A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 100

   

I wasn’t sufficiently coherent as to respond to this, but thrust my h*ps back toward him in a fashion that he seemed to find as eloquent an invitation as one written in calligraphy on parchment. He took a deep breath, a firm grip on my buttocks, and brought me to an awakening that could be called rude in several senses of the word.

I squirmed like a worm impaled on a fish-hook, making small urgent noises that he interpreted correctly, rolling me onto my face and proceeding to leave me in no doubt that I was not merely alive and awake, but functioning.

I emerged at length from a nest of flattened pillows, damp, gasping, quivering in every engorged and slippery nerve-ending, and thoroughly awake.

“What brought that on?” I inquired. He hadn’t pulled away; we lay still joined, washed in the light of a big golden half-moon, riding low in the sky above the chestnut trees. He made a small sound, partly amusement, partly dismay.

“I canna look at ye asleep without wanting to wake ye, Sassenach.” His hand cupped my breast, gently now. “I suppose I find myself lonely without ye.”

There was an odd note in his voice, and I turned my head toward him, but couldn’t see him in the dark behind me. Instead, I put back a hand and touched the leg still wrapped halfway over mine. Even relaxed, it was hard, the long groove of the muscle graceful under my fingers.

“I’m here,” I said, and his arm tightened suddenly round me.

I HEARD THE BREATH catch in his throat, and my hand tightened on his thigh.

“What is it?” I said.

He drew breath, but didn’t answer at once. I felt him draw back a little, and fumble under the pillow. Then his hand came round me again, but this time seeking the hand that lay on his leg. His fingers curled into mine, and I felt a small, hard, roundish object thrust into my hand.

I heard him swallow.

The stone, whatever it was, seemed slightly warm to the touch. I ran a thumb slowly over it; a raw stone of some kind, but big, the size of one of my finger-joints.

“Jamie . . .” I said, feeling my throat close.

“I love you,” he said, so softly that I barely heard him, close as we were.

I lay still for a moment, feeling the stone grow warmer in the palm of my hand. Surely it was imagination that made it seem to throb in time with my heart. Where on earth had he gotten it?

Then I moved—not suddenly, but with deliberation, my body sliding slowly free of his. I rose, feeling light-headed, and crossed the room. Pushed open the window to feel the sharp touch of the autumn wind on my nak*d bed-warm skin, and drawing back my arm, hurled the tiny object into the night.

Then I came back to bed, saw his hair a dark mass on the pillow, and the shine of his eyes in the moonlight.

“I love you,” I whispered, and slid under the sheet beside him, putting my arms around him, hugging him close, warmer than the stone—so much warmer—and his heart beat with mine.

“I’m none so brave as I was before, ken?” he said very softly. “Not brave enough to live without ye anymore.”

But brave enough to try.

I drew his head down to me, stroking the tumble of his hair, coarse and smooth at once, live beneath my fingers.

“Lay your head, man,” I said softly. “It’s a long time ’til dawn.”

120

IF ONLY FOR MYSELF

THE SKY WAS A FLAT, LEADEN COLOR, threatening rain, and the wind gusted through the palmettos, rattling the leaves like sabers. Down in the depths of the tidal forest, the four stones loomed beside the creek.

“I am the wife of the laird of Balnain,” Brianna whispered, next to me. “The faeries have stolen me over again.” She was white to the lips, Amanda clutched close to her breast.

We had made our farewells—we had been saying farewell, I thought, since the day I pressed the stethoscope to Mandy’s heart. But Brianna turned and flung herself—baby and all—at Jamie, who pressed her so tight against his heart, I thought one of them must break.

Then she was flying at me, a cloud of cloak and loosened hair, and her face was cold against mine, her tears and mine mingling on my skin.

“I love you, Mama! I love you!” she said in desperation, then turned and, without looking back, began to walk the pattern Donner had described, quietly chanting under her breath. A circle right, between two stones, a circle left, and back through the center—and then to the left of the largest stone.

I had been expecting it; when she began to walk the pattern, I had run away from the stones, stopping at what I thought a safe distance. It wasn’t. The sound of them—a roar, this time, instead of a shriek—thundered through me, stopping my breath and nearly my heart. Pain froze in a band round my chest and I dropped to my knees, swaying and helpless.

They were gone. I could see Jamie and Roger running to check—terrified of finding bodies, at once desolate and elated to find none. I couldn’t see well—my vision swam, flickering in and out—but didn’t need to. I knew they were gone, from the hole in my heart.

“TWO DOWN,” Roger whispered. His voice was no more than a faint rasp, and he cleared his throat, hard. “Jeremiah.” He looked down at Jem, who blinked and sniffed, and drew himself up tall at the sound of his formal name.

“Ye ken what we’re about now, aye?” Jemmy nodded, though he flicked a scared glance toward the towering stone where his mother and his baby sister had just vanished. He swallowed hard, and wiped the tears off his cheeks.

“Well, then.” Roger reached out a hand and rested it gently on Jemmy’s head. “Know this, mo mac—I shall love ye all my life, and never forget ye. But this is a terrible thing we’re doing, and ye need not come with me. Ye can stay with your grandda and grannie Claire; it will be all right.”

“Won’t I—won’t I see Mama again?” Jemmy’s eyes were huge, and he couldn’t keep from looking at the stone.

“I don’t know,” Roger said, and I could see the tears he was fighting himself, and hear them in his thickened voice. He didn’t know whether he would ever see Brianna again himself, or baby Mandy. “Probably . . . probably not.”

Jamie looked down at Jem, who was clinging to his hand, looking back and forth between father and grandfather, confusion, fright, and longing in his face.

“If one day, a bhailach,” Jamie said conversationally, “ye should meet a verra large mouse named Michael—ye’ll tell him your grandsire sends his regards.” He opened his hand, then, letting go, and nodded toward Roger.

Jem stood staring for a moment, then dug in his feet and sprinted toward Roger, sand spurting from under his shoes. He leaped into his father’s arms, clutching him around the neck, and with a final glance backward, Roger turned and stepped behind the stone, and the inside of my head exploded in fire.

Unimaginable time later, I came slowly back, coming down from the clouds in fragments, like hailstones. And found myself lying with my head in Jamie’s lap. And heard him saying softly, to himself or to me, “For your sake, I will continue—though for mine alone . . . I would not.”

121

ACROSS THE ABYSS

THREE NIGHTS LATER, I WOKE FROM a restless sleep in an inn in Wilmington, my throat parched as the salt bacon I had eaten in the dinner stew. Sitting up to find water, I found that I was alone—the moonlight through the window shone white on the vacant pillow beside me.

I found Jamie outside, behind the inn, his nightshirt a pale blotch in the darkness of the innyard. He was sitting on the ground with his back against a chopping block, arms wrapped about his knees.

He didn’t speak as I came toward him, but turned his head, body shifting in a silent welcome. I sat down on the chopping block behind him, and he leaned his head back against my thigh, with a long, deep sigh.

“Couldn’t sleep?” I touched him gently, smoothing back the hair from his face. He slept with it unbound, and it fell thick and wild about his shoulders, tangled from bed.

“Nay, I slept,” he said quietly. His eyes were open, looking up at the great gold moon, three-quarters full over the aspens near the inn. “I had a dream.”

“A nightmare?” He had them seldom anymore, but they did come sometimes: the bloody memories of Culloden, of futile death and slaughter; prison dreams of hunger and confinement—and sometimes, very rarely, Jack Randall returned to him in sleep, with loving cruelty. Such dreams would always drive him from his bed to walk to and fro for hours, until exhaustion cleansed him of their visions. But he had not dreamed that way since Moore’s Creek Bridge.

“No,” he said, sounding half-surprised. “Not at all. I dreamed of her—of our lassie—and the bairns.”

My heart gave an odd little hop, the consequence of startlement and what might almost have been envy.

“You dreamed about Brianna and the children? What happened?”

He smiled, face tranquil and abstracted in the moonlight, as though he still saw some part of the dream before him.

“It is all right,” he said. “They are safe. I saw them in a town—it seemed like Inverness, but it was different, somehow. They walked up the step of a house—Roger Mac was with them,” he added, offhand. “They knocked at the door, and a wee brown-haired woman opened to them. She laughed wi’ joy to see them, and brought them in, and they went down a hallway, wi’ strange things like bowls hanging from the ceiling.

“Then they were in a room, wi’ sofas and chairs, and the room had great windows all down one wall, from the floor to the ceiling, and the afternoon sun was streaming in, setting Brianna’s hair to fire, and makin’ wee Mandy cry when it got in her eyes.”

“Did . . . did any of them call the brown-haired woman by name?” I asked, my heart beating in a queer, fast way.

He frowned, moonlight making a cross of light over nose and brows.

“Aye, they did,” he said. “I canna just—oh, aye; Roger Mac called her Fiona.”

“Did he?” I said. My hands rested on his shoulder, and my mouth was a hundred times drier than it had been when I woke up. The night was chilly, but not enough to account for the temperature of my hands.

I had told Jamie any amount of things about my own time over the years of our marriage. About trains and planes and automobiles and wars and indoor plumbing. But I was nearly sure that I had never told him what the study looked like in the manse where Roger had grown up with his adoptive father.

The room with the window wall, made to accommodate the Reverend’s painting hobby. The manse with its long hallway, furnished with old-fashioned light fixtures, shaped like hanging bowls. And I knew I had never told him about the Reverend’s last housekeeper, a girl with dark, curly hair, called Fiona.

“Were they happy?” I asked at last, very quietly.

“Aye. Brianna and the lad—they had some shadows to their faces, but I could see they were glad nonetheless. They all sat down to eat—Brianna and her lad close together, leaning on each other—and wee Jem stuffed his face wi’ cakes and cream.” He smiled at the picture, teeth a brief gleam in the darkness.

“Oh—at the last, just before I woke . . . wee Jem was messin’ about, picking things up and putting them down as he does. There was a . . . thing . . on the table. I couldna say what it was; I’ve never seen the like.”

He held his hands about six inches apart, frowning at them. “It was maybe this wide, and just a bit longer—something like a box, maybe, only sort of . . . humped.”

“Humped?” I said, puzzled as to what this could be.

“Aye, and it had a thing on top like a wee club, only wi’ a knob to each end, and the club was tied to the box wi’ a sort of black cord, curled up on itself like a piggie’s tail. Jem saw it, and he reached out his hand, and said, ‘I want to talk to Grandda.’ And then I woke.”

He leaned his head back farther, so as to look up into my face.

“Would ye ken what a thing like that might be, Sassenach? It was like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

The autumn wind came rustling down from the hill, dry leaves hurrying in its wake, quick and light as the footsteps of a ghost, and I felt the hair rise on nape and forearms.

“Yes, I know,” I said. “I’ve told you about them, I know.” I didn’t think, though, that I had ever described one to him, in more than general terms. I cleared my throat.

“It’s called a telephone.”

122

THE GUARDIAN

IT WAS NOVEMBER; THERE WERE NO FLOWERS. But the holly bushes gleamed dark green, and the berries had begun to ripen. I cut a small bunch, careful of the prickles, added a tender branch of spruce for fragrance, and climbed the steep trail to the tiny graveyard.

I went every week, to leave some small token on Malva’s grave, and say a prayer. She and her child had not been buried with a cairn—her father hadn’t wanted such a pagan custom—but people came and left pebbles there by way of remembrance. It gave me some small comfort to see them; there were others who remembered her.

I stopped abruptly at the head of the trail; someone was kneeling by her grave—a young man. I caught the murmur of his voice, low and conversational, and would have turned about to go, save that he raised his head, and the wind caught his hair, short and tufted, like an owl’s feathers. Allan Christie.

He saw me, too, and stiffened. There was nothing to do but go and speak to him, though, and so I went.

“Mr. Christie,” I said, the words feeling strange in my mouth. That was what I had called his father. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

He stared up at me blankly; then some sort of awareness seemed to stir in his eyes. Gray eyes, rimmed with black lashes, so much like those of his father and sister. Bloodshot with weeping and lack of sleep, judging from the shocking smudges under them.

“Aye,” he said. “My loss. Aye.”

I stepped around him to lay down my evergreen bouquet, and with a small spurt of alarm, saw that there was a pistol on the ground beside him, cocked and primed.

“Where have you been?” I said as casually as possible, under the circumstances. “We’ve missed you.”

He shrugged, as though it really didn’t matter where he’d been—perhaps it didn’t. He wasn’t looking at me anymore, but at the stone we’d placed at the head of her grave.

“Places,” he said vaguely. “But I had to come back.” He turned away a little, plainly indicating that he wanted me to leave. Instead, I pulled up my skirts and knelt gingerly beside him. I didn’t think he’d blow his brains out in front of me. I had no idea what to do, other than to try to make him talk to me and hope that someone else would come along.

“We’re glad to have you home,” I said, trying for an easy, conversational note.

“Aye,” he said vaguely. And again, his eyes going to the headstone, “I had to come back.” His hand wandered toward the pistol, and I seized it, startling him.

“I know you loved your sister very much,” I said. “It—it was a terrible shock to you, I know.” What, what did one say? There were things one might say to a person contemplating suicide, I knew, but what?

“Your life has value.” I’d said that to Tom Christie, who had only replied, “If it did not, this would not matter.” But how should I convince his son of that?

“Your father loved you both,” I said, wondering as I said it whether he knew what his father had done. His fingers were very cold, and I wrapped both my hands round his, trying to offer him a little warmth, hoping that the human contact would help.

“Not as I loved her,” he said softly, not looking at me. “I loved her all her life, from the time she was born and they gave her me to hold. There was nay other, for either of us. Faither was gone to prison, and then my mither—ah, Mither.” His lips pulled back, as though to laugh, but there was no sound.

“I know about your mother,” I said. “Your father told me.”

“Did he?” His head jerked up to look at me, eyes clear and hard. “Did he tell ye they took me and Malva to her execution?”

“I—no. I don’t think he knew, did he?” My stomach clenched.

“He did. I told him, later, when he sent for us, brought us here. He said that was good, we’d seen with our own eyes the ends of wickedness. He bade me remember the lesson—and so I did,” he added more quietly.

“How—how old were you?” I asked, horrified.

“Ten. Malva was nay more than two; she’d no idea what was happening. She cried out for her Mam when they brought Mither out to the hangsman, and kicked and screamed, reaching out for her.”

He swallowed, and turned his head away.

“I tried to take her, to push her head into my bosom, so she shouldna see—but they wouldna let me have her. They held her wee head and made her watch, and Auntie Darla saying in her ear that this was what happened to witches, and pinching her legs ’til she shrieked. We lived with Auntie Darla for six years after that,” he said, his face remote.

“She wasna best pleased about it, but she said she kent her Christian duty. The auld besom barely fed us, and ’twas me took care of Malva.”

He was silent for a bit, and so was I, thinking the best—the only—thing I could offer him now was the chance to speak. He pulled his hand from mine, leaned over, and touched the gravestone. It was no more than a lump of granite, but someone had gone to the trouble to carve her name on it—only the one word, MALVA , in crude block letters. It reminded me of the memorials that dotted Culloden, the clanstones, each with a single name.

“She was perfect,” he whispered. His finger traced its way over the stone, delicate, as though he touched her flesh. “So perfect. Her wee privates looked like a flower’s bud, and her skin sae fresh and soft. . . .”

A sense of coldness grew in the pit of my stomach. Did he mean . . . yes, of course he did. A sense of inevitable despair began to grow within me.

“She was mine,” he said, and looking up to see my eye upon him, repeated it more loudly. “She was mine!”

He looked down, then, at the grave, and his mouth turned in upon itself, in grief and anger.

“The auld man never knew—never guessed what we were to each other.”

Didn’t he? I thought. Tom Christie might have confessed to the crime to save one he loved—but he loved more than one. Having lost a daughter—or rather, a niece—would he not do all he could to save the son who was the last remnant of his blood?

“You killed her,” I said quietly. I was in no doubt, and he showed no surprise.

“He would ha’ sold her away, given her to some clod of a farmer.” Allan’s fist clenched on his thigh. “I thought of that, as she grew older, and sometimes when I would lie with her, I couldna bear the thought, and would slap her face, only from the rage of thinking of it.”

He drew a deep, ragged breath.

“It wasna her fault, none of it. But I thought it was. And then I caught her wi’ that soldier, and again, wi’ filthy wee Henderson. I beat her for it, but she cried out that she couldna help it—she was with child.”

“Yours?”

He nodded, slowly.

“I never thought of it. I should, of course. But I never did. She was always wee Malva, see, a bittie wee lass. I saw her br**sts swell, aye, and the hair come out to mar her sweet flesh—but I just never thought . . .

He shook his head, unable to deal with the thought, even now.

“She said she must marry—and there must be reason for her husband to think the child his, whoever she wed. If she couldna make the soldier wed her, then it must be another. So she took as many lovers as she might, quickly.

“I put a stop to that, though,” he assured me, a faintly nauseating tone of self-righteousness in his voice. “I told her I wouldna have it—I would think of another way.”

“And so you put her up to saying the child was Jamie’s.” My horror at the story and my anger at what he had done to us was subsumed by a flood of sorrow. Oh, Malva, I thought in despair. Oh, my darling Malva. Why didn’t you tell me? But of course she wouldn’t have told me. Her only confidant was Allan.

He nodded, and reached out to touch the stone again. A gust of wind quivered through the holly, stirring the stiff leaves.

“It would explain the bairn, see, but she wouldna have to wed anyone. I thought—Himself would give her money to go away, and I would go with her. We could go to Canada, perhaps, or to the Indies.” His voice sounded dreamy, as though he envisioned some idyllic life, where no one knew.

“But why did you kill her?” I burst out. “What made you do that?” The sorrow and the senselessness were overwhelming; I clenched my hands in my apron, not to batter him.

“I had to,” he said heavily. “She said she couldna go through with it.” He blinked, looking down, and I saw that his eyes were heavy with tears.

“She said—she loved you,” he said, low-voiced and thick. “She couldna hurt ye so. She meant to tell the truth. No matter what I said to her, she just kept saying that—she loved ye, and she’d tell.”

He closed his eyes, shoulders slumping. Two tears ran down his cheeks.

“Why, hinny?” he cried, crossing his arms over his belly in a spasm of grief. “Why did ye make me do it? Ye shouldna have loved anyone but me.”

He sobbed then, like a child, and curled into himself, weeping. I was weeping, too, for the loss and the pointlessness, for the utter, terrible waste of it all. But I reached out and took the gun from the ground. Hands shaking, I dumped out the priming pan, and shook the ball from the barrel, then put the pistol in the pocket of my apron.

“Leave,” I said, my voice half-choked. “Go away again, Allan. There are too many people dead.”

He was too grief-stricken to hear me; I shook him by the shoulder and said it again, more strongly.

“You can’t kill yourself. I forbid it, do you hear?”

“And who are you to say?” he cried, turning on me. His face was contorted with anguish. “I cannot live, I cannot!”

But Tom Christie had given up his life for his son, as well as for me; I couldn’t let that sacrifice go for naught.

“You must,” I said, and stood up, feeling light-headed, unsure whether my knees would hold me. “Do you hear me? You must!”

He looked up, eyes burning through the tears, but didn’t speak. There was a keening whine like the hum of a mosquito, and a soft, sudden thump. He didn’t change expression, but his eyes slowly died. He stayed on his knees for a moment, but bowed then forward, like a flower nodding on its stem, so I saw the arrow protruding from the center of his back. He coughed, once, sputtering blood, and fell sideways, curled on his sister’s grave. His legs jerked spasmodically, grotesquely froglike. Then he lay still.

I stood stupidly staring at him for some immeasurable span of time, becoming only gradually aware that Ian had walked out of the wood and stood beside me, bow over his shoulder. Rollo nosed curiously at the body, whining.

“He’s right, Auntie,” Ian said quietly. “He can’t.”

123

RETURN OF THE NATIVE

OLD GRANNIE ABERNATHY looked at least a hundred and two. She admitted—under pressure—to ninety-one. She was nearly blind and nearly deaf, curled up like a pretzel from osteoporosis, and with skin gone so fragile that the merest scrape tore it like paper.

“I’m nay more than a bag o’ bones,” she said every time I saw her, shaking a head that trembled with palsy. “But at least I’ve still got maist o’ my teeth!”

For a wonder, she had; I thought that was the only reason she had made it this far—unlike many people half her age, she wasn’t reduced to living on porridge, but could still stomach meat and greens. Perhaps it was improved nutrition that kept her going—perhaps it was mere stubbornness. Her married name was Abernathy, but she had, she confided, been born a Fraser.

Smiling at the thought, I finished wrapping the bandage about her sticklike shin. Her legs and feet had almost no flesh upon them, and felt hard and cold as wood. She’d knocked her shin against the leg of the table and taken off a strip of skin the width of a finger; such a minor injury that a younger person would think nothing of it—but her family worried over her, and had sent for me.

“It will be slow healing, but if you keep it clean—for God’s sake, do not let her put hog fat on it!—I think it will be all right.” The younger Mrs. Abernathy, known as Young Grannie—herself about seventy—gave me a sharp eye at that; like her mother-in-law, she put a good deal of faith in hog fat and turpentine as cure-alls, but nodded grudgingly. Her daughter, whose high-flown name of Arabella had been shortened to the cozier Grannie Belly, grinned at me behind Young Grannie’s back. She had been less fortunate in the way of teeth—her smile showed significant gaps—but was cheerful and good-natured.

“Willie B.,” she instructed a teenaged grandson, “just be steppin’ doon to the root cellar, and bringing up a wee sack of turnips for Herself.”

I made the usual protestations, but all parties concerned were comfortably aware of the proper protocol in such matters, and within a few minutes, I was on my way home, the richer by five pounds of turnips.

They were welcome. I had forced myself to go back to my garden in the spring after Malva’s death—I had to; sentiment was all very well, but we had to eat. The subsequent disturbances of life and my prolonged absences, though, had resulted in dreadful neglect of the autumn crop. Despite Mrs. Bug’s best efforts, the turnips had all succumbed to thrips and black rot.

Our supplies in general were sadly depleted. With Jamie and Ian gone so frequently, not there to harvest or hunt, and without Bree and Roger, the grain crops had been half of their usual yield, and only a pitiful single haunch of venison hung in the smoking shed. We needed nearly all the grain for our own use; there was none to trade or sell, and only a scant few bags of barleycorn sat under canvas near the malting shed—where they were likely to rot, I thought grimly, as no one had had time to see to the malting of a fresh batch before the cold weather set in.

Mrs. Bug was slowly rebuilding her flock of chickens, after a disastrous attack by a fox that got into the henhouse—but it was slow going, and we got only the occasional egg for breakfast, grudgingly spared.

On the other hand, I reflected more cheerfully, we did have ham. Lots of ham. Likewise, immense quantities of bacon, headcheese, pork chops, tenderloin . . . to say nothing of suet and rendered fat.

The thought led me back to hog fat, and to the crowded, overflowingly familiar coziness of the Abernathys’ cluster of cabins—and by contrast, to thought of the dreadful emptiness at the Big House.

In a place with so many people, how could the loss of only four be so important? I had to stop and lean against a tree, let the sorrow wash through me, making no attempt to stop it. I’d learned. “Ye canna hold a ghost at bay,” Jamie had told me. “Let them in.”

I let them in—I could never keep them out. And took what small comfort I could in hoping—no, I didn’t hope, I told myself fiercely, I knew—that they were not ghosts in fact. Not dead, but only . . . elsewhere.

After a few moments, the overwhelming grief began to recede, going slowly as the ebbing tide. Sometimes it uncovered treasure: small forgotten images of Jemmy’s face, smeared with honey, Brianna’s laughter, Roger’s hands, deft with a knife, carving one of the little cars—the house was still littered with them—then leaning to spear a muffin from a passing plate. And if to look at these caused fresh pain, at least I had them, and could keep them in my heart, knowing that in the fullness of time, they would bring consolation.

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