An’ we didn’t jest say, ‘No, Finley, there ain’t no way in hell ye’re livin’ with us.’ We said, ‘Ye quit drinkin’ — an’ ye get Lord Pellinore’s say-so, o’ course — an’ ye can come live with us.’ Ain’t no thinkin’ Sim who would see nothin’ wrong with that.”
“He was still me da, Neil. An’ he died … cold an’ alone in the middle o’ a snowstorm …”
“An’ he didn’t have ter. He didn’t have ter drink so much, Ailís. Or whale on yer ma an’ yer brother an’ treat ye like a big ol’ teddy bear he could cry inter. He didn’t have ter make ye afraid, he didn’t have ter drive away Grady an’ Berach, too. Everythin’ that happened ter him were the results o’ the choices he made. An’ ye know what? If he hadn’t done all those things, Grady would have never left in the first place.”
Ailís closed her eyes and snuggled close to Neil. “When ye say it like that …” She pursed her lips together, head resting on Neil’s shoulder.
Neil rubbed her back. “I know. But it’s true.”
And there it was. It was true — and now that Ailís had seen the truth, she couldn’t sweep it under the rug and ignore it like so many Sims did. Once she knew what was true, she readjust everything in light of what was real, not what she wanted to pretend was real.
“An’ if ye’re still feelin’ bad about it,” Neil continued, “why don’t ye have a chat with Mother Julian? A real sensible lady, she is. She’ll let ye know what’s what.”
She would agree with everything Neil had said. She had said as much when Ailís had gone to her for advice when Finley was still deteriorating. “Your father made his bed long ago,” she had said. “Let him lie in it. Don’t put your own family at risk.”
And that was what it was all about, wasn’t it? Her own family.
One of the books Mother Julian would lend to her described the world as a mead-hall, and the soul as a swallow. Outside the storms and snow raged, and inside there was warmth and light and laughter. The swallow flew into the mead-hall — it only had a few moments of warmth and light — and then it was outside again. The point of the story was that Sims didn’t know what came before or after this life, and that they should have faith in the Lord Wright and His followers because they made the most sense. But Ailís had always thought that it was her duty as a mother, as a wife, to make her home that sheltering mead-hall — just as Neil had made himself into her port.
Maybe the ship couldn’t say in port. Maybe the swallow couldn’t stay in the mead-hall. But all the same –”
“Mama!” Another blast of cold winter air as Nellie rushed inside, shedding her cloak. “I’m cold!”
Neil grinned. “Duty calls.”
“Aye — no, no,” she said as he started to get up, “don’t. Let me.” She patted his cheek and stood.
“Well, Nellie!” Ailís continued as she made her way to her daughter, “o’ course ye’re cold! Ye’ve been playin’ outside ever so long. D’ye want some nice tea? That’ll warm ye right up.”
And behind Ailís, Neil got up and poked at the fire — to make their mead-hall just a little warmer, even as the outside world grew a little bit colder.
At the end of the day, it was all they could do.