CHAPTER NINETEEN

"He's asleep," said Mary Kathleen as William came into the cabin. "It gets dark so early, and the cabin stays so dark in the afternoon. He can't see well, poor lad, in this dark. Just tires him. I thought the winter might give him push for curin', but... it's just made him more poorly."

"Nae, Mary Katie. It may get dark, but soon it will reach its darkest day and then each day thereafter will be brighter. But I've brought something that may give him some joy until then, and you some peace of mind about your corn bin."

In the dim lamplight, Mary Kathleen could see William pull a small bundle from within his coat lapel. The bundle was calico, the bundle had big eyes, and the bundle made a tiny but powerful me-yew

sound.

:Oh! William! Oh!"

"Do you think he'll like to look after it until it's a big, tough mouser?"

"I think you should ask him, he's awaken for his supper now, Good ev'ning, Laurie," said Mary Kathleen.

Laurie, who had indeed fallen fast asleep in his chair by the fire, his head well-supported by the chair back, groggily peered into the space of the cabin. The dull glow from the lamp and the fireplace did nothing to give any detail but for two shadows that moved across the space to his right.

"William?" he asked.

"Aye. You've missed the day, you have."

"Is it snowing yet?"

"No, not yet."

Laurie squinted, trying to see them, to make himself included. He hated missing so many days and so much time, and no matter how much he tried to force his hands and arms to move, they wanted to prove him the opposite. It made everything seem useless, futile. Mary Kathleen told him she saw strength and endurance and progress, but he thought she was offering platitudes. He wasn't doing anything useful at all, how could she think he was getting any better?

"Would it help ye t'have some chores? Maybe small livestock to tend?" William passed the kitten into Laurie's lap and placed Laurie's hand on the tiny warm body.

"Can ye raise this wee one into a strong healthy mousing cat?"

Laurie's mouth dropped open before widening into a happy grin. "It's a little kitten! Mary! Did you see? What colour is it?"

Mary dropped down beside the chair. "It's calico. It has brown and black and gold, and there's a wee bit of white on its chin and bib and its paws. You'll see her in the light, she's lovely. She's so small, you see?"

"Yes, she's barely old enough to stand up proper," Laurie said, dropping his head down low over his chest, trying to peer at the kitten.

"Better get her some milk then. We need a cat, Laurie, and I don't have time to nurse it. Wallace Merritt had the pair of them off his boat, his old Tilly had another batch of kittens and they were the runt pair. He hasn't drowned one yet and he has no mind to do it, so he wondered if we wanted them, Law and me. So Law took the grey one home to Lavinia."

"Please let me look after it," Laurie begged. "I'll feed it. I'll make it big and strong so you won't have to worry about mice at all." His fingers ran over the soft, fluffy fur of the new kitten that let out a little mee-yew. He laughed. "She agrees," he said.

William raised his eyebrows at Mary Kathleen and gave her a little smile. "The job is yours, Laurence," he said.

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Mary Kathleen showed Laurie how to let the kitten suckle some milk from a napkin soaked in the fresh evening's milk she brought in with her. She fluffed the cold out of her skirts before she dipped the napkin into the bucket and took it to him. The kitten, still frightened and unsure, had fallen asleep in the warm cocoon of Laurie's hand cupped over her. Mary Kathleen showed him how to turn the soft linen into a corner and put it to the kitten's mouth.

"Don't worry about you findin' her mouth," she assured him. "She'll find you." She moved his hand with the napkin to the small bucket with the milk in it, just next to his chair, and dipped the napkin again. This time, the kitten licked the fabric and then latched on.

"I can feel that," Laurie said. "She's sucking it!"

"'Tis a good sign, that," Mary Kathleen said. "You see how much she'll take, and watch how fast she grows."

Laurie smiled down at the kitten. It was so tiny under his hands. He couldn't imagine it being a big strong cat one day. "She and I will become strong together, eh, Mary Kathleen?"

"Aye, I'll have you both chasin' vermin out of me stores and pantry soon enough, put ye both straight t'work an' all."

"Guess we best be drinkin' our milk and our cream," Laurie said to the kitten.

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"Go!" said Laurie. "Go to church. It's New Year's Eve, and Mary must go—"

"I will not leave you here by yourself," Mary Kathleen stated firmly. "William can go, I shall stay here."

"You are going with the Laws," said William to Mary Kathleen. "They are taking the cutter and they can squeeze in three."

"William, I have no right to take your blessings from you. It's not even my Church. Please. You must go. It's not my place to go."

William turned to her, taking her elbow gently in his hand. "Mary Katie. You enjoyed yourself last year. I want you to enjoy yourself again. Please."

"But..." She looked down at her new boots peeping out from her hem. "It wouldn't be so enjoyable... without having you... and Laurie. If you aren't going to go... Maybe we should just have our own Christmas Eve here. William... we could even ask the Laws to come here instead. Perhaps Mr. Law could provide us with a sermon? And... you could play your pipes... Laurie... you can sing a little, can't you? Does Mr. Law play any music? I will cook the hog. And we shall have the last of the spring potatoes boiled. So they won't spoil the new ones. It will be crowded with five, but joyful to bring in the New Year."

"I will ask them," William said, a twinkle in his eye as he replied to her wishes. He liked the idea of staying in and having the neighbours come over for celebration and sermon. He liked that they would all be included this way. Maybe it would brighten Laurie's spirits as well.

When the snow fell between Christmas and New Year's, it made the Laws even more willing to take William up on his offer, and not have to slog through the wet snow and mud to King's Town. Lavinia would bring sweet pies and some of her pickles, and Nathan Law would provide tobacco and dancing. Even Laurie laughed and thought that seemed fair.

Since they had not ventured into King's Town for Christmas Eve church ceremonies, when William next went in on Tuesday before the Year End, the Hunts were quick to ask him how things out at the homestead were, if Laurie was still convalescing at home, and if they would be in for the Church Service and the ringing in of the New Year again this year.

"With Mr. Williams unable to travel at present, we're going to do our ringing and sermoning at home, with the Laws. Have our own celebrations close at hand."

"How is young Williams?" asked Stephen Hunt.

"He's coming along fine. Slow recovery, 'twas a hard fall, that, but he's getting stronger, and much thanks to that wee Mary Kathleen. She's looked right after him. I dare say if she'd never come, we'd be right out of luck, Laurie and I."

"Will he? Recover, I mean?" asked Mrs. Hunt. "We heard he is much an invalid in his own home."

William furrowed his brows. He knew the proprietress of the shop, as well as the shop owner, were very knowledgeable on the gossip of the townsfolk and those of the shire beyond. He figured they had learned from possibly the doctor or the minister himself about Laurie's misfortunes.

"Oh, aye, I dunnae doubt it. As I say, he's getting stronger every day. He'll be back up on his feet before spring, I'm certain." William dropped the sack of coffee beside the sack of sugar Mr. Hunt had weighed for him. "Until then, we'll carry on. Now, do ye have the little crackers that I found here last time? Mary Kathleen did like those for her tea, and I reckon I can win extra dessert if I take a packet to her today. And how about peppermint sugar sticks. There must be a treat for the dinner table, after all." William swallowed uncomfortably and looked around at the jars of candy. He was starting to wonder if he was giving them more gossip to spread around town. He quickly loaded the satchels over his shoulders and finished settling the tab. He wanted to protect both Laurie and Mary Kathleen from the gossip of the town. They were his family now, he felt protective of them. On his way home, he realised he quite liked the feeling.

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Mary Kathleen spent the day before New Year's Eve preparing, and the morning of, she woke early in order to set things in motion. When Laurie woke much later, the cabin smelled of spices and bread and roasting pork. It was still dark outside, but the glow of the fire and the scents in the air brought him awake faster than the sun would have.

"Mary?"

"Yes? Hello, Laurie, good morning."

"Is William gone?"

"Yes. He won't stay out late. He and Mr. Law will collect Lavinia and then come for our New Year's celebrations. Would you like your morning ablutions now?"

Laurie sighed. As much as he hated to have Mary Kathleen help him prepare for the day every morning, he couldn't do it without her. She helped him with the bedpans and the bathing and dressing. William shaved Laurie's beard and lip, but Mary Kathleen combed his hair and looked after his hygiene.

"We'll get your collar and your waistcoat with the silver buttons today, shall we?" she said as she rubbed the wash sponge along his arm. She always took his mind away from what she was doing so that he wouldn't feel self-conscious as she worked.

"And you, Mary Kathleen, will you wear your green dress with the purple?"

"Aye, yes."

"Will you wear your hair up or down?"

Mary Kathleen smiled. "How should I wear it?"

"William likes it down," said Laurie.

Mary Kathleen blushed, surprised. "Does he, now?" She finished buttoning Laurie's shirt and smoothed the shoulders. "Now, do you want to sit in your chair while I work on this fine meal I've planned?"

Laurie nodded, wishing once again that he could help someone with something. He hated feeling so useless. He tried to help Mary Kathleen as she pulled him over across his bed, legs down to the floor. She draped his arms over her shoulders and lifted him two steps to his chair, where she helped him to settle with the warm blanket over his lap.

"Where is my patchwork kitten?" he asked. "Is she in her box?"

Mary looked down at the floor between the fireplace and Laurie's bed, where William had fashioned a bed in a wooden crate with an old woollen blanket. The kitten was curled in the corner, still asleep. She reached down and scooped her up, putting her into Laurie's lap and putting his hand upon her.

"Warm her up," Mary Kathleen said. "I shall get you some milk for her, I've saved a dish."

The kitten, now awake and warm, nuzzled under Laurie's hand, purring.

Mary Kathleen returned with the dish and put it on the little table next to Laurie's chair. She lifted Laurie's hand and put it on the bowl. Then she helped him to lift the bowl to his lap.

"Did you see that, Mary? I almost held that by myself!"

Mary Kathleen smiled. "It's coming back to you, little by little. Have you not noticed you've been using your hands to pet that kitten all through the days? Every time you lift your hands, you build your strength. And you didn't even know, did you? That little kitten has been healing you and you didn't even know."

Laurie laughed, lifting his hand and patting the kitten. His arm was shaky, his fingers did not open fully, his coordination was off, but he was moving so much better than he had been, and the realisation made him feel pleased. He felt more there might be more reason for the celebrations that evening.

"How about that, little kitten? You're making me well."

"You should think of a name for her. Since she's such a big help for you and all," Mary Kathleen said.

"She's like a little patchwork quilt. A patchwork cat. Maybe Patches?"

Mary Kathleen smiled at the kitten, purring under Laurie's hands. "I think that would suffice," she said. "More than nicely."

"Right, then she has a name, she's a proper part of our family." Laurie looked up and squinted. "What are you doing now, Mary?"

"Peeling potatoes."

"Oh."

"You want to help?"

Laurie wanted to, more than anything. "I don't think I can."

"Perhaps you can." She took no part in his doubt, not until they knew for certain. She took a medium potato and a paring knife and moved to Laurie's side. The kitten was placed on the floor to inspect the corners, and Mary put the potato into Laurie's left hand and the knife into his right, properly. She helped him hold the potato over the kitten's empty milk bowl, and guided his hands through a few parings so he could get a feel for how tightly he needed to grip the knife.

It took him as long to peel the one potato as it took Mary Kathleen to peel her entire mound, but that didn't keep her from praising her help.

"Oh, come on, Mary, one potato, and not done very well, I might add, is not much help for you. And you could have done it when you were getting it ready for me..."

"Stop it, Laurie. One potato is one potato less I had to do, therefore, you have been a help. Tomorrow perhaps it will be two. And then you will carve me a horse from a potato one day, and you'll know you are ready for whittling next."

She made it sound so simple. Like it was sure to happen, step by step, as it went. She continued talking as she worked, convincing him that over time, it would all come together. She did it to convince herself, to ignore anything else that might happen. She could not dwell on that. That would not help Laurie.

"Wiggle your toes," she instructed him next. "Try picking up your feet. That's next on your list, while I sweeten these carrots."

"Why? Will you have me dancing next?"

Mary Kathleen was glad he could not see her smile from where he sat.

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It wasn't so crowded once everyone's wrappers were off and laid aside. William and Nathan Law tried to move out of Mary Kathleen and Lavinia's way, and ended up seated at their places at the table, which proved to be the space with the least traffic. Laurie's chair was pulled up close to the end of the table, so he wouldn't be cut apart from their conversation. The cabin was warm from the fire and the food and the bodies.

Soon, Mary Kathleen and Lavinia dished out the food, and Mary Kathleen prepared a plate for Laurie. She never ate until she'd given him his food, but tonight he stopped her.

"We eat together," he said. "You shall have yours, and I shall have mine. If I can peel one potato, surely I can feed myself part of one."

He was feeling confident now, and when Mary Kathleen helped him put the fork into his hand, he felt positive that it would work out well.

It did not. There were twists and turns to eating that he'd forgotten about. He stabbed himself in the chin, he dumped forkfuls on his lap and off the side of his plate. He couldn't swallow the meat because he couldn't cut it small enough, and then he dropped both the knife and the fork. He clenched his jaw, and tried not to let his frustration sparkle in his eyes as Mary Kathleen hurriedly picked the utensils up and washed them before returning them to him.

"Let me help," she said. "Perhaps you're not quite there yet."

Laurie felt humiliation creep up over his collar. He'd felt so merry only a quarter of the hour past, and now, it was as though he had become a pall over the table.

"Laurie's helped with the potatoes today and I fear I've worn him out," Mary Kathleen said, her eyes lingering on Laurie's for a moment. "He's strong enough for peeling now, you know." She smiled at Lavinia, and motioned peeling potatoes before gesturing to the bowl of fluffy white spuds and Laurie. Lavinia grinned and clapped her hands in Bravo to Laurie.

Mary Kathleen sat close to Laurie once more.

"No, Mary, please, I just want you to eat, enjoy, I don't want you to feed me anymore," he said in a low voice.

"Don't argue with me, who always wins, Laurie Williams? Tell me."

Laurie was silent while he mulled over how not to answer. He was glad William and Nathan were talking about trapping and at least pretending to not hear their argument.

"Right. Now, if you want to eat together, we shall. I will eat when you are chewing, and then you shall while I am chewing. That way, you won't be stuffing your gob without noticin' what you're eating like you usually do, and don't think I didn't notice."

Laurie had no way to reason out of this solution, and thus, the meal went on with everyone's plate emptying together, and seconds for William and Nathan, who claimed to have had a head start lead on everyone.

The main course was changed for the pies and the tarts that Lavinia had made, and the pies from Mary Kathleen's own pantry. They couldn't eat as much as they would have liked, though they tried their best.

When they were too full to eat one more forkful, Nathan loaded William's pipe and then his own. Tobacco still made Laurie feel dizzy, and he declined Law's offer, but he told Nathan that there was a snuffbox along the mantle with some tobacco, and the next pipe load was on him.

Mary Kathleen and Lavinia cleared the table, and removed the dishes. The leftovers were put into a stew pot, and the pies were covered in the pantry. The wash basin was filled with hot water and they made fast work of the dishes, and the cabin was put to rights as much as possible in no time flat.

Once they were settled, Nathan made a sermon that was just as good as any said under a roof of God that night. And then he gave thanks for everything the year had given them, including Laurie's continued presence at their table.

After that, they made merry. William brought out his lesser pipes, knowing the great bagpipes would be too much for the small room. He played a slow tune, and Mary Kathleen sang along, feeling shy at first, but glad to let her voice rise up. Once they were loosened up, William played a faster tune, and Nathan stomped his foot. Mary Kathleen looked at Lavinia with a grin and stood up, lifting her skirts around her ankles and stepping lively to the music. She looked at Lavinia again, and dropped her skirts and started to clap. Lavinia felt the beat, and smiling as she stood, she joined Mary Kathleen in dancing. Her feet kept up with Mary Kathleen's, and she looked over at Mary Kathleen with a gleeful grin and a twinkle in her eyes. Mary Kathleen laughed with joy and went right along with her.

The men were enjoying themselves as much as the women. William had a hard time blowing into his pipes, for his own mouth was breaking the seal with a smile. Nathan proudly admired his wife's fine steps, sharing a secret smile between them. He raised his hands to her, clapping loudly to the music. Laurie was singing, too, and beating his hands on the blanket in time to the music.

There was mead. Mary Kathleen tried some, but shook her head at William, wrinkling her nose. William laughed, and topped the mug up before placing it into Laurie's fingers.

"Good for your health," he said, nodding at Laurie.

Laurie grasped at the mug with both hands and brought it to his lips carefully. He was proud when he took a good drink of the mead without spilling it. He smiled happily, holding the mug snugly on his lap.

William told a wonderful story about his grandfather and the sea. Mary Kathleen fell into his tale easily, her eyes following his expressions as they matched the tones of his voice. His Scottish burr set his words alight with life, and he looked at each of his audience members as he spoke, reeling them in even more.

When he was finished, and they all had applauded, Nathan took his turn. His story was about a small town in Massachusetts where there was man called Pulley who would take people from place to place in a small cart or sledge by towing it behind him. He pulled everything from farm animals to ladies with trunks to sacks of groceries. One time Pulley got stuck in the snow with a cartload of mead and dried beef, and by the time he was dug out, he'd drank the mead and ate all the beef and was as happy as a lark.

Mary Kathleen tried to think of a story but she was too shy to think one she had was good enough. She looked at Laurie, hoping he would like to share something, but he was looking tired. He looked back at her and smiled. He did look happy and very content, she was warmed to note.

Lavinia stood and began to make her signs, and Nathan translated them for the others. She told a story about a little girl that didn't know that there was such a thing as sound, until she started noticing that the people around her were doing odd things with their mouth toward each other's faces, and then responding in kind. She started moving her own mouth to her mother and father, and it didn't take her too long to learn that people did something she did not know how to do. They could make sounds come out, and they could hear those sounds. Lavinia's face and gestures were beautiful with animation as she continued her story. She explained that once she knew about the sounds, she wondered what else made sounds. She knew that thunder made sounds because she could feel it rumble through her body, and a shotgun made a sound, because it made her lungs and heart thump in her chest. But did flowers make sounds when you smelled them? Did trees make sounds when they grew? Did animals speak as humans did? How loud was fire? Did different colours have different sounds? Could someone hear the stars come out one by one?

Some of the answers did not make any sense to her. How could some things have sound, and others, which were so much bigger, have none? She smiled at Nathan. She'd learned, over time, what made sounds, how loud they were, and when she wasn't sure, she'd asked Nathan. They'd talked a lot about sound and silence, in their own way of communication.

Mary Kathleen had known the couple had no problems with communication, but she had never witnessed the fluency with which they spoke. Nathan translated Lavinia's story so easily, Mary Kathleen forgot she was hearing Nathan's voice and not Lavinia's.

They all raised their hands up to applaud Lavinia's story, smiling at her broadly. Laurie even raised his hands from his lap and was tapping the palms of his fists together.

He'd refused a second mug of mead. He felt lightheaded and he was definitely too warm. He was enjoying the stories, but the flickering lights from the fire and the lamps were disorienting with the bodies and shadows moving around in front of them. Someone scooped up Patches and put her on his lap after the dancing, and he felt her tuck herself back against his stomach under his hand. Too much excitement for her, no doubt, he thought in understanding.

He heard Mary Kathleen begin singing again, and he smiled, leaning back. He was glad she wasn't singing by his grave. He was glad he could listen to her sing, here in this little cabin he and William built themselves. Even if things were as grim as they were, he was still happier than he would be stuck in a factory in a city like Manchester. He would get strong and still breathe this fresh air and he and William would have this land and Mary Kathleen would sing for him. It wasn't what they had planned, but it wasn't the worst outcome, not at all, and he had the kitten...

Mary Kathleen nodded to William toward Laurie, asleep now in the chair, his hand cupped protectively over the small cat.

"I didn't expect he'd last out the night," she said. "We can wake him up for the ringing in, he'd be disappointed if we didn't."

"Aye," said William. "He did well. He was enjoying this."

"Mr. Law," said Mary Kathleen. "Won't you have some more pumpkin pie? The tea is steeping, can I tempt ye?"

"Ach, go on, Law, have more pie. Look at this feast around us. I'll have a go as well," William goaded him. "Ladies? You'll both have more dessert, after all that entertainment and show?" He winked slyly at Lavinia. "Pie?" he asked her clearly.

She laughed, and blew out her cheeks to him to mimic him being stuffed full of food. Lavinia liked and admired William, she was comfortable with him, as he was around with her husband so much.

William and Nathan had their pie and tea, and before long, it was time to go out and listen for the town's church bells ring at midnight. Mary Kathleen did not believe they would hear them from so far, and William agreed, but they tried anyway. They listened hard, but the trees were too thick to carry any sound.

"Next year," said William. "We shall hear it, because we will be near the water. We can go to the river's edge and hear the bells, the river will carry them."

"Is that true?" asked both Mary Kathleen and Lavinia, who looked at each other and laughed when they realised their question was the same.

"Aye," said William, stepping inside. "The bells will be clear next year."

The cold air and the rustle of the four coming back into the cabin woke Laurie back from his slumber.

"Is it here?" he asked groggily. "Has the year come in?"

"It has indeed, Brother," said William. "And I will be the first to say it, may this year be our year to prosper and gain. May this year be good to all of us." William pressed his hand on Laurie's shoulder.

"God bless everyone here," Mary Kathleen added. "And keep them safe and healthy, Amen."

"We had a struggle this year, Lads. And Ladies," added William, nodding at Mary Kathleen. "But we've all made it here, and we're gonnae go further next year. And we shall have Laurie well and strong again, back at our side."

"Here, here!" said Nathan Law, raising the tea mug, the closest drink to his hand.

"Here, here," Mary Kathleen said softly, nodding at Laurie, who smiled warmly at his friends around him in the dim, flickering glow of the fire.