In the room they are staying in, in the basements of Mistress MacKenna’s laundry house, Bree has a new favourite sleeping position. This position involves lying on her back, or perhaps her side, with her arms hanging up over her head across the pillows. One leg must be tucked under the threadbare quilt Mama has drawn over them all, and one leg stuck out of the blanket and resting, toes sticking upwards, over top of Da’s stomach.
This is a very different position from Before, when they were living in the woods. Before, Bree would sleep tucked into Da’s coat, curled up into a small shape. It was cold all the time; such a position was practicable. And before that, when they had lots of quilts and things with them, she’d be bundled cozily beside Fergus and Willie, such that she couldn’t really move her arms and legs for all the blankets and coats and things.
But now it’s different. Their rooms are cold all the time but also warm, but only on the side the fireplace is. At night Bree must sleep wedged between Mama and Da, and she has very recently developed a wriggle; it is simply not fun to lay still. The straw mattress is pokey, or the blanket is too hot, or Mama or Da smells funny, or Bree smells funny --
The list is endless, Bree tells William, on the fourth morning after they have started living in the basements of Mistress MacKenna’s laundry house.
But Bree’s found her new favourite position. It’s mostly pretty comfortable, especially when Mama’s hand lays open against the pillow such that Bree can stick her own, smaller one against it, and fall asleep focusing on the gentle texture of Mama’s soft-rough fingers against her own.
“Mama,” Bree whispers, tonight.
Mama is facing her in the dark; Bree can see the soft shapes of her face and the firefly tips of her beautiful wild hair in the fading glow of their small fireplace. Even if she couldn’t, she can still tell that Mama’s awake, and not asleep. Da’s asleep; Bree knows by the heaviness of his big hand over her tummy, and the deep up-down of his breathing. And on the other side of the room, Uncle Murtagh and Fergus are also asleep, because she saw Fergus curled up into a ball earlier, the way he always sleeps, and Uncle Murtagh is snoring his rattle-chested snore.
Willie’s making snuffly noises in his basket, just on the floor on Mama’s other side, so perhaps he is not asleep.
Perhaps that’s why Mama is not asleep, either.
“Hi, Smudge,” says Mama now.
Bree thinks a long moment about what she wants to ask.
“Mama,” she says, contemplative. “If faeries were real. What’d they be like.”
It’s something Bree has been thinking about all day, perched atop a washing basin as Mama and Uncle Murtagh helped Mistress MacKenna and the washer ladies with the linens -- to pay for their rooms and things, Mama has explained to Bree. Bree can’t quite figure out why anyone would want to be paying for these particular rooms and things, but she supposes that she’ll have it all sorted once she’s a woman grown.
“Hmm,” says Mama, narrowing her eyes like she’s thinking. She talks in a whisper; whispers are very considerate things when there are sleeping people around, Bree knows. “Well. What sorts of things do we know about faeries?”
“Hmm,” replies Bree, also in a whisper. “Well, Mama. Wee Jamie said Tammas Croft’s mam said faeries took her milk tins an’ also her baby. Which is not very nice of ‘em.”
“Terribly rude,” Mama agrees.
“But in Da’s stories,” Bree continues, her face scrunching up with concentration, “they’re always quite nice. An’ pretty. An’ brave an’ things. Mama, they’re very brave. Like y’know the faerie lass Da says fell from the sky.”
For a moment, Bree thinks she sees the corners of Mama’s mouth twitch. Mama’s other hand, the one that is not being covered by Bree’s little fingers, takes a moment to fall above their heads. Her fingertips, so long and slender and not like Bree’s, brush gently once through the hair covering the back of Da’s neck, and then over the crown of Bree’s own ruddy mop. Carefully, Mama starts combing through the tangled curls at Bree’s hairline. She says,
“I think,” in a whisper, “that, in situations such as these --” And here Mama tips her face forward such that she and Bree are nose to nose, and Bree can feel Mama’s big hair tickle her face and see the way Mama is almost-smiling, “we must decide who is historically the more reliable.”
Bree blinks twice. From across the room Uncle Murtagh emits a particularly loud snore.
“His-tor’cly,” repeats Bree.
“It means who tells the truth the most,” Mama explains.
“Oh,” whispers Bree, her mouth dropping open. “Da always tells th’truth.”
Mama’s lips twitch again. “He does try his best to, doesn’t he?”
“The bestest,” says Bree, though she’s not quite sure what Mama means. She feels a yawn creeping up her throat, despite the fact that she’s still too-hot under-over the blankets and has things on her mind. “So faeries must be nice an’ brave an’ things.”
It’s the most reasonable conclusion. Mama agrees:
“And things,” she says.
“I’d like t’be brave like a faerie,” Bree whispers, because she figures that that’s the whole truth of it, and she must tell the truth all the time like Da tries to.
For some reason, Mama’s face changes in the orange-brown shadows from the fireplace. Bree listens to her breathe -- in, and then out -- just like Bree herself. Then Mama says,
“You know.” Her voice is very quiet. “Sometimes -- sometimes, when you’re brave. You can make mistakes.”
“Not big mistakes.” Mama’s voice is still a whisper, but there’s something else in it now. Something stronger, underneath all the whispering, that’s trying to make sure Bree hears it. “Bree. Not -- only little ones. Ones that make things difficult for a little while.”
“Oh,” says Bree.
“Do you understand, lovey?”
Bree blinks at her mother -- lying sideways on their straw sleeping mat -- and her wild hair, and the big, gemstone eyes the shape of which Uncle Murtagh says Willie’s gotten but Bree hasn’t, that always seem to see things that Bree herself cannot. Bree is not sure that she understands.
“Are things difficult right now,” says Bree.
Mama says, “A little bit, Bree.”
“Oh,” says Bree, again.
Mama presses her lips together, and nods very slightly, and then leans forward and places a kiss on Bree’s forehead. Her fingers are still held over Bree’s hair, gentle.
“It’s alright, darling. Sleep for now.”
Across the room, Uncle Murtagh emits another big snore. Bree sighs, and looks up at the ceiling, and tries to count sheep.
Bree has to allow that there are things about Edinburgh that are not the most terrible sort. For example, she and Da are not alone in the woods anymore, which is a generally positive development. (This is something Bree heard Mama say once, and she adopts it into her own arsenal of expressions now.) For another example, Bree is learning all sorts of things about laundry, courtesy of Mistress MacKenna, and Da says that it is always good to learn new things.
But Bree figures that she and Da could not be alone anymore someplace other than Edinburgh, probably, and also that laundry is not an entity unique to Mistress MacKenna’s laundry house and its rickety staircase and room full of steam and rosy-cheeked gap-toothed women. In Edinburgh things are cold all the time in a way that they weren’t in the forest -- too-cold air that doesn’t feel clean -- and everything’s grey, too. Grey and brown but not in the nice way dirt can be. Bree knows; Bree is very good friends with the nice type of dirt. And they’re not even allowed on the boats.
This, Bree thinks, is definitely the most concerning part of all. It’s made the corners of Mama’s eyes pinch, and her elbows pokey.
“-- so then -- no, you’ve gotta listen -- so then, Willie, y’must say coo when Bernard rides over your head. Alright?”
Willie does not respond, but only gazes up at Bree with his giant blue eyes, a bit of snot dribbling down from his wee nose. Bree wonders if all bairns have eyes as big as Willie’s. But she’ll puzzle that out later; currently, they are in the middle of a game.
“Alright,” she says, nodding to show Willie that she has noted his amiability to her request. “Now, we’ve gotta rescue th’princess. Hallo, up there -- oh. Fergus, can y’lift your head just a bit?”
Fergus is stretched out on his belly over the hard wooden floor, flipping through Da’s old copy of Gulliver’s Travels. At Bree’s words he dutifully shuffles up on his elbows such that the back of his head might exist a bit higher. Bree breathes out a sigh of relief; for a moment there, she thought that the evil laird’s castle was going to be tragically only a mound in the ground, and not a truly terrible tower of evil -- as it is supposed to be. Bree dives back into her narration:
“Ha-loo up there! We’re goin’ t’save you, princess -- it’s me, the faerie, an’ her lad, an’ we got Bernard for you -- oh, okay, Willie, tha’s you.”
“Aaah ba ba,” says William.
“You’re doin’ great,” Bree informs her baby brother in a whisper. “Right -- oh! They’ve come t’save me from the laird! But you have t’run there’s a giant down there! He’ll eat you an’ take the witch’s treasure an’ I’ll be stuck here ‘til a’m old ‘n grey -- ahwooooo --”
Currently, Bree and Fergus and Willie are camped just outside the door in the dusty little alcove leading into their rooms, beside the staircase that goes up to the laundry. Uncle Murtagh is somewhere upstairs, because, according to Fergus, Mistress MacKenna thinks he’s charming, and so enjoys conversing with him -- Fergus always says this like it’s the funniest thing in the world -- and Bree, sitting quite happily astride Fergus’s back, can hear creaky footsteps above them, and the chattering voices of some of the laundry women. Every so often the door at the top of the stairs swings open a bit from a wind and a bit of damp, warm air comes and hangs above their heads. Bree’s used to this; sometimes, in the mornings, the steam from the laundry sinks down through the floorboards in their rooms, and there’s a fog just under the ceiling.
Bree has stopped in the middle of their gripping storyline, though. Underneath her Fergus has stiffened halfway through turning a page, and has turned his head towards the closed door to their rooms. Bree can see a thin line between his brows, almost hidden under his moppish, curly fringe. She’s holding the little glass marble Da found for her -- it’s Bernard, the princess’s trusty horse -- and she brings it closer to her chest, now, shuffling a little in her position sat astride Fergus’s back.
Mama and Da’s voices are loud enough that Bree can hear them, from behind the door.
“-- dinnae see what the fuss is about. Ye ken we need the coin, an’ this job pays well, and there’s no way the man understands who I am or might be. A poor sod of a printer he is, but that’s neither here nor there if I ken it’ll let me work in peace --”
“What if he figures it out? What if he’s bribed, or -- or tipped off? What if some idiot in the street decides to make some English coin and tip him off --”
“I’ll no’ be usin’ my real name, Sassenach. They wouldnae ken a -- a Malcom, or even a MacKenzie --”
“You know it’s not that simple --”
“It isnae ever simple --”
“So I’ll say again that I don’t like it --”
“-- but we need a livelihood. I dinnae ken ye’d be fine wi’ yer husband hidin’ in a washerwoman’s basement while his children starved --”
“You’ll ken I won’t be fine with my husband dead!”
“Red Jamie is dead, Claire! He died near two years ago now in Ardsmuir prison, in a fire that you started, if ye may recall, so dinnae go tellin’ me --”
“Telling you! I had nothing to do with that fire and you know it, James Fraser, so don’t start throwing that around -- they don’t know my face, they don’t know I’m the one who got you out, they don’t know that I’m their -- their witch because all they saw was a poor helpless English widow with a baby and that’s practically invisible, isn’t it? So don’t you dare try to suggest that somehow I’m the one who’s wanted by the bloody Gestapo!”
“The -- I -- I dinnae ken -- boireannach do-ruigsinneach --”
“If you’re going to start calling me names --”
“Ach, na bi gòrach -- ye ken I wasn’t -- Claire! Right, fine. Ye want tae play this game? I’m no’ the one who’s traipsin’ through Edinburgh wi’ a bairn in her arms --”
“Well that’s my whole point, isn’t it, we all have to be careful --”
“Aye, an’ I suppose this isnae so different from ye havin’ any man woman an’ child th’good mistress wills come tae ye, steps away from the place we all rest our heids -- I ken ye feel better healin’ people, but ye cannae scold me for lookin’ for work -- ”
Bree takes a deep breath, and looks at Willie.
“D’ye think this has got to do with the boats.”
Willie only burbles at her in response. But Fergus says,
“Tell me more about the princess’s horse, petite. She must be a very fine steed, non, for such a heroine?”
“Oh, she’s faster’n Donas,” says Bree immediately; Bernard is the very best of horses, even though her name is Bernard. Mama says people can’t help what they’re named, and Bree is convinced that that must also apply to horses. “Once they get the princess out of the evil laird’s castle she’ll ride like the whole wind.”
Fergus cranes his neck around to narrow one eye at her and tilt his chin, in the way Bree knows means he’s about to tease. Mama says he does it just like Da does.
“Do you not think she will be set upon by a -- aha! Terrible English giant? Aarrgh!” Bree squeals as Fergus reaches around to grab one of her booted feet by the toes and give it a couple tugs. She falls backwards against her brother’s calves, where they are lifted up into the air now, and starts giggling; every time Fergus moves his legs, Bree’s shoulders bounce forward, and her laughter is broken up in spurts that only make her laugh harder. Absently she wonders if Fergus knows why Mama and Da are so upset -- Fergus is sixteen, and near-grown, and as such knows lots of things -- but she does not want to ask. There is a tight sort of feeling deep in Bree’s tummy that makes her think she does not actually want to know.
“ -- not about any misguided notions of usefulness, Jamie, we are stranded here until the weather clears and the next ship to the colonies accepts passage and it is not safe for you to be traipsing about either --”
“Fer Christ’s sake, Sassenach, I’ll no’ be -- traipsin’ -- well ye stand still jest a moment!”
“The fire needs cleaning out.”
“Oh, the fire. I ken that look on yer face, and ye may leave the damned fire alone while we talk about this --”
“Must I stand in one place to have a conversation?”
“‘Tis a menial job at a printer’s, Claire! And aye, I’d rather that than shovellin’ slop fer some clot-heided hard-handed bastard at the docks, but ye ken I’ll no’ be a coward when my wife and children dinnae have anything to eat --”
“So you’re allowed to risk your life to provide for us but I am not, is that it? Is that the fucking conversation we’re having?”
“No, it is not, an’ I dinnae said --”
“Going out to see two patients because that put food on the table is different from this, is it? Why, exactly, is it different, Jamie?”
“Because the bairns need their mother! If anythin’ happens t --”
“They need you too, you bloody Scottish bastard! They need their father just as much --”
Bree is still holding her glass marble that is Bernard; she resists the urge to plant her hands over her ears, because if she does, she might drop it, and it might fall through the creaky wooden boards that are the floor, and then she will have nothing to play with any longer. She thinks that Fergus is going to say something -- his eyes keep shifting from Da’s book to the door, and back -- but then Willie lets out a faint wail.
“I think he’s upset ‘cause we forgot t’rescuse the princess,” Bree says, practically, with a whoosh of air in her lungs. Fergus wriggles around so that he’s on his back, tipping Bree over gently onto the floor in the process. He pulls his lanky limbs inwards to sit up, and then leans over and scoops William out of his basket.
“Ammmba ba,” says Willie, from Fergus’s arms.
“He needs his nappy changed,” says Fergus, wrinkling his nose.
“He’s not stinky though,” says Bree, rocking forward a bit on her knees. The hard wood of the laundry basement’s floor is no fun to rock her knees on, but Bree does it anyway. Willie’s face scrunches. His tiny button-like nose becomes even more tiny, and the dark tufts of his hair get mussed against Fergus’s sleeve. Uncle Murtagh always says Willie looks like Mama -- more Beauchamp than Fraser, he says, with his button nose, and those big gemstone-shaped eyes -- but Bree is of the opinion that Willie simply looks like himself. He makes a long, extended whining noise, and it sounds a bit like when they were at Lallybroch, and Wee Jamie would let loose a big fart and make Bree and Kitty giggle and Maggy wrinkle her nose. Only it’s coming out of Willie’s mouth.
Nothing at all like Mama, Bree thinks.
The door opens and shuts with a quick creak and a snap. Bree and Fergus abandon their examination of Willie to look up; Mama is standing there, pressing the heels of her palms into her eyes.
“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” Mama mutters, seemingly to no one at all.
She takes her hands away from her face when Willie makes another babbling noise, and only then seems to realize that Bree and Fergus are in front of her; her whole face is pale, except for two high spots on her cheeks, which are flushed and pink, and her lips, which are pressed thin and red even though they are usually soft and full. Bree knows Mama’s hair is big and dark, but right now it looks even bigger, and darker than usual. Her curls are hanging loose and tangled around her face where they’ve fallen from their pins.
“Maman,” Fergus begins, but Mama says,
“It’s alright, Fergus,” in a tone that sounds like Fergus’s spoon does when it scrapes against his porridge bowl. Fergus doesn’t finish his thought.
From where Bree is sitting Mama looks very tall, and thin in a tight sort of way, like the chord on a bow when Da’s strong arm pulls the arrow back.
“Does he need feeding?”
“Non. Only his nappy, I think. But he ‘as been a very well behaved bairn all morning. Milady --”
“And Murtagh’s still upstairs.”
“Aye. It is good that he is helping with the laundry, non? The Madame, she gives us more food because of it.”
“And the warm air is good for his chest,” Mama says, like it is something she is supposed to say.
“Mama?” says Bree. Mama looks at her, and for a moment there is an expression in her face Bree does not know what to do with -- like she is remembering something, something that makes her whole face open and break a little bit at once.
Then it is gone, and the lines of her mother’s face soften to something Bree knows.
“Hello, lovey,” says Mama, in a soft, warbling voice. It sounds strange, like Willie’s whining did, and tired, a little bit. But it’s Mama’s voice, and Bree knows it.
“Are you angry b’cause I didn’t eat my four bites of porridge, this mornin’,” Bree asks.
This a thought that has only just occurred to her. Immediately Mama’s lips become less thin, and her shoulders less tight. She says,
“Oh -- Bree, of course not, darling.”
“Oh,” says Bree. She’s still holding the pretty glass marble in her lap, the one that was Bernard. Willie makes another burbling noise. “‘Re you angry with Da then?”
Mama blinks -- once, and then twice, and then takes two steps forward so that she’s just in front of Bree, kneeling down and making her skirts pile up around her.
She’s close enough to press her hand over Bree’s and the marble; the metal of the grey thistle ring Mama says Da gave to her is cold against Bree’s hand. Her other ring -- the gold one, that Mama doesn’t talk about -- looks dull in the dim alcove’s lighting. Her brows pinch, just slightly, and she takes a deep breath that Bree is not used to Mama taking. Then she says,
“No. No, Bree. I’m not angry with him. No.”
“Okay,” says Bree.
“Did you hear us yelling?” Mama asks, in that same funny voice.
“Umm huh,” Bree says. She hadn’t liked it much. “I thought maybe Da hadn’t eaten his four bites of porridge, either.”
Mama only makes a faint, odd sound that Bree thinks might be a laugh, before wrapping her arms around Bree and pulling her close. Since they found Mama again, she’s been doing that a lot, but Bree does not mind it so much. Mama’s hands are so careful and gentle, and she usually smells of sweet things, and she makes Bree feel like everything bad has gone away.
“We should go back inside,” Mama says after a long moment, in a whisper. Bree thinks she’s talking to Fergus. “And start supper. I should go back inside.”
“Alright,” says Fergus, not quite in a whisper, but quiet still. Willie, still in Fergus’s arms, makes a soft cooing noise. For their game, Bree remembers -- Willie is always the best partner in play pretend games.
But she’s sure this is something Mama knows, as Mama knows everything, and so she doesn’t bring it up.
Willie has been screaming all afternoon.
“Mind the fire now -- sit down, lass --”
“The cloth just over by the stool, it’s washed and boiled --”
“Cold parritch makes ye big an’ strong, a leannan. Dinnae turn yer nose up at it now.”
“Listen to your uncle, Bree -- hush, baby -- Jamie, can you --”
“Aye, I’ve got ‘em, I’ve got ‘em --”
“Maman, this ‘as started to bubble --”
“Watch the water please, Fergus -- oh, it’s here, I found it --”
Bree doesn’t much mind the suddenness of the loud noises; she’s used to them by now. When she was littler and they were at Lallybroch baby Ian would wail all the time, and there would be yelling from the kitchen and the noises of the chickens and ducks. And then when Willie was just born he came out hollering, and even once he got a bit quieter and started smiling at Bree he’d still wail like anything right smack in the middle of the night. So Bree doesn’t think he’s doing it much on purpose.
Still -- she climbs up onto their table because there are a lot of people walking to and fro all at once.
Willie’s noises can be very big for a person who is so very small, Bree thinks. She wants to hop off the table to help, but doesn’t quite know how, and also her supper -- once again cold and suspiciously lumpy -- will get even more cold than it already is if she does that. Da, who has swept Willie out of Mama’s arms so that she can sort out the bubbling porridge and her laces -- Willie wasn’t hungry, Bree thinks, or maybe Willie wasn’t hungry for milk, just like she isn’t hungry for cold porridge -- comes to stand just above Bree, solid and reliable and large in the little room they are all staying in.
Willie is still screaming, but he’s so small in Da’s arms that the sound is less big, somehow.
“He’s no’ havin’ th’best afternoon, then?” Da says, just to Bree, over Willie’s loud cries. Bree sighs and shakes her head at him.
“He was alright before, when Mama was braiding my hair,” she tells him, in a solemn whisper. “Da, I think he’s upset b’cause the porridge’s got lumps in it.”
“Does it now?” Da whispers back. There’s a small smile at the corner of his mouth; Bree nods, her eyes wide. “C’mere, wee man.” He shifts Willie in his arms, gentle, like he doesn’t want to knock him around too much. Da’s only half dressed, because earlier, when he’d just gotten back from the print shop, Bree spilled one of the oils in Mama’s medicine box on him by accident when she ran to greet him. And then Willie began raising his ruckus halfway through changing into his second shirt. The worn material of it is rumpled and rolled up around his arms, and his vest is still unbuttoned; Bree wonders if maybe Willie will be quiet now, because perhaps he was just cold, and Da is of course always warm. “Dè tha gad ghortachadh? Is yer sister tellin’ the truth, a balaich?”
“Don’t cry, Willie,” says Bree. “It’s makin’ y’look all funny. When we’re upset we must use our words an’ things.”
Willie makes a particularly aggrieved sound. Mama says,
“I think he’s teething, Jamie --”
“Aye, I ken,” says Da, rocking Willie back and forth. Bree follows the movement with her own torso. “‘S nothin’ a bit o’ whiskey cannae fix.”
“Well, we haven’t even got that,” says Mama, coming to stand beside them, brushing the curls out of her face. They’re loose now, no longer pinned up like they were this morning, but still full, and bouncy. Now that she’s closer Bree can smell the faint sweetness of the herbs in her medicine box -- rosemary, Mama says, and white sage -- mixed with the funny baby smell that Willie always has. Also, there is that pinch that’s been showing up a lot recently -- the one between her brows. “Oh -- don’t cry, baby boy, I know it hurts.”
Bree had missed the way Mama smelled, Before. She wonders if because Da isn’t really dressed it means that she, also, may spend the whole rest of the day running around in her bedclothes. They’ve a fire going now, so it’ll be properly comfortable, she thinks. More so than putting on coats and caps and skirts and things.
One of Mama’s hands has come up to cup Willie’s dark, fuzzy head, and the other to press against Da’s shoulder blade. Earlier, yesterday, Da brought home a bundle of long springy plants wrapped in brown paper, tucked into his coat, just for Mama, and instead of having the pinch between her brows or talking in her funny voice she leaned up on her toes and pressed a kiss to Da’s mouth.
“Maybe I could give Willie my porridge,” Bree offers. She stands on her tiptoes on the table to see Willie’s angry pink face better from over Da’s arm. Fergus appears on Da’s other side, also peering down at Willie, and wearing a funny expression, like his mouth has flattened in on itself.
“‘Ee is certainly not a happy bairn right now, non?”
“Not very happy at all,” Bree agrees. Da quirks them both a small smile, but he says,
“Ye’ll be eatin’ that parritch yerself, a nighean, jest as Murtagh told ye.”
“But Da,” Bree begins.
“Hot water an’ some soaked rags, mu dheireadh,” announces Uncle Murtagh’s voice, the door banging open and then swinging shut on creaky hinges behind him. “Mistress MacKenna said she dinnae have anythin’ other than cheap spirits, but they’ll have tae do -- here, lass --”
The five of them stand all together in the middle of the room, and everyone holds their breath as Mama deftly twists the wet rag around her finger into a small, blunted point, thumb holding the pinched cloth in place so that it might fit into Willie’s tiny mouth. When she passes the rag over to Da, Bree thinks it looks a little bit like their arms connect together, with no breaks.
“Shhh shh shh,” says Da, in his low, quiet rumble. “Dinnae cry now, m’annsachd. Yer givin’ yer poor Mam grey hairs, the way ye’ve been goin’ on. See?”
Willie, face red in a way that almost looks like Bree’s hair, frowns and clamps his mouth shut around the grey rag. Bree counts as he does it -- once, twice, three times. There’s drool streaked along his cheek, along with baby snot and tears, and he blinks a bit up at Bree and Fergus, as though confused at the new taste in his mouth. Bree can sympathize; she is sure wet rag with spirits and things in it is no better than cold porridge.
Then he takes a deep breath, and starts wailing again. Only it’s muffled, this time, because of the rag and Da’s big finger poking into his mouth.
“Blessed Michael --”
“Lift his head up, darling, just there --”
“It willnae work like magic, ye numpty -- thig a-nis, Willie lad, it’ll be better soon.”
Bree sighs, and slumps back down onto the table. Behind her, her abandoned bowl of porridge rattles over the wood; Fergus has removed the spoon out of it, and is now waving it above Willie’s face in an attempt to distract him.
“Ye must reach the gums in the back,” Uncle Murtagh is saying, from over Da’s shoulder. “I ken that’s how Jenny did it.”
Bree’s stomach grumbles again. She tries to poke at it, to make the grumbles go away, but then Mama appears in front of her, wiping her hands on her skirts.
Almost like she heard the sound of Bree’s stomach grumbling, Bree thinks. Mama is always good at hearing things like that, that Bree feels very loudly but only inside of her.
“Hello, little Bee,” Mama says.
Willie is still crying, but it’s easy to focus on Mama, just now.
“‘S Willie hurtin’ very bad, Mama?”
“I don’t think so, Bree.”
“Oh,” says Bree. “But Mama, he’s bein’ so loud. Is he tryin’ t’laugh, then?”
Maybe some bairns -- or perhaps just Willies -- laugh differently from the rest of them, Bree thinks. Mama lifts her hands up, sure and capable, to smooth the hairs that have come undone from Bree’s morning braid away from her face. The feeling of Mama’s fingers, so gentle against Bree’s cheeks, makes her feel like there is something in the middle of her insides that is holding her in place.
It’s quiet, and calming, and Bree forgets about her grumbly tummy and the lumpy porridge and Willie’s screaming.
“No,” says Mama, in the voice she uses sometimes, when it is just the two of them and Mama is telling Bree something that is real and true and only for her. “But your father’s got him now. He’s just so little, Bree, he doesn’t know how to put it in words. Think what you would do, if your mouth was sore and you couldn’t tell me about it.”
“Oh,” says Bree, very wisely. “It’d be terr’ble, Mama.”
“Quite.” Mama kisses Bree’s forehead, soft, like a butterfly. Bree realizes suddenly that in the moment she has spent with just her mother, William’s cries have quieted to a soft whimper.
Like magic, Bree thinks. She leans her face into the soft mound of Mama’s palm.
“I think he’s better now,” says Bree.
“Better now,” Mama agrees.
Over her shoulder, Bree can see Fergus pulling funny faces at their baby brother; Uncle Murtagh has taken over waving the spoon around. Bree thinks Willie must have sucked Da’s whole finger into his mouth by now. Da glances up from Willie, almost like he can sense Bree looking, and gives her one of his funny winks, and the corner of his best smile. All better, it confirms.
She turns back to Mama; there’s a way about Mama’s eyes, like she’s looking for something in Bree’s face.
“Want to come upstairs with me in a bit?” she asks.
Bree wrinkles her nose, to make her I’m thinking about this expression. Upstairs in the laundry there are lots of bright coloured clothes and thick heavy steam and Mistress MacKenna, who has lovely eyebrows and a mole on her chin, and who calls Mama Mrs. Malcom with a cheerful lilt to her voice. Mama told Bree that they must play pretend sometimes with Mistress MaKenna, just as Bree plays pretend with Willie, just while they’re in Edinburgh.
“Will the laundry ladies give me honey bannocks again,” Bree asks, doubtful. She does not want to finish her porridge. Mama’s mouth does a funny thing, like she’s trying hard not to smile.
“Maybe,” she says, moving one hand so that she can tap Bree’s nose with the end of a finger. Mama has the prettiest smile, Bree thinks, even when it is trying not to exist. If a faerie had a smile -- supposing they are real -- it would be like Mama’s. “If you’re very good. We’re going to help another little boy feel better -- he has a tummy ache, you see. He’s come to us, this time, so we don’t have to go out into the cold anymore.”
“The cold,” repeats Bree, wondering, and then, after a moment, she says, “Okay.”
Mama’s almost-smile turns into a grin. From Da’s arms, Willie makes a funny noise, like a gurgle, and Bree giggles, leaning once more into her mother’s touch.
Bree is doing a very good grown up job not getting the charcoal from her drawing implements into the honeyed bannock she’s sucking on. She is really quite proud of herself, or she would be, if she were paying much attention to anything outside of her half-ream of paper.
“Tell Mama what you’re drawing, Bumblebee,” says Mama. She is standing across the table from Bree, with her medicine box open and laid out in front of her, using her hands to make a fine powder out of something Bree doesn’t quite know the name of. Uncle Murtagh is sitting on Mama’s other side, at the far end of the table, whittling a piece of firewood with what Bree recognizes as Fergus’s pocket knife.
“Itssa horse, Mama,” says Bree, not really thinking about it.
There is a spot of bridle that is giving her trouble. She stands up in her chair, inspecting the grievance with her hands on her hips. Absently, she takes another bit of bannock from the plate to stick in her mouth, and then holds the rest of her chewed-on bannock for Willie, who is sitting upright in his basket beside her, keeping her company as she draws; he takes her fingers into his little mouth, wide eyes also on Bree’s drawing, and starts sucking on the honeyed bannock quite happily.
Bree says hmmm, loudly, before leaning over and adding a thick line over the top of the page with a flourish.
“A horse,” says Uncle Murtagh, craning his neck over to look at it. “Oh aye, I can see the tail.”
“He looks like Donas,” says Mama, her sure hands twisting the pestle against stone with a gentle shhrk shhrk. “Oh -- well, the big one does. Who are the others, Bree?”
“Tha’s Donas’s wife horse,” says Bree, pointing. “An’ his baby horses. But not Bernard, ‘cause she’s the princess’s.”
“Och, they’re wee things,” Uncle Murtagh says, one side of his moustache pulling upwards. “I didnae ken Donas had such a bonnie lass t’call his own.”
“I rather thought he’d scared all the lady horses away,” says Mama, a note of something Bree feels is like a joke in her voice, even though Bree’s not sure what the joke is. Donas is a very handsome horse, according to Da, even if he is a bit mean. Bree watches as Mama leans over the table to run her fingers carefully over two different vials of oil, one brownish and one greenish, and then to pick up her pestle again. She moves gracefully -- like a doe Bree saw once with Da, deep in the woods.
Bree taps one sticky finger against her chin. “No,” she says. “I don’t think so, Mama. I think he’s gotta horse wife. That’s her there, see? She’s a knight’s horse.”
Da has been teaching Bree chess in the evenings. He scratches the board out over the floor of their room using charred wood from the fire -- the same Bree is using to draw -- and shows her where all the pieces go, and then makes Fergus sit and play across from her, because Da claims Fergus is the only one of them good enough to ensure that Bree learns properly. Not like how Mama plays, he’ll say with a grin.
“When yer Mam plays,” Da says, “ye can tell what she’s gonna do near two years afore she does it. We dinnae want that, a leannan.”
He’ll be hunkered down knee-to-knee with Bree, bright eyes twinkling with the special warmth they sometimes get, fingers recently-stained with ink from the printer’s, and Mama will be on the other side of the room, mending or sorting through her medicine box, her cheeks round in the way that means she’s trying not to smile at something silly Da’s said and is doing a bad job of it.
Bree likes these moments; they make the usually damp and grey of their Edinburgh room less damp and grey. Sometimes Uncle Murtagh will sing songs in the background -- sometimes he and Mama will sing songs together. When Mama sings, she sings things Bree has never heard anyone else sing before, and they make her feel special, like they’re just for her. Each time Fergus pushes a piece across the floor, Da will ask Bree seriously what she might decide to do next. She must be very careful when moving her pieces, Da says. She must never just move them; when she plans her next steps, she must look at all the pieces on the board, and think of everything her opponent has already done, and then think of everything they might do next.
Bree is not quite sure that she understands how to do this. But she has fun learning all the pieces. Usually, her glass marble is the queen, because according to Da the queen is always the strongest and prettiest piece, and it is her job to protect the king. Bree thinks she’s grand -- the queen, that is. But her very favourite piece is the knight, because a knight moves in the funniest directions, and in a real game -- in a real game, Da says --
The knight gets to ride a horse.
When she tells Da this, he laughs quiet and warm and just for her, and presses a kiss into her hair.
“She’s got ye there, lass,” says Uncle Murtagh now, looking at Mama. His eyes are twinkling under his bushy eyebrows. “Her wee ladyship says ‘tis a knight’s horse. What can ye say to that?”
“Uncle Murtagh,” says Bree, as sternly as she can manage. But Mama only smiles at her, before glancing upwards at the door. Willie, wrapped up cozily in his little basket on the table, gurgles happily. “You agree with me, Willie,” Bree whispers, looking over at her brother.
Willie is always a very good sport when it comes to agreeing with her on things, even if he is just a bairn.
Uncle Murtagh clears his throat, and blows on his bit of wood.
“Ye’ve been checkin’ that door thrice a minute, a nighean,” he says, once again to Mama. “Jamie an’ the lad willnae get back any sooner for it, ye ken that.”
“I do,” says Mama. There’s an odd note to her voice. She shuffles around another vial on the table and then goes back to grinding; shhrk shhrk goes the pestle. Bree can see a little smudge of brown-green powder over the wrist of Mama’s hand, and on her apron. “Doesn’t mean I can’t worry.”
“Aye,” Uncle Murtagh says, watching Mama’s careful movements as Bree does. He’s stopped whittling his piece of wood. Fergus’s knife has made two small cuts in the rough bark, the movements so smooth Bree can barely believe they’re coming from her uncle’s big, rough hands. Then he says, “I should be with them, no’ helpin’ auld ladies hem shifts.”
“You should absolutely not,” says Mama. “It’s deathly cold outside, and your lungs still haven’t healed properly.”
“Psht,” begins Uncle Murtagh, but Mama levels him with a look of her own -- Bree can see, even from her perch on the stool, that it’s the sort that Fergus says means you must listen -- and he clamps his mouth back shut with a scowl that looks funny, as all of his scowls do.
Bree giggles; Uncle Murtagh raises one caterpillar-like eyebrow at her. He clears his throat again.
“So then,” he says, looking back to Mama. “Yer -- powders an’ things? Fer the wee laddie who ye saw Monday?”
“No,” says Mama, blowing very delicately on the last of the stuff in the bowl. “It’s wild carrot tea, for a young woman. Agnes Lindsay -- she had a very difficult pregnancy, and she’s worried about it happening again.”
“She dinna want any more bairns?”
“Not just now, no.” Bree watches in fascination as Mama tips some loose, crinkly-dry leaves into a little pouch, and arranges them carefully in place. There’s a pinch around Mama’s lips, just a small one. “Short of telling her to kick her poor husband out of the marriage bed, this is the best I can do for her.”
“Hmph,” says Uncle Murtagh, looking a touch uncomfortable. Mama purses her lips at him and raises an elegant eyebrow.
“Oh, don’t look so concerned. It’s not like we haven’t talked of this before, in front of you.”
“I ken weel that ye had tae start those wee herbs yerself, lass. My poor ears’re jest re-livin’ days on the road wi’ two bairns o’ my own who cannae keep their hands tae theirselves.”
“Don’t tell me you’ve gone prudish in your old age, Master Fitzgibbons,” says Mama, but despite her flat voice she seems to mean it as another joke. The pinch around her mouth is still there, but it is smaller, and Uncle Murtagh is chuckling again under his whiskers.
“Mama,” says Bree. Mama does not seem to hear her -- she is busy blowing a stray curl out from where it’s come loose in front of her face and getting up to move towards the fireplace, poking at one of the crumbling logs. Perhaps her ears don’t catch it because Willie’s started babbling again. Bree abandons her drawing and shoves the rest of the bannock in his direction, so that perhaps he might be more quiet, and says again, “Ma-ma.”
“Brian-na,” says Mama, in the same way Bree did. She looks up from the fireplace. “Do you see how unpleasant it is to hear your name like that? Oh -- Bree, you’re all sticky.”
“Not all sticky,” Bree protests.
“And you’ve gotten it in your hair -- come here, darling --”
“Mama,” says Bree again, as her mother moves smoothly around the table and wets a corner of her apron in her mouth, and then begins to wipe at Bree’s cheeks. Uncle Murtagh has started chuckling under his mustache, in that way where his eyes crinkle up at the corners and his mouth disappears into his whiskers and Bree only knows he’s laughing because of how red and round his cheeks look. “Mama, can y’really stop bairns from comin’?”
“What do you mean, Bree?”
“Well I thought,” says Bree, her head tugging a little as Mama begins untangling her morning braid. “Ow, Mama -- I thought, maybe ‘cause some bairns’re like Willie, an’ they mostly do what they want. So if y’told ‘em, don’t come, they’d come anyhow.”
“Oh --” Mama stops rubbing at Bree’s face, and bites her lower lip between her teeth. “Well, I suppose so. But that’s not quite what Miss Lindsay came to me about.”
“It wasn’t?” says Bree. She hums just a little, and wonders if she should finish colouring in Donas’s ear.
“No -- well, I -- having bairns can be -- scary sometimes, Brianna.”
“Like when me an’ Fergus got lost that time when Mister John’s house caught fire,” guesses Bree, blinking sincerely up at her mother. Donas’s ear can remain uncoloured -- but his horse wife needs a better tail.
“Well --” Mama does not seem to know what she wants to say, which is odd; she is not usually at a loss for words. She bites her lip again. “Not quite. But sometimes, ladies don’t want any more bairns, in case they lose them.”
“Do they run away?”
Bree picks up her bit of charcoal again, and comes to press it against the paper. Mama’s hand trembles, just barely, over Bree’s shoulder. She says,
“Something like that, yes.”
“Oh,” says Bree. She puts the charcoal down. “Mama, ‘re you scared of me an’ Willie runnin’ away?”
“No,” says Mama. “No, I’m not, Bree. But I was for a while, when you were just coming into the world.”
“Oh,” says Bree again.
The fire crackles. Willie burbles again, a soft thing, from his basket, and Uncle Murtagh remains very focused on his bit of wood; Bree thinks it’s starting to look a bit like a pony. But not like Donas -- Donas is bigger than the wood pony. Maybe like Uncle Ian’s favourite mare back at Lallybroch, with the little white star on her forehead.
“If maybe you and William got a sibling,” says Mama. “I’m worried they might run away.”
“I’d tell ‘em not to,” says Bree.
Beside her, Willie flaps his fists up and down, as though agreeing with her once more.
“I know you would, little Bee,” says Mama. The pinch is back, around her mouth. Bree thinks about what Mama said -- about how sometimes, things are difficult. Even when you’re brave.
“Okay,” says Bree.
Mama nods, and then leans down to press a long kiss to the crown of Bree’s head, and then scoops Willie up so that she can take him over to the corner and feed him. Bree stares at her drawing of Donas and his family for a long moment.
“Thig a-nis, a leannan,” says Uncle Murtagh in a low voice, leaning closer to Bree over the table. He’s close enough that she can see the grey in his whiskers, and the deep lines around his eyes. He thumbs the top of her drawing with one calloused thumb, giving Bree a twinkly-eyed look that’s just for her. “Go on then. Finish yer wee portrait for yer Da, t’show him when he gets home.”
He’s right; Da always loves Bree’s portraits.
“I’ve gotta colour in her tail,” Bree agrees, and sets back to drawing until Da returns.
Bree is lying awake again, long after their small fire has died out. Tonight, she’s not wedged between Mama and Da, but on Mama’s other side, by Willie. Willie’s fast asleep -- for once -- and at some point before the last embers of the fire fell away Bree saw Fergus put down his book and curl up on the other side of the room. Every so often he sniffs, because Mama says he caught a cold from the icy rain outside, and shifts in position. Uncle Murtagh is snoring again.
Da, too, is asleep, but stretched out on his belly this time, which is not how he usually sleeps. Bree wonders if it is because tonight, earlier, he had pulled Mama close, and pressed his face to her neck, and whispered quiet things to her that made Mama laugh lightly and whisper back. Bree was supposed to be asleep -- so her eyes had been kept dutifully closed -- but she’d heard them talking, in soft, mumbly voices.
Now, she blinks up at the dark ceiling. There is a very small window at the top corner of their laundry basement room, and through it, a sliver of moonlight has fallen inside. It is not enough to make seeing anything very easy, but when Bree turns, it means that she can just make out the slight movement of Mama’s short, delicate eyelashes when she blinks.
Mama is already looking at her.
“Hi, Mama,” says Bree.
“Hi, Smudge,” says Mama.
“I can’t sleep.”
“I know, lovey.” Mama’s voice is a whisper again, as it was the last time. “Is it too warm?”
“No. I dunno.” Bree considers. “I’ve got things on my mind.”
“Ah,” says Mama, in a light, fluttery voice. One of her slender hands slips forward on their straw mattress, cool over Bree’s nightclothes, and hitches under Bree’s bum to move her forward. Her left foot pokes out over the top of the quilt and lays against Mama’s raised hip. “Better?”
She’s not itchy anymore, Bree realizes. She hadn’t really thought she’d been itchy in the first place -- but she was. Now she’s not.
Bree is quiet for a moment. She wonders when they will go on the boats. Soon, Mama had said, when she asked earlier this morning -- and Da had agreed, tucking a loose strand of Bree’s hair behind her ear. Bree doesn’t much care for the boats themselves. But things in Edinburgh are not her favourite.
They’re a little bit difficult, Mama had said.
On Mama’s other side, Da shifts in his sleep, and there is just enough light in their room that Bree can see the raised skin on his back where the blanket and his shirt have pulled away. She remembers Mama’s quiet, in-the-dark words, about how sometimes you’re very brave, but that makes things difficult.
She thinks about Da’s story, about the faerie and her lad.
“Mama,” she says. It is suddenly of the utmost importance that she tells her mother this, but she makes sure her voice comes out in a whisper. They must be considerate of sleeping everyone, Bree knows, but especially sleeping Willies. “I think. If faeries’re real, that you’re just as brave as them.”
Mama’s face is very close. Bree can feel the gentle touch of her breath every other time her heart beats, and the steady movement of Mama’s thumb over Bree’s little foot. In the darkness Mama’s big gemstone-shaped eyes are glittery, almost like they’re wet.
“I told Da,” Bree adds. “He thought so too.”
For a moment, Bree thinks Mama is not going to say anything at all. Then, in the quietest whisper, she says,
“Well. If I’m so brave, then you’re even braver.” Mama’s face shifts, like she’s smiling. Bree can smell the sweetness of her herbs, and feel the tickle of her wild hair fanned out against the pillow, curly as Bree’s own. “Perhaps braver than any faerie who ever lived.”
“Really?” says Bree, in a small, awed voice. It’s not something she has ever thought of before. She feels her eyes widen at this revelation, now, and then slowly start to droop, in a sleepy way she hadn’t realized was creeping up on her.
“More than really,” Mama is saying, as she brings her hand up to gently bop Bree on the nose.
Above them, the wooden floors of the laundry house creak. Bree is sure somewhere outside it’s snowing again. She lets Mama draw her close, and tuck her against the soft curves of her body, and she falls asleep like that, without any tight feelings in her tummy.
She dreams of the faerie lass in the story, and in the dream, she thinks that she looks just like Mama.