Marnie could not recall a more miserable, cold winter. The house, normally full of laughter and commotion, was quiet and still. Even at dinner, the conversation was subdued, and inevitably, one of the children would ask about Sera.
Do you think Little Hare is happy in Cairstiona? Conor would ask.
Rather than answering, Roisin added, I wonder if anyone is signing to her.
Of course not, they are all hearing, Robin replied glumly.
But maybe she could teach her mother and father, then they could sign to her, Conor countered, trying to be hopeful. Right, Mama? Right? He looked at Marnie, his brown eyes wide with concern. Marnie only sighed and did not answer. They repeated this conversation over and over, although Marnie tried to discourage them. Privately, thinking on the condition Sera had been in when she came to them, Marnie feared the worst for the child, but there was no point in feeding their anxiety, and in any case, there was no way for them to know what had become of her.
Raven, once he recovered from his initial violent grief, became completely withdrawn. He did not engage in the endless speculation about Sera, and spent the evenings staring listlessly into the fire. For the first time, he was beginning to show his age. A few white hairs stood out among his black curls.
Seemingly not a moment passed when Marnie did not think of Sera. She felt intensely guilty about all that had transpired. In her mind she went over and over the first meeting she had with Lady Grange. What exactly had she said? Did she really promise that she could teach Sera to talk? The idea of "talking" with her hands seemed so natural now, it was hard to remember a time when the idea had been strange and new. If only she had explained it more carefully.
When these thoughts came to her, without realizing it, she would begin to frown and chew her lower lip worriedly. Elly had learned what this look meant, and would break in on her anxious thoughts.
"You mustn't blame yourself, mistress," she would say. But Marnie did blame herself.
And worse, she now saw her own family through the Lady Grange's eyes. Their hand-words might be wonderfully expressive, but it was nothing like speech. Marnie herself had never lost the habit of speaking with her mouth as she signed with her hands, and as a result, Raven, Robin, Conor and even Roisin had a tendency to work their mouths as they were signing. Roisin did not make noise with her mouth, but Raven and the boys did, sometimes quite loudly, although they were themselves unaware of it. Marnie was so accustomed to this that she hardly noticed, but now it seemed to her that the noises they made, which were more like moans or guttural cries than speech, might sound strange or even offensive to on who was not used to it. Robin and Conor also had a tendency to thrust their tongues out in a way that made it clear they could not form proper words, while Sera often let her mouth hang slack as she signed. To someone like Lady Grange, they must look like simpletons or lunatics. Marnie shuddered, recalling the long-ago days in Torcurra. The more she thought it over, the more Marnie was convinced that only teaching them the hand-words had been a mistake. Long ago, when she had first invented the signs, she had taught Raven a few mouth-words, but as the signs became more expressive, he had lost interest in speaking. She had tried to teach the boys some words, but they had never progressed very far, although Conor certainly liked to shout and make noise.
Shortly after Lady Grange's disastrous return, Marnie had gone to visit Thoma and Mairhe. She was glad for a chance to see her brother and sister prospering in the young Reeve's household, but even so, her mood was subdued as they dined together. They had all heard about Sera.
I am very sorry for what happened with the girl, Little Hare, Thoma said.
Did you really speak to her mother with the mouth-words? Marnie wanted to know. She tried not to look accusing, but Thoma's face filled with regret.
Yes, I did, he nodded. We only met for a moment. I was busy, and it seemed easier to speak to her than to send for Peadar. I only exchanged greetings with her. If I had known how much trouble it would cause, I would not have done so.
Mairhe shook her head vigorously. No, it was not your fault. That woman believed only what she cared to. Even if you had used the hand-words with her, she still would not have been satisfied.
I wonder, was all Marnie could reply, for in her heart of hearts she did not believe it. If only they could have explained things to her, things would have gone differently.
After the meal, Thoma took Marnie aside for a private talk in the counting room.
I know you are sad about the child, he said kindly, but I brought you here to ask you about your own two sons. Have you given any thought to their futures?
Marnie was taken aback. It was true, Robin at least was old enough to learn a trade, but lately she had been so consumed with Sera that she had been neglecting her own children.
Do you intend to send them out as apprentices? Thoma asked. Marnie smiled bemusedly, thinking back to a similar conversation years ago with the old Reeve, Thoma's father.
I suppose I will ask Donal if he will take them on as apprentices, she signed slowly.
Thoma nodded. I know that Robin already spends much of his time in the workshop. It will be good for him. But Mairhe tells me that you have taught Conor to read and write.
It was true. Conor had discovered the parchments Marnie had used for practice where she kept them stored in the chest, and she had taught him his letters. Conor had taken to them instantly, much faster than Marnie herself had learned, although not surprisingly Robin had shown no interest.
Marnie nodded. Yes, I have taught him what little I know, but that is all.
Thoma's hands moved quickly. Conor is a clever boy. It would be a shame not to teach him more. Will you let me teach him here?
You? Marnie blinked in surprise. Do you mean to apprentice him as you did with Peadar?
Thoma made an impatient sweeping motion, indicating that she had misunderstood her. No, not me, not an apprentice. He is still too young. But if you are willing, my old tutor, Master Hugh, can teach him. He is getting old, so it would be easier if Conor comes here for lessons.
Oh no, Marnie said. I can't ask such a thing of you. I am already in your debt, in your father's debt.
Thoma made a sweeping motion again, this time much more abruptly. Nonsense. It would be a favor to me as well. Master Hugh is idle, with no boys to teach, but I haven't the heart to turn him out. Teaching Conor would give him something to occupy his time, and earn his keep. Thoma's eyes twinkled at her as he gestured entreatingly. Please, tell me you'll consider it.
Marnie smiled, recognizing his ploy for what it was, but she had to admit the plan had merit. I will ask Raven, she said.
To Marnie's dismay, Raven seemed to take little interest in the matter.
Can't the boys stay here? he asked
No, she explained, for the third time. They must learn a trade, so they can earn money when they are grown, and not be idle.
But I don't have a trade, he replied, setting his jaw at her stubbornly.
No, she replied with a snap, and you are idle. We have money thanks to the ring we found, which was luck, and thanks to the kindness of the Reeve. But it's not enough for our children, or our children's children to live on, so they must earn more. And besides, it is not good to be idle. Look at you. You sit about the house all day, and I know you are not happy.
He stared back at her, his expression blank and unreadable. Marnie faltered for a moment, afraid she had truly wounded him.
When he did not reply, she continued, It is a parent's duty to give their sons a trade.
What of Roisin? he asked.
Roisin will marry, and her husband will provide for her. But Robin and Conor must learn a trade so they can provide for their wives when they marry. That is the way of the world, she added insistently. It still surprised her after so many years that he seemed not to know such commonplace things.
Again Raven simply stared at her for a long moment, then at last said simply, Do what you will, and turned away.
Marnie was not to be dissuaded, in spite of Raven's lack of interest. She was accustomed to taking matters into her own hands. Her discussion with Donal was not as encouraging as she had hoped, however. If he were to take Robin on as full apprentice, once his seven years' indenture was over, the boy would have to spend two years as a journeyman in another town before he could set up a shop on his own. The guild rules were strict on this point--apprentices could not remain in the shop indefinitely, only the heir of the master could stay. Marnie also knew Donal was preparing to train his oldest son Daithy to take over the workshop as his heir, and she was loath to push Robin, who was older, in Daithy's place. But she could not imagine Robin moving to a strange town, where he knew no one, and even if he somehow managed as a journeyman, once he set up he own shop, how would he take orders or go to guild meetings? She and Donal debated the matter over and over. Donal was as attached to Robin as his own sons, but since becoming a master joiner, he was reluctant to anger the guild by breaking its rules. In the end, it was Fhiona who suggested a solution.
"If Robin marries one of our daughters, he can be like a second son. He won't be able to open his own shop, but he can stay on and work for Daithy without having to be a journeyman."
"What!" Marnie exclaimed. "He's much too young to be wed!"
Fhiona laughed. "Well, that can come later, but for now we can just say he is betrothed."
Marnie still looked doubtful. "But what if he chooses to marry someone else?" she asked.
Fhiona replied, "Have you seen how much time he spends with our Una? I'm sure he will have her and no other. But if it distresses you, we need not have a formal contract."
Marnie turned to Donal. "Is that so?"
Donal shrugged. "The guild will not mind what I do unless he sets up his own shop. If you are content to wait on the betrothal until they are older, I can still start training him now."
Marnie was distressed to think that Raven would not have his own shop, but there seemed to her no other way. Better that he should work among friends than not at all, and be reduced to beggary. As for the betrothal, she was determined to wait and say nothing, only see how Robin and Una liked each other when they were older.
The boys were ill pleased with being separated and set to different tasks all day, even though Conor did not live at the Reeve's house, but only visited there during the day. Even in their time at home, however, Marnie would not allow them to be idle as they had before, instead spending countless painstaking hours with them, endeavoring to teach them to speak. It was hard going, and they resisted her mightily at first, but with the image of the feral little girl Sera in her mind, she was determined to at least get them to speak a little more. Not to please Lady Grange, for she knew they would never speak as the haughty lady imagined. But the thought of her sons being shunned and feared as Raven had once been, or being alone and terrified like Sera, she could not bear. They would at least learn enough to say their names to strangers, and prove their intelligence.
One day, as Marnie was clearing away the breakfast in the kitchen, she heard a strange guttural shout from the front room, where the boys were dawdling over their porridge, now turned cold. She paused, and heard it again: "MAMA!"
Wiping her hands on her apron, she went running out to the front room, to find Conor looking into his bowl with a studied innocence, and Robin staring at her in surprise.
What? she shook her finger at them. They both shrugged elaborately, and she went back into the kitchen.
Again she heard the shout, "MAMA!"
She ran back out again, to find Conor now holding his sides, barking with laughter, and Robin poking him impatiently, asking what he had done in small gestures that he thought she could not see. She pursed her lips at both of them, then gave Conor a little rap on the head and went back into the kitchen with a great show of annoyance, but secretly she was pleased. Having discovered the power of speech, the boys at last seemed more willing to talk. Mairhe reported that Conor sometimes spoke to the servants and apprentices in the Reeve's house, and she even heard Robin say a word or two when he thought she was not about. Their voices were loud and harsh, and they could only say a few words with any clarity, but her mind was much easier once this change had come about.
Just when Marnie was feeling easier about the boys, and they seemed to be settling to their new tasks, things with Roisin came to a crisis. Roisin had always been so good and obedient, Marnie had let her have her own way and had not kept as close an eye on her as she might have. The winter was at last passing and giving way to a damp, chilly spring, when one afternoon she went out to fetch water from the well and found Roisin crouched against one of the apple trees. She was not sure at first what was happening, but the moment she saw Roisin's tearstained face, all became clear. Marnie sat down beside her on one of the roots that thrust up from the ground. At first Roisin made as if to run and hide, but Marnie grabbed her arm and pulled her towards her, and almost at once Roisin stopped resisting and collapsed on her breast in a flood of tears.
"Oh Mama!" she hiccupped, "Stel is leaving!"
Marnie sighed deeply, regretting that she had not stepped in sooner to put a stop to this.
"He's going to Harrow to be a journeyman, that's over two week's journey away from here! Why! Why does he have to leave?"
Marnie handed her the cloth she had tucked into her waistband and as Roisin wiped at her face, she said, "You know all the apprentices have to go far away to be journeymen."
"But I thought he would stay for me!"
Marnie shook her head in exasperation. "Did he every promise to stay?"
Roisin looked away. "Not in so many words, but I thought…"
Marnie stared at her intently. "You haven't granted him any favors, have you?" When Roisin gaped at her, she asked more directly, "Are you carrying his child?"
Roisin turned dark red. "Mama! No!"
Marnie breathed a sigh of relief. "Well thank the lord for that at least. So what do you intend to do? Will you go with him?"
Roisin hesitated. "May I?"
Marnie gripped her hands strongly. "If you are determined to go with him, I cannot stop you, but you know I do not wish it. Roisin, I need you to stay here to care for your father and brothers. What will they do when I am gone? Who else knows the hand-words as well as you?"
"Mairhe has her own family to look after. Think on this. Would you leave your father and brothers all alone in the world? Conor may shift for himself when he is older, but what of Robin? Would you have him be alone in the world, like Sera?"
As she spoke these last words, Roisin's red eyes became wider and wider. Marnie could see the struggle painted plainly on her daughter's face, and it pained her, but the words had to be spoken.
Roisin set her chin defiantly against her. "You went off and left your mother and father," she said.
Marnie drew her hands away. "Yes, I did," she said, "But it was to serve them, not to serve myself. And I never saw my mother or my home again. Is that what you truly desire?"
Roisin gave an inarticulate yell and jumped to her feet. "You don't understand!" she shouted, her face red and contorted, then she ran off and into the house.
Marnie stood with a groan, stiff from having crouched so long on the chilly ground. The water still needed fetching from the well. As she was hauling the bucket slowly, Fhiona passed by in her own yard, and came over for a talk.
"Why did you not tell me of this sooner?" Marnie cried, although she knew it was unfair to blame her friend.
Fhiona shook her head ruefully. "Will you let Roisin go off with that apprentice?" she asked.
Marnie looked at the ground. "I told her not to go." She looked up again, wringing her hands. "Oh, but I fear I have said the wrong thing! It does seem unfair to keep her at home."
"But you do need her here," Fhiona replied.
"Yes, but is she to be a spinster and live only for her father and brothers? How can I deny her a family of her own? How has it come to this? When I wed Raven, I did so for love, and I do not grudge him for spending my life serving the deaf, but I did not think I would also visit that fate on my entire family, my own sister and now my only daughter…"
Fhiona patted her hands reassuringly. "Do not fret so! Is your family not a happy one? Mairhe has made an excellent match, and wants for nothing. Is that so hard a fate? And as for Roisin, do not worry over her. That apprentice is no great catch, and there are plenty of other young men in the town who will take an interest in her, you'll see."
The rest of the day, Roisin remained hidden upstairs, and Marnie let her be. At supper she at last descended and joined them at the table with a pale face and red eyes. Conor noticed immediately, and pestered her with questions.
What is it? Are you crying? What is wrong? he asked, tugging at her sleeve to get her attention. She turned away without answering, but the others had noticed now too.
Robin gave her a sly grin and said, She's going away with that apprentice Stel. She's going to marry him and go far far away with him.
What? Raven banged on the table in surprise, making the plates jump. No! Joy-of-my-heart, is this true?
Roisin stared at them, seemingly unable to answer.
Raven continued to harangue her. How can you go off and leave us? First Sera, and now you, is no one to stay here?
Roisin's eyes filled with tears again. Without a reply, she bolted up from the table and ran upstairs again.
Now look what you have done! Marnie reproached all of them.
Me? Raven stared back at her, looking stubborn and hurt. She can't leave! Make her stay!
I can't make her stay, Marnie replied. She is stubborn and headstrong like you, she said, pointing at Raven forcefully. She must come to it on her own. Do not trouble her about this any more. Especially you, she said to the boys, who looked away with studied indifference.
Weeks passed, and Roisin seemed to be about the house more often, but as Marnie had ordered, no one commented upon it. At last, one night over supper, Robin burst out, Stel left to be a journeyman today, then dropped his hands with a guilty look at his sister. Roisin turned pale but did not reply, and that was the end of it. Later, as they were preparing for bed, Marnie pulled her aside to see how she fared. Roisin would only shrug. Marnie hugged her tightly, and smoothed her curly black hair, so much like her own.
"I couldn't leave you and Papa," Roisin said at last, her voice muffled as she hid her face on her mother's shoulder.
Marnie hugged her again. "There will be others," she promised.
And so the spring at last turned warmer, and the summer was nearly upon them. The boys were gone from the house most days, but home in the evenings. Marnie was doubly glad Roisin had decided to stay, for as word had got around, there were more people come to learn the hand-signs from them, some who would only come for a few days and others who came and stayed longer, so the house was always alive with activity and people coming and going. Roisin was particularly skilled at teaching the signs, and patient even with the slowest students. Marnie was relieved to see that she took to the task joyfully, and did not seem burdened with it, as she had feared.
At the same time, while Robin was apprenticed to Donal, Raven spent more time in the shop as well, and not only watching, but doing real work. There was still a lingering sadness about him, and from time to time he would fall into a dark mood. Marnie knew he was thinking of Sera, and did not disturb him. But these spells were not so often as they had been, and he at last seemed to take more pleasure from his surroundings. One afternoon in great excitement he fetched Marnie out of the kitchen, and nothing would do but that she come to Donal's workshop with him. In a corner of the shop, he showed her a great wooden chair, with a rich leather seat, and finely chased carvings around the arms and back.
I made it, he told her, with a gleam in his eye that she had not seen for many months. I made it all, the whole thing, for a rich merchant and Donal will take the money from him and give it to me.
Marnie turned around in surprise. "Is this true?" she asked Donal, who was standing behind her, watching with great good humor.
Donal nodded, and answered with the hand-signs. Yes, he does good work, very fine, I give him real work. Raven grinned broadly and puffed out his chest.
Very fine, he repeated.
"Is that alright with the guild?" Marnie asked. "You have already bent the rules for Robin…"
Donal shrugged. "I am the master of my own shop. As long as he doesn't set up his own shop, I can employ whoever I want here."
Raven waved his hands impatiently, cutting off their exchange. From a box behind the chair, he produced a small object and placed it in her hands.
For you, he said. It was a carving of a hare, about to spring, with one ear cocked. Marnie had never seen anything so lifelike.
You made this too? she asked, her signed somewhat truncated as she held the carving in one hand.
Raven nodded proudly. Yes, a hare for you. I get the fish for dinner and make real furniture to sell. You see, I am not idle.
Marnie grasped him and kissed him on either cheek. I know, she said.
Sera's return to them was as unannounced and precipitous as her departure had been. It was high summer, the better part of a year since Lady Grange had taken her back. After the upheavals of the winter and spring, the household had at last fallen into a calm routine. As it happened, both boys were home for dinner, and Conor was entertaining the family with the tale of a pirate attack on a merchant ship, which he had learned in the Reeve's house. He was standing on the bench with his back to the door, gesturing broadly as the rest of the family watched, the remains of the meal spread before them. The artful way his hands sketched the struggle on the rolling waves, it was as if they could see it before them.
There was a pounding at the door, and Elly jumped up to answer it, but Conor did not see her get up, and so continued his story, heedless until at last he noticed everyone else standing and staring, and making for the door. He was the last to turn and see in the doorway was Robert of Cairstiona, very richly dressed as before, but dusty and windblown, as if he had been traveling a great distance. And in his arms, looking equally travel worn, was little Sera.
Raven gave a low yelp and leapt towards the door. Little Hare! Little Hare!
Sera leaned towards him, signing Papa! Papa! then flung herself around his neck. Raven hugged her tightly, then pulled her away to sign to her, We missed you! Are you well? We are so glad you are here!
Little Hare sad, no see Papa, she signed. Marnie noted with dismay that her signs were once again slow and awkward, and she seemed to have fallen back into babyish patterns rather than forming the sentences properly. Although the better part of a year had passed, she had not grown bigger, but rather seemed thinner, and the sunken look had returned to her face.
All this happened in an instant, however, before Robert the miller could greet them himself. Marnie winced, and hoped that he had not noticed his daughter calling Raven Papa, or that he did not know what the signs meant.
There was a great commotion, as everyone pressed forward to sign at Sera, and she hid her face in Raven's shoulder in fright. Robert seemed to be at a loss, so Marnie stepped forward to speak to him.
"I beg your pardon, my lord," she said, but we are very pleased to see your daughter again. My husband had been quite worried about her while she was gone."
"It is a pleasure to see you again, Mistress O'Field," he said, bowing to her again. Marnie was a bit taken aback by all this formality, but urged him to enter, and sent Elly and Roisin to clear the table and bring more food for the guests. She settled Robert at the table and did her best to make him comfortable. He watched Sera and Raven engaged in what appeared to be a long conversation, although Marnie could tell it was mainly loving nonsense.
"You must excuse us for arriving unannounced and without servants," he said. "I'm sure you are wondering why we have returned, and I would not take it amiss if you bear us no good will."
"Why, not at all," Marnie replied. "As you can see, we have all missed Sera and are happy to see her again But your lady wife..."
Robert sighed heavily. "I must apologize for what I am sure were words unbecoming of my lady wife. In spite of what she may have said to you, I have come to bring Sera here to live again, if you will have her. I will of course provide for her--"
"You must understand," Marnie cut him off. "We cannot teach her to speak as your lady wife desires. She will speak with her hands, not her mouth, at best a few words."
Sir Grange nodded carefully. "Yes, that seems to be the way of it."
Marnie still hesitated. "So then for another year? How long? And you must know, we are not so high in station that we may teach her courtly manners or find her a bridegroom such as your lady wife desires."
Robert looked pained. "My lady wife," he said again, with much bitterness. "Again, I am very sorry for the distress she has caused you. The Lady Grange is dissatisfied with her station, and sought to better it through her daughter's advantageous match. But even she now accepts that door is closed to her."
"If I may be so bold," Marnie ventured, "what happened when she took Sera home?"
"As you may guess, there was much storming and bitter reproof. For a short time, she again attempted to teach the child to speak herself, but it came to nothing." He paused for a moment, and Marnie realized he was nearly overcome with emotion. "Ah, mistress, it breaks my heart to think on it! When Sera first returned to us, she was so changed, I hardly recognized her. So pretty and neat, I was sure she had been treated kindly. But after a month at home, it was all the same again, she was sullen and lost weight, and spent all her time crying or raging. To think she prospered in a stranger's house, and in her own home, persecuted and miserable…"
Marnie blushed and turned away. It was as she had feared. "Did she use the signs at all?" she asked at length.
Robert nodded. "Yes, all the time, but with none to understand her, poor thing. At last her nurse learned a few of them, and I as well, but never so many as to satisfy her, and her mother would fly into a passion whenever she saw it."
"How cruel!" Elly burst out, but Marnie shushed her and bade her go into the kitchen. Marnie apologized, deeply embarrassed, but Robert only shook his head.
"No, it is as your maid says, how could a mother be so cruel to her own daughter? And it is even worse than that. When she realized Sera would never make a good match, she turned her ambitions elsewhere, and through the introduction of a distant cousin, as become a lady-in-waiting to the wife of the Earl of Cairstiona, and has gone to the manor to live with her. As soon as her ambition was satisfied, she threw over her own family and said she no longer cared what became of the child." Marnie gasped in surprise. "And still Sera was pining to come back here, so I took her here myself. I could tell from the first moment that this is where she truly belongs." Robert suddenly looked at Marnie beseechingly. "I will set her up handsomely, but may I leave her here with you?"
Marnie was taken aback. "You want to leave her here with us? Forever?"
"You must think me the worst kind of father, to abandon his own child," Robert replied. "And I tell you, it breaks my heart to give her up, but it pains me worse to see her suffering in her own home. I know she will be treated more kindly here than in my household, though it shames me to say it."
Marnie stared at him, but his face was open and entreating, so different from his haughty wife, and she could not but be moved by his words. She turned to Raven, interrupting his affectionate games with Sera, and repeated what the miller had told her. What do you think? she asked. Should we take her to live here with us, always?
Raven grinned broadly. I am very happy. You know I want her to stay here and be our daughter.
But do you think it is right? she pressed him. Is it not wrong for us to take another man's child?
If she goes back with him, Raven gestured dismissively, no one will talk to her, she will be alone always, and be sad and cry every day. Little Hare must stay here with us, where she can talk with the hand-words and not be lonely.
Marnie sighed, for she knew what he said was true, but for her own peace of mind, she had to be sure. She turned to Sera, shaking her arm to get her attention. And yet before she could even ask where the child preferred to be, she had to be clear on one thing. She pointed to the miller and asked, Who is that man?
My father, Sera replied, to Marnie's vast relief.
And what about him? Marnie asked, pointing to Raven. Who is he?
My other father, Sera replied without hesitation.
So you have two families, one here and one in Cairstiona? Marnie asked. Sera appeared puzzled, so she repeated it again, slowly. At last Sera nodded seriously, and repeated, two homes.
Which one do you want to live in, this one or the Cairstiona home? Marnie asked her.
Here! Here! Sera signed broadly. Little Hare no like other home! Stay here!
Are you sure? Marnie pressed her. If you stay here, you can never go back, never see your other mother and father again. Stay here forever?
Sera nodded vigorously.
Marnie turned back to the miller. "It seems you are right, she would prefer to stay here," Marnie said, doing her best to seem impartial. She could not bring herself to tell him that Sera already thought of this as her true home, but perhaps he had realized that long ago.
Robert stayed in Killacurreen for a week, to satisfy himself that Sera was well cared for, and settling a sum of money on Marnie for her keep. During this time, as Marnie was ashamed at the poor conditions for such an exalted guest at her own home, she arranged for him to stay in far greater comfort at the Reeve's house. Robert became acquainted with Thoma and Mairhe, and greatly impressed with the running of their household, confided as much to Marnie.
"The young Reeve is a remarkable fellow," he said to her. "Seeing him so prosperous puts me at greater ease about Sera's prospects when she is grown."
Marnie smiled. "You need not fear on that account. We will see that she is always provided for."
And so Sera's father took his leave of them, with great sadness at leaving her behind, but reassurances that he would return whenever he could to see how she fared. Marnie was pleased to see that even in those few days in the Reeve's house, Robert had learned a few more of the hand-words, and took his leave of Sera himself. She very solemnly promised to remember him and look for his return, although it was clear she was greatly relieved to be living in Killacurreen again.
Marnie had never thought she would be so pleased to see the child that had at first caused her so much grief, but on Sera's return, there was a sense that their family was complete again. Certainly Raven was overjoyed to have her back, and his good humors returned. Just as her own family was feeling more settled, Mairhe confided in her sister that she would soon have their first child, and at almost the same time, Peadar at last brought home a wife.
Marnie had been troubled for a long time that her youngest brother seemed to cling to the wild ways of youth for too long, and was reluctant to marry. She had long suspected that he was unwilling to bring a woman into the house who did not know the hand signs. In the end, he went to what seemed to her the opposite extreme, and brought home a foreign woman, whom he had met overseas on the Reeve's business, a dark-skinned woman of strange beauty who went by the name Vica. This woman, still young and apparently of great good humor, did not speak their language at all when Peadar first brought her home, and he often joked that it was easier to teach her the hand-words than the mouth-words. Indeed, there seemed to be something to what he said, for although she eventually learned their language well enough, her accent was always hard to understand, but conversely, she became quite voluble and even eloquent with the hand-words fairly quickly. Although Peadar had married her out of hand on shipboard, Thoma insisted on having a bridal feast for them as soon as he was able, which as it turned out was not until the end of the summer, for it took some time to arrange such an elaborate feast.
It was as they were preparing for the feast, and Marnie and Roisin and Elly were engaged every day in sewing the clothes for the bride and groom, that she had an unexpected visitor. Father Seamus, now a very old man, had more or less retired and left the main work of running the church and holding the mass to a younger priest, but he still made the rounds among his parishioners. Indeed, he now came to visit their household more often than he had in previous years. On this day, as Marnie, Roisin and Elly were sitting on the bench in front of the house, taking full advantage of the bright sunlight for their needlework, they noticed a cloud of dust coming up the road, and soon recognized Father Seamus' little cart, but as he approached it became clear that he bore with him a companion, even more aged and wizened than he.
"Mother, who is that old man?" Roisin asked as the cart drew up before their house, but instead of answering, Marnie leapt from the bench with a whoop unbecoming one of her age, and rushed to the side of the cart to embrace the old man. It was Father Brannan, now much reduced, thin and wrinkled, with most of his red hair gone, but seemingly no less joyful to see her again.
"Marnie my girl, you have not changed a bit! I would have recognized you anywhere!" he shouted, as she helped him down from the cart. They embraced again, and Marnie at last introduced him to the astonished Roisin and Elly.
"But what brings you here, Father?" Marnie inquired at last.
"Why, to see you, of course! I have thought long these many years on how you and your Raven have fared in the world, and I swore that before I died I would see you prosperous and happy. I only regret that nearly twenty years had to pass before I found time for the journey."
Nothing would do but that both Father Brannan and Father Seamus come in and take their dinner with them, and spend the day visiting and conversing. Conor was away at his lessons at the Reeve's house, but Raven and Robin soon came back from Donal's workshop at dinner time. Raven was astounded to see Father Brannan again, recognizing him at once with a great show of emotion, cries and embraces. Marnie explained his visit, and Raven insisted on seating him at the head of the table, and pouring his wine himself, as befitted him as the master of the household. As the meal began with the customary noise and commotion, Father Brannan turned to Marnie in wonder.
"The mad boy of Torcurra! Who could have imagined it?"
Marnie hushed him. "We do not like to speak of such painful memories here. And think, he has been the master of his own house for longer than he was the wild boy."
Father Brannan nodded. "Indeed! I would hardly have recognized him, he has changed so completely, and it is all to your credit, my dear." Marnie blushed. "But these flutterings with the hands have only increased! Such noise, and yet I can't understand a word!" For as usual, the family was conversing for the most part with their hands, punctuated with shouts and cries, or banging on the table or floor to get someone's attention. Even Father Seamus had learned a few signs, and was asking Robin how he liked his work.
Marnie looked down the table with great satisfaction, then turned to Father Brannan with a laugh. "Yes," she said, "The rule is that all in this house must learn the hand-words and use them, and if you wish to visit with us you must learn them too!" Father Brannan laughed with her, but insisted he was much too old to learn, and to her dismay made no move in that direction. Although she had hoped that he and Raven would have much to talk about, both seemed satisfied with a simple greeting. In spite of her efforts to translate, the conversation between the two of them did not go much further than that.
Father Brannan stayed in Killacurreen for two weeks, lodging in the rectory with Father Seamus, but spent many days visiting with Marnie. She also took him to the Reeve's house and introduced him to Thoma, and to her sister and brother, whom he greeted with great kindness, but of all the family he seemed the most impressed with Conor, although of course he did not speak to him directly. They also met with Master Hugh, Conor's tutor, and the two had a long, animated conversation as the boy copied out his lesson for the day.
"That boy of yours is remarkable," Father Brannan commented to Marnie later. "Did you really teach him his letters yourself?"
Marnie blushed. "Just a bit, when he was younger. But it was thanks to you, Father, that I learned myself, although as you said, I have had little occasion to use it."
"But to think he has learned to read and write! And what is more, Master Hugh tells me he has learned Latin as well."
"Has he now?" Marnie had not heard this before.
"Indeed! Master Hugh himself is not sure how he picked it up, only that he gave him the lessons to copy, and he somehow worked it out on his own. To learn to read and write in two languages he can neither hear nor speak, I tell you, that boy has a rare talent."
Marnie found herself at a loss for words.
"Do you have a plan for the boy's future?" Father Brannan pressed on.
"No, he is not yet ten years. For now, he is only studying with Master Hugh as a sort of favor to Thoma to give the master something to do. He's not an apprentice, and Thoma does not seem inclined to make him one."
Father Brannan nodded eagerly. "Good, even better! He shall go into the church."
"What?" Marnie had not thought on this. Killacurreen was a shipping town; there were not many churchmen there.
"There is a monastery just to the east of here, over the hills. There are men of great learning there who can make him a great scholar. The ordered way of life there would suit him very well. The monks discourage idle conversation. He need not speak at all."
Privately, Marnie wondered how well this really would suit Conor, who was friendly and sociable. On the other hand, he did seem quite taken with his studies already. Perhaps there was some merit in this. She promised to discuss the matter with Raven.
Father Brannan laughed. "The thought of discussing something with him still seems strange to me," he admitted. Marnie gave him a sharp look, and he added a bit sheepishly, "But he is as you say the master of the house, of course you must discuss the matter with him."
At Marnie's insistence, Father Brannan stayed on for Peadar's wedding feast. The day was warm and sunny, and like Thoma and Mairhe's wedding, the feast was held outside in the town square, with tables and chairs set up for the invited guests, food for all in the town who wished to attend, and generous handouts for the poor. Peadar sat at the center of the table, his broad face grinning with delight as he pinched and teased his dark bride. Vica for her part seemed to take his teasing with good humor. Thoma and Mairhe sat on either side of them. Mairhe was now grown very large and looking like her time was nearly upon her, but it did not seem to trouble her, although she perhaps moved a bit slowly. Marnie sat at the far end of the main table, next to Father Brannan, with Raven and the children before her.
Father Brannan leaned towards Marnie with a twinkle in his eye. "You have raised a fine family, my girl," he said to her in a low voice.
Marnie stared back at him in surprise, startled at how much it meant to her to hear him say so. "Truly?" she asked. "Oh Father, you do not know how many times I have doubted myself!"
Father Brannan placed a wrinkled hand on hers, and gestured down the table with the other. "How could you doubt it?" he asked. Marnie followed his gaze. Robin and Conor had fallen into one of their deep, complex conversations, while Roisin was signing the words to a ballad sung by one of the nearby troubadours to the enchanted Sera. Raven, seated the furthest away, was conversing with Thoma, and even with other guests who passed by to give their greetings.
"Who could ever have imagined it?" Father Brannan continued. "Only you, mistress." Watching their shining, smiling faces and fluttering hands, Marnie was filled with the deepest joy and contentment.
After the meal, the pipes and drums began to play in earnest, and the guests drifted away from the table to join the dancing. Marnie was pleased to see Roisin dancing with several boys. Perhaps as Fhiona had said, she would find a better match in town. She seemed to have recovered from her broken heart faster than Marnie would have guessed. Not only that, but lately Roisin seemed to take her role as a teacher of the hand-signs much more seriously, and spent many hours with the frequent visitors to their house. Like her mother, she seemed determined to keep the house as place for any who wished to come and learn the hand-signs from them.
As for the boys, after much discussion, she and Raven had decided to send Conor to the church in two more years. Raven was aggrieved at the idea of any of the children leaving, but Marnie had convinced him that it was for the best. She watched Conor run off with a group of boys, some of whom she recognized from the Reeve's household and some she did not. It broke her heart to send him away so young, but seeing him playing with the hearing boys so easily gave her hope that he could make his own way in the world, and she swelled with pride to think of him becoming a great scholar.
Her other children would stay close to home, she was sure. She could see Robin dancing next to Una, Fhiona and Donal's second daughter. Robin was gamely if a bit stiffly following her lead, while Una encouraged him with a quick gesture. Perhaps as Fhiona had said, they would wish to marry. Marnie hoped they might come to an agreement when they were a bit older. It would be a good match. Una was a sweet girl, adept with the hand-words, and marrying into the family would make it easier for Robin to take a place in the workshop.
Nearby, close to the musicians, but a little ways away from the circle of dancers, Raven was playing with Sera, swinging and whirling her about by the hands as fast as he could, until her feet left the ground, and she shrieked with delight. Marnie went over to them, and they both smiled at her expectantly. She and Raven each took one of Sera's hands and the three of them danced in a ring, laughing.