Lenona 16, 1014
This was the third time Berach was waiting out a birth, and he was finding that it simply didn’t get any easier the more you did it.
He had to keep walking to keep the thoughts at bay. Joyce wasn’t cursing him out this time. Berach wished he knew why that was. Was it because, three times into it, the pains weren’t so bad that she felt the need to make him suffer as much as she was suffering? Was it because the pains weren’t so bad yet? That was certainly a possibility … she hadn’t been at this very long …
But — damn it! — weren’t later babies supposed to come quicker?
“Berach?” asked Neil, turning around to watch Berach pace up and down. He’d been trying to teach Lukas to play chess with the chess set he had brought from home. It was Lilé’s old set. Somehow it felt right to have it here, even if the board being used to play it was technically a checkerboard. “Are ye all right?”
No! I’m not all right! Me wife is up there shovin’ a grapefruit-sized head out o’ a grape-sized hole!
He shook his head. He couldn’t say that out loud, not when, really, it was Joyce going through everything that could be called pain. “I don’t know why I’m so wound-up,” was all Berach replied.
“Aye,” added Pierre, breaking off his conversation with Grady to do so. “Ye weren’t near this bad when Lilibeth were born.”
“He weren’t this bad with Cliodna, either,” Grady added. That was right, Pierre hadn’t been there when Joyce had Cliodna. He and Edmond had been the ones to take Leah and Lilibeth that time around.
“So it can’t jest be the lack o’ a bar, then,” Pierre replied.
“Eh! Let’s not get into that!” Grady laughed. “I can’t believe I missed the one time when we could go off ter the pub while the wife was havin’ the baby, an’ nobody could be mad at us — we were jest gettin’ out o’ the way.”
“We could still go to the pub,” said Lukas. “It ain’t that …” He stopped when he saw Berach’s face, swallowed, and squeaked, “Far …”
“We ain’t goin’ ter the pub,” Berach growled. “Or at least, if ye go, I ain’t.”
“Which would defeat the purpose,” Neil said cheerfully — too cheerfully. Berach started to glare, but Neil had squirmed around and was shooting him a brows-furrowed concerned look.
Well, there was something to be said for aggressive cheerfulness meant to raise the mood of everyone in the room … even if it didn’t work. Berach was finding now that its opposite was far more effective in bringing everyone down.
He shook himself, as if mere physical activity could ward away the nerves and edginess he felt. “Sorry. I don’t know why I’m bein’ such a bear.”
“Maybe ’cause it’s in yer name,” Pierre quipped. “Bear-ach!”
Lukas laughed. Berach was glad somebody did. He couldn’t quite manage it himself.
And Grady was watching him … well, they all would have been watching him, if they could manage to not be obvious about it. Grady just didn’t care about being obvious or not. “Berach, sit yer arse down. Ye’re gonna wear a hole through the floorboards.”
Berach hesitated … but he meandered over and collapsed into the chair by Grady. He slumped forward, head cradled in his hands.
“Berach, what’s wrong?” asked Pierre, suddenly all seriousness.
Berach shook his head. He knew what was wrong. He didn’t know how to say it. But that stupid girl …
Maybe he shouldn’t blame the girl — Rhoslyn, he thought her name was, the midwife’s apprentice. She’d just been asking a question. If he looked at things sensibly, didn’t he want Kata Thatcher’s apprentice to be asking as many questions as popped into her head? Wouldn’t that make her better when she got to be a midwife?
Except the question she had been asking of Kata as she walked in was, “So you say that the mother’s last baby is only a year and a half old? So … what can we expect because of that?” Kata had shushed her before she could ask more, but Berach was no dummy. He knew where that was going.
He knew it was best if you waited a year between pregnancies. He and Joyce hadn’t quite made it that far between Lilibeth and Cliodna, but they were so close that he hadn’t thought it mattered. However, now …
Rhoslyn seemed so sure that not waiting would cause complications. What if they were bad? What if something happened to Joyce or the baby?
And what if it was all Berach’s fault because he couldn’t be arsed to pull out in time?
“Neil?” Berach asked, cutting right though whatever Grady was saying. Not that he had been listening anyway.
“Aye?” Neil asked, squirming around in the chair.
“Ye’ve … ye’ve only got a little more than a year between Josie an’ Jake, ain’t that right?”
“A year an’ about, eh, six weeks or so,” Neil answered. “Why ye axin’?”
“Jest …” Berach tried not to shudder or squirm. “Well, there’s–there’s only gonna be a year an’ five months between Clio an’ this baby … so’s I were jest … well, wonderin’ …”
“Aww, don’t worry, Berach,” Grady replied. “There ain’t even a year between ye an’ Ailís! An’ Ma were healthy fer years after that. Ye were, too. So don’t be frettin’.”
“But Ailís were sickly,” Berach murmured. She was healthy enough now, but Berach knew that Josie was sickly. And unlike Ailís, whom Berach knew had gotten stronger as she got older, Josie seemed to be staying the same … or getting worse.
“Rosie an’ me are barely more than a year apart,” Pierre pointed out. “An’ we were both always healthy as a pair o’ ponies. An’ me ma were healthy fer years after. I wouldn’t put too much truck in what midwives say about spacin’ out babies — they probably jest say that because that’s what the mas want. But look at Meg! Michel’s barely a year old now, an’ Meg’s already showin’ fer the next one!”
“Hey, now,” Neil interjected, “don’t go knockin’ midwives ’cause they’re tellin’ ye ter keep it in yer braises. Would ye want ter be havin’ a baby every year?”
Pierre shrugged. “I’d rather have lots o’ healthy children, meself. It’s good fer everyone that way.”
“That’s ’cause ye don’t have ter carry ’em fer nine months,” Neil replied, “an’ be throwin’ up fer the first three, an’ be about as big as a house fer the last three, an’ in between be dealin’ with backaches an’ headaches an’ all the rest. An’ the baby’s gotta come out! Ye can have lots o’ healthy children without makin’ the mas miserable ter get there.”
Pierre half-turned around. “An’ what are ye playin’ at, Neil Porter? Ye had yer kids as close tergether as Michel an’ our next!”
“An’ we were lucky that turned out as well as it did, with Ailís an’ Josie an’ Jake all bein’ as healthy as they are,” Neil shrugged. “All the same, I ain’t sayin’ that it ain’t good advice ter wait a bit jest ’cause we didn’t an’ things turned out all right. Ye wouldn’t tell yer kids ter go swimmin’ in waters full o’ sharks an’ nasty creatures jest ’cause ye did once an’ ye’re fine.”
“Oh, come on! This is hardly like swimmin’ in water full o’ sharks!” Pierre laughed.
“Oh … I dunno,” said Lukas — the man in the room with the least right to speak, as far as Berach was concerned. He’d only gone through this once. “Let’s not ferget what happened ter poor Roma an’ Marie.”
Berach’s hand dropped to the table. The clink made by his wedding ring hitting the wood echoed through the room.
Finally Pierre was the one to break the silence. “Bli–blimey, Lukas.” His voice rattled like the last of autumn’s leaves still clinging to the dead branch. “Don’t go sayin’ things like that. ‘Sides, didn’t — didn’t Kata say that what happened ter Marie didn’t have nothin’ ter do with Jemmy?”
“She did say that,” Lukas shrugged, “but just ’cause she said it –”
“All right, that’s enough,” Grady cut in. “Good Lord. Can’t we jest accept that we’re a bunch o’ stupid men sittin’ ’round a table what don’t know anythin’? We’re all talkin’ out our arses here. An’ we’re jest makin’ Berach feel worse.”
“Aye, let’s find somethin’ more cheerful ter talk about,” Berach added, even if he had been the one who, technically, started it. However, he certainly hadn’t expected what he said to bring up the ghost of little Marie Chevaux.
Poor baby. Poor parents. He’d watched Grady and Toinette after Aileen passed, and … he couldn’t imagine …
He also couldn’t imagine having to say goodbye to his baby before he’d even had a chance to meet her. Or, possibly, him. But Berach wasn’t putting much stock in the idea that this baby would be a boy. Three for three he’d gone, all girls. He knew that some men liked to blame their women when girl after girl was born, but Berach couldn’t help but notice that his daughters had two mothers.
“Aye,” Grady agreed. “Neil! Tell us how yer shop is doin’! No–tell us about the stupidest customer ye’ve had so far. That ought ter make us laugh!”
“Er …” Neil started, “Well, this ain’t about a customer what’s stupid, but it is a funny …”
“WAAAH!” All the men froze.
The cry was followed shortly after by a creak — and then another creak, and another, as Meg made her slow way down the ladder, an orange-wrapped bundle in her arms.
Berach jumped out of his chair. “Meg!”
Meg shot him a wide smile over her shoulder. Meg usually didn’t smile that widely. If she was … that had to mean everything was all right. But Berach had to ask. “How’s Joyce?”
“Joyce is great,” Meg smiled. “But tired, the poor thing! She jest fed this wee one an’ fell asleep as we were helpin’ her get cleaned up!”
Well, giving birth ought to be enough to tire even Joyce out. Berach grinned, and for the first time since he had heard Rhoslyn ask her question, he was able to relax.
“So,” Meg asked, cradling the baby in the crook of her arm and smiling, “don’t ye want ter come meet yer son?”
Berach stepped forward with a wide smile — and stopped.
“Yer son!” Meg laughed. This had to be the merriest Berach had ever seen her.
“Me — me — are ye sure? Check between the legs again!”
“Aww, don’t blame ‘im, Meg,” Grady said. “He clearly didn’t think he had it in ‘im any more than we did. Berach, it’s about bloody time ye managed a boy!”
“A boy!” Berach repeated, still unable to quite believe it. This little boy didn’t look much different than his sisters had, just out of the womb. He was even blonde like Cliodna — imagine that, Berach’s firstborn son, and he couldn’t even manage red hair like his papa!
Then again, given Berach’s track record …
He edged a little closer, waving to the baby. “Hallo … son,” he said, trying the word out. He’d said it a thousand times before, but somehow it had never meant as much. “Welcome ter the world. An’ ignore yer uncles,” he added as the lot of them cheered and joked at the expense of Berach’s manhood. Well, except Neil, he just cheered. “They’re bloody fools the lot o’ em.”
“Hey!” Neil protested.
“Exceptin’ yer Uncle Neil,” Berach said smoothly. “But the rest o’ ’em …”
Berach looked over his shoulder. Grady was practically doubled over, he was laughing so hard. “Ruddy idiots,” Berach concluded. “Absolute ruddy idiots.”
“Can ye believe it?” Berach asked for what had to be the sixth time as he held their little lad up to his nose. “It’s a boy! We did it, Joyce! We made a boy!”
Joyce smiled and leaned her head back against the bedpost. If she hadn’t known better, she would have sworn that Berach had been nursing disappointment ever since Lilibeth had been born — or maybe even Leah, though it wasn’t like Berach had been able to get his hopes up for a boy in Leah’s case. But he’d never seemed anything other than overjoyed when Lilibeth and Cliodna had been put into his arms, and unlike most men who would have been pointedly asking after a son, she hadn’t heard a peep from him on the subject of the baby’s sex.
She yawned. Lord, she was so tired! She’d had a nap while the women cleaned everything up (after they had cleaned her up), but she still felt like she could sleep for a week. And she knew she wouldn’t be getting that. She would get some extra help for the next couple of weeks, true, and she knew her ma would give her more help if she asked for it. But … well, the baby needed to be fed every couple of hours, at a minimum, and she couldn’t do that if she was sleeping.
At least she wouldn’t be rejoining the dancing troupe until after she’d recovered a bit and gotten some of her old strength back. She’d done her best to hide it, but this pregnancy had been rougher on her than Lilibeth or Cliodna was. Maybe what all the old women said was true, and that a tougher pregnancy meant a boy was on the way.
“… Joyce?” said Berach, cutting her off mid-yawn. “What are we gonna call this lad?”
Joyce blinked. “I thought ye said ye liked Malachy fer a name?”
Berach surveyed her over the baby’s — Malachy’s — bald head. “Ye like that too?”
“Oh, aye,” Joyce replied.
“Ye sure? Ye don’t …” Berach tilted his head to one side. “Yer da?”
Joyce shook her head. “Nah.” She’d thought about it, certainly when she was carrying Cliodna, but then Lukas and Ella had named their baby Martin. They had the best right to it, Joyce thought. And she wanted all her children to be themselves, not sharing their names with a string of other people, be they dead grandparents or, more importantly, living cousins. “We’ve got Lilibeth, so’s I’m thinkin’ that’s enough.”
“Ye sure?” asked Berach. “‘Cause … well, he’s got grandpas …”
“Berach Brogan, if ye think I’m lettin’ ye name me son Finmart or Martley, ye’ve got another think comin’!”
Berach’s jaw dropped. “Good Lord, no! I wouldn’t want ter name me on Fin- or -ley anythin’!” He shuddered. “Me da would be so shocked … well …”
He might come back, thought Joyce. And … well … she supposed she ought to feel guilty for this, but she was going to go and think it anyway. Nobody with half a right mind would want Finley coming back, even if it was only to preen after the grandson finally name for him.
He’d probably have some smart comments for Berach, too, on it having taken him “so long” to get around to having a boy. Arse hole, though Joyce. Was she a bad person, she wondered, if she still wasn’t at all sorry that Finley was dead?
“So Malachy it is,” Berach said, smacking his lips. “Hello, Malachy! An’ maybe the next one–”
“Berach Brogan, bite yer tongue!” Joyce shouted. And regretted it instantly.
He stared at her, jaw fallen, Adam’s apple bobbing in his throat. Joyce averted her eyes. Good Lord — she hadn’t meant to do that! She hadn’t meant to say that!
Without a word, Berach put Malachy in his crib, the one that Grady, Ailís, Berach, probably some of Grady’s kids, and Cliodna had slept in.
He slowly edged around the bed and gingerly crept up next to her. “Joyce …”
“Berach, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean ter snap like that. I jest …” How to explain it? She was tired, that was all. If Lilibeth and Cliodna got cranky when they skipped naptime or overstayed bedtime, Joyce supposed she was allowed to get cranky shortly after giving birth.
“Ye’re sorry?” Berach asked. “Joyce, I wanted ter say that I were sorry.”
“Huh?” Joyce asked.
“Fer … look, I ain’t an idiot. I know I’m jest a man, but even I know that ye’re supposed ter wait a year between endin’ one pregnancy an’ startin’ the next. We really didn’t do that with Clio –”
“Clio might have been a bit early,” Joyce filled in. Berach raised an eyebrow at her. “Well, ye never know. An’ she were smaller than Lilibeth.”
“Still,” Berach insisted. “We didn’t wait anywhere near that between Clio an’ Malachy, an’ ye know it. I’m sorry about that, Joyce. I should’ve been more careful.”
“Oh, stop,” replied Joyce. And she meant it. “It takes two ter tango, don’t it? I’m the one jumpin’ ye as soon as the kids get ter bed half the time. We both …” She looked at the crib at the end of the bed. She wouldn’t say “need,” she decided. Not when waiting might have meant they would have gotten a different baby, one who wasn’t Malachy. “If we’re lookin’ ter give a bit more time between Malachy an’ the next one, we both ought ter be more careful.”
“Maybe ye can talk ter Kata Thatcher about puttin’ ye on some o’ her special herbs. The good ones,” Berach clarified. “The ones what she gives ter nobles.”
“Ye mean the ones she sells ter nobles.” When Berach knit his brows, Joyce added, “There’s a world o’ difference there.”
“Oh, come on, that ain’t no big difference, not really.”
“Aye, it is — ’cause I ain’t dippin’ inter the tavern fund when ye can just be pullin’ out better,” Joyce elbowed Berach.
“Hey now, tavern or no tavern, it’ll be cheaper in the long run if we wait a bit between Malachy an’ the next one,” Berach pointed out. “That is …”
“If … if ye’re wantin’ ter be waitin’, that is …”
“Am I wantin’ ter be waitin’? Berach! I’m exhausted! I can use a rest! I can wait two years until the next one. Or three. Or even …”
Until Lilibeth is in school, for certain. Maybe until Cliodna is in school. Or, hell, Malachy …
“Unless … ye’re wantin’ another boy …”
“Nah. We’ve got three beautiful girls, an’ a nice handsome lad.” Berach slung his arm around Joyce’s shoulder and edged closer. “I’m happy with that fer now if ye are.”
“I am,” replied Joyce. She leaned her head against Berach’s shoulder. She could have lain like that all day. She could have taken a nap. She might have even been less tired that way …
Except there was suddenly a loud whoop, the door slammed open and shut, and before Joyce could blink, their three beautiful daughters — even little Cliodna! — had managed to make their way up the ladder to where they were. “Ye had the baby, Mama?” asked Leah, as always the designated spokes-sister.
“Aye, she did!” replied Berach. Joyce decided she’d let him get away with it today. “Ye’ve got a little brother, girls!”
“A brother?” asked Leah, wrinkling her nose.
“Brother?” put in Lilibeth.
“Bwother!” added Cliodna, possibly just for the joy of saying the unfamiliar word.
“Aye, a brother,” laughed Berach.
“But what are we gonna do with a brother?” asked Leah.
Joyce could take that one. “Why, boss ‘im around, o’ course! Show ‘im what’s what! Be the knowingest big sister ye can be, ’cause ye’ll always be smarter than him an’ ye know it!”
Leah grinned, and that was when all Brogan hell broke loose, as the girls came closer to their brother, and chattered, and laughed, and otherwise made themselves at home.
Some time later, over the din, Berach asked, “Joyce?”
“I know ye said ye wanted a rest …”
“Oh, don’t ye be goin’ back on yer word, Berach Brogan!
“I ain’t! But I jest want ter say … I don’t think ye’re gettin’ no rest, new babies or no new babies!”
Joyce looked around at her girls, and her boy. “Nah,” she agreed. “I don’t think either o’ us will be.”
But if she was honest with herself … she wouldn’t be having it any other way.