A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 14

   

I had the feeling of having been caught in some rapidly revolving apparatus like a merry-go-round, and took hold of Jamie’s arm in order to steady myself.

“Did you know that Bobby Higgins is in love with Lizzie?” I asked.

“No, but it’ll do him little good if he is,” Jamie replied callously. Taking my hand on his arm as invitation, he took the eggs from me and set them on the ground, then pulled me in and kissed me again, more slowly, but no less thoroughly.

He let go with a deep sigh of content, and glanced at the new summer kitchen we had erected in his absence: a small framed structure consisting of coarse-woven canvas walls and a pine-branch roof, erected round a stone hearth and chimney—but with a large table inside. Enticing scents of rising dough, fresh-baked bread, oatcakes, and cinnamon rolls wafted through the air from it.

“Now, about that quarter of an hour, Sassenach . . . I believe I could manage wi’ a bit less, if necessary. . . .”

“Well, I couldn’t,” I said firmly, though I did allow my hand to fondle him for a thoughtful instant. My face was burning from contact with his whiskers. “And when we do have time, you can tell me what on earth you’ve been doing to bring this on.”

“Dreaming,” he said.

“What?”

“I kept havin’ terrible lewd dreams about ye, all the night long,” he explained, twitching his breeks into better adjustment. “Every time I rolled over, I’d lie on my c*ck and wake up. It was awful.”

I burst out laughing, and he affected to look injured, though I could see reluctant amusement behind it.

“Well, you can laugh, Sassenach,” he said. “Ye havena got one to trouble ye.”

“Yes, and a great relief it is, too,” I assured him. “Er . . . what sort of lewd dreams?”

I could see a deep blue gleam of speculation at the back of his eyes as he looked at me. He extended one finger, and very delicately ran it down the side of my neck, the slope of my breast where it disappeared into my bodice, and over the thin cloth covering my nipple—which promptly popped up like a puffball mushroom in response to this attention.

“The sort that make me want to take ye straight into the forest, far enough that no one will hear when I lay ye on the ground, lift your skirts, and split ye like a ripe peach,” he said softly. “Aye?”

I swallowed, audibly.

At this delicate moment, whoops of greeting came from the trailhead on the other side of the house.

“Duty calls,” I said, a trifle breathless.

Jamie drew a deep breath of his own, squared his shoulders, and nodded.

“Well, I havena died of unrequited lust yet; I suppose I shallna do it now.”

“Don’t suppose you will,” I said. “Besides, didn’t you tell me once that abstinence makes . . . er . . . things . . . grow firmer?”

He gave me a bleak look.

“If it gets any firmer, I’ll faint from a lack of blood to the heid. Dinna forget the eggs, Sassenach.”

It was late afternoon, but plenty of light left for the job, thank goodness. My surgery was positioned to take advantage of morning light for operations, though, and was dim in the afternoons, so I set up an impromptu theater of operation in the dooryard.

This was an advantage, insofar as everyone wished to watch; Indians always regarded medical treatment—and almost anything else—as a community affair. They were particularly enthusiastic about operations, as these held a high degree of entertainment value. Everyone crowded eagerly around, commenting on my preparations, arguing with each other and talking to the patient, whom I had the greatest difficulty in discouraging from talking back.

Her name was Mouse, and I could only assume that she had been given it for some metaphysical reason, as it certainly wasn’t suited either to appearance or personality. She was round-faced, unusually snub-nosed for a Cherokee, and if she wasn’t precisely pretty, she had a force of character that is often more attractive than simple beauty.

It was certainly working on the males present; she was the only woman in the Indian party, the others consisting of her brother, Red Clay Wilson, and four friends who had come along, either to keep the Wilsons company, offer protection on the journey—or to vie for Miss Mousie’s attention, which seemed to me the most likely explanation of their presence.

Despite the Wilsons’ Scottish name, none of the Cherokee spoke any English beyond a few basic words—these including “no,” “yes,” “good,” “bad,” and “whisky!” Since the Cherokee equivalent of these terms was the extent of my own vocabulary, I was taking little part in the conversation.

We were at the moment waiting for whisky, in fact, as well as translators. A settler named Wolverhampton, from some nameless hollow to the east, had inadvertently amputated one and a half toes a week before, while splitting logs. Finding this state of things inconvenient, he had proceeded to try to remove the remaining half-digit himself with a froe.

Say what you will regarding general utility; a froe is not a precision instrument. It is, however, sharp.

Mr. Wolverhampton, a burly sort with an irascible temper, lived on his own, some seven miles from his nearest neighbor. By the time he had reached this neighbor—on foot, or what remained of it—and the neighbor had bundled him onto a mule for transport to Fraser’s Ridge, nearly twenty-four hours had passed, and the partial foot had assumed the dimensions and appearance of a mangled raccoon.

The requirements of the cleanup surgery, the multiple subsequent debridements to control the infection, and the fact that Mr. Wolverhampton refused to surrender the bottle, had quite exhausted my usual surgical supply. As I needed a keg of the raw spirit for my ether-making in any case, Jamie and Ian had gone to fetch more from the whisky spring, which was a good mile from the house. I hoped they would return while there was still enough light to see what I was doing.

I interrupted Miss Mousie’s loud remonstrance with one of the gentlemen, who was evidently teasing her, and indicated by means of sign language that she should open her mouth for me. She did, but went on expostulating by means of rather explicit hand signals, which seemed to be indicating various acts she expected the gentleman in question to perform upon himself, judging from his flushed countenance, and the way his companions were falling about with hilarity.

The side of her face was puffed and obviously tender. She didn’t wince or shy away, though, even when I turned her face farther toward the light for a better view.

“Toothache, forsooth!” I said, involuntarily.

“Ooth?” Miss Mouse said, cocking an eyebrow at me.

“Bad,” I explained, pointing at her cheek. “Uyoi.”

“Bad,” she agreed. There followed a voluble exposition—interrupted only by my inserting my fingers into her mouth periodically—which I took to be an explanation of what had happened to her.

Blunt trauma, by the look of it. One tooth, a lower canine, had been knocked completely out, and the neighboring bicuspid was so badly broken I would have to extract it. The next to that could be saved, I thought. The inside of her mouth was badly lacerated by the sharp edges, but the gum was not infected. That was heartening.

Bobby Higgins came down from the stable, drawn by the chatter, and was promptly sent back to bring me a file. Miss Mousie grinned lopsidedly at him when he brought it, and he bowed extravagantly to her, making all of them laugh.

“These folk are Cherokee, are they, mum?” He smiled at Red Clay, and made a hand sign, which seemed to amuse the Indians, though they returned it. “I’ve not met any Cherokee before. It’s mostly other tribes near his Lordship’s place in Virginia.”

I was pleased to see that he was familiar with Indians, and easy in his manner toward them. Hiram Crombie, who appeared at this point, was not.

He stopped dead at the edge of the clearing, seeing the assemblage. I waved cheerily at him, and—with evident reluctance—he advanced.

Roger had told me Duncan’s description of Hiram as “that wee sour-drap.” It was apt. He was small and stringy, with thin grizzled hair that he wore strained back in a plait so tight that I thought he must find it difficult to blink. His face deeply lined by the rigors of a fisherman’s life, he looked about sixty, but was likely much younger—and his mouth was habitually downturned, in the expression of one who has sucked not merely a lemon, but a rotten lemon.

“I was looking for Mr. Fraser,” he said, with a wary eye on the Indians. “I had heard he was back.” He had a hatchet in his belt, and kept a tight grip on it with one hand.

“He’ll be back directly. You’ve met Mr. Higgins, haven’t you?” Evidently he had, and had been unfavorably impressed by the experience. His eyes fixed on Bobby’s brand, he made the smallest possible nod of acknowledgment. Nothing daunted, I waved a hand round at the Indians, who were all examining Hiram with much more interest than he showed in them. “May I introduce Miss Wilson, her brother Mr. Wilson, and . . . er . . . their friends?”

Hiram stiffened further, if such a thing was possible.

“Wilson?” he said, in an unfriendly voice.

“Wilson,” agreed Miss Mouse cheerily.

“That is my wife’s family name,” he said, in a tone that made it clear he considered the use of it by Indians to be grossly outrageous.

“Oh,” I said. “How nice. Do you think they might be your wife’s relatives, perhaps?”

His eyes bulged slightly at that, and I heard a strangled gurgle from Bobby.

“Well, they plainly got the name from a Scottish father or grandfather,” I pointed out. “Perhaps . . .”

Hiram’s face was working like a nutcracker, emotions from fury to dismay passing in swift succession over it. His right hand curled up, forefinger and little finger protruding in the horns, the sign against evil.

“Great-Uncle Ephraim,” he whispered. “Jesus save us.” And without further word, he turned on his heel and tottered off.

“Goodbye!” called Miss Mousie in English, waving. He cast a single, haunted glance over his shoulder at her, then fled as though pursued by demons.

THE WHISKY FINALLY arrived, and, a fair amount of it passed out to patient and spectators alike, the operation at last commenced.

The file was normally used on horses’ teeth, and thus a little larger than I would have liked, but worked reasonably well. Miss Mouse was inclined to be loud about the discomfort involved, but her complaints grew less with her increasing intake of whisky. By the time I had to draw her broken tooth, I thought, she wouldn’t feel a thing.

Bobby, meanwhile, was entertaining Jamie and Ian with imitations of Hiram Crombie’s response to the discovery that he might possibly share some family connection with the Wilsons. Ian, between bursts of laughter, translated the matter for the Indians, who all rolled on the grass in paroxysms of mirth.

“Do they have an Ephraim Wilson in their family tree?” I asked, taking a firm grip of Miss Mousie’s chin.

“Well, they’re not sure of the ‘Ephraim,’ but aye, they do.” Jamie grinned broadly. “Their grandsire was a Scottish wanderer. Stayed long enough to get their grandmother wi’ child, then fell off a cliff and was buried by a rockslide. She marrit again, of course, but liked the name.”

“I wonder what it was made Great-Uncle Ephraim leave Scotland?” Ian sat up, wiping tears of laughter from his eyes.

“The proximity of people like Hiram, I expect,” I said, squinting to see what I was doing. “Do you think—” I realized suddenly that everyone had quit talking and laughing, their attention focused on something across the clearing.

This something was the arrival of another Indian, carrying something in a bundle over his shoulder.

THE INDIAN WAS A gentleman named Sequoyah, somewhat older than the young Wilsons and their friends. He nodded soberly to Jamie, and swinging the bundle off his shoulder, laid it on the ground at Jamie’s feet, saying something in Cherokee.

Jamie’s face changed, the lingering traces of amusement vanishing, replaced by interest—and wariness. He knelt, and carefully turning back the ragged canvas, revealed a jumble of weathered bones, a hollow-eyed skull staring up from the midst of them.

“Who in bloody hell is that?” I had stopped work, and with everyone else, including Miss Mouse, stood staring down at this latest arrival.

“He says it’s the auld man who owned the homestead MacDonald told of—the one that burned inside the Treaty Line.” Jamie reached down and picked up the skull, turning it gently in his hands.

He heard my small intake of breath, for he glanced at me, then turned the skull over, holding it for me to see. Most of the teeth were missing, and had been missing long enough that the jawbone had closed over the empty sockets. But the two molars remaining showed nothing but cracks and stains—no gleam of silver filling, no empty space where such fillings might have been.

I let my breath out slowly, not sure whether to be relieved or disappointed.

“What happened to him? And why is he here?”

Jamie knelt and laid the skull gently back in the canvas, then turned some of the bones over, examining them. He looked up, and with a small motion of the head, invited me to join him.

The bones showed no sign of having been burned, but several of them did show signs of having been gnawed by animals. One or two of the long bones had been cracked and split, no doubt to get at the marrow, and many of the smaller bones of hands and feet were missing. All of them had the gray, fragile look of bones that had lain outside for some time.

Ian had relayed my question to Sequoyah, who squatted down next to Jamie, explaining as he jabbed a finger here and there amongst the bones.

“He says,” Ian translated, frowning, “that he knew the man a long time. They werena friends, exactly, but now and again, when he was near the man’s cabin, he would stop, and the man would share his food. So he would bring things, too, when he came—a hare for the pot, a bit o’ salt.”

One day, a few months back, he had found the old man’s body in the wood, lying under a tree, some distance from his house.

“No one kilt him, he says,” Ian said, frowning in concentration at the rapid stream of words. “He just . . . died. He thinks the man was hunting—he had a knife on him, and his gun beside him—when the spirit left him, and he just fell down.” He echoed Sequoyah’s shrug.

Seeing no reason to do anything with the body, Sequoyah had left it there, and left the knife with it, in case the spirit should require it, wherever it had gone; he did not know where the spirits of white men went, or whether they hunted there. He pointed—there was an old knife, the blade almost rusted away, under the bones.

He had taken the gun, which seemed too good to leave, and as it was on his way, had stopped at the cabin. The old man had owned very little, and what he had was mostly worthless. Sequoyah had taken an iron pot, a kettle, and a jar of cornmeal, which he had carried back to his village.

“He’s no from Anidonau Nuya, is he?” Jamie asked, then repeated the question in Cherokee. Sequoyah shook his head, the small ornaments braided into his hair making a tiny chiming sound.

He was from a village some miles west of Anidonau Nuya—Standing Stone. Bird-who-sings had sent word to the nearby towns, in the wake of Jamie’s visit, asking if there was anyone who knew of the old man and his fate. Hearing Sequoyah’s account, Bird had sent him to collect what was left of the old man, and to bring the remains to Jamie, in proof that no one had killed him.

Ian asked a question, in which I caught the Cherokee word for “fire.” Sequoyah shook his head again, and replied with a stream of words.

He had not burned the cabin—why should he do such a thing? He thought no one had done so. After collecting the old man’s bones—his face showed his distaste for the procedure—he had gone to look at the cabin again. True, it was burned—but it was clear to him that a tree nearby had been struck by lightning, and had set fire to a good bit of the forest near it. The cabin was only half-burned.

He rose to his feet with an air of finality.

“Will he stay for supper?” I asked, seeing that he seemed about to depart.

Jamie conveyed the invitation, but Sequoyah shook his head. He had done what was required of him; now he had other business. He nodded to the other Indians, then turned to go.

Something struck him, though, and he stopped, turning back.

“Tsisqua says,” he said, in the careful way of one who has memorized a speech in an unfamiliar tongue, “you re-mem-ber de guns.” He nodded then decisively, and went.

THE GRAVE WAS MARKED with a small cairn of stones and a small wooden cross made of pine twigs. Sequoyah hadn’t known his acquaintance’s name, and we had no idea of his age, nor yet the dates of birth and death. We hadn’t known if he was Christian, either, but the cross seemed a good idea.

It was a very small burial service, consisting of myself, Jamie, Ian, Bree and Roger, Lizzie and her father, the Bugs, and Bobby Higgins—who I was fairly sure was in attendance only because Lizzie was. Her father seemed to think so, too, judging from the occasional suspicious glances he cast at Bobby.

Roger read a brief psalm over the grave, then paused. He cleared his throat and said simply, “Lord, we commend to Thy care the soul of this our brother . . .”

“Ephraim,” murmured Brianna, eyes cast modestly down.

A subterranean sense of laughter moved through the crowd, though no one actually laughed. Roger gave Bree a dirty look, but I saw the corner of his mouth twitching, as well.

“. . . of our brother, whose name Thou knowest,” Roger concluded with dignity, and closed the Book of Psalms he had borrowed from Hiram Crombie—who had declined an invitation to attend the funeral.

The light had gone by the time Sequoyah had finished his revelations the night before, and I was obliged to put off Miss Mouse’s dental work to the morning. Stewed to the gills, she made no objection, and was helpfully supported off to a bed on the kitchen floor by Bobby Higgins—who might or might not be in love with Lizzie, but who seemed nonetheless most appreciative of Miss Mouse’s charms.

Once finished with the tooth-drawing, I had suggested that she and her friends stay for a bit, but they, like Sequoyah, had business elsewhere, and with many thanks and small gifts, had departed by mid-afternoon, smelling strongly of whisky, and leaving us to dispose of the mortal remains of the late Ephraim.

Everyone went back down the hill after the service, but Jamie and I loitered behind, seeking an opportunity to be alone for a few minutes. The house had been full of Indians the night before, with much talk and storytelling by the fire, and by the time we had finally gone to bed, we had simply curled up in each other’s arms and fallen asleep, barely exchanging the brief civility of a “good night.”

The graveyard was sited on a small rise, some distance from the house, and was a pretty, peaceful place. Surrounded by pines whose golden needles blanketed the earth, and whose murmuring branches provided a constant soft susurrus, it seemed a comforting spot.

“Poor old creature,” I said, putting a final pebble on Ephraim’s cairn. “How do you suppose he ended up in such a place?”

“God knows.” Jamie shook his head. “There are always hermits, men who mislike the society of their fellows. Perhaps he was one o’ those. Or perhaps some misfortune drove him into the wilderness, and he . . . stayed.” He shrugged a little, and gave me a half-smile.

“I sometimes wonder how any of us came to be where we are, Sassenach. Don’t you?”

“I used to,” I said. “But after a time, there didn’t seem to be any possibility of an answer, so I stopped.”

He looked down at me, diverted.

“Have ye, then?” He put out a hand and tucked back a lock of windblown hair. “Perhaps I shouldna ask it, then, but I will. Do ye mind, Sassenach? That ye are here, I mean. Do ye ever wish ye were—back?”

I shook my head.

“No, not ever.”

And that was true. But I woke sometimes in the dead of night, thinking, Is now the dream? Would I wake again to the thick warm smell of central heating and Frank’s Old Spice? And when I fell asleep again to the scent of woodsmoke and the musk of Jamie’s skin, would feel a faint, surprised regret.

If he saw the thought on my face, he gave no sign of it, but bent and kissed me gently on the forehead. He took my arm, and we walked a little way into the wood, away from the house and its clearing below.

“Sometimes I smell the pines,” he said, taking a deep, slow breath of the pungent air. “And I think for an instant I am in Scotland. But then I come to myself and see; there is no kindly bracken here, nor great barren mountains—not the wildness that I kent, but only wilderness that I do not.”

I thought I heard nostalgia in his voice, but not sorrow. He’d asked, though; so would I.

“And do you ever wish to be . . . back?”

“Oh, aye,” he said, surprising me—and then laughed at the look on my face. “But not enough not to wish more to be here, Sassenach.”

He glanced over his shoulder at the tiny graveyard, with its small collection of cairns and crosses, with here and there a larger boulder marking a particular grave.

“Did ye ken, Sassenach, that some folk believe the last person to lie in a graveyard becomes its guardian? He must stand on guard until the next person dies and comes to take his place—only then can he rest.”

“I suppose our mysterious Ephraim might be rather surprised to find himself in such a position, when here he’d lain down under a tree all alone,” I said, smiling a little. “But I do wonder: what is the guardian of a graveyard guarding—and from whom?”

He laughed at that.

“Oh . . . vandals, maybe; desecraters. Or charmers.”

“Charmers?” I was surprised at that; I’d thought the word “charmer” synonymous with “healer.”

“There are charms that call for bones, Sassenach,” he said. “Or the ashes of a burnt body. Or soil from a grave.” He spoke lightly enough, but with no sense of jesting. “Aye, even the dead may need defending.”

“And who better to do it than a resident ghost?” I said. “Quite.”

We climbed up through a stand of quivering aspen, whose light dappled us with green and silver, and I paused to scrape a blob of the crimson sap from a paper-white trunk. How odd, I thought, wondering why the sight of it gave me pause—and then remembered, and turned sharply to look again at the graveyard.

Not a memory, but a dream—or a vision. A man, battered and broken, rising to his feet amid a stand of aspen, rising for what he knew was the last time, his last fight, baring shattered teeth stained with blood that was the color of the aspens’ sap. His face was painted black for death—and I knew that there were silver fillings in his teeth.

But the granite boulder stood silent and peaceful, drifted all about with yellow pine needles, marking the rest of the man who had once called himself Otter-Tooth.

The moment passed, and vanished. We walked out of the aspens, and into another clearing, this one higher than the rise the graveyard stood on.

I was surprised to see that someone had been cutting timber here, and clearing the ground. A sizable stack of felled logs lay to one side, and nearby lay a tangle of uprooted stumps, though several more, still rooted in the ground, poked through the heavy growth of wood sorrel and bluet.

“Look, Sassenach.” Jamie turned me with a hand on my elbow.

“Oh. Oh, my.”

The ground rose high enough here that we could look out over a stunning vista. The trees fell away below us, and we could see beyond our mountain, and beyond the next, and the next, into a blue distance, hazed with the breath of the mountains, clouds rising from their hollows.

“D’ye like it?” The note of proprietorial pride in his voice was palpable.

“Of course I like it. What—?” I turned, gesturing at the logs, the stumps.

“The next house will stand here, Sassenach,” he said simply.

“The next house? What, are we building another?”

“Well, I dinna ken will it be us, or maybe our children—or grandchildren,” he added, mouth curling a little. “But I thought, should anything happen—and I dinna think anything will, mind, but if it should—well, I should be happier to have made a start. Just in case.”

I stared at him for a moment, trying to make sense of this. “Should anything happen,” I said slowly, and turned to look to the east, where the shape of our house was just visible among the trees, its chimney smoke a white plume among the soft green of the chestnuts and firs. “Should it really . . . burn down, you mean.” Just putting the idea into words made my stomach curl up into a ball.

Then I looked at him again, and saw that the notion scared him, too. But Jamie-like, he had simply set about to take what action he could, against the day of disaster.

“D’ye like it?” he repeated, blue eyes intent. “The site, I mean. If not, I can choose another.”

“It’s beautiful,” I said, feeling tears prickle at the backs of my eyes. “Just beautiful, Jamie.”

HOT AFTER THE CLIMB, we sat down in the shade of a giant hemlock, to admire our future view. And, with the silence broken concerning the dire possibility of the future, found we could discuss it.

“It’s not so much the idea of us dying,” I said. “Or not entirely. It’s that ‘no surviving children’ that gives me the whim-whams.”

“Well, I take your point, Sassenach. Though I’m no in favor of us dying, either, and I mean to see we don’t,” he assured me. “Think, though. It might not mean they’re dead. They might only . . . go.”

I took a deep breath, trying to accept that supposition without panic.

“Go. Go back, you mean. Roger and Bree—and Jemmy, I suppose. We’re assuming he can—can travel through the stones.”

He nodded soberly, arms clasped about his knees.

“After what he did to that opal? Aye, I think we must assume he can.” I nodded, recalling what he’d done to the opal: held it, complaining of it growing hot in his hand—until it exploded, shattering into hundreds of needle-sharp fragments. Yes, I thought we must assume he could time-travel, too. But what if Brianna had another child? It was plain to me that she and Roger wanted another—or at least that Roger did, and she was willing.

The thought of losing them was acutely painful, but I supposed the possibility had to be faced.

“Which leaves a choice, I suppose,” I said, trying to be brave and objective. “If we’re dead, they’d go, because without us, they’ve no real reason to be here. But if we’re not dead—will they go anyway? Will we send them away, I mean? Because of the war. It won’t be safe.”

“No,” he said softly. His head was bent, stray auburn hairs lifting from his crown, from the cowlicks he had bequeathed both to Bree and to Jemmy.

“I dinna ken,” he said at last, and lifted his head, looking out into the distance of land and sky. “No one does, Sassenach. We must just meet what comes as we can.”

He turned and laid his hand over mine, with a smile that had as much of pain in it as joy.

“We’ve ghosts enough between us, Sassenach. If the evils of the past canna hinder us—neither then shall any fears of the future. We must just put things behind us and get on. Aye?”

I laid a light hand on his chest, not in invitation, but only because I wanted the feel of him. His skin was cool from sweating, but he had helped dig the grave; the heat of his labor glowed in the muscle beneath.

“You were one of my ghosts,” I said. “For a long time. And for a long time, I tried to put you behind me.”

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