Darid 20, 1015
Wei Li crept closer to the crib where Takara slept. She looked so serene, so peaceful, just lying there. Her tiny cupid’s-bow lips were closed, as were her eyes. There was nothing here to suggest that the child would turn into a wailing banshee the moment she had a need and it was not met. Anyone looking at Takara would have easily mistaken her for an angel.
And were they so far wrong? Takara, after all, was helpless. She could not feed herself; if she soiled herself, she could do nothing to clean herself up. If she had an ache or a pain or a pin sticking her, she could not move herself to a new position or remove the pin. What option did she have but to scream and scream until the adults in her life determined what was bothering her and fixed it?
As for Wei Li … she had given birth five times. Leah, Jade, Tor, Rachel, and now Takara. Pregnancy and giving birth were old … not quite friends, but certainly acquaintances to her now. But except for Leah, whom she had only kept by her side until she recovered enough to take her to Berach, and now Takara, she had never spent long in the company of those babies. She had held them, nursed them one time (Kata insisted that this was necessary, for she said this was a signal for Wei Li’s womb to close and begin to heal itself), given them one burp — and sent them on their way. She had thought that was best. No — she had known that was best. She still knew that was for the best.
For Wei Li might have conceived, carried, and given birth to five children, but until now, she had never really been a mother.
The cold hand of dread was already stealing over her. Takara deserved a better mother than the one Fate had dealt to her.
Wei Li reached for the cradle, just to stroke the wood — but drew her hand back. What if she disturbed the baby? Takara seemed to sleep so very little. She’d wake up several times every night, demanding food with that thin high wail. And then Wei Li — or in these past few days, Kata — would put her back into her crib, and Wei Li would catch what felt like a few minutes’ sleep, and the cycle would begin again. Kata had said this was normal, that a baby needed to feed often. Their stomachs were so tiny that they could not fit much food at a time. So they woke again and again and again …
And Kata had left just this morning. Mark had paid for her to stay with Wei Li the first few days, both to make sure that Wei Li was recovering well and to help her with Takara. Kata had looked both exhausted and relieved to be going, but before she left, she had hugged Wei Li hard and told her that if she needed anything, anything at all, that Kata would be there to help.
Yet somehow Wei Li doubted that Kata would be overly pleased if Wei Li sent for her so soon.
Knock knock knock!
Mark! thought Wei Li. She picked up her skirts and hurried down the winding stairs. In all of this, she couldn’t forget — mustn’t forget! — who she was. What she was. Satisfying Mark had to be her top priority, always, always. Wei Li repeated that mantra with every step she took. For now, if she displeased Mark … if he grew tired of her …
She wouldn’t be the only one to suffer.
But when she opened the door, Mark was smiling his usual smile.
“Mark!” Wei Li tried to sound happy, not merely relieved to see another adult. “Come in! I hoped you would come this afternoon.”
“Wouldn’t have missed it for the world!” Mark grinned. He leaned close and kissed her, just once, so gently, on her lips. “Now where’s my littlest girl? She hasn’t seen her Papa in almost a whole day!”
Where’s my … Wei Li gulped in some air, though it was hard around the strange hitching feeling in her stomach.
Takara! She was upstairs! Two whole flights away! What had Wei Li been thinking? She was–
“Wei Li?” gasped Mark, grabbing her shoulders. “Wei Li, what’s wrong?”
“Oh, Mark, I–”
“I left her upstairs!” Wei Li gasped again. “Oh, I can’t think! What was I thinking? She’s all that way away–”
“Upstairs? Upstairs where?”
“In her crib! Sleeping–oh, she was sleeping a minute ago, but now–she sleeps so little, Mark! I did not want to disturb her! But what was I thinking–”
“Wei Li, Wei Li, calm down!” Mark looked about to laugh — he always looked about to laugh — but something in Wei Li’s eyes made him stop. “Wei Li, darling …” He tucked his hand under her chin and kissed her again. “She’s only three days old. If she’s sleeping, leaving her alone is exactly the right thing to do.”
“But–but everyone says that you must not let little ones out of your sight! There is no telling what mischief they might get into!” That was certainly the case with Daisy.
“Not newborns, Wei Li. You left her in her crib, yes?”
Wei Li nodded.
“Swaddled? On her back?”
“Oh, yes, yes! That is what Kata said! Always put the baby on her back!”
“Then she’ll be fine.” Mark grinned. “She can’t even turn over yet. It’s only once she starts crawling and then walking and getting into everything that we have to worry about keeping an eye on her all the time.”
“But come on.” Mark tucked her arm into his and led her toward the stairs. “Let’s go check on her together, if it’ll make you feel better.”
Wei Li decided that it would make her feel better. Already her stomach was starting to untwist. Maybe it was Mark doing that. Mark was as calming as a steady light in the window at the very, very best of times, when Wei Li was already happy and contented. Now he was a lighthouse guiding the way to a safe port, and Wei Li was a storm-tossed ship that just wanted to see land again.
Mark only let go of her when they reached the nursery door and slipped inside. Then his steps quickened. He soon was at the side of the crib, bending over it. “There’s my Takara …”
He looked so calm. So peaceful. Just like his daughter.
Wei Li watched as Mark touched Takara’s forehead, smoothing back … skin? She had no hair. Her whole head could easily have come to rest on Mark’s hand. But there was nothing but gentleness there. Mark knew just how to move, just how to stand, just how to touch her so that Takara was not only not hurt — she did not even seem to wake.
He chuckled suddenly.
“What–what is it?” whispered Wei Li.
“She just blew a bubble, it was the cutest thing …” Mark spared half a glance for her. “Why don’t you come closer? You can barely see over there.”
That, Wei Li supposed, was true enough.
She took a couple of tottering, halting steps forward. She stopped at the end of the crib. Part of her was glad the end of the crib was there; she doubted she could have made herself go another step forward.
“Why don’t you hold her?” asked Mark.
“What?” Wei Li gasped.
“Little ones her age are used to being held and poked and prodded every waking minute, and most of their sleeping ones.” Mark chuckled, but not at her. Not even with her. He wasn’t even looking at her. “Or if they aren’t used to it, they soon get used to it. And it’s their own fault for being so darn cute.”
“But …” Wei Li whispered.
“She needs her rest — doesn’t she?”
“Sure she does, but ten or fifteen minutes with Mama and Papa isn’t going to hurt her. So why don’t you?” Mark smiled at her …
And Wei Li felt like she had little choice but to comply. She crept to the side of the crib and slowly, carefully, as Kata had taught her, lifted Takara out.
Takara’s eyes blinked open as soon as Wei Li touched her — a far cry from how gentle Mark’s caress must have been. For a moment, Takara stared into her eyes. Some of the Wrightians here said that little children came from their Heaven, that they had gotten to know the angels (whatever they were) there, and that sometimes, new babies could still see the angels even after they were born. Back home, Wei Li knew it was said that little babies could see, and perhaps speak to, the ancestors.
Wei Li was not sure she believed any of that. But she did believe that there was a knowingness in a newborn’s eyes that could not be explained by facts alone. That knowingness stared at her through Takara’s eyes. That knowingness told her that Takara understood exactly what it was she had gotten into, deciding to come into the world as Wei Li’s daughter.
So when Takara began to wail, Wei Li was hardly even surprised. She’d be wailing too, in Takara’s shoes.
But Mark would not see it in that way. “Oh, no, what’s the matter, sweetie?” He instantly leaped in front of Wei Li and Takara and started to make funny faces at her.
Takara stopped crying.
“There’s a little sweetie!” Mark grinned like a loon. Takara didn’t laugh, but Wei Li watched her eyes grow bigger and bigger as her father continued to make those faces at her. “That’s right! You know Papa! You know there’s nothing to be scared of!”
Kata had said that Takara would not be smiling for a few weeks yet. Takara did not defy that expectation. But she did give her father a curious, almost puzzled look, as if she was trying very hard to figure out just who was this strange man and why was he making that face at her.
“She calmed right down,” Wei Li whispered.
“Well, she probably recognized my voice,” Mark shrugged. “Babies do that.”
“They … do?”
“Sure. Here — let me see her for a minute.” Barely waiting for Wei Li to hand her over, Mark took Takara and plucked her from Wei Li’s grasp. “Didn’t you feel her jumping around in there whenever you heard a loud noise or got startled?”
“Well … yes …” Wei Li turned her head to the side as Mark walked a little ways with Takara, bouncing her gently with each step. “But–but how did you know that?”
Mark chuckled. “Well, between Helena’s four pregnancies — and Isabel’s two — and Cressida’s one that I was around for — and not even counting Dannie’s three and Babette’s two, to say absolutely nothing of yours, and all the other women whom I’ve happened to know at the same time that they were carrying a baby … let’s just say, I’ve learned what to expect when you’re expecting.”
Why, Wei Li wondered, why is he so much better at this than I am? Takara was Mark’s fifth child just as she was Wei Li’s. It couldn’t have just been Mark’s greater experience with watching his children grow up — could it? But he had been a young man when his children were little, a young man with his fortune to make. Young men were often too eager to leave their littlest babies in the hands of their wives; they had so many things to do in one day …
But there were all the grandchildren to consider … and the friends’ children … and the friends’ grandchildren for that matter …
“That’s a good girl,” Mark whispered into Takara’s ear. “There’s my best girl.”
Wei Li burst into tears.
Mark gasped and spun around. “Wei Li? What’s wrong?”
She shook her head. Talking was not something that she could manage right now. She didn’t even bother to look up.
Heavens, what was wrong with her? She should be grateful that Mark was so in love with the baby! It was not that she was jealous — was she? How could she be jealous of a baby?
Or was it not that she was jealous of Takara, but jealous of Mark? Jealous of him for his ease and calm? Jealous of him for his experience?
“Wei Li?” Mark had put the baby down and was putting an arm around her shoulder. “What’s the matter?”
And here she was, making a fool of herself! It was occasionally acceptable for a concubine to turn on tears if she felt herself in danger of losing her man, but they were supposed to be calculated tears, clever tears! Not the unthinking sobs of a–a baby! Yes, that was what Wei Li felt like: a baby, bound in its swaddling rags and as helpless as a turtle on his back, his feet wiggling in the air.
“Wei Li?” Mark asked again.
“I don’t know what I’m doing!” Wei Li finally admitted. “I–when she cries, I don’t know if she is hungry or needs a change or if a pin is sticking her or — or if she is just doing it to taunt me!”
“Oh, honey …”
“And then — look at what just happened! I just picked her up, just for a minute, and she started crying! Like I had hurt her!
“No, no, you didn’t hurt her. She probably just was surprised at being woken up, that’s all. Heck, I get a little snappish when somebody wakes me and I’m not expecting it. She’s probably gotten a bit of temper from me, that’s all.”
Wei Li shook her head. “No! That cannot be all it is!”
“You barely have any temper to give!” Wei Li interrupted. “And didn’t you see what happened as soon as you got near her?”
“She stopped crying! At once! Because — because she knew she was safe with you around, but she does not know that she was safe with me!”
Mark didn’t answer. She even felt him begin to withdraw the arm from around her shoulder.
Wei Li feared the worst.
Wei Li wiped her eyes. Through the watery remains of tears and the black spots that came from her smudging cosmetics, she could just see Mark bring his hand up to his neck and start to rub it.
“I’m … not sure what to say …” he mumbled.
Oh, no! This was where he said that he had never thought Wei Li would be so bad a mother. But she had to be a bad mother, didn’t she? She’d given up four children already. In only one case had she had a clear enough idea of the father to bring the child to him. In all the others … she hadn’t known, or hadn’t dared to assume. So she had let them be taken to the nuns, childless women, who spurned her and everything she stood for — because she thought they would be better off!
What had she been thinking?
“But …” Mark was still speaking. He took one hand of hers into his. “I think I should start by saying how I was when Josh was first born.”
Master Joshua? wondered Wei Li.
“I–I don’t mind saying that I was a nervous wreck,” said Mark. “And it wasn’t just that I wasn’t getting any sleep — or that Helena was, well, her moods were all over the place, and they had been for months, to the point that I wasn’t even sure if I knew the difference between up and down any more — or, heck, there’s a lot of things I could blame it on. But none of those would be true. Because you see … the reason why I was so nervous around Josh? First of all, he was my first baby. Just like Takara is your first baby — or at least, the first baby you’re being allowed to keep. And, Wei Li …”
Mark grinned a little, swinging her hands from side to side until Wei Li started to smile too. “I don’t care who you are, or what some of the daft old women will say — if your first baby doesn’t make you nervous as hell, you’re doing it wrong.”
“I am not so sure ….”
“Trust me,” Mark winked. “Good Lord, this is another little Sim, completely dependent on you for everything she’s going to need — and for a long, long time, too! And if you don’t come through …”
Mark looked over his shoulder at the cradle. Wei Li looked too. They both shivered.
“Do you know that the Remans would sometimes leave the babies they didn’t want just–out?” Mark asked. “Sometimes they’d take them to the mountains, or sometimes they’d just leave the baby out on the street. And maybe sometimes a kindly stranger could come by and rescue that baby, but a lot of time — there was no kindly stranger. That’s what Takara is afraid of, Wei Li. That’s what all babies are afraid of. They know on some level that if we walk away — that’s the end for them. No wonder they cry and scream whenever some little thing goes wrong. In their situation, I’d be crying and screaming too.”
“Poor — poor babies,” Wei Li murmured.
“Aye. I think there’s a reason why the Lord Wright makes it so that we don’t remember when we were babies. I don’t think our adult minds would be able to handle that. But — where was I?”
“You were discussing you and Master Joshua.”
“Ah–right. Do you know, every time I picked him up or held him — at least until he was a couple of months old — he would scream and cry and carry on like I was murdering him?”
“What? Master Joshua?” Wei Li asked.
“I know, crazy, right? But I think–I honestly do think–well, put yourself in the baby’s shoes. One minute you’re safe and cozy in your nice warm crib. The next some oaf has lifted you out, and he doesn’t know if he’s holding you right, and you can tell he doesn’t know that, because maybe his heart is beating fast or his hands are shaky, and you know that you’re completely at this oaf’s mercy — what are you going to do?”
Wei Li blinked. “Cry,” she answered. “Because–because I would want someone to come and take me away from this crazy oaf.”
She looked at the crib. “But … but there is no one to take Takara away from me …”
“True enough,” Mark agreed. “But I think the reason why Josh kept that up for months was because every time he pulled that, Helena would take him away from me. If Helena would have left us alone for enough time to get used to each other, I think Joshua would have warmed up to me a lot quicker.”
“Time to get used to each other …” Wei Li murmured.
“The baby’s going to take her cues from you, you know,” Mark shrugged. “If you think everything is all right, she’ll think everything is all right. If you think something is wrong — she’ll think something is wrong.”
“But how–how will I think everything is all right?”
Mark shrugged again and stepped away. He nodded to the crib. “Practice.”
Practice. It was such a simple answer … but at the same time, such a difficult one too …
Wei Li crept closer to the crib. Takara was still awake. Her eyes met Wei Li’s.
Wei Li took a deep breath. All right, Takara. This is just you and me. Let us see how this is going to go.
She reached in and lifted Takara out. She brought her to her shoulder, as she had seen Mark and Kata and the other women do many times.
Takara began to whimper.
No no no no! Wei Li felt her heart begin to race, and her palms begin to sweat — and all of a sudden she understood what it was that Mark was saying. Of course Takara could pick up on these physical signs. She had lived within Wei Li for nine months, had she not? She had been part of Wei Li …
And perhaps Wei Li was still part of her.
“Sh, sh, sh,” Wei Li murmured. “It’s all right. Mama is here. You will be fine …”
But — no. That wasn’t right, was it? There was a reason why they called the language you were born with your mother tongue …
So Wei Li whispered again, this time in Sminese, “Shush, shush, Takara. It’s all right. Mama’s right here.”
Takara stopped whimpering.
And for the first time since Takara had been placed in her arms, Wei Li thought …
I may just get the hang of this mothering thing …