A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 46

   

“Mrs. Fraser needs her to come and help with—with something.” Something moved inside; the back door opening. Tom Christie came in, a book in his hand, the page he’d been reading caught between two fingers.

“MacKenzie,” he said, with a short jerk of the head in acknowledgment. “Did ye say Mrs. Fraser is wanting Malva? Why?” He frowned as well, the two Christies looking exactly like a pair of barn owls contemplating a questionable mouse. “Only that wee Aidan McCallum’s taken badly, and she’d be glad of Malva’s help. I’ll go and find her.”

Christie’s frown deepened, and he opened his mouth to speak, but Roger had already turned, hurrying into the trees before either of them could stop him.

He found her fairly quickly, though every moment spent searching seemed an eternity. How long did it take an appendix to burst? She was knee-deep in the stream, skirts kirtled high and her rush basket floating beside her, tethered by an apron string. She didn’t hear him at first, deafened by the flow of the water. When he called her name more loudly, her head jerked up in alarm, and she raised the rush knife, gripped tightly in her hand.

The look of alarm faded when she saw who it was, though she kept a wary eye on him—and a good grip on the knife, he saw. His summons was received with a flash of interest.

“The ether? Really, she’s going to cut him?” she asked eagerly, wading toward him.

“Yes. Come on; I’ve already told your father Mrs. Fraser needs you. We needn’t stop.”

Her face changed at that.

“Ye told him?” Her brow creased for a moment. Then she bit her lip and shook her head.

“I can’t,” she said, raising her voice above the sound of the stream.

“Yes, ye can,” he said, as encouragingly as possible, and stretched out a hand to help her. “Come on; I’ll give ye a hand with your things.”

She shook her head more decidedly, pink lower lip poking out a bit.

“No. My father—he’ll no have it.” She glanced in the direction of the cabin, and he turned to look, but it was all right; neither Allan nor Tom had followed him. Yet.

He kicked off his shoes and stepped into the icy creek, the stones rolling, hard and slippery under his feet. Malva’s eyes widened and her mouth fell open as he bent and grabbed her basket, ripped it from her apron string, and tossed it onto the bank. Then he took the knife from her hand, thrust it through his belt, grabbed her round the waist, and picking her up, splashed ashore with her, disregarding the kicking and squealing.

“You’re coming with me,” he said, grunting as he set her down. “Ye want to walk, or do I carry you?”

He thought she seemed more intrigued than horrified at this proposal, but she shook her head again, backing away from him.

“I can’t—truly! He’ll—he’ll beat me if he finds out I’ve been meddling wi’ the ether.”

That checked him momentarily. Would he? Perhaps. But Aidan’s life was at stake.

“He won’t find out, then,” he said. “Or if he does, I’ll see to it that he does ye no harm. Come, for God’s sake—there’s no time to be wasting!”

Her small pink mouth compressed itself in stubbornness. No time for scruples, then. He leaned down to bring his face close to hers and stared her in the eye.

“You’ll come,” he said, fists curling, “or I tell your father and your brother about you and Bobby Higgins. Say what ye like about me—I don’t care. But if ye think your father would beat you for helping Mrs. Fraser, what’s he likely to do if he hears ye’ve been snogging Bobby?”

He didn’t know what the eighteenth-century equivalent of snogging was, but plainly she understood him. And if she’d been anywhere near his own size, she would have knocked him down, if he read the dangerous light in those big gray eyes correctly.

But she wasn’t, and after an instant’s consideration, she bent, dried her legs on her skirts, and shuffled hurriedly into her sandals.

“Leave it,” she said briefly, seeing him stoop for the basket. “And give me back my knife.”

It might have been simply an urge to keep some influence over her until she was safely in the surgery—surely he wasn’t afraid of her. He put a hand to the knife at his belt, though, and said, “Later. When it’s done.”

She didn’t bother arguing, but scampered up the bank ahead of him and headed for the Big House, the soles of her sandals flapping against her bare heels.

I HAD MY FINGERS on the brachial pulse in Aidan’s armpit, counting. His skin was very hot to the touch, maybe a temperature of 101, 102. The pulse was strong, though rapid . . . slowing as he went further under. I could feel Malva counting under her breath, so many drops of ether, so long a pause before the next . . . I lost my own count of the pulse, but it didn’t matter; I was taking it into myself, feeling my own pulse begin to beat in the same rhythm, and it was normal, steady.

He was breathing well. The little abdomen rose and fell slightly under my hand, and I could feel the muscles relaxing by the moment, everything except the tense, distended belly, the visible ribs arching high above it as he breathed. I had the sudden illusion that I could push my hand straight through the wall of his abdomen and touch the swollen appendix, could see it in my mind, throbbing malignantly in the dark security of its sealed world. Time, then.

Mrs. McCallum made a small sound when I took up the scalpel, a louder one when I pressed it down into the pale flesh, still gleaming wet with the alcohol I’d swabbed it with, like a fish’s belly yielding to the gutting knife.

The skin parted easily, blood welling in that odd, magical way, seeming to appear from nowhere. He had almost no fat beneath it; the muscles were right there, dark red, resilient to the touch. There were other people in the room; I felt them vaguely. I had no attention to spare, though. Every sense I had was focused on the small body under my hands. Someone stood at my shoulder, though—Bree?

“Give me a retractor—yes, that thing.” Yes, it was Bree; a long-fingered hand, wet with disinfectant, picked up the claw-shaped thing and put it in my waiting left hand. I missed the services of a good surgical nurse, but we’d manage.

“Hold that, just there.” I nosed the blade between the muscle fibers, splitting them easily, and then pinched up the thick soft gleam of the peritoneum, lifted it and sliced it.

His innards were very warm, sucking wet around two probing fingers. Soft squish of intestine, small half-firm lumps of matter felt through their walls, the brush of bone against my knuckle—he was so small, there wasn’t much room to feel around. I had my eyes closed, concentrating on touch alone. The cecum had to be right under my fingers, that was the curve of the large intestine I could feel, inert but live, like a sleeping snake. Behind? Below? I probed carefully, opened my eyes, and peered closely into the wound. He wasn’t bleeding badly, but the wound was still awash. Ought I take the time to cauterize the small bleeders? I glanced at Malva; she was frowning in concentration, her lips moving silently, counting—and she had one hand on the pulse in his neck, keeping track.

“Cautery iron—a small one.” A moment’s pause; with the flammability of ether in mind, I had doused the hearth and put the brazier across the hall, in Jamie’s study. Bree was quick, though; I had it in my hand in seconds. A wisp of smoke rose from his belly and the sizzle of seared flesh struck into the thick warm smell of blood. I glanced up to hand the iron back to Bree, and saw Mrs. McCallum’s face, all eyes, staring.

I blotted away the blood with a handful of lint, looked again—my fingers were still holding what I thought . . . all right.

“All right,” I said out loud, triumphant. “Got you!” Very carefully, I hooked a finger under the curve of the cecum and pulled a section of it up through the wound, the inflamed appendix sticking out from it like an angry fat worm, purple with inflammation.

“Ligature.”

I had it now. I could see the membrane down the side of the appendix and the blood vessels feeding it. Those had to be tied off first; then I could tie off the appendix itself and cut it away. Difficult only because of the small size, but no real problem . . .

The room was so still, I could hear the tiny hisses and pops from the charcoal in the brazier across the hall. Sweat was running down behind my ears, between my br**sts, and I became dimly aware that my teeth were sunk in my lower lip.

“Forceps.” I pulled the purse-string stitch tight, and taking the forceps, poked the tied-off stump of the appendix neatly up into the cecum. I pressed this firmly back into his belly and took a breath.

“How long, Malva?”

“A bit more than ten minutes, ma’am. He’s all right.” She took her eyes off the ether mask long enough to dart a quick smile at me, then took up the dropping bottle, lips resuming her silent count.

Closing up was quick. I painted the sutured wound with a thick layer of honey, wrapped a bandage tightly round his body, tucked warm blankets over him and breathed.

“Take off the mask,” I said to Malva, straightening up. She made no reply, and I looked at her. She had raised the mask, was holding it in both hands before her, like a shield. But she wasn’t watching Aidan anymore; her eyes were fixed on her father, standing rigid in the doorway.

TOM CHRISTIE looked back and forth from the small nak*d body on the table to his daughter. She took an uncertain step back, still clutching the ether mask. His head twisted, piercing me with a fierce gray look.

“What’s to do here?” he demanded. “What are ye doing to that child?”

“Saving his life,” I replied tartly. I was still vibrating from the intensity of the surgery, and in no mood for rannygazoo. “Did you want something?”

Christie’s thin lips pressed tight, but before he could reply, his son, Allan, pushed his way past into the room, and reaching his sister in a couple of strides, grabbed her by the wrist.

“Come away, ye wee gomerel,” he said roughly, jerking at her. “Ye’ve no business here.”

“Let go of her.” Roger spoke sharply, and took hold of Allan’s shoulder, to pull him away. Allan whirled on his heel and punched Roger in the stomach, short and sharp. Roger made a hollow crowing noise, but didn’t crumple. Instead, he slugged Allan Christie in the jaw. Allan reeled backward, knocking over the little table of instruments—blades and retractors clattered over the floor in a swash of falling metal, and the jar of catgut ligatures in alcohol smashed on the boards, spraying glass and liquid everywhere.

A soft thump from the floor made me look down. Amy McCallum, overcome by ether fumes and emotion, had passed out.

I hadn’t time to do anything about that; Allan bounced back with a wild swing, Roger ducked, caught the rush of the younger Christie’s body, and the two of them staggered backward, hit the sill, and fell out of the open window, entangled.

Tom Christie made a low growling noise and hurried toward the window. Malva, seizing her chance, ran out the door; I heard her footsteps pattering hastily down the hall toward the kitchen—and, presumably, the back door.

“What on earth . . . ?” Bree said, looking at me.

“Don’t look at me,” I said, shaking my head. “I have no idea.” Which was true; I did, however, have a sinking feeling that my involving Malva in the operation had a lot to do with it. Tom Christie and I had reached something like rapprochement, following my operation on his hand—but that didn’t mean he had altered his views on the ungodliness of ether.

Bree drew herself abruptly upright, stiffening. A certain amount of grunting, gasping, and incoherent half-insults outside indicated that the fight was continuing—but Allan Christie’s raised voice had just called Roger an adulterer.

Brianna glanced sharply at the huddled form of Amy McCallum, and I said a very bad word to myself. I’d heard a few sidelong remarks about Roger’s visits to the McCallums—and Jamie had come close to saying something to Roger about it, but I had dissuaded him from interfering, telling him that I’d take up the matter tactfully with Bree. I hadn’t had the chance, though, and now—

With a last unfriendly look at Amy McCallum, Bree strode out the door, plainly intending to take a hand in the fight. I clutched my brow and must have moaned, for Tom Christie turned sharply from the window.

“Are ye ill, mistress?”

“No,” I said, a little wanly. “Just . . . look, Tom. I’m sorry if I’ve caused trouble, asking Malva to help me. She has a real gift for healing, I think—but I didn’t mean to persuade her into doing something you didn’t approve of.”

He gave me a bleak look, which he then transferred to Aidan’s slack body. The look sharpened suddenly.

“Is that child dead?” he asked.

“No, no,” I said. “I gave him ether; he’s just gone aslee—”

My voice dried in my throat, as I noticed that Aidan had chosen this inconvenient moment to stop breathing.

With an incoherent cry, I shoved Tom Christie out of the way and fell on Aidan, gluing my mouth over his and pressing the heel of my hand hard in the center of his chest.

The ether in his lungs flowed over my face as I took my mouth away, making my head swim. I gripped the edge of the table hard with my free hand, putting my mouth back on his. I could not black out, I couldn’t.

My vision swam and the room seemed to be revolving slowly round me. I clung doggedly to consciousness, though, urgently blowing into his lungs, feeling the tiny chest under my hand rise gently, then fall.

It couldn’t have been more than a minute, but a minute filled with nightmare, everything spinning round me, the feel of Aidan’s flesh the only solid anchor in a whirl of chaos. Amy McCallum stirred on the floor beside me, rose swaying to her knees—then fell on me with a shriek, pulling at me, trying to get me off her son. I heard Tom Christie’s voice, raised in command, trying to calm her; he must have pulled her away, for suddenly her grip on my leg was gone.

I blew into Aidan once more—and this time, the chest under my hand twitched. He coughed, choked, coughed again, and started simultaneously to breathe and to cry. I stood up, head spinning, and had to hold on to the table to avoid falling.

I saw a pair of figures before me, black, distorted, with gaping mouths that opened toward me, filled with sharp fangs. I blinked, staggering, and took deep gulps of air. Blinked again, and the figures resolved themselves into Tom Christie and Amy McCallum. He was holding her round the waist, keeping her back.

“It’s all right,” I said, my own voice sounding strange and far off. “He’s all right. Let her come to him.”

She flung herself at Aidan with a sob, pulling him into her arms. Tom Christie and I stood staring at each other over the wreckage. Outside, everything had gone quiet.

“Did ye just raise that child from the dead?” he asked. His voice was almost conversational, though his feathery brows arched high.

I wiped a hand across my mouth, still tasting the sickly sweetness of the ether.

“I suppose so,” I said.

“Oh.”

He stared at me, blank-faced. The room reeked of alcohol, and it seemed to sear my nasal lining. My eyes were watering a little; I wiped them on my apron. Finally, he nodded, as though to himself, and turned to go.

I had to see to Aidan and his mother. But I couldn’t let him go without trying to mend things for Malva, so far as I could.

“Tom—Mr. Christie.” I hurried after him, and caught him by the sleeve. He turned, surprised and frowning.

“Malva. It’s my fault; I sent Roger to bring her. You won’t—” I hesitated, but couldn’t think of any tactful way to put it. “You won’t punish her, will you?”

The frown deepened momentarily, then lifted. He shook his head, very slightly, and with a small bow, detached his sleeve from my hand.

“Your servant, Mrs. Fraser,” he said quietly, and with a last glance at Aidan—presently demanding food—he left.

BRIANNA DABBED THE wet corner of a handkerchief at Roger’s lower lip, split on one side, swollen and bleeding from the impact of some part of Allan Christie.

“It’s my fault,” he said, for the third time. “I should have thought of something sensible to tell them.”

“Shut up,” she said, beginning to lose her precarious grip on her patience. “If you keep talking, it won’t stop bleeding.” It was the first thing she’d said to him since the fight.

With a mumbled apology, he took the handkerchief from her and pressed it to his mouth. Unable to keep still, though, he got up and went to the open door of the cabin, looking out.

“He’s not still hanging around, is he? Allan?” She came to look over his shoulder. “If he is, leave him alone. I’ll go—”

“No, he’s not,” Roger interrupted her. Hand still pressed to his mouth, he nodded toward the Big House, at the far end of the sloped clearing. “It’s Tom.”

Sure enough, Tom Christie was standing on the stoop. Just standing, apparently deep in thought. As they watched, he shook his head like a dog shedding water, and set off with decision in the direction of his own place.

“I’ll go and talk to him.” Roger tossed the handkerchief at the table.

“Oh, no, you won’t.” She grabbed him by the arm as he turned toward the door. “You stay out of it, Roger!”

“I’m not going to fight him,” he said, patting her hand in what he plainly thought a reassuring manner. “But I’ve got to talk to him.”

“No, you don’t.” She tightened her grip on his arm, and pulled, trying to bring him back to the hearth. “You’ll just make it worse. Leave them alone.”

“No, I won’t,” he said, irritation beginning to show on his face. “What do ye mean, I’ll make it worse? What d’ye think I am?”

That wasn’t a question she wanted to answer right this minute. Vibrating with emotion from the tension of Aidan’s surgery, the explosion of the fight, and the niggling bur of Allan’s shouted insult, she barely trusted herself to speak, let alone be tactful.

“Don’t go,” she repeated, forcing herself to lower her voice, speak calmly. “Everyone’s upset. At least wait until they’ve settled down. Better yet, wait ’til Da comes back. He can—”

“Aye, he can do everything better than I can, I know that fine,” Roger replied caustically. “But it’s me that promised Malva she’d come to no harm. I’m going.” He yanked at his sleeve, hard enough that she felt the underarm seam give way.

“Fine!” She let go, and slapped him hard on the arm. “Go! Take care of everybody in the world but your own family. Go! Bloody go!”

“What?” He stopped, scowling, caught between anger and puzzlement.

“You heard me! Go!” She stamped her foot, and the jar of dauco seeds, left too near the edge of the shelf, fell off and smashed on the floor, scattering tiny black seeds like pepper grains. “Now look what you’ve done!”

“What I’ve—”

“Never mind! Just never mind. Get out of here.” She was puffing like a grampus with the effort not to cry. Her cheeks were hot with blood and her eyeballs felt red, bloodshot, so hot that she felt she might sear him with a look—certainly she wished she could.

He hovered, clearly trying to decide whether to stay and conciliate his disgruntled wife, or rush off in chivalrous protection of Malva Christie. He took a hesitant step toward the door, and she dived for the broom, making stupid, high-pitched squeaks of incoherent rage as she swung it at his head.

He ducked, but she got him on the second swing, catching him across the ribs with a thwack. He jerked in surprise at the impact, but recovered fast enough to catch the broom on the next swing. He yanked it out of her hand, and with a grunt of effort, broke it over his knee with a splintering crack.

He threw the pieces clattering at her feet and glared at her, angry but self-possessed.

“What in the name of God is the matter with you?”

She drew up tall and glared back.

“What I said. If you’re spending so much time with Amy McCallum that it’s common talk you’re having an affair with her—”

“I’m what?” His voice broke with outrage, but there was a shifty look in his eyes that gave him away.

“So you’ve heard it, too—haven’t you?” She didn’t feel triumphant at having caught him out; more a sense of sick fury.

“You can’t possibly think that’s true, Bree,” he said, his voice pitched uncertainly between angry repudiation and pleading.

“I know it isn’t true,” she said, and was furious to hear her own voice as shaky and cracked as his was. “That’s not the effing point, Roger!”

“The point,” he repeated. His black brows were drawn down, his eyes sharp and dark beneath them.

“The point,” she said, gulping air, “is that you’re always gone. Malva Christie, Amy McCallum, Marsali, Lizzie—you even go help Ute McGillivray, for God’s sake!”

“Who else is to do it?” he asked sharply. “Your father or your cousin might, aye—but they’ve to be gone to the Indians. I’m here. And I’m not always gone,” he added, as an afterthought. “I’m home every night, am I not?”

She closed her eyes and clenched her fists, feeling the nails dig into her palms.

“You’ll help any woman but me,” she said, opening her eyes. “Why is that?”

He gave her a long, hard look, and she wondered for an instant whether there was such a thing as a black emerald.

“Maybe I didn’t think ye needed me,” he said. And turning on his heel, he left.

51

THE CALLING

THE WATER LAY CALM as melted silver, the only movement on it the shadows of the evening clouds. But the hatch was about to rise; you could feel it. Or perhaps, Roger thought, what he felt was the expectation in his father-in-law, crouched like a leopard on the bank of the trout pool, pole and fly at the ready for the first sign of a ripple.

“Like the pool at Bethesda,” he said, amused.

“Oh, aye?” Jamie answered, but didn’t look at him, his attention fixed on the water.

“The one where an angel would go down into the pool and trouble the water now and then. So everyone sat about waiting, so as to plunge in the minute the water began to stir.”

Jamie smiled, but still didn’t turn. Fishing was serious business.

That was good; he’d rather not have Jamie look at him. But he’d have to hurry if he meant to say something; Fraser was already paying out the line to make a practice cast or two.

“I think—” He stopped himself, correcting. “No, I don’t think. I know. I want—” His air ran out in a wheeze, annoying him; the last thing he wanted was to sound in any way doubtful about what he was saying. He took a huge breath, and the next words shot out as though fired from a pistol. “I mean to be a minister.”

Well, then. He’d said it out loud. He glanced upward, involuntarily, but sure enough, the sky hadn’t fallen. It was hazed and riffled with mare’s tails, but the blue calm of it showed through and the ghost of an early moon floated just above the mountain’s shoulder.

Jamie glanced thoughtfully at him, but didn’t seem shocked or taken aback. That was some small comfort, he supposed.

“A minister. A preacher, d’ye mean?”

“Well . . . aye. That, too.”

The admission disconcerted him. He supposed he would have to preach, though the mere notion of it was terrifying.

“That, too?” Fraser repeated, looking at him sideways.

“Aye. I mean—a minister does preach, of course.” Of course. What about? How? “But that’s not—I mean, that’s not the main thing. Not why I—I have to do it.” He was getting flustered, trying to explain clearly something that he could not even explain properly to himself.

He sighed, and rubbed a hand over his face.

“Aye, look. Ye recall Grannie Wilson’s funeral, of course. And the McCallums?”

Jamie merely nodded, but Roger thought perhaps a flicker of understanding showed in his eyes.

“I’ve done . . . a few things. A bit like that, when it was needed. And—” He twitched a hand, unsure even how to begin describing things like his meeting with Hermon Husband on the banks of the Alamance, or the conversations had with his dead father, late at night.

He sighed again, made to toss a pebble into the water, and stopped himself, just in time, when he saw Jamie’s hand tense round his fishing pole. He coughed, feeling the familiar choke and rasp in his throat, and closed his hand around the pebble.

“The preaching, aye, I suppose I’ll manage. But it’s the other things—oh, God, this sounds insane, and I do believe I may be. But it’s the burying and the christening and the—the—maybe just being able to help, even if it’s only by listening and praying.”

“Ye want to take care of them,” Jamie said softly, and it wasn’t a question, but rather an acceptance.

Roger laughed a little, unhappily, and closed his eyes against the sparkle of the sun off the water.

“I don’t want to do it,” he said. “It’s the last thing I thought of, and me growing up in a minister’s house. I mean, I ken what it’s like. But someone has to do it, and I am thinking it’s me.”

Neither of them spoke for a bit. Roger opened his eyes and watched the water. Algae coated the rocks, wavering in the current like locks of mermaid’s hair. Fraser stirred a little, drawing back his rod.

“Do Presbyterians believe in the sacraments, would ye say?”

“Yes,” Roger said, surprised. “Of course we do. Have ye never—” Well, no. He supposed in fact Fraser never had spoken to anyone not a Catholic, regarding such matters. “We do,” he repeated. He dipped a hand gently in the water, and wiped it across his brow, so the coolness ran down his face and down his neck inside his shirt.

“It’s Holy Orders I mean, ken?” The drowned fly swam through the water, a tiny speck of red. “Will ye not need to be ordained?”

“Oh, I see. Aye, I would. There’s a Presbyterian academy in Mecklenburg County. I’ll go there and speak with them about it. Though I’m thinking it willna take such a time; I’ve the Greek and Latin already, and for what it’s worth”—he smiled, despite himself—“I’ve a degree from Oxford University. Believe it or not, I was once thought an educated man.”

Jamie’s mouth twitched at the corner as he drew back his arm and snapped his wrist. The line sailed out, a lazy curve, and the fly settled. Roger blinked; sure enough—the surface of the pool was beginning to pucker and shiver, tiny ripples spreading out from the rising hatch of mayflies and damselflies.

“Have ye spoken to your wife about it?”

“No,” he said, staring across the pool.

“Why not?” There was no tone of accusation in the question; more curiosity. Why, after all, should he have chosen to talk to his father-in-law first, rather than his wife?

Because you know what it is to be a man, he thought, and she doesn’t. What he said, though, was another version of the truth.

“I don’t want her to think me a coward.”

Jamie made a small “hmph” noise, almost surprise, but didn’t reply at once, concentrating on reeling in his line. He took the sodden fly from the hook, then hesitated over the collection on his hat, finally choosing a delicate green thing with a curving wisp of black feather.

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