A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 59


“Really? I wonder what she used it for.” I did wonder, and with a certain sense of unease. An alchemist or an apothecary might have the stuff; the only reason that I knew of for a common citizen to keep it was as a means of aggression—to throw at someone.

But Malva only shook her head, and turning, went back to the onions and garlic. I’d caught the look on her face, though; a queer expression of hostility and longing that rang a small, unsuspected bell somewhere inside me.

Longing for a mother long dead—and the fury of a small girl, abandoned. Bewildered and alone.

“What?” Brianna was watching my face, frowning slightly. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” I said, and put a hand on her arm, just to feel the strength and joy of her presence, the years of her growth. Tears stung my eyes, but that could be put down to onions. “Nothing at all.”

I WAS GETTING TERRIBLY tired of funerals. This was the third, in as many days. We had buried Hortense and the baby together, then the older Mrs. Ogilvie. Now it was another child, one of Mrs. MacAfee’s twins. The other twin, a boy, stood by his sister’s grave, in a shock so profound that he looked like a walking ghost himself, though the disease hadn’t touched him.

We were later than intended—the coffin hadn’t been quite ready—and the night was rising around us. All the gold of the autumn leaves had faded into ash, and white mist was curling through the dark wet trunks of the pines. One could hardly imagine a more desolate scene—and yet it was in a way more fitting than the bright sunshine and fresh breeze that had blown when we buried Hortense and little Angelica.

“The Lord is my shepherd. He leadeth me beside—” Roger’s voice cracked painfully, but no one seemed to notice. He struggled for a moment, swallowing hard, and went on, doggedly. He held the little green Bible in his hands, but wasn’t looking at it; he was speaking from memory, and his eyes went from Mr. MacDuff, standing alone, for his wife and his sister were both sick, to the little boy beside him—a little boy about Jemmy’s age.

“Though I walk . . . though I walk through the valley of death, I shall . . . shall fear no evil—” His voice was trembling audibly, and I saw that tears were running down his face. I looked for Bree; she was standing a little way behind the mourners, Jem half-swaddled in the folds of her dark cloak. The hood of it was drawn up, but her face was visible, pale in the gloaming, Our Lady of Sorrows.

Even Major MacDonald’s red coat was muted, charcoal-gray in the last vestiges of light. He had arrived in the afternoon, and helped to carry up the little coffin; he stood now, hat somberly tucked beneath his arm, wigged head bowed, his face invisible. He, too, had a child—a daughter, somewhere back in Scotland with her mother.

I swayed a little, and felt Jamie’s hand under my elbow. I had been without sleep for most of the last three days, and had taken precious little food. I didn’t feel either hungry or tired, though; I felt remote and unreal, as though the wind blew through me.

The father uttered a cry of inconsolable grief, and sank suddenly down upon the heap of dirt thrown up by the grave. I felt Jamie’s muscles contract in instinctive compassion toward him, and pulled away a little, murmuring, “Go.”

I saw him cross swiftly to Mr. MacAfee, bend to whisper to him, put an arm around him. Roger had stopped talking.

My thoughts would not obey me. Try as I might to fix them on the proceedings, they strayed away. My arms ached; I had been pounding herbs, lifting patients, carrying water . . . I felt as though I were doing all these things over and over, could feel the repetitive thud of pestle in mortar, the dragging weight of fainting bodies. I was seeing in vivid memory the slides of Entameba, greedy pseudopodia flowing in slow-motion appetite. Water, I heard water flowing; it lived in water, though only the cystic form was infective. It was passed on by means of water. I thought that very clearly.

Then I was lying on the ground, with no memory of falling, no memory of ever being upright, the smell of fresh, damp dirt and fresh, damp wood strong in my nose, and a vague thought of worms. There was a flutter of motion before my eyes; the small green Bible had fallen and lay on the dirt in front of my face, the wind turning over its pages, one by one by one in a ghostly game of sortes Virgilianae—where would it stop? I wondered dimly.

There were hands and voices, but I could not pay attention. A great amoeba floated majestically in darkness before me, pseudopodia flowing slowly, slowly, in welcoming embrace.



FEVER ROLLED ACROSS MY MIND like a thunderstorm, jagged forks of pain crackling through my body in bursts of brilliance, each a lightning bolt that glowed for a vivid moment along some nerve or plexus, lighting up the hidden hollows of my joints, burning down the length of muscle fibers. A merciless brilliance, it struck again, and again, the fiery sword of a destroying angel who gave no quarter.

I seldom knew whether my eyes were open or closed, nor whether I woke or slept. I saw nothing but a roiling gray, turbulent and shot with red. The redness pulsed in veins and patches, shrouded in the cloud. I seized upon one crimson vein and followed its path, clinging to the track of its sullen glow amid the buffeting of thunder. The thunder grew louder as I penetrated deeper and deeper into the murk that boiled around me, becoming hideously regular, like the beating of a kettledrum, so that my ears rang with it, and I felt myself a hollow skin, tight-stretched, vibrating with each crash of sound.

The source of it was now before me, throbbing so loudly that I felt I must shout, only to hear some other sound—but though I felt my lips draw back and my throat swell with effort, I heard nothing but the pounding. In desperation, I thrust my hands—if they were my hands—through the misty gray and seized some warm, moist object, very slippery, that throbbed, convulsing in my hands.

I looked down and knew it all at once to be my own heart.

I dropped it in horror, and it crawled away in a trail of reddish slime, shuddering with effort, the valves all opening and closing like the mouths of suffocating fish, each popping open with a hollow click, closing again with a small, meaty thud.

Faces sometimes appeared in the clouds. Some seemed familiar, though I could put no name to them. Others were the faces of strangers, the half-seen, unknown faces that flit sometimes through the mind on the verge of sleep. These looked at me with curiosity or indifference—then turned away.

The others, the ones I knew, bore looks of sympathy or worry; they would seek to fix my gaze with theirs, but my glance slid guiltily off, giddily away, unable to gain traction. Their lips moved, and I knew they spoke to me, but I heard nothing, their words drowned by the silent thunder of my storm.

I FELT QUITE ODD— but, for the first time in uncountable days, not ill. The fever clouds had rolled back; still grumbling softly somewhere near, but for the moment, gone from sight. My eyes were clear; I could see the raw wood in the beams overhead.

In fact, I saw the wood with such clarity that I was struck with awe at the beauty of it. The loops and whorls of the polished grain seemed at once static and alive with grace, the colors of it shimmering with smoke and the essence of the earth, so that I could see how the beam was transformed and yet held still the spirit of the tree.

I was so entranced by this that I reached out my hand to touch it—and did. My fingers brushed the wood with delight at the cool surface and the grooves of the axmarks, wing-shaped and regular as a flight of geese along the beam. I could hear the beating of powerful wings, and at the same time, feel the flex and swing of my shoulders, the vibration of joy through my forearms as the ax fell on the wood. As I explored this fascinating sensation, it occurred to me, dimly, that the beam was eight feet above the bed.

I turned—with no sense whatever of effort—and saw that I lay upon the bed below.

I lay on my back, the quilts rumpled and scattered, as though I had tried at some point to throw them off but lacked the strength to do so. The air in the room was strangely still, and the blocks of color in the fabric glowed through it like jewels at the bottom of the sea, rich but muted.

By contrast, my skin was the color of pearls, bloodless pale and shimmering. And then I saw that this was because I was so thin that the skin of face and limb pressed hard upon the bone, and it was the gleam of bone and cartilage below that gave that luster to my face, smooth hardness shining through transparent skin.

And such bones as they were! I was filled with wonder at the marvel of their shaping. My eyes followed the delicacy of the arching ribs, the heartbreaking beauty of the sculptured skull with a sense of awed astonishment.

My hair was tumbled, matted, and snarled . . . and yet I felt myself drawn to it, tracing its curves with eye and . . . finger? For I had no consciousness of moving, and yet I felt the softness of the strands, the cool silk of brown and the springing vibrancy of silver, heard the hairs chime softly past each other, a rustle of notes cascading like a harp’s.

My God, I said, and heard the words, though no sound stirred the air, you are so lovely!

My eyes were open. I looked deep and met a gaze of amber and soft gold. The eyes looked through me, to something far beyond—and yet they saw me, too. I saw the pupils dilate slightly, and felt the warmth of their darkness embrace me with knowledge and acceptance. Yes, said those knowing eyes. I know you. Let us go. I felt a sense of great peace, and the air around me stirred, like wind rushing through feathers.

Then some sound turned me toward the window and I saw the man who stood there. I had no name for him, and yet I loved him. He stood with his back turned to the bed, arms braced on the sill, and his head sunk on his chest, so the dawn light glowed red on his hair and traced his arms with gold. A spasm of grief shook him; I felt it, like the temblors of a distant quake.

Someone moved near him. A dark-haired woman, a girl. She came close, touched his back, murmuring something to him. I saw the way she looked at him, the tender inclination of her head, the intimacy of her body swaying toward him.

No, I thought, with great calm. That won’t do.

I looked once more at myself lying on the bed, and with a feeling that was at once firm decision and incalculable regret, I took another breath.




I STILL SLEPT FOR LONG PERIODS, waking only briefly to take nourishment. Now the fever dreams were gone, though, and sleep was a lake of deep black water, where I breathed oblivion and drifted past the waving waterweed, mindless as a fish.

I would float sometimes just below the surface, aware of people and things in the air-breathing world, but incapable of joining them. Voices spoke near me, muffled and meaningless. Now and then some phrase would penetrate the clear liquid around me and float into my head, where it would hang like a tiny jellyfish, round and transparent, yet pulsating with some mysterious inner meaning, its words a drifting net.

Each phrase hung for a time in my purview, folding and unfolding in its curious rhythms, and then drifted quietly up and away, leaving silence.

And in between the small jellyfish came open spaces of clear water, some filled with radiant light, some the darkness of utter peace. I drifted upward and downward, suspended between the surface and the depths, at the whim of unknown currents.

“Physician, look.” Fizz. A stirring there, some dormant spore of consciousness, disturbed by carbonation, splits and blooms. Then a stab as sharp as metal, Who is calling me? “Physician, look.”

I opened my eyes.

It was no great shock, for the room was filled with twilight, still light, like being underwater, and I had no sense of disruption.

“O Lord Jesus Christ, Thou great Physician: Look with Thy gracious favor upon this Thy servant; give wisdom and discretion to those who minister to her in her sickness; bless all the means used for her recovery . . .”

The words flowed past me in a whispering stream, cool on my skin. There was a man before me, dark head bent over a book. The light in the room embraced him and he seemed part of it.

“Stretch forth Thy hand,” he whispered to the pages, in a voice that cracked and broke, “and according to Thy will, restore her to health and strength, that she may live to praise Thee for Thy goodness and Thy grace; to the glory of Thy holy name. Amen.”

“Roger?” I said, groping for his name. My own voice was hoarse from disuse; speaking was an intolerable effort.

His eyes were closed in prayer; they sprang open, unbelieving, and I thought how vivid they were, the green of wet serpentine and summer leaves.

“Claire?” His voice cracked like a teenaged boy’s, and he dropped the book.

“I don’t know,” I said, feeling the dreamlike sense of submergence threatening to engulf me again. “Am I?”

I COULD LIFT A HAND for a moment or two, but was too weak even to lift my head, let alone sit up. Roger helpfully dragged me semi-upright against piled pillows, and put his hand at the back of my head to prevent wobbling, holding a cup of water to my dry lips. It was the odd feel of his hand on the bare skin of my neck that began a dim process of realization. Then I felt the warmth of his hand, vivid and immediate, at the back of my head, and jerked like a gaffed salmon, sending the cup flying.

“What? What?” I spluttered, clutching my head, too shocked to formulate a complete sentence, and oblivious to the cold water soaking through the sheets. “WHAT?!”

Roger looked nearly as shocked as I felt. He swallowed, searching for words. “I . . . I . . . I thought you knew,” he stammered, voice breaking. “Didn’t you . . . ? I mean . . . I thought . . . look, it’ll grow!”

I could feel my mouth working, vainly trying different shapes that might approximate words, but there was no connection between tongue and brain—there was room for nothing but the realization that the accustomed soft, heavy weight of my hair was gone, replaced by a fuzz of bristles.

“Malva and Mrs. Bug cut it off, day before yesterday,” Roger said, all in a rush. “They—we weren’t here, Bree nor I, we wouldn’t have let them, of course we wouldn’t—but they thought it’s what you do for someone with a terrible fever, it is what people do now. Bree was furious with them, but they thought—they truly thought they were helping save your life—oh, God, Claire, don’t look like that, please!”

His face had disappeared in a starburst of light, a curtain of shimmering water suddenly coming down to protect me from the gaze of the world.

I wasn’t conscious of crying, at all. Grief simply burst from me, like wine spraying from a wineskin stabbed with a knife. Purple-red as bone marrow, splattering and dripping everywhere.

“I’ll fetch Jamie!” he croaked.

“NO!” I seized him by the sleeve, with more strength than I would have imagined I possessed. “God, no! I don’t want him to see me like this!”

His momentary silence told me, but I kept stubborn hold of his sleeve, unable to think how else to prevent the unthinkable. I blinked, water sliding over my face like a stream over rock, and Roger wavered once more into visibility, blurred around the edges.

“He’s . . . er . . . he’s seen you,” Roger said gruffly. He looked down, not wanting to meet my eyes. “It. Already. I mean—” He waved a hand vaguely in the vicinity of his own black locks. “He saw it.”

“He did?” This was nearly as much a shock as the initial discovery. “What—what did he say?”

He took a deep breath and looked back up, like someone fearing to see a Gorgon. Or the anti-Gorgon, I thought bitterly.

“He didn’t say anything,” Roger said quite gently, and put a hand on my arm. “He—he just cried.”

I was still crying, too, but in a more orthodox fashion now. Less of the gasping note. The sense of bone-deep cold had passed, and my limbs felt warm now, though I still felt a disconcertingly chilly breeze on my scalp. My heart was slowing again, and a faint sense that I was standing outside my body came over me.

Shock? I thought, dimly surprised as the word formed itself in my mind, rubbery and melting. I supposed that one could suffer true physical shock as the result of emotional wounds—of course one could, I knew that. . . .

“Claire!” I became aware that Roger was calling my name with increasing urgency, and shaking my arm. With immense effort, I brought my eyes to focus on him. He was looking truly alarmed, and I wondered, vaguely, whether I had started to die again. But no—it was too late for that.


He sighed—with relief, I thought.

“You looked funny for a moment.” His voice was cracked and husky; he sounded as though it hurt him to talk. “I thought—d’ye want another drink of water?”

The suggestion seemed so incongruous that I nearly laughed. But I was terribly thirsty—and all at once, a cup of cold water seemed the most desirable thing in the world.

“Yes.” The tears continued to flow down my face, but now seemed almost soothing. I made no attempt to stop them—that seemed much too difficult—but blotted my face with a corner of the damp sheet.

It was beginning to dawn on me that I might not have made the wisest—or at least not the easiest—choice, when I decided not to die. Things outside the limits and concerns of my own body were starting to come back. Troubles, difficulties, dangers . . . sorrow. Dark, frightening things, like a swarm of bats. I didn’t want to look too closely at the images that lay in a disorderly pile at the bottom of my brain—things I had jettisoned in the struggle to stay afloat.

But if I had come back, I had come back to be what I was—and I was a doctor.

“The . . . sickness.” I blotted the last of the tears and let Roger wrap his hands around mine, helping me to hold the new cup. “Is it still—?”

“No.” He spoke gently, and guided the rim of the cup to my lips. What was it? I wondered vaguely. Water, but with something in it—mint and something stronger, more bitter . . . angelica?

“It’s stopped.” Roger held the cup, letting me sip slowly. “No one’s fallen sick in the last week.”

“A week?” I bobbled the cup, spilling a little down my chin. “How long have I—”

“Just about that.” He cleared his throat. Roger’s eyes were intent on the cup; he skimmed a thumb lightly along my chin, removing the drops I had spilled. “You were among the last to fall sick.”

I took a long breath, then drank a bit more. The liquid had a soft, sweet taste, too, floating over the bitter tang . . . honey. My mind located the word and I felt a sense of relief at having located this small missing piece of reality.

I knew from his manner that some of the sick had died, but asked no more for the moment. Deciding to live was one thing. Rejoining the world of the living was a struggle that would take strength I didn’t have right now. I had pulled up my roots, and lay like a wilted plant; sinking them back into the earth was beyond me for the moment.

The knowledge that people I knew—perhaps had loved—had died seemed an equal grief to the loss of my hair—and either was more than I could cope with.

I drank two further cups of honey-sweetened water, despite the underlying bitterness, then lay back with a sigh, my stomach feeling like a small, cold balloon.

“Ye want to take a bit of rest,” Roger advised me, putting down the cup on the table. “I’ll fetch Brianna, aye? But you sleep if ye want to.”

I hadn’t strength to nod, but managed a twitch of the lips that seemed to pass muster as a smile. I reached up a trembling hand and brushed it gingerly over the top of my shorn head. Roger flinched, very slightly.

He rose, and I saw how thin and strained he looked—he would have been helping tend the sick all week, I supposed, not only me. And bury the dead. He was licensed to conduct funerals.

“Roger?” It was a terrible effort to speak; so terribly hard to find the words, separate them from the tangle in my head. “Have you eaten anything recently?”

His face changed then, a look of relief lightening the lines of strain and worry.

“No,” he said, cleared his throat again, and smiled. “Not since last night.”

“Oh. Well,” I said, and lifted one hand, heavy as lead. “Do. Get something. Won’t you?”

“Yes,” he said. “I will.” Instead of leaving, though, he hesitated, then took several rapid strides back, bent over the bed, and seizing my face between his palms, kissed me on the forehead.

“You’re beautiful,” he said fiercely, and with a final squeeze of my cheeks, left.

“What?” I said faintly, but the only answer was the bellying of the curtain as the breeze came in, scented with apples.

IN POINT OF FACT, I looked like a skeleton with a particularly unflattering crew cut, as I learned when I finally gained sufficient strength as to force Jamie to bring me a looking glass.

“I dinna suppose ye’d think of wearing a cap?” he suggested, diffidently fingering a muslin specimen that Marsali had brought me. “Only until it grows out a bit?”

“I don’t suppose I bloody would.”

I had some difficulty in saying this, shocked as I was by the horrifying vision in the glass. In fact, I had a strong impulse to seize the cap from his hands, put it on and pull it down to my shoulders.

I had rejected earlier offers of a cap from Mrs. Bug—who had been volubly congratulating herself on my survival as the obvious result of her fever treatment—and from Marsali, Malva, and every other woman who’d come to visit me.

This was simple contrariness on my part; the sight of my unrestrained hair outraged their Scottish sense of what was proper in a woman, and they’d been trying—with varying degrees of subtlety—to force me into a cap for years. I was damned if I’d let circumstance accomplish it for them.

Having now seen myself in a mirror, I felt somewhat less adamant about it. And my scalped head did feel a bit chilly. On the other hand, I realized that if I were to give in, Jamie would be terribly alarmed—and I thought I’d frightened him quite enough, judging by the hollow look of his face and the deep smudges under his eyes.

As it was, his face had lightened considerably when I rejected the cap he was holding, and he tossed it aside.

I carefully turned the looking glass over and set it on the counterpane, repressing a sigh.

“Always good for a laugh, I suppose, seeing the expressions on people’s faces when they catch sight of me.”

Jamie glanced at me, the corner of his mouth twitching.

“Ye’re verra beautiful, Sassenach,” he said gently. Then he burst out laughing, snorting through his nose and wheezing. I raised one eyebrow at him, picked up the glass and looked again—which made him laugh harder.

I leaned back against the pillows, feeling a bit better. The fever had quite gone, but I still felt wraithlike and weak, barely able to sit up unassisted, and I fell asleep almost without warning, after the least exertion.

Jamie, still snorting, took my hand, raised it to his mouth, and kissed it. The sudden warm immediacy of the touch rippled the fair hairs of my forearm, and my fingers closed involuntarily on his.

“I love you,” he said very softly, his shoulders still trembling with laughter.

“Oh,” I said, suddenly feeling quite a lot better. “Well, then. I love you, too. And it will grow, after all.”

“So it will.” He kissed my hand again, and set it gently on the quilt. “Have ye eaten?”

“A bit,” I said, with what forbearance I could muster. “I’ll have more later.”

I had realized many years before why “patients” are called that; it’s because a sick person is generally incapacitated, and thus obliged to put up with any amount of harassment and annoyance from persons who are not sick.

The fever had broken and I had regained consciousness two days before; since then, the invariable response of everyone who saw me was to gasp at my appearance, urge me to wear a cap—and then try to force food down my throat. Jamie, more sensitive to my tones of voice than were Mrs. Bug, Malva, Brianna, or Marsali, wisely desisted after a quick glance at the tray by the bed to see that I actually had eaten something.

“Tell me what’s happened,” I said, settling and bracing myself. “Who’s been ill? How are they? And who—” I cleared my throat. “Who’s died?”

He narrowed his eyes at me, obviously trying to guess whether I would faint, die, or leap out of bed if he told me.

“Ye’re sure ye feel well enough, Sassenach?” he asked dubiously. “It’s news that wilna spoil with keeping.”

“No, but I have to hear sooner or later, don’t I? And knowing is better than worrying about what I don’t know.”

He nodded, taking the point, and took a deep breath.

“Aye, then. Padraic and his daughter are well on the mend. Evan—he’s lost his youngest, wee Bobby, and Grace is still ill, but Hugh and Caitlin didna fall sick at all.” He swallowed, and went on. “Three of the fisher-folk have died; there’s maybe a dozen still ailing, but most are on the mend.” He knit his brows, considering. “And then there’s Tom Christie. He’s still bad, I hear.”

“Is he? Malva didn’t mention it.” But then, Malva had refused to tell me anything when I’d asked earlier, insisting that I must just rest, and not worry myself.

“What about Allan?”

“No, he’s fine,” Jamie assured me.

“How long has Tom been sick?”

“I dinna ken. The lass can tell ye.”

I nodded—a mistake, as the light-headedness had not left me yet, and I was obliged to shut my eyes and let my head fall back, illuminated patterns flashing behind my lids.

“That’s very odd,” I said, a little breathlessly, hearing Jamie start up in response to my small collapse. “When I close my eyes, often I see stars—but not like stars in the sky. They look just like the stars on the lining of a doll’s suitcase—a portmanteau, I mean—that I had as a child. Why do you suppose that is?”

“I havena got the slightest idea.” There was a rustle as he sat back down on the stool. “Ye’re no still delirious, are ye?” he asked dryly.

“Shouldn’t think so. Was I delirious?” Breathing deeply and carefully, I opened my eyes and gave him my best attempt at a smile.

“Ye were.”

“Do I want to know what I said?”

The corner of his mouth twitched.

“Probably not, but I may tell ye sometime, anyway.”

I considered closing my eyes and floating off to sleep, rather than contemplate future embarrassments, but rallied. If I was going to live—and I was—I needed to gather up the strands of life that tethered me to the earth, and reattach them.

“Bree’s family, and Marsali’s—they’re all right?” I asked only for form’s sake; both Bree and Marsali had come to hover anxiously over my prostrate form, and while neither one would tell me anything they thought might upset me in my weakened condition, I was reasonably sure that neither one could have kept it secret if the children were seriously ill.

“Aye,” he said slowly, “aye, they’re fine.”

“What?” I said, picking up the hesitation in his voice.

“They’re fine,” he repeated quickly. “None of them has fallen ill at all.”

I gave him a cold look, though careful not to move too much while doing it.

“You may as well tell me,” I said. “I’ll get it out of Mrs. Bug if you don’t.”

As though mention of her name had invoked her, I heard the distinctive thump of Mrs. Bug’s clogs on the stair, approaching. She was moving more slowly than usual, and with a care suggesting that she was laden with something.

This proved to be true; she negotiated sideways through the door, beaming, a loaded tray in one hand, the other wrapped round Henri-Christian, who clung to her, monkeylike.