A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 66

   

Rollo had climbed out of the stream, and having shaken the water from his fur, was squirming on his back in a patch of crushed turtlehead, tail wagging in pleasure, and clearly oblivious to the silent giant in the cliff above.

“What do you mean? That Rollo wasn’t afraid of it?”

Ian nodded.

“Aye. He didna behave as though there were anything there at all. And yet . . .” He hesitated, darting a glance at her. “Sometimes, in the wood. He—he sees things. Things I canna see. Ken?”

“I ken,” she said, a ripple of unease returning. “Dogs do see . . . things.” She remembered her own dogs; in particular, Smoky, the big Newfoundland, who would sometimes in the evening suddenly raise his head, listening, hackles rising as his eyes followed . . . something . . . that passed through the room and disappeared.

He nodded, relieved that she knew what he was talking about.

“They do. I ran, when I saw that”—he nodded at the cliff—“and ducked behind a tree. But the dog went on about his business, paying it no mind. And so I thought, well, just maybe it’s no what I think, after all.”

“And what did you think?” she asked. “A Rawenniyo, you said?” As the excitement of seeing the mammoth began to recede, she remembered what they were theoretically doing here. “Ian—you said what you wanted to show me had to do with your wife. Is this—” She gestured toward the cliff, brows raised.

He didn’t answer directly, but tilted his head back, studying the jut of the giant tusks.

“I heard stories, now and then. Among the Mohawk, I mean. They’d speak of strange things that someone found, hunting. Spirits trapped in the rock, and how they came to be there. Evil things, for the most part. And I thought to myself, if that should be what this is . . .”

He broke off and turned to her, serious and intent.

“I needed ye to tell me, aye? Whether that’s what it is or no. Because if it was, then perhaps what I’ve been thinking is wrong.”

“It’s not,” she assured him. “But what on earth have you been thinking?”

“About God,” he said, surprising her again. He licked his lips, unsure how to go on.

“Yeksa’a—the child. I didna have her christened,” he said. “I couldna. Or perhaps I could—ye can do it yourself, ken, if there’s no priest. But I hadna the courage to try. I—never saw her. They’d wrapped her already. . . . They wouldna have liked it, if I’d tried to . . .” His voice died away.

“Yeksa’a,” she said softly. “Was that your—your daughter’s name?”

He shook his head, his mouth twisting wryly.

“It only means ‘wee girl.’ The Kahnyen’kehaka dinna give a name to a child when it’s born. Not until later. If . . .” His voice trailed off, and he cleared his throat. “If it lives. They wouldna think of naming a child unborn.”

“But you did?” she asked gently.

He raised his head and took a breath that had a damp sound to it, like wet bandages pulled from a fresh wound.

“Iseabaìl,” he said, and she knew it was the first—perhaps would be the only—time he’d spoken it aloud. “Had it been a son, I would ha’ called him Jamie.” He glanced at her, with the shadow of a smile. “Only in my head, ken.”

He let out all his breath then with a sigh and put his face down upon his knees, back hunched.

“What I am thinking,” he said after a moment, his voice much too controlled, “is this. Was it me?”

“Ian! You mean your fault that the baby died? How could it be?”

“I left,” he said simply, straightening up. “Turned away. Stopped being a Christian, being Scots. They took me to the stream, scrubbed me wi’ sand to take away the white blood. They gave me my name—Okwaho’kenha—and said I was Mohawk. But I wasna, not really.”

He sighed deeply again, and she put a hand on his back, feeling the bumps of his backbone press through the leather of his shirt. He didn’t eat nearly enough, she thought.

“But I wasna what I had been, either,” he went on, sounding almost matter-of-fact. “I tried to be what they wanted, ken? So I left off praying to God or the Virgin Mother, or Saint Bride. I listened to what Emily said, when she’d tell me about her gods, the spirits that dwell in the trees and all. And when I went to the sweat lodge wi’ the men, or sat by the hearth and heard the stories . . . they seemed as real to me as Christ and His saints ever had.”

He turned his head and looked up at her suddenly, half-bewildered, half-defiant.

“I am the Lord thy God,” he said. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me. But I did, no? That’s mortal sin, is it not?”

She wanted to say no, of course not. Or to protest weakly that she was not a priest, how could she say? But neither of those would do; he was not looking for easy reassurance, and a weak-minded abnegation of responsibility would not serve him.

She took a deep breath and blew it out. It had been a good many years since she’d been taught the Baltimore Catechism, but it wasn’t the sort of thing you forget.

“The conditions of mortal sin are these,” she said, reciting the words precisely from memory. “First, that the action be grievously wrong. Secondly, that you know the action is wrong. And thirdly—that you give full consent to it.”

He was watching her intently.

“Well, it was wrong, and I suppose I kent that—aye, I did ken that. Especially—” His face darkened further, and she wondered what he was recalling.

“But . . . how should I serve a God who would take a child for her father’s sins?” Without waiting for an answer, he glanced toward the cliff face, where the remains of the mammoth lay frozen in time. “Or was it them? Was it not my God at all, but the Iroquois spirits? Did they ken I wasna really Mohawk—that I held back a part of myself from them?”

He looked back at her, dead serious.

“Gods are jealous, are they no?”

“Ian . . .” She swallowed, helpless. But she had to say something.

“What you did—or didn’t do—that wasn’t wrong, Ian,” she said firmly. “Your daughter . . . she was half-Mohawk. It wasn’t wrong to let her be buried according to her mother’s ways. Your wife—Emily—she would have been terribly upset, wouldn’t she, if you’d insisted on baptizing the baby?”

“Aye, maybe. But . . .” He closed his eyes, hands clenched hard into fists on his thighs. “Where is she, then?” he whispered, and she could see tears trembling on his lashes. “The others—they were never born; God will have them in His hand. But wee Iseabaìl—she’ll not be in heaven, will she? I canna bear the thought that she—that she might be . . . lost, somewhere. Wandering.”

“Ian . . .”

“I hear her, greeting. In the night.” His breath was coming in deep, sobbing gasps. “I canna help, I canna find her!”

“Ian!” The tears were running down her own cheeks. She gripped his wrists fiercely, squeezed as hard as she could. “Ian, listen to me!”

He drew a deep, trembling breath, head bent. Then he nodded, very slightly.

She rose onto her knees and gathered him tight against her, his head cradled on her br**sts. Her cheek pressed against the top of his head, his hair warm and springy against her mouth.

“Listen to me,” she said softly. “I had another father. The man who raised me. He’s dead now.” For a long time now, the sense of desolation at his loss had been muted, softened by new love, distracted by new obligations. Now it swept over her, newly fresh, and sharp as a stab wound in its agony. “I know—I know he’s in heaven.”

Was he? Could he be dead and in heaven, if not yet born? And yet he was dead to her, and surely heaven took no heed of time.

She lifted her face toward the cliff, but spoke to neither bones nor God.

“Daddy,” she said, and her voice broke on the word, but she held her cousin hard. “Daddy, I need you.” Her voice sounded small, and pathetically unsure. But there was no other help to be had.

“I need you to find Ian’s little girl,” she said, as firmly as she could, trying to summon her father’s face, to see him there among the shifting leaves at the clifftop. “Find her, please. Hold her in your arms, and make sure that she’s safe. Take—please take care of her.”

She stopped, feeling obscurely that she should say something else, something more ceremonious. Make the sign of the cross? Say “amen”?

“Thank you, Daddy,” she said softly, and cried as though her father were newly dead, and she bereft, orphaned, lost, and crying in the night. Ian’s arms were wrapped around her, and they clung tight together, squeezing hard, the warmth of the late sun heavy on their heads.

She stood still within his arms when she stopped crying, her head resting on his shoulder. He patted her back, very gently, but didn’t push her away.

“Thank you,” he whispered in her ear. “Are ye all right, Brianna?”

“Uh-huh.” She straightened and stood away from him, swaying a little, as though she were drunk. She felt drunk, too, her bones gone soft and malleable, everything around her faintly out of focus, save for certain things that caught her eye: a brilliant patch of pink lady’s slipper, a stone fallen from the cliff face, its surface streaked red with iron. Rollo, almost sitting on Ian’s foot, big head pressed anxiously against his master’s thigh.

“Are you all right, Ian?” she asked.

“I will be.” His hand sought Rollo’s head, and gave the pointed ears a cursory rub of reassurance. “Maybe. Just . . .”

“What?”

“Are ye . . . are ye sure, Brianna?”

She knew what he was asking; it was a question of faith. She drew herself up to her full height, wiping her nose on her sleeve.

“I’m a Roman Catholic and I believe in vitamins,” she declared stoutly. “And I knew my father. Of course I’m sure.”

He took a deep, sighing breath and his shoulders slumped as he let it out. He nodded then, and the lines of his face relaxed a little.

She left him sitting on a rock, and made her way down to the stream to splash cold water on her face. The shadow of the cliff fell across the creek and the air was cold with the scents of earth and pine trees. In spite of the chill, she remained there for a while, on her knees.

She could still hear the voices murmuring in trees and water, but paid no attention to them. Whoever they were, they were no threat to her or hers—and not at odds with the presence that she felt so strongly nearby.

“I love you, Daddy,” she whispered, closing her eyes, and felt at peace.

Ian must be better, too, she thought, when she made her way at length back through the rocks to where he sat. Rollo had left him to investigate a promising hole at the foot of a tree, and she knew the dog wouldn’t have left Ian, had he considered his master to be in distress.

She was about to ask him whether their business here was complete, when he stood up, and she saw that it wasn’t.

“Why I brought ye here,” he said abruptly. “I wanted to know about that—” He nodded at the mammoth. “But I meant to ask ye a question. Advice, like.”

“Advice? Ian, I can’t give you any advice! How could I tell you what to do?”

“I think ye’re maybe the only one who can,” he said with a lopsided smile. “You’re my family, you’re a woman—and ye care for me. Yet ye ken more even than Uncle Jamie, perhaps, because of who—or what”—his mouth twisted a little—“ye are.”

“I don’t know more,” she said, and looked up at the bones in the rock. “Only—different things.”

“Aye,” he said, and took a deep breath.

“Brianna,” he said very softly. “We’re no wed—we never shall be.” He looked away for an instant, then back. “But if we had been marrit, I should have loved ye and cared for ye, so well as I could. I trust you, that ye’d have done the same by me. Am I right?”

“Oh, Ian.” Her throat was still thick, raspy with grief; the words came out in a whisper. She touched his face, cool-skinned and bony, and traced the line of tattooed dots with a thumb. “I love you now.”

“Aye, well,” he said still softly. “I ken that.” He lifted a hand and put it over her own, big and hard. He pressed her palm against his cheek for a moment, then his fingers closed over hers and he brought their linked hands down, but didn’t let go.

“So tell me,” he said, his eyes not leaving hers. “If ye love me, tell me what I shall do. Shall I go back?”

“Back,” she repeated, searching his face. “Back to the Mohawk, you mean?”

He nodded.

“Back to Emily. She loved me,” he said quietly. “I ken that. Did I do wrong, to let the old woman send me away? Ought I to go back, maybe fight for her, if I had to? Perhaps see if she would come away wi’ me, back to the Ridge.”

“Oh, Ian.” She felt the same sense of helplessness as before, though this time it came without the burden of her own grief. But who was she to tell him anything? How could she be responsible for making that decision for him—for saying to him, stay, or go?

His eyes stayed steady on her face, though, and it came over her—she was his family. And so the responsibility lay in her hands, whether she felt adequate to it or not.

Her chest felt tight, as though she might burst if she took a deep breath. She took it anyway.

“Stay,” she said.

He stood looking into her eyes for a long time, his own deep hazel, gold-flecked and serious.

“You could fight him—Ahk . . .” She fumbled for the syllables of the Mohawk name. “Sun Elk. But you can’t fight her. If she’s made up her mind that she doesn’t want to be with you anymore . . . Ian, you can’t change it.”

He blinked, dark lashes cutting off his gaze, and kept his eyes closed, whether in acknowledgement or denial of what she’d said, she didn’t know.

“But it’s more than that,” she said, her voice growing firmer. “It isn’t only her, or him. Is it?”

“No,” he said. His voice sounded distant, almost uncaring, but she knew it wasn’t that.

“It’s them,” she said more softly. “All the mothers. The grandmothers. The women. The—the children.” Clan and family and tribe and nation; custom, spirit, tradition—the strands that wrapped Works with Her Hands and held her to the earth, secure. And above all, children. Those loud small voices that drowned the voices of the wood, and kept a soul from wandering through the night.

No one knew the strength of such bonds better than one who had walked the earth without them, outcast and alone. She had, and he had, and they both knew the truth.

“It’s them,” he echoed softly, and opened his eyes. They were dark with loss, the color of shadows in the deepest wood. “And them.” He turned his head, to look upward, into the trees beyond the creek, above the bones of the mammoth that lay trapped in the earth, stripped to the sky and mute to all prayer. He turned back, raised a hand, and touched her cheek.

“I’ll stay, then.”

THEY CAMPED FOR the night on the far side of the beaver pond. The litter of wood chips and debarked saplings made good kindling for their fire.

There was little to eat; no more than a hatful of bitter fox-grapes and the heel of bread, so hard by now that it had to be dunked in water to chew. It didn’t matter; neither one of them was hungry, and Rollo had disappeared to hunt for himself.

They sat silently, watching the fire die down. There was no need to keep it going; the night was not cold, and they would not linger in the morning—home was too near.

At last, Ian stirred a bit, and Brianna glanced at him.

“What was your father’s name?” he asked very formally.

“Frank—er . . . Franklin. Franklin Wolverton Randall.”

“An Englishman, then?”

“Very,” she said, smiling in spite of herself.

He nodded, murmuring “Franklin Wolverton Randall” to himself, as though to commit it to memory, then looked at her seriously.

“If ever I find myself in a church again, then, I shall light a candle to his memory.”

“I expect . . . he’d like that.”

He nodded, and leaned back, back braced against a longleaf pine. The ground nearby was littered with the cones; he picked up a handful and tossed them, one by one, into the fire.

“What about Lizzie?” she asked after a little while. “She’s always been fond of you.” To put it mildly: Lizzie had wilted and pined for weeks, when he had been lost to the Iroquois. “And now that she’s not marrying Manfred . . .”

He tilted back his head, eyes closed, and rested it against the trunk of the pine.

“I’ve thought of it,” he admitted.

“But . . . ?”

“Aye, but.” He opened his eyes and gave her a wry look. “I’d ken where I was, if I woke beside her. But where I’d be is in bed wi’ my wee sister. I think I’m maybe not so desperate as that. Yet,” he added as an obvious afterthought.

71

BLACK PUDDING

I WAS IN THE MIDDLE OF a black pudding when Ronnie Sinclair appeared in the yard, carrying two small whisky casks. Several more were bound in a neatly corrugated cascade down his back, which made him look like some exotic form of caterpillar, balanced precariously upright in mid-pupation. It was a chilly day, but he was sweating freely from the long walk uphill—and cursing in similar vein.

“Why in the name of Bride did Himself build the frigging house up here in the godforsaken clouds?” he demanded without ceremony. “Why not where a bloody wagon could reach the yard?” He set the casks down carefully, then ducked his head through the straps of the harness to shed his wooden carapace. He sighed in relief, rubbing at his shoulders where the straps had dug.

I ignored the rhetorical questions, and kept stirring, tilting my head toward the house in invitation.

“There’s fresh coffee made,” I said. “And bannocks with honey, too.” My own stomach recoiled slightly at the thought of eating. Once spiced, stuffed, boiled, and fried, black pudding was delicious. The earlier stages, involving as they did arm-deep manipulations in a barrel of semi-coagulated pig’s blood, were substantially less appetizing.

Sinclair, though, looked happier at mention of food. He wiped a sleeve across his sweating forehead and nodded to me, turning toward the house. Then he stopped and turned back.

“Ah. I’d forgot, missus. I’ve a wee message for yourself, as well.” He patted gingerly at his chest, then lower, probing around his ribs until he at length found what he was looking for and extracted it from the layers of his sweat-soaked clothing. He pulled out a damp wad of paper and held it out to me in expectation, ignoring the fact that my right arm was coated with blood nearly to the shoulder, and the left in scarcely better case.

“Put it in the kitchen, why don’t you?” I suggested. “Himself’s inside. I’ll come as soon as I’ve got this lot sorted. Who—” I started to ask whom the letter was from, but tactfully altered this to, “Who gave it to you?” Ronnie couldn’t read—though I saw no marks on the outside of the note, in any case.

“A tinker on his way to Belem’s Creek handed it to me,” he said. “He didna say who gave it him—only that it was for the healer.”

He frowned at the wadded paper, but I saw his eyes slide sideways toward my legs. In spite of the chill, I was barefoot and stripped to my chemise and stays, no more than a smeared apron wrapped around my waist. Ronnie had been looking for a wife for some little time, and in consequence had formed the unconscious habit of appraising the physical attributes of every woman he encountered, without regard to age or availability. He noticed my noticing, and hastily jerked his gaze away.

“That was all?” I asked. “The healer? He didn’t give my name?”

Sinclair rubbed a hand through thinning ginger hair, so two spikes stood up over his reddened ears, increasing his naturally sly, foxy look.

“Didna have to, did he?” Without further attempts at conversation, he disappeared into the house, in search of food and Jamie, leaving me to my sanguinary labors.

The worst part was cleaning the blood: swishing an arm through the dark, reeking depths of the barrel to collect the threads of fibrin that formed as the blood began to clot. These clung to my arm and could then be pulled out and rinsed away—repeatedly. At that, it was slightly less nasty than the job of washing out the intestines to be used for the sausage casings; Brianna and Lizzie were doing that, down at the creek.

I peered at the latest results; no fibers visible in the clear red liquid that dripped from my fingers. I dunked my arm again in the water cask that stood beside the blood barrel, balanced on boards laid across a pair of trestles under the big chestnut tree. Jamie and Roger and Arch Bug had dragged the pig—not the white sow, but one of her many offspring from a prior year—into the yard, clubbed it between the eyes with a maul, then swung it up into the branches, slit the throat, and let the blood drain into the barrel.

Roger and Arch had then taken the disemboweled carcass away to be scalded and the bristles scraped off; Jamie’s presence was required to deal with Major MacDonald, who had appeared suddenly, puffing and wheezing from the climb up to the Ridge. Between the two, I thought Jamie would much have preferred to deal with the pig.

I finished washing my hands and arms—wasted labor, but necessary to my peace of mind—and dried off with a linen towel. I shoveled double handsful into the barrel from the waiting bowls of barley, oatmeal, and boiled rice, smiling slightly at memory of the Major’s plum-red face, and Ronnie Sinclair’s complaints. Himself had picked his building site on the Ridge with a great deal of forethought—precisely because of the difficulties involved in reaching it.

I ran my fingers through my hair, then took a deep breath and plunged my clean arm back into the barrel. The blood was cooling rapidly. Doused by the cereal, the smell was less immediate now than the metallic reek of fresh, hot blood. The mixture was still warm to the touch, though, and the grains made graceful swirls of white and brown, pale whirlpools drawn down into the blood as I stirred.

Ronnie was right; it hadn’t been necessary to identify me further than “the healer.” There wasn’t another closer than Cross Creek, unless one counted the shamans among the Indians—which most Europeans wouldn’t.

I wondered who had sent the note, and whether the matter was urgent. Probably not—at least it was not likely to be a matter of imminent childbirth or serious accident. Word of such events was likely to arrive in person, carried urgently by a friend or relative. A written message entrusted to a tinker couldn’t be counted on to be delivered with any sort of promptitude; tinkers wandered or stayed, depending on what work they found.

For that matter, tinkers and tramps seldom came so far as the Ridge, though we had seen three within the last month. I didn’t know whether that was the result of our growing population—Fraser’s Ridge boasted nearly sixty families now, though the cabins were scattered over ten miles of forested mountain slopes—or something more sinister.

“It’s one of the signs, Sassenach,” Jamie had told me, frowning after the departing form of the last such temporary guest. “When there is war in the air, men take to the roads.”

I thought he was right; I remembered wanderers on the Highland roads, carrying rumors of the Stuart Rising. It was as though the tremors of unrest jarred loose those who were not firmly attached to a place by love of land or family, and the swirling currents of dissension bore them onward, the first premonitory fragments of a slow-motion explosion that would shatter everything. I shivered, the light breeze touching cold through my shift.

The mass of gruel had reached the necessary consistency, something like a very thick, dark-red cream. I shook clumps of clotted grain from my fingers and reached with my clean left hand for the wooden bowl of minced and sauteed onions, standing ready. The strong smell of the onions overlaid the scent of butchery, pleasantly domestic.

The salt was ground, so was the pepper. All I needed now . . . as if on cue, Roger appeared around the corner of the house, a large basin in his hands, filled with fine-chopped pork fat.

“Just in time!” I said, and nodded toward the barrel. “No, don’t dump it in, it has to be measured—roughly.” I’d used ten double handsful of oatmeal, ten of rice, ten of barley. Half that total, then—fifteen. I shook back the hair from my eyes again, and carefully scooped up a double handful of the basin’s content, dropping it into the barrel with a splat.

“All right, are you?” I asked. I gestured toward a stool with my chin, beginning to work the fat into the mixture with my fingers. Roger was still a trifle pale and tight around the mouth, but he gave me a wry smile as he sat.

“Fine.”

“You didn’t have to do it, you know.”

“Yes, I did.” The note of wryness in his voice deepened. “I only wish I’d done it better.”

I shrugged, one-shouldered, and reached into the basin he held out for me.

“It takes practice.”

Roger had volunteered to kill the pig. Jamie had simply handed him the maul and stood back. I had seen Jamie kill pigs before; he said a brief prayer, blessed the pig, then crushed the skull with one tremendous blow. It had taken Roger five tries, and the memory of the squealing raised gooseflesh on my shoulders even now. Afterward, he had set down the maul, gone behind a tree, and been violently sick.

I scooped another handful. The mix was thickening, developing a greasy feel.

“He should have shown you how.”

“I shouldn’t think there’s anything technically difficult about it,” Roger said dryly. “Straightforward enough, after all, to bash an animal on the head.”

“Physically, perhaps,” I agreed. I scooped more fat, working with both hands now. “There’s a prayer for it, you know. For slaughtering an animal, I mean. Jamie should have told you.”

He looked faintly startled.

“No, I didn’t know.” He smiled, a little better now. “Last rites for the pig, aye?”

“I don’t think it’s for the pig’s benefit,” I said tartly. We lapsed into silence for a few moments, as I creamed the rest of the fat into the grain mixture, pausing to flick away occasional bits of gristle. I could feel Roger’s eyes on the barrel, watching the curious alchemy of cookery, that process of making the transfer of life from one being to another palatable.

“Highland drovers sometimes drain a cup or two of blood from one of their beasts, and mix it with oatmeal to eat on the road,” I said. “Nutritious, I suppose, but less tasty.”

Roger nodded, abstracted. He had set down the nearly empty basin and was cleaning dried blood from under his nails with the point of his dirk.

“Is it the same as the one for deer?” he asked. “The prayer. I’ve seen Jamie say that one, though I didn’t catch all of the words.”

“The gralloch prayer? I don’t know. Why don’t you ask him?”

Roger worked industriously on a thumbnail, eyes fixed on his hand.

“I wasn’t sure if he thought it right for me to know it. Me not being a Catholic, I mean.”

I looked down into the mixture, hiding a smile.

“I don’t think it would make a difference. That particular prayer is a lot older than the Church of Rome, if I’m not mistaken.”

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