“It's me,” I said stupidly. And then, while I was searching for what name to call myself by, she told me plainly that she knew who was there.
“I promised Burrich I'd look after you and the young ones. I promised him.”
The door opened a crack. I could see one of her eyes as she said, “Funny. That was what he told me when he first began to bring things to my door. That he had promised you, before you died, that he'd look after me.”
I had no answer to that, and the door started to close. I shoved my foot into it. “Please. Let me in. Just for a moment.”
“Move your foot or I'll break it.” She meant it.
I decided to risk it. “Please, Molly. Please. After all the years, don't I get one chance to explain? Just one?”
“The time for explaining was sixteen years ago. When it might have made a difference.”
“Please. Let me in.”
She jerked the door suddenly open. Her eyes were blazing and she said, “I only want to hear one thing from you. Tell me about my husband's last hours.”
“Very well,” I said quietly. “I suppose I owe you that.”
“Yes,” she said as she stepped away from the door, holding it just wide enough that I could eel through. “You owe me that. And a lot more.”
She wore a night robe and wrapper. Her body was fuller than I remembered it, her figure a woman's rather than a girl's. It was not unattractive. The room smelled of her, not just the perfume she wore, but of her flesh and of beeswax and candle-making. Her dress was neatly folded on top of the chest at the foot of the bed. A trundle bed made up beside hers proclaimed that her boys would sleep here with her. Her brush and comb were set out on a table, more by habit than for any need of them.
The first stupid words out of my mouth were “He would not have wanted you to cut your hair.”
She lifted a self-conscious hand to her head. “What would you know about it?” she demanded indignantly.
“The first time he saw you, long before he took you from me, he commented on your hair. ‘A bit of red in her coat' is what he said.”
“He would put it like that,” she said, and then, “He never ‘took me' from you. We thought you were dead. You let us think you were dead and I knew despair. I had nothing except a child depending on me for everything. If anyone took anything, I took him. Because I loved him. Because he treated me well and he treated Nettle well.”
“I know that.”
“I am glad that you do. Sit there. Tell me how he died.”
So I sat on a chair and she perched on the clothing chest, and I told her of Burrich's last days. It was the last conversation I would have imagined having with her in those circumstances and I hated it. Yet, as I spoke, I felt also a terrible relief. I needed to be telling her these things as much as she needed to be hearing them. She listened avidly as if every word were a moment of his life that she could reclaim for herself. I hesitated to speak of Burrich's Wit, yet there was no way to leave it out of the tale. She must have heard of it before, for she showed no shock or revulsion. I told it in a way that not even Swift could have, for I could say to her that at the end, it was obvious to me how much Burrich loved his son, that there was no rift between them when he died. It was different from telling it to Nettle. Molly understood the full significance of Burrich's asking me to look after her and his little sons. I repeated what he had said to me, that he had been the better man for her, and I repeated to her that I agreed with that.
She sat up straight and spoke bitterly. “Fine. So you both agreed on that. Did either of you ever think to consult with me on it? Did either of you ever pause to consider that perhaps the decision belonged to me?”
And those words opened the door for me to go back down the years, and to tell her what I was doing, and where and how I had learned that she had given herself to Burrich. She looked away from me, chewing on her thumbnail, as I spoke. When my words lapsed to silence she said, “I thought you were dead. If I had known otherwise, if he had known otherwise . . .”
“I know. But there was no safe way to send word to you. And then, once you had . . . it was too late. If I had come back, it would have torn all of us apart.”
She leaned forward, her chin cupped in both her palms and her fingers over her mouth. Her eyes were closed, but tears welled from under her lashes. “What a mess you made of it. What a mare's nest we made of our lives.”