A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 36


As though the thought had summoned him, Aidan came into view then. The boy was fishing, squatting on a rock beside a pool some thirty feet below, back turned to the trail. His shoulder blades stuck out through the worn fabric of his shirt, distinct as tiny angel wings.

The noise of the water covered Roger’s footsteps as he made his way down the rocks. Very gently, he fitted his hand around the skinny, pale neck, and the bony shoulders hunched in surprise.

“Aidan,” he said. “A word wi’ you, if ye please.”

THE DARK CAME DOWN on All Hallows’ Eve. We went to sleep to the sound of howling wind and pelting rain, and woke on the Feast of All Saints to whiteness and large soft flakes falling down and down in absolute silence. There is no more perfect stillness than the solitude in the heart of a snowstorm.

This is the thin time, when the beloved dead draw near. The world turns inward, and the chilling air grows thick with dreams and mystery. The sky goes from a sharp clear cold where a million stars burn bright and close, to the gray-pink cloud that enfolds the earth with the promise of snow.

I took one of Bree’s matches from its box and lit it, thrilling to the tiny leap of instant flame, and bent to put it to the kindling. Snow was falling, and winter had come; the season of fire. Candles and hearth fire, that lovely, leaping paradox, that destruction contained but never tamed, held at a safe distance to warm and enchant, but always, still, with that small sense of danger.

The smell of roasting pumpkins was thick and sweet in the air. Having ruled the night with fire, the jack-o’-lanterns went now to a more peaceful fate as pies and compost, to join the gentle rest of the earth before renewal. I had turned the earth in my garden the day before, planting the winter seeds to sleep and swell, to dream their buried birth.

Now is the time when we reenter the womb of the world, dreaming the dreams of snow and silence. Waking to the shock of frozen lakes under waning moonlight and the cold sun burning low and blue in the branches of the ice-cased trees, returning from our brief and necessary labors to food and story, to the warmth of firelight in the dark.

Around a fire, in the dark, all truths can be told, and heard, in safety.

I pulled on my woolen stockings, thick petticoats, my warmest shawl, and went down to poke up the kitchen fire. I stood watching wisps of steam rise from the fragrant cauldron, and felt myself turn inward. The world could go away, and we would heal.



November 1773

A HAMMERING ON THE DOOR roused Roger just before dawn. Next to him, Brianna made an inarticulate noise that experience interpreted as a statement that if he didn’t get up and answer the door, she would—but he’d regret it, and so would the unfortunate person on the other side.

Resigned, he flung back the quilt and ran a hand through his tangled hair. The air struck cold on his bare legs, and there was an icy breath of snow in the air.

“Next time I marry someone, I’ll pick a lass who wakes up cheerful in the morning,” he said to the hunched form beneath the bedclothes.

“You do that,” said a muffled voice from under the pillow—whose indistinct nature did nothing to disguise its hostile intonation.

The hammering was repeated, and Jemmy—who did wake up cheerful in the mornings—popped up in his trundle, looking like a redheaded dandelion gone to seed.

“Somebody’s knocking,” he informed Roger.

“Oh, are they? Mmphm.” Repressing an urge to groan, he rose and went to unbolt the door.

Hiram Crombie stood outside, looking more dour than usual in the milky half-light. Evidently not a happy riser, either, Roger reflected.

“My wife’s auld mither’s passed i’ the night,” he informed Roger without preamble.

“Passed what?” asked Jemmy with interest, poking his disheveled head out from behind Roger’s leg. He rubbed one eye with a fist, and yawned widely. “Mr. Stornaway passed a stone—he showed it to me and Germain.”

“Mr. Crombie’s mother-in-law has died,” Roger said, putting a quelling hand on Jem’s head, with an apologetic cough toward Crombie. “I’m sorry to hear that, Mr. Crombie.”

“Aye.” Mr. Crombie appeared indifferent to condolence. “Murdo Lindsay says as ye ken a bit of Scripture for the burying. The wife’s wonderin’ would ye maybe come and say a word at the grave?”

“Murdo said . . . oh!” The Dutch family, that was it. Jamie had forced him to speak at the graves. “Aye, of course.” He cleared his throat by reflex; his voice was desperately hoarse—as usual in the mornings, until he’d had a cup of something hot. No wonder Crombie was looking dubious.

“Of course,” he repeated more strongly. “Is there . . . er . . . anything we can do to help?”

Crombie made a small negative gesture.

“The women will have her laid out by now, I expect,” he said, with the briefest of glances at the mound Brianna made in the bed. “We’ll start the diggin’ after breakfast. With luck, we’ll have her under before snow falls.” He lifted a sharp chin toward an opaque sky the soft gray of Adso’s belly fur, then nodded, turned on his heel, and left without further congenialities.

“Daddy—look!” Roger looked down to see Jem, fingers hooked in the corners of his mouth, pulled down to simulate the inverted “U” of Hiram Crombie’s customary expression. Small red brows wrinkled in a ferocious scowl, making the resemblance startling. Surprised into laughter, Roger gasped and choked, then coughed until he doubled over, wheezing.

“Are you all right?” Brianna had unearthed herself and was sitting up in bed, squint-eyed with sleep, but looking concerned.

“Aye, fine.” The words came out in a thready wheeze, nearly soundless. He took a breath and hawked deeply, expectorating a repellent glob into his hand, for lack of a handkerchief.

“Eew!” said the tender wife of his bosom, recoiling.

“Lemme see, Daddy!” said his son and heir, jostling for a look. “Eeew!”

Roger stepped outside and wiped his hand in the wet grass by the door. It was cold out, so early, but Crombie was undoubtedly right; snow was on the way again. The air had that soft, muffled feel to it.

“So old Mrs. Wilson is dead?” Brianna had come out after him, a shawl wrapped round her shoulders. “That’s too bad. Imagine coming so far, and then dying in a strange place, before you’ve even had time to settle.”

“Well, she had her family with her, at least. I expect she wouldna have wanted to be left alone to die in Scotland.”

“Mm.” Bree brushed strands of hair off her cheeks; she’d put her hair into a thick plait for sleeping, but a good bit of it had escaped from captivity and was waving up round her face in the cold, humid air. “Should I go up there, do you think?”

“Pay our respects? He said they’ve laid the old lady out already.”

She snorted, white wisps of breath from her nostrils momentarily making him think of dragons.

“It can’t be later than seven A.M.; it’s still bloody dark out! And I don’t believe for a minute that his wife and sister have been laying out the old lady by candlelight. Hiram would balk at the expense of the extra candle, for one thing. No, he felt itchy about asking a favor, so he was trying to get under your skin about your wife being a lazy slattern.”

That was perceptive, Roger thought, amused—particularly as she hadn’t seen Crombie’s eloquent glance at her recumbent form.

“What’s a slattern?” Jemmy inquired, picking up instantly on anything vaguely improper-sounding.

“That’s a lady who’s no lady,” Roger informed him. “And a bad housekeeper, to boot.”

“That’s one of the words that Mrs. Bug will wash out your mouth with soap if she hears you say it,” amended his wife with ungrammatical acuity.

Roger was still attired in nothing but a nightshirt, and his legs and feet were freezing. Jem was hopping around barefoot, too, but without the slightest sign of being cold.

“Mummy is not one,” Roger said firmly, taking Jem’s hand. “Come on, chum, let’s nip up to the privy while Mummy makes breakfast.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Brianna said, yawning. “I’ll take up a jar of honey or something to the Crombies later.”

“I go, too,” Jemmy announced promptly.

Brianna hesitated for a moment, then looked at Roger and raised her brows. Jem had never seen a dead person.

Roger lifted one shoulder. It would have been a peaceful death, and it was, God knew, a fact of life on the mountain. He didn’t suppose that seeing Mrs. Wilson’s body would give the child nightmares—though knowing Jem, it was quite likely to lead to a number of loud and embarrassing public questions. A bit of preparatory explanation might not be out of place, he reflected.

“Sure,” he told Jem. “But first we have to go up to the Big House after breakfast, and borrow a Bible from Grandda.”

HE FOUND JAMIE at breakfast, the warm oatmeal smell of fresh parritch wrapping him like a blanket as he stepped into the kitchen. Before he could explain his errand, Mrs. Bug had sat him down with a bowl of his own, a jug of honey, a plate of savory fried bacon, hot toast dripping butter, and a fresh cup of something dark and fragrant that looked like coffee. Jem was next to him, already smeared with honey and buttered to the ears. For a traitorous instant, he wondered whether Brianna was perhaps a bit of a sluggard, though certainly never a slattern.

Then he glanced across the table at Claire, uncombed hair standing on end as she blinked sleepily at him over the toast, and generously concluded that it probably wasn’t a conscious choice on Bree’s part, but rather the influence of genetics.

Claire roused at once, though, when he explained his errand, between bites of bacon and toast.

“Old Mrs. Wilson?” she asked with interest. “What did she die of, did Mr. Crombie say?”

Roger shook his head, swallowing oatmeal.

“Only that she’d passed in the night. I suppose they found her dead. Her heart, maybe—she must have been at least eighty.”

“She was about five years older than I am,” Claire said dryly. “She told me.”

“Oh. Mmphm.” Clearing his throat hurt, and he took a sip of the hot, dark stuff in his cup. It was a brew of roasted chicory and acorns, but not that bad.

“I hope ye didna tell her how old you are, Sassenach.” Jamie reached across and snared the last piece of toast. Mrs. Bug, ever-vigilant, whisked the plate away to refill it.

“I’m not that careless,” Claire said, dabbing a forefinger delicately into a smear of honey and licking it. “They already think I’ve made some sort of pact with the devil; if I told them my age, they’d be sure of it.”

Roger chuckled, but thought privately that she was right. The marks of her ordeal had nearly vanished, bruises faded and the bridge of her nose healed straight and clean. Even unkempt and puffy-eyed from sleep, she was more than handsome, with lovely skin, lushly thick curly hair, and an elegance of feature undreamt of among the Highland fisher-folk. To say nothing of the eyes, sherry-gold and startling.

Add to these natural gifts the twentieth-century practices of nutrition and hygiene—she had all of her teeth, white and straight—and she easily appeared a good twenty years younger than other women of her own age. He found that a comforting thought; perhaps Bree had inherited the art of aging beautifully from her mother, as well. He could always make his own breakfast, after all.

Jamie had finished his own meal and gone to fetch the Bible. He came back, laying it beside Roger’s plate.

“We’ll go up with ye to the burying,” he said, nodding at the book. “Mrs. Bug—can ye maybe put up a wee basket for the Crombies?”

“Done it already,” she informed him, and plunked a large basket on the table before him, covered with a napkin and bulging with goodies. “Ye’ll take it, then? I must go tell Arch and fetch my good shawl, and we’ll see ye at the graveside, aye?”

Brianna came in then, yawning but well-groomed, and set about making Jem presentable while Claire vanished to find cap and shawl. Roger picked up the Bible, intending to thumb through the Psalms for something suitably somber but uplifting.

“Maybe the Twenty-third?” he said, half to himself. “Nice and short. Always a classic. And it does mention death, at least.”

“Are you going to give a eulogy?” Brianna asked, interested. “Or a sermon?”

“Oh, Christ, I hadn’t thought of that,” he said in dismay. He cleared his throat experimentally. “Is there more coffee?”

He’d been to a great many funerals in Inverness presided over by the Reverend, and was well aware that the paying customers considered such an event a dismal failure unless the preaching went on for at least half an hour. Granted, beggars couldn’t be choosers, and the Crombies couldn’t expect—

“Why do you have a Protestant Bible, Da?” Bree paused in the act of disentangling a piece of toast from Jemmy’s hair, peering over Roger’s shoulder.

Surprised, he shut the cover, but she was right; King James Version, it said, the letters of the inscription nearly worn away.

“It was given to me,” Jamie said. The reply was casual, but Roger glanced up; there was something odd in Jamie’s voice. Brianna heard it, too; she shot her father a brief, sharp look, but his face was tranquil as he took a final bite of bacon and wiped his lips.

“D’ye want a dram in your coffee, Roger Mac?” he said, nodding at Roger’s cup, as though it were the most natural thing in the world to offer whisky with breakfast.

In fact, the notion sounded really appealing, given the immediate prospects, but Roger shook his head.

“No, thanks; I’ll do.”

“Are you sure?” Brianna transferred the sharp look to him. “Maybe you should. For your throat.”

“It’ll be fine,” he said shortly. He was worried about his voice himself; he didn’t need solicitude from the redheaded contingent, all three of whom were giving him thoughtful looks that he interpreted as casting extreme doubt upon his speaking abilities. Whisky might help his throat, but he doubted it would do much for his preaching—and the last thing he wanted was to show up at a funeral reeking of strong drink in front of a lot of strict teetotalers.

“Vinegar,” advised Mrs. Bug, bending to take away his plate. “Hot vinegar’s the thing. Cuts the phlegm, aye?”

“I’ll bet it would,” Roger said, smiling despite his misgivings. “But I think I won’t, Mrs. Bug, thanks.” He’d awakened with a slight sore throat, and hoped the consumption of breakfast would cure it. It hadn’t, and the thought of drinking hot vinegar made his tonsils seize up.

He held out his cup for more chicory coffee, instead, and set his mind to the task ahead.

“Now—does anyone know anything about old Mrs. Wilson?”

“She’s dead,” Jemmy piped up confidently. Everybody laughed, and Jem looked confused, but then joined the laughter, though plainly having not the slightest idea what was funny.

“Good start, sport.” Roger reached out and brushed crumbs from Jemmy’s shirtfront. “Might be a point, at that. The Reverend had a decent sermon on something in the Epistles—the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life. I heard him give it more than once. What d’ye think?” He raised a brow at Brianna, who frowned in thought and picked up the Bible.

“That would probably work. Does this thing have a concordance?”

“No.” Jamie put down his coffee cup. “It’s in Romans, chapter six, though.” Seeing the looks of surprise turned upon him, he flushed slightly, and jerked his head toward the Bible.

“I had that book in prison,” he said. “I read it. Come along, a bhailach, are ye ready now?”

THE WEATHER WAS louring, clouds threatening anything from freezing rain to the first snow of the season, and occasional cold gusts of wind catching cloaks and skirts, bellying them out like sails. The men held tight to their hats, and the women huddled deep in their hoods, all walking with their heads down, like sheep pushing stubbornly into the wind.

“Great weather for a funeral,” Brianna murmured, pulling her cloak tight around her after one such gust.

“Mmphm.” Roger responded automatically, obviously unaware of what she’d said, but registering that she’d spoken. His brow was furrowed, and he seemed tight-lipped and pale. She put a hand on his arm, squeezing in reassurance, and he glanced at her with a faint smile, his face easing.

An unearthly wail cut through the air, and Brianna froze, clutching Roger’s arm. It rose to a shriek, then broke in a series of short, jerky gulps, coming down a scale of sobs like a dead body rolling down a staircase.

Gooseflesh prickled down her spine and her stomach clenched. She glanced at Roger; he looked nearly as pale as she felt, though he pressed her hand reassuringly.

“That will be the ban-treim,” her father remarked calmly. “I didna ken there was one.”

“Neither did I,” said her mother. “Who do you suppose it is?” She had startled, too, at the sound of it, but now looked merely interested.

Roger had been holding his breath, too; he let it out now, with a small rattling sound, and cleared his throat.

“A mourning woman,” he said. The words emerged thickly, and he cleared his throat again, much harder. “They, um, keen. After the coffin.”

The voice rose again out of the wood, this time with a more deliberate sound. Brianna thought there were words in the wailing, but couldn’t make them out. Wendigo. The word came unbidden into her mind, and she shivered convulsively. Jemmy whimpered, trying to burrow inside his grandfather’s coat.

“It’s nothing to fear, a bhailach.” He patted Jemmy on the back. Jem appeared unconvinced, and put his thumb in his mouth, huddling round-eyed into Jamie’s chest as the wailing faded into moans.

“Well, come, then, we’ll meet her, shall we?” Jamie turned aside and began making his way into the forest, toward the voice.

There was nothing to do but follow. Brianna squeezed Roger’s arm, but left him, walking close to her father so Jemmy could see her and be reassured.

“It’s okay, pal,” she said softly. The weather was growing colder; her breath puffed out in wisps of white. The end of Jemmy’s nose was red and his eyes seemed a little pink around the edges—was he catching a cold, too?

She put out a hand to touch his forehead, but just then the voice broke out afresh. This time, though, something seemed to have happened to it. It was a high, thready sound, not the robust keening they’d heard before. And uncertain—like an apprentice ghost, she thought in uneasy jest.

An apprentice it proved to be, though not a ghost. Her father ducked under a low pine and she followed him, emerging in a clearing facing two surprised women. Or rather, a woman and a teenaged girl, with shawls wrapped over their heads. She knew them, but what were their names?

“Maduinn mhath, maighistear,” the older woman said, recovering from her surprise and dropping into a low curtsy to Jamie. Good morn to you, sir.

“And to you, my mistresses,” he replied, also in Gaelic.

“Good morn, Mrs. Gwilty,” Roger said in his soft, hoarse voice. “And to you, a nighean,” he added, bowing courteously to the girl. Olanna, that was it; Brianna recalled the round face, just like the “O” that began her name. She was Mrs. Gwilty’s . . . daughter? Or her niece?

“Ach, bonny boy,” the girl crooned, reaching out a finger to touch Jem’s rounded cheek. He pulled back a little and sucked harder on his thumb, watching her suspiciously under the edge of his blue woolly bonnet.

The women spoke no English, but Brianna’s Gaelic was sufficient by now to allow her to follow the conversation, if not to join fluently in it. Mrs. Gwilty was, she explained, showing her niece the way of a proper coronach.

“And a fine job of work you will make of it between you, I’m sure,” Jamie said politely.

Mrs. Gwilty sniffed, and gave her niece a disparaging look.

“Mmphm,” she said. “A voice like a bat farting, but she is the only woman left of my family, and I shall not live forever.”

Roger made a small choking noise, which he hastily developed into a convincing cough. Olanna’s pleasant round face, already flushed from the cold, went a blotchy red, but she said nothing, merely cast her eyes down and huddled deeper into her shawl. It was a dark brown homespun, Brianna saw; Mrs. Gwilty’s was a fine wool, dyed black—and if it was a trifle frayed around the edges, she wore it still with the dignity of her profession.

“It is sorrowful we are for you,” Jamie said, in formal condolence. “She who is gone . . . ?” He paused in delicate inquiry.

“My father’s sister,” answered Mrs. Gwilty promptly. “Woe, woe, that she should be buried among strangers.” She had a lean, underfed face, the spare flesh deeply hollowed and bruised-looking round dark eyes. She turned these deep-set eyes on Jemmy, who promptly grabbed the edge of his bonnet and pulled it down over his face. Seeing the dark, bottomless eyes swivel in her direction, Brianna was hard-pressed not to do the same.

“I hope—that her shade will find comfort. With—with your family being here,” Claire said, in her halting Gaelic. It sounded most peculiar in her mother’s English accent, and Brianna saw her father bite his lower lip in order not to smile.

“She will not lack company for long.” Olanna blurted it out, then, catching Jamie’s eye, went beet-red and buried her nose in her shawl.

This odd statement seemed to make sense to her father, who nodded.

“Och, so? Who is it ails?” He looked at her mother in question, but she shook her head slightly. If anyone was sick, they hadn’t sought her help.

Mrs. Gwilty’s long, seamed upper lip pressed down over dreadful teeth.

“Seaumais Buchan,” she remarked with grim satisfaction. “He lies fevered and his chest will kill him before the week is out, but we’ve beaten him. A fortunate thing.”

“What?” said Claire, frowning in bewilderment.

Mrs. Gwilty’s eyes narrowed at her.

“The last person buried in a graveyard must stand watch over it, Sassenach,” Jamie explained in English. “Until another comes to take his place.”

Switching smoothly back to Gaelic, he said, “Fortunate is she, and the more fortunate, in having such bean-treim to follow her.” He put a hand into his pocket and handed over a coin, which Mrs. Gwilty glanced at, then blinked and looked again.

“Ah,” she said, gratified. “Well, we will do our best, the girl and I. Come then, a nighean, let me hear you.”

Olanna, thus pressed to perform before company, looked terrified. Under her aunt’s monitory eye, though, there was no escape. Closing her eyes, she inflated her chest, thrust back her shoulders, and emitted a piercing, “EEEEEEEEEEEEEEeeeeeeeeeeeEEEEEEeeeEEE-uh-Ee-uh-Ee-uh,” before breaking off, gasping for breath.

Roger flinched as though the sound were bamboo splinters being shoved under his fingernails and Claire’s mouth dropped open. Jemmy’s shoulders were hunched up round his ears, and he clung to his grandfather’s coat like a small blue bur. Even Jamie looked a little startled.

“Not bad,” said Mrs. Gwilty judiciously. “Perhaps it will not be a complete disgrace. I am hearing that Hiram asked you to speak a word?” she added with a disparaging glance at Roger.

“He has,” Roger replied, still hoarse, but as firmly as possible. “I am honored.”

Mrs. Gwilty did not reply to this, but merely looked him up and down, then, shaking her head, turned her back and raised her arms.

“AaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAaaaaAAAAAAAaaaIIIIeeeeeeee,” she wailed, in a voice that made Brianna feel ice crystals in her blood. “Woe, woe, woooooooooooe! AAaayaaaAAaayaaaAAhaaaaahaaa! Woe is come to the house of Crombie—Woe!”

Dutifully turning her back on them, as well, Olanna joined in with a descant wail of her own. Claire rather untactfully but practically put her fingers in her ears.

“How much did you give them?” she asked Jamie in English.

Jamie’s shoulders shook briefly, and he hastily ushered her away, a firm hand on her elbow.

Beside Brianna, Roger swallowed, the sound just audible under the noise.

“You should have had that drink,” she said to him.

“I know,” he said hoarsely, and sneezed.

“HAVE YOU EVEN heard of Seaumais Buchan?” I asked Jamie, as we picked our way across the sodden earth of the Crombie’s dooryard. “Who is he?”

“Oh, I’ve heard of him, aye,” he replied, putting an arm round me to help swing me across a fetid puddle of what looked like goat urine. “Oof. God, you’re a solid wee thing, Sassenach.”

“That’s the basket,” I replied absently. “I believe Mrs. Bug’s put lead shot in it. Or maybe only fruitcake. Who is he, then? One of the fisher-folk?”

“Aye. He’s great-uncle to Maisie MacArdle, her who’s marrit to him that was a boatbuilder. Ye recall her? Red hair and a verra long nose, six bairns.”

“Vaguely. However do you remember these things?” I demanded, but he merely smiled, and offered me his arm. I took it, and we strode gravely through the mud and the scattered straw laid down across it, the laird and his lady come to the funeral.

The door of the cabin was open despite the cold, to let the spirit of the dead go out. Fortunately, it also let a little light come in, as the cabin was crudely built and had no windows. It was also completely packed with people, most of whom had not bathed any time in the preceding four months.

I was no stranger to claustrophobic cabins or unwashed bodies, though, and since I knew that one of the bodies present was probably clean but certainly dead, I had already begun breathing through my mouth by the time one of the Crombie daughters, shawled and red-eyed, invited us in.

Grannie Wilson was laid out on the table with a candle at her head, wrapped in the shroud she had no doubt woven as a new bride; the linen cloth was yellowed and creased with age, but clean and soft in the candlelight, embroidered on the edges with a simple pattern of vine leaves. It had been carefully kept, brought from Scotland at the cost of who knew what pains.

Jamie paused at the door, removing his hat, and murmured formal condolences, which the Crombies, male and female, accepted with nods and grunts, respectively. I handed over the basket of food and nodded back, with what I hoped was a suitable expression of dignified sympathy, keeping an eye on Jemmy.

Brianna had done her best to explain to him, but I had no idea what he might make of the situation—or the corpse. He had been persuaded with some difficulty to emerge from his bonnet, and was looking round now with interest, his cowlick standing on end.

“Is that the dead lady, Grandma?” he whispered loudly to me, pointing at the body.

“Yes, dear,” I said, with an uneasy glance at old Mrs. Wilson. She looked perfectly all right, though, done up properly in her best cap with a bandage under her jaw to keep her mouth closed, dry eyelids sealed against the glimmer of the candle. I didn’t think Jemmy had ever met the old lady in life; there was no real reason for him to be upset at seeing her dead—and he’d been taken hunting regularly since he could walk; he certainly understood the concept of death. Besides, a corpse was definitely anticlimactic, after our encounter with the bean-treim. Still . . .

“We’ll pay our respects now, lad,” Jamie said quietly to him, and set him on the floor. I caught Jamie’s glance at the door, where Roger and Bree were murmuring condolences in their turn, and realized he had been waiting for them to catch up, so that they could watch him, and know what to do next.