Story for the day: Supper with the Cuineills

   Supper with the Cuineills
       The following day, after Tomas had finished the chief of his work in the smith, he went outside to take in the evening air before his vigilant mother would call for his attendance at the table. His work was slower than usual that day. While his hands were busy toiling with ores and irons, his mind was occupied with numerous questions regarding his meeting with Aghneis. It was a short convention but it was of great consequence. She had promised to visit and he was bid to accept. He stood on the front terrace of his house and his eyes were active regarding the several lanes in front of him as he stretched, searching for signs that the woman had been there without his notice. His mind began to invent scenarios in which he would meet her by chance, that he would see her in the street or on his way to visit his brother while she was coming to visit him. He convinced himself of all the minutiae of such a reunion and he smiled to think of every one pleasing to him.
       For a moment, he yawned and in doing so closed his eyes for the briefest of moments. When he opened them again, Aghneis was standing before him. He had not seen her approach of heard her shuffling footsteps and therefore was inclined to believe she was merely a projection from his mind. He greeted her with cordiality, and she made a small and shy response, but it was only when she neared him did he realized the actuality of her presence. He flushed and stepped back, immediately ashamed he had ever thought her an illusion. He was glad for her presence and the two began their quiet conversation.
       There were many fleeting and animated moments for Aghneis. There was a nodding of the head when Tomas whispered to her, a creeping blush when he smiled, a brightness of her eyes when he remarked her new garments fashioned from the fine linens he had purchased the day previous, and a diffident lifting of the hand to her mouth to be polite with her small laughter. She found him charming and gentle, and despite his immense size, he spoke with soft voice and made small gestures to complement his kind words. She repeated her promise of coming and stated it was the least she could do to counter his kindness when he would accept no other means of thanks. His goodness had begun to overwhelm her and she recalled his slight touch from their moment in the clothier. She felt as though she would succumb to any request if he should make one in this instant and she thought to leave to escape the inevitability of having to deny him when he entreated her to join him. 
       "Won't you come in?" Tomas softly said, ushering her toward the house with a welcoming gesture of the hand. "My Ma 'as supper ready."
       The aroma of roasted meat and stewed roots were suddenly made known to Aghneis. She had recollected such a pleasing scent as she was engaged with their conversation and the pleasantness of Tomas' entreaty had only increased her want to accept. "I cannot stay," she said with great hindrance in her small voice. "My mam will wonder where I am if I'm too long." Her eyes lowered with the pain of her regret and she found it difficult to look at Tomas again after denying him the opportunity to pay her such kindness. 
       "We can send you off with somet'in' to eat t'en," Tomas said, placing his large hand on her shoulder. He looked about when he recalled the stipulations of her visit. "Did you bring the peata bheagh?" he asked, renewing his oath to feed the white cat.
       The happiness Aghneis exhumed had suddenly vanished and was replaced with awkward anxiety. She opened her mouth to speak and tell him why she had only fulfilled half her pledge but was hindered by her own distress and said nothing.
       Tomas became concerned at the woman's sudden silence and reserved manner but he did not know how to broach the subject without asking questions that could be discomforting. The interruption of his mother's appearance at the door to their home saved him the trouble of forming his inquiries and he turned to her with the hope that she would offer a diversion from the conversation.
       Mrs. Cuineill stood at the front of the house, holding the door open with a self-satisfied expression. She had been watching their discourse for sometime from the kitchen window but was growing impatient for her reticent son to invite the young woman inside. She had recognized her from Tomas' detailed description and smirked, pointing her ladle at her. "Are you joining us for supper, girl?" she said with firm affection.
       Aghneis was surprised by Mrs. Cuineill. She had expected her to be tall and commanding but her stature was small and her voice retained the power her outward appearance lacked. "My mam's got supper waiting for me at home," she said quietly.
       "Sure, and you can 'andle two suppers in t'at stomach of yours," Mrs. Cuineill scoffed, remarking the woman's concave form. "Tomas, put a bowl on t'e table for t'e girl. Your brot'er will be 'ome soon." She did not wait for a reply and returned to her kitchen. 
       "Aye, Ma," Tomas called after her, starching his neck with a mild anxiety, hoping Aghneis was not disturbed by his mother's brash assumptions. "My Ma's a tough one," he said to Aghneis. "She doesn't like no for answers."
       With such a governing woman to order her about, Aghneis could not resist any further entreaties and she walked into Tomas' home with him following close behind her. The warmth from the fires of the kitchen and the aroma emanating therein was overpowering. The goodness of the sentiment in such a home was evident it its well-built walls and the trove of smithed items lining the walls. Adornments of iron and silver hung along the walls, reflecting the amber glow of the evening light, and small candle throughout the house added to the tender radiance.
       Aghneis peeked into the kitchen to find Mrs. Cuineill stirring the last of the stewed roots and roasted meat together. She hummed to herself while she worked, leaving Aghneis to examine the intricacies of the quarters. Pots and pans suspended on a rack from the ceiling, fresh garden vegetables lined the counters and the smoke of a golden censer wafted through the air.      
       "Offer the girl some tea, Tomas," Mrs. Cuineill suddenly said. 
       "Aye, Ma," Tomas replied with a smile.
       A cup with warm water was given to the shivering girl and she was bid to choose from among a wooden box of numerous teas which one she would find the most pleasing. Each one was inspected and sniffed and each one was found wondrous, making the choice impossible. A random bag was placed into the water with the promise of more tea later and Aghneis closed her eyes to absorb the mulling scents of cinnamon and licorice.
       "Thank you, mam," Aghneis said with a nod. 
       "Don't you mam me," Mrs. Cuineill said, cocking her hip. "I may be older t'an some Mas but I'm no mam. Mrs. Cuineill is just fine, girl."
       "Yes, mam- Mrs. Cuineill." Aghneis chided herself and shied away behind Tomas' enormous form, fearing immediate reprimand for her mistake. 
       Mrs Cuineill fleered and eyed her son with a knowing glace. "All right t'en," she said, giving him the bowls for the table. "Tomas, sit yourself next to t'e girl and set t'ese down."
       Tomas gave his mother a look of quiet thankfulness and did as he was told. He turned to the dinner table beside him and pulled the chair out for Aghneis to sit. She sat in silence and waited as Tomas placed the bowls before each of the four chairs. He sat beside her when he had finished his task and gave her the warmth of his genial smile. His thick leg momentarily pressed against her and she turned aside, colouring a little. When she had the courage to turn back, Mrs. Cuineill had arrived with the drum of stew for them. She dolled some for Aghneis but the amount caused her to place her hand at her breast in excitement.   
       "Somet'ing wrong wit' it?" Mrs. Cuineill asked in her forceful voice, wondering why the girl was not eating.
       "No, Mrs. Cuineill. It's so much," she said with happy astonishment, gauging the mountainous portion. "I won't be able to finish it all. It's best not to waste it, as my mam says."
      Mrs. Cuineill stopped her dispensing of dinner to Tomas and turned toward the young woman, pressing her ladle toward her. "Listen to me, girl," she warned her. "T'ere's no talk like t'at in t'is 'ouse, you 'ear me? We eat everyt'in' on our plates and we're greatful and t'at's t'e end of it."
       Tomas grinned and leaned toward Aghneis worried expression. "My Ma won't let you leave t'e table until your bowl is clean," he said in a polite murmur.
       "Aye, and won't you eat 'til you stop shivering?" Mrs. Cuineill asserted. "No 'ungry stomachs in t'is 'ouse, not whilst I'm in t'e kitchen."
       Aghneis was graced with a renewed smile when Tomas assured her that his mother's forceful brand of worrying was normal. She was bid to eat and did so with gratitude, taking small bites of the steaming stew.
       Tomas was encouraged to begin his meal as well with the hopes that his brother would be joining them shortly. He equally goaded his mother into eating as well and the two made an instance of who would be the first to eat so the other could begin without upsetting the other party members at the table.
       The sound of the door was heard only a few moments after the meal had begun and Bhaunbher entered the room. He said his gracious hellos and was pleased to see an unfamiliar face beside his brother's when he believed Tomas had resigned to remaining alone due to his difference. He introduced himself to Aghneis and his mother then stood to greet him with pursed lips and a threatening glare.   
       "Aye, boy-o, and look at you come to t'e table so late, makin' your poor ma worry," Mrs. Cuineill said.
       Bhaunbher knew his mother was only plaguing him with guilt and kissed her wrinkled cheek in apology. "Sorry, Ma," the silversmith said with some remorsefulness. "I got held up by someone." 
       "Aye," his mother said, marking the twinkling in his eye. "T'at someone better be Miss Moira MacFayden."
       Bhaunbher looked aside with a bashful glow. "It was, Ma."
       "Ah, my lads are good lads. Sit, Bhaunbher. I'll give you what to eat."
       "Thanks, Ma."
       Aghneis could not help but smile for the game played between the mother and her sons. The conversation continued as such throughout the course of the meal, Mrs. Cuineill making staunch declarations, her sons confirming or denying them and adding information of their own, and then the confirmation of how proud she was of her two children. There was talk of work in the blacksmith and silversmith, discussion of the Miss Moira MacFayden upon whom Bhaunbher so keenly had his handsome eye, and intimations made to Tomas about him finding a girl of his own to dote. Aghneis reserved a small smile for herself on that account but noted how the two gentlemen of the table treated each other to telling glances. Aghneis blushed and examined both smiths equally and though they were alike in goodness of character and gentleness of heart, they could not be more different in appearance. They hardly seemed like brothers at all, except where person was concerned, and though they were much alike in numerous respects, she noticed Bhaunbher retained the same openness as his mother whereas Tomas possess more of a shyness.
       "I understand you met my brother over a lost cat," Bhaunbher said inquiringly, tempting Aghneis to speak at least a word beyond her initial greeting. 
       "Yes," Aghneis replied. "Elsae wandered into the yard. I was lucky your brother found her."
       "She's always welcome 'ere," Tomas said.
       Aghneis realized the matter of the cat would continue to plague her until she divulged the truth of her nonattendance. "I'm sure she would be, Tomas, but she's no longer with me."
       "She's lost again? I'll 'elp you find 'er, don't you worry," Tomas assured her, but the smile he thought he would have received from his offering did not come. "Somet'in' terrible didn't 'appen, did it?" 
       Aghneis lowered her eyes and put her spoon down, unable to continue eating. "My dad sold her to the traders," she murmured.
       There was a silence at the table and looks that express the horror of the situation passed between mother and sons.
       "He comes back every once in a while to check on the house and collect payment from my mam. You see it's not my mam's house. My mam and my dad are not married in the usual way so my dad just lets us live in two of the rooms," she explained in a saddened tone. "I do the chores while my mam is working. Work didn't go well for her this week. She said there weren't enough customers."
       Mrs. Cuineill folded her arms as she listened, guessing the means of Aghneis' mother's profession if she was dependent upon daily clients for means and paid a rent to a strange man for the use of a spare room.
       "I wasn't able to feed Elsae yesterday and she's too little to be catching mice in the fields," Aghneis continued. "My dad wasn't happy that my mam let me have a cat in his house. She said she wanted me to have a friend while I'm alone doing my chores but my dad said it's better to eat than to feed others what we don't have. So, he sold her for some money so we could have some meat for our supper."
       Tomas would not conceal his horror for the news and did not endeavor to do so either.
       "I understand why he did it," Aghneis said with a smile of relief. "She'll get a better home now and she won't have to worry about food. She'll be much happier."
       "But you won't," Tomas muttered.
       A sadness loomed over the table as the meal was finished. When the bowls were being collected and thanks was given for the stew, Mrs. Cuineill brought out the tea and turned to Tomas. 
       "Tomas, be a good lad and get your Ma some sugar for t'e tea? I'm getting' forgetful in my old age and I didn't remember to get some at t'e market."
       Tomas looked at his mother with a narrow glance. He knew she had the ability to never forget and that there was fresh sugar in the pantry. He understood the meaning in her raised brows and went to the door. "Aye, Ma. I'll be only a moment," he said to Aghneis, and he left for the markets.
       Much was done to entertain the young woman in Tomas' short absence. There was friendly discussion on both sides of pasts at Church and of the building of their home but only a few moments had passed when Tomas returned. He gave a small bag of sugar to his mother and sat down once again beside Aghneis. When tea was given, he reached into his large pocket and produced the docile white cat.  
       "Elsae," Aghneis exclaimed, clapping her hand over her mouth in amazement.
       "Aye," Tomas said warmly, placing the cat into her hands. "She's your cat but we'll keep 'er 'ere for you and you can visit 'er anytime you like. She'll be good for my Ma when my brot'er and I are workin'."
       Aghneis cooed with happiness and held the kitten close to her chest. It meowed in recognition of her and curled against her, nestling its head in the bend of her arm. So overcome with sentiment for the deed done in her honour, she felt her lip quiver with the onset of tears. She cried in her hand and was so humiliated and appreciative that she leaned forward and wept against Tomas' chest.
       The blacksmith became nervous for the woman against him. It was not the tears or the expression of sentimentality that besieged him but the notion that a woman at all was willingly upon him that did. He looked back at his brother for encouragement and the silversmith made a few gestures that urged Tomas to hold her. His brother took their mother to the kitchen to finish their tea and left Tomas and Aghneis to themselves.
       Aghneis snuffled against Tomas' massive chest and drew close to him with the cat in her lap. She felt the weight of his large arm encase her and the small woman melted beneath his grasp, unknowing of what she had done to receive such unbridled consideration.


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