A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 16

   

“Aye,” he said. “Well.” He was breathing deeply. “I will, then.” He rose abruptly, knocking the stool aside, and headed for the door, a little off-balance, like a man the worse for strong drink.

At the door, he paused, fumbling for the knob. Finding it, he drew himself up and turned back, looking for Jamie.

“At least,” he said, breathing so hard that he stumbled over the words, “at least it will be an honorable scar. Won’t it, Mac Dubh?”

Jamie straightened up abruptly, but Christie was already out, stamping down the corridor with a step heavy enough to rattle the pewter plates on the kitchen shelf.

“Why, ye wee pissant!” he said, in a tone somewhere between anger and astonishment. His left hand clenched involuntarily into a fist, and I thought it a good thing that Christie had made such a rapid exit.

I was rather unsure as to exactly what had happened—or been happening—but relieved that Christie was gone. I’d felt like a handful of grain, trapped between two grindstones, both of them trying to grind each other’s faces, with no heed for the hapless corn in between.

“I’ve never heard Tom Christie call you Mac Dubh,” I observed cautiously, turning to tidy away my surgical leavings. Christie was not, of course, a Gaelic-speaker, but I had never heard him use even the Gaelic nickname that the other Ardsmuir men still called Jamie by. Christie always called Jamie “Mr. Fraser,” or simply “Fraser,” in moments of what passed for cordiality.

Jamie made a derisive Scottish noise, then picked up Christie’s half-full cup and thriftily drained it.

“No, he wouldna—frigging Sassenach.” Then he caught a glimpse of my face, and gave me a lopsided smile. “I didna mean you, Sassenach.”

I knew he didn’t mean me; the word was spoken with a completely different—and quite shocking—intonation; a bitterness that reminded me that “Sassenach” was by no means a friendly term in normal usage.

“Why do you call him that?” I asked curiously. “And just what did he mean by that ‘honorable scar’ crack?”

He looked down, and didn’t answer for a moment, though the stiffened fingers of his right hand drummed soundlessly against his thigh.

“Tom Christie’s a solid man,” he said at last. “But by God, he is a stiff-necked wee son of a bitch!” He looked up then, and smiled at me, a little ruefully.

“Eight years he lived in a cell wi’ forty men who had the Gaelic—and he wouldna lower himself to let a word of such a barbarous tongue pass his lips! Christ, no. He’d speak in English, no matter who it was he spoke to, and if it was a man who had no English, why, then, he’d just stand there, dumb as a stone, ’til someone came along to interpret for him.”

“Someone like you?”

“Now and then.” He glanced toward the window, as though to catch a glimpse of Christie, but the night had come down altogether, and the panes gave back only a dim reflection of the surgery, our own forms ghostlike in the glass.

“Roger did say that Kenny Lindsay mentioned something about Mr. Christie’s . . . pretensions,” I said delicately.

Jamie shot me a sharp glance at that.

“Oh, he did, did he? So, Roger Mac had second thoughts about his wisdom in taking on Christie as a tenant, I suppose. Kenny wouldna have said, unless he was asked.”

I had more or less got used to the speed of his deductions and the accuracy of his insights, and didn’t question this one.

“You never told me about that,” I said, coming to stand in front of him. I put my hands on his chest, looking up into his face.

He put his own hands over mine, and sighed, deep enough for me to feel the movement of his chest. Then he wrapped his arms around me, and drew me close, so my face rested against the warm fabric of his shirt.

“Aye, well. It wasna really important, ken.”

“And you didn’t want to think about Ardsmuir, perhaps?”

“No,” he said softly. “I have had enough of the past.”

My hands were on his back now, and I realized suddenly what Christie had likely meant. I could feel the lines of the scars through the linen, clear to my fingertips as the lines of a fishnet, laid across his skin.

“Honorable scars!” I said, lifting my head. “Why, that little bastard! Is that what he meant?”

Jamie smiled a little at my indignation.

“Aye, he did,” he said dryly. “That’s why he called me Mac Dubh—to remind me of Ardsmuir, so I’d ken for sure what he meant by it. He saw me flogged there.”

“That—that—” I was so angry, I could barely speak. “I wish I’d stitched his f**king hand to his balls!”

“And you a physician, sworn to do nay harm? I’m verra much shocked, Sassenach.”

He was laughing now, but I wasn’t amused at all.

“Beastly little coward! He’s afraid of blood, did you know that?”

“Well, aye, I did. Ye canna live in a man’s oxter for three years without learning a great many things ye dinna want to know about him, let alone something like that.” He sobered a bit, though a hint of wryness still lurked at the corner of his mouth. “When they brought me back from being whipped, he went white as suet, went and puked in the corner, then lay down with his face to the wall. I wasna really taking notice, but I remember thinking that was a bit raw; I was the one was a bloody mess, why was he takin’ on like a lass wi’ the vapors?”

I snorted. “Don’t you go making jokes about it! How dare he? And what does he mean, anyway—I know what happened at Ardsmuir, and those bloody well . . . I mean, those certainly are honorable scars, and everyone there knew it!”

“Aye, maybe,” he said, all hint of laughter disappearing. “That time. But everyone could see when they stood me up that I’d been flogged before, aye? And no man there has ever said a word to me about those scars. Not ’til now.”

That brought me up short.

Flogging wasn’t merely brutal; it was shameful—meant to permanently disfigure, as well as to hurt, advertising a criminal’s past as clearly as a branded cheek or cropped ear. And Jamie would, of course, prefer to have his tongue torn out by the roots, sooner than reveal to anyone the reasons for his scars, even if that meant leaving everyone with the assumption that he had been flogged for some disgraceful act.

I was so used to Jamie’s always keeping his shirt on in anyone else’s presence that it had never occurred to me that of course the Ardsmuir men would know about the scars on his back. And yet he hid them, and everyone pretended they did not exist—save Tom Christie.

“Hmph,” I said. “Well . . . God damn the man, anyway. Why would he say such a thing?”

Jamie uttered a short laugh.

“Because he didna like me watching him sweat. He wanted a bit of his own back, I expect.”

“Hmph,” I said again, and folded my arms beneath my bosom. “Since you mention it—why did you do that? If you knew he couldn’t stand blood and the like, I mean, why stay and watch him like that?”

“Because I kent he wouldna whimper or faint if I did,” he replied. “He’d let ye thrust red-hot needles through his eyeballs before he’d squeal in front of me.”

“Oh, so you noticed that?”

“Well, of course I did, Sassenach. What d’ye think I was there for? Not that I dinna appreciate your skill, but watching ye stitch up wounds isna really good for the digestion.” He cast a brief glance at the discarded cloth, splotched with blood, and grimaced. “D’ye think the coffee’s gone cold by now?”

“I’ll heat it up.” I slid the clean scissors back into their sheath, then sterilized the needle I’d used, ran a fresh silk suture through it, and coiled it up in its jar of alcohol—still trying to make sense of things.

I put everything back into the cupboard, then turned to Jamie.

“You aren’t afraid of Tom Christie, are you?” I demanded.

He blinked, astonished, then laughed.

“Christ, no. What makes ye think that, Sassenach?”

“Well . . . the way the two of you act sometimes. It’s like wild sheep, butting heads to see who’s stronger.”

“Oh, that.” He waved a hand, dismissive. “I’ve a harder head by far than Tom, and he kens it well enough. But he’s no going to give in and follow me round like a yearling lamb, either.”

“Oh? But what do you think you’re doing, then? You weren’t just torturing him to prove you could, were you?”

“No,” he said, and smiled faintly at me. “A man stubborn enough to speak English to Hieland men in prison for eight years is a man stubborn enough to fight beside me for the next eight years; that’s what I think. It would be good if he were sure of it, himself, though.”

I drew a deep breath and sighed, shaking my head.

“I do not understand men.”

That made him chuckle, deep in his chest.

“Yes, ye do, Sassenach. Ye only wish ye didn’t.”

The surgery lay neat again, ready for whatever emergencies the morrow might bring. Jamie reached for the lamp, but I laid a hand on his arm, stopping him.

“You promised me honesty,” I said. “But are you quite sure you’re being honest with yourself? You weren’t baiting Tom Christie just because he challenges you?”

He stopped, his eyes clear and unguarded, a few inches from mine. He lifted a hand and cupped the side of my face, his palm warm on my skin.

“There are only two people in this world to whom I would never lie, Sassenach,” he said softly. “Ye’re one of them. And I’m the other.”

He kissed me gently on the forehead, then leaned past me and blew out the lamp.

“Mind,” his voice came from the darkness, and I saw his tall form silhouetted against the faint oblong of light from the doorway as he straightened up, “I can be fooled. But I wouldna be doing it on purpose.”

ROGER MOVED a little, and groaned.

“I think ye broke my leg.”

“Did not,” said his wife, calmer now, but still disposed to argument. “But I’ll kiss it for you, if you want.”

“That’d be nice.”

Tremendous rustlings of the corn-shuck mattress ensued as she clambered into position to execute this treatment, ending with a nak*d Brianna straddling his chest, and leaving him with a view that caused him to wish they’d taken time to light the candle.

She was in fact kissing his shins, which tickled. Given the circumstances, though, he was inclined to put up with it. He reached up with both hands. Lacking light, Braille would do.

“When I was fourteen or so,” he said dreamily, “one of the shops in Inverness had a most daring window display—daring for the times, that is—a lady mannequin wearing nothing but underwear.”

“Mm?”

“Aye, a full-length pink girdle, garters, the lot—with matching brassiere. Everyone was shocked. Committees were got up to protest, and calls were made to all the ministers in town. Next day, they took it down, but meanwhile, the entire male population of Inverness had been past that window, taking pains to look casual about it. ’Til this minute, I’d always thought that was the most erotic thing I’d ever seen.”

She suspended her operations for a moment, and he thought from the sense of movement that she was looking back over her shoulder at him.

“Roger,” she said thoughtfully. “I do believe you’re a pervert.”

“Yes, but one with really good night vision.”

That made her laugh—the thing he’d been striving for since he’d finally got her to stop frothing at the mouth—and he raised himself briefly, planting a light kiss on either side of the looming object of his affections before sinking contentedly back onto the pillow.

She kissed his knee, then put her head down, cheek against his thigh, so the mass of her hair spilled over his legs, cool and soft as a cloud of silk threads.

“I’m sorry,” she said softly, after a moment.

He made a dismissive noise, and ran a soothing hand over the round of her hip.

“Och, it’s no matter. Too bad, though; I wanted to see their faces when they saw what ye’d done.”

She snorted briefly, and his leg twitched at the warmth of her breath.

“Their faces were something to see, anyway.” She sounded a little bleak. “And it would have been a real anticli**x, after that.”

“Well, you’re right about that,” he admitted. “But ye’ll show them tomorrow, when they’re in a frame of mind to appreciate it properly.”

She sighed, and kissed his knee again.

“I didn’t mean it,” she said, after a moment. “Implying it was your fault.”

“Aye, ye did,” he said softly, still caressing. “It’s all right. Ye’re probably right.” Likely she was. He wasn’t going to pretend it hadn’t hurt to hear it, but he wouldn’t let himself be angry; that would help neither of them.

“You don’t know that.” She raised up suddenly, looming like an obelisk in silhouette against the pale rectangle of the window. Swinging one leg neatly over his supine body, she slithered down beside him. “It could be me. Or neither of us. Maybe it just isn’t the right time, yet.”

He put an arm around her and hugged her close in answer.

“Whatever the cause, we’ll not blame each other, aye?” She made a small sound of assent and nestled closer. Well enough; there was no way to keep from blaming himself, though.

The facts were clear enough; she’d got pregnant with Jemmy after one night—whether with himself, or Stephen Bonnet, no one knew, but once was all it took. Whereas they’d been trying for the last several months, and Jem was looking more and more like being an only child. Possibly he did lack the vital spark, as Mrs. Bug and her chums speculated.

Who’s your Daddy? echoed mockingly in the back of his mind—in an Irish accent.

He coughed explosively, and settled back, determined not to dwell on that little matter.

“Well, I’m sorry, too,” he said, changing the subject. “Ye’re maybe right about me acting like I’d rather ye cook and clean than mess about with your wee chemistry set.”

“Only because you would,” she said without rancor.

“It’s not so much the not cooking as it is the setting things on fire I mind.”

“Well, you’ll love the next project, then,” she said, nuzzling his shoulder. “It’s mostly water.”

“Oh . . . good,” he said, though even he could hear the dubious note in his voice. “Mostly?”

“There’s some dirt involved, too.”

“Nothing that burns?”

“Just wood. A little. Nothing special.”

She was running her fingers slowly down his chest. He caught her hand and kissed her fingertips; they were smooth, but hard, callused from the constant spinning she did to help keep them clothed.

“Who can find a virtuous woman?” he quoted, “for her price is far above rubies. She seeketh wool and flax and worketh willingly with her hands. She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple.”

“I would love to find some dye plant that gives a true purple,” she said wistfully. “I miss the bright colors. Remember the dress I wore to the man-on-the-moon party? The black one, with the bands of Day-Glo pink and lime green?”

“That was pretty memorable, aye.” Privately, he thought the muted colors of homespun suited her much better; in skirts of rust and brown, jackets of gray and green, she looked like some exotic, lovely lichen.

Seized by the sudden desire to see her, he reached out, fumbling on the table by the bed. The little box was where she’d thrown it when they came back. She’d designed it to be used in the dark, after all; a turn of the lid dispensed one of the small, waxy sticks, and the tiny strip of roughened metal glued to the side was cool to his hand.

A skritch! that made his heart leap with its simple familiarity, and the tiny flame appeared with a whiff of sulfur—magic.

“Don’t waste them,” she said, but smiled in spite of the protest, delighted at the sight as she’d been when she first showed him what she’d done.

Her hair was loose and clean, just washed; shimmering over the pale round of her shoulder, clouds of it lying soft over his chest, cinnamon and amber and roan and gold, sparked by the flame.

“She does not fear the snow for her household, for all her household are clothed in scarlet,” he said softly, his free hand round her, twining a lock near her face round his finger, twisting the tiny strand as he’d seen her spin yarn.

The long lids of her eyes closed halfway, like a basking cat’s, but the smile remained on that wide, soft mouth—those lips that hurt, then healed. The light glowed in her skin, bronzed the tiny brown mole beneath her right ear. He could have watched her forever, but the match was burning low. Just before the flame touched his fingers, she leaned forward and blew it out.

And in the smoke-wisped dark, whispered in his ear, “The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her. She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life. So there.”

22

ENSORCELLMENT

TOM CHRISTIE didn’t come back to the surgery, but he did send his daughter, Malva, to get the ointment. The girl was dark-haired, slender, and quiet, but seemed intelligent. She paid close attention as I quizzed her on the look of the wound—so far, so good, a bit of redness, but no suppuration, no reddish streaks up the arm—and gave her instructions on how to apply the ointment and change the dressing.

“Good, then,” I said, giving her the jar. “If he should begin a fever, come and fetch me. Otherwise, make him come in a week, to have the stitches taken out.”

“Yes, ma’am, I’ll do that.” She didn’t turn and go, though, but lingered, her gaze flickering over the mounds of drying herbs on the gauze racks and the implements of my surgery.

“Do you need something else, dear? Or did you have a question?” She’d seemed to understand my instructions perfectly well—but perhaps she wanted to ask something more personal. After all, she had no mother . .

“Well, aye,” she said, and nodded at the table. “I only wondered—what is it that ye write in yon black book, ma’am?”

“This? Oh. It’s my surgical notes, and recipes . . . er . . . receipts, I mean, for medicines. See?” I turned the book round and opened it so that she could see the page where I had drawn a sketch of the damage to Miss Mouse’s teeth.

Malva’s gray eyes were bright with curiosity, and she leaned forward to read, hands carefully folded behind her back as though afraid she might touch the book by accident.

“It’s all right,” I said, a little amused by her caution. “You can look through it, if you like.” I pushed it toward her, and she stepped back, startled. She glanced up at me, a look of doubt wrinkling her brow, but when I smiled at her, she took a tiny, excited breath, and reached out to turn a page.

“Oh, look!” The page she’d turned to wasn’t one of mine, but one of Daniel Rawlings’s—it showed the removal of a dead child from the uterus, via the use of assorted tools of dilatation and curettage. I glanced at the page, and hastily away. Rawlings hadn’t been an artist, but he had had a brutal knack for rendering the reality of a situation.

Malva didn’t seem to be distressed by the drawings, though; she was bug-eyed with interest.

I began to be interested, too, watching covertly as she turned pages at random. She naturally paid most attention to the drawings—but she paused to read the descriptions and recipes, as well.

“Why d’ye write things down that ye’ve done?” she asked, glancing up with raised eyebrows. “The receipts, aye, I see ye might forget things—but why d’ye draw these pictures and write down the bits about how ye took off a toe wi’ the frost-rot? Would ye do it differently, another time?”

“Well, sometimes you might,” I said, laying aside the stalk of dried rosemary I’d been stripping of its needles. “Surgery isn’t the same each time. All bodies are a bit different, and even though you may do the same basic procedure a dozen times, there will be a dozen things that happen differently—sometimes only tiny things, sometimes big ones.

“But I keep a record of what I’ve done for several reasons,” I added, pushing back my stool and coming round the table to stand beside her. I turned another few pages, stopping at the record I kept of old Grannie MacBeth’s complaints—a list so extensive that I had alphabetized it for my own convenience, beginning with Arthritis—all joints, running through Dyspepsia, Earache, and Fainting, and then onward for most of two pages, terminating with Womb, prolapsed.

“Partly, it’s so that I’ll know what’s been done for a particular person, and what happened—so that if they need treatment later, I can look back and have an accurate description of their earlier state. To compare, you see?”

She nodded eagerly.

“Aye, I see. So ye’d know were they getting better or worse. What else, then?”

“Well, the most important reason,” I said slowly, seeking the right words, “is so that another doctor—someone who might come later—so that person could read the record, and see how I’d done this or that. It might show them a way to do something they hadn’t done themselves—or a better way.”

Her mouth pursed up in interest.

“Ooh! Ye mean someone might learn from this”—she touched a finger to the page, delicately—“how to do what it is ye do? Without ’prenticing himself to a doctor?”

“Well, it’s best if you have someone to teach you,” I said, amused at her eagerness. “And there are things you can’t really learn from a book. But if there’s no one to learn from—” I glanced out the window, at the vista of green wilderness swarming over the mountains. “It’s better than nothing,” I concluded.

“Where did you learn?” she asked, curious. “From this book? I see there’s another hand, besides yours. Whose was it?”

I ought to have seen that one coming. I hadn’t quite bargained on Malva Christie’s quickness, though.

“Ah . . . I learned from a lot of books,” I said. “And from other doctors.”

“Other doctors,” she echoed, looking at me in fascination. “D’ye call yourself a doctor, then? I didna ken women ever could be.”

For the rather good reason that no women did call themselves physicians or surgeons now—nor were accepted as such.

I coughed.

“Well . . . it’s a name, that’s all. A good many people just say wisewoman, or conjure woman. Or ban-lichtne,” I added. “But it’s all the same, really. It only matters whether I know something that might help them.”

“Ban—” She mouthed the unfamiliar word. “I haven’t heard that before.”

“It’s the Gaelic. The Highland tongue, you know? It means ‘female healer’ or something like.”

“Oh, the Gaelic.” An expression of mild derision crossed her face; I expected she had absorbed her father’s attitude toward the Highlanders’ ancient language. She evidently saw something in my face, though, for she instantly erased the disdain from her own features and bent over the book again. “Who was it wrote these other bits, then?”

“A man named Daniel Rawlings.” I smoothed a creased page, with the usual sense of affection for my predecessor. “He was a doctor from Virginia.”

“Him?” She looked up, surprised. “The same who’s buried in the boneyard up the mountain?”

“Ah . . . yes, that’s him.” And the story of how he came to be there was not something to be shared with Miss Christie. I glanced out of the window, estimating the light. “Will your father be wanting his dinner?”

“Oh!” She stood up straight at that, glancing out the window, too, with a faint look of alarm. “Aye, he will.” She cast a last look of longing toward the book, but then brushed down her skirt and set her cap straight, ready to go. “I thank ye, Mrs. Fraser, for showing me your wee book.”

“Happy to,” I assured her sincerely. “You’re welcome to come again and look at it. In fact . . . would you—” I hesitated, but plunged on, encouraged by her look of bright interest. “I’m going to take a growth from Grannie Macbeth’s ear tomorrow. Would you like to come along with me, to see how? It would be a help to me, to have another pair of hands,” I added, seeing sudden doubt war with the interest in her eyes.

“Oh, aye, Mrs. Fraser—I’d dearly like it!” she said. “It’s only my father—” She looked uneasy as she said it, but then seemed to make up her mind. “Well . . . I’ll come. I’m sure I can talk him round.”

“Would it help if I were to send a note? Or come and speak with him?” I was suddenly quite desirous that she should come with me.

She gave a small shake of the head.

“Nay, ma’am, it’ll be all right, I’m sure.” She dimpled at me suddenly, gray eyes sparkling. “I’ll tell him I’ve had a keek at your black book, and it’s no by way of being spells in it, at all, but only receipts for teas and purges. I’ll maybe not say about the drawings, though,” she added.

“Spells?” I asked incredulously. “Is that what he thought?”

“Oh, aye,” she assured me. “He warned me not to touch it, for fear of ensorcellment.”

“Ensorcellment,” I murmured, bemused. Well, Thomas Christie was a schoolmaster, after all. In fact, he might have been right, I thought; Malva glanced back at the book as I went with her to the door, obvious fascination on her face.

23

ANESTHESIA

I CLOSED MY EYES AND, holding my hand a foot or so in front of my face, wafted it gently toward my nose, like one of the parfumeurs I’d seen in Paris, testing a fragrance.

The smell hit me in the face like an ocean wave, and with approximately the same effect. My knees buckled, black lines writhed through my vision, and I ceased to make any distinction between up and down.

In what seemed an instant later, I came to, lying on the floor of the surgery with Mrs. Bug staring down at me in horror.

“Mrs. Claire! Are ye all right, mo gaolach? I saw ye fall—”

“Yes,” I croaked, shaking my head gingerly as I got up on one elbow. “Put—put the cork in.” I gestured clumsily at the large open flask on the table, its cork lying alongside. “Don’t get your face near it!”

Face averted and screwed into a grimace of caution, she got the cork and inserted it, at arm’s length.

“Phew, what is yon stuff?” she said, stepping back and making faces. She sneezed explosively into her apron. “I’ve never smelt anything like that—and Bride kens I’ve smelt a good many nasty things in this room!”

“That, my dear Mrs. Bug, is ether.” The swimming sensation in my head had almost disappeared, replaced by euphoria.

“Ether?” She looked at the distilling apparatus on my counter in fascination, the alcohol bath bubbling gently away in its great glass bubble over a low flame and the oil of vitriol—later to be known as sulfuric acid—slicking its slow way down the slanted tubing, its malign hot scent lurking below the usual surgery smells of roots and herbs. “Fancy! And what’s ether, then?”

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