Hybel 1, 1013
A woman’s work was never done.
Betsy was used to the complaining back, the sore arms, the aching legs by now. Once upon a time, she even thought that she didn’t really mind any of it. What were the aches and pains of the day but a sign of a job well done? She’d done it all to feed her family, keep their home spick and span, comfort her children in their crying and laugh with them in their joys. She would sit with them around the table at the end of the day, hands joined for the family prayer, and she would know that she was doing it right. They were healthy, happy, smiling, all of them. What did a backache matter compared to that?
Then Martin had died.
Now her family wasn’t happy anymore. Lukas was drawn and worried most of the time, worked to the bone trying to make up for Martin’s lost wages and make the house as good as the one Martin had provided for them. Ella tried to be cheerful, but any fool could see that she was at her most happy when nursing or playing with little Marty and pretending the rest of the world didn’t exist. Davy was drawn and serious far more than any eight-year-old boy had a right to be, trying too hard to be good, to be helpful. Only Bert was as he was before Martin’s death, and that, in its own way, was more depressing than all the rest of the changes the family had gone through.
And through it all, Betsy had to be the strong one.
She knew, somewhere in her mind, that she had two daughters, grown and capable, who wouldn’t mind if she unburdened herself on them. Well, make that one daughter. Not that Meg wasn’t grown or capable, but she had enough problems of her own being the woman of the house now that Cerise was gone. But Joyce was practically stealing the burden off Betsy’s back, or at least, she would be if Betsy would let her within an arm’s length. But Betsy couldn’t do that. It didn’t matter that Joyce probably could be strong enough. Betsy was her mother, and mothers didn’t allow their children to take up their burdens.
If she was going to do that, she might as well just give up and go to join Martin in the quiet earth.
But Betsy couldn’t do that. It wasn’t just that she knew that Lukas needed her still, to say nothing of Davy and Bert. It was that she didn’t want to go there. Not if it meant leaving her children, her grandchildren. Not meeting Meg’s new baby in Lenona. Not seeing Ella’s face light up when she finally got her Jeremina. Not seeing Leah hold Cliodna’s chubby fists in her hands and try to guide her for her first steps, as she had done with Lilibeth when Joyce wasn’t paying attention. It was everything else that was the problem. This new house, not nearly as good as the old one, but the one she would probably die in nonetheless. Her protesting and exhausted body. Trying to guide Lukas those last few steps into full manhood. Trying to figure out how to get Davy and Bert down their much longer roads.
The thought of Sir Mordred told Betsy the same thing it always did: it was time to do and think of something else. So she unhooked the bucket from the chain and started on the slog back to the house. It might not have been far, but it sure felt like it was.
No matter which way Betsy went around, she would have to go the long way. There was a fence around their garden plot that didn’t have a gate, and Sir Mordred wouldn’t let them put one in. That was nothing for Lukas, Davy, or even Ella when she had a mind to vault over. But Betsy with a full bucket of water had to walk around.
She would take the pretty way today, by the stream and the bridge. She would give this much to Sir Mordred: whatever her house was like from the inside, from the outside, the village and the houses were everything they should be. The houses were trim and clean, the thatch on the roof fresh and whole, the plaster of the houses thick and bright besides. Little patches of flowers grew wherever they could find purchase, and the stream was good for fishing, even if Betsy preferred the well for drinking water, since she knew where the privies emptied.
She wasn’t the only one out this fine Hybel day, either. There was little Anja Jager, outside her family’s home, doing the washing. Scrub scrub scrub, all the livelong day …
All by herself …
Betsy put her bucket down before she was quite aware of what she meant to do and walked closer to the bank. “Ho! Anja!”
Anja looked up. “Hallo, Widow Pelles!” She waved.
Betsy didn’t wince when she heard “widow.” She was used to it. But she hated the term anyway. Widow — it was constant salt in her would, a reminder of all she had lost. And it was, in a way, an insult. She might not have a man to take care of anymore, but surely she did all that a goodwife did and more. So call her that. Don’t remind her of how she wasn’t allowed to be that anymore — how she might never be a good wife again.
“D’ye mind if I come over, lass?” Betsy called, nodding to the bridge.
“Oh, no! O’ course not! The bridge is free to everyone!”
Of course, little Anja would say that — she did seem to want badly to be friendly, and make friends. Betsy remembered how that felt, leaving her tight-knit village where everyone knew everyone and nobody ever left, except to go to the churchyard and stay there. Poor girl was probably desperate for some of that feeling back. It would be cruel not to try to give it to her. So Betsy crossed the bridge.
She came to the other side and noticed the piles of washing yet to be done, and the piles that needed to be beaten to be really dried but was sitting out on stones, hoping the sun would do the work for it. “How are ye doin’, lass?” Betsy asked. Even though the Jagers had been here for five months and more now, Betsy asked her habitual question: “Settlin’ in all right?”
“Oh, aye!” Anja answered.
Betsy looked around at the piles of washing. “Ye know …” she murmured, “ye’ve got a right ter send me off with a flea in me ear if ye want, an’ I won’t be blamin’ ye none, but … well, care ter take a bit o’ advice from an old housewife?”
“Not at all!” Anja replied with that doggedly cheerful smile. How much of that, Betsy wondered, was real cheerfulness, and how much was cheerfulness feigned in the hope of somehow attracting real cheerfulness to come and stay? Betsy always knew precisely what her own ratio was, these days, but this girl was a mystery.
“Well …” Betsy answered. “Them brothers o’ yers are jest big enough ter be helpin’ ye with gettin’ this washin’ dry. An’ fetchin’ an’ carryin’ the water, too. Now, I know I should be mindin’ me own business, but …”
She waited — for Anja to make a face at her. For Anja to tell her off and send her away with a flea in her ear. Surely the girl wouldn’t be happy to hear she was doing this wrong. Betsy was only telling her because, well, it was one thing for Betsy to perhaps take on more burdens than were good for her. Betsy was a woman grown. Anja was just a girl. Put too much weight on those slim shoulders and they just might break.
But Anja didn’t make a face, not really. She frowned. She even looked a little guilty. Then she murmured, so softly that Betsy could barely hear her, “But they’re all awful little …”
Betsy let her raised eyebrows speak for her.
“Well, Erich takes care o’ the garden,” Anja added. Betsy sorted through her mental files. Erich was the next one down from Anja — a boy of about ten or maybe eleven years to Betsy’s eyes. He was a lively one, but Betsy was able to see him often working in their little garden. “An’ Torben too, when he can get ‘im ter help. But … well, the boys are at school, now, an’ Papa an’ Gretchen are out with the dogs.”
It would be nothing, Betsy sensed, for Anja to wait until the boys got home from school to have them help her. Nothing. And Anja must have thought of it herself. So why didn’t she …
Anja looked at the washing, the drying laundry, the steam. “Mama an’ me always did the wash together,” she whispered. “Always jest her an’ me. The only time the boys was allowed near is if they were in the baby-basket, ’cause they were too young ter not be near Mama.”
That would explain it. Lord, all the foolish things Betsy did because she had done them such-a-way when Martin was alive — and to change it now would be to admit that he was gone!
Betsy tapped her fingers against her chin. She looked around the washing and at the girl before her. She didn’t need to ponder any more. “Ye know what, lass?”
“Yes, Widow Pelles?”
She didn’t wince to hear that. She just kept talking. “I think ye could use a spot o’ tea. How’d ye like ter come ter me house an’ join me fer a cuppa?”
“Oh, that’d be lovely, Widow Pelles! When would be good fer ye?”
“Now,” Betsy replied.
Anja paled as she looked around at the washing. “But … but I …”
“Let me tell ye a secret, lass,” Betsy murmured. “A woman’s work — it ain’t never done. Ye can work yerself ter the bone an’ still find that there’s a pile more once ye think ye’re through. So with that in mind …” Betsy smiled. “Ain’t no harm in takin’ a break when the opportunity fer one presents itself.”
Anja looked around the washing again. “Ye don’t think me papa will mind, d’ye?”
No, Betsy didn’t think he would. Betsy could see a lot from the window where she stood when she did the washing-up, or when she was in the back garden, weeding and watering. She saw little Anja marching about like a whirlwind, determined to hold the family together though sheer grit. And she saw the way her father would watch her — brows furrowed, worried frown. No, he wouldn’t mind if she took a break with a respectable old widow-woman. He might even be grateful.
But she couldn’t say that. “Why, lass, ye know him better than I do! What d’ye think?”
Anja only grinned.
“Let’s go,” Betsy said, starting across the bridge. Anja followed her.
“Thank’ee, Widow Pelles. Thank’ee so much. I — I can’t remember the last time I had a proper tea.”
“Oh, it’s no trouble, lass.” It wasn’t trouble, either. Good Lord, Betsy needed an excuse to sit down and not think about her own problems as much as Anja did. Why hadn’t she thought of this sooner?
Probably because she hadn’t been ready to, yet. There was something to be said for keeping relentlessly busy — busy in body and busy in mind. As tired as Betsy was getting … well, at least it made the ache of sleeping alone that much less acute. You didn’t notice that you were sleeping all by yourself when your mind shut off the minute your head hit the pillow. Maybe it was somehow the same for Anja, too.
They made it across the bridge, around the front and into the house. Anja insisted on carrying the water. Betsy let her, even if she insisted on lightening the load the second Anja got in by starting on the tea. “Sit down, Anja, sit down. No need ter be standin’ on … well, anythin’. Ceremony or yer own achin’ feet.”
“Me feet are fine, Widow Pelles!”
Sure they are … Then Betsy reconsidered that. “How old are ye again, Anja?”
“Fourteen, ma’am. Fifteen in Osgary.”
Fifteen in Osgary. If she was young enough in spirit was well as body to be counting down until her next birthday, well, it was no wonder that her feet didn’t hurt. “That would explain it, then,” Betsy chuckled.
They didn’t say anything further until Betsy had the water boiling, the tea safely poured, and Anja (and herself) safely settled on the couch. She had seen Anja looking around her with wide and amazed eyes. She wondered what it was that was so interesting for Anja to see.
Anja didn’t waste much time telling her, either. “Yer house is lovely, Widow Pelles!”
“Why, thank’ee!” Betsy chuckled. “An’ stop with that ‘Widow Pelles’ business. Call me …” Betsy hesitated. The words “Mama Betsy” wanted to trip off her tongue, but this girl was no Thorn, who didn’t have much in the way of a mama and never really had, as far as Betsy could tell. No, Anja had had a mother, a mother who was so dear to her heart that she’d rather do the laundry by herself than invite (or force) her little brothers along and break the tradition. “Call me Betsy.”
Betsy. That would do just fine. A girl like that, so near to being an adult as made no difference … the glue holding her family together … aye, she’d earned the right to dispense with the “Goodmans” and “Goodwifes,” at least among folks she knew well enough that an adult would be on a first-name basis.
“B-Betsy,” Anja replied. She flushed and looked at her mug. Then she looked around the room again. “I — I love yer floors. An’ the plaster! Ye’ve got plaster an’ brick on yer walls!”
“Aye,” Betsy replied. “Aye, Lukas is workin’ on that. He’s a good lad, he is, workin’ his back ter broken ter make everythin’ nice an’ snug fer us.”
“Real wood floors,” Anja murmured, tapping her foot against the gray and weathered planks. It was all they could afford, but still, they weren’t dirt and Betsy was grateful for that. She’d be even more grateful once Lukas got over to the kitchen side and Betsy wouldn’t have to fear spilling a bit of water and turning her kitchen into a mudpit. Martin would be spitting if he could only see.
But Betsy wouldn’t think about that.
“B-Betsy?” Anja stammered. “Did–did I say somethin’ wrong?”
“What? Oh, no, goodness me, no!” Betsy tried to laugh. Any one of her friends, her family, would have winced at every false note of it. But perhaps — hopefully — Anja wouldn’t notice. How was she to know? “Ye jest — eh, ye caught me not countin’ me blessins there, Anja, I’ll tell ye true.”
“Countin’ yer blessins …” Anja murmured. She looked into the depths of her tea mug and sighed.
Penny fer yer thoughts? Betsy almost asked. But no — she wouldn’t presume. Instead she would just, well, give Anja her thoughts, and for free besides. “Somethin’ I find meself doin’ oftener an’ oftener these days, I find. Ever since I lost me Martin.”
“I’m — I’m sorry about that,” Anja replied. “I know …” She sloshed her tea around the mug. “I know how Papa …”
“It’s like bein’ lost in the woods, it is,” Betsy murmured. “In the dark an’ the cold besides. An’ sometimes … ye’re not just unsure about ever findin’ home again. Ye wonder — is it still there? An’ if even if it is … it ain’t the home ye left.”
Anja blinked. “Our home burned.” She hesitated. “Papa don’t talk about it. But I saw. He told everyone else not ter look — but I saw anyway.”
“Ye — ye won’t tell him that I saw, will ye?”
“Oh, Anja!” Betsy gasped. She wanted to ask if Anja really thought her father would be angry to find that out. It was ridiculous — no parent would be angry. Or if they were, it wouldn’t be anger at any disobedience, real or perceived. If Roy Jager would be angry at anyone, it would be at whoever lit the torch and tossed it at the house. He’d be angry at the nobles of Glasonland and the right mess they had made, not at his daughter.
But even as the speech formed itself on Betsy’s tongue, she saw that Anja didn’t need to hear it. Anja knew her father wouldn’t be angry — she knew he’d be disappointed. Disappointed in himself, for not protecting his family better. As if he should be! What peasant man could protect his family from the wrath of kings and nobles? The fact that he’d gotten all of his kids out of there alive, even if his wife, Lord rest her, hadn’t made it, made him a cleverer and more resourceful father than hundreds, thousands of others. He ought to — he ought to —
How many times had Betsy felt the sting of inadequacy whenever Joyce looked at her and asked, pointedly, just how she was doing? How many pangs of guilt had she felt over the work Lukas was doing? How many times had she taken on chores in the cow barn or in the orchard that Davy could handle? How often had she cleaned up a mess that Ella was willing to do? She was furious with herself for letting them be moved from the old comfortable house to this one … but how could she, any more than Roy Jager, have protected her family from the wrath of a nobleman and a king’s nephew?
Maybe she could have refrained from inviting that wrath. But if she had kept mum about Thorn — well, whatever she was suffering now would pale in comparison to what the Lord would unleash upon her. She’d done the right thing, and even if she suffered a bit … even if her family suffered a bit … the Lord would protect them all, because if He didn’t, well, then He couldn’t be the Lord. Simple as that.
Betsy swallowed. “Thank — thank’ee, Anja.”
“Er … I beg yer pardon, Betsy?”
“Ye don’t understand,, an’ that’s all right. But somethin’ ye jest said — it cleared up somethin’ in me mind. Somethin’ that’s been weighin’ me down fer a long, long time.” Betsy swallowed and wiped a tear from her eye. “An’ — don’t worry about me tellin’ yer papa. That’s fer ye ter tell him, or not, if ye think it would hurt him. A secret like that ain’t no harm ter no one. But if ye ever feel like ye need ter talk, ye can come ter me.”
“Oh — oh, I wouldn’t axe that –”
“Don’t be silly; it’d be the least I could do. After — what ye showed me.” Betsy turned to her with a rainy smile. “Now, however, I must be axin’ ye a favor. Would ye mind a hug terrible?”
“A — a hug? O’ course not!” Anja set her cup on the table, and Betsy set hers on the sofa, and they both stood and hugged.
“I still don’t understand, though,” Anja murmured.
Betsy only smiled. “Pray ye never do, lass.”