“Liebchen, what is this?” Friedrich said as he stood up again, holding a leaf carefully by its stem; he was regarding it quizzically, with far more study than Jo felt an autumn leaf could possibly merit.
He had bent down to kiss her cheek in greeting as she sat in the armchair Aunt March had once favored. Jo had always thought it horridly stiff and very dull, but with the baby due any day, the chair’s firm back was a blessing and Meg had made a charming antimacassar for it, embroidered all over with the symbols of the fairies from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a delicate piece of work Jo knew she could never replicate but always marveled at. Friedrich held the leaf in his hand to show her as if she had never seen one before, the way the children would bring their natural discoveries to them; it was splashed unevenly with color, scarlet and flaring gold round the edges.
“Is it maple? I think it’s too red to be beech or aspen,” Jo replied.
How many more leaves would fall before she held her baby in her arms? She was apprehensive and eager in equal measure but lumbering about was growing more tiresome daily and the baby also seemed impatient, the kicks that had once been like a gentle tap replaced with forceful pushes. She could not tell if they were gleeful or frustrated but she could understand both attitudes. She now often felt the obvious angle of a heel or elbow pressing insistently against her firm belly, a sensation so strange she had called Friedrich’s attention to it immediately and they both laughed when Jo announced she had new sympathy for the Bastille.
“Yes, but why should I find it in thy hair? Thou must not tax thyself with the children and their antics,” he said, pulling over a little footstool and lifting her slippered feet onto it before he sat across from her on the sofa. She missed sitting beside him, her face laid against his tweed coat, but it had become apparent that rising from such a situation was now beyond her and she must sit like a queen in splendid isolation.
She had not been able to lace her own boots for over a month, nor wear them at all for a week. Marmee had said it must be soon but Jo had her doubts. It seemed she would never again be the light-footed woman who loved to traipse the woods and she had impatiently dashed away the tears in her eyes at the thought and ate the biscuit Franz had brought her “as Uncle told me to, Aunt Jo, he said thou must keep up thy strength and the baby might have need of an extra biscuit now and then. I wondered if I might as well, bitte, mein lieber Tantchen?” She had sent Franz back to the kitchen to fetch another ginger biscuit for himself and a mug of milk for them both. He was an easily contented child, Franz, though he needed more petting that Emil and wouldn’t ask for it as readily as the sweet.
“Thou mustn’t worry, Fritz, I only walked into the garden to sit and let them play with the leaves around me. I fear Mohammed has become the mountain, but I did like to get a little fresh air and the smell of the leaves, watching them flicker through the air… I liked it, I’ve missed it,” she said and felt the tears rise to hear herself whining a little, her hand balanced on her greatly rounded belly, her full breasts straining the bodice that she could let out no further.
The baby had begun to stir as he often did when she was quiet. She could not bring herself to imagine what this would mean for the nights after the birth but thought, at least then, Friedrich would be willing to take a turn, carrying the child. It soothed her every time, the image of his dark head bent to regard the small, swaddled baby in his arms, his sure hand behind the baby’s fragile neck as Jo had seen John hold all three of his children.
“Josephine, heart’s dearest…what good work thou art doing, how good a mother thou art already, to all our children. I promise thee, it will not be so much longer, and next autumn, we will take the little one out with us to watch the leaves fall while Franz and Emil play in the garden,” he said. Friedrich leaned forward to take her hand in his and said in a lower voice, “I would like to take a dozen leaves from thy bright autumn hair and let them be scattered in the bed with us.”
“Oh!” Jo exclaimed sharply.
“What is it, have I distressed thee with such talk? I beg thy pardon, I thought thou wouldst be pleased,” he said, worried and apologetic, regarding her closely. She laughed at his dear, concerned face, lifted a hand to his bearded cheek.
“No, Fritz, it is only as thou were being so much the tender lover, the baby kicked as hard as I can remember, like an ornery mule. I gather we should leave off our lovemaking for a time, if we are to be so rudely interrupted,” she explained and he smiled, laid a hand on the lower curve of her belly, warm through the brown delaine.
“Then I shall save this leaf thou brought with thee as a reminder, that we had to forgo such delights this season and how we must…compensate next October,” he replied with the amused, provocative tone he only ever took with her, that she loved, and tucked the leaf into the pocket of his fawn vest and put a soft kiss into the palm of her hand.