A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 65

   

“Someday I’ll get hold of some chocolate, Ian,” she said, discarding the limp peel and licking her fingers like a cat. “I’ll put sugar in it and feed it to you, and see what you think then!”

It was his turn to snort, good-naturedly, but he made no further remarks, concentrating instead on licking his own hands clean.

Rollo had appropriated the remnants of honeycomb, and was noisily gnawing and slurping at the wax, with complete enjoyment.

“That dog must have the digestion of a crocodile,” Brianna said, shaking her head. “Is there anything he won’t eat?”

“Well, I’ve no tried him on nails, yet.” Ian smiled briefly, but didn’t take up the conversation. The unease that had lain upon him when he talked of dreams had disappeared over breakfast, but seemed now to have returned. The sun was well up, but he made no move to rise. He merely sat, arms wrapped about his knees, gazing thoughtfully into the fire as the rising sun stole the light from the flames.

In no great hurry to start moving herself, Brianna waited patiently, eyes fixed on him.

“And what would you eat for breakfast when you lived with the Mohawk, Ian?”

He looked at her then, and his mouth tucked in at one corner. Not a smile, but a wry acknowledgment. He sighed, and laid his head on his knees, face hidden. He sat slumped that way for a bit, then slowly straightened up.

“Well,” he said, in a matter-of-fact tone of voice. “It was to do wi’ my brother-in-law. At least to start.”

IAN MURRAY THOUGHT that before too long, he would be obliged to do something about his brother-in-law. Not that “brother-in-law” was precisely the word for it. Still, Sun Elk was the husband of Looking at the Sky, who was in turn the sister of his own wife. By the notions of the Kahnyen’kehaka this implied no relation between the men beyond that of clansmen, but Ian still thought of Sun Elk with the white part of his mind.

That was the secret part. His wife had English, but they did not speak it, even when most private. He spoke no word of Scots or English aloud, had heard not a syllable of either tongue in the year since he had chosen to stay, to become Kahnyen’kehaka. It was assumed he had forgotten what he had been. But each day he found some moment to himself, and, lest he lose the words, would silently name the objects around him, hearing their English names echo in the hidden white part of his mind.

Pot, he thought to himself, squinting at the blackened earthenware warming in the ashes. In fact he was not alone at the moment. He was, however, feeling distinctly alien.

Corn, he thought, leaning back against the polished tree trunk that formed one upright of the longhouse. Several clusters of dried maize hung above him, festively colored by comparison with the sacks of grain sold in Edinburgh—and yet corn nonetheless. Onions, he thought, eyes passing down the braided chain of yellow globes. Bed. Furs. Fire.

His wife leaned toward him, smiling, and the words ran suddenly together in his mind. BlackravenblackhairshiningbreastbudsthighssoroundohyesohyesohEmily . . .

She set a warm bowl in his hand, and the rich aroma of rabbit and corn and onion rose up into his nose. Stew, he thought, the slippery flow of words coming to a sudden halt as his mind focused on food. He smiled at her, and laid his hand over hers, holding it for a moment, small and sturdy under his, curved around the wooden bowl. Her smile deepened; then she pulled away, rising up to go and fetch more food.

He watched her go, appreciating the sway of her walk. Then his eye caught Sun Elk—watching, too, from the doorway of his own apartment.

Bastard, Ian thought, very clearly.

“SEE, WE GOT ON WELL enough to start,” Ian explained. “He’s a bonny man, for the most part, Sun Elk.”

“For the most part,” Brianna echoed. She sat still, watching him. “And which part was that?”

Ian rubbed a hand through his hair, making it stand up like the bushy quills on a porcupine.

“Well . . . the friend part. We were friends, to begin with, aye? Brothers, in fact; we were of the same clan.”

“And you stopped being friends because of—of your wife?”

Ian sighed deeply.

“Well, ye see . . . the Kahnyen’kehaka, they’ve a notion of marriage that—it’s like what ye see in the Highlands, often enough. That is, the parents have a good deal to do wi’ arranging it. Often enough, they’ve watched the weans as they grew, and seen if maybe there was a lad and a lassie that seemed well-matched. And if they were—and if they came from the proper clans—now, that bit’s different, see?” he added, breaking off.

“The clans?”

“Aye. In the Highlands, ye’d mostly marry within your own clan, save it was to make an alliance wi’ another. Among the Iroquois nations, though, ye canna ever marry someone from your own clan, and ye can only marry someone from particular clans, not just any other.”

“Mama said the Iroquois reminded her a lot of Highlanders,” Brianna said, mildly amused. “Ruthless, but entertaining, was how she put it, I think. Bar some of the torturing, maybe, and the burning your enemies alive.”

“Your mother’s no heard some of Uncle Jamie’s stories about his grandsire, then,” he replied with a wry smile.

“What, Lord Lovat?”

“No, the other—Seaumais Ruaidh—Red Jacob, him Uncle Jamie’s named for. A wicked auld bugger, my Mam always said; he’d put any Iroquois to shame for pure cruelty, from all I’ve heard of him.” He dismissed this tangent with a wave of the hand, though, returning to his explanation.

“Well, so, when the Kahnyen’kehaka took me, and named me, I was adopted to the Wolf clan, aye?” he said, with an explanatory nod at Rollo, who had consumed the honeycomb, dead bees and all, and was now meditatively licking his paws.

“Very appropriate,” she murmured. “What clan was Sun Elk?”

“Wolf, of course. And Emily’s mother and grandmother and sisters were Turtle. But what I was saying—if a lad and lassie from properly different clans seemed maybe suited to each other, then the mothers would speak—they call all the aunties ‘mother,’ too,” he added. “So there might be a good many mothers involved in the matter. But if all the mothers and grandmothers and aunties were to agree that it would be a good match . . .” He shrugged. “They’d marry.”

Brianna rocked back a little, arms around her knees.

“But you didn’t have a mother to speak for you.”

“Well, I did wonder what my Mam would ha’ said, if she’d been there,” he said, and smiled, despite his seriousness.

Brianna, having met Ian’s mother, laughed at the thought.

“Aunt Jenny would be a match for any Mohawk, male or female,” she assured him. “But what happened, then?”

“I loved Emily,” he said very simply. “And she loved me.”

This state of affairs, which rapidly became apparent to everyone in the village, caused considerable public comment. Wakyo’teyehsnonhsa, Works with Her Hands, the girl Ian called Emily, had been widely expected to marry Sun Elk, who had been a visitor to her family’s hearth since childhood.

“But there it was.” Ian spread his hands and shrugged. “She loved me, and she said so.”

When Ian had been taken into the Wolf clan, he had been given to foster parents, as well—the parents of the dead man in whose stead he had been adopted. His foster mother had been somewhat taken aback by the situation, but after discussing the matter with the other women of the Wolf clan, had gone to speak formally with Tewaktenyonh, Emily’s grandmother—and the most influential woman in the village.

“And so we married.” Dressed in their best, and accompanied by their parents, the two young people had sat together on a bench before the assembled people of the village, and exchanged baskets—his containing the furs of sable and beaver, and a good knife, symbolizing his willingness to hunt for her and protect her; hers filled with grain and fruit and vegetables, symbolizing her willingness to plant, gather, and provide for him.

“And four moons later,” Ian added, “Sun Elk wed Looking at the Sky, Emily’s sister.”

Brianna raised one eyebrow.

“But . . . ?”

“Aye, but.”

IAN HAD THE GUN Jamie had left with him, a rare and valued item among the Indians, and he knew how to use it. He also knew how to track, to lie in ambush, to think like an animal—other things of value that Uncle Jamie had left with him.

In consequence, he was a good hunter, and rapidly gained respect for his ability to bring in meat. Sun Elk was a decent hunter—not the best, but capable. Many of the young men would joke and make remarks, denigrating each other’s skills and making fun; he did it himself. Still, there was a tone to Sun Elk’s jests to Ian that now and then made one of the other men glance sharply at him, then away with the faintest of shrugs.

He had been inclined to ignore the man. Then he had seen Sun Elk look at Wakyo’teyehsnonhsa, and everything became at once clear to him.

She had been going to the forest with some other girls, one day in late summer. They carried baskets for gathering; Wakyo’teyehsnonhsa had an ax through her belt. One of the other girls had asked her whether she meant to find wood for another bowl like the one she had made for her mother; Works With Her Hands had said—with a quick, warm look toward Ian, who lounged nearby with the other young men—that no, she wished to find a good red cedar, for wood to make a cradleboard.

The girls had giggled and embraced Wakyo’teyehsnonhsa; the young men had grinned and prodded Ian knowingly in the ribs. And Ian had caught a glimpse of Sun Elk’s face, hot eyes fixed on Emily’s straight back as she walked away.

Within one moon, Sun Elk had moved into the longhouse, husband to his wife’s sister, Looking at the Sky. The sisters’ compartments were across from each other; they shared a hearth. Ian had seldom seen Sun Elk look at Emily again—but he had seen him look carefully away, too many times.

“There is a person who desires you,” he said to Emily one night. It was long past the hour of the wolf, deep night, and the longhouse slept around them. The child she carried obliged her to rise and make water; she had come back to their furs skin-chilled and with the fresh smell of pines in her hair.

“Oh? Well, why not? Everyone else is asleep.” She had stretched luxuriously and kissed him, the small bulge of her belly smooth and hard against his.

“Not me. I mean—of course this person desires you, too!” he’d said hastily, as she drew back a bit, offended. He wrapped his arms about her in quick illustration. “I mean—there is someone else.”

“Hmf.” Her voice was muffled, her breath warm against his chest. “There are many who desire me. I am very, very good with my hands.” She gave him a brief demonstration, and he gasped, causing her to chuckle with satisfaction.

Rollo, who had accompanied her outside, crawled under the bed platform and curled up in his accustomed spot, chewing noisily at an itching spot near his tail.

A little later, they lay with the furs thrown back. The hide that hung over their doorway was pulled back, so the heat of the fire could come in, and he could see the shine of light on the moist gold skin of her shoulder, where she lay turned away from him. She reached back and put one of her clever hands on his, took his palm, and pressed it against her belly. The child inside had begun to stir; he felt a soft, sudden push against his palm, and his breath stilled in his throat.

“You shouldn’t worry,” Emily said very softly. “This person desires only you.”

He had slept well.

In the morning, though, he had sat by the hearth eating cornmeal mush, and Sun Elk, who had already eaten, walked by. He stopped and looked down at Ian.

“This person dreamed about you, Wolf’s Brother.”

“Did you?” Ian said pleasantly. He felt the warmth rise up his throat, but kept his face relaxed. The Kahyen’kehaka set great store by dreams. A good dream would have everyone in the longhouse discussing it for days. The look on Sun Elk’s face didn’t indicate that his dream about Ian had been a good one.

“That dog—” He nodded at Rollo, who lay sprawled inconveniently in the doorway of Ian’s compartment, snoring. “I dreamed that it rose up over your couch, and seized you by the throat.”

That was a menacing dream. A Kahnyen’kehaka who believed such a dream might decide to kill the dog, lest it be a foretelling of ill fortune. But Ian was not—not quite—Kahnyen’kehaka.

Ian raised both brows, and went on eating. Sun Elk waited for a moment, but as Ian said nothing, eventually nodded and turned away.

“Ahkote’ohskennonton,” Ian said, calling his name. The man turned back, expectant.

“This person dreamed of you, too.” Sun Elk glanced sharply at him. Ian didn’t speak further, but let a slow and evil smile grow upon his face.

Sun Elk stared at him. He kept smiling. The other man turned away with a snort of disgust, but not before Ian had seen the faint look of unease in Sun Elk’s eyes.

“WELL, SO.” Ian took a deep breath. He closed his eyes briefly, then opened them. “Ye ken the child died, aye?”

He spoke with no emotion at all in his voice. It was that dry, controlled tone that seared her heart, and choked her so that she could do no more than nod in reply.

He couldn’t keep it up, though. He opened his mouth as though to speak, but the big, bony hands clenched suddenly on his knees, and instead, he rose abruptly to his feet.

“Aye,” he said. “Let’s go. I’ll—I’ll tell ye the rest, walking.”

And he did, his back resolutely turned, as he led her higher up the mountain, then across a narrow ridge, and down the path of a stream that fell in a series of small, enchanting waterfalls, each encircled with a mist of miniature rainbows.

Works with Her Hands had conceived again. That child was lost just after her belly began to swell with life.

“They say, the Kahnyen’kehaka,” Ian explained, his voice muffled as he shoved his way through a screen of brilliant red creeper, “that for a woman to conceive, her husband’s spirit does battle with hers, and must overcome it. If his spirit isna strong enough”—his voice came clear as he ripped a handful of creeper down, breaking the branch it hung from, and cast it viciously away—“then the child canna take root in the womb.”

After this second loss, the Medicine Society had taken the two of them to a private hut, there to sing and beat drums and to dance in huge painted masks, meant to frighten away whatever evil entities might be hampering Ian’s spirit—or unduly strengthening Emily’s.

“I wanted to laugh, seeing the masks,” Ian said. He didn’t turn round; yellow leaves spangled the shoulders of his buckskin and stuck in his hair. “They call it the Funny-Face Society, too—and for a reason. Didna do it, though.”

“I don’t . . . suppose Em-Emily laughed.” He was going so fast that she was pressed to keep up with him, though her legs were nearly as long as his own.

“No,” he said, and uttered a short, bitter laugh himself. “She didna.”

She had gone into the medicine hut beside him silent and gray, but had come out with a peaceful face, and reached for him in their bed that night with love. For three months, they had made love with tenderness and ardor. For another three, they had made love with a sense of increasing desperation.

“And then she missed her courses again.”

He had at once ceased his attentions, terrified of causing a further mishap. Emily had moved slowly and carefully, no longer going into the fields to work, but staying in the longhouse, working, always working, with her hands. Weaving, grinding, carving, boring beads of shell for wampum, hands moving ceaselessly, to compensate for the waiting stillness of her body.

“Her sister went to the fields. It’s the women who do, ken?” He paused to slash an outreaching brier with his knife, tossing the severed branch out of the way so it wouldn’t snap back and hit Brianna in the face.

“Looking at the Sky brought us food. All the women did, but her most of all. She was a sweet lass, Karònya.”

There was a slight catch in his voice at this, the first in his harsh recitation of facts.

“What happened to her?” Brianna hastened her step a little as they came out onto the top of a grass-covered bank, so that she drew up nearly even with him. He slowed a little, but didn’t turn to look at her—kept his face forward, chin raised as though confronting enemies.

“Taken.” Looking at the Sky had been in the habit of staying later in the fields than the other women, gathering extra corn or squash for her sister and Ian, though she had a child of her own by then. One evening, she did not return to the longhouse, and when the villagers had gone out to search for her, neither she nor the child was anywhere to be found. They had vanished, leaving only one pale moccasin behind, tangled in the squash vines at the edge of a field.

“Abenaki,” Ian said tersely. “We found the sign next day; it was full dark before we began to search in earnest.”

It had been a long night searching, followed by a week of the same—a week of growing fear and emptiness—and Ian had returned to his wife’s hearth at dawn on the seventh day, to learn that she had miscarried once more.

He paused. He was sweating freely from walking so fast, and wiped a sleeve across his chin. Brianna could feel the sweat trickling down her own back, dampening the hunting shirt, but disregarded it. She touched his back, very gently, but said nothing.

He heaved a deep sigh, almost of relief, she thought—perhaps that the dreadful tale was nearly done.

“We tried a bit longer,” he said, back to the matter-of-fact tone. “Emily and I. But the heart had gone out of her. She didna trust me any longer. And . . . Ahkote’ohskennonton was there. He ate at our hearth. And he watched her. She began to look back.”

Ian had been shaping wood for a bow one day, concentrating on the flow of the grain beneath his knife, trying to see those things in the swirls that Emily saw, to hear the voice of the tree, as she had told him. It wasn’t the tree that spoke behind him, though.

“Grandson,” said a dry old voice, lightly ironic.

He dropped the knife, narrowly missing his own foot, and swung round, bow in hand. Tewaktenyonh stood six feet away, one eyebrow lifted in amusement at having sneaked up on him unheard.

“Grandmother,” he said, and nodded in wry acknowledgment of her skill. Ancient she might be, but no one moved more softly. Hence her reputation; the children of the village lived in respectful dread of her, having heard that she could vanish into air, only to rematerialize in some distant spot, right before the guilty eyes of evil-doers.

“Come with me, Wolf’s Brother,” she said, and turned away, not waiting for his response. None was expected.

She was already out of sight by the time he had laid the half-made bow under a bush, taken up his fallen knife, and whistled for Rollo, but he caught her up with no difficulty.

She had led him away from the village, through the forest, to the head of a deer trail. There she had given him a bag of salt and an armlet of wampum and bade him go.

“And you went?” Brianna asked, after a long moment of silence. “Just—like that?”

“Just like that,” he said, and looked at her for the first time since they had left their campsite that morning. His face was gaunt, hollow with memories. Sweat gleamed on his cheekbones, but he was so pale that the dotted lines of his tattoos stood out sharp—perforations, lines along which his face might come apart.

She swallowed a few times before she could speak, but managed a tone much like his own when she did.

“Is it much farther?” she asked. “Where we’re going?”

“No,” he said softly. “We’re nearly there.” And turned to walk again before her.

HALF AN HOUR LATER, they had reached a place where the stream cut deep between its banks, widening into a small gorge. Silver birch and hobblebush grew thick, sprouting from the rocky walls, smooth-skinned roots twisting through the stones like fingers clawing at the earth.

The notion gave Brianna a slight prickle at the neck. The waterfalls were far above them now, and the noise of the water had lessened, the creek talking to itself as it purled over rocks and shushed through mats of cress and duckweed.

She thought the going might be easier above, on the lip of the gorge, but Ian led her down into it without hesitation, and she followed likewise, scrambling over the tumble of boulders and tree roots, hampered by her long gun. Rollo, scorning this clumsy exertion, plunged into the creek, which was several feet deep, and swam, ears clamped back against his head so that he looked like a giant otter.

Ian had recovered his self-possession in the concentration of navigating the rough ground. He paused now and then, reaching back to help her down a particularly tricky fall of rock, or over a tree uprooted in some recent flood—but he didn’t meet her eyes, and the shuttered planes of his face gave nothing away.

Her curiosity had reached fever pitch, but clearly he had done speaking for the moment. It was just past midday, but the light under the birches was a shadowed gold that made everything seem somehow hushed, almost enchanted. She could make no sensible guess as to the purpose of this expedition, in light of what Ian had told her—but the place was one where almost anything seemed possible.

She thought suddenly of her first father—of Frank Randall—and felt a small, remembered warmth at the thought. She would like so much to show him this place.

They had taken holidays often in the Adirondacks; different mountains, different trees—but something of the same hush and mystery in the shadowed glades and rushing water. Her mother had come sometimes, but more often it was just the two of them, hiking far up into the trees, not talking much, but sharing a deep content in the company of the sky.

Suddenly, the sound of the water rose again; there was another fall nearby.

“Just here, coz,” Ian said softly, and beckoned her to follow with a turn of the head.

They stepped out from under the trees and she saw that the gorge dropped suddenly away, the water falling twenty feet or more into a pool below. Ian led her past the head of the falls; she could hear the water rushing past below, but the top of the bank was thick with sedges, and they had to push their way through, tramping down the yellowing stems of goldenrod and dodging the panicked whir of grasshoppers rocketing up underfoot.

“Look,” Ian said, glancing back, and reached to part the screen of laurel in front of her.

“Wow!”

She recognized it immediately. There was no mistaking it, in spite of the fact that much of it was invisible, still buried in the crumbling bank on the far side of the gorge. Some recent flood had raised the level of the creek, undercutting the bank so that a huge block of stone and dirt had fallen away, revealing its buried mystery.

The raked arches of ribs rose huge from the dirt, and she had the impression of a scatter of things half-buried in the rubble at the foot of the bank: enormous things, knobbed and twisted. They might be bones or simply boulders—but it was the tusk that caught her eye, jutting from the bank in a massive curve, intensely familiar, and the more startling for its very familiarity.

“Ye ken it?” Ian asked eagerly, watching her face. “Ye’ve seen something like it?”

“Oh, yes,” she said, and though the sun was warm on her back, she shivered, gooseflesh pebbling her forearms. Not from fear, but sheer awe at sight of it, and a kind of incredulous joy. “Oh, yes. I have.”

“What?” Ian’s voice was still pitched low, as though the creature might hear them. “What is it?”

“A mammoth,” she said, and found that she was whispering, too. The sun had passed its zenith; already the bottom of the creekbed lay in shadow. Light struck the stained curve of ancient ivory, and threw the vault of the high-crowned skull that held it into sharp relief. The skull was fixed in the soil at a slight angle, the single visible tusk rising high, the eye socket black as mystery.

The shiver came again, and she hunched her shoulders. Easy to feel that it might at any moment wrench itself free of the clay and turn that massive head toward them, empty-eyed, clods of dirt raining from tusks and bony shoulders as it shook itself and began to walk, the ground vibrating as long toes struck and sank in the muddy soil.

“That’s what it’s called—mammoth? Aye, well . . . it is verra big.” Ian’s voice dispelled the illusion of incipient movement, and she was able finally to take her eyes off it—though she felt she must glance back, every second or so, to be sure it was still there.

“The Latin name is Mammuthus,” she said, clearing her throat. “There’s a complete skeleton in a museum in New York. I’ve seen it often. And I’ve seen pictures of them in books.” She glanced back at the creature in the bank.

“A museum? So it’s not a thing ye’ve got where—when”—he stumbled a bit—“where ye come from? Not alive then, I mean?” He seemed rather disappointed.

She wanted to laugh at the picture of mammoths roaming Boston Common, or wallowing on the bank of the Cambridge River. In fact, she had a moment’s pang of disappointment that they hadn’t been there; it would have been so wonderful to see them.

“No,” she said regretfully. “They all died thousands and thousands of years ago. When the ice came.”

“Ice?” Ian was glancing back and forth between her and the mammoth, as though afraid one or the other might do something untoward.

“The Ice Age. The world got colder, and sheets of ice spread down from the north. A lot of animals went extinct—I mean, they couldn’t find food, and all died.”

Ian was pale with excitement.

“Aye. Aye, I’ve heard such stories.”

“You have?” She was surprised at that.

“Aye. But ye say it’s real.” He swung his head to look at the mammoth’s bones once more. “An animal, aye, like a bear or a possum?”

“Yes,” she said, puzzled by his attitude, which seemed to alternate between eagerness and dismay. “Bigger, but yes. What else would it be?”

“Ah,” he said, and took a deep breath. “Well, d’ye see, that’s what I needed ye to tell me, coz. See, the Kahnyen’kehaka—they have stories of . . . things. Animals that are really spirits. And if ever I saw a thing that might be a spirit—” He was still looking at the skeleton, as though it might walk out of the earth, and she saw a slight shiver pass through him.

She couldn’t prevent a similar shiver, looking at the massive creature. It towered above them, grim and awful, and only her knowledge of what it was kept her from wanting to cower and run.

“It’s real,” she repeated, as much to reassure herself as him. “And it’s dead. Really dead.”

“How d’ye know these things?” he asked, intently curious. “It’s auld, ye say. You’d be much further away from—that”—he jerked his chin at the giant skeleton—“in your own time than we are now. How can ye ken more about it than folk do now?”

She shook her head, smiling a little, and helpless to explain.

“When did you find this, Ian?”

“Last month. I came up the gorge”—he gestured with his chin—“and there it was. I near beshit myself.”

“I can imagine,” she said, stifling an urge to laugh.

“Aye,” he said, not noticing her amusement in his desire to explain. “I should have been sure that it was Rawenniyo—a spirit, a god—save for the dog.”

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