Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Chapter 32: Wooing Food




Moments later they were all assembled.  And eating, thankfully.  The two other adults present were quiet. 

The fact that Miles and Ruthie seemed to have tag-teamed looking in on Neith was highly suspect. 

Neith could see Elle was somewhere else in thought as she chewed.  Neith didn’t think it was the food.  Maybe distraction would dull her tastebuds.

Neith concentrated on her plate and shovelling in bites of the admittedly mediocre offering atop it.  She looked up to take in the balls of energy around her in between bites.

Davey was making his utensils talk in small voices and had arranged all pieces of food bearing any black to the edge of his plate. 

Nola had come with Miles.  She wore eyes wide and eager.  She seemed more alive at this table than Neith had ever seen her before.  She hadn’t been to Elle’s with her Papa since Neith had been there.  Neith wondered if Nola had enjoyed regular dinners with her cousins and aunt before they harboured an outsider.  Nola was perched on the edge of her stool so that her side was up against Ruthie’s.

Ruthie seemed regal as she carefully (and mercifully) ate.  She nodded and mmm-hmmed as Nola reported the details of a book she had just read. 

Elle broke her own glazed stare at the table centre.  She looked around as though seeing she had company for the first time.  She smiled weakly.  “I see you’ve made a few additions to dinner,” Elle led, almost winking at Neith.

Before Neith could answer, Ruthie smiled at Nola to acknowledge she knew Nola was still speaking to her, before turning to her mother. “That was me.  I came home and had a few suggestions.  I’m sorry they didn’t turn out so well.”

“You mean you rescued this poor girl when she realised she was out of her depth making a meal from so little.  That is my fault.  The timing was bad, I’m sorry I left you with this, Nee.” 

Then Miles spoke for the first time; “I wouldn’t say out of her depth so much as a little out of her element.” 

His emphasis was clear.  The pun-ster strikes again.  With a mildly insulting pun, but a Mr Flynnesque pun, no less.

“I was.  I will not deny it.  Before I came here, I think the most complicated thing I’d tackled without a recipe was…boiling pasta.”  She was exaggerating, but knew accepting teasing worked wonders, as a shield.

“Thank you, Neith.  You did well with what we gave you.”  Elle smiled with her eyes, pointedly.

“You also boil eggs just fine now, Nee.”  Ruthie managed to sound encouraging and tease at the same time.

“A boiled egg is hard to beat.”  Miles smelted at Neith after taking another bite. He seemed pleased to hear Elle groan in response to her little brother’s joke.   

“Maybe you two could take some cooking lessons together?  Jamin could teach you both how to prepare fish, prevent future disasters, get better jokes...”  Elle hid behind her hand as she brought her cup to her mouth. 

Neith gave Elle the most minute head shake known to man.

“That reminds me!  It was quite an eventful afternoon!”  Ruthie’s latest remark drew the please-don’t-do-it eyes from Neith. 

“Oh yes?  How so?”  Elle paused between bites, and looked at Ruthie.

“Neithy found her first dead bird.”  Ruthie adding a suffix of endearment to Neith’s name softened the further teasing that was surely imminent. 

Davey became alert.  “A bird?  What kind?  Where was it?  Could you tell how it died?”  Neith saw his eyes were for her.

Neith nodded her head with each answer, smiling at delightful Davey as she spoke; “It was a fantail before it met its end, it was right outside.”  Neith ignored Ruthie’s smirk, “and I have been informed that Ninja was responsible.”

“What does unfommed mean?”  Davey asked, adoring.

Neith looked up and thought for a moment, noting neither Elle nor Mr Flynn offered definitions.  Neith had answered similar questions a few times in Elle’s company, but never attempted to educate on the fly in front of an aphrodisiac-fuelled teacher.  “‘Informed’ means I had been told.”

“Oh.”  Satisfied, Davey returned to eating a bite here and there between bursts of animating his cutlery. 

Feeling braver for having fielded a question, Neith added, “I have also been informed that this means Ninja has adopted me.”

Elle laughed.  Ruthie beamed to hear Neith confess the subject of her own embarrassment so readily. (A self-sabotage on Neith’s part.  She hoped to prevent worse). 

Miles smiled, impressed to hear Neith reincorporate the word “informed” so promptly to help consolidate learning for the young listeners.  Miles looked at Elle as he spoke; “Are we talking about the same cat?  Because if we are, I wouldn’t go that far.  Besides, I believe someone else has already staked that claim.” 

Elle blinked slowly in reply, drew a breath and looked to Neith to offer a small nod of affection. 

Ruthie allowed the warm commentary a brief moment to radiate there, in the air, but then couldn’t resist adding, “But Ninja’s certainly raised a paw.  ‘I will help feed this pathetic hunter.’”  She put her hand up, fingers together.  She held her breath a moment before releasing it with more laughter.

“I’ll take it,” Neith said with a smile in Ruthie’s direction.  “Hands, paws, I’ll take whatever’s offered!  I need all the help I can get!”  A pause.  “I hope I haven’t offended Ninja. He probably wanted me to eat from his buffet.”  Neith raised her eyebrows.  Ruthie kept laughing.

Nola looked back and forth between Neith and Ruthie, piecing together what was being inferred.  She contorted her face in disgust.  “I am so glad we are not eating fantail guts for dinner!”

 Davey laughed. “Guts!”  Then he stilled his fork and knife, upright.  “Why are we eating two dinners?”  said Davey.

“Ssssh,” Elle whispered towards him. 

At first Neith assumed Davey was confused, and A-okay with the Cat Buffet option.  Then Davey continued.  “I’m pretty full already.”

Neith looked around the table and realised everyone had eaten a little, but not much.  She had assumed this was due to the awful factor – which was fairly high.

“I think it’s safe to tell her.”  Elle was looking at Miles then Ruthie, while she spoke.

Miles shrugged in reply and ate another bite of food.  At least someone was willing…or hungry. 

Tell her what?

Elle turned to look at Neith again.  “Rose had her baby this afternoon.  That was why I left so quickly.  As well as enjoying these little ones,” she stretched out her hand to squeeze a nearby cheek, “I am a midwife.” 

A baby?!  A baby was born somewhere in the camp!?  And Neith had been in the very same village.  “Oh.”  She wasn’t sure what she felt.  Midwifery was what she had suspected Elle did all along.  A birth was something Neith had never had access to before coming to Nydia, nor would she feel any right to attend one now – even if she knew this Rose.  The fact Nydia had agreed to keep any knowledge about a current pregnancy from Neith confirmed there was trust yet to be earned.  She didn’t blame them.

“Now I understand why you left – and in such a hurry – but where was everyone else?”  Neith imagined an assembly of Nydians chanting and looking on during the arrival of a blessed babe.  Please don’t let that be how it is.  She shook her head, and concentrated on listening for the answer.

“Well, I was there.  It was fast!”  Ruthie looked at her mother to see if she’d misspoken too many details.  Elle smiled.  Everyone else was at the party! It may have taken me an hour, but now I answered your question!” Ruthie pointed at Neith and smiled.

“Everyone in the village meets together in the rec hall, away from the home of the labour, to give the family some privacy to welcome their new family member.  Living in a place like this, we can be a little too much in each other’s pockets.  As soon as the baby is born, everyone celebrates a new addition to the community, as well.”

“Crowd control,’” Miles chimed in.

“Ma doesn’t like everyone rushing in on the newborns.”  Ruthie had given up her utensils now, happy to end the farce of eating over and above what she had apparently grabbed herself at the baby party. 

“There’s that.  But it’s pretty hard to keep a secret in Nydia.  Best to accept it, and have a plan.  Some things should be sacred, and birth is one of them.”  Neith was relieved to be able to dismiss images of the occult from her mind.  “It’s the same reason we have a party late into the night after a wedding!  Some nights, people just need to be busy elsewhere!”

Neith flushed upon realising Elle’s implied meaning.  Mother like daughter!  Neith wasn’t very surprised to learn the community reserved intimacy for after a marriage ceremony here.  It seemed fitting – until today she hadn’t heard any reference to sex since leaving Feichangbei.  Now she was hearing about it in the company of a pun-maker.  She flushed brighter remembering his presence. Once she had pulled herself together, she looked up and realised there were questions one asked, after news such as this.  She had never heard this kind of news before.

“So, was it a boy or a girl?”

“A girl!  Early, but a beautiful little girl with a head full of hair!”  Elle answered.  The early part appeared to be Elle’s cause of concern.

“So everyone else is still there now?”  Elle’s side of the village was still quiet.  “At the party.”

“Well, many folks.  But those of us with little ones to get in bed before too long excused ourselves.”  Elle smiled again at Davey.  He had asked to be excused and was busy with Amos by the door playing with a pile of flat stones. 

Miles looked worried and spoke again: “And those with dinner engagements.”  Neith felt a rush of warmth spread all over her.  These people had come home to be with her and her pathetic meal, leaving the celebration behind.  How long could they have been able to attend?  Twenty minutes?  Miles had even come earlier to look in on her, the one barred from attending.

“Shall we pack this up then?”  Ruthie looked to her mother.

“Go on, then.”  Elle started to scrape and stack the unfinished plates on the table. Neith hoped Ninja liked fish, super-smoked.

Despite realising she had been deliberately left out of something so big today, all Neith felt was gratitude for the inclusion she felt now.  These people cared for her.  And how could she begrudge a family and people she barely knew for hesitating to invite her to an event to which she’d earned no invitation?  They’d done the right thing.  She was reporting more often than they knew.  She made a decision then.  She wasn’t reporting the birth – it was exactly the type of event Neith feared could prompt a change in approach.  Her assignment was about gaining trust.

A baby.  Without a hospital.  With a party.

Neith joined Miles in sweeping.  The space was quickly clear for having extra helping hands.  She regretted that part, because he hadn’t been there long, and she’d hoped one of the children would ignite his passion for talking before he left.  “Thank you Elle, Neith, for having me over, and for the meal.  Nola?” Miles dipped his head, and moved to his shoes, balanced on the chest to one side of the door.  He smiled and tipped a deposit of stones out of his shoe before pulling it on while sitting on the couch.  Nola pulled her boots on reluctantly beside him. Miles quietly arranged the stone-gifts he’d found in his shoe into the Letter “A,” like a thank-you.  Ever the Educator. 

After the Flynn family had left and Elle’s three were asleep, the two women settled into their evening routine. 

“So, you bring babies into the world?”  Neith opened, once they were both settled with their mugs.

“I help.  Babies make their own way, in their own time.”

“And Rose – her baby was early?”

“Yeah.”  The grim tell returned; Elle had seen a lot today.  “Not so early the little girl’s having trouble breathing, but early enough that breastfeeding may be hard.  But then, it’s hardly ever easy, with the first.  But Neith – the grand design of it all amazes me every time.”  She didn’t mention God, but Neith knew from the reverent yet jubilant timbre in her voice she was sharing something she felt deeply about and that it was something bigger. 

“You know, when a baby is nursing, a hormone is released inside both the baby and mother – a happy hormone that soothes them both after the birth.  But it’s more than that.  It helps the mother’s uterus to contract and reduces blood loss.  Does that all sound like biological fluke, to you?”  Elle’s expression was pleading.  “I still remember breastfeeding in the night, half awake.  That same hormone acts as a sedative later.  I’d doze off, and wake up to find myself in some pretty unusual positions.”  Pieces of Elle’s fuzzy hair bounced as she laughed, radiant.  She contorted herself into a pose with one arm in the air, the other down, and her head crooked on an awkward angle.  Neith laughed too.  “The hormone also helped me heal, and told my brain I could manage; sleep deprivation could be okay.”

These were things Neith had never thought about.  She wondered if her mother had found nursing difficult, or was it this miraculous journey Elle described.  Was it both?  Neith knew if she had become a mother, she would have talked with Lucienne Cole about some of these things.  But because she hadn’t, they didn’t.  There was so much Neith didn’t know about her mother because she wasn’t one herself.  She fingered the cuff on her wrist.

“My mother gave me this.  She told me she wore it on the wrist of whichever side she had nursed on last – so she’d know to start me on the other side the next time.” 

“Genius!  I wish I’d thought of it!  I tend to…” Elle held her fingers close together and then prodded the top of her chest at a downward angle on both sides, another demonstration.  “A little less classy.”  They laughed at her re-enactment of a dazed mother, fumbling to feel fullness. 

“She gave the bracelet to you then?  Was she still…hopeful?  …you’d get to use it?”  Elle was bolder than she had been when they’d met back in winter. 

“No.”  Neith smiled as she spoke.  “She wasn’t.  And that was the greatest gift she could have given me; letting go.”

Elle brought the steam from her tea up to her nose, brooding. “I think I’m starting to understand.  When you first came here, I felt so much sadness when I thought of everything you would miss – pretty much every good thing in my life, was never to be in yours.  Then the months passed.  I see now how wrong I was.  The good things in my life are in yours.”  Elle rested the mug on her lap.  Neith knew Elle meant her kids – the good things equated to the kids.  “They love you, Nee.” 

“I feel the same.” 

“Elle?”

“Yeah?”

“Ruthie told me about the Wooing Food.”

Elle laughed breathily.  “Did she now?”

“She did.  What I want to know is – what happened to ‘It’s complicated?’  You’re playing matchmaker now?”

Elle drew a long breath and sat down her mug.  “I said that before I talked to Ruthie about all this.  After hearing it the way she tells it, I wanted to get you two in a room so I could see for myself.  As for the aphrodisiacs…well, there’s no harm in helping things along.”  She laughed.  “He’s a good man, Nee, and I don’t think he – or anyone here – ever thought he’d get a second chance.”  She held up her fingers.  “Don’t get me wrong, it’s still complicated.  But I can see what Ruthie’s been going on about.”

“And?”  Neith held her breath.

“Ruthie’s right.  He’s going to make a move with or without us.”

Neith thrilled at the thought. She hadn’t been imagining the warmth in Miles’ gaze.  There had been moments at the water clock where she’d hoped, but was so confused.  She dismissed much as his teacher glow.  But tonight, she knew, he’d smelted at her without anyone to teach; she knew it.  Elle’s confirming it helped.  Neith hadn’t experienced any of this before.  This redefined “complicated.”  How did her options for proceeding with MinSci work with Miles in the equation?  It complicated which side of the line she would like to be standing on, when this was over. 

 Someone who awoke the hope of something like what Lucienne and Owen had was hiding in Nydia.  She traced the rim of her mug and wondered what her parents would think of Miles.  Elle remained quiet. 

Neith’s tea and Elle’s energy reserve were at empty. Neith had one more question, before they called it a day. 

“Elle?  Do babies get flushed on their cheeks, when new teeth are coming in?” 

“Sometimes.” 

Neith waited for Elle to ask Why, why do you want to know? When she didn’t, Neith realised why.  Curiosity or fascination in life’s beauty and wondering about motherhood didn’t send up any flags for Elle; Elle would sooner say: Why wouldn’t you want to know?

Why wouldn’t Neith want to know more about what it felt like to be a mother?