Jaban 1, 1013
“Ma!” That was Katie, skidding into the kitchen. “Nora won’t get out of bed, an’ I give up!”
Toinette sighed as she stirred the eggs into her batter. Her mother used to say “a mother’s work is never done.” Toinette had admitted she was right when her kids were still babies, when all Toinette had to do was turn around if she wanted to be greeted by a hungry mouth in need of feeding, or a dirty diaper in need of changing, or a colicky baby in need of cuddling. She thought it would get easier now that all her children were walking, talking, and — this was important — potty trained.
Boy, was she wrong.
“All right, Katie,” Toinette said. She put the bowl down and turned around. “What’s Nora sayin’?”
Toinette heard Katie whoosh out in relief. She’d matured a lot in the past couple of years, Toinette thought, but the growth hadn’t all been even. She’d gotten much better at helping Toinette with her siblings, but she hadn’t quite realized yet that the extra effort she was putting in counted for something. Toinette used to get frustrated when she asked Katie to do something and she didn’t do it, or she only gave a meager attempt. But when she tried as hard as she could? Lord, Katie was only twelve. What kind of parent would expect success all the time?
“She ain’t sayin’ much,” Katie replied. “Just that she doesn’t want to get up an’ go to school.”
“Did ye get a chance to feel her head?”
Katie shook her head. “Nora burrowed under the blankets, an’ I wasn’t gonna go chasin’ after her.” She flushed. “Er …”
“No, ye shouldn’t have.” The fact that Nora went diving under the blankets told Toinette all she needed to know. If Nora really was feeling sick, she wouldn’t be dodging her sister’s hand. Which meant …
It looked like Toinette would have to get Nora out of bed herself.
“Are yer brothers up?” Toinette asked.
“Aye,” Katie replied. “I could hear ’em squabbling when I came down.”
Good to know all’s well on that front, Toinette thought. “All right. Katie, honey, could ye keep stirrin’ that?” She nodded to the bowl. “An’ once it’s all stirred, start the pancakes. The stove should be warm enough, an’ ye know where the skillet is.”
“Thanks, Katie.” Toinette kissed her daughter on the forehead and shooed her to the bowl. Katie took it and started to stir. “Meanwhile … I’ll get yer sister sorted.”
Toinette pushed her hair back from her forehead as she hurried up the stairs. How long did the kids have before they had to pile on the school wagon? Enough time, Toinette decided. Pancakes didn’t take that long to cook, once you got the stove going and the batter ready, and a not-quite-eight-year-old girl didn’t take that long to dress. Nora would have time, as long as Toinette could get her out of bed.
However, she could hear the boys squabbling as she got to the top of the stairs …
“BOYS!” She rapped on the door. “I can hear ye! Say what ye want, but ye’d better be dressed an’ sittin’ at that table by the time yer sister gets the pancakes out!”
Silence. Then a terrified, “Aye, Ma!” from Sean.
“In fact, ye’d better hurry!” Toinette added. “Somebody needs ter set that table!”
“Aye, Ma!” That was Paddy.
Toinette nodded once. Then, boys sorted out, she stormed into Katie and Nora’s bedroom. “Nora! Up! Now!”
Nora moaned and burrowed even deeper under the covers — if that was even possible.
“NORA!” Toinette took a deep breath–then took another one. Who was she kidding? In some ways — definitely in her attitude towards all things “morning” — Nora was the most like her out of any of her children. How well had she ever responded to yelling and threats about how many shades her hide would be if she didn’t get out of that bed? “Nora,” Toinette said instead, “I know ye’re tired, but ye ain’t allowed ter go lazin’ about in bed all day. Up. Now.”
“If ye’re so tired all the time,” Toinette threatened, “I’ll see to it that ye go ter bed earlier — ye hear that, Nora?”
“I’ll go to bed right after dinner if I don’t have to go to school in the mornin’!”
Toinette blinked. That–that was different. The boys complained about school. Even Katie did, sometimes, saying that she’d rather be helping her father at the shop. Not Nora. Sometimes, Toinette even thought that Nora enjoyed school.
So, much more gently, Toinette asked, “What d’ye mean, Nora?”
Nora didn’t answer. She mewed and stuck the pillow over her head.
“Nora …” Toinette crept closer, stroking Nora’s shoulder. “What’s the matter, baby? Why don’t ye want ter go ter school?”
Nora’s eyes popped open. “Do I have ter?”
“I can help you here! Or I can help Daddy at the shop! I’ll be as good as –” Nora hesitated. “I’ll be almost as good as Katie.”
“I don’t think so, honey.” Toinette sat down on the end of the bed. She started to rub Nora’s back. “Besides, ye wouldn’t like workin’ too much. Wouldn’t ye rather be at school with all yer friends? Leah an’ –”
“I’ll see Leah other times.”
“But what about yer other friends?” Toinette tried to point out. “Helen an’–”
“I don’t have any other friends,” Nora mumbled into the pillow.
Toinette’s eyebrows went up. Way up. “Nora–do Mama a favor. Sit up an’ talk to me.”
Nora scrunched into an even smaller ball. “Please?” Toinette asked.
That did the trick. Nora sat up.
“Now tell Mama,” Toinette said. “What’s wrong?”
Nora’s gaze dropped to her lap. “I can’t tell you.”
“Can’t tell me?” Toinette poked Nora’s side. But Nora didn’t even smile, let alone giggle as she usually did. “I’m yer ma. Ye can tell me anything.”
Nora only shook her head.
“Well, why can’t ye tell me?” Toinette asked. Would she have to send the boys on a fact-finding mission? Oh, that would be interesting. Sean would love the idea if she told him it was like playing spies … but she’d grown up with two brothers, did she really want to be encouraging her boys to spy on their sisters and make their lives a misery?
“‘Cause Katerina will tell the teacher!” Nora blurted out–and threw her hand over her mouth.
“Katerina will tell the teacher what?” Toinette asked.
“I didn’t do anythin’!” Nora protested.
Toinette raised one eyebrow.
“I didn’t!” Nora repeated. And — was she blinking back tears? Nora wasn’t the type to back up a lie with crocodile tears — but she might have to force a truth out through real ones. “It’s not ’cause of me that I can’t tell! It’s ’cause of Leah!”
Oh, Leah, eh? Well, that was more like it. She loved her niece, she really did, but Leah had gotten her fair share and then some of the Brogan spunk. If Nora was covering something up for Leah–
Wait. Where does this Katerina come into it?
“Nora … who’s Katerina?” Toinette asked.
“Katerina Capron,” Nora filled in. “She …” She trailed off.
“She what?” Toinette prodded.
“I can’t tell,” Nora mumbled.
“Because o’ Leah,” Toinette filled in.
“Well, how about I tell ye what I think?” Toinette prodded. “I think ye ought ter tell me what it is Leah done–”
“No! No, you don’t understand! Leah didn’t do nothin’! She can’t help that she’s a–” Nora broke off again, holding her hand over her mouth.
“She’s a what?” Toinette asked, though a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach knew exactly where this was going.
“It’s a bad word,” Nora moaned. “An’ you know!”
There was only one word that fit both criteria. “So …” Toinette tried to fill in the pieces. “Katerina knows that Leah’s … mama is a–a lady of the night,” Nora’s eyebrows furrowed, and Toinette filled in, “that’s–that’s a better word for the w-word–so Katerina … that can’t be what she’s gonna tell the teacher–”
“Yes, it is! Yes, it–” Nora gasped. “Nooo! Now Katerina is gonna tell!”
“Nora, honey, she can’t–”
“An’ then the teacher will have to tell Brother Tuck, an’ Brother Tuck will come an’ drag Leah off to the orphanage!” Nora wailed.
“WHAT?” Toinette yelped, far louder than she meant to. Nora quailed. “No–no, baby, don’t look like that. I’m not mad. Not at ye.”
“Nora. Nora, I’m gonna tell ye somethin’ right now, an’ ye tell me if it changes yer thinkin’ about Katerina. Brother Tuck is not gonna take Leah anywhere. Because, ye know why? Leah is indentured ter Lord Pellinore, just like her papa is. If Brother Tuck tried ter do anythin’, Lord Pellinore would be very angry.”
“Lord Pellinore would be angry?” Nora whispered, confused.
Toinette agreed. It was hard to picture Lord Pellinore being angry about anything. But someone taking his property away would do it if nothing else would. And surely–surely Brother Tuck wouldn’t be foolish enough to try it. Taking a child too young to remember away from a den of sin was one thing. But taking an eight-year-old away from her parents? He’d never get away with that. And for that matter, why would he want to? Why would he want to add to the burden of the nuns, raising another little girl, when she had two parents in a stable home more than happy to do the work for them?
“He would be very angry,” Toinette promised. “An’ yer teacher? She already knows all about Leah. Everybody knows about Leah.”
“Even Brother Tuck?” Nora whispered.
Toinette bit her lip. But — surely Berach had confessed the sin that went into making Leah years ago? So … “The monks know,” Toinette replied, confident that was the case. Father Hugh had to know if Brother Tuck didn’t.
“And — and they won’t take Leah away?”
“No, Nora, they won’t.”
“So … I don’t have to do everything Katerina says anymore?” Nora asked.
“Ye don’t have ter do anythin’ Katerina says, if ye don’t want ter. But can ye do somethin’ fer me, Nora?”
“Ye go ter school today.” Nora’s face fell. “An’ ye tell yer teacher exactly what Katerina’s been doin’ ter ye, an’ why. An’ yer teacher will take care o’ Katerina as long as she’s at the school, I promise. … Ye did say her name was Katerina Capron, didn’t ye?”
“Aye, Mama. Why?”
“Oh … no reason,” Toinette replied. She got up and helped Nora to her feet, then gave her a big hug. “Now ye go off ter school, an’ ye have a good day, an’ ye tell me what the teacher said an’ if Katerina tries anythin’ else, all right?”
“All right, Mama.”
Toinette squeezed her daughter long and tight. And she tried to plan. Because Toinette knew something that Nora — and possibly even Katerina — didn’t know.
Katerina Capron’s father was a fisherman.
And he sold all his catch to Grady.
So that afternoon, when the fishwives came, even though Toinette had a hundred things at the house she could be doing, she was waiting outside the shop for Goodwife Capron to come.
And come she did.
“Afternoon, Mistress Brogan!” called Goodwife Capron. “Lovely weather we’re havin’, don’t ye think?”
Toinette took a deep breath. She would not get angry — well, too angry, yet — at Goodwife Capron. She remembered what it had been like when Katie had been picking on that Simpson girl, didn’t she? If that wasn’t the single most humiliating experience of Toinette’s life, she didn’t know what was. She and Grady had come down hard on Katie after that, and Toinette flattered herself that their discipline had something to do with how Katie had turned herself around. Maybe all Katerina needed was an adult to tell her what was what, and a chance to learn from this and make herself better.
Toinette would be happy to give her that chance, provided that the bullying of Nora — and, to hear it, Leah — stopped.
“Goodwife,” Toinette said, stepping between Goodwife Capron and the shop. “We–we need to talk. It’s about yer little girl, Katerina.”
Goodwife Capron blinked. “Katerina? What about ‘er?”
“Well, I’ve got a little girl about the same age, Nora, an’ …” Toinette hesitated. She’d gotten more details out of Nora at the breakfast table, and she hadn’t liked a single one of them. Katerina had made Nora her virtual slave at school. No wonder Nora would rather hide in her bed all day. “Ter hear Nora tell it, there’s been some trouble on the playground.”
“Trouble?” asked Goodwife Capron, her eyes narrowing and hardening.
“Aye. Accordin’ ter Nora … well … it seems like Katerina …” Blackmail was a loaded word to use about little girls. “Katerina’s been pickin’ on Nora, an’ coverin’ it up by threatenin’–there ain’t no nice way ter say this, Goodwife. Threatenin’ ter get me niece sent to the orphanage if Nora don’t do everythin’ Katerina tells her.”
“Niece? Ye mean that little bastard yer brother-in-law took in?” Goodwife Capron asked.
Toinette’s jaw dropped. “She–she is my niece! Goodwife! What are ye sayin’?”
Now, don’t axe stupid questions, Toinette, said a voice in Toinette’s head speaking in the tones of Cerise. Obviously, we now know where that little brat Katerina gets it from.
Goodwife Capron looked at Toinette like she was simple. “Now, Mistress Brogan — come now. Some whore shows up at yer brother-in-law’s doorstep with a baby, says it’s his — an’ he believes her? That little bas–”
“I’ll thank ye not ter use that word ter describe me niece!” Toinette interrupted. “An’–an’ even if Berach was mistaken, she’s me niece, ’cause she has been ever since I first held her an’ tickled her little tummy.” Toinette swallowed. “An’–an’ what’s that got ter do with anythin’? The point is, ter hear me daughter tell it, yer daughter is makin’ her life miserable. An’ I’d be right pleased if ye gave Katerina a good talkin’-to, an’ made sure that this nonsense stopped.” Toinette took a deep breath. There. That ought to do it.
Or … not.
“What? Are ye jokin’?” Goodwife Capron snapped. “What kind o’ mother goes an’ fights her kids battles fer her? Ye don’t want yer little girl gettin’ picked on, Mistress Brogan? Then teach her ter stand up fer herself!”
“I ain’t never heard nothin’ so stupid in me life! Good Lord, woman! D’ye hear yerself? How the hell is yer girl gonna know how ter handle life if ye won’t even let her solve her own playground problems fer herself?”
Toinette took a deep breath. She would keep calm. She would remain collected. And no matter how she was tempted, she would not punch this horrible woman in the face. “Goodwife–this isn’t no normal playground spats. Nora didn’t want ter go ter school today.”
“So? Smack her hide an’ git her ter go ter school! Or if that ain’t enough, let her work! A couple days on the boat with his pa got Skip back ter school in a hurry!”
“Goodwife,” Toinette made sure to make her voice softer. It was a trick her father had. The angrier he was, the softer he would make his voice. It would make whoever he was angry with strain to hear him, and it probably kept Edmond from saying anything too unfortunate. “Doesn’t it bother ye that yer daughter is pickin’ on other girls? Even–I know this is a loaded word, but there ain’t no other word fer it–blackmailin’ em?”
“Me daughter knows how ter survive!” Goodwife Capron fired back. “An’ she knows what’s what! She won’t put up with no little brats puttin’ on airs that ain’t theirs!”
“Airs?” Toinette gasped. “Me Nora never–”
“No, not yer girl! She never put on no airs that Katerina mentioned, I’ll give her that much!” Goodwife Capron cut her off. “I mean that little bas–”
“Don’t ye DARE use that word about me niece!” Toinette roared.
“Don’t ye give me that lip, Toinette Brogan–Toinette Chevaux as was!” Goodwife Capron fired back. “Oooh, if I could talk about puttin’ on airs, I’d be pointin’ ter ye, next! Why, ye jumped-up–”
“Stop!” Toinette threw her hand in the air. “Ye stop right there! Grady an’ I don’t have nothin’ that we didn’t work our arses off fer! An’ we don’t put on no airs! Ye won’t keep yer b–Katerina’s nose clean by dirtyin’ ours, I can tell ye that right now!”
“But what about that ‘niece’ o’ yers?” Goodwife Capron hissed. “Ye think a bastard has any business puttin’ herself forward o’ lawfully-gotten kids? Ye think ye’re doin’ her any favors by tryin’ ter stop others from puttin’ her in her place?”
“I don’t know if ye’ve been payin’ much attention, Goodwife Capron,” Toinette snapped, “but last I checked, it’s what ye do in this life that counts fer more than where ye come from. Now, maybe ye don’t know that, seein’ as ye come from dirt–”
“As if ye come from any better! Ye with yer whore-sister an’–”
“Keep me SISTER out o’ this!” Toinette yelped. “I mean it, Goodwife! An’ fer that matter, what are ye teachin’ yer daughter? That when somebody puts ye down, or don’t let ye have yer way, ye dig somethin’ out o’ their pasts an’ hold it over their heads? That ye can bully an’ stomp on other people ter get ter the top? That way don’t work!”
“Ha! An’ what way does!”
“Hard work! An’ lots o’ it! An’,” Toinette shouted, “before ye say nothin’ — it worked fer me an’ Grady!”
“An’ ye can tell yer Katerina fer me,” Toinette snarled, “that if she goes on the way she’s goin’, she’ll end up jest like her ma — a regular harridan, snappish an’ shrewish, an’ gray-haired before her time!”
The gray-haired did it. Goodwife Capron touched her braids. Then she snarled. “Hard work! Ha! As if runnin’ a shop is hard work!”
“Care ter try it?”
“I’ll tell ye what hard work is!” Goodwife Capron continued. “Gettin’ up before dawn ter help yer husband get the nets untangled — then havin’ ter feed a brood o’ bratty, ungrateful kids — then gettin’ rid o’ the ones jest old enough ter help out, an’ keepin’ the garden goin’ an’ the house clean an’ the youngest ones from fallin’ down the well, then the husband comes home with the catch, an’ I gotta skin it an’ get it ready fer ye lot so’s I can sell it ter ye — an’ ye, ye want me ter take time ter tell me daughter ter stop botherin’ yers? Ha! I got better things ter do with me time! Like I said — teach yer daughter ter stand up fer herself –”
“Then get out,” Toinette interrupted.
“Fine. Let me get the fish ter yer husband–”
“With yer stinkin’ fish.”
“What? Are ye mad?”
“Mad? Hell no. I don’t give me hard-earned money ter women what can’t control their kids. Ye want ter teach yer daughter about gettin’ ahead, Goodwife Capron? Teach her this: one surefire way ter fail is ter bite the hand what feeds ye.”
Goodwife Capron blinked, her jaw quivering. “Bitch,” she whispered.
Toinette was too much a fishwife to rise to that bait. “Maybe. But the fact o’ the matter is this: we ain’t buyin’ no more fish off ye an’ yer husband until ye get that daughter o’ yers under control. Ye get yer daughter ter leave me daughter an’ me niece alone, an’ we’ll talk. Until then, get the hell off me husband’s property, or I’ll have the law on ye.”
Goodwife Capron didn’t reply. But she did leave.
Toinette watched her go. That … hadn’t gone as well as she hoped it would. But hopefully it would deliver results. If it didn’t, she’d be having a talk with that teacher. But she thought it might. Fishermen couldn’t fool around. Katerina would be brought around, one away or another.
And finally, her Nora could have some peace.