Imsdyn 29, 1015
“Things are lookin’ good,” said Kata, brisk and businesslike as ever. “I’m thinkin’ one, maybe two more big pushes, an’ ye’ll have yerself a baby.”
“Hear that, Meg?” Betsy rubbed Meg’s shoulders. Meg closed her eyes and tried to focus her mind on all parts of her body firmly above the waist — not on the building pressure below it, not on the knowledge that “almost over” didn’t mean “the worst is done.” “Ye’re almost there!”
Meg nodded. She swallowed.
“Breathe, Meg,” Kata ordered. “Now’s not the time ter be goin’ lightheaded.”
Meg breathed. In, out … slowly … then huffing breaths when she felt another pang coming on.
“Good, good, ye’re an old hand at this,” Kata said. “Ye remember the first time we did this? I kept havin’ ter tell ye–”
“Don’t!” Meg snapped.
Kata stopped her chatter and stared up at Meg.
“Don’t,” Meg snarled. She didn’t want to think about the first time she had a baby. Or the second. Or even the third. Because all of that might lead her to think of the fourth time.
“Meg?” asked Betsy. Meg heard her next words go over her head. “Don’t be antagonizin’ her, please, Kata.”
“Antagonize? I don’t antagonize me ladies.” Kata tapped Meg’s knee until Meg looked up. She met her with a grin. “Right, Meg?”
Meg nodded. It was easier that way. And surely, nobody could blame her for wanting to take the easy way out now of all times, could they?
“So, next pang, ye’re pushin’, aye?” asked Kata. Meg nodded. “Good girl. Ye’re doin’ great.”
“Aye, Meg! Another couple minutes, an’ ye’ll be free an’ clear!” said Joyce. Meg looked blankly at her sister, and her sister-in-law. She still wasn’t sure why she’d asked Ella to be with her. Maybe Roma would have been a better choice. Joyce could be relentlessly optimistic enough for at least two people. Ella … Ella was an optimist, but she wasn’t nearly as forceful about it as Joyce could be when she thought there was a need.
But Roma’s time was two weeks away; Ella’s was closer to two months. That had to be it. Two weeks from your time was a hard enough time without having to be someone else’s moral support and cheering section.
Ella and Joyce both did the support and the cheering very well.
“Aye, that’s it, Meg! Ye can do it!” Ella even clapped! By Wright, that girl had a good heart. Even more so, for Meg couldn’t help but notice that Ella’s eyes never left her face and were above all careful not to stray below Meg’s waist. Well, Meg couldn’t blame her for that, she’d been on that side of a birthing woman before, and it wasn’t a pretty sight for anybody. “Keep goin’!”
There was another pang building–Meg gasped–
“PUSH!” shouted Kata, and thankfully, Meg’s mind shut off as her body took over.
She didn’t have to think here. She didn’t have to ponder, or contemplate, or even feel. All she had to do was — do. And this was the work she was born for, wasn’t it? To give birth to babies — wasn’t that the one thing that separated women from men, that gave women some tiny advantage in the battle of the sexes? Men could do so much … but not this, never this.
And it was good that Meg wasn’t thinking. Because if she was, she might have wondered …
Is this really the best idea?
The women kept saying that the worst would be over as soon as the baby was born. Were they right? Every woman in this room had only had joy in their children. They’d put their children into cradles, tucked them into beds, placed them carefully on swings, maybe into baskets to play in. They’d never put their baby into a coffin.
Couldn’t her baby just stay where it was? The world outside the womb was a scary, dangerous place. Babies didn’t get sick in the womb. And if they died … well, then they were never really alive in the first place, were they? Or maybe they didn’t have a soul. Yes. That was what Meg would tell herself, lacking any evidence to the contrary. And you could imagine to yourself — maybe the next baby would be that baby again.
But with a baby you’d given birth to … held in your arms … nursed and loved and cuddled … and then watched grow sicker and sicker and weaker and weaker, trusting you to take care of him, make him better, and then had to break that baby’s trust …
Why on earth would that baby’s soul come back? And if it did come back, why would it come back to you?
“That’s it,” cut Kata’s voice through the fog. “That’s it. Jest a little more–”
Meg did not need to be told when her baby finally broke free of his fleshly prison. She heard.
“An’ we’ve got ourselves a boy!” said Kata. “Joyce! C’mere an’ get yer nephew cleaned up!”
“Aye aye, ma’am!” said Joyce as she hopped off the bed.
Meg closed her eyes and waited for the rest to be over. The afterbirth, the last shuddering pangs, her body’s startled realization that it was suddenly without a child. And all the time there was the splash of water, and the continued angry wails of her son …
Her newest son …
“Well!” said Kata some time later. “Let me be havin’ a look at ‘im, Betsy. Why! Ain’t that a likely lad …”
A likely lad. That was what Kata had said about Michel. … And, if Meg was being honest with herself, and if her mind wasn’t playing tricks on her, she’d said that about Felix and Basil as well. Maybe that was what she just said when she was presented with a newborn boy. Hadn’t she called Lisette a likely lass?
But Meg forced herself to blink, to force her tired and bleary eyes to focus on the baby. He was pale … well, comparatively pale, at least. Really his skin was just pale enough to keep Pierre company and not make him stick out so much as the pasty oddball of the family. That was good. That was nice.
He had blue eyes, too. Her mother’s blue eyes. And his eyebrows … was Meg seeing things, or could she just make out a hint of red in them, like Basil and Felix and Pierre? So this baby would mesh well with his father and brothers. That was good.
Michel had had dark brown hair, like hers. She thought she’d seen some hints of gold in it when he was a baby, gold like Lukas’s and Joyce’s, but there hadn’t been much once the hair started to grow in properly. He’d had brown eyes, too. Like hers. And like the rest of the Pelleses and Chevauxes, he’d had dark skin.
“He’s not Michel,” Meg heard herself murmur.
“What?” asked a voice from above.
Meg looked up. Joyce. Of course.
“What’s wrong, Meg?” Joyce knelt by her. “Kata? I think ye should be–”
“I’m fine, Joyce,” Meg interrupted. “But … the baby … he’s not Michel.”
“Ye … ye said he wouldn’t be …” Joyce murmured.
But … looking at the baby … hearing his lusty cries, which only sounded like Michel’s in the way that all newborn’s cries sounded alike …
Somehow having been right all along just made it worse.
“Ye, know, if ye’re wantin’ ter have a cry, ain’t nobody gonna blame ye.”
Meg jumped and blinked at Ella. Some time had passed. She’d been washed and cleaned up, the baby fed, a different shift put on. Maybe she ought to have put on a longer gown, but summer was having a comeback today, and the thought of wool or linen sticking to her legs was not one that Meg wanted to entertain at the moment. She hadn’t washed her hair yet — which she would need to do, given the state of sweat it was in — but right now, Meg just wanted to lay on the bed and let her mind go blank. Nobody was arguing with her.
Ella was staying with her now, since Kata and Betsy and Joyce had taken the baby to show to his father and grandfather and uncles. Meg had said she wanted to be alone, had insisted that they go. But Kata wouldn’t hear of it, and so Ella had been left behind to … Meg wasn’t sure it was keep her company, or simply keep an eye on her, but keep something.
So far, she’d kept quiet. Meg had been grateful for that.
“I’m serious. Roma cried after Jemmy was born.”
“Aye,” Ella answered. “After Simon saw ‘im an’ brought ‘im out ter show ‘im off. I went in ter check on Roma — an’ she were weepin’ like a little baby herself. They weren’t happy tears, neither.” Ella smiled at Meg. Meg supposed it was meant to be comforting. “So if ye’re wantin’ ter have a good cry, I won’t be judgin’.”
“I don’t think there’s such a thing as a good cry,” Meg replied. Ella’s mouth gaped open. “At least not fer me.”
“… Oh,” Ella murmured. She couldn’t very well argue with that. She was bright enough not to try.
Meg closed her eyes and leaned her head against the headboard.
“Will ye want ter be talkin’, then?” asked Ella.
Meg stared at her.
“I’m jest axin’,” Ella answered. “Figured it might be nice ter make the offer.”
“… Oh. No.” Meg hesitated. “Thank ‘ee.”
It was cruel, Meg knew it. She’d have to apologize to Ella the next time she got her alone. But for now …
Was it too much, she wondered, to not have to think? She knew as soon as the men and women outside had gotten their fill of the baby, he would be handed back to her, and Meg wouldn’t get a moment to herself for months and months. Some said that work was the best cure for a bruised and bleeding heart, but — they were wrong. At least, they were wrong when it came to Meg. Working never distracted Meg from her problems, or let her put enough distance between herself and the problems that they no longer seemed so big. It just resulted in burying the problems. And then, when she finally got a moment to breathe, they’d all come rearing their ugly heads again …
She sighed. Ella reached across the bed, grabbed Meg’s hand, and squeezed it. Then Ella grinned and let go.
Good Lord, Ella was determined to make her cry, wasn’t she? But Meg was just as determined not to cry. So there was nothing to do but close her eyes, lean her head back …
… Listen …
“Michel!” That was Pierre’s voice. Another rumble of words — a laugh — then again — “Michel!”
Meg sat up, and before she was fully aware of what she had done, she shouted.
The single syllable hung in the air, like the deadly crack of ice on a frozen river. A river you were stuck in the middle of. For a second, silence —
Running footsteps. Fumbling at the doorknob. The door flying open. Pierre.
“Meg! What’s wrong?”
“Not Michel!” Meg was sitting up. Later she would remember Ella making shushing noises and trying to push her back down, but then they were no more than the whisper of the wind. “Ye’re not namin’ him Michel!”
“What?” Pierre’s jaw gaped. “Why not?”
Why not? Why not? Meg swung her legs off the bed. “Cause he ain’t Michel!”
It wasn’t at all satisfying, yelling that at the wall. She stumbled forward — she had no idea how she was remaining on her feet, but perhaps anger had a strength to it — practically into Pierre’s arms. But she wasn’t going to fall. No. Not now. She needed to be strong, to be steady.
She needed to carry her point.
“He ain’t Michel!” Meg repeated.
“Ye don’t know that! He’s jest been–”
“He looks nothin’ like Michel!” Meg snapped. “Did ye see ‘im? He–”
“He’s not two hours old!”
“His eyes!” Meg fired back. “His skin! He’s pale like ye, Pierre, he ain’t dark like me an’ Basil an’ Felix an’ Lisette an’ Michel! He don’t have brown eyes! An’ his hair –”
“His hair! Meg, he ain’t got no hair yet!” Pierre put his hands on her shoulders. “Look, Meg, ye shouldn’t be standin’ up now, all this excitement can’t be good fer ye. Listen ter what ye’re sayin’. Why don’t ye lay back down, have a nice rest, an’ –”
“No!” Meg shook off his hands. Pierre’s jaw fell. She hadn’t shaken off affection from him since she had forgiven him, had she? He probably hadn’t seen this coming at all …
Poor man …
“Meg!” Pierre put his hands on his hips and glared. “Don’t be unreasonable! I don’t want ye ter get sick, or hurt. Now, jest lay down –”
“No! Not until ye listen!”
“Listen? Ye ain’t speakin’ sense!”
“The baby ain’t Michel. He ain’t. He ain’t! An’ we ain’t namin’ him that!”
“Ain’t namin’ ‘im that? But that’s been the plan since–” Pierre bit his lip. No, he couldn’t say when that became the plan. Meg couldn’t blame him. She couldn’t talk about that time, ether. “Fer months!”
“That were yer plan.”
Pierre threw his hands into the air. “Me plan? Ye never said nothin’ against it!”
No. She hadn’t. But that was because she had only known that she couldn’t deal with this now. Every time Pierre had said the name, Meg had thought — not now. So not now became sometime later, and later, and later, and later …
Until here they stood.
“I can’t be namin’ him Michel.”
“Why not?” Pierre snapped. “How else are we gonna get Michel back? Unless we–”
“No! We ain’t!” Meg interrupted. “We ain’t gettin’ him back!”
“How can ye say that? Ye don’t know that. Ye know that folks say that babies come–”
“He won’t! Because–because I wouldn’t!”
She heard Ella gasp. Pierre’s jaw dropped. “Meg?”
“I wouldn’t!” Meg repeated. “Not if I were Michel. An’ he were me boy! He’s smart, he is. He won’t–he won’t be comin’ back ter a ma …”
Meg had told herself she wouldn’t cry. But the tears were bubbling up anyway. Let them. She wouldn’t get another chance to cry for months, would she? And even if it wouldn’t make her feel better … it couldn’t make her feel worse …
“He won’t be comin’ back ter a ma what let him die the first time around.”
“Meg!” Ella gasped. “Ye didn’t let him die! That weren’t yer fault! Ye did everythin’ ye could!”
Lord, how horrible was it, that innocent little Ella yelled that immediately? She had no idea. Meg prayed she never would know. She didn’t deserve that …
“Ella,” Meg heard Pierre say, “I think ye ought ter be goin’.”
“I got this.” And before Meg could hear anything else, she felt Pierre’s arm come over her shoulder. He pulled her closer to him, tucking her head against his chest.
Meg heard the door open. She heard it close.
She didn’t hear anybody else in the room.
“Meg …” Pierre’s breath was scratchy and warm against her ear. Hadn’t she loved that once? She’d even liked it, more recently … when it was dark in the night, and Pierre would snuggle closer to her, and whisper, “Meg? Ye awake?” She’d always come awake when he did that. But he usually never wanted much from her in the middle of the night. He just wanted to hold her, let his breath come in time with hers.
She’d liked that. Being a human teddy bear — it suited her, in some ways. She didn’t have to do anything to make him happy. She just had to be.
She wasn’t going to be allowed to just be for a long, long time now; she could feel it.
“Meg … what happened ter Michel, it weren’t yer fault. How can ye think it were?”
“He died,” Meg whispered.
Pierre didn’t say anything.
“An’ he’s in Heaven now,” Meg continued. “He ain’t comin’ back. No. Pierre–even if were the best parents in the world — why would he? He’s in Heaven. There ain’t …”
Meg looked around the grotty plaster, the rough wood floors, the room that didn’t even have a fireplace. She thought about how she and Pierre spent their days: working from before sunup to after sundown, falling to the bed exhausted every night (though not so exhausted that they couldn’t find time to bring in more souls to share in this grind). Sure, there were bright times, festivals and holy days. There was love and there was laughter. But compared to Heaven? What was there here that could possibly compare to eternal bliss?
“Maybe if we lived in a palace,” Meg burbled. “Maybe–maybe if he were gonna be a prince or a king. But a farmer? When he could jest stay in Heaven — an’ jest be there? Why would he come back, Pierre? We ain’t that special. We ain’t got anythin’ that’s gonna draw him back.”
“We love ‘im,” Pierre answered.
“That ain’t enough. Especially since … well …” Meg shrugged. “If he sits tight long enough — we’ll come ter ‘im.”
Pierre drew in his breath slowly. It was too slow to be a proper gasp. But the feeling was there.
Then, without a word, he lifted her under the legs and brought her back to the bed. Meg didn’t resist. She lay as limp and unresisting as a sleepy baby.
Pierre climbed onto the bed beside her. He never quite let go of her.
“Ye … ye think we’ll get ter see ‘im again?” Pierre asked. “When we …?”
“We gotta,” Meg whispered. “The Lord wouldn’t be that cruel, would he? Takin’ ‘im away an’ never lettin’ us see ‘im again?”
“But … gettin’ inter Heaven ain’ easy … not once ye learn how ter sin …”
“Well–now we gotta reason ter try extra hard.”
Pierre didn’t answer. Until he did. “Aye. We do.”
Meg leaned her head on his shoulder and sighed.
She didn’t cry again. Neither did he. But all the same–Meg felt something like the release that tears were supposed to bring. The grief didn’t go away. But somehow, it seemed less heavy.
“Meg?” Pierre asked.
“What d’ye think of Theirn fer a name?”
“Theirn?” Meg looked up. “I like it.”
“Good,” Pierre whispered. “Good.”
That was all that needed to be said.