A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 43

   

To my surprise, though, she seemed to grasp the notion at once—or at least pretended to.

“Well, so.” She put both hands on the counter and peered again at the spirochetes. “These wee beasties cause the syphilis, then. However do they do that? And why is it that the bittie things ye showed me from my teeth don’t make me ill?”

I explained, as best I could, the notion of “good bugs” or “indifferent bugs” versus “bad bugs,” which she seemed to grasp easily—but my explanation of cells, and the concept of the body being composed of these, left her frowning at the palm of her hand in confusion, trying to make out the individual cells. She shook off her doubt, though, and folding up her hand in her apron, returned to her questions.

Did the bugs cause all disease? The penicillin—why did it work on some of the germs, but not all? And how did the bugs get from one person to another?

“Some travel by air—that’s why you must try to avoid people coughing or sneezing on you—and some by water—which is why you mustn’t drink from a stream that someone’s been using as a privy—and some . . . well, by other means.” I didn’t know how much she might know about sex in humans—she lived on a farm, clearly she knew how pigs, chickens, and horses behaved—and I was wary of enlightening her, lest her father hear about it. I rather thought he’d prefer her to be dealing with ether.

Naturally, she pounced on my evasion.

“Other means? What other means are there?” With an internal sigh, I told her.

“They do what?” she said, incredulous. “Men, I mean. Like an animal! Whyever would a woman let a man do that to her?”

“Well, they are animals, you know,” I said, suppressing an urge to laugh. “So are women. As to why one would let them . . .” I rubbed my nose, looking for a tasteful way of putting it. She was moving rapidly ahead of me, though, putting two and two together.

“For money,” she said, looking thunderstruck. “That’s what a whore does! She lets them do such things to her for money.”

“Well, yes—but women who aren’t whores—”

“The bairns, aye, ye said.” She nodded, but was plainly thinking of other things; her small, smooth forehead was wrinkled in concentration.

“How much money do they get?” she asked. “I should want a lot, I think, to let a man—”

“I don’t know,” I said, somewhat taken aback. “Different amounts, I expect. Depending.”

“Depending . . . oh, if he was maybe ugly, ye mean, ye could make him pay more? Or if she were ugly . . .” She gave me a quick, interested look. “Bobby Higgins told me of a whore he kent in London, that her looks was spoilt by vitriol.” She looked up at the cupboard where I kept the sulfuric acid under lock and key, and shivered, her delicate shoulders quivering with revulsion at the thought.

“Yes, he told me about her, too. Vitriol is what we call a caustic—a liquid that burns. That’s why—”

But her mind had already returned to the subject of fascination.

“To think of Manfred McGillivray doing such a thing!” She turned round gray eyes on me. “Well, and Bobby. He must have been, mustn’t he?”

“I do believe soldiers are inclined—”

“But the Bible,” she said, squinting thoughtfully. “It says ye mustna be whoring after idols. Does that mean men went about sticking their pricks into—did the idols look like women, d’ye think?”

“I’m sure that’s not what it means, no,” I said hastily. “More a metaphor, you know. Er . . . lusting after something, I think it means, not, er . . .”

“Lust,” she said thoughtfully. “That’s to want something sinful bad, is it not?”

“Yes, rather.” Heat was wavering over my skin, dancing in tiny veils. I needed cool air, quickly, or I’d be flushed as a tomato and drenched with sweat. I rose to go out, but felt I really mustn’t leave her with the impression that sex had to do only with money or babies—even though it well might, for some women.

“There is another reason for intercourse, you know,” I said, speaking over my shoulder as I headed for the door. “When you love someone, you want to give them pleasure. And they want to do the same for you.”

“Pleasure?” Her voice rose behind me, incredulous. “Ye mean some women like it?”

47

BEES AND SWITCHES

I WAS BY NO MEANS SPYING. One of my hives had swarmed, and I was looking for the fugitive bees.

New swarms usually didn’t travel far, and stopped frequently, often resting for hours in a tree fork or open log, where they formed a ball of humming conference. If they could be located before making up their collective mind about where to settle, they could often be persuaded into a temptingly empty basket hive, and thus hauled back into captivity.

The trouble with bees is that they don’t leave footprints. Now I was casting to and fro on the mountainside, nearly a mile from the house, an empty basket hive slung on a rope over my shoulder, trying to follow Jamie’s instructions regarding hunting, and think like a bee.

There were huge blooming patches of galax, fire-weed, and other wildflowers on the hillside far above me, but there was a very attractive dead snag—if one was a bee—poking out of the heavy growth some way below.

The basket hive was heavy, and the slope was steep. It was easier to go down than up. I hitched up the rope, which was beginning to rub the skin off my shoulder, and began sidling downward through sumac and hobble-bush, bracing my feet against rocks and grabbing at branches to keep from slipping.

Concentrating on my feet, I didn’t take particular notice of where I was. I emerged into a gap in the bushes from which the roof of a cabin was visible, some distance below me. Whose was that? The Christies’, I thought. I wiped a sleeve across the sweat dripping from the point of my chin; the day was warm, and I hadn’t brought a canteen. Perhaps I would stop and ask for water on the way home.

Making my way at last to the snag, I was disappointed to find no sign of the swarm. I stood still, blotting sweat from my face and listening, in hopes of picking up the bees’ telltale deep drone. I heard the hum and whine of assorted flying insects, and the genial racket of a flock of foraging pygmy nuthatches on the slope above—but no bees.

I sighed and turned to make my way around the snag, but then paused, my eye caught by a glimpse of white below.

Thomas Christie and Malva were in the small clearing at the back of their cabin. I had caught the flash of his shirt as he moved, but now he stood motionless, arms crossed.

His attention appeared to be fixed on his daughter, who was cutting branches from one of the mountain ash trees at the side of the clearing. What for? I wondered.

There seemed something very peculiar about the scene, though I couldn’t think exactly what. Some attitude of body? Some air of tension between them?

Malva turned and walked toward her father, several long, slender branches in her hand. Her head was bent, her step dragging, and when she handed him the branches, I understood abruptly what was going on.

They were too far away for me to hear them, but he apparently said something to her, gesturing brusquely toward the stump they used as a chopping block. She knelt down by it, bent forward, and lifted up her skirts, exposing her bare buttocks.

Without hesitation, he raised the switches and slashed them hard across her rump, then whipped them back in the other direction, crisscrossing her flesh with vivid lines that I could see even at such a distance. He repeated this several times, whipping the springy twigs back and forth with a measured deliberation whose violence was the more shocking for its lack of apparent emotion.

It hadn’t even occurred to me to look away. I stood stock-still in the shrubbery, too stunned even to brush away the gnats that swarmed around my face.

Christie had thrown down the switches, turned on his heel, and gone into the house before I could do more than blink. Malva sat back on her heels and shook down her skirts, smoothing the fabric gingerly over her bottom as she rose. She was red-faced, but not weeping or distraught.

She’s used to it. The thought came unbidden. I hesitated, not knowing what to do. Before I could decide, Malva had settled her cap, turned, and walked into the woods with an air of determination—headed straight toward me.

I ducked behind a big tulip poplar, before I was even aware of making a decision. She wasn’t injured, and I was sure she wouldn’t like to know that anyone had seen the incident.

Malva passed within a few feet of me, puffing a little on the climb, and snorting through her nose and muttering in a way that made me think she was very angry, rather than upset.

I peered cautiously round the poplar, but caught no more than a glimpse of her cap, bobbing through the trees. There were no cabins up there, and she hadn’t carried a basket or any tools for foraging. Perhaps she only wanted to be alone, to recover herself. No surprise, if so.

I waited until she was safely out of sight, then made my own way slowly down the slope. I didn’t stop at the Christie cabin, thirsty as I was, and had quite lost interest in errant bees.

I MET JAMIE AT a stiled fence, some little distance from home, in conversation with Hiram Crombie. I nodded in greeting, and waited in some impatience for Crombie to finish his business, so I could tell Jamie what I had just witnessed.

Luckily, Hiram showed no inclination to linger; I made him nervous.

I told Jamie at once what I had seen, and was annoyed to find that he didn’t share my concern. If Tom Christie thought it necessary to whip his daughter, that was his affair.

“But he might be . . . it might be—perhaps it doesn’t stop with a switching. Perhaps he does . . . other things to her.”

He shot me a look of surprise.

“Tom? D’ye have any reason to think so?”

“No,” I admitted reluctantly. The Christie ménage gave me an uncomfortable feeling, but that was likely only because I didn’t get on with Tom. I wasn’t so foolish as to think that a tendency toward Bible-thumping meant a person wouldn’t engage in wickedness—but in all fairness, it didn’t mean he did, either. “But surely he shouldn’t be whipping her like that—at her age?”

He glanced at me in mild exasperation.

“Ye dinna understand a thing, do ye?” he said, echoing my thought exactly.

“I was about to say just that, to you,” I said, giving him look for look. He didn’t look away, but held my gaze, his own slowly taking on a wry amusement.

“So it will be different?” he said. “In your world?” There was just enough edge in his voice to remind me forcibly that we were not in my world—nor ever would be. Sudden gooseflesh ran up my arm, lifting the fine blond hairs.

“A man wouldna beat a woman, then, in your time? Not even for good cause?”

And what was I to say to that? I couldn’t lie, even if I wanted to; he knew my face much too well.

“Some do,” I admitted. “But it’s not the same. There—then, I mean—a man who beat his wife would be a criminal. But,” I added in fairness, “a man who beat his wife then would most often be using his fists.”

A look of astonished disgust crossed his face.

“What sort of man would do that?” he asked incredulously.

“A bad one.”

“So I should think, Sassenach. And ye dinna think there’s a difference?” he asked. “Ye’d see it the same, if I were to smash your face, rather than only take a tawse to your bum?”

Blood flared abruptly in my cheeks. He once had taken a strap to me, and I hadn’t forgotten it. I had wanted to kill him at the time—and didn’t feel kindly toward him at the memory. At the same time, I wasn’t stupid enough to equate his actions with those of a modern-day wife-beater.

He glanced at me, raised one eyebrow, then understood what I was recalling. He grinned.

“Oh,” he said.

“Oh, indeed,” I said very cross. I had succeeded in putting that extremely humiliating episode out of mind, and didn’t at all like having it recalled.

He, on the other hand, was plainly enjoying the recollection. He eyed me in a manner I found grossly insufferable, still grinning.

“God, ye screamed like a ban-sidhe.”

I began to feel a distinct throbbing of blood in my temples.

“I bloody well had cause to!”

“Oh, aye,” he said, and the grin widened. “Ye did. Your own fault, mind,” he added.

“My f—”

“It was,” he said firmly.

“You apologized!” I said completely outraged. “You know you did!”

“No, I didn’t. And it was still your fault to begin with,” he said, with complete lack of logic. “Ye wouldna have got nearly such a wicked tanning, if ye’d only minded me in the first place, when I told ye to kneel and—”

“Minded you! You think I would have just meekly given in and let you—”

“I’ve never seen ye do anything meek, Sassenach.” He took my arm to help me over the stile, but I jerked free, puffing with indignation.

“You beastly Scot!” I dropped the hive on the ground at his feet, picked up my skirts, and scrambled over the stile.

“Well, I havena done it again,” he protested, behind me. “I promised, aye?”

I whirled round on the other side and glared at him.

“Only because I threatened to cut your heart out if you ever tried!”

“Well, even so. I could have—and ye ken that well, Sassenach. Aye?” He’d quit grinning, but there was a distinct glint in his eye.

I took several deep breaths, trying simultaneously to control my annoyance and think of some crushing rejoinder. I failed in both attempts, and with a briefly dignified “Hmph!” turned on my heel.

I heard the rustle of his kilt as he picked up the hive, hopped over the stile, and came after me, catching up within a stride or two. I didn’t look at him; my cheeks were still flaming.

The infuriating fact was that I did know that. I remembered all too well. He had used his sword belt to such effect that I hadn’t been able to sit comfortably for several days—and if he should ever decide to do it again, there was absolutely nothing to stop him.

I was, for the most part, able to ignore the fact that I was legally his property. That didn’t alter the fact that it was a fact—and he knew it.

“What about Brianna?” I demanded. “Would you feel the same way about it, if young Roger suddenly decided to take his belt or a switch to your daughter?”

He appeared to find something amusing in the notion.

“I think he’d have the devil of a fight on his hands if he tried,” he said. “That’s a braw wee lassie, no? And she has your notions of what constitutes wifely obedience, I’m afraid. But then,” he added, swinging the hive’s rope across his shoulder, “ye never ken what goes on in a marriage, do ye? Perhaps she’d be pleased if he tried.”

“Pleased?!” I gawked at him in astonishment. “How can you think that any woman would ever—”

“Oh, aye? What about my sister?”

I stopped dead in the middle of the path, staring at him.

“What about your sister? Surely you aren’t telling me—”

“I am.” The glint was back, but I didn’t think he was joking.

“Ian beat her?”

“I do wish ye’d stop calling it that,” he said mildly. “It sounds as though Ian took his fists to her, or blackened her eyes. I gave ye a decent skelping, but I didna bloody ye, for God’s sake.” His eyes flicked briefly toward my face; everything had healed, at least outwardly; the only trace left was a tiny scar through one eyebrow—invisible, unless one parted the hairs there and looked closely. “Neither would Ian.”

I was completely flabbergasted to hear this. I had lived in close proximity with Ian and Jenny Murray for months at a time, and had never seen the slightest indication that he possessed a violent nature. For that matter, it was impossible to imagine anyone trying such a thing on Jenny Murray, who had—if such a thing was possible—an even stronger personality than her brother.

“Well, what did he do? And why?”

“Well, he’d only take his belt to her now and then,” he said, “and only if she made him.”

I took a deep breath.

“If she made him?” I asked calmly, under the circumstances.

“Well, ye ken Ian,” he said, shrugging. “He’s no the one to be doing that sort of thing unless Jenny deviled him into it.”

“I never saw anything of that sort going on,” I said, giving him a hard look.

“Well, she’d scarcely do it in front of ye, would she?”

“And she would, in front of you?”

“Well, not precisely, no,” he admitted. “But I wasna often in the house, after Culloden. Now and then, though, I’d come down for a visit, and I’d see that she was . . . brewing for something.” He rubbed his nose and squinted against the sun, searching for words. “She’d devil him,” he said at last, shrugging. “Pick at him over nothing, make wee sarcastic remarks. She’d—” His face cleared a bit, as he came up with a suitable description. “She’d act like a spoilt wee lassie in need of the tawse.”

I found this description completely incredible. Jenny Murray had a sharp tongue, and few inhibitions about using it on anyone, her husband included. Ian, the soul of good nature, merely laughed at her. But I simply couldn’t countenance the notion of her behaving in the manner described.

“Well, so. I’d seen that a time or two, as I say. And Ian would give her an eye, but held his peace. But then the once, I was out hunting, near sunset, and took a small deer on the hill just behind the broch—ye ken the place?”

I nodded, still feeling stunned.

“It was close enough to carry the carcass to the house without help, so I brought it down to the smoke shed and hung it. There was no one about—I found out later the children had all gone to the market in Broch Mhorda, and the servants with them. So I thought the house was empty altogether, and stepped into the kitchen to find a bite and a cup of buttermilk before I left.”

Thinking the house empty, he had been startled by noises in the bedchamber overhead.

“What sort of noises?” I asked, fascinated.

“Well . . . shrieks,” he said, shrugging. “And giggling. A bit of shoving and banging, with a stool or some such falling over. If it weren’t for the yaffling, I should have thought there were thieves in the house. But I kent it was Jenny’s voice, and Ian’s, and—” He broke off, his ears going pink at the memory.

“So then . . . there was a bit more—raised voices, like—and then the crack of a belt on a bum, and the sort of skelloch ye could hear across six fields.”

He took a deep breath, shrugging.

“Well, I was taken back a bit, and couldna think what to do at once.”

I nodded, understanding that, at least.

“I expect it would be a bit of an awkward situation, yes. It . . . er . . . went on, though?”

He nodded. His ears were a deep red by now, and his face flushed, though that might only be from heat.

“Aye, it did.” He glanced at me. “Mind, Sassenach, if I’d thought he meant harm to her, I should have been up the stairs in an instant. But . . .” He brushed away an inquisitive bee, shaking his head. “There was—it felt—I canna even think how to say it. It wasna really that Jenny kept laughing, because she didna—but that I felt she wanted to. And Ian . . . well, Ian was laughing. Not out loud, I dinna mean; it was just . . . in his voice.”

He blew out his breath, and swiped his knuckles along his jaw, wiping sweat.

“I stayed quite frozen there, wi’ a bit of pie in my hand, listening. I came to myself only when the flies started lighting in my open mouth, and by that time, they’d . . . ah . . . they were . . . mmphm.” He hunched his shoulders, as though his shirt were too tight.

“Making it up, were they?” I asked very dryly.

“I expect so,” he replied, rather primly. “I left. Walked all the way to Foyne, and stayed the night with Grannie MacNab.” Foyne was a tiny hamlet, some fifteen miles from Lallybroch.

“Why?” I asked.

“Well, I had to,” he said logically. “I couldna ignore it, after all. It was either walk about and think of things, or else give in and abuse myself, and I couldna verra well do that—it was my own sister, after all.”

“You mean to say you can’t think and engage in sexual activity at the same time?” I asked, laughing.

“Of course not,” he said—thus confirming a long-held private opinion of mine—and gave me a look as though I were crazy. “Can you?”

“I can, yes.”

He raised one eyebrow, plainly unconvinced.

“Well, I’m not saying I do, always,” I admitted, “but it’s possible. Women are used to doing more than one thing at once—they have to, because of the children. Anyway, go back to Jenny and Ian. Why on earth—”

“Well, I did walk about and think of it,” Jamie admitted. “I couldna seem to stop thinking of it, to be honest. Grannie MacNab could see I’d something on my mind, and pestered me over the supper until . . . ah . . . well, until I told her about it.”

“Really. What did she say?” I asked, fascinated. I’d known Grannie MacNab, a sprightly old person with a highly forthright manner—and a lot of experience with human weakness.

“She cackled like thorns under a pot,” he said, one side of his mouth turning up. “I thought she’d fall into the fire wi’ merriment.”

Recovered to some extent, though, the old lady had wiped her eyes and explained matters to him, kindly, as though addressing a simpleton.

“She said it was because of Ian’s leg,” Jamie said, glancing at me to see whether this made sense to me. “She said that such a thing would make no difference to Jenny, but it would to him. She said,” he added, his color heightening, “that men havena got any idea what women think about bed, but they always think they have, so it causes trouble.”

“I knew I liked Grannie MacNab,” I murmured. “What else?”

“Well, so. She said it was likely that Jenny was only makin’ it clear to Ian—and maybe to herself, as well—that she still thought he was a man, leg or no.”

“What? Why?”

“Because, Sassenach,” he said, very dryly indeed, “when ye’re a man, a good bit of what ye have to do is to draw up lines and fight other folk who come over them. Your enemies, your tenants, your children—your wife. Ye canna always just strike them or take a strap to them, but when ye can, at least it’s clear to everyone who’s in charge.”

“But that’s perfectly—” I began, and then broke off, frowning as I considered this.

“And if ye’re a man, you’re in charge. It’s you that keeps order, whether ye like it or not. It’s true,” he said, then touched my elbow as he nodded toward an opening in the wood. “I’m thirsty. Shall we stop a bit?”

I followed him up a narrow path through the wood to what we called the Green Spring—a bubbling flow of water over pale serpentine stone, set in a cool, shady bowl of surrounding moss. We knelt, splashed our faces, and drank, sighing with grateful relief. Jamie tipped a handful of water down inside his shirt, closing his eyes in bliss. I laughed at him, but unpinned my sweat-soaked kerchief and doused it in the spring, using it to wipe my neck and arms.

The walk to the spring had caused a break in the conversation, and I wasn’t sure quite how—or whether—to resume it. Instead, I merely sat quietly in the shade, arms about my knees, idly wriggling my toes in the moss.

Jamie, too, seemed to feel no need of speech for the moment. He leaned comfortably back against a rock, the wet fabric of his shirt plastered to his chest, and we sat still, listening to the wood.

I wasn’t sure what to say, but that didn’t mean I had stopped thinking about the conversation. In an odd way, I thought I understood what Grannie MacNab had meant—though I wasn’t quite sure I agreed with it.

I was thinking more about what Jamie had said, though, regarding a man’s responsibility. Was it true? Perhaps it was, though I had never thought of it in that light before. It was true that he was a bulwark—not only for me, and for the family, but for the tenants, as well. Was that really how he did it, though? “Draw up lines, and fight other folk who come over them”? I rather thought it was.

There were lines between him and me, surely; I could have drawn them on the moss. Which was not to say we did not “come across” each other’s lines—we did, frequently, and with varying results. I had my own defenses—and means of enforcement. But he had only beaten me once for crossing his lines, and that was early on. So, had he seen that as a necessary fight? I supposed he had; that was what he was telling me.

But he had been following his own train of thought, which was running on a different track.

“It’s verra odd,” he said thoughtfully. “Laoghaire drove me mad wi’ great regularity, but it never once occurred to me to thrash her.”

“Well, how very thoughtless of you,” I said, drawing myself up. I disliked hearing him refer to Laoghaire, no matter what the context.

“Oh, it was,” he replied seriously, taking no notice of my sarcasm. “I think it was that I didna care enough for her to think of it, let alone do it.”

“You didn’t care enough to beat her? Wasn’t she the lucky one, then?”

He caught the tone of pique in my voice; his eyes sharpened and fixed on my face.

“Not to hurt her,” he said. Some new thought came to him; I saw it cross his face.

He smiled a little, got up, and came toward me. He reached down and pulled me to my feet, then took hold of my wrist, which he lifted gently over my head and pinned against the trunk of the pine I had been sitting under, so that I was obliged to lean back flat against it.

“Not to hurt her,” he said again, speaking softly. “To own her. I didna want to possess her. You, mo nighean donn—you, I would own.”

“Own me?” I said. “And what, exactly, do you mean by that?”

“What I say.” There was still a gleam of humor in his eyes, but his voice was serious. “Ye’re mine, Sassenach. And I would do anything I thought I must to make that clear.”

“Oh, indeed. Including beating me on a regular basis?”

“No, I wouldna do that.” The corner of his mouth lifted slightly, and the pressure of his grip on my trapped wrist increased. His eyes were deep blue, an inch from mine. “I dinna need to—because I could, Sassenach—and ye ken that well.”

I pulled against his grip, by sheer reflex. I remembered vividly that night in Doonesbury: the feeling of fighting him with all my strength—to no avail whatever. The horrifying feeling of being pinned to the bed, defenseless and exposed, realizing that he could do anything whatever that he liked to me—and would.

I squirmed violently, trying to escape the grip of memory, as much as his grasp on my flesh. I didn’t succeed, but did turn my wrist so as to be able to sink my nails into his hand.

He didn’t flinch or look away. His other hand touched me lightly—no more than a brush of my earlobe, but that was quite enough. He could touch me anywhere—in any way.

Evidently, women are capable of experiencing rational thought and sexual arousal simultaneously, because I appeared to be doing precisely that.

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