The doorknob was frigid — and that was probably a good thing, else Grady would have scarcely had the courage to turn it. “Toinette?” he called.
Of course — the living room. Grady poked his head through the door.
And she was weaving. Of course. He could just see the crest of a reddish-brown head over the loom and a hint of fingers poking through it. What else would she be doing?
Well, Grady had hoped he would find her giving herself time to grieve Cerise. But naturally that wasn’t to be.
He leaned against the doorpost, feeling like a naughty schoolchild trying to play truant but not having quite enough boldness to pull it off. There was no reason why he shouldn’t be home, of course. He’d hired a boy to help him in the shop when times were slow, precisely so that he could pop back home for an hour or two during the slow times to check on Toinette. Now that all the kids were off at school — or else would never get the opportunity to go to school — he wondered how she did during the days, home all by herself.
He wondered especially how she was bearing up now that Cerise’s funeral was done.
Shoulders slouched, Grady slunk into the parlor. For a moment he stood there with his fingers twisted together, just watching her.
He was a lucky man — and not just because his wife was still such a beautiful woman.
But Toinette sensed his stare and looked directly at him. Her green eyes held no more expression than a cat’s. “It’s — it’s not lunchtime, is it?”
“What? No, no! Not fer an hour or more!” Grady laughed. “And ye’ll be jest warming up the stew from dinner anyway, right?”
“Aye. Aye.” Toinette shook her head and looked back at the loom. Grady watched her lips and fingers move as she counted the rows she’d woven and the threads yet to weave. His wife had many talents, but a head for numbers wasn’t one of them. “I were jest …” She whispered so softly Grady had to lean close to hear. “Afraid I’d lost track o’ time.”
“No worries o’ that!” Grady laughed. The laugh came out like a crack of thunder and echoed off the tiles and the wooden floors, the curtains and plasterwork making no effort to dull it.
Toinette glanced over her shoulder and shot him a wan smile. Then she went back to her weaving.
Grady knew — that is to say, he had heard — that the Remans made much of a woman’s weaving. Apparently a woman weaving was a sign of virtue, especially when she could have been going to a feast or gossiping with her friends. Those Remans, Grady decided, must have never been presented with the spectacle of a wife ostensibly being virtuous but really trying to avoid a conversation.
Actually, Grady wished he could have been sure even of that. She’d talked more to the kids about Cerise’s passing, he was sure, than she had talked to him.
Toinette’s head suddenly jerked upward. “Are ye needin’ somethin’?”
“What — no, no! Not at all!” Grady did his best to grin. “Can’t a man pop around the corner ter wish his beautiful wife a good morning?”
Toinette’s lips flickered in a smile. It looked perfectly real — Grady would even bet that it was perfectly real. That was the trouble of that smile. “I ain’t as beautiful as I used ter be.”
“Well, ye’ll never convince me o’ that,” he tried to laugh, “but even if ye are, so am I — so who’s countin’?” He pushed his bangs out of his eyes, the smile he sent to Toinette like the windmill-wagging tail of a puppy desperate for a pat. “Ter me, ye’re still jest as pretty as ye ever were, love.”
She sent him another smile over her shoulder — a soft one, an affectionate one. Then she turned back to her weaving.
“So …” Grady started again, his fingers twisting together, “how … how are things goin’ fer ye this mornin’, Toinette?”
“Fine.” Toinette added another row of one color, then picked up the shuttle that held a different color. “I think I’ll use this ter make a new kirtle fer Katie. Lord, she’s growin’ so fast!”
“Ye can’t jest let her hem down a bit more?” Grady asked absently, as he always was when the subject came to dressing the children. “I thought ye left a lot o’ extra fer jest that.”
“Well, that worked fer a while,” Toinette replied, “but our Katie is growing out now, not jest up, if ye catch me meanin’?” She turned to him with a raised eyebrow inviting him to catch on.
Out? Grady thought. Katie wasn’t a chubby girl, nor was she getting any chubbier to his eyes. Sure, he was able to feed all of them better these days, but the kids burned through their food so fast it scarcely made a difference. The only places where Katie could be said to be growing out were …
Her hips and up a bit higher …
Toinette chuckled, and Grady looked up.
“Ye look jest like me pa must’ve, when me …” She trailed off. The shuttle, formerly diving in and out of the weft like an eager dolphin, slowed to the speed of a stubborn donkey dragging a large wagon up and downhill. “When he found out that I became a woman.”
“Ye mean when yer ma told ‘im that.”
Toinette nodded. She tried to coax the shuttle up to horse-speed. It seemed to go no faster than broken-down-nag-speed.
Grady tried a joke. Or at least, he hoped it was a joke — he wasn’t quite ready for his Katie to grow up just yet. “Ye ain’t tryin’ ter tell me that, are ye?”
“What? No!” Toinette laughed. Grady huffed a sigh of relief. “But it’ll be soon,” Toinette continued, oblivious or only pretending to be oblivious to Grady’s discomfort. “When a girl starts growin’ out, ye know it’ll be comin’ on soon. That’s what …” She trailed off again.
“Yer ma told ye?”
Toinette flinched. “D’ye need ter be sayin’ that?”
“It’s true, ain’t it?”
“Lots o’ things are true,” Toinette whispered. “Don’t mean they need ter be said all the time.”
“I didn’t that mentionin’ that yer ma would’ve told ye a lot about –”
“Would. Ye. Jest. Stop?” Toinette growled.
Grady’s eyebrows jumped up and jumped down just as quickly. So. She really didn’t want to talk about this. But damn it all — when did she plan to talk? Now was as good a time as any, wasn’t it? The kids were at school. Grady could stay with her until after lunch. When else did she plan to coax some of her sadness out?
A twinge of guilt emerged — Toinette hadn’t done this to him. Not when Lilé died, not when Finley died. Not even when Aileen died. But he hadn’t needed it. He needed strength to hold himself, not a safe place to fall apart.
Toinette had been his safe place. And she had been his strength. Wouldn’t she let him be on or the other?
So Grady poked a bit more. “Yer ma had a lot o’ good advice. She –”
“I axed ye ter stop!” Toinette yelled, rounding on her heels.
The words — the yell — hung in the air between them, a palpable presence. Grady couldn’t remember the last time Toinette had yelled like that — well, directly at him, not at the kids.
Toinette stared at him and panted.
“Stop,” she repeated. “Jest stop.”
Grady stared at her in return, eyes narrowed, cataloging every last reaction.
What she needed, he was coming to realize, was the safe place to fall apart. She had provided that for him so many times over the past few years. Why, he wondered, was it that he couldn’t do the same for her?
Surely he could. Surely it couldn’t be that hard. Toinette had done it effortlessly. But then again, he hadn’t spent the better part of the last two years being everybody else’s rock to cling to. Maybe it wasn’t easy to become soft again after so much time making yourself so hard, so strong. Maybe Toinette had forgotten how to fall apart.
The trouble with that was that you couldn’t put yourself together again until after you had fallen apart, plain and simple. A vase could sit brittle and near to breaking on a shelf for years. And years. And years. And then one small jostle — and the vase would shatter into a thousand tiny pieces, never being put back together again. Wouldn’t it be better, wiser, to let Toinette do her falling apart now, when she could still be fixed?
So Grady took a deep breath, crossed his arms, stared his wife in the eye, and replied, “No.”
“No?” Toinette yelped. “Wright, Grady! I helped ye all — all this time! All o’ it, no matter what I was feelin’! An’ all I’m axin’ ye ter do is ter leave me alone, an’ ye can’t even do that!”
“Ye didn’t help me ’cause I axed fer it–”
“– ye helped me ’cause I needed it. An’ I’m helpin’ ye. Because ye need it.”
“Oooh — don’t ye tell me what I need, Grady Brogan!”
Grady flinched. Did she have to bring up their first fight? Years and years after, now? When he had tried to give her his cloak, telling her she “needed” it, and she had stormed off from him in a huff? She hadn’t spoken to him for days after that.
But she was still the same Toinette, wasn’t she? There was a warm heart there — far warmer than Cerise’s ever was — but it was surrounded by a thick stone shell. Oh, she’d let you in, no question of that. But if you ever told her, gave her the slightest indication, that she couldn’t handle just about everything all by herself, then up would go those stone walls, snapping closed over her heart and leaving the poor boy trying to claim it stumbling backwards and sucking on the fingers that had nearly gotten closed inside.
“I’m a grown woman!” Toinette shouted at him. “I think I can take care o’ meself, thank’ee!”
And that was Cerise’s doing, all of it. Not that Grady could blame her … entirely. Maybe once Cerise had been like Toinette — open-hearted and affectionate. Then she’d gotten married, had a lovely little baby. And no sooner had the baby been born than Edmond had been called to the wars. He hadn’t come back until Toinette was five years old.
Five years. Five long years for Cerise to be taking care of herself and Toinette, just the two of them. Five years of trying to manage a farm and taxes and a small child all by herself. No wonder she taught Toinette to only depend on herself. In Cerise’s world, you couldn’t count on anybody — husband, father, anybody — to do it for you. And Cerise’s world wasn’t Lilé’s world, where the men were worthless drunks who lured you into bed for the fun of it and groused when they got stuck with you for life. No, in Cerise’s world, you could marry a man with the best heart and the most careful ways in the world — a man who swore he’d take care of you and meant every world — and then that man would be ripped away from you through no fault of his own. You couldn’t even be angry with him, because you knew he’d be right there with you if he could be. The only way out was to depend on yourself and see the man as a bonus.
But damn it, that didn’t have to be Toinette’s world. Or Katie’s world, or Nora’s world either.
So, “Did I ever say ye couldn’t?” Grady snapped. “But ye don’t have ter! I’m right here! I’m here ter help!”
“Ye call this helpin’?” Toinette barked a laugh. “Oh, aye — find the would an’ rub some nice salt all over it! That’s helpin’, that is!”
“I ain’t –”
“That’s what it feels like!” Toinette snarled. “I jest — damn it, Grady, I don’t want ter be miserable! I don’t want to wallow! The more time ye spend in the mud, the dirtier yer dress’ll get!”
“It don’t work like that, Toinette. Not when it comes ter feeling. Ye got — ye got ter let yerself–”
“Ye don’t know that, Grady Brogan! Maybe that’s how it worked fer ye, but that don’t mean it’s gonna work that way fer me!”
Grady blinked. Was — was she implying he was weak? Because he needed that time to fall apart, to feel the worst of it in the hopes that once he was done, things would get better?
“Because if I — if I …” Toinette’s lips were starting to quiver. “I ain’t like ye, Grady! I can’t be grievin’ one minute an’ laughin’ the next!” Neither could he, though he wasn’t as bad at hiding his grieving one minute and indulging in it as others were. “I … I …” She looked away, passing a hand over her eyes.
Grady stepped closer. “Toinette?” he murmured, reaching for some of the perpetually-loose strands of her hair to tuck away —
Toinette burst into tears.
And Grady recoiled — not from Toinette. From himself. What the hell had he done? He’d gone and made his beautiful, sweet, wonderful wife cry! What kind of man went and did it? Grady could remember a lot of ugly scenes from his childhood, but he could never remember his father reducing his mother to tears with words alone. It usually took a good helping of blows to do that.
And then reason came back. She wasn’t crying because of him — not really. She was crying because of her mother. And this was a good thing.
As Grady shuffled nearer to her, like one of the kids when they were guilty and desperately wanted a maternal hug but weren’t sure they were going to get it, he just wished it didn’t break his heart to see her like this. Even if it was better for her than locking her heart behind stone walls …
He still didn’t want to see it broken and bruised and hurting.
“Are ye — h-h-happy now?” Toinette snapped from behind her hands.
Grady decided they would both be better off if he didn’t answer that.
“It ain’t — it ain’t like I ain’t feelin’ it!” Toinette protested. “I am! I jest … Grady …”
He rubbed her shoulder and held her closer, murmuring nonsense into her hair.
“I keep thinkin’!” she sobbed. “About when I was little! Before Pierre, an’ Rosette, an’ Simon — when it was just her an’ me!”
Grady nodded. He’d done the same when his own mother died. Those first few years, barely remembered, had been the happiest time of his childhood. He hadn’t thought that had been the case for Toinette, though.
“An’ the s-st-stories she used ter tell me … about Takemizu …”
Grady blinked. Takemizu? “The city in Smina?” he asked, startled.
“The st-streets were paved with gold there,” she continued, scarcely even hearing him, “an’ everyone walked around in silks an’ satins, an’ … an’ … an’ all the story-characters lived there. Sleepin’ Beauty an’ Cinderella an’ Snow White. They all had their castles in Takemizu. An’ they’d go to call on each other an’ take tea in each other’s castles …”
Grady opened his mouth, meaning to point out that Takemizu was in Smina and he was pretty sure Cinderella and all her friends didn’t live there, had never lived there … but wisely, he closed it before any words could escape.
“She’d tell me her stories when — when it was dark, an’ cold, an’ we were snugglin’ tergether in bed ’cause we had ter save the wood fer cookin’ … an’ one day, I told her, when I got big, we’d both get on a ship an’ we’d go to Takemizu an’ we’d never, ever leave!”
“We never got ter go ter Takemizu!” Toinette sobbed. “I wanted ter do that, Grady! I wanted ter give her that! I know she — she annoyed the hell out o’ ye, Grady, but damn it, she was my ma!”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Grady murmured.
“Stop lyin’!” But the words were almost as teasing as they were harsh.
Grady didn’t reply. He hadn’t been lying. Oh, Cerise had, as Toinette pointed out, annoyed the hell out of him more often than not. But he wouldn’t say that, certainly not now.
He rubbed Toinette’s shoulder and wiped a tear away with the tip of a finger. “Toinette,” he asked, “do ye want ter go ter Takemizu?”
Toinette stopped crying. “What?”
“D’ye,” he murmured, “want ter go ter Takemizu?”
She slid away from him, turned to look him in the eye. “Grady, the likes o’ us are never gonna get to Takemizu.”
“Says who?” laughed Grady.
Toinette sighed and shook her head. “Grady …”
“Listen ter me, love,” Grady pushed Toinette’s hair out of her eyes. “What did they say about us when I swore I’d get us away from me da an’ out o’ our indentures? Eh? That’s not fer the likes o’ ye! An’ look where we are now, Toinette!” He threw his hand up, sweeping the whole room into it. “This fine house — a shop right around the corner — not an indenture ter be seen, us an’ the kids all free. Eh? Who’s ter say we can’t?”
“We’ve done so much already …” Toinette murmured. “I don’t know, Grady. Ain’t there a limit?”
“If we let ourselves think there’s a limit,” Grady replied, “then I say they may as well shove us in the grave now.”
Perhaps it wasn’t the most sensitive thing to say, all things considered. Grady ought to have thought long and hard before he came out with that. It certainly couldn’t have raised good associations for Toinette.
But she didn’t say anything about them. Instead she only smiled softly. She looked like a girl again in that moment.
Grady pulled her closer and kissed her. “I’ll take ye ter Takemizu, hon,” he whispered. “Someday. Some way. I’ll get ye there. An’ who knows? Maybe the streets really will be paved with gold.”