A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 35

   

He looked down at his hand, the long, delicate fingers moving restlessly, pleating the cloth of his breeches.

“The streets,” he repeated. “Those who escaped the brothels—they were beggars. I knew one of them quite well—Luc, he was called. We would sometimes assist each other—” The shadow of a smile touched his mouth, and he waved his intact hand in the deft gesture of one picking pockets.

“But he was alone, Luc,” he continued matter-of-factly. “He had no protector. I found him one day in the alley, with his throat cut. I told the madame, and she sent the doorkeep out at once to seize the body, and sold it to a doctor in the next arondissement.”

I didn’t ask what the doctor had wanted with Luc’s body. I’d seen the broad, dried hands of dwarves, sold for divination and protection. And other parts.

“I begin to see why a brothel might seem safe,” I said, swallowing heavily. “But still . . .”

Fergus had been sitting with his head braced on his hand, staring at the straw. At this, he looked up at me.

“I have parted my buttocks for money, milady,” he said simply. “And thought nothing of it, save when it hurt. But then I met milord, and found a world beyond the brothel and the streets. That my son might return to such places . . .” He stopped abruptly, unable to speak. He closed his eyes again, and shook his head, slowly.

“Fergus. Fergus, dear. You can’t think that Jamie—that we—would ever let such a thing happen,” I said, distressed beyond measure.

He drew a deep, trembling breath, and thumbed away the tears that hung on his lashes. He opened his eyes and gave me a smile of infinite sadness.

“No, you would not, milady. But you will not live forever, nor will milord. Nor I. But the child will be a dwarf forever. And les petits, they cannot well defend themselves. They will be plucked up by those who seek them, taken and consumed.” He wiped his nose on his sleeve and sat up a little.

“If, that is, they should be so fortunate,” he added, his voice hardening. “They are not valued, outside the cities. Peasants, they believe the birth of such a child is at best a judgment on the sins of his parents.” A deeper shadow crossed his face, his lips drawing tight. “It may be so. My sins—” But he broke off abruptly, turning away.

“At worst—” His voice was soft, head turned away, as though he whispered secrets to the shadows of the cave. “At worst, they are seen as monstrous, children born of some demon who has lain with the woman. People stone them, burn them—sometimes the woman, too. In the mountain villages of France, a dwarf child would be left for the wolves. But do you not know these things, milady?” he asked, suddenly turning back to face me.

“I—I suppose so,” I said, and put out a hand to the wall, suddenly feeling the need of some support. I had known such things, in the abstract way one thinks of the customs of aborigines and savages—people whom one will never meet, safely distant in the pages of geography books, of ancient histories.

He was right; I knew it. Mrs. Bug had crossed herself, seeing the child, and then made the sign of the horns as protection from evil, pale horror on her face.

Shocked as we had all been, and then concerned with Marsali, and with Fergus’s absence, I hadn’t been away from the house for a week or more. I had no idea what people might be saying, on the Ridge. Fergus plainly did.

“They’ll . . . get used to him,” I said as bravely as I could. “People will see that he isn’t a monster. It may take some time, but I promise you, they’ll see.”

“Will they? And if they let him live, what then will he do?” He rose to his feet quite suddenly. He stretched out his left arm, and with a jerk, freed the leather strip that held his hook. It fell with a soft thump into the straw, and left the narrow stump of his wrist bare, the pale skin creased with red from the tightness of the wrappings.

“Me, I cannot hunt, cannot do a proper man’s work. I am fit for nothing but to pull the plow, like a mule!” His voice shook with anger and self-loathing. “If I cannot work as a man does, how shall a dwarf?”

“Fergus, it isn’t—”

“I cannot keep my family! My wife must labor day and night to feed the children, must put herself in the way of scum and filth who misuse her, who— Even if I was in Paris, I am too old and crippled to whore!” He shook the stump at me, face convulsed, then whirled and swung his maimed arm, smashing it against the wall, over and over.

“Fergus!” I seized his other arm, but he jerked away.

“What work will he do?” he cried, tears streaming down his face. “How shall he live? Mon Dieu! Il est aussi inutile que moi!”

He bent and seized the hook from the ground, and hurled it as hard as he could at the limestone wall. It made a small chiming sound as it struck, and fell into the straw, startling the nanny and her kids.

Fergus was gone, the Dutch door left swinging. The goat called after him, a long maaaah! of disapproval.

I held on to the railing of the pen, feeling as though it was the only solid thing in a slowly tilting world. When I could, I bent and felt carefully in the straw until I touched the metal of the hook, still warm from Fergus’s body. I drew it out and wiped bits of straw and manure carefully off it with my apron, still hearing Fergus’s last words.

“My God! He is as useless as I am!”

38

A DE’IL IN THE MILK

HENRI-CHRISTIAN’S EYES nearly crossed with the effort of focusing on the yarn bobble Brianna dangled over his face.

“I think his eyes might stay blue,” she said, peering thoughtfully at him. “What do you think he’s looking at?” He lay in her lap, knees drawn up nearly to his chin, the soft blue eyes in question fixed somewhere far beyond her.

“Oh, the wee ones still see heaven, my Mam said.” Marsali was spinning, trying out Brianna’s new treadle wheel, but spared a quick glance at her newest son, smiling a little. “Maybe there’s an angel sitting on your shoulder, aye? Or a saint who stands behind ye.”

That gave her an odd feeling, as though someone did stand behind her. Not creepy, though—more a mild, warm sense of reassurance. She opened her mouth to say, “Maybe it’s my father,” but caught herself in time.

“Who’s the patron saint of laundry?” she said instead. “That’s who we need.” It was raining; it had been raining for days, and small mounds of clothing lay scattered about the room or draped over the furniture: damp things in various states of drying, filthy things destined for the wash cauldron as soon as the weather broke, less-filthy things that might be brushed, shaken, or beaten into another few days’ wearing, and an ever-growing pile of things needing mending.

Marsali laughed, deftly feeding thread to the bobbin.

“Ye’d have to ask Da about that. He kens more saints than anybody. This is wonderful, this wheel! I’ve not seen this kind before. However did ye come to think of such a thing?”

“Oh—saw one somewhere.” Bree flicked a hand, dismissing it. She had—in a folk-art museum. Building it had been time-consuming—she’d first had to make a crude lathe, as well as soak and bend the wood for the wheel itself—but not terribly difficult. “Ronnie Sinclair helped a lot; he knows what wood will do and what it won’t. I can’t believe how good you are at that, and this your first time using one like it.”

Marsali snorted, likewise dismissing the compliment.

“I’ve spun since I was five, a piuthar. All that’s different here is I can sit while I do it, instead of walking to and fro ’til I fall over wi’ tiredness.”

Her stockinged feet flickered back and forth under the hem of her dress, working the treadle. It made a pleasant whish-whir sound—though this was barely audible over the babble at the other side of the room, where Roger was carving yet another car for the children.

Vrooms were a big hit with the small-fry, and the demand for them unceasing. Brianna watched with amusement as Roger fended off Jem’s inquisitiveness with a deft elbow, frowning in concentration. The tip of his tongue showed between his teeth, and wood shavings littered the hearth and his clothes, and—of course—one was stuck in his hair, a pale curl against its darkness.

“What’s that one?” she asked, raising her voice to reach him. He looked up, his eyes a mossy green in the dim rainlight from the window behind him.

“I think it’s a ’57 Chevrolet pickup truck,” he said, grinning. “Here, then, a nighean. This one’s yours.” He brushed a last shaving from his creation and handed the blocky thing to Félicité, whose mouth and eyes were round with awe.

“Issa vroom?” she said, clutching it to her bosom. “My vroom?”

“It’s a druck,” Jemmy informed her with kindly condescension. “Daddy says.”

“A truck is a vroom,” Roger assured Félicité, seeing doubt begin to pucker her forehead. “It’s just a bigger kind.”

“Issa big vroom, see!” Félicité kicked Jem in the shin. He yelped and grabbed for her hair, only to be butted in the stomach by Joan, always there to defend her sister.

Brianna tensed, ready to intervene, but Roger broke up the incipient riot by holding Jem and Félicité each at arm’s length, glaring Joan into retreat.

“Right, you lot. No fighting, or we put the vrooms away ’til tomorrow.”

That quelled them instantly, and Brianna felt Marsali relax, resuming the rhythm of her spinning. The rain hummed on the roof, solid and steady; it was a good day to be inside, despite the difficulty of entertaining bored children.

“Why don’t you play something nice and quiet?” she said, grinning at Roger. “Like . . . oh . . . Indianapolis 500?”

“Oh, you’re a great help,” he said, giving her a dirty look, but he obligingly set the children to work laying out a racetrack in chalk on the big hearthstone.

“Too bad Germain’s not here,” he said casually. “Where’s he gone in the rain and all, Marsali?” Germain’s vroom—according to Roger, it was a Jaguar X-KE, though so far as Brianna could tell, it looked exactly like the others: a block of wood with a rudimentary cab and wheels—was sitting on the mantelpiece, awaiting its master’s return.

“He’s with Fergus,” Marsali answered calmly, not faltering in her rhythm. Her lips pressed together, though, and it was easy to hear the note of strain in her voice.

“And how’s Fergus, then?” Roger looked up at her, kindly, but intent.

The thread skipped, bounced in Marsali’s hand, and wound itself up with a visible slub in it. She grimaced, and didn’t reply until the thread was running once more smoothly through her fingers.

“Well, I will say, for a man wi’ one hand, he’s a bonny wee fighter,” she said at last, eyes on the thread and a wry note in her voice.

Brianna glanced at Roger, who raised an eyebrow back at her.

“Who’s he been fighting?” she asked, trying to sound casual.

“He doesna often tell me,” Marsali said evenly. “Though yesterday it was the husband of a woman who asked him why he didna just strangle Henri-Christian at birth. He took offense,” she added, offhand, leaving it unclear as to whether it was Fergus, the husband, or both who had taken offense. Lifting the thread, she bit it sharply off.

“I should think so,” Roger murmured. His head was bent, marking off the starting line, so his hair fell over his forehead, obscuring his face. “Not the only one, though, I take it.”

“No.” Marsali began winding the thread onto the niddy-noddy, a small, seemingly permanent frown showing between her fair brows. “I suppose it’s better than the ones who point and whisper. Those are the ones who think Henri-Christian’s the—the devil’s seed,” she finished bravely, though her voice quivered a little. “I think they’d burn the wee man—and me and the other weans along with him, if they thought they could.”

Brianna felt the bottom of her stomach drop, and cuddled the object of discussion in her lap.

“What sort of idiots could possibly think such a thing?” she demanded. “Let alone say it out loud!”

“Let alone do it, ye mean.” Marsali put aside the yarn and rose, leaning over to take Henri-Christian and put him to her breast. With his knees still curled up, his body was scarcely half the size of a normal baby’s—and with his large, round head with its sprout of dark hair, Brianna had to admit that he did look . . . odd.

“Da had a word here and there,” Marsali said. Her eyes were closed, and she was rocking slowly back and forth, cradling Henri-Christian close. “If it weren’t for that . . .” Her slender throat moved as she swallowed.

“Daddy, Daddy, let’s go!” Jem, impatient with incomprehensible adult conversation, plucked at Roger’s sleeve.

Roger had been looking at Marsali, his lean face troubled. At this reminder, he blinked and glanced down at his thoroughly normal son, clearing his throat.

“Aye,” he said, and took down Germain’s car. “Well, then, look. Here’s the starting line. . . .”

Brianna laid a hand on Marsali’s arm. It was thin, but strongly muscled, the fair skin gold from sun, spattered with tiny freckles. The sight of it, so small and brave-looking, clutched at her throat.

“They’ll stop,” she whispered. “They’ll see. . . .”

“Aye, maybe.” Marsali cupped Henri-Christian’s small round bottom, holding him closer. Her eyes were still closed. “Maybe not. But if Germain’s wi’ Fergus, he’ll maybe be more careful who he fights. I’d rather they didna kill him, aye?”

She bowed her head over the baby, settling into the nursing and plainly disinclined to talk any further. Brianna patted her arm, a little awkwardly, then moved to take the seat by the spinning wheel.

She’d heard the talk, of course. Or some of it. Particularly right after Henri-Christian’s birth, which had sent shock waves through the Ridge. Beyond the first overt expressions of sympathy, there had been a lot of muttering, about recent events and what malign influence might have caused them—from the assault on Marsali and the burning of the malting shed, to the kidnapping of her mother, the slaughter in the woods, and the birth of a dwarf. She’d heard one injudicious girl murmur within her hearing something about “. . . witchcraft, what would ye expect?”—but had rounded fiercely to glare at the girl, who had paled and slunk off with her two friends. The girl had glanced back once, though, then turned away, the three of them spitefully sniggering.

But no one had ever treated her or her mother with any lack of respect. It was clear that a number of the tenants were rather afraid of Claire—but they were much more afraid of her father. Time and habituation had seemed to be working, though—until the birth of Henri-Christian.

Working the treadle was soothing; the whir of the spinning wheel faded into the sound of the rain and the bickering of the children.

At least Fergus had come back. When Henri-Christian was born, he had left the house and not come back for several days. Poor Marsali, she thought, with a mental scowl at Fergus. Left alone to deal with the shock. And everyone had been shocked, her included. Perhaps she couldn’t really blame Fergus.

She swallowed, imagining, as she did whenever she saw Henri-Christian, what it would be like to have a child born with some terrible defect. She saw them now and then—children with cleft lips, the misshapen features of what her mother said was congenital syphilis, retarded children—and every time, crossed herself and thanked God that Jemmy was normal.

But then, so were Germain and his sisters. Something like this could come out of the blue, at any time. Despite herself, she glanced at the small shelf where she kept her personal things, and the dark brown jar of dauco seeds. She’d been taking them again, ever since Henri-Christian’s birth, though she hadn’t mentioned it to Roger. She wondered whether he knew; he hadn’t said anything.

Marsali was singing softly under her breath. Did Marsali blame Fergus? she wondered. Or he her? She hadn’t seen Fergus to talk to in some time. Marsali didn’t seem critical of him—and she had said she didn’t want him killed. Brianna smiled involuntarily at the memory. Yet there was an undeniable sense of distance when she mentioned him.

The thread thickened suddenly, and she trod faster, trying to compensate, only to have it catch and snap. Muttering to herself, she stopped and let the wheel run itself down—only then realizing that someone had been pounding on the door of the cabin for some time, the sound of it lost in the racket inside.

She opened the door to find one of the fisher-folks’ children dripping on the stoop, small, bony, and feral as a wild cat. There were several of them among the tenant families, so alike that she had trouble telling them apart.

“Aidan?” she guessed. “Aidan McCallum?”

“Good day, mistress,” the little boy said, bobbing his head in nervous acknowledgment of identity. “Is meenister to hame?”

“Mee—oh. Yes, I suppose so. Come in, won’t you?” Suppressing a smile, she swung the door wide, beckoning him in. The boy looked quite shocked to see Roger, crouched on the floor, playing Vroom with Jemmy and Joan and Félicité, all industriously screeching and roaring to such effect that they hadn’t noticed the newcomer.

“You have a visitor,” she said, raising her voice to interrupt the bedlam. “He wants the minister.” Roger broke off in mid-vroom, glancing up in inquiry.

“The what?” he said, sitting up, cross-legged, his own car in hand. Then he spotted the boy, and smiled. “Oh. Aidan, a charaid! What is it, then?”

Aidan screwed up his face in concentration. Obviously, he had been given a specific message, committed to memory.

“Mither says will ye come, please,” he recited, “for to drive out a de’il what’s got intae the milk.”

THE RAIN WAS FALLING more lightly now, but they were still soaked nearly through by the time they reached the McCallum residence. If it could be dignified by such a term, Roger thought, slapping rain from his hat as he followed Aidan up the narrow, slippery path to the cabin, which was perched in a high and inconvenient notch in the side of the mountain.

Orem McCallum had managed to erect the walls of his shakily built cabin, and then had missed his footing and plunged into a rock-strewn ravine, breaking his neck within a month of arrival on the Ridge, and leaving his pregnant wife and young son to its dubious shelter.

The other men had come and hastily put a roof on, but the cabin as a whole reminded Roger of nothing so much as a pile of giant jackstraws, poised precariously on the side of the mountain and obviously only awaiting the next spring flood to slide down the mountain after its builder.

Mrs. McCallum was young and pale, and so thin that her dress flapped round her like an empty flour sack. Christ, he thought, what did they have to eat?

“Oh, sir, I do thank ye for coming.” She bobbed an anxious curtsy to him. “I’m that sorry to bring ye out in the rain and all—but I just didna ken what else I might do!”

“Not a problem,” he assured her. “Er . . . Aidan said, though, that ye wanted a minister. I’m not that, ye know.”

She looked disconcerted at that.

“Oh. Well, maybe not exactly, sir. But they do say as how your faither was a minister, and that ye do ken a great deal about the Bible and all.”

“Some, yes,” he replied guardedly, wondering what sort of emergency might require Bible knowledge. “A . . . um . . . devil in your milk, was it?”

He glanced discreetly from the baby in its cradle to the front of her dress, unsure at first whether she might mean her own breast milk, which would be a problem he was definitely not equipped to deal with. Fortunately, the difficulty seemed to lie with a large wooden pail sitting on the ramshackle table, a muslin cloth draped across it to keep flies out, small stones knotted into the corners as weights.

“Aye, sir.” Mrs. McCallum nodded at it, obviously afraid to go nearer. “Lizzie Wemyss, her from the Big House, she brought that to me last night. She said Herself said as I must give it to Aidan, and drink of it myself.” She looked helplessly at Roger. He understood her reservations; even in his own time, milk was regarded as a beverage only for infants and invalids; coming from a fishing village on the Scottish coast, she had quite possibly never seen a cow before coming to America. He was sure she knew what milk was, and that it technically was edible, but she had likely never tasted any.

“Aye, that’s quite all right,” he assured her. “My family all drink milk; it makes the weans grow tall and strong.” And wouldn’t come amiss to a nursing mother on lean rations, which was undoubtedly what Claire had thought.

She nodded, uncertain.

“Well . . . aye, sir. I wasna quite sure . . . but the lad was hungry, and said he’d drink it. So I went to dip him out a bit, but it—” She glanced at the bucket with an expression of fearful suspicion. “Weel, if it’s no a de’il’s got into it, it’s something else. It’s haunted, sir, I’m sure of it!”

He didn’t know what made him look at Aidan at that moment, but he surprised a fleeting look of deep interest that vanished immediately, leaving the boy with a preternaturally solemn expression.

So it was with a certain sense of forewarning that he leaned forward and gingerly lifted the cloth. Even so, he let out a yelp and jerked back, the weighted cloth flying sideways to clack against the wall.

The malevolent green eyes that glared at him from the middle of the bucket disappeared and the milk went gollup!, a spray of creamy drops erupting from the bucket like a miniature volcano.

“Shit!” he said. Mrs. McCallum had backed away as far as she could get and was staring at the bucket in terror, both hands clapped across her mouth. Aidan had one hand pressed over his own mouth, and was similarly wide-eyed—but a faint fizzing sound was audible from his direction.

Roger’s heart was pounding from adrenaline—and a strong desire to wring Aidan McCallum’s scrawny neck. He wiped the splattered cream deliberately from his face, then, gritting his teeth, reached gingerly into the bucket of milk.

It took several tries to grab the thing, which felt like nothing so much as a very muscular and animated glob of mucus, but the fourth try succeeded, and he triumphantly pulled a very large and indignant bullfrog out of the bucket, showering milk in every direction.

The frog dug its back legs ferociously into his slippery palm and broke his grip, launching itself in a soaring leap that covered half the distance to the door and made Mrs. McCallum scream out loud. The startled baby woke and added to the uproar, while the cream-covered frog plopped its way rapidly out of the door and into the rain, leaving yellow splotches in its wake.

Aidan prudently followed it out at a high rate of speed.

Mrs. McCallum had sat down on the floor, thrown her apron over her head, and was having hysterics under it. The baby was shrieking, and milk dripped slowly from the edge of the table, punctuating the patter of rain outside. The roof was leaking, he saw; long wet streaks darkened the unbarked logs behind Mrs. McCallum, and she was sitting in a puddle.

With a deep sigh, he plucked the baby out of its cradle, surprising it sufficiently that it gulped and quit screaming. It blinked at him, and stuck its fist in its mouth. He had no idea of its sex; it was an anonymous bundle of rags, with a pinched wee face and a wary look.

Holding it in one arm, he crouched and put the other round Mrs. McCallum’s shoulders, patting her gingerly in hopes of getting her to stop.

“It’s all right,” he said. “It was just a frog, ye know.”

She’d been moaning like a banshee and uttering small intermittent screams, and she kept doing that, though the screams became less frequent, and the moaning disintegrated at last into more or less normal crying, though she refused to come out from under the apron.

His thigh muscles were cramped from squatting, and he was wet, anyway. With a sigh, he lowered himself into the puddle beside her and sat, patting her shoulder every now and then so she’d know he was still there.

The baby seemed happy enough, at least; it was sucking its fist, undisturbed by its mother’s fit.

“How old’s the wean?” he said conversationally, during a brief pause for breath. He knew its age approximately, because it had been born a week after Orem McCallum’s death—but it was something to say. And for as old as it was, it seemed terribly small and light, at least by contrast to his memories of Jemmy at that age.

She mumbled something inaudible, but the crying eased off into hiccups and sighs. Then she said something else.

“What’s that, Mrs. McCallum?”

“Why?” she whispered from under the faded calico. “Why has God brought me here?”

Well, that was a bloody good question; he’d asked that one fairly often himself, but hadn’t got back any really good answers yet.

“Well . . . we trust He’s got a plan of some sort,” he said a little awkwardly. “We just don’t know what it is.”

“A fine plan,” she said, and sobbed once. “To bring us all this way, to this terrible place, and then take my man from me and leave me here to starve!”

“Oh . . . it’s no such a terrible place,” he said, unable to refute anything else in her statement. “The woods and all . . . the streams, the mountains . . . it’s . . . um . . . very pretty. When it’s not raining.” The inanity of this actually made her laugh, though it quickly devolved into more weeping.

“What?” He put an arm round her and pulled her a little closer, both to offer comfort, and in order to make out what she was saying, under her makeshift refuge.

“I miss the sea,” she said very softly, and leaned her calico-swathed head against his shoulder, as though she was very tired. “I never shall see it again.”

She was very likely right, and he could find nothing to say in reply. They sat for some time in a silence broken only by the baby’s slobbering over its fist.

“I won’t let ye starve,” he said at last, softly. “That’s all I can promise, but I do. Ye won’t starve.” Muscles cramped, he got stiffly to his feet, and reached down to one of the small rough hands that lay limply in her lap. “Come on, then. Get up. Ye can feed the wean, while I tidy up a bit.”

THE RAIN HAD CEASED by the time he left, and the clouds had begun to drift apart, leaving patches of pale blue sky. He paused at a turn in the steep, muddy path to admire a rainbow—a complete one, that arched from one side of the sky to the other, its misty colors sinking down into the dark wet green of the dripping mountainside across from him.

It was quiet, save for the splat and drip of water from the leaves and the gurgle of water running down a rocky channel near the trail.

“A covenant,” he said softly, out loud. “What’s the promise, then? Not a pot of gold at the end.” He shook his head and went on, grabbing at branches and bushes to keep from sliding down the mountainside; he didn’t want to end up like Orem McCallum, in a tangle of bones at the bottom.

He’d talk to Jamie, and also to Tom Christie and Hiram Crombie. Among them, they could put out the word, and ensure the widow McCallum and her children got enough food. Folk were generous to share—but someone had to ask.

He glanced back over his shoulder; the crooked chimney was just visible above the trees, but no smoke came from it. They could gather enough firewood, she said—but wet as it was, it would be days before they had anything that would burn. They needed a shed for the wood, and logs cut, big enough to burn for a day, not the twigs and fallen branches Aidan could carry.

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