Endskel 1, 1014
“Sweetie, why don’t ye sit down?”
Betsy knew instinctively that simply seating herself would do her daughter no good. But it was hard to watch her standing there, staring out the window, her breath locked in sighs that never seemed to end. Maybe, in some part of her mind too deep to pay attention to mere logic, Betsy hoped that by taking a load off her feet, Meg would take a load off her mind.
Fat bloody chance, replied logic, speaking, as it all too often did, in Joyce’s preferred idiom.
Ten long days had passed since Michel’s death. Nine days had passed since his funeral and burial. Meg had shivered and shook when she put her baby into the small pine coffin. She’d kissed his forehead one last time, then left when the men nailed it shut. Betsy had followed every step she took, and had watched from the doorway as Meg went outside, stood by the road, and stared at the sky. When the time came to bury Michel, Meg had not walked away, but Betsy had seen how low she bowed her head. She would bet anything that Meg’s eyes had been closed. There were some things that no mother ought to have to see.
“Can I get ye somethin’ ter eat?” Betsy asked after the seconds passed and Meg didn’t answer. “Or drink? How ’bout some tea?”
Meg looked up. “Ye don’t have ter baby me, Ma.”
“‘Course I do. Ye’re me daughter, an’ nothin’s gonna change that. No matter how old ye get, no matter–”
Meg sighed, her eyes going around the room, not seeing anything. If they happened to light on Betsy in their travels, they went right through her. Finally Meg stopped looking, stared at her feet (or more properly, her stomach, but who was counting?). “I don’t know why I came here.”
Betsy tried not to let that sting as much as it did.
“This ain’t home,” Meg murmured. “I thought–I thought goin’ home would make me feel a little better — but this ain’t it.”
That didn’t sting at all. It was easier to come up with something to say in response to that. “It sure ain’t our old home, I’ll grant ye that. But Meg … home is where the heart is.”
Meg looked up. “Don’t tell me that.”
Betsy … she didn’t smile. But she did come closer, pat her daughter’s shoulder, and let the corners of her lips turn up. “Ye’re feelin’ like ye left a good bit o’ yer heart at the graveyard. I know. I felt the same way when yer da passed.”
“When Da …” Meg swallowed. “I thought that were bad. An’ then Cerise right after … I thought that were awful. But this …”
Betsy didn’t insult Meg with a well-meaning, ill-spoken I know. But she did know, sort of. The babies she had lost had never had a chance to be born, never had a chance to be like Michel: burbling and laughing, then crawling, then walking, finally just starting to talk — and then, silence. But Betsy’s babies had still been her babies. She’d mourned them and all they would never be.
Sometimes she wondered which part of grief was the worst: mourning what had been, or mourning what could never be. And sometimes she thought that neither was worst. The worst was the combination. She’d felt that with Martin.
She was feeling that now with Michel — and Meg was feeling it even more. Lord help them both.
“I talked ter Roma,” Meg mumbled, “An’ Toinette too.”
Betsy looked up. “Oh? What’d they say?” If Betsy remembered right, Toinette’s Aileen had been about Michel’s age. And Roma had been expecting when she lost her Marie.
Meg shook her head. Betsy pursed her lips to keep herself from saying something stupid. “Toinette said … she said it gets better with time. That it … still hurts, but ye get used ter it. An’–an’ she said it helps ter spend as much time as possible with yer other kids. ‘Cause that’ll give ye a reason not ter let it … get ter ye so bad.”
Betsy nodded. Yes, she’d focused on her children, grown though most of them were, in the wake of Martin’s death. It had kept her going. It had kept her sane.
“An’ Roma … she said …” But Meg looked away, and Betsy waited for ten agonizing heartbeats for her to finish.
She didn’t. There was nothing to be done, then, but to ask. “What’d Roma say?”
“I don’t think ye want ter hear it, Ma.”
“O’ course I want ter hear it.” She rubbed Meg’s arm. It was as close as she’d let herself come to embracing Meg and not letting her go until Meg sobbed her troubles out and finally felt better. Oh, Meg might think that Betsy didn’t understand what it was to lose a child, but she ought to know that Betsy would know, better than anyone, the pain of seeing your child in pain and not being able to make it better.
“She said …” Meg mumbled. She didn’t meet Betsy’s eyes. This was Guilty Meg talking, though what on earth could Meg have to feel guilty about?
Don’t axe stupid questions, Betsy. It didn’t matter if Meg had done everything humanly possible to care for Michel. He was still dead. She’d still feel guilty.
So Betsy watched Meg’s wandering gaze until it finally came to rest again on her stomach. “She said that the new baby ain’t gonna fix anythin’. She said — she said it’ll be a joy, when he’s finally in me arms, but that won’t take away all the sorrow. An’ the new baby ain’t gonna … replace Michel, an’ that I’ll have ter work real hard not ter deck everyone who thinks that he will.” She finally looked up, eyes blazing something like defiance held just in check by insecurity.
“Huh,” Betsy murmured. “Well, I ain’t no expert, Meg, but I can’t help thinkin’ that Roma is right about jest about everythin’ there … save one thing.”
Meg narrowed her eyes. “An’ what’s that?”
“The deckin’ folks, Meg. Now, Joyce we’d have ter be holdin’ back. But ye ain’t much fer that, Meg, an’ ye never were.”
“Maybe eleven days ago, I weren’t,” Meg muttered.
Betsy opened her mouth to speak — and shut it. No. She didn’t need to talk now. Now, if she was going to be the best mother she could be, she needed to listen.
“It’s jest — Pierre’s already doin’ it. He keeps callin’ me baby Michel. Or Michelle, when he thinks the baby might be a girl. He’s actin’ like … like we didn’t say goodbye ter Michel fer long, like he’s gonna be back as soon as I have me baby.” Meg shuddered.
“Maybe he’s jest sayin’ that ter make himself feel better, Meg. Ye know lots o’ folks do believe that little ones keep comin’ back ter the same family, until they get a good chance at livin’. I …” Betsy stopped, then went ahead with what she had planned to say. “Maybe, if I were in Pierre’s shoes, I’d be thinkin’, or tryin’ ter think, the same thing. It ain’t –”
“No,” Meg snapped.
“No — I can’t — I won’t believe that all I gotta do is close me eyes an’ wish real hard, an’ Michel will be back. As the new baby.” Meg arched her back. It was only with difficulty that Betsy bit down on the offer of a seat. “That — that don’t make no sense, Ma. Brother Andy, he said — ‘cordin’ ter Pierre — that babies what are baptized an’ die, they go right ter Heaven, no questions axed. An’ ye want me ter believe they’d come back? Ter the same family what couldn’t keep ’em alive the first time?”
“Now, Meg,” Betsy tried to scold, “that ain’t fair on yerself. Ye did –”
“Don’t tell me I did everythin’ I could. If I had –” Meg swallowed and looked away.
“Ye loved ‘im with all yer heart, didn’t ye?” Betsy asked. “An’ ye did everythin’ in yer power ter take care o’ him. Meg … whatever ye do, don’t go callin’ yerself a bad mother because ye lost ‘im. That happens ter good mothers as well as –”
“How can ye say a woman what led her boy die is a good mother?” Meg challenged. “An’ don’t pretend ter me ye that ye know all about bad mothers! Lady Morgause never lost any o’ her kids.”
Maybe not. She’d just tried her level best to murder somebody else’s child. That didn’t make her a good mother — it just showed that even evil had standards. And if what Lady Garnet had said was true … well, it wasn’t that Lady Morgause had standards, so much, as that she hadn’t quite gotten as far as filicide.
“Would ye call Toinette a bad mother?” Betsy asked instead. “Or little Roma?” Or any o’ the thousands, hundreds o’ thousands, o’ mothers before ye that lost their babes, try as they might ter keep ’em?
Meg winced. “I wouldn’t be that cruel.”
“Then don’t be that cruel ter yerself. Ye told me what Brother Andy said ter ye –”
“Don’t, Ma,” Meg muttered. So Betsy didn’t.
She changed the subject instead. “How are the kids doin’?”
“Oh, Lord.” Meg sighed. “Lissie … Lissie keeps axin’ after Mickey … she don’t understand …”
“She’s too little ter be understandin’,” Betsy agreed.
“An’ when she stops axin’ …” Meg shuddered.
It would be because Lisette had forgotten her brother entirely. Betsy tried not to sigh or close her eyes. Maybe it was a mercy that Lisette would eventually forget. Griefs that bent and nearly broke adults would surely crush a child as little as Lissie. Seeing through a glass, darkly, was often the best defense.
“Felix … Felix keeps axin’ all sorts o’ questions … like … like …” Meg shook her head, unable to go on. “An’ Basil ain’t sayin’ anythin’.” Meg hesitated for a moment, then added, “Felix wanted ter sleep in the bed with Pierre an’ me. But Basil won’t even go inter that room.
“An’ me …” Meg sighed. “I keep lookin’ at that empty crib … it ain’t been empty since Felix were born, did ye know that?”
“Sometimes I look at it …” Meg looked away. “Roma said that Simon put Marie’s crib away without tellin’ her, an’ she almost hated ‘im fer it. But I don’t even know whether I want Pierre ter put it away … but where would he put it? Down cellar?”
“If it makes ye feel better ter not have ter look at it every day, I think ye ought ter axe Pierre ter move it fer ye.”
“It’s a bl–very big crib,” Meg hedged. “If he put it down cellar, he’d jest be luggin’ it back up again when me time came near. An’ then I’d be starin’ at an empty crib again, only … only this time it wouldn’t be even a little bit …” She looked away.
“Fun?” Betsy asked.
There were few pleasures like looking at an empty crib — a happily empty crib — and then looking down at your growing belly, and wondering just what the baby who was now inside you and would soon be inside the crib would be like. It was a pleasure intensified when you had children who had outgrown that crib, or who, like Meg had done with Felix and Lisette, you have moved to a different crib well in advance of the new baby’s coming. (Nobody should have to deal with a toddler’s stubbornness about changing beds and a newborn at the same time.) Because then the memories mixed with the anticipation, and suddenly all of your children were babies again, and you could almost see them lying side by side in that very same crib.
That anticipation was grief’s exact opposite. Even attempting to feel that anticipation with grief lurking like a tiger in the shadows … it would pounce at the first sign of joy. And then would come guilt. Meg needed more guilt like she needed another hole in the head.
“Then I think ye’re bein’ wise, Meg. Leave the crib where it is. Ye don’t spend much time in there — except when ye’re sleepin’ — an’ when ye’re sleepin’, it’s dark. Let yerself get … get sort o’ used ter the crib bein’ there, if that makes any sense, an’ see if ye can … work yer way up ter it bein’ filled again.”
Not that she’d have much time to do that. Meg had told her that her baby would come at the beginning of Darid — maybe even as early as the end of Imsdyn. Two months. That was all she had to prepare herself and get the worst of the grieving done before she had her hands full with a newborn. Grief was hard enough without putting a deadline on it.
“… Ma?” asked Meg.
“Are ye jest agreein’ with me ’cause … well … or are ye actually agreein’?”
“Oh, fer heaven’s sake, Meg.” Betsy couldn’t help rolling her eyes. “Ye were always the sensiblest one o’ the lot. An’ ye wonder why I’m agreein’!” She threw her hands in the air. “Ye know yer own heart an’ yer own mind best, Meg. If ye think that havin’ the crib near ye will be better than not, then I think ye ought ter have it near.” But after a heartbeat’s pause, she added, “Though … what does Pierre say?”
“Oh, Pierre.” Meg sighed. “He keeps talkin’ about how it’ll all be better when the new baby comes … he can’t wait …” Meg closed her eyes. “He can never wait. Not — not after it took so long between Basil an’ Felix …”
“Well, there were reasons fer that,” Betsy murmured. “Reasons that were mostly his fault, I’d wager.”
“Aye, but … that don’t matter now. We’ve got ter make up fer lost time, or … somethin’. I don’t even know. Jest … we ought ter have lots o’ babies.”
“Hmm.” Betsy’s hands came to rest on her hips. “Well, Meg, if I might have some advice fer ye?”
“Tell Pierre ye want a rest after this one. Ye’ll have had four children in five years. Less than that. That ought ter be plenty fer anyone. He respects ye, Meg. He respected ye the first time; he’ll respect ye now.”
Meg blinked. “Maybe.”
“Or maybe,” Meg murmured, “I’ll axe Kata ter tell Pierre that–that it’d be a good idea ter be waitin’. Aye? He can’t say no ter that.”
“Meg!” Betsy gasped. That wasn’t the way. Maybe if your husband was — well, not a brute, a true brute wouldn’t be moved even by that reasoning — but if your husband had rather firm ideas about his rights, but still had some care for his wife, that might be the way to go. But Pierre wasn’t like that. Pierre made love to Meg so often because he saw a large family, with lots of children and always another on the way, as a blessing. If he didn’t realize what that meant for Meg, it only showed that he didn’t have a great deal of imagination — and when it came to childbirth, pregnancy, and all the other “features” of womanhood, most men didn’t. It was probably a good thing. Most men’s minds couldn’t have handled it.
“Be honest, Meg,” Betsy went on. “I don’t have ter tell ye that honesty is always what’s best. If he can’t be seein’ why ye might want ter wait a while before the next one, after all this … well … ye ought ter have Kata Thatcher look ‘im over an’ make sure that he hasn’t been bumped on the head. It’d take a right fool not ter –”
Meg jumped, and Betsy looked toward the stairs. “Well. Seems like Marty’s up from his nap.” She wagged her finger at Meg, stated, “This ain’t over yet, sweetie,” before heading for the stairs.
She’d barely gone ten paces before she heard Meg start to follow her.
And why not? It might do Meg good to see a little one who was unaffected by grief — who saw his cousin infrequently enough that he wouldn’t really miss Michel, but all the same, wouldn’t be asking after him. Meg ought to bring Lisette by the next time she came. There was only six months between the two of them. They ought to have been getting big enough now to start playing together, even if they’d stop in a year or two once they realized that one of them was a boy and the other a girl.
“Comin’, Marty!” Betsy opened the door to Ella and Lukas’s bedroom, where Marty still slept and where he would continue to sleep until Ella’s baby came in Clatan. Or rather, a few weeks before, if Betsy had anything to say about it.
Marty was standing up in his cradle, his little chin trembling even as he tried to put on a brave face. He gasped when he could see beyond Betsy. “Auntie Meg!”
“Aye, Auntie Meg’s here! But come say hello to Grandma first.”
Betsy didn’t look back at Meg. Maybe she ought to have. But could she not be excused for, just for one moment, enjoying the baby kisses of her second-to-youngest grandson, smiling into his eyes as he smiled into hers.
“Hi, Auntie!” Marty called, and Betsy took that as her cue. She turned back to Meg.
“Well, Meg, lass, will ye be wantin’ ter –”
Meg didn’t answer. She turned and walked away.
“Auntie?” Marty called after her.
“Auntie! Auntie! See ye! Auntie!”
“Oh–oh Marty, don’t ye be callin’ after her,” Betsy bounced Marty up and down, hoping to calm him before he threw a tantrum. There was a reason why they called it the “terrible twos,” though Marty was technically two weeks away from them. “Auntie Meg is very sad right now. We have ter be patient with her, we do. We have to be very nice. An’ be lettin’ her alone when alone is what she wants.”
Marty’s tiny nose wrinkled. “Auntie sad?”
“Aye, Marty, very sad.”
“Oh — oh, baby.” Betsy hoisted Marty up and let him cling to her neck like a little burr. “Don’t be axin’ questions like that. No. Ye don’t want ter be knowin’ the answer …”
Ye’re too little yet, Marty. Save that knowin’ fer when ye’re older. Trust me — there will be plenty o’ time fer it then.