The following conversation happened a couple of weeks ago in game-time.
“Ma, hold still!”
Nellie’s voice was quiet and thick with sleep. “Bear, leave off. Go to bed.”
“No! It’s almost done!” Nellie drifted again while feeling her hair rustle and move. “There! Open your eyes!” Nellie cracked an eyelid and saw her daughter’s face only a few inches away. Tessa wore one of her most delighted smiles.
“Maaaa, look!” Tessa pointed, and Nellie looked. Tessa had braided their hair together, her fine auburn strands married to Nellie’s coarser ones in a plait that laid between them on the bedcovers. As Nellie watched, Tessa stroked the thick braid gently. “You can’t even tell whose is whose!”
Nellie spoke through a wide-mouthed yawn. “Same color, true enough. You got that straight from me, and my ma before me.”
Tessa snuggled close, the combined braid beneath her like a pillow. “What was da’s hair like?”
“Dark. Rich brown and long. He was real fond of his hair, just like you’re fond of yours.” Nellie laughed quietly as she stroked her daughter’s narrow back. “Folks made fun of him once in a while for liking it so much. But no one ever made fun of him twice.”
Tessa giggled at the beginning to the familiar family tale. Nellie waited for Tessa’s request that the story continue. Instead, Tessa asked, as casually as if she requested milk with supper, “Ma? Am I going to die?”
Nellie’s hand stilled. The oak tree nearest their bedchamber window creaked in a sudden wind. Rain tomorrow, Nellie thought for no reason. Tessa still waited, not saying a word.
“Everyone dies,” Nellie finally said, the sound of her voice so hollow she could barely believe it was hers. She added, knowing even as she said it that it was the wrong question to ask, “Did someone say something to you?”
Tessa’s shrug was a tiny gesture. “I know I’m sick. I’ve been sick. And I heard someone say, pooooor Tessa. Poooor Tessa.”
Breathe, Nellie commanded herself. Breathe.
“You’re sick. That’s true.” It hurt to say the words, to force them out of a throat so closed that her breath had to force itself through a pinhole. The usual phrases battered at Nellie, begged her to say things like, You’re just going through a rough patch, and You’ll be fine. Her teeth ground together as she clenched her jaw.
Tessa picked at the tiny embroidered flowers on the shift Nellie wore to bed. “Die early, I mean,” she said. “Like Geffy’s sister.”
Breathe. “We…don’t know, bear. You have years, though. Years. You have Lady Celeveren, and Anna, and all the smartest people we’ve ever met.”
Tessa asked quietly, “But I’ll never have a baby-bear of my own, will I?”
Nellie gasped for air and held her daughter close. If I could give you my heart, I would. If I could give you my breath or my bones or my years, I would. “We don’t know,” she answered as soon as the tightness in her chest allowed the words to form. “We don’t know. Anything can happen.”
Tessa returned the tight embrace. Nellie could feel her daughter’s weak heart beating fast in her chest. The little girl whispered into the nest of her mother’s hair, “What happens? After?”
Sometimes, Nellie dreamed. She floated in her embroidered shift in a calm salt sea, nothing to see around her but endless skies and endless waters. She knew, in the strange logic of dreams, that she rested atop all the tears she’d made herself not shed since Derrin died. Every time she forced tears back, the sea grew and deepened. Breathe, Nellina. Breathe.
“We don’t know,” she said again. “Me, I think they’re all waiting for us.” Her voice had fallen to a rasping whisper. “I think we see them again. The…folks who’ve gone on ahead.”
Tessa said nothing. As the silence stretched, the tree outside creaked mournfully once again. At the base of the bed, the cat rose, stretched, and curled up again in the opposite direction.
When Tessa finally spoke, it was in her normal, curious voice. “So I’d see pa. And Aunt Meg. And I’d get to play with Becca and Osric – when he isn’t a baby anymore. And Marri’s ma. And Geffy’s ma.” Tessa paused. “Can Mrs. Glazier make us cookies? There?”
“Don’t…see why not, bear. We don’t know, but…I want cookies when I get there.” The effort of not weeping was turning into a savage headache behind Nellie’s eyes. Worth it, though, to keep the fear hidden. Keep it safe.
The tension left Tessa’s small body; she relaxed against her mother’s ample curves. “Then that’s all right,” she said cheerfully. “You’ll just catch up.”
Nellie cleared her throat when the silence again went on too long. “You know what we should do tomorrow, bear?” Tessa looked up at her mother’s face. Nellie attempted a smile. “You should wear your Elf dress, and we should take you over to Darstead for a flute lesson.”
Tessa gasped, staring at her mother in surprise. “I can WEAR the Elf dress?”
Breathe. “Every day, if you want to. If you keep it clean. Every single day.”
Tessa’s hug was as strong as she could make it, and her squeal high-pitched enough to send the cat racing off the foot of the bed. Nellie clung to her daughter in the snug bedchamber, making wishes she knew she had no reason to trust.
Please give us years. Please give her years. Please let her kiss a boy, please let someone ask her to dance because she’s pretty and spirited, not because time is short. Give me a generous heart. Give me hope.