“Thank you, but no, Lin. Perhaps when she’s a bit older, but not now. Come, Bee. We need to get back to the house.”
I expected a plea from her. Instead she sat up, gently letting the pair of calicos slide back into the straw. A moment longer she stared at the black kitten. She pointed one finger at him, as if to warn him, but then stood up the rest of the way and followed obediently as I left the sheep sheds. I slowed my pace even more on our walk back to the house. “So. What did you hear?” I asked Bee.
She was silent for a long time. I was on the point of pushing for a response when she admitted, “I wasn’t really paying attention. It was just about sheep. It wasn’t about me. And there were the kittens.”
“We talked about sheep that belong to your sister, with a man who makes his living taking care of those sheep. Someday you may have to walk down there to talk to him, or to his daughter or grandchild, about those sheep. Next time, you listen.” I paused to give her a moment to mull that, and then asked, “So you didn’t hear this time. What did you see?”
She surprised me in what she had heard me say. My question had not entered her mind at all. She spoke hesitantly in a voice full of trepidation. “So. Withywoods does not belong to you, or to me. It’s Nettle’s house and they are Nettle’s sheep. They’ll never be mine. Or the grapes or the orchards. None of it is really mine. Nettle was Mama’s eldest, and she now owns it all. But someday I may have to take care of all of it for her, just as you do.” She pondered a moment. “Papa, when I am grown and you are dead, what will belong to me?”
An arrow to my heart. What would belong to this odd child of mine? Even if I set aside a good marriage portion for her, would she grow to be a woman that a man would wish to wed? A good man? How would I find him, or know him when I had? When I was dead and gone, what would befall her? Years ago, Chade had asked me the same thing, and I had replied she was but a baby, and it was too soon to worry. Nine years had passed since then. Another nine and she would be eligible for marriage.
And I was a procrastinating idiot. I spoke quickly to fill my long silence. “I am sure that your sister and brothers would never allow you to live in want,” I told her, and I was confident that I spoke truth to her.
“That’s not the same as knowing there would be something that was mine,” she said quietly.
I knew she was right. Before I could assure her that I would do my best to see that she was provided for, she spoke again. “This is what I saw. I saw sheep, and sheep dung, and straw. I saw lots of wool on the lower rungs of the fence, and lots of little spiders, red and black, on the bottom sides of the rungs. I saw one ewe lying down, and she had rubbed all the wool and some of her skin off her rump. Another ewe was rubbing her hip on a fencepost and licking her lips while she did it.” I was nodding, pleased at her observation. She gave me a glance, looked aside and added, “And I saw Lin looking at me and then looking away, as if I was something he’d rather not see.”
“He was,” I agreed. “But not in dislike. He’s sad for you. He liked you enough to think you should have a kitten or a puppy of your own. Look at how he is with his own dog, and you’ll see that isn’t something he’d suggest for a child he disliked.”
She made a skeptical noise in her throat.
“When I was a boy,” I told her calmly, “I hated being a bastard. I thought that whenever anyone looked at me, that was the first thought he had. So I made being a bastard the most important thing about me. And whenever I met anyone, the first thing I thought of was how he was thinking about meeting a bastard.”
We walked for a time in silence. I could tell she was already tired. I caught myself thinking that I’d have to build her endurance with regular challenges and then reminded myself that she was not a dog nor a horse, but my child.
“Sometimes,” I added carefully, “I decided that people didn’t like me before they had had a chance to decide for themselves. So I didn’t speak to them or make any effort to have them like me.”
“Being a bastard is something that doesn’t show unless you make it show,” she said. She gestured at herself. “I can’t hide this. Being small and looking younger than I am. Being pale where most folk are dark. Being able to talk as if I am older than I am is something I can hide. But you said I shouldn’t do that.”
“No. Some of your differences you can’t hide. Little by little, you can let people see that you are a lot more intelligent than most children of your age. And that will make you less frightening to them.”