A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 37

   

He led Jemmy through the press of people, who gave way respectfully, and up to the table, where he laid his hand on the corpse’s chest. Oh, so it was that sort of funeral.

At some Highland funerals, it was the custom for everyone to touch the body, so that the dead person should not haunt them. I doubted that Grannie Wilson would have any interest in haunting me, but care never hurt—and I did have an uneasy memory of a skull with silver fillings in its teeth, and my encounter with what might have been its possessor, seen by corpse-light on a black mountain night. Despite myself, I glanced at the candle, but it seemed a perfectly normal thing of brown beeswax, pleasantly fragrant and leaning a little crooked in its pottery candlestick.

Steeling myself, I leaned over and laid my own hand gently on the shroud. An earthenware saucer, holding a piece of bread and a heap of salt, sat on the dead woman’s chest, and a small wooden bowl filled with dark liquid—wine?—sat beside her on the table. What with the good beeswax candle, the salt, and the bean-treim, it looked as though Hiram Crombie was trying to do right by his late mother-in-law—though I wouldn’t put it past him to thriftily reuse the salt after the funeral.

Something seemed wrong, though; an air of uneasiness curled among the cracked boots and rag-wrapped feet of the crowd like the cold draft from the door. At first I had thought it might be due to our presence, but that wasn’t it; there had been a brief exhalation of approval when Jamie approached the body.

Jamie whispered to Jemmy, then boosted him up, legs dangling, to touch the corpse. He showed no reluctance, and peered into the dead woman’s waxen face with interest.

“What’s that for?” he asked loudly, reaching for the bread. “Is she going to eat it?”

Jamie grabbed his wrist, and planted his hand firmly on the shroud instead.

“That’s for the sin-eater, a bhailach. Leave it, aye?”

“What’s a—”

“Later.” No one argued with Jamie when he used that tone of voice, and Jemmy subsided, putting his thumb back in his mouth as Jamie set him down. Bree came up and scooped him into her arms, belatedly remembering to touch the corpse herself, and murmur, “God rest you.”

Then Roger stepped forward, and there was a stir of interest among the crowd.

He looked pale, but composed. His face was lean and rather ascetic, usually saved from sternness by the gentleness of his eyes and a mobile mouth, ready to laugh. This was no time for laughter, though, and his eyes were bleak in the dim light.

He laid a hand on the dead woman’s chest, and bowed his head. I wasn’t sure whether he was praying for the repose of her soul, or for inspiration, but he stayed that way for more than minute. The crowd watched respectfully, with no sound save coughs and the clearing of throats. Roger wasn’t the only one catching a cold, I thought—and thought suddenly again of Seaumais Buchan.

“He lies fevered and his chest will kill him before the week is out.” So Mrs. Gwilty had said. Pneumonia, perhaps—or bronchitis, or even consumption. And no one had told me.

I felt a slight pang at that, equal parts annoyance, guilt, and unease. I knew the new tenants didn’t yet trust me; I had thought that I should allow them to get used to me before I started dropping in on them at random. Many of them would never have seen an English person, before coming to the colonies—and I was well aware of their attitude toward both Sassenachs and Catholics.

But evidently there was now a man dying virtually on my doorstep—and I hadn’t even known of his existence, let alone his illness.

Should I go to see him, as soon as the funeral was over? But where in bloody hell did the man live? It couldn’t be very close; I did know all the fisher-folk who had settled down the mountain; the MacArdles must be up across the ridge. I stole a look at the door, trying to judge how soon the threatening clouds would cut loose their burden of snow.

There were shufflings and the murmurs of low speech outside; more people had arrived, coming up from the nearby hollows, crowding round the door. I caught the words, “dèan caithris,” in a questioning tone, and suddenly realized what was odd about the present occasion.

There was no wake. Customarily, the body would have been washed and laid out, but then kept on display for a day or two, to allow everyone in the area time to come and pay their regards. Listening intently, I caught a distinct tone of disgruntlement and surprise—the neighbors thought this haste unseemly.

“Why isn’t there a wake?” I whispered to Jamie. He lifted one shoulder a fraction of an inch, but nodded toward the door, and the muffled sky beyond.

“There’s going to be a great deal of snow by nightfall, a Sorcha,” he said. “And likely to go on for days, by the looks of it. I wouldna want to be having to dig a grave and bury a coffin in the midst of that, myself. And should it snow for days, where are they to put the body in the meantime?”

“That’s true, Mac Dubh,” said Kenny Lindsay, overhearing. He glanced round at the people near us, and edged closer, lowering his voice. “But it’s true, too, as Hiram Crombie’s no owerfond of the auld bes—er, his good-mother.” He raised his chin a fraction, indicating the corpse. “Some say as he canna get the auld woman underground fast enough—before she changes her mind, aye?” He grinned briefly, and Jamie hid his own smile, looking down.

“Saves a bit on the food, too, I suppose.” Hiram’s reputation as a cheapskate was well-known—which was saying something, among the thrifty but hospitable Highlanders.

A fresh bustle was taking place outside, as new arrivals came. There was a sort of congestion at the door, as someone sought to press inside, though the house was filled shoulder to shoulder, with the only bit of open floor space left under the table on which Mrs. Wilson reposed.

The people near the door gave way reluctantly, and Mrs. Bug surged into the cabin, arrayed in her best cap and shawl, Arch at her shoulder.

“Ye forgot the whisky, sir,” she informed Jamie, handing him a corked bottle. Looking round, she at once spotted the Crombies and bowed to them ceremoniously, murmuring sympathy. Bobbing upright, she set her cap straight and looked expectantly round. Clearly, the festivities could now commence.

Hiram Crombie glanced round, then nodded to Roger.

Roger drew himself up slightly, nodded back, and began. He spoke simply for a few minutes, generalities about the preciousness of life, the enormity of death, and the importance of kin and neighbors in facing such things. This all seemed to be going over well with the punters, who were nodding slightly in approval and seemed to be settling down in expectation of decent entertainment.

Roger paused to cough and blow his nose, then shifted into what appeared to be some version of the Presbyterian funeral service—or what he recalled of it, from his life with the Reverend Wakefield.

This too seemed to be acceptable. Bree seemed to relax a little, and put Jemmy down.

It was going well . . . and yet I was still conscious of a faint sense of uneasiness. Part of that, of course, was that I could see Roger. The growing warmth of the cabin was making his nose run; he kept his handkerchief in his hand, dabbing furtively and now and then stopping to blow his nose as discreetly as possible.

Phlegm, though, runs downhill. And as the congestion got worse, it began to affect his vulnerable throat. The choked note in his voice, always present, was getting noticeably worse. He was having to clear his throat repeatedly, in order to speak.

Beside me, Jemmy stirred restively, and from the corner of my eye, I saw Bree put a hand on his head to quiet him. He looked up at her, but her attention was fixed anxiously on Roger.

“We give thanks to God for the life of this woman,” he said, and paused to clear his throat—again. I found myself doing it with him in sheer nervous sympathy.

“She is a servant of God, faithful and true, and now praises Him before His throne, with the sa—” I saw sudden doubt flicker across his face as to whether his present congregation countenanced the concept of saints, or would consider such a mention to be Romish heresy. He coughed, and resumed, “With the angels.”

Evidently angels were innocuous; the faces around me looked somber, but unoffended. Exhaling visibly, Roger picked up the little green Bible and opened it at a marked page.

“Let us speak together a psalm in praise of Him who—” He glanced at the page and, too late, realized the difficulty of translating an English psalm into Gaelic on the wing.

He cleared his throat explosively, and half a dozen throats among the crowd echoed him in reflex. On my other side, Jamie murmured, “Oh, God,” in heartfelt prayer.

Jemmy tugged at his mother’s skirt, whispering something, but was peremptorily shushed. I could see Bree yearning toward Roger, body tensed in the urgent desire to help somehow, if only by mental telepathy.

With no alternative in sight, Roger began to read the psalm, haltingly. Half the crowd had taken him at his word when he invited them to “speak together,” and were reciting the psalm from memory—several times faster than he could read.

I closed my eyes, unable to watch, but there was no way to avoid hearing, as the congregation ripped through the psalm and fell silent, waiting in dour patience for Roger to stumble his way to the end. Which he did, doggedly.

“Amen,” said Jamie loudly. And alone. I opened my eyes to find everyone staring at us, with looks ranging from mild surprise to glowering hostility. Jamie took a deep breath and let it out, very slowly.

“Jesus. Christ,” he said very softly.

A bead of sweat ran down Roger’s cheek, and he wiped it away with the sleeve of his coat.

“Would anyone wish to say a few words regarding the deceased?” he asked, glancing from face to face. Silence and the whine of the wind answered him.

He cleared his throat, and someone snickered.

“Grannie—” whispered Jemmy, tugging on my skirt.

“Shh.”

“But Grandma—” The sense of urgency in his voice made me turn and look down at him.

“Do you need to go to the privy?” I whispered, bending down to him. He shook his head, violently enough to make the heavy mop of red-gold hair flop to and fro on his forehead.

“O, God, our Heavenly Father, who art leading us through the changes of time to the rest and blessedness of eternity, be Thou near to us now, to comfort and to uphold.”

I glanced up, to see that Roger had laid his hand once more on the corpse, evidently deciding to bring the proceedings to a close. From the relief evident in his face and voice, I thought he must be falling back on some accustomed prayer from the Book of Common Worship, familiar enough to him that he could manage it with fair fluency in Gaelic.

“Make us to know that Thy children are precious in Thy sight. . . .” He stopped, visibly struggling; the muscles of his throat worked, trying vainly to clear the obstruction in silence, but it was no good.

“Err . . . HRRM!” A sound, not quite laughter, ran through the room, and Bree made a small rumbling noise in her own throat, like a volcano getting ready to spew lava.

“Grannie!”

“Shh!”

“. . . thy sight. That they . . . live evermore with Thee and that Thy mercy—”

“Grannie!”

Jemmy was wiggling as though a colony of ants had taken up residence in his breeches, an expression of agonized urgency on his face.

“I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord; he that believeth in Me, though he were dead . . . rr-hm . . . yet shall he live—” With the end in sight, Roger was making a gallant finish, forcing his voice past its limits, hoarser than ever and cracking on every other word, but firm and loud.

“Just a minute,” I hissed. “I’ll take you out in a—”

“No, Grannie! Look!”

I followed his outthrust finger, and for a moment, thought he was pointing at his father. But he wasn’t.

Old Mrs. Wilson had opened her eyes.

THERE WAS AN INSTANT’S silence, as everyone’s eyes fastened at once on Mrs. Wilson. Then there was a collective gasp, and an instinctive stepping back, with shrieks of dismay and cries of pain as toes were trodden on and people squashed against the unyielding rough logs of the walls.

Jamie grabbed Jemmy up off the floor in time to save his being crushed, inflated his lungs, and bellowed, “Sheas!” at the top of his voice. Such was his volume that the crowd did indeed freeze momentarily—long enough for him to thrust Jemmy into Brianna’s arms and elbow his way toward the table.

Roger had got hold of the erstwhile corpse, and was lifting her into a sitting position, her hand feebly flapping at the bandage round her jaws. I pushed after Jamie, ruthlessly shoving people out of the way.

“Give her a bit of air, please,” I said, raising my voice. The stunned silence was giving way to a rising murmur of excitement, but this quelled as I fumbled to untie the bandage. The room waited in quivering expectation as the corpse worked stiff jaws.

“Where am I?” she said in a quavering voice. Her gaze passed disbelievingly round the room, settling at last on her daughter’s face.

“Mairi?” she said dubiously, and Mrs. Crombie rushed forward and fell on her knees, bursting into tears as she gripped her mother’s hands.

“A Màthair! A Màthair!” she cried. The old woman set a trembling hand on her daughter’s hair, looking as though she were not quite sure she was real.

I, meanwhile, had been doing my best to check the old lady’s vital signs, which were not all that vital, but nonetheless fairly good for someone who had been dead a moment before. Respiration very shallow, labored, a color like week-old oatmeal, cold, clammy skin despite the heat in the room, and I couldn’t find a pulse at all—though plainly she must have one. Mustn’t she?

“How do you feel?” I asked.

She put a trembling hand to her belly.

“I do feel that wee bit poorly,” she whispered.

I put my own hand on her abdomen, and felt it instantly. A pulse, where no pulse should be. It was irregular, stumbling, and bumping—but most assuredly there.

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” I said. I didn’t say it loudly, but Mrs. Crombie gasped, and I saw her apron twitch, as she doubtless made the horns beneath it.

I hadn’t time to bother with apology, but stood and grabbed Roger by the sleeve, pulling him aside.

“She has an aortic aneurysm,” I said to him very softly. “She must have been bleeding internally for some time, enough to make her lose consciousness and seem cold. It’s going to rupture very soon, and then she’ll die for real.”

He swallowed audibly, his face very pale, but said only, “Do you know how long?”

I glanced at Mrs. Wilson; her face was the same gray as the snow-laden sky, and her eyes were going in and out of focus like the flickering of a candle in a wind.

“I see,” Roger said, though I hadn’t spoken. He took a deep breath and cleared his throat.

The crowd, which had been hissing amongst themselves like a flock of agitated geese, ceased at once. Every eye in the place was riveted on the tableau before them.

“This our sister has been restored to life, as we all shall be one day by the grace of God,” Roger said softly. “It is a sign to us, of hope and faith. She will go soon again to the arms of the angels, but has come back to us for a moment, to bring us assurance of God’s love.” He paused a moment, obviously groping for something further to say. He cleared his throat and bent his head toward Mrs. Wilson’s.

“Did you . . . wish to say anything, O, mother?” he whispered in Gaelic.

“Aye, I do.” Mrs. Wilson seemed to be gaining strength—and with it, indignation. A faint pinkness showed in her waxy cheeks as she glared round at the crowd.

“What sort of wake is this, Hiram Crombie?” she demanded, fixing her son-in-law with a gimlet eye. “I see nay food laid out, nay drink—and what is this?” Her voice rose in a furious squeak, her eye having fallen on the plate of bread and salt, which Roger had hastily set aside when he lifted her.

“Why—” She looked wildly round at the assembled crowd, and the truth of it dawned upon her. Her sunken eyes bulged. “Why . . . ye shameless skinflint! This is nay wake at all! Ye’ve meant to bury me wi’ nothing but a crust o’ bread and a drap o’ wine for the sin-eater, and a wonder ye spared that! Nay doot ye’ll thieve the winding claes from my corpse to make cloots for your snotty-nosed bairns, and where’s my good brooch I said I wanted to be buried with?” One scrawny hand closed on her shrunken bosom, catching a fistful of wilted linen.

“Mairi! My brooch!”

“Here it is, Mother, here it is!” Poor Mrs. Crombie, altogether undone, was fumbling in her pocket, sobbing and gasping. “I put it away to be safe—I meant to put it on ye before—before . . .” She came out with an ugly lump of garnets, which her mother snatched from her, cradling it against her breast, and glaring round with jealous suspicion. Clearly she suspected her neighbors of waiting the chance to steal it from her body; I heard an offended inhalation from the woman standing behind me, but had no time to turn and see who it was.

“Now, now,” I said, using my best soothing bedside manner. “I’m sure everything will be all right.” Aside from the fact that you’re going to die in the next few minutes, that is, I thought, suppressing a hysterical urge to laugh inappropriately. Actually, it might be in the next few seconds, if her blood pressure rose any higher.

I had my fingers on the thumping big pulse in her abdomen that betrayed the fatal weakening of her abdominal aorta. It had to have begun to leak already, to make her lose consciousness to such a degree as to seem dead. Eventually, she would simply blow a gasket, and that would be it.

Roger and Jamie were both doing their best to soothe her, muttering in English and Gaelic and patting her comfortingly. She seemed to be responding to this treatment, though still breathing like a steam engine.

Jamie’s production of the bottle of whisky from his pocket helped still further.

“Well, that’s more like it!” Mrs. Wilson said, somewhat mollified, as he hastily pulled the cork and waved the bottle under her nose so she could appreciate the quality of it. “And ye’ve brought food, too?” Mrs. Bug had bustled her way to the front, basket held before her like a battering ram. “Hmph! I never thought I should live to see Papists kinder than my ain kin!” This last was directed at Hiram Crombie, who had so far been opening and closing his mouth, without finding anything whatever to say in reply to his mother-in-law’s tirade.

“Why . . . why . . .” he stammered in outrage, torn between shock, obvious fury, and a need to justify himself before his neighbors. “Kinder than your ain kin! Why, have I not given ye a hame, these twenty years past? Fed and clothed ye as ye were my ain mither? B-borne your wicked tongue and foul t-tempers for years, and never—”

Jamie and Roger both leapt in to try to stifle him, but instead interrupted each other, and in the confusion, Hiram was allowed to go on speaking his mind, which he did. So did Mrs. Wilson, who was no slouch at invective, either.

The pulse in her belly was throbbing under my hand, and I was hard put to it to keep her from leaping off the table and dotting Hiram with the bottle of whisky. The neighbors were agog.

Roger took matters—and Mrs. Wilson—firmly into his own hands, seizing her by her scrawny shoulders.

“Mrs. Wilson,” he said hoarsely, but loudly enough to drown Hiram’s indignant rebuttal of Mrs. Wilson’s most recent depiction of his character. “Mrs. Wilson!”

“Eh?” She paused for breath, blinking up at him in momentary confusion.

“Cease. And you, too!” He glared at Hiram, who was opening his mouth again. Hiram shut it.

“I’ll no have this,” Roger said, and thumped the Bible down on the table. “It’s not fitting, and I’ll not have it, d’ye hear me?” He glowered from one to the other of the combatants, black brows low and fierce.

The room was silent, bar Hiram’s heavy breathing, Mrs. Crombie’s small sobs, and Mrs. Wilson’s faint, asthmatic wheeze.

“Now, then,” Roger said, still glaring round to prevent any further interruptions. He put a hand over Mrs. Wilson’s thin, age-spotted one.

“Mrs. Wilson—d’ye not ken that you stand before God this minute?” He darted a look at me, and I nodded; yes, she was definitely going to die. Her head was wobbling on her neck and the glow of anger fading from her eyes, even as he spoke.

“God is near to us,” he said, lifting his head to address the congregation at large. He repeated this in Gaelic, and there was a sort of collective sigh. He narrowed his eyes at them.

“We will not profane this holy occasion with anger nor bitterness. Now—sister.” He squeezed her hand gently. “Compose your soul. God will—”

But Mrs. Wilson was no longer listening. Her withered mouth dropped open in horror.

“The sin-eater!” she cried, looking wildly round. She grabbed the dish from the table next to her, showering salt down the front of her winding-sheet. “Where is the sin-eater?”

Hiram stiffened as though goosed with a red-hot poker, then whirled and fought his way toward the door, the crowd giving way before him. Murmurs of speculation rose in his wake, only to stop abruptly as a piercing wail rose from outside, another rising behind it as the first one fell.

An awed “oooh!” rose from the crowd, and Mrs. Wilson looked gratified, as the bean-treim started in to earn their money in earnest.

Then there was a stirring near the door, and the crowd parted like the Red Sea, leaving a narrow path to the table. Mrs. Wilson sat bolt upright, dead-white and barely breathing. The pulse in her abdomen skittered and jumped under my fingers. Roger and Jamie had hold of her arms, supporting her.

A complete hush had fallen over the room; the only sounds were the howling of the bean-treim—and slow, shuffling footsteps, soft on the ground outside, then suddenly louder on the boards of the floor. The sin-eater had arrived.

He was a tall man, or had been, once. It was impossible to tell his age; either years or illness had eaten away his flesh, so that his wide shoulders bowed and his spine had hunched, a gaunt head poking forward, crowned with a balding straggle of graying strands.

I glanced up at Jamie, eyebrows raised. I had never seen the man before. He shrugged slightly; he didn’t know him, either. As the sin-eater came closer, I saw that his body was crooked; he seemed caved in on one side, ribs perhaps crushed by some accident.

Every eye was fixed on the man, but he met none of them, keeping his gaze focused on the floor. The path to the table was narrow, but the people shrank back as he passed, careful that he should not touch them. Only when he reached the table did he lift his head, and I saw that one eye was missing, evidently clawed away by a bear, judging from the welted mass of scar tissue.

The other one was working; he halted in surprise, seeing Mrs. Wilson, and glanced round, obviously unsure what to do next.

She wiggled one arm free of Roger’s grip and pushed the dish containing the bread and salt toward him.

“Get on, then,” she said, her voice high and a little frightened.

“But you’re not dead.” It was a soft, educated voice, betraying only puzzlement, but the crowd reacted as though it had been the hissing of a serpent, and recoiled further, if such a thing were possible.

“Well, what of it?” Agitation was making Mrs. Wilson tremble even more; I could feel a small constant vibration through the table. “Ye’ve been paid to eat my sins—be after doing it, then!” A thought occurred to her and she jerked upright, squinting at her son-in-law. “Ye did pay him, Hiram?”

Hiram was still flushed from the previous exchanges, but went a sort of puce at this, and clutched his side—clutching at his purse, I thought, rather than his heart.

“Well, I’m no going to pay him before he’s done the job,” he snapped. “What sort of way is that to be carrying on?”

Seeing renewed riot about to break out, Jamie let go his hold on Mrs. Wilson and fumbled hastily in his sporran, emerging with a silver shilling, which he thrust across the table toward the sin-eater—though careful, I saw, not to touch the man.

“Now ye’ve been paid,” he said gruffly, nodding to him. “Best be about your business, sir.”

The man looked slowly round the room, and the intake of breath from the crowd was audible, even over the wails of “WOOOOOOOOOOOEEEE to the house of CROMMMMBIIIEEEEEE” going on outside.

He was standing no more than a foot away from me, close enough that I could smell the sweet-sour odor of him: ancient sweat and dirt in his rags, and something else, some faint aroma that spoke of pustulant sores and unhealed wounds. He turned his head and looked straight at me. It was a soft brown eye, amber in color, and startlingly like my own. Meeting his gaze gave me a queer feeling in the pit of the stomach, as though I looked for a moment into a distorting mirror, and saw that cruelly misshapen face replace my own.

He did not change expression, and yet I felt something nameless pass between us. Then he turned his head away, and reached out a long, weathered, very dirty hand to pick up the piece of bread.

A sort of sigh went through the room as he ate—slowly gumming the bread, for he had few teeth. I could feel Mrs. Wilson’s pulse, much lighter now, and fast, like a hummingbird’s. She hung nearly limp in the men’s grasp, the withered lids of her eyes drooping as she watched.

He wrapped both hands around the cup of wine, as though it were a chalice, and drank it down, eyes closed. He set the empty cup down and looked at Mrs. Wilson, curiously. I supposed he never had met one of his clients alive before, and wondered how long he had fulfilled this strange office.

Mrs. Wilson stared into his eyes, face blank as a child’s. Her abdominal pulse was skipping like a stone, a few light beats, a pause, then a thump that struck my palm like a blow, and back to its erratic jumps.

The sin-eater bowed to her, very slowly. Then he turned round, and scampered for the door, with amazing speed for such an infirm specimen.

Several of the boys and younger men near the door rushed out after him, yelling; one or two seized sticks of wood from the fire basket by the hearth. Others were torn; they glanced toward the open door, where shouts and the thumps of thrown stones mingled with the wailing of the bean-treim—but their eyes were drawn back ineluctably to Mrs. Wilson.

She looked . . . peaceful, was the only word. It was no surprise whatever to feel the pulse beneath my hand simply stop. Somewhere deeper, in my own depths, I felt the dizzying rush of the hemorrhage begin, a flooding warmth that pulled me into it, made black spots whirl before my eyes, and caused a ringing in my ears. I knew to all intents and purposes she had now died for good. I felt her go. And yet I heard her voice above the racket, very small but calm and clear.

“I forgive ye, Hiram,” she said. “Ye’ve been a good lad.”

My vision had gone dark, but I could still hear and sense things dimly. Something grasped me, pulled me away, and a moment later I came to myself, leaning against Jamie in a corner, his arms supporting me.

“Are ye all right, Sassenach?” he was saying urgently, shaking me a little and patting my cheek.

The black-clad bean-treim had come as far as the door. I could see them outside, standing like twin pillars of darkness, falling snow beginning to whirl round them as the cold wind came inside, small hard dry flakes skittering and bouncing in its wake across the floor. The women’s voices rose and fell, blending with the wind. By the table, Hiram Crombie was trying to fix his mother-in-law’s garnet brooch to her shroud, though his hands shook and his narrow face was wet with tears.

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