Our baby’s health baffled me. Many a young creature had I tended in my life, and yet I had never known one that ate with an appetite, slept well, appeared full of good health, and yet did not grow. I tried to encourage her to move her limbs, but I quickly learned that she did not seem to want me to handle her at all. Placid and calm when left to herself, she would not meet my gaze when I bent over her crib. If I picked her up, she would lean away from me and then with her feeble strength try to fling herself from my arms. If I insisted on holding her and flexing her legs and moving her arms, she rapidly went from wails to angry screams. After a time Molly begged me not to try, for she feared that somehow I was causing her pain. And I gave way to her wishes, though my Wit gave me no sense of pain from her, only alarm. Alarm that her father would try to hold her. Is it possible to express how painful that was for me?
The servants were at first curious about her, and then pitying. Molly all but hissed at them, and kept all care of the child to herself. To them, she would never admit anything was wrong. But late at night her worries and fears for her child grew darker. “What will become of her after I am gone?” she asked me one evening.
“We will make provision for her,” I said.
Molly shook her head. “People are cruel,” she said. “Who could we trust that much?”
“Nettle?” I suggested.
Molly shook her head again. “Must I sacrifice one daughter’s life to be caretaker for the other?” she asked me, and to that I had no answer.
When one has been disappointed for so long, hope becomes the enemy. One cannot be dashed to the earth unless one is lifted first, and I learned to avoid hope. When, midway through Bee’s second year of life, Molly began to tell me that she was getting stronger and could hold her head more steadily, I nodded and smiled but did little more than that. But at the end of her second year, she could roll over, and shortly after that she began to sit without support. She grew, but remained tiny for her age. In her third year she began to crawl, and then to pull herself to a stand. In her fourth year she toddled about the room, a peculiar sight to see a child so tiny walking. At five, she trotted behind her mother everywhere. She began to have teeth, and she made garbled noises that only Molly could interpret.
The oddest things seemed to excite her. The texture of a piece of weaving, or the wind stirring a cobweb, would catch her attention. Then the little thing would shake her hands wildly and gabble out nonsense. Every now and then a word would burst from her lips embedded in a stream of burbled sound. It was both maddening and sweet to hear Molly talk to her child, keeping up her half of an imaginary conversation.
We kept Bee mostly to ourselves. Her older siblings did not visit as often as they once had, for growing families and the demands of their occupations kept them busy at their homes. They visited when they could, which was not often. They treated Bee kindly, but they realized that pitying her was useless. She would be what she would be. They saw that Molly seemed content with her, and possibly gave no more thought to the child that comforted their mother as she aged.
Hap, my fostered son, came and went on his minstrel wanderings. He most often arrived in the coldest months, to spend a moon with us. He sang and played pipes, and Bee was the most avid listener that any minstrel could ask for. She would focus her pale-blue eyes on him, and her little mouth would hang ajar as she listened. She would not willingly go to bed while Hap was there unless he followed her to her room and played her a soft, slow tune until she slept. Perhaps that was why he accepted Bee as she was, and when he visited, he always brought her a simple present such as a string of bright beads or a soft scarf figured with roses.
Of all her brothers and sisters, Nettle came most often in those early years. I could tell she longed to hold her sister, but Bee reacted to her touch much as she did to mine, and so Nettle had to be content with being beside her sister but unable to tend to her needs.
Very late one night as I left my private study, my route took me past the door of Bee’s nursery. I saw a light burning through the half-open door and paused, thinking perhaps Bee had taken sick and Molly was sitting up with her. But as I peered in I saw not Molly but Nettle sitting by her sister’s bed, looking down at her with a face of tragic wistfulness. She was speaking softly. “For years, I dreamed of a sister. Someone to share dreams with, to braid each other’s hair and tease about boys and take long walks with me. I thought I would teach you to dance and we would have secrets and cook together late at night when everyone else was asleep. And here you are, at last. But we will have none of that, will we? Yet this I will promise you, little Bee. No matter what happens to our parents, I will always care for you.” And then my Nettle lowered her face into her hands and wept. I knew then that she mourned for the sister she had imagined, just as I still longed for the perfect little girl I had dreamed we would have. I had no comfort for either of us, and I left that scene silently.