A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 45

   

“Where could they have come from?” she asked, also low-voiced—though Jemmy and Germain had begun pelting each other with mudballs, and wouldn’t have noticed if she’d shouted.

“I havena noticed anyone missing a hand, have you?” Jamie glanced up, giving her a half-smile. She didn’t return it.

“Not walking around, no. But if they aren’t walking around—” She swallowed, trying to ignore the half-imagined taste of bitter herbs and burning. “Where’s the rest? Of the body, I mean.”

That word, “body,” seemed to bring the whole thing into a new and nasty focus.

“Where’s the rest of that finger, I wonder?” Jamie was frowning at the blackened smudge. He moved a knuckle toward it, and she saw what he had seen: a paler smudge within the circle of the fire, where part of the ashes had been swept away. There were three fingers, she saw, still swallowing repeatedly. Two were intact, the bones gray-white and spectral among the ashes. Two joints of the third were gone, though; only the slender last phalanx remained.

“An animal?” She glanced round for traces, but there were no pawprints on the surface of the rock—only the muddy smudges left by the little boys’ bare feet.

Vague visions of cannibalism were beginning to stir queasily in the pit of her stomach, though she rejected the notion at once.

“You don’t think Ian—” She stopped abruptly.

“Ian?” Her father looked up, astonished. “Why should Ian do such a thing?”

“I don’t think he would,” she said, taking hold of common sense. “Not at all. It was just a thought—I’d heard that the Iroquois sometimes . . . sometimes . . .” She nodded at the charred bones, unwilling to articulate the thought further. “Um . . . maybe a friend of Ian’s? Uh . . . visiting?”

Jamie’s face darkened a little, but he shook his head.

“Nay, there’s the smell of the Highlands about this. The Iroquois will burn an enemy. Or cut bits off him, to be sure. But not like that.” He pointed at the bones with his chin, in the Highland way. “This is a private business, ken? A witch—or one of their shamans, maybe—might do a thing like that; not a warrior.”

“I haven’t seen any Indians of any kind lately. Not on the Ridge. Have you?”

He looked at the burned smudge a moment longer, frowning, then shook his head.

“No, nor anyone missing a few fingers, either.”

“You’re sure they’re human?” She studied the bones, trying for other possibilities. “Maybe from a small bear? Or a big coon?”

“Maybe,” he said flatly, but she could tell he said it only for her sake. He was sure.

“Mama!” The patter of bare feet on the rock behind her was succeeded by a tug at her sleeve. “Mama, we’re hungry!”

“Of course you are,” she said, rising to meet the demand, but still gazing abstractedly at the charred remnants. “You haven’t eaten in nearly an hour. What did you—” Her gaze drifted slowly from the fire to her son, then snapped abruptly, focusing on the two little boys, who stood grinning at her, covered from head to foot in mud.

“Look at you!” she said, dismay tempered by resignation. “How could you possibly get that filthy?”

“Oh, it’s easy, lass,” her father assured her, grinning as he rose to his feet. “Easy cured, too, though.” He bent, and seizing Germain by the back of shirt and seat of breeks, heaved him neatly off the rock and into the pool below.

“Me, too, me, too! Me, too, Grandda!” Jemmy was dancing up and down in excitement, spattering clods of mud in all direction.

“Oh, aye. You, too.” Jamie bent and grabbed Jem round the waist, launching him high into the air in a flutter of shirt before Brianna could cry out.

“He can’t swim!”

This protest coincided with a huge splash, as Jem hit the water and promptly sank like a rock. She was striding toward the edge, prepared to dive in after him, when her father put a hand on her arm to stop her.

“Wait a bit,” he said. “How will ye ken whether he swims or not, if ye dinna let him try?”

Germain was already arrowing his way toward shore, his sleek blond head dark with water. Jemmy popped up behind him, though, splashing and spluttering, and Germain dived, turned like an otter, and came up alongside.

“Kick!” he called to Jemmy, churning up a huge spray in illustration. “Go on your back!”

Jemmy ceased flailing, went on his back, and kicked madly. His hair was plastered over his face and the spray of his efforts must have obscured any remnants of vision—but he went on valiantly kicking, to encouraging whoops from Jamie and Germain.

The pool was no more than ten feet across, and he reached the shallows on the opposite bank within seconds, beaching among the rocks by virtue of crashing headfirst into one. He stopped, thrashing feebly in the shallows, then bounced to his feet, showering water, and shoved the wet hair out of his face. He looked amazed.

“I can swim!” he shouted. “Mama, I can swim!”

“That’s wonderful!” she called, torn between sharing his ecstatic pride, the urge to rush home and tell Roger about it—and dire visions of Jemmy now leaping heedlessly into bottomless ponds and rock-jagged rapids, under the reckless delusion that he could indeed swim. But he’d gotten his feet wet, in no uncertain terms; there was no going back.

“Come here!” She bent toward him, clapping her hands. “Can you swim back to me? Come on, come here!”

He looked blankly at her for an instant, then around him at the rippling water of the pool. The blaze of excitement in his face died.

“I forget,” he said, and his mouth curled down, fat with sudden woe. “I forget how!”

“Fall down and kick!” Germain bellowed helpfully, from his perch on the rock. “You can do it, cousin!”

Jemmy took one or two blundering steps into the water, but stopped, lip trembling, terror and confusion starting to overwhelm him.

“Stay there, a chuisle! I’m coming!” Jamie called, and dove cleanly into the pool, a long pale streak beneath the water, bubbles streaming from hair and breeks. He popped up in front of Jemmy in an explosion of breath and shook his head, flinging strands of wet red hair out of his face.

“Come along then, man,” he said, scooting round on his knees in the shallows, so that his back was to Jemmy. He looked back, patting his own shoulder. “Take hold of me here, aye? We’ll swim back together.”

And they did, kicking and splashing in ungainly dog paddle, Jemmy’s shrieks of excitement echoed by Germain, who had leaped into the water to paddle alongside.

Hauled out onto the rock, the three of them lay puddled, gasping and laughing at her feet, water spreading in pools around them.

“Well, you are cleaner,” she said judiciously, moving her foot away from a spreading streamlet. “I’ll admit that much.”

“Of course we are.” Jamie sat up, wringing out the long tail of his hair. “It occurs to me, lass, that there’s maybe a better way to do what ye want.”

“What I w—oh. You mean the water?”

“Aye, that.” He sniffed, and rubbed the back of his hand under his nose. “I’ll show ye, if ye come up to the house after supper.”

“What’s that, Grandda?” Jemmy had got to his feet, wet hair standing up in red spikes, and was looking curiously at Jamie’s back. He put out a tentative finger and traced one of the long, curving scars.

“What? Oh . . . that.” Jamie’s face went quite blank for a moment. “It’s . . . ah . . .”

“Some bad people hurt Grandda once,” she interrupted firmly, bending down to pick Jemmy up. “But that was a long time ago. He’s all right now. You weigh a ton!”

“Papa says Grandpère is perhaps a silkie,” Germain remarked, viewing Jamie’s back with interest. “Like his papa before him. Did the bad people find you in your silkie skin, Grandpère, and try to cut it from you? He would then of course become a man again,” he explained matter-of-factly, looking up at Jemmy, “and could kill them with his sword.”

Jamie was staring at Germain. He blinked, and wiped his nose again.

“Oh,” he said. “Aye. Um. Aye, I expect that was the way of it. If your papa says so.”

“What’s a silkie?” asked Jemmy, bewildered but interested. He wiggled in Brianna’s arms, wanting to be put down, and she lowered him back to the rock.

“I don’t know,” Germain admitted. “But they have fur. What’s a silkie, Grandpère?”

Jamie closed his eyes against the sinking sun, and rubbed a hand over his face, shaking his head a little. Brianna thought he was smiling, but couldn’t tell for sure.

“Ah, well,” he said, sitting up straighter, opening his eyes, and throwing back his wet hair. “A silkie is a creature who is a man upon the land, but becomes a seal within the sea. And a seal,” he added, cutting off Jemmy, who had been opening his mouth to ask, “is a great sleek beastie that barks like a dog, is as big as an ox, and beautiful as the black of night. They live in the sea, but come out onto the rocks near the shore sometimes.”

“Have you seen them, Grandpère?” Germain asked, eager.

“Oh, many a time,” Jamie assured him. “There are a great many seals who live on the coasts of Scotland.”

“Scotland,” Jemmy echoed. His eyes were round.

“Ma mère says Scotland is a good place,” Germain remarked. “She cries sometimes, when she talks of it. I am not so sure I would like it, though.”

“Why not?” Brianna asked.

“It’s full of giants and water horses and . . . things,” Germain replied, frowning. “I don’t want to meet any of those. And parritch, Maman says, but we have parritch here.”

“So we have. And I expect it’s time we were going home to eat some.” Jamie got to his feet and stretched, groaning in the pleasure of it. The late-afternoon sun washed rock and water with a golden light, gleaming on the boys’ cheeks and the bright hairs on her father’s arms.

Jemmy stretched and groaned, too, in worshipful imitation, and Jamie laughed.

“Come on, wee fishie. D’ye want a ride home?” He bent so that Jemmy could scramble onto his back, then straightened up, settling the little boy’s weight, and put out a hand to take Germain’s.

Jamie saw her attention turn momentarily back toward the blackened smudge at the edge of the rock.

“Leave it, lass,” he said quietly. “It’s a charm of some kind. Ye dinna want to touch it.”

Then he stepped off the rock and made for the trail, Jemmy on his back and Germain clutched firmly by the back of the neck, both boys giggling as they made their way through the slippery mud of the path.

Brianna retrieved her spade and Jamie’s shirt from the creekbank, and caught the boys up on the trail to the Big House. A breeze had begun to breathe through the trees, chilly in the damp cloth of her shift, but the heat of walking was enough to keep her from being cold.

Germain was singing softly to himself, still hand-in-hand with his grandfather, his small blond head tilting back and forth like a metronome.

Jemmy sighed in exhausted bliss, legs wrapped round Jamie’s middle, arms about his neck, and leaned his sun-reddened cheek against the scarred back. Then he thought of something, for he raised his head and kissed his grandfather with a loud smacking noise, between the shoulder blades.

Her father jerked, nearly dropping Jem, and made a high-pitched noise that made her laugh.

“Is that make it better?” Jem inquired seriously, pulling himself up and trying to look over Jamie’s shoulder into his face.

“Oh. Aye, lad,” his grandfather assured him, face twitching. “Much better.”

The gnats and midges were out in force now. She beat a cloud of them away from her face, and slapped a mosquito that lit on Germain’s neck.

“Ak!” he said, hunching his shoulders, but then resumed singing “Alouette,” undisturbed.

Jemmy’s shirt was thin, worn linen, cut down from one of Roger’s old ones. The cloth had dried to the shape of his body, square-rumped and solid, the breadth of his small, tender shoulders echoing the wide set of the older, firmer ones he clung to. She glanced from the redheads to Germain, walking reed-thin and graceful through shadows and light, still singing, and thought how desperately beautiful men were.

“Who were the bad people, Grandda?” Jemmy asked drowsily, head nodding with the rhythm of Jamie’s steps.

“Sassunaich,” Jamie replied briefly. “English soldiers.”

“English canaille,” Germain amplified, breaking off his song. “They are the ones who cut off my papa’s hand, too.”

“They were?” Jemmy’s head lifted in momentary attention, then fell back between Jamie’s shoulder blades with a thump that made his grandfather grunt. “Did you kill them with your sword, Grandda?”

“Some of them.”

“I will kill the rest, when I am big,” Germain declared. “If there are any left.”

“I suppose there might be.” Jamie hitched Jem’s weight a little higher, letting go Germain’s hand in order to hold Jemmy’s slackening legs tight to his body.

“Me, too,” Jemmy murmured, eyelids drooping. “I’ll kill them, too.”

At the fork in the trail, Jamie surrendered her son to her, sound asleep, and took back his shirt. He pulled it on, brushing disheveled hair out of his face as his head came through. He smiled at her, then leaned forward and kissed her forehead, gently, putting one hand on Jemmy’s round, red head where it lay against her shoulder.

“Dinna fash yourself, lass,” he said softly. “I’ll speak to Mordecai. And your man. Take care of this one.”

“THIS IS A PRIVATE BUSINESS,” her father had said. The general implication being that she should leave it alone. And she might have, save for a couple of things. One, that Roger had come home well after dark, whistling a song he said Amy McCallum had taught him. And two, that other offhand remark her father had made about the fire on the Flat Rock—that there was a smell of the Highlands about it.

Brianna had a very keen nose, and she smelled a rat. She also had recognized—belatedly—what had made Jamie say what he had. The odd smell of the fire, that tang of medicine—it was iodine; the smell of burned seaweed. She’d smelled a fire built of sea wrack on the shore near Ullapool, in her own time, when Roger had taken her up there for a picnic.

There was certainly seaweed on the coast, and it wasn’t impossible that someone, sometime, had brought some inland. But it also wasn’t impossible that some of the fisher-folk had brought bits of it from Scotland, in the way that some exiles might bring earth in jar, or a handful of pebbles to remind them of the land left behind.

A charm, her father had said. And the song Roger had learned from Amy McCallum was called “The Deasil Charm,” he said.

All of which was no particular evidence of anything. Still, she mentioned the small fire and its contents to Mrs. Bug, just from curiosity. Mrs. Bug knew a good deal about Highland charms of all sorts.

Mrs. Bug frowned thoughtfully at her description, lips pursed.

“Bones, ye say? What sort—the bones of an animal, were they, or a man?”

Brianna felt as though someone had dropped a slug down her back.

“A man?”

“Oh, aye. There’s some charms that take grave dust, ken, and some the dust of bones, or the ashes of a body.” Evidently reminded by the mention of ashes, Mrs. Bug pulled a big pottery mixing bowl from the warm ashes of the hearth, and peered into it. The bread starter had died a few days before, and the bowl of flour, water, and honey had been set out in hopes of snaring a wild yeast from the passing air.

The round little Scotswoman frowned at the bowl, shook her head, and put it back with a brief muttered verse in Gaelic. Naturally, Brianna thought, slightly amused, there would be a prayer for catching yeast. Which patron saint was in charge of that?

“What ye said, though,” Mrs. Bug said, returning both to her chopping of turnips and to the original subject of conversation. “About it bein’ on the Flat Rock. Seaweed, bones, and a flat rock. That’s a love charm, lass. The one they call the Venom o’ the North Wind.”

“What a really peculiar name for a love charm,” she said, staring at Mrs. Bug, who laughed.

“Och, now, do I remember it at all?” she asked rhetorically. She wiped her hands upon her apron, and folding them at her waist with a vaguely theatrical air, recited:

“A love charm for thee,

Water drawn through a straw,

The warmth of him thou lovest,

With love to draw on thee.

“Arise betimes on Lord’s day,

To the flat rock of the shore

Take with thee the butterbur

And the foxglove.

“A small quantity of embers

In the skirt of thy kirtle,

A special handful of seaweed

In a wooden shovel.

“Three bones of an old man,

Newly torn from the grave,

Nine stalks of royal fern,

Newly trimmed with an ax.

“Burn them on a fire of faggots

And make them all into ashes;

Sprinkle in the fleshy breast of thy lover,

Against the venom of the north wind.

“Go round the rath of procreation,

The circuit of the five turns,

And I will vow and warrant thee

That man shall never leave thee.”

Mrs. Bug unfolded her hands and took another turnip, quartering it with neat, quick chops and tossing the pieces into the pot. “Ye’re not wanting such a thing yourself, I hope?”

“No,” Brianna murmured, feeling the small cold feeling continue down her back. “Do you think—would the fisher-folk use a charm like that?”

“Well, as to that, I canna say what they’d do—but surely a few would ken that charm; it’s weel enough known, though I havena kent anyone myself has done it. There are easier ways to make a lad fall in love wi’ ye, lass,” she added, pointing a stubby finger at Brianna in admonition. “Cook him up a nice plate o’ neeps boiled in milk and served wi’ butter, for one.”

“I’ll remember,” Brianna promised, smiling, and excused herself.

She had meant to go home; there were dozens of things needing to be done, from spinning yarn and weaving cloth, to plucking and drawing the half dozen dead geese she had shot and hung in the lean-to. But instead she found her footsteps turning up the hill, along the overgrown trail that led to the graveyard.

Surely it wasn’t Amy McCallum who’d made that charm, she thought. It would have taken her hours to walk down the mountain from her cabin, and her with a small baby to tend. But babies could be carried. And no one would know whether she had left her cabin, save perhaps Aidan—and Aidan didn’t talk to anyone but Roger, whom he worshipped.

The sun was nearly down, and the tiny cemetery had a melancholy look to it, long shadows from its sheltering trees slanting cold and dark across the needle-strewn ground and the small collection of crude markers, cairns, and wooden crosses. The pines and hemlocks murmured uneasily overhead in the rising breeze of evening.

The sense of cold had spread from her backbone, making a wide patch between her shoulder blades. Seeing the earth grubbed up beneath the wooden marker with Ephraim on it didn’t help.

50

SHARP EDGES

HE SHOULD HAVE KNOWN better. Did know better. But what could he have done? Much more important, what was he to do now?

Roger made his way slowly up the mountainside, nearly oblivious to its beauty. Nearly, but not quite. Desolate in the bleakness of winter, the secluded notch where Amy McCallum’s ramshackle cabin perched among the laurels was a blaze of color and life in spring and summer—so vivid that even his worry couldn’t stop his noticing the blaze of pinks and reds, interrupted by soft patches of creamy dogwood and carpets of bluets, their tiny blue flowers nodding on slender stems above the torrent of the stream that bounded down beside the rocky trail.

They must have chosen the site in summer, he reflected cynically. It would have seemed charming then. He hadn’t known Orem McCallum, but plainly the man hadn’t been any more practical than his wife, or they would have realized the dangers of their remoteness.

The present situation wasn’t Amy’s fault, though; he shouldn’t blame her for his own lack of judgment.

He didn’t precisely blame himself, either—but he should have noticed sooner what was going on; what was being said.

“Everybody kens ye spend more time up at the notch wi’ the widow McCallum than ye do with your own wife.”

That’s what Malva Christie had said, her little pointed chin raised in defiance. “Tell my father, and I’ll tell everyone I’ve seen you kiss Amy McCallum. They’ll all believe me.”

He felt an echo of the astonishment he’d felt at her words—an astonishment succeeded by anger. At the girl and her silly threat, but much more at himself.

He’d been working at the whisky clearing and, heading back to the cabin for dinner, had rounded a turn in the trail and surprised the two of them, Malva and Bobby Higgins, locked in an embrace. They’d sprung apart like a pair of startled deer, eyes wide, so alarmed as to be funny.

He’d smiled, but before he could either apologize or fade tactfully into the underbrush, Malva had stepped up to him, eyes still wide, but blazing with determination.

“Tell my father,” she’d said, “and I’ll tell everyone I’ve seen you kiss Amy McCallum.”

He’d been so taken aback by her words that he’d scarcely noticed Bobby, until the young soldier had put a hand on her arm, murmuring something to her, drawing her away. She’d turned reluctantly, with a last, wary, meaningful glance at Roger, and a parting shot that left him staggered.

“Everybody kens ye spend more time up at the notch wi’ the widow McCallum than ye do with your own wife. They’ll all believe me.”

God damn it, they would, too, and it was his own bloody fault. Bar one or two sarcastic remarks, Bree hadn’t protested his visits; she’d accepted—or seemed to—that someone had to go now and then to see the McCallums, make sure they had food and fire, provide a few moments’ company, a small respite in the monotony of loneliness and labor.

He’d done such things often, going with the Reverend to call on the aged, the widowed, the ill of the congregation; take them food, stop for a bit to talk—to listen. It was just what you did for a neighbor, he told himself; a normal kindness.

But he should have taken more notice. Now he recalled Jamie’s thoughtful glance over the supper table, the breath taken as though to say something, when Roger had asked Claire for a salve for wee Orrie McCallum’s rash—and then Claire’s glance at Brianna, and Jamie’s closing his mouth, whatever he’d thought of saying left unspoken.

“They’ll all believe me.” For the girl to have said that, there must have been talk already. Likely Jamie had heard it; he could only hope that Bree hadn’t.

The crooked chimney came in sight above the laurels, the smoke a nearly transparent wisp that made the clear air above the rooftree seem to quiver, as though the cabin were enchanted, might vanish with a blink.

The worst of it was that he knew precisely how it had happened. He had a weakness for young mothers, a terrible tenderness toward them, a desire to take care of them. The fact that he knew exactly why he harbored such an urge—the memory of his own young mother, who had died saving his life during the Blitz—didn’t help.

It was a tenderness that had nearly cost him his life at Alamance, when that bloody-minded fool William Buccleigh MacKenzie had mistaken Roger’s concern for Morag MacKenzie for . . . well, all right, he’d kissed her, but only on the forehead, and for God’s sake, she was his own many-times-great-grannie . . . and the thundering idiocy of nearly being killed by your own great-great-etc.-grandfather for molesting his wife . . . it had cost him his voice, and he should have learned his lesson, but he hadn’t, not well enough.

Suddenly furious with himself—and with Malva Christie, the malicious little chit—he picked up a stone from the trail and flung it down the mountain, into the stream. It struck another in the water, bounced twice, and vanished into the rushing gurgle.

His visits to the McCallums had to stop, at once. He saw that clearly. Another way would have to be found for them . . . but he had to come once more, to explain. Amy would understand, he thought—but how to explain to Aidan what reputation was, and why gossip was a deadly sin, and why Roger couldn’t come anymore to fish or show him how to build things. . . .

Cursing steadily under his breath, he made the last short, steep ascent and came into the ragged, overgrown little dooryard. Before he could call out to announce his presence, though, the door flew open.

“Roger Mac!” Amy McCallum half-fell down the step and into his arms, gasping and weeping. “Oh, you came, you came! I prayed for someone to come, but I didna think anyone would, in time, and he’d die, but ye’ve come, God be thankit!”

“What is it? What’s wrong? Is wee Orrie taken sick?” He got hold of her arms, steadying her, and she shook her head, so violently that her cap slid half off.

“Aidan,” she gasped. “It’s Aidan.”

AIDAN MCCALLUM lay doubled up on my surgery table, white as a sheet, making little gasping groans. My first hope—green apples or gooseberries—vanished with a closer look at him. I was fairly sure what I had here, but appendicitis shares symptoms with a number of other conditions. A classic case does, however, have one striking aspect.

“Can you unfold him, just for a moment?” I looked at his mother, hovering over him on the verge of tears, but it was Roger who nodded and came to put his hands on Aidan’s knees and shoulders, gently persuading him to lie flat.

I put a thumb in his navel, my little finger on his right hipbone, and pressed his abdomen sharply with my middle finger, wondering for a second as I did so whether McBurney had yet discovered and named this diagnostic spot. Pain in McBurney’s Spot was a specific diagnostic symptom for acute appendicitis. I pressed Aidan’s stomach there, then I released the pressure, he screamed, arched up off the table, and doubled up like a jackknife.

A hot appendix for sure. I’d known I’d encounter one sometime. And with a mixed sense of dismay and excitement, I realized that the time had come for me finally to use the ether. No doubt about it, and no choice; if the appendix wasn’t removed, it would rupture.

I glanced up; Roger was supporting little Mrs. McCallum with a hand under her elbow; she clutched the baby close to her chest, wrapped in its bundle. She’d need to stay; Aidan would need her.

“Roger—get Lizzie to come mind the baby, will you? And then run as fast as you can to the Christies’; I’ll need Malva to come and help.”

The most extraordinary expression flitted across his face; I couldn’t interpret it, but it was gone in an instant, and I didn’t have time to worry about it. He nodded and left without a word, and I turned my attention to Mrs. McCallum, asking her the questions I needed answered before I cut into her small son’s belly.

IT WAS ALLAN CHRISTIE who opened the door to Roger’s brusque knock. A darker, leaner version of his owl-faced father, he blinked slowly at the question as to Malva’s whereabouts.

“Why . . . she’s gone to the stream,” he said. “Gathering rushes, she said.” He frowned. “Why do ye want her?”

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