A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 17

   

“It puts people asleep, so they won’t feel pain when you cut them,” I explained, thrilled by my success. “And I know exactly who I’m going to use it on first!”

“TOM CHRISTIE?” Jamie repeated. “Have ye told him?”

“I told Malva. She’s going to work on him; soften him up a bit.”

Jamie snorted briefly at the thought.

“Ye could boil Tom Christie in milk for a fortnight, and he’d still be hard as a grindstone. And if ye think he’ll listen to his wee lass prattle about a magic liquid that will put him to sleep—”

“No, she isn’t to tell him about the ether. I’ll do that,” I assured him. “She’s just going to pester him about his hand; convince him he needs it mended.”

“Mm.” Jamie still appeared dubious, though not, it seemed, entirely on Thomas Christie’s account.

“This ether ye’ve made, Sassenach. Might ye not kill him with it?”

I had, in fact, worried considerably about that very possibility. I’d done operations frequently where ether was used, and it was on the whole a fairly safe anesthetic. But homemade ether, administered by hand . . . and people did die of anesthetic accidents, even in the most careful settings, with trained anesthetists and all sorts of resuscitating equipment to hand. And I remembered Rosamund Lindsay, whose accidental death still haunted my dreams now and then. But the possibility of having a reliable anesthetic, of being able to do surgery without pain—

“I might,” I admitted. “I don’t think so, but there’s always some risk. Worth it, though.”

Jamie gave me a slightly jaundiced look.

“Oh, aye? Does Tom think so?”

“Well, we’ll find out. I’ll explain it all carefully to him, and if he won’t—well, he won’t. But I do hope he does!”

The edge of Jamie’s mouth curled up and he shook his head tolerantly.

“Ye’re like wee Jem wi’ a new toy, Sassenach. Take care the wheels dinna come off.”

I might have made some indignant reply to this, but we had come in sight of the Bugs’ cabin, and Arch Bug was sitting on his stoop, peacefully smoking a clay pipe. He took this from his mouth and made to stand up when he saw us, but Jamie motioned him back.

“Ciamar a tha thu, a charaid?”

Arch replied with his customary “Mmp,” infused with a tone of cordiality and welcome. A raised white brow in my direction, and a twiddle of the pipe stem toward the trail indicated that his wife was at our house, if that’s who I was looking for.

“No, I’m just going into the woods to forage a bit,” I said, lifting my empty basket by way of evidence. “Mrs. Bug forgot her needlework, though—may I fetch it for her?”

He nodded, eyes creasing as he smiled round his pipe. He shifted his lean buttocks courteously to allow me to go past him into the cabin. Behind me, I heard a “Mmp?” of invitation, and felt the boards of the stoop shift as Jamie sat down beside Mr. Bug.

There were no windows, and I was obliged to stand still for a moment to let my eyes adjust to the dimness. It was a small cabin, though, and it took no more than half a minute before I could make out the contents: little more than the bed frame, a blanket chest, and a table with two stools. Mrs. Bug’s workbag hung from a hook on the far wall, and I crossed to get it.

On the porch behind me, I heard the murmur of male conversation, featuring the quite unusual sound of Mr. Bug’s voice. He could and did talk, of course, but Mrs. Bug talked so volubly that when she was present, her spouse’s contribution was generally not much more than a smile and an occasional “mmp” of accord or disagreement.

“Yon Christie,” Mr. Bug was saying now, in a meditative tone of voice. “D’ye find him strange, a Sheaumais?”

“Aye, well, he’s a Lowlander,” Jamie said, with an audible shrug.

A humorous “mmp” from Mr. Bug indicated that this was a perfectly sufficient explanation, and was succeeded by the sucking noises of a pipe being encouraged to draw.

I opened the bag, to be sure that the knitting was inside; in fact, it was not, and I was obliged to poke round the cabin, squinting in the dimness. Oh—there it was; a dark puddle of something soft in the corner, fallen from the table and knocked aside by someone’s foot.

“Is he stranger than he might be, Christie?” I heard Jamie ask, his own tone casual.

I glanced through the door in time to see Arch Bug nod toward Jamie, though he didn’t speak, being engaged in a fierce battle with his pipe. However, he raised his right hand and waggled it, displaying the stumps of his two missing fingers.

“Aye,” he said finally, releasing a triumphant puff of white smoke with the word. “He wished to ask me whether it hurt a good deal, when this was done.”

His face wrinkled up like a paper bag, and he wheezed a little—high hilarity for Arch Bug.

“Oh, aye? And what did ye tell him, then, Arch?” Jamie asked, smiling a little.

Arch sucked meditatively on his pipe, now fully cooperative, then pursed his lips and blew a small, perfect ring of smoke.

“Weeel, I said it didna hurt a bit—at the time.” He paused, blue eyes twinkling. “Of course, that may have been because I was laid out cold as a mackerel from the shock of it. When I came round, it stung a bit.” He lifted the hand, looking it over dispassionately, then glanced through the door at me. “Ye didna mean to use an ax on poor old Tom, did ye, ma’am? He says ye’re set to mend his hand next week.”

“Probably not. May I see?” I stepped out on the porch, bending to him, and he let me take the hand, obligingly switching his pipe to the left.

The index and middle finger had been severed cleanly, right at the knuckle. It was a very old injury; so old that it had lost that shocking look common to recent mutilations, where the mind still sees what should be there, and tries vainly for an instant to reconcile reality with expectation. The human body is amazingly plastic, though, and will compensate for missing bits as well as it can; in the case of a maimed hand, the remnant often undergoes a subtle sort of useful deformation, to maximize what function remains.

I felt along the hand carefully, fascinated. The metacarpals of the severed digits were intact, but the surrounding tissues had shrunk and twisted, withdrawing that part of the hand slightly, so that the remaining two fingers and the thumb could make a better opposition; I’d seen old Arch use that hand with perfect grace, holding a cup to drink, or wielding the handle of a spade.

The scars over the finger stumps had flattened and paled, forming a smooth, calloused surface. The remaining finger joints were knobbed with arthritis, and the hand as a whole was so twisted that it really didn’t resemble a hand anymore—and yet it was not at all repulsive. It felt strong and warm in mine, and in fact, was oddly attractive, in the same way that a piece of weathered driftwood is.

“It was done with an ax, you said?” I asked, wondering exactly how he had managed to inflict such an injury on himself, given that he was right-handed. A slippage might have gashed an arm or leg, but to take two fingers of the same hand right off like that . . . Realization dawned and my grasp tightened involuntarily. Oh, no.

“Oh, aye,” he said, and exhaled a plume of smoke. I looked up, straight into his bright blue eyes.

“Who did it?” I asked.

“The Frasers,” he said. He squeezed my hand gently, then withdrew his own and turned it to and fro. He glanced at Jamie.

“Not the Frasers of Lovat,” he assured him. “Bobby Fraser of Glenhelm, and his nephew. Leslie, his name was.”

“Oh? Well, that’s good,” Jamie replied, one eyebrow lifted. “I shouldna like to hear it was close kin of mine.”

Arch chuckled, almost soundlessly. His eyes still gleamed bright in their webs of wrinkled skin, but there was something in that laugh that made me want suddenly to step back a little.

“No, ye wouldna,” he agreed. “Nor me. But this was maybe the year ye would have been born, a Sheaumais, or a bit before. And there are no Frasers at Glenhelm now.”

The hand itself had not troubled me at all, but the imagined vision of how it had got that way was making me a trifle faint. I sat down beside Jamie, not waiting for invitation.

“Why?” I said bluntly. “How?”

He drew on his pipe, and blew another ring. It struck the remnants of the first and both disintegrated in a haze of fragrant smoke. He frowned a little, and glanced down at the hand, now resting on his knee.

“Ah, well. It was my choice. We were bowmen, see,” he explained to me. “All the men of my sept, we were brought up to it, early. I’d my first bow at three, and could strike a grouse through the heart at forty feet by the time I was six.”

He spoke with an air of simple pride, squinting a little at a small flock of doves that were foraging under the trees nearby, as though estimating how easily he could have bagged one.

“I did hear my father tell of the archers,” Jamie said. “At Glenshiels. Many of them Grants, he said—and some Campbells.” He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, interested in the story, but wary.

“Aye, that was us.” Arch puffed industriously, smoke wreathing up round his head. “We’d crept down through the bracken in the night,” he explained to me, “and hid among the rocks above the river at Glenshiels, under the bracken and the rowans. Ye could have stood a foot away and not seen one of us, so thick as it was.

“A bit cramped,” he added confidentially to Jamie. “Ye couldna stand up to take a piss, and we’d had our suppers—with a bit o’ beer—before we came up the other side o’ the mountain. All squatting like women, we were. Trying like the devil to keep our bowstrings dry in our shirts, too, what wi’ the rain coming down and dripping down our necks through the fern.

“But come the dawn,” he went on cheerfully, “and we stood on the signal and let fly. I will say ’twas a bonny sight, our arrows hailing down from the hills on the poor sods camped there by the river. Aye, your faither fought there, too, a Sheaumais,” he added, pointing the stem of his pipe at Jamie. “He was one o’ those by the river.” A spasm of silent laughter shook him.

“No love lost, then,” Jamie replied, very dryly. “Between you and the Frasers.”

Old Arch shook his head, not at all discomposed.

“None,” he said. He turned his attention back to me, his manner sobering a little.

“So when the Frasers would capture a Grant alone on their land, it was their habit to give him a choice. He could lose his right eye, or the twa fingers of his right hand. Either way, he wouldna draw a bow again against them.”

He rubbed the maimed hand slowly to and fro against his thigh, stretching it out, as though his phantom fingers reached and yearned for the touch of singing sinew. Then he shook his head, as though dismissing the vision, and curled his hand into a fist. He turned to me.

“Ye werena intending to take Christie’s fingers straight off, were ye, Mrs. Fraser?”

“No,” I said, startled. “Of course not. He doesn’t think . . . ?”

Arch shrugged, bushy white brows raised toward his receding hairline.

“I couldna say for sure, but he seemed verra much disturbed at the thought of being cut.”

“Hmm,” I said. I’d have to speak to Tom Christie.

Jamie had stood up to take his leave, and I followed suit automatically, shaking out my skirts and trying to shake out of my head the mental image of a young man’s hand, pinned to the ground, and an ax chunking down.

“No Frasers at Glenhelm, ye said?” Jamie asked thoughtfully, looking down at Mr. Bug. “Leslie, the nephew—he would have been Bobby Fraser’s heir, would he?”

“Aye, he would.” Mr. Bug’s pipe had gone out. He turned it over and knocked the dottle neatly out against the edge of the porch.

“Both killed together, were they? I mind my father telling of it, once. Found in a stream, their heads caved in, he said.”

Arch Bug blinked up at him, eyelids lowered, lizardlike, against the sun’s glare.

“Weel, ye see, a Sheaumais,” he said, “a bow’s like a good-wife, aye? Knows her master, and answers his touch. An ax, though—” He shook his head. “An ax is a whore. Any man can use one—and it works as well in either hand.”

He blew through the stem of the pipe to clear it of ash, wiped the bowl with his handkerchief, and tucked it carefully away—left-handed. He grinned at us, the remnants of his teeth sharp-edged and yellowed with tobacco.

“Go with God, Seaumais mac Brian.”

LATER IN THE WEEK, I went to the Christies’ cabin, to take the stitches out of Tom’s left hand and explain to him about the ether. His son, Allan, was in the yard, sharpening a knife on a foot-treadled grindstone. He smiled and nodded to me, but didn’t speak, unable to be heard above the rasping whine of the grindstone.

Perhaps it was that sound, I thought, a moment later, that had aroused Tom Christie’s apprehensions.

“I have decided that I shall leave my other hand as it is,” he said stiffly, as I clipped the last stitch and pulled it free.

I set down my tweezers and stared at him.

“Why?”

A dull red rose in his cheeks, and he stood up, lifting his chin and looking over my shoulder, so as not to meet my eye.

“I have prayed about it, and I have come to the conclusion that if this infirmity be God’s will, then it would be wrong to seek to change it.”

I suppressed the strong urge to say “Stuff and nonsense!”, but with great difficulty.

“Sit down,” I said, taking a deep breath. “And tell me, if you would, just why you think God wants you to go about with a twisted hand?”

He did glance at me then, surprised and flustered.

“Why . . . it is not my place to question the Lord’s ways!”

“Oh, isn’t it?” I said mildly. “I rather thought that’s what you were doing last Sunday. Or wasn’t it you I heard, inquiring as to what the Lord thought He was about, letting all these Catholics flourish like the green bay tree?”

The dull red color darkened substantially.

“I am sure you have misunderstood me, Mistress Fraser.” He straightened himself still further, so that he was nearly leaning over backward. “The fact remains that I shall not require your assistance.”

“Is it because I’m a Catholic?” I asked, settling back on the stool and folding my hands on my knee. “You think perhaps I’ll take advantage of you, and baptize you into the church of Rome when you’re off your guard?”

“I have been suitably christened!” he snapped. “And I will thank you to keep your Popish notions to yourself.”

“I have an arrangement with the Pope,” I said, giving him stare for stare. “I issue no bulls on points of doctrine, and he doesn’t do surgery. Now, about your hand—”

“The Lord’s will—” he began stubbornly.

“Was it the Lord’s will that your cow should fall into the gorge and break her leg last month?” I interrupted him. “Because if it was, then you presumably ought to have left her there to die, rather than fetching my husband to help pull her out, and then allowing me to set her leg. How is she, by the way?”

I could see the cow in question through the window, peacefully grazing at the edge of the yard, and evidently untroubled either by her nursing calf, or by the binding I had applied to support her cracked cannon bone.

“She is well, I thank you.” He was beginning to sound a little strangled, though his shirt was loose at the collar. “That is—”

“Well, then,” I said. “Do you think the Lord regards you as less deserving of medical help than your cow? It seems unlikely to me, what with Him regarding sparrows and all that.”

He’d gone a sort of dusky purple round the jowls by this point, and clutched the defective hand with the sound one, as though to keep it safe from me.

“I see that you have heard something of the Bible,” he began, very pompous.

“Actually, I’ve read it for myself,” I said. “I read quite well, you know.”

He brushed this remark aside, a dim light of triumph gleaming in his eye.

“Indeed. Then I am sure you will have read the Letter of St. Paul to Timothy, in which he says, Let a woman be silent—”

I had, in fact, encountered St. Paul and his opinions before, and had a few of my own.

“I expect St. Paul ran into a woman who could outargue him, too,” I said, not without sympathy. “Easier to try to put a stopper on the entire sex than to win his point fairly. I should have expected better of you, though, Mr. Christie.”

“But that’s blasphemy!” he gasped, clearly shocked.

“It is not,” I countered, “unless you’re saying that St. Paul is actually God—and if you are, then I rather think that’s blasphemy. But let’s not quibble,” I said, seeing his eyes begin to bulge. “Let me . . .” I rose from my stool and took a step forward, bringing me within touching distance of him. He backed up so hastily that he bumped into the table and knocked it askew, sending Malva’s workbasket, a pottery jug of milk, and a pewter plate cascading to the floor with a crash.

I bent swiftly and grabbed the workbasket, in time to prevent it being soaked by the flood of milk. Mr. Christie had as swiftly seized a rag from the hearth, and bent to mop up the milk. We narrowly missed bumping heads, but did collide, and I lost my balance, falling heavily against him. He caught hold of my arms by reflex, dropping the rag, then hastily let go and recoiled, leaving me swaying on my knees.

He was on his knees, as well, breathing heavily, but now a safe distance away.

“The truth of it is,” I said severely, pointing a finger at him, “you’re afraid.”

“I am not!”

“Yes, you are.” I got to my feet, replaced the workbasket on the table, and shoved the rag delicately over the puddle of milk with my foot. “You’re afraid that I’ll hurt you—but I won’t,” I assured him. “I have a medicine called ether; it will make you go to sleep, and you won’t feel anything.”

He blinked at that.

“And perhaps you’re afraid that you’ll lose a few fingers, or what use of your hand you have.”

He was still kneeling on the hearth, staring up at me.

“I can’t absolutely guarantee that you won’t,” I said. “I don’t think that will happen—but man proposes, and God disposes, doesn’t He?”

He nodded, very slowly, but didn’t say anything. I took a deep breath, for the moment out of argument.

“I think I can mend your hand,” I said. “I can’t guarantee it. Sometimes things happen. Infections, accidents—something unexpected. But . . .”

I reached out a hand to him, motioning toward the crippled member. Moving like a hypnotized bird trapped in a serpent’s gaze, he extended his arm and let me take it. I grasped his wrist and pulled him to his feet; he rose easily and stood before me, letting me hold his hand.

I took it in both of mine and pressed the gnarled fingers back, rubbing my thumb gently over the thickened palmar aponeurosis that was trapping the tendons. I could feel it clearly, could see in my mind exactly how to approach the problem, where to press with the scalpel, how the calloused skin would part. The length and depth of the Z-shaped incision that would free his hand and make it useful once more.

“I’ve done it before,” I said softly, pressing to feel the submerged bones. “I can do it again, God willing. If you’ll let me?”

He was only a couple of inches taller than I; I held his eyes, as well as his hand. They were a clear, sharp gray, and searched my face with something between fear and suspicion—but with something else at the back of them. I became quite suddenly aware of his breathing, slow and steady, and felt the warmth of his breath on my cheek.

“All right,” he said at last, hoarsely. He pulled his hand away from mine, not abruptly, but almost with reluctance, and stood cradling it in his sound one. “When?”

“Tomorrow,” I said, “if the weather is good. I’ll need good light,” I explained, seeing the startled look in his eyes. “Come in the morning, but don’t eat breakfast.”

I picked up my kit, bobbed an awkward curtsy to him, and left, feeling rather queer.

Allan Christie waved cheerfully to me as I left, and went on with his grinding.

“DO YOU THINK he’ll come?” Breakfast had been eaten, and no sign yet of Thomas Christie. After a night of broken sleep, in which I dreamed repeatedly of ether masks and surgical disasters, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted him to come or not.

“Aye, he’ll come.” Jamie was reading the North Carolina Gazette, four months out of date, while munching the last of Mrs. Bug’s cinnamon toast. “Look, they’ve printed a letter from the Governor to Lord Dartmouth, saying what an unruly lot of seditious, conniving, thieving bastards we all are, and asking General Gage to send him cannon to threaten us back into good behavior. I wonder if MacDonald knows that’s public knowledge?”

“Did they really?” I said absently. I rose, and picked up the ether mask I had been staring at all through breakfast. “Well, if he does come, I suppose I’d best be ready.”

I had the ether mask Bree had made for me and the dropping bottle laid out ready in my surgery, next to the array of instruments I would need for the surgery itself. Unsure, I picked up the bottle, uncorked it, and waved a hand across the neck, wafting fumes toward my nose. The result was a reassuring wave of dizziness that blurred my vision for a moment. When it cleared, I recorked the bottle and set it down, feeling somewhat more confident.

Just in time. I heard voices at the back of the house, and footsteps in the hall.

I turned expectantly, to see Mr. Christie glowering at me from the doorway, his hand curled protectively into his chest.

“I have changed my mind.” Christie lowered his brows still further, to emphasize his position. “I have considered the matter, and prayed upon it, and I shall not allow ye to employ your foul potions upon me.”

“You stupid man,” I said, thoroughly put out. I stood up and glowered back. “What is the matter with you?”

He looked taken aback, as though a snake in the grass at his feet had dared to address him.

“There is nothing whatever the matter with me,” he said, quite gruff. He lifted his chin aggressively, bristling his short beard at me. “What is the matter with you, madam?”

“And I thought it was only Highlanders who were stubborn as rocks!”

He looked quite insulted at this comparison, but before he could take further issue with me, Jamie poked his head into the surgery, drawn by the sounds of altercation.

“Is there some difficulty?” he inquired politely.

“Yes! He refuses—”

“There is. She insists—”

The words collided, and we both broke off, glaring at each other. Jamie glanced from me to Mr. Christie, then at the apparatus on the table. He cast his eyes up to heaven, as though imploring guidance, then rubbed a finger thoughtfully beneath his nose.

“Aye,” he said. “Well. D’ye want your hand mended, Tom?”

Christie went on looking mulish, cradling the crippled hand protectively against his chest. After a moment, though, he nodded slowly.

“Aye,” he said. He gave me a deeply suspicious look. “But I shall not be having any of this Popish nonsense about it!”

“Popish?” Jamie and I spoke at the same time, Jamie sounding merely puzzled, myself deeply exasperated.

“Aye, and ye need not be thinking ye can cod me into it, either, Fraser!”

Jamie shot me an “I told ye so, Sassenach” sort of look, but squared himself to give it a try.

“Well, ye always were an awkward wee bugger, Tom,” he said mildly. “Ye must please yourself about it, to be sure—but I can tell ye from experience that it does hurt a great deal.”

I thought Christie paled a little.

“Tom. Look.” Jamie nodded at the tray of instruments: two scalpels, a probe, scissors, forceps, and two suture needles, already threaded with gut and floating in a jar of alcohol. They gleamed dully in the sunlight. “She means to cut into your hand, aye?”

“I know that,” Christie snapped, though his eyes slid away from the sinister assemblage of sharp edges.

“Aye, ye do. But ye’ve not the slightest notion what it’s like. I have. See here?” He held up his right hand, the back of it toward Christie, and waggled it. In that position, with the morning sun full on it, the thin white scars that laced his fingers were stark against the deep bronze skin.

“That bloody hurt,” he assured Christie. “Ye dinna want to do something like that, and there’s a choice about it—which there is.”

Christie barely glanced at the hand. Of course, I thought, he would be familiar with the look of it; he’d lived with Jamie for three years.

“I have made my choice,” Christie said with dignity. He sat down in the chair and laid his hand palm-up on the napkin. All the color had leached out of his face, and his free hand was clenched so hard that it trembled.

Jamie looked at him under heavy brows for a moment, then sighed.

“Aye. Wait a moment, then.”

Obviously, there was no further point in argument, and I didn’t bother trying. I took down the bottle of medicinal whisky I kept on the shelf and poured a healthy tot into a cup.

“Take a little wine for thy stomach’s sake,” I said, thrusting it firmly into his upturned hand. “Our mutual acquaintance, St. Paul. If it’s all right to drink for the sake of a stomach, surely to goodness you can take a drop for the sake of a hand.”

His mouth, grimly compressed in anticipation, opened in surprise. He glanced from the cup to me, then back. He swallowed, nodded, and raised the cup to his lips.

Before he had finished, though, Jamie came back, holding a small, battered green book, which he thrust unceremoniously into Christie’s hand.

Christie looked surprised, but held the book out, squinting to see what it was. HOLY BIBLE was printed on the warped cover, King James Version.

“Ye’ll take help where ye can, I suppose?” Jamie said a little gruffly.

Christie looked at him sharply, then nodded, a very faint smile passing through his beard like a shadow.

“I thank you, sir,” he said. He took his spectacles out of his coat and put them on, then opened the little book with great care and began to thumb through it, evidently looking for a suitable inspiration for undergoing surgery without anesthetic.

I gave Jamie a long look, to which he responded with the faintest of shrugs. It wasn’t merely a Bible. It was the Bible that had once belonged to Alexander MacGregor.

Jamie had come by it as a very young man, when he was imprisoned in Fort William by Captain Jonathan Randall. Flogged once, and awaiting another, frightened and in pain, he had been left in solitary confinement with no company save his thoughts—and this Bible, given to him by the garrison’s surgeon for what comfort it might offer.

Alex MacGregor had been another young Scottish prisoner—one who had died by his own hand, rather than suffer the further attentions of Captain Randall. His name was written inside the book, in a tidy, rather sprawling hand. The little Bible was no stranger to fear and suffering, and if it wasn’t ether, I hoped it might still possess its own power of anodyne.

Christie had found something that suited him. He cleared his throat, straightened himself in the chair, and laid his hand on the towel, palm up, in such a forthright manner that I wondered whether he had settled on the passage in which the Maccabees willingly present their hands and tongues for amputation at the hands of the heathen king.

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