A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 55


“She’s had a wean last week, what she wants ye to baptize.”

“Oh?” His heart rose a little at that, and the bubble of happiness he carried inside him seemed to expand a little. His first christening! Or rather—his first official baptism, he thought, with a small pang at the memory of the small O’Brian girl he had buried without a name. He wouldn’t be able to do it until after his ordination, but it was something to look forward to.

“Tell her I’ll be glad to christen the wean,” he said, lowering Aidan to the ground. “Have her send to tell me when. And dinna forget your wee fish!” he called.

Aidan grabbed up his pole and the string of silvery fish—none of them longer than the length of a hand—and plunged off into the wood, leaving Roger to turn Clarence’s head toward home.

He smelled smoke from a good way down the trail. Stronger than chimney smoke. With all the talk he had heard on his way, regarding the recent events in Cross Creek, he couldn’t help a small feeling of uneasiness, and urged Clarence on with a nudge of the heels. Clarence, scenting home even through the smoke, took the hint with alacrity, and trotted briskly up the steep incline.

The smell of smoke grew stronger, mixed with an odd musty sort of scent that seemed vaguely familiar. A visible haze grew among the trees, and when they burst out of the undergrowth into the clearing, he was nearly standing in his stirrups with agitation.

The cabin stood, weathered and solid, and relief dropped him back in the saddle with a force that made Clarence grunt in protest. Smoke rose around the house in thick swirls, though, and the figure of Brianna, swathed like a Muslim with a scarf around her head and face, was dimly visible in the midst of it. He dismounted, took a breath to call out to her, and immediately suffered a coughing fit. The damned groundhog kiln was open, belching smoke like hell’s chimney, and now he recognized the musty scent—scorched earth.

“Roger! Roger!” She’d seen him, and came running, skirts and scarf ends flying, leaping a stack of cut turves like a mountain goat to hurl herself into his arms.

He grabbed her and held on, thinking that nothing in life had ever felt better lid weight of her against him and the taste of her mouth, in spite of the fact that she’d plainly eaten onions for lunch.

She emerged beaming and wet-eyed from the embrace, long enough to say, “I love you!” then grabbed his face and kissed him again. “I missed you. When did you shave last? I love you.”

“Four days ago, when I left Charlotte. I love you, too. Is everything all right?”

“Sure. Well, actually no. Jemmy fell out of a tree and knocked out a tooth, but it was a baby tooth and Mama says she doesn’t think it will hurt the permanent one coming in. And Ian got exposed to syphilis, maybe, and we’re all disgusted with him, and Da was nearly tarred and feathered in Cross Creek, and we met Flora MacDonald, and Mama stuck a needle in Aunt Jocasta’s eye, and—”

“Eugh!” Roger said in instinctive revulsion. “Why?”

“So it wouldn’t burst. And I got paid six pounds in painting commissions!” she concluded triumphantly. “I bought some fine wire and silk to make paper screens with, and enough wool for a winter cloak for you. It’s green. The biggest thing, though, is we met another—well, I’ll tell you about that later; it’s complicated. How did it go with the Presbyterians? Is it all right? Are you a minister?”

He shook his head, trying to decide which part of this cataract to respond to, and ended up choosing the last bit, only because he could remember it.

“Sort of. Have you been taking lessons in incoherence from Mrs. Bug?”

“How can you be sort of a minister? Wait—tell me in a minute, I have to open it up some more.”

With that, she was flitting back across the broken ground toward the gaping hole of the kiln. The tall clay-brick chimney stack rose at one end, looking like a headstone. The scorched turves that had covered it in operation were scattered round it, and the general impression was that of an enormous, smoking grave from which something large, hot, and doubtless demonic had just arisen. Had he been Catholic, he would have crossed himself.

As it was, he advanced carefully toward the edge, where Brianna was kneeling, reaching across with her shovel to remove another layer of turves from the willow-work frame that arched across the top of the pit.

Looking down through a roiling haze of smoke, he could see irregularly shaped objects, lying on the earthen shelves that lined the pit. A few he could make out as being bowls or platters. Most of them, though, were vaguely tubular objects, two or three feet long, tapered and rounded at one end, the other slightly flared. They were a dark pinkish color, streaked and darkened with smoke, and looked like nothing so much as a collection of giant barbecued phalluses, a notion that he found nearly as disturbing as the story of Jocasta’s eyeball.

“Pipes,” Brianna said proudly, pointing her shovel at one of these objects. “For water. Look—they’re perfect! Or they will be, if they don’t crack while they’re cooling.”

“Terrific,” Roger said, with a decent show of enthusiasm. “Hey—I brought ye a present.” Reaching into the side pocket of his coat, he brought out an orange, which she seized with a cry of delight, though she paused for an instant before digging her thumb into the peel.

“No, you eat it; I’ve got another for Jem,” he assured her.

“I love you,” she said again, fervently, juice running down her chin. “What about the Presbyterians? What did they say?”

“Oh. Well, basically, it’s all right. I have got the university degree, and enough Greek and Latin to impress them. The Hebrew was a bit lacking, but if I mug that up in the meantime—Reverend Caldwell gave me a book.” He patted the side of his coat.

“Yes, I can just see you preaching in Hebrew to the Crombies and Buchanans,” she said grinning. “So? What else?”

There was a fleck of orange pulp stuck to her lip, and he bent on impulse and kissed it off, the tiny burst of sweetness rich and tart on his tongue.

“Well, they examined me as to doctrine and understanding, and we talked a great deal; prayed together for discernment.” He felt somewhat shy talking to her about it. It had been a remarkable experience, like returning to a home he’d never known he’d missed. To confess his calling had been joyful; to do it among people who understood and shared it . . .

“So I’m provisionally a minister of the Word,” he said, looking down at the toes of his boots. “I’ll need to be ordained before I can administer sacraments like marriage and baptism, but that will have to wait until there’a Presbytery Session held somewhere. In the meantime, I can preach, teach, and bury.”

She was looking at him, smiling, but a little wistfully.

“You’re happy?” she said, and he nodded, unable to speak for a moment.

“Very happy,” he said at last, his voice hardly audible.

“Good,” she said softly, and smiled a little more genuinely. “I understand. So now you’re sort of handfast with God, is that it?”

He laughed, and felt his throat ease. God, he’d have to do something about that; he couldn’t be preaching drunk every Sunday. Talk of giving scandal to the faithful . . .

“Aye, that’s it. But I’m properly married to you—I’ll not forget it.”

“See that you don’t.” Her smile now was wholehearted. “Since we are married . . .” She gave him a very direct look, one that went through him like a mild electric shock. “Jem’s at Marsali’s, playing with Germain. And I’ve never made love to a minister before. It seems kind of wicked and depraved, don’t you think?”

He took a deep breath, but it didn’t help; he still felt giddy and light-headed, doubtless from the smoke.

“Behold, thou art fair, my beloved, yea, pleasant,” he said, “and our bed is green. The joints of thy thighs are like jewels, the work of the hands of a cunning workman. Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor: thy belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies.” He reached out and touched her, gently.

“Thy two br**sts are like two young roes that are twins.”

“They are?”

“It’s in the Bible,” he assured her gravely. “It must be so, aye?”

“Tell me more about my navel,” she said, but before he could, he saw a small form bounding out of the woods and haring toward them. Aidan, now fishless and panting.

“Mrs. Ogil . . . vie says . . . come now!” he blurted. He gasped a little, recovering enough breath for the rest of the message. “The wean—she’s poorly, and they want her christened, in case she should die.”

Roger clapped a hand to his other side; The Book of Common Worship that they’d given him in Charlotte was a small, reassuring weight in his pocket.

“Can you?” Brianna was looking at him worriedly. “Catholics can—I mean, a lay person can baptize somebody if it’s an emergency.”

“Yes, in that case—yes,” he said, more breathless than he’d been a moment before. He glanced at Brianna, smudged with soot and dirt, her garments reeking of smoke and baked clay rather than myrrh and aloes.

“D’ye want to come?” He urgently wanted her to say yes.

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” she assured him, and discarding the filthy scarf, shook out her hair, bright as banners on the wind.

IT WAS THE OGILVIES’ first child, a tiny girl whom Brianna—with the experience of long motherhood—diagnosed as suffering from a vicious colic, but basically in good health. The frighteningly young parents—they both looked about fifteen—were pathetically grateful for everything: Brianna’s reassurances and advice, her offer to have Claire visit (for they were much too scared to think of approaching the laird’s wife themselves, leave alone the stories they had heard of her) with medicine and food, and most of all, for Roger’s coming to baptize the baby.

That a real minister—for they could not be convinced otherwise—should appear in this wilderness, and condescend to come confer the blessing of God upon their child—they were overwhelmed by their good fortune.

Roger and Brianna stayed for some time, and left as the sun was going down, glowing with the faintly self-conscious pleasure of doing good.

“Poor things,” Brianna said, voice trembling between sympathy and amusement.

“Poor wee things,” Roger agreed, sharing her sentiments. The christening had gone beautifully; even the screaming, purple-faced infant had suspended operations long enough for him to pour the water on her bald head and claim heaven’s protection for her soul. He felt the greatest joy in it, and immense humility at having been allowed to perform the ceremony. There was only the one thing—and his feelings were still confused between embarrassed pride and deep dismay.

“Her name—” Brianna said, and stopped, shaking her head.

“I tried to stop them,” he said, trying to control his voice. “I did try—you’re my witness. Elizabeth, I said. Mairi. Elspeth, perhaps. You heard me!”

“Oh, now,” she said, and her voice trembled. “I think Rogerina is a perfectly beautiful name.” Then she lost control, sat down in the grass, and laughed like a hyena.

“Oh, God, the poor wee lassie,” he said, trying—and failing—not to laugh himself. “I’ve heard of Thomasina, and even Jamesina, but . . . oh, God.”

“Maybe they’ll call her Ina for short,” Brianna suggested, snuffling and wiping her face on her apron. “Or they can spell it backward—Aniregor—and call her Annie.”

“Oh, you’re a great comfort,” Roger said dryly, and reached down to haul her to her feet.

She leaned against him and put her arms round him, still vibrating with laughter. She smelled of oranges and burning, and the light of the setting sun rippled in her hair.

Finally, she stopped, and lifted her head from his shoulder.

“I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine,” she said, and kissed him. “You did good, Reverend. Let’s go home.”


The Call



ROGER TOOK THE DEEPEST breath he could, and shouted as loudly as he could. Which was not very damn loud. Again. And again.

It hurt. It was aggravating, too; the feeble, choked sound of it made him want to shut up and never open his mouth again. He breathed, shut his eyes, and screamed with all his might, or tried to.

A searing flash of pain shot down inside his throat on the right, and he broke off, gasping. All right. He breathed gingerly for a moment, swallowing, then did it again.

Jesus, that hurt.

He rubbed a sleeve across his watering eyes and braced himself for another go. As he inflated his chest, fists curling, he heard voices, and let the breath out.

The voices were calling to each other, not far from him, but the wind was away and he couldn’t make out the words. Likely hunters, though. It was a fine fall day, with air like blue wine and the forest restless with dappled light.

The leaves had just begun to turn, but some were already falling, a silent, constant flicker at the edge of vision. Any movement could look like game in such surroundings, he knew that well. He drew breath to call out, hesitated, and said, “Shit,” under his breath. Great. He’d rather be shot in mistake for a deer than embarrass himself by calling out.

“Ass,” he said to himself, drew breath, and shouted, “Halloooo!” at the top of his voice—reedy and without volume as it was. Again. Again. And yet again. By the fifth time, he was beginning to think he’d rather be shot than go on trying to make them hear him, but at last a faint “Halloooo!” drifted back to him on the crisp, light air.

He stopped, relieved, and coughed, surprised not to be bringing up blood; his throat felt like raw meat. But he essayed a quick hum, then, cautiously, a rising arpeggio. An octave. Just barely, and it was a strain that sent shooting pains through his larynx—but a full octave. The first time he’d managed that much of a range in pitch since the injury.

Encouraged by this small evidence of progress, he greeted the hunters cheerfully when they came in view: Allan Christie and Ian Murray, both with long rifles in hand.

“Preacher MacKenzie!” Allan greeted him, grinning, like an incongruously friendly owl. “What are you doing out here all on your owney-o? Rehearsing your first sermon?”

“As a matter of fact, yes,” Roger said pleasantly. It was true, in a way—and there was no other good explanation for what he was doing out in the woods by himself, lacking weapons, snare, or fishing pole.

“Well, best make it good,” Allan said, wagging his head. “Everyone will be coming. Da’s had Malva hard at it from dawn to dusk, sweeping and cleaning.”

“Ah? Well, do tell her I appreciate it, will ye?” After a good deal of thought, he’d asked Thomas Christie whether the Sunday services might be held in the schoolmaster’s home. It was no more than a rude cabin, like most on the Ridge, but since lessons were held there, the main room was somewhat more commodious than the average. And while Jamie Fraser would certainly have allowed the use of the Big House, Roger felt that his congregation—what a daunting word—might well be uneasy at holding their services in the house of a Papist, accommodating and tolerant though said Papist might be.

“Ye’re coming, are ye not?” Allan was asking Ian. Ian looked surprised at the invitation, and rubbed an uncertain knuckle beneath his nose.

“Och, well, but I was baptized Romish, eh?”

“Well, ye’re a Christian, at least?” Allan said with some impatience. “Or no? Some folk do say as how ye turned pagan, with the Indians, and didna turn back.”

“Do they?” Ian spoke mildly, but Roger saw his face tighten a little at that. He noticed with interest that Ian didn’t answer the question, though, instead asking him, “Will your wife come to hear ye, cousin?”

“She will,” he said, mentally crossing his fingers against the day, “and wee Jem, too.”

“How’s this?” Bree had asked him, fixing him with a look of rapt intensity, chin slightly lifted, lips just a fraction of an inch apart. “Jackie Kennedy. That about right, do you think, or shall I aim for Queen Elizabeth reviewing the troops?” Her lips compressed, the chin drew in a bit, and her mobile face altered from rapt attention to dignified approbation.

“Oh, Mrs. Kennedy, by all means,” he’d assured her. He’d be pleased if she kept a straight face, let alone anyone else’s.

“Aye, well, I’ll come along then—if ye dinna think anyone would take it amiss,” Ian added formally to Allan, who dismissed the notion with a hospitable flap of the hand.

“Oh, everyone will be there,” he repeated. The notion made Roger’s stomach contract slightly.

“Out after deer, are ye?” he asked with a nod toward the rifles, in hopes of turning the conversation toward something other than his own impending debut as a preacher.

“Aye,” Allan answered, “but then we heard a painter screech, off this way.” He nodded, indicating the wood just around them. “Ian said if there’s a painter about, the deer will be long gone.”

Roger shot a narrow glance at Ian, whose unnaturally blank expression told him more than he wanted to know. Allan Christie, born and raised in Edinburgh, might not know a panther’s scream from a man’s, but Ian most assuredly did.

“Too bad if it’s frightened away the game,” he said, lifting one brow at Ian. “Come on, then; I’ll walk back with ye.”

HE’D CHOSEN “Love thy neighbor as thyself” as the text for his first sermon. “An oldie but a goodie,” as he’d told Brianna, causing her to fizz slightly. And having heard at least a hundred variations on that theme, he was reasonably sure of having sufficient material to go on for the requisite thirty or forty minutes.

A standard church service was a great deal longer—several readings of psalms, discussion of the lesson of the day, intercessions for members of the congregation—but his voice wouldn’t take that yet. He was going to have to work up to the full-bore service, which could easily run three hours. He’d arrange with Tom Christie, who was an elder, to do the readings and the earliest parayers, to start with. Then they’d see how things went.

Brianna was sitting modestly off to one side now, watching him—not like Jackie Kennedy, thank God, but with a hidden smile that warmed her eyes whenever he met her gaze.

He’d brought notes, in case he should dry up or inspiration fail, but found that he didn’t need them. He’d had a moment’s breathlessness, when Tom Christie, who had read the lesson, snapped shut his Bible and looked significantly at him—but once launched, he felt quite at home; it was a lot like lecturing at university, though God knew the congregation was more attentive by far than his university students usually were. They didn’t interrupt with questions or argue with him, either—at least not while he was talking.

He was intensely conscious for the first few moments of his surroundings: the faint fug of bodies and last night’s fried onions in the air, the scuffed boards of the floor, scrubbed and smelling of lye soap, and the close press of people, ranged on benches, but so many that they crammed into every bit of standing space, as well. Within a few minutes, though, he lost all sense of anything beyond the faces in front of him.

Allan Christie hadn’t exaggerated; everyone had come. It was nearly as crowded as it had been during his last public appearance, presiding at old Mrs. Wilson’s untimely resurrection.

He wondered how much that occasion had to do with his present popularity. A few people were watching him covertly, with a faint air of expectation, as though he might turn water into wine for an encore, but for the most part, they appeared satisfied with the preaching. His voice was hoarse, but loud enough, thank God.

He believed in what he was saying; after the start he found himself talking more easily, and without the need of concentrating on his speech was able to glance from one person to another, making it seem he spoke to each one personally—meanwhile making fleeting observations in the back of his mind.

Marsali and Fergus hadn’t come—no surprise there—but Germain was present; he sat with Jem and Aidan McCallum next to Brianna. All three boys had poked each other excitedly and pointed at him when he began to speak, but Brianna had quelled this behavior with some muttered threat of sufficient force to reduce them to simple squirming. Aidan’s mother sat on his other side, looking at Roger with a sort of open adoration that made him uneasy.

The Christies had the place of honor in the center of the first bench: Malva Christie, demure in a lacy cap, her brother sitting protectively on one side, her father on the other, apparently unaware of the occasional looks shot her way by some of the young men.

Rather to Roger’s surprise, Jamie and Claire had come, as well, though they stood at the very back. His father-in-law was calmly impassive, but Claire’s face was an open book; she clearly found the proceedings amusing.

“. . . and if we are truly considering the love of Christ as it is . . .” It was instinct, honed by innumerable lectures, that made him aware that something was amiss. There was some slight disturbance in the far corner, where several half-grown lads had congregated. A couple of the numerous McAfee boys, and Jacky Lachlan, widely known as a limb of Satan.

No more than a nudge, the glint of an eye, some sense of subterranean excitement. But he sensed it, and kept glancing back at that corner with a narrowed eye, in hopes of keeping them subdued. And so happened to be looking when the serpent slithered out between Mrs. Crombie’s shoes. It was a largish king snake, brightly striped with red, yellow, and black, and it seemed fairly calm, all things considered.

“Now, ye may say, ‘Who’s my neighbor, then?’ And a good question, coming to live in a place where half the folk ye meet are strangers—and plenty of them more than a bit strange, too.”

A titter of appreciation ran through the congregation at that. The snake was casting about in a leisurely sort of way, head raised and tongue flickering with interest as it tested the air. It must be a tame snake; it wasn’t bothered by the crush of people.

The reverse was not true; snakes were rare in Scotland, and most of the immigrants were nervous of them. Beyond the natural association with the devil, most folk couldn’t or wouldn’t distinguish a poison snake from any other, since the only Scottish snake, the adder, was venomous. They’d have fits, Roger thought grimly, were they to look down and see what was gliding silently along the floorboards by their feet.

A strangled giggle, cut short, rose from the corner of guilty parties, and several heads in the congregation turned, uttering a censorious “Shoosh!” in unison.

“. . . when I was hungry, ye gave me to eat; when I was thirsty, ye gave me to drink. And who d’ye ken here who would ever turn away even . . . even a Sassenach, say, who came to your door hungry?”

A ripple of amusement, and slightly scandalized glances at Claire, who was rather pink, but with suppressed laughter, he thought, not offense.

A quick glance down; the snake, having paused for a rest, was on the move again, snooving its way gently round the end of a bench. A sudden movement caught Roger’s eye; Jamie had seen the snake, and jerked. Now he was standing rigid, eyeing it as though it were a bomb.

Roger had been sending up brief prayers, in the interstices of his sermon, suggesting that heavenly benevolence might see fit to shoo the snake quietly out the open door at the back. He intensified these prayers, at the same time unobtrusively unbuttoning his coat to allow for freer action.

If the damned thing came toward the front of the room instead of the back, he’d have to dive forward and try to catch it before it got out in full sight of everyone. That would cause a disturbance, but nothing to what might happen if . . .

“. . . now ye’ll have noticed what Jesus said, when He spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well . . .”

The snake was still wrapped halfway round the bench leg, making up its mind. It was no more than three feet from his father-in-law. Jamie was watching it like a hawk, and a visible gloss of sweat had appeared on his brow. Roger was aware that his father-in-law had a fixed dislike of snakes—and no wonder, given that a big rattler had nearly killed him three years before.

Too far now for Roger to reach the thing; there were three benches of bodies between him and the snake. Bree, who could have dealt with it, was right away on the far side of the room. No help for it, he decided, with an inward sigh of resignation. He’d have to stop the proceedings, and in a very calm voice, call upon someone dependable—who? He cast hastily round, and spotted Ian Murray, who was within reach, thank God, to grasp the thing and take it out.

He was opening his mouth to do just this, in fact, when the snake, bored with the scenery in its view, slid rapidly round the bench and headed straight along the back row.

Roger’s eye was on the snake, so he was as surprised as anyone—including the snake, no doubt—when Jamie suddenly stooped and snatched it from the floor, whipping the startled serpent under his plaid.

Jamie was a large man, and the stir of his movement made several people look over their shoulders to see what had happened. He shifted, coughed, and endeavored to look passionately interested in Roger’s sermon. Seeing that there was nothing to look at, everyone turned back, settling themselves more comfortably.

“. . . Now, we come across the Samaritans again, do we not, in the story of the Good Samaritan? Ye’ll most of ye ken that one, but for the weans who may not have heard it yet—” Roger smiled at Jem, Germain, and Aidan, who all wriggled like worms and made small, ecstatic squeaks at the thrill of being singled out.

From the corner of his eye, he could see Jamie, standing frozen and pale as his best linen sark. Something was moving about inside said sark, and the barest hint of bright scales showed in his clenched hand—the snake was evidently trying to escape up his arm, being restrained from popping through the neck of the shirt only by Jamie’s desperate grip on its tail.

Jamie was sweating badly; so was Roger. He saw Brianna frown a little at him.

“. . . and so the Samaritan told the innkeeper to mind the poor fellow, bind up his wounds, and feed him, and he’d stop to settle the account on his way back from his business. So . . .”

Roger saw Claire lean close to Jamie, whispering something. His father-in-law shook his head. At a guess, Claire had noticed the snake—she could scarcely fail to—and was urging Jamie to go outside with it, but Jamie was nobly refusing, not wanting to further disrupt the sermon, as he couldn’t go out without pushing past a number of other standees.

Roger paused to wipe his face with the large handkerchief Brianna had provided for the purpose, and under cover of this, saw Claire reach into the slit of her skirt and draw out a large calico pocket.

She appeared to be arguing with Jamie in a whisper; he was shaking his head, looking like the Spartan with the fox at his vitals.

Then the snake’s head appeared suddenly under Jamie’s chin, tongue flicking, and Jamie’s eyes went wide. Claire stood instantly on tiptoe, seized it by the neck, and whipping the astonished reptile out of her husband’s shirt like a length of rope, crammed the writhing ball headfirst into her pocket and jerked shut the drawstring.

“Praise the Lord!” Roger blurted, to which the congregation obligingly chorused “Amen!” though looking a little puzzled at the interjection.

The man next to Claire, who had witnessed this rapid sequence of events, stared at her bug-eyed. She stuffed the pocket—now heaving with marked agitation—back into her skirt, dropped her shawl over it, and giving the gentleman beside her a “What are you looking at, mate?” sort of stare, faced front and adopted a look of pious concentration.