Then, as week after month and then years passed, and she did not catch up her growth, nor speak, I had been forced to confront her differences. Like a worm slowly eating into an apple, the knowledge burrowed in and hollowed my heart. She did not grow, or laugh or smile. Bee would never be the child I had imagined.
The worst part was that I had already given my heart to that imaginary child, and it was so terribly hard to forgive Bee for not being her. Her existence turned my life into a gamut of emotions. It was hard to kill my hope. As she slowly developed skills that other children would have had years ago, my hope that somehow, now, she was getting better would flare up in me. Each crash of that vain hope was harder than the previous one. Deep sorrow and disappointment sometimes gave way to cold anger at fate. Through it all, I flattered myself that Molly was unaware of my ambivalence toward our child. To cover how hard it was to accept her as she was, I became fiercely protective of her. I would tolerate no one else speaking of her differences as shortcomings. Anything she desired, I got for her. I never expected her to attempt anything she was reluctant to try. Molly had been serenely unaware that Bee suffered in comparison with the imaginary child I had created. She had seemed content with our daughter, doting, even. I had never had the heart to ask her if she ever looked at Bee and wished for another child. I had refused to consider if I ever looked and her and wished that she had never been.
I had wondered what would become of her as she grew and we aged. I had thought that her sparse words meant she was simple in some way, and I had treated her as such, until the evening when she had astonished me at the memory game. Only in the last year had I found the wisdom to enjoy what she was. I had finally relaxed and taken pleasure in the joy she brought to her mother. The terrible storms of disappointment had given way to calm resignation. Bee was what she was.
But now Bee spoke clearly to me, and it woke shame in me. Before she had given me simple sentences, as sparing of her mumbled words as if they were gold coins. Tonight I had felt such a leap of relief when she spoke that first simple request to stay with me. Small she might be, but she could talk. Why shame? It shamed me that it was suddenly so much easier to love her than it had been when she was mute.
I thought of the old fable and decided I had no choice. I would grasp the nettle. Nonetheless, I approached it cautiously. “Do you dislike speaking?”
She gave a short shake of her head.
“So you held silent with me because …?”
Again a flash of her pale-blue glance. “No need to talk to you. I had Mama. We were together so much. She listened. Even when I could not speak plainly, she could make out what I meant. She understood without all the words you need.”
Her little shoulders twisted away from me, a squirming discomfort in this conversation. “When I have to. To stay safe. But before, it was safer to be quiet. To be what the servants are accustomed to me being. Mostly they treat me well. But if I suddenly spoke to them as I am speaking to you, if they overheard me speaking to you like this, they would fear me. And then they would consider me a threat. I would be in danger from the grown-ups, too.”
Too? I thought. I made the leap. “As you are from the children.”
A nod. No more than that, and of course that must be so. Of course.
She was so precocious. So adult. That tiny voice speaking such grown-up words. And so chilling to hear her assess the situation as if she were Chade rather than my little girl. I had hoped to hear her speak to me in simple sentences; I would have welcomed the uncomplicated logic of a child. Instead the pendulum swung the other way: From resignation that my daughter was mute and simple I suddenly felt dread that she was unnaturally complex and perhaps deceitful.
She looked at my feet. “You’re a little bit afraid of me now.” She bowed her head and folded her little hands on her crossed legs and waited for me to lie.
“Uneasy. Not afraid,” I admitted unwillingly. I tried to find the right words but could not. I settled on, “I am … amazed. And a bit unsettled that you can speak so well, and I never guessed you were capable of such thought. It is unnerving, Bee. Still, I love you a lot more than I fear you. And with time, I’ll get used to … how you really are.”
The little pink head with its haze of blond hair nodded slowly. “I think you can. I’m not sure Nettle could.”
I found I shared her reservations about that but felt obliged to defend my older daughter. “Well, but it’s not fair that you expect she could. Or even that I could! Why did you hold back? Why not begin talking as you learned to speak rather than keep silent?”