Ververe 27, 1014
Nellie swung her feet back and forth as she stared at the tiles in front of her.
She wished she could concentrate. She liked this game, and when she and her papa played it, she thought she was learning a lot. Her papa said that games like this taught you how to think, how to plan things out, how to make one move that would lead to another move that would lead to you winning. Cards could be like that, sometimes, her father said, but a pack of cards was a lot more expensive than some wooden tiles you could carve yourself — and more importantly, that was gambling. And dice were worse — that was all just luck.
But even though Nellie knew she could play on her own, practice, maybe get good enough to beat her papa without him having to prod her along, she just couldn’t concentrate. She kept looking away from the tiles and up to the bedroom window.
Her mama was having the baby today.
Whenever Nellie thought too hard about it, her tummy turned up in knots and she started to sweat all over. It was hot, but that wasn’t why she was sweating. When Josie and Jake had been born, Nellie had been too little to understand what was happening — and she couldn’t remember back that far, anyway. When Lora was born, Nellie had gone to Uncle Berach’s house and played with Leah and just assumed everything was going to be fine. But something had changed between Lora being born and today. Nellie was bigger now, and smarter. And she knew something now that she hadn’t quite understood when she was only six.
Mamas didn’t always live when babies were born. And babies didn’t always get born alive.
Nellie was just about to curl around herself and moan to herself when she heard the door open. She sat up straight — she didn’t want her papa to see her sad. He was worried, too. But it wasn’t Papa.
It was Katie.
“Hello, Nell,” said Katie as she came down the steps. “How’re you doin’?”
Nellie tried to smile. Katie wasn’t as scary now as she had been when they were both younger. She used to boss a lot — well, she still bossed a lot — but now she mostly bossed around her own siblings, and only moved onto the cousins if something really needed to get done. And if she was going to butt heads with anybody, it would be Leah, who seemed to almost enjoy going at it with a worthy opponent.
And more importantly, Nellie knew why Katie was here. It was because Nellie hadn’t wanted to go to Auntie Toinette’s with her sibs when the baby started to come. Her papa had said that she could stay, and Auntie Toinette had looked between Nellie and Katie and told Katie to stay, too. Nellie just hoped that Auntie Toinette was all right back at her house. She not only was watching all of her own kids, she was watching Nellie’s brother and sisters, and she was watching Leah and her sisters because Auntie Joyce was upstairs with Mama.
“Mind if I play a bit?” Katie asked, nudging one of the chairs out with her foot.
Nellie shook her head.
Katie sat herself down and cast a hard, appraising glance at Nellie. Nellie looked away. Katie looked at her like that … not a lot. But often enough that it confused Nellie. It was like Katie was looking for something there, and Nellie never knew quite what it was. Or what Katie would do if she found it.
“Are you all right?” Katie asked.
“You sure? I can bring you home with me if you think it’s all getting too much for you.”
She could? “By yerself?” Nellie asked.
“Don’t see why not,” Katie shrugged. “I go from home to Avilion all the time by myself. I can bring you home from here by myself.”
“‘Cause you work at yer auntie’s dress shop?” Nellie asked. She started to shuffle the tiles, mostly to give herself something to do and something to look at that wasn’t Katie.
Nellie continued to slide the tiles back and forth, but it was much more slowly now. “… What’s that like?”
“What’s what like?”
“Workin’ in a shop,” replied Nellie. She stared at the table and went on, “‘Cause — ’cause Papa’s startin’ a shop. It’s right over there.” She pointed across the road to the white-plaster building with the red tile roof. Baron Ferreira had built it for them — well, his son had — and Nellie was surprised by just how pretty it was. It matched the biggest house on the square, too. How neat was that? “He wants everythin’ ready fer St. Denise’s Day.”
“Oh, that’s clever!” replied Katie.
Nellie turned her head to one side. “Is it?”
“Sure thing! St. Denise’s Day is a lucky one to be startin’ a business!”
“…. It is?”
“Uh huh!” Katie nodded. “My ma wanted my da to start his new fish shop on that day. And he did. And look how well it’s worked for him!”
Nellie narrowed her eyes. She couldn’t quite put her finger on what was wrong with that statement … but something was. Maybe it was that Nellie was pretty sure something working out once didn’t prove anything about whether it would work a second time, or a third.
“But I thought St. Denise was a baker?” Nellie asked.
“Then … how come she helped a fish shop?”
“Oh! Oh, that doesn’t matter. I heard that St. Denise wasn’t even all that good at bakin’,” replied Katie as she looked her tiles over. “She was the seller — her husband was the baker.”
“Oh,” said Nellie, like she understood, even though she really didn’t.
“‘Cause, you see, it’s not just havin’ good stuff that makes it sell,” Katie went on. “You gotta have a knack for it. A gift. And you have to have a good head to keep track of everythin’, know what’s goin’ where and how much money is comin’ in and how much is goin’ out.”
Nellie felt her stomach start to tie in knots again. That all sounded really hard. Her papa was really smart, but … was he that smart?
Or more importantly, was he that kind of smart? The older Nellie got, the more convinced she became that there wasn’t just one kind of smart or dumb, but there were maybe almost as many different kinds of smart and dumb as there were Sims. Her papa was awfully smart when it came to some things — would he be smart enough for this?
And it was one more thing to worry about today. Nellie didn’t want to be worrying about more things today. She clambered out of the chair. “I’m gonna take a walk.”
“Oh,” said Katie. “Want company?”
Nellie shrugged. It would be rude to say no. And she didn’t want to have to explain why she wanted to say no. Besides … even if she didn’t want more things to worry about, maybe Katie would say something else, something fun and happy, and Nellie could think about that.
So Katie got up and walked with her. They didn’t go far. Nellie didn’t want to be far away in case the baby was born and her papa wanted her to come see. She took a deep breath and thought about that. Jake, she knew, was rooting for a brother, but Nellie wouldn’t mind another little sister. It was nice being in the majority. For once thing, it would be an excuse for Nellie to beg her mama for more scraps to make for dollies, while if it was a boy, Jake would be begging Papa to whittle another toy horse or boat.
“It’s a pretty day,” remarked Katie as they walked.
Nellie nodded. “An’ not too hot.”
That was all that they said for a while. Then, looking around, Nellie mentioned, “Me papa says I was born on a pretty day too.”
“I ain’t surprised. You were born in summer, weren’t you?” asked Katie.
That was a really good point. “Aye,” Nellie agreed. “So was Jake, though he was born really early in summer. Mama says it rained and poured the whole time he was born, like it was still spring.”
“Well, he was a boy.” Katie winked at her. “I guess even Mother Nature doesn’t like brothers very much!”
Nellie giggled, because she sensed that was what was expected of her, but she didn’t say anything else.
They walked around the big garden a couple of times before Katie asked, “Gettin’ tired? We can sit down if you like.”
Nellie was getting a little tired. And some of the jitters were gone, too. So she nodded, and the two of them sat under the shade of a wide oak tree.
Nellie sat cross-legged, sure to tuck her skirts around her knees. Her teacher said only hoydens sat with their skirts flapping open so everybody could look up them. Nellie wasn’t sure what a hoyden was — or why anybody would want to look up someone else’s skirts — but she guessed it was something bad, so she tucked her skirts in. Katie was tucking her skirts in, too.
“… Katie?” asked Nellie.
“What’s a hoyden?”
“A tomboy,” replied Katie. “Why?”
“‘Cause teacher always says that only hoydens let their skirts flap open,” replied Nellie with a shrug.
Katie laughed — but when Nellie looked to her to find what was funny, Katie was stuffing her hand in her mouth and trying to kill the giggles that way. “What’s so funny?”
“Just — she said it was hoydens who do that?” Katie giggled.
She giggled again. “It’s not tomboys who leave their skirts open — well, maybe sometimes, but only because they don’t care and they’re not thinkin’. It’s the other type of girl who does that that you’ve got to worry about.”
“What other type?” asked Nellie.
Nellie could only watch Katie with her head tilted to one side. No, she really didn’t know.
Katie must have seen that, because she looked from one side to another and whispered, “Slatterns.”
“Sloppy girls?” Nellie asked, tucking in her skirts more tightly around her knees. Well, that did make a bit of sense. Girls who were sloppy were often careless, and you had to be pretty careless to leave your skirts flapping open in the breeze.
“Not just sloppy. You know. A bit free with their favors?” Katie nudged.
Nellie wrinkled her nose. She’d heard that before. It was usually women clucking over other women saying things like that. Nellie just wished she knew what favors they were talking about. She didn’t mind doing favors for people — weren’t you supposed to help others out? But if you were, why did the other older women at the marketplace cluck so much about it?
Then she remembered something else the older women would say, and taking a chance, she asked about it. “Katie?”
“Don’t … don’t women say that about yer aunt?”
Katie blinked. “Oh boy.”
“Sorry. But … don’t they?”
Katie wriggled in her seat. “She still kin. And she’s the nicest person anyone ever did meet. I don’t care what those old bit–biddies say about her. She’s a better person than they’ll ever be.”
“… I guess?”
Katie glared at Nellie. “You don’t believe me?”
Nellie winced. “I jest …”
“You just …”
“I’m confused,” Nellie murmured. “I don’t — what’s so bad about bein’ free with yer favors? I thought favors were good?”
Katie blinked a few times. Then she murmured, “Ooooh! Oh, it ain’t just any favor. It’s a certain kind of favor that you’re not supposed to be free with.”
“Oh … what kind?”
“Favors to boys, mostly.” Katie leaned back now, far more relaxed than she had been when Nellie first brought up her aunt. “And not just passin’ them a book or pickin’ up their pen for them because they’d dropped it — although be careful about that, ’cause while some boys just drop their pens on accident, some’ll do it so they can watch you bend over an’ get a good long look at your arse.”
“Me arse?” asked Nellie.
Katie’s mouth opened and shut. “Well, maybe not your arse, not yet. You’re still a little young. And you haven’t got much of an arse yet. But once you get a bit bigger, an’ fill out a bit more, you’ll find that boys will be starin’ at every bit of you except your face.”
“Me face?” Nellie asked, patting her face all over. “What’s wrong with me face?” She knew she looked like her papa, but she’d never thought of that as a bad thing — her papa was a handsome man!
“Oh, it’s not that there’s anythin’ wrong with your face. It’s just … boys got other places they’re more interested in lookin’ at. But you’ll get your revenge, because you’ll be lookin’ at their legs and their arses.”
“Why would I want ter look at a boy’s arse?” Nellie wondered.
“Because some of them are really fine to look at!” Katie giggled. “But I like legs better myself. Especially a well-turned calf in some nice hosen. Yummy!”
“Yummy? What’s so yummy about it?”
Katie smiled and shook her head in the insufferable manner of the all-wise, all-knowing, and, had Nellie but known it, the all-thirteen-and-a-half. “You’ll see.”
“I hope not. It all sounds right silly!” Nellie huffed.
“Sure it is,” Katie agreed. “But what’s wrong with bein’ silly every now and then?”
“But it’s not even a fun silly. It’s jest a … stupid silly,” Nellie finally finished. She heard how stupid that sounded and tried to pretend that she hadn’t. “It’s not like ye’re doin’ anythin’. Jest lookin’ at each other’s arses, an’ … an’ what?”
“Comparin’ notes!” Katie giggled. “And maybe a bit of flirting.”
“Flirtin’?” Nellie made a face. “Papa flirts with Mama sometimes …”
“Bah, I ain’t talkin’ about what our parents do!” Katie protested. “That’s borin’. But … when a nice boy starts flirtin’ with you, and makin’ eyes at you, and … and makin’ you feel like you’re the prettiest, best girl in the world …” Katie closed her eyes and shivered. “There’s nothin’ better than that.”
“I guess if ye say so …” However, now that Nellie thought about it, being made to feel like the prettiest, best girl in the world didn’t sound so bad. She just wasn’t sure why it was that only boys could make a girl feel like that. Wouldn’t it be better if a girl could make herself feel that way?
Or maybe it was like opening up too-tight jars or reaching the things on the high shelves (even if sometimes Nellie’s papa needed to get up on a chair to reach the things on the very highest shelves). Or carrying big boxes, or driving the plow, or working with tools and fixing things around the house. There were some things that boys and men just tended to be better at than girls and women.
Maybe making girls feel like the prettiest and best was just one of those things.
Still, Nellie wondered as she dug her shoulderblades into the trunk of the tree, what about making girls not worry? What about making them not be scared? Katie had been doing a pretty good job of it before Nellie started thinking about this. Was that something only girls were good at? Or maybe girls and boys?
Whatever the answer was, Nellie wouldn’t get it that day. Her uncle came out on the porch and started to call for her. “Yoo-hoo! Nellie! Katie!”
Katie looked back and waved. “Over here, Da!”
Uncle Grady looked around and saw them. “Nellie!” He waved his arms, gesturing her in. “Come in! There’s someone in here who can’t wait ter meet ye!”
Someone wanted to meet her? But Nellie already knew everybody inside — even Rhoslyn, Widow Thatcher’s apprentice, she’d met before.
Then the thought suddenly hit. “The baby?” Nellie called back.
She couldn’t see if there was a smile on Uncle Grady’s face, but she could hear it in his voice. “Come see!”
Nellie was up and running before Katie could even start to climb to her feet.
She dashed across the yard and up the steps of the house. She barreled past Uncle Grady without so much as an “excuse me.” Then she skidded to a halt inside when she saw her papa standing with Uncle Berach. “Papa?”
Papa was cradling a little bundle wrapped in a pink blanket. Nellie knew by now that you had to be careful with new babies and mind their heads, because they were so little that they couldn’t really hold them up on their own. “Hallo, Nellie,” said Papa. “There’s a little mite here what wants ter meet her best big sister.”
“Her best?” Nellie asked.
“Sure thing, sweetheart!” replied Uncle Berach. “Ye’ve been a big sister fer longest, so’s ye’ll probably be the best at it! Stands ter reason!”
Nellie giggled, because that seemed to be what the statement called for, and looked again at her papa and the squirming baby. “Can I see, Papa? Please?”
“Sure ye can, Nellie. Edythe’s practically wettin’ her napkin, she’s so excited ter meet ye!”
“Uh oh!” Nellie giggled, coming closer. The baby — Edythe — was dark, like her and Josie. And she had gray eyes, and red hair too — but they all had red hair, so that was no surprise. “Ye better not wet yer napkin already, Edythe! Ye jest got here! Mama won’t …” Nellie bit her lip and looked up at her papa. “Mama?”
“Yer mama’s jest fine, sweetie,” said Uncle Berach. For the first time since Mama suddenly yelped that morning, watching a puddle of water pool in front of her feet, Nellie felt her stomach untwist.
And then she could get really close without any worry at all. “Hi, Edythe!” she said. “Welcome home! I hope ye like it out here!”
“Oh, she’ll like it out here,” replied Papa. “With big sisters like ye an’ Josie an’ Lora, an’ a big brother like Jake, how could she not?”