Lenona 26, 1013
“Oof!” Tara tripped over the rope, her leather shoes doing nothing to shield her feet from the harsh paving stones.
She looked around slowly, furtively. Good — nobody was around to see. She took a deep breath, grinned, and sent the skipping rope flying over her head.
She wasn’t so good at this yet. She would get better! Tara had promised that to herself. She could remember how Nyasha and Rhoslyn used to tie two ropes to the big willow tree and take turns jumping in time to both ropes. Rhoslyn was trying to teach Jean and Jade the trick of it, but Tara was still too little. And the bigger girls would never let Tara have a chance if she didn’t get good at jumping with just one rope.
She would get better at this. She would! One way or another!
Some people, like Mother Julian, might suggest that Tara try to learn on the grass. But she didn’t want to. She liked the sound — thwap, thwap, thwap — the rope made when it hit the paving stones. And even if it made her feet hurt if she kept at it too long, the rope didn’t get caught on too-long grass and make Tara trip over it. She could handle hurting feet.
Besides, Mother Julian didn’t mind that she was skipping on the paving stones. As long as Tara would get out of the way when somebody needed to walk up, kept out of the flowers, and stayed away from the hot spring, Mother Julian said she could skip anywhere in the abbey gardens.
She wasn’t supposed to sing out rhymes, either. She knew that the monks didn’t like the girls to sing rhymes when they were praying. They — especially Brother Andy — seemed to be praying all the time, too. But Tara could count, and in some ways she liked that better. Rhymes were more fun when all the girls could sing them together. But when Tara counted, she could announce triumphantly at the dinner table, “Guess what? I skipped one hundred times in a row today!” and Mother Julian would compliment her, and even the other girls would smile and nod.
Though Tara hadn’t gotten to skip to a hundred yet. But she would. She knew that. Before Nyasha had left to be a servant, she could skip to two hundred or three hundred or even five hundred. So if Nyasha could do that, then Tara could do this.
“Twenty,” she huffed — she’d been keeping count in her head the whole time. “Twenty-one. Twenty-two. Twenty-three …”
The big door to the little chapel opened. Tara ignored it. The monks were always coming in and out of the chapel. If it was Father Hugh, he would call out to her and say hello and ask how high she had gotten in her skipping. If it was Brother Tuck or Brother Andy, he would just look at her distractedly and go on with whatever he was doing.
It was Brother Tuck. Tara was careful not to look at him. If she looked at him, she’d have to say hello and be polite, and then her count wouldn’t count anymore. She wanted to get up to a hundred! And she was already up to thirty!
But even if Tara didn’t look at Brother Tuck, she could still see him from the corner of her eye. He looked at her in that way the monks (except Father Hugh and Brother Galahad when he was around) looked at the little girls. It was a quick glance, then the monk would look away and go about his business.
So he didn’t want to talk either. Good! Tara could go on skipping.
“Thirty-four,” she whispered. “Thirty-five. Thirty-six.”
Between the thwap, thwap, thwaps of her skipping rope, she could hear the softer tap tap tap of Brother Tuck’s sandals against the paving stones as he walked away. Then, strangely, they stopped.
Tara didn’t look. She kept not looking as the tap tap taps started again, this time coming closer.
They stopped again.
“Forty-one,” Tara said, a little more loudly. If she was talking, then she could pretend that she hadn’t heard Brother Tuck. And she wanted to get up to fifty at least. If she could say she had gotten up to fifty, all by herself …
“Forty-four,” Tara kept counting. “Forty-five. Forty-six.” Only four more to go! She started skipping faster. “Forty-seven–forty-ei–”
She tripped over the rope and stumbled a few feet forward. “Oh, no!”
“Are you all right?”
Tara dropped her skipping rope and gasped. Brother Tuck had heard!
She turned around, trembling. Brother Andy and Brother Tuck would just nod at the girls and say hello — but they wouldn’t talk. Not unless they had something to scold the girls about. Tor and Pasgen said that Brother Andy and Brother Tuck would say more to them, but Tara was never sure whether or not to believe them. They were boys–
And Brother Tuck was coming closer to her! “Mother Julian said I could!” Tara blurted out without thinking.
Brother Tuck froze. “Eh?”
“She said I could skip out here,” Tara mumbled. She scratched her head. “Just as long as I stay out of the flowers. And the hot spring,” she added as an afterthought.
“Well, I would hope you’d stay out of the hot springs!” Brother Tuck, though it was a fake laugh, a grown-up laugh. “You’re so little …” His hand came down on the top of her head, in what seemed to be a reassuring pat, or maybe a way to measure her height — but he seemed to not quite know what he was doing and drew it back quickly. “It — it would be very dangerous for you, Tara. I hope you stay far, far away from the hot spring.”
“You know my name?” Tara gasped.
“What? Why wouldn’t I know your name?” laughed Brother Tuck. “You think we brothers don’t notice things?”
“I don’t know …” Tara mumbled.
“The little girls at the nunnery are as follows.” Brother Tuck started to count on his fingers. “There is big Rhoslyn, pale with light hair. And next comes round-faced Jean with her pretty red hair. After that is Jade, with her black braid. And the littlest one is Tara, with her dark brown hair in little pigtails.”
“I’m not gonna be the littlest forever,” Tara said, even if she touched her pigtails self-consciously. But not being the littlest forever was a point of pride, one of that she had to hold on to with so many of the girls being bigger than she was. “Mother Julian says that little Alana is coming at the end of the year, and she’ll be littler than me!”
“Are you looking forward to that?” Brother Tuck asked.
“You bet! And Mother Julian says that Rachel is coming a little later! She’ll be even littler!”
“It doesn’t bother you that more girls are coming?” Brother Tuck asked, tilting his head to one side.
“… No?” Tara asked. Why would it? More girls meant more hands to split the chores with. More girls meant more friends. And besides, they weren’t just getting more girls. “And Rhoslyn is leaving, too.”
“Ah — yes. Of course.” Brother Tuck nodded. “She’ll be going …”
“To the midwife!” Tara filled in. “Mother Julian says that’s really good for her! And Rhoslyn can’t wait, either!”
“She’s excited? That’s very good.”
“You bet!” Tara laughed, throwing her arms out and tilting her head up to Brother Tuck with a big smile.
For some reason, that made Brother Tuck’s eyes go wide, and he gasped — before his face froze entirely.
Tara dropped her arms. “Did–did I say something wrong?”
“What? No, no! Of course not! Why …” He trailed off. Brother Tuck’s eyes darted over the gardens, fast and almost guilty-looking. “You know … why don’t we keep talking in the chapel?”
“The–the chapel?” Tara looked at the little building, which had never looked bigger or more imposing.
“You don’t like the chapel?” Brother Tuck asked, head tilted to one side.
Tara chewed on a thumbnail. “Mother Julian says we’re not s’posed to go there unless we want to pray. Or if we’re doing penance.” Mother Julian had a way of assigning chapel-cleaning as a penance for just about every sin that the girls could commit. Sometimes Tara wondered why that was.
“Not even if a grown-up goes with you?” Brother Tuck asked.
Well … Mother Julian hadn’t said anything about that …
“Are you sure Mother Julian won’t mind?”
“If she does mind, I promise you, she will do all of her minding in my direction, and leave you quite alone.”
Tara thought that was good enough — after all, how often did a grown-up offer to take the blame for something a child did wrong? But even though she nodded and followed Brother Tuck into the little chapel, Tara’s tummy still knotted up and twisted a little bit.
She hung back in the doorway, wondering if Mother Julian really wouldn’t mind. Brother Tuck walked up a few rows and slid into one of the pews. He looked over his shoulder. “Tara?”
Slowly, Tara made her way up the other side of the chapel and sat on the pew beside Brother Tuck.
She could tell he was watching her, and Tara wanted to scrunch down in her seat. When grown-ups watched children closely, it usually led to the children getting in trouble. The only exceptions were Mother Julian and Sister Margery — and even then, not all the time. Sometimes Tara and the other girls would see one or both of them watching the girls and boys play at the school, smiling. Then one or the other would sigh; they would exchange glances, and they would go back into the school to do more work.
“I don’t bite, you know,” Brother Tuck said, and Tara turned to him with wide eyes.
Brother Tuck held his hands out in front of him. “It’s–it’s an expression! A figure of speech!” He hesitated. “Although …” The corner of his mouth lifted in a sly, conspiratorial grin. “I don’t actually bite.”
Tara giggled. The sound echoed oddly off the wooden walls of the chapel. “Not even cake?”
“Oh, I make exceptions for cake.” He nodded sagely. Tara giggled again. “The cake has it coming to it, anyway.”
“It shouldn’t taste so good if it doesn’t want to get eaten!”
“Yes, indeed!” Brother Tuck laughed. Tara blinked. Had she ever heard Brother Tuck laugh before? She heard Mother Julian and Sister Margery and Father Hugh laugh a lot. And Brother Galahad laughed almost as much as a kid! But not Brother Tuck. Or Brother Andy.
“Tara?” asked Brother Tuck.
“How come grown-ups don’t laugh as much as kids do?” Tara blurted out.
Brother Tuck looked surprised at the question. But he didn’t do what she was half-expecting him to do, which was scold her for even asking it. Some grown-ups would answer any question that a kid asked. Some didn’t seem to like it when they asked any questions at all. If Tara had been old enough to understand gambling, she would have bet her favorite doll that Brother Tuck was the latter type.
But she would have lost that doll. “I … er … well.” Brother Tuck scratched the back of his head and frowned. “I–I think it’s because grown-ups have a lot more to worry about. And much more work to do. We … we don’t have time to play and laugh the way you children do.”
“Oh,” Tara murmured. “Then … why do people grow up?”
Brother Tuck smiled. “We’re not given much of a choice in the matter, I’m afraid.”
“But Rhoslyn seems so excited …”
“Well …” Brother Tuck bit his lip and spun his hands about. “It–it is exciting. A lot of the time, it’s very exciting. You get to do new things … go new places … and you can make some of your own decisions …”
“Some?” Tara asked.
“Well, I’m a monk,” Brother Tuck replied. “I have to do what Father Hugh says, because he is my abbot — just like Sister Margery has to do what Mother Julian says.”
“Is it true,” Tara asked, “that Mother Julian is Sister Margery’s real mother, and not just her–her–her nun-mother?”
Brother Tuck blinked. “Er … well, yes …”
“But Mother Julian says that monks and nuns can’t get married and have children! How come she got to have Sister Margery?”
“Because Mother Julian wasn’t always a nun,” Brother Tuck chuckled, “that’s why.”
Tara tilted her head to one side. “She … wasn’t?”
“No, indeed,” Brother Tuck replied. “Once … once a very long time ago, Mother Julian was a normal lay woman. And she grew up, and she got married, and she had Sister Margery. And then her husband died, and …” Brother Tuck stroked his beard. “I–I think you should ask Mother Julian about the details. I don’t think she’d mind telling you. But I can tell you that she and Sister Margery decided to become nuns when Sister Margery got old enough to do so.”
Tara blinked. She tried to picture Mother Julian like the other women she had seen in the marketplace and at church: with a pretty dress, and her hair piled on top of her head and not covered by her wimple. She tried to picture her in a green dress or a blue one. The picture refused to come. “Are you sure?”
“Quite sure,” Brother Tuck laughed. “Sister Margery and I used to talk about it a great deal.”
“You and Sister Margery used to talk a lot?”
“Oh, yes. We …” Brother Tuck’s gaze grew unfocused; he stared in the direction of the altar, head tilted to one side. “Well–we both came to Albion when we were very young — about Nyasha’s age, or Rhoslyn’s age. We … were each the only friend that the other had for a time.”
Tara’s eyes went wide. Brother Tuck — Sister Margery — they had been as young as Nyasha? As Rhoslyn? Well, she knew that grown-ups were supposed to have been kids once … but she never really believed it, for most of them. Most of them acted like they had never been kids before, just as they’d never been frogs or lions.
Wait a minute … “You weren’t always in Albion?” Tara asked. “Where were you before?”
Brother Tuck blinked. “I …” He paused, then he put his hand over his heart. “I–I was an orphan. Like you. Only I was raised by the Brothers of St. Pascal in Camford.”
Tara’s eyes bugged out. “You were an orphan too?”
“Oh, yes,” Brother Tuck replied.
“How come?” Tara blurted out. When Brother Tuck tilted his head at her, Tara flushed and kicked her legs against the pew. “Some — some people are orphans ’cause their parents die. And some … some are orphans because …”
Because their real parents don’t want them. Tara knew she was one of those orphans. And she knew she was the worst kind of one of those orphans. She couldn’t pretend that maybe her parents couldn’t take care of her, or got into some kind of trouble and had to give her up. She knew her mother was a Very Bad lady, so bad that she wasn’t even allowed to have Tara. That was what Sister Vyn said. And she had said that all the other orphans in the orphanage were the same way.
“I was an orphan the same way you’re an orphan,” Brother Tuck replied. “Somebody left me at the doorstep of the monastery when I was just a little baby. And–Father Hugh found me there. He was the one who said that the monks had to keep me.”
“Wait — you don’t even know who your parents are?” Tara gasped.
Brother Tuck shook his head.
“Mother Julian knows who all of our mothers are,” Tara said. “She says so. And she says she’ll tell us all when we turn twelve. How come she knows who our mothers are, and you don’t know who your mother is?”
“Because … because in some ways Albion is a much smaller place than Camford, and …” Brother Tuck stroked his chin. “When–when little girls like you, and little boys like Tor and Pasgen, are brought to the orphanage, it’s the midwife, Kata Thatcher, who brings them. So Sister Margery can ask who the mother was.”
“But not the father.”
“No–the mothers don’t …” Brother Tuck bit his lip. “Don’t … generally … know who the father is.”
Tara sighed and looked at the altar. She didn’t notice how Brother Tuck continued to stare at her, continuing to bite his lip. “It’s ’cause they’re Very Bad women. That’s what Sister Vyn says.”
The door creaked open. Tara looked over her shoulder. It was Father Hugh standing there. She grinned, ready to wave and call out —
But Father Hugh wasn’t looking at her.
Brother Tuck scrambled out of the pew. “Father–Father Hugh!” He laughed. “I–I thought you were …” He flung his arms out in that easy, free gesture he had. Something in Tara’s mind jumped up and down, trying to get her attention. “I was just having a very interesting conversation with Tara here!”
“I … saw …” Father Hugh made his slow way up the aisle, alternating confused glance at Tara with confused glance at Brother Tuck. “Is everything all right?”
“Of course!” Brother Tuck laughed. “I simply saw Tara skipping rope outside, and we struck up a conversation, and …”
He kept talking. But Tara stopped listening. She knew now what that little voice had been trying to tell her.
She knew what Brother Tuck was doing. It was what Tara herself did whenever she caught doing something she knew, theoretically at least, that she shouldn’t be doing. Talk really fast, smile a lot, laugh, say all the things she had been doing that were right, and hope that the grown-up never noticed the one thing that she had been doing that was wrong.
Father Hugh kept looking between Tara and Brother Tuck. Tara felt herself scrunching down in the pew. If Brother Tuck was in trouble and he knew it — how much trouble was Tara in?
“Tara?” Father Hugh asked.
Here it comes … “Ye-es?”
“I saw a skipping rope lying outside. Is that yours?”
“… Yes …”
“Well, wouldn’t you rather be playing with it?” Father Hugh smiled, a big smile that made the skin around his eyes crinkle. “It’s a lovely day outside. And it must be much more fun than sitting in this stuffy church!”
More fun …
Tara wasn’t in trouble!
“All right! Thank you, Father! Thank you, Brother!” She scrambled out of the pew and skipped out of the church, thinking of nothing more than trying again to skip to a hundred.
So Tara skipped out into the sunshine, leaving the door to close on the darkened church, the monk and abbot still talking behind her, and gave not another thought to any of this.
She was the only one to do that.