A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 81

   

Her eyes were blue, and hugely magnified by the lenses, enormous with curiosity.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Claire Fraser,” I said, watching her narrowly, in case she too might already have heard all about my supposed crime. The bruise on my breast left by the stone that had struck me was still visible, beginning to yellow above the edge of my gown.

“Oh?” She squinted, as though trying to place me, but evidently failed, for she shrugged away the effort. “Got any money?”

“A bit.” Jamie had forced me to take almost all the money—not a great deal, but there was a small weight of coin at the bottom of each of the pockets tied around my waist, and a couple of proclamation notes tucked inside my stays.

The woman was a good deal shorter than I, and pillowy in aspect, with large, drooping br**sts and several comfortable rolls corrugating her uncorseted middle; she was in her shift, with her gown and stays hung from a nail in the wall. She seemed harmless—and I began to breathe a little more easily, beginning to grasp the fact that at least I was safe for the moment, no longer in danger of sudden, random violence.

The other prisoner made no offensive moves toward me, but hopped down off the bed, bare feet thumping softly in what I realized now was a matted layer of moldy straw.

“Well, call the old bizzom and send for some Holland, then, why don’t you?” she suggested cheerfully.

“The . . who?”

Instead of answering, she trundled to the door and banged on it, shouting, “Mrs. Tolliver! Mrs. Tolliver!”

The door opened almost immediately, revealing a tall, thin woman, looking like an annoyed stork.

“Really, Mrs. Ferguson,” she said. “You are the most dreadful nuisance. I was just coming to pay my respects to Mrs. Fraser, in any case.” She turned her back on Mrs. Ferguson with magisterial dignity and inclined her head a bare inch toward me.

“Mrs. Fraser. I am Mrs. Tolliver.”

I had a split second in which to decide how to react, and chose the prudent—if galling—course of genteel submission, bowing to her as though she were the Governor’s lady.

“Mrs. Tolliver,” I murmured, careful not to meet her eyes. “How kind of you.”

She twitched, sharp-eyed, like a bird spotting the stealthy progress of a worm through the grass—but I had firm control of my features by now, and she relaxed, detecting no sarcasm.

“You are welcome,” she said with chilly courtesy. “I am to see to your welfare, and acquaint you with our custom. You will receive one meal each day, unless you wish to send to the ordinary for more—at your own expense. I will bring you a basin for washing once each day. You’ll carry your own slops. And—”

“Oh, stuff your custom, Maisie,” said Mrs. Ferguson, butting into Mrs. Tolliver’s set speech with the comfortable assumption of long acquaintance. “She’s got some money. Fetch us a bottle of geneva, there’s a good girl, and then if you must, you can tell her what’s what.”

Mrs. Tolliver’s narrow face tightened in disapproval, but her eyes twitched toward me, bright in the dim light of the rush dip. I ventured a hesitant gesture toward my pocket, and her lower lip sucked in. She glanced over her shoulder, then took a quick step toward me.

“A shilling, then,” she whispered, hand held open between us. I dropped the coin into her palm, and it disappeared at once beneath her apron.

“You’ve missed supper,” she announced in her normal disapproving tones, stepping backward. “However, as you’ve just come, I shall make an allowance and bring you something.”

“How kind of you,” I said again.

The door closed firmly behind her, shutting out light and air, and the key turned in the lock.

The sound of it set off a tiny spark of panic, and I stamped on it hard. I felt like a dried skin, stuffed to the eyeballs with the tinder of fear, uncertainty, and loss. It would take no more than a spark to ignite that and burn me to ashes—and neither I nor Jamie could afford that.

“She drinks?” I asked, turning back to my new roommate with an assumption of coolness.

“Do you know anyone who doesn’t, given the chance?” Mrs. Ferguson asked reasonably. She scratched her ribs. “Fraser, she said. You aren’t the—”

“I am,” I said, rather rudely. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Her eyebrows shot up, but she nodded equably.

“Just as you like,” she said. “Any good at cards?”

“Loo or whist?” I asked warily.

“Know a game called brag?”

“No.” Jamie and Brianna played it now and then, but I had never acquainted myself with the rules.

“That’s all right; I’ll teach you.” Reaching under the mattress, she pulled out a rather limp deck of pasteboards and fanned them expertly, waving them gently under her nose as she smiled at me.

“Don’t tell me,” I said. “You’re in here for cheating at cards?”

“Cheat? Me? Not a bit of it,” she said, evidently unoffended. “Forgery.”

Rather to my own surprise, I laughed. I was still feeling shaky, but Mrs. Ferguson was definitely proving a welcome distraction.

“How long have you been in here?” I asked.

She scratched at her head, realized that she wasn’t wearing a cap, and turned to pull one out of the rumpled bedding.

“Oh—a month, just about.” Putting on the crumpled cap, she nodded at the doorpost beside me. Turning to look, I saw that it was crosshatched with dozens of small nicks, some old and dark with dirt, some freshly scratched, showing raw yellow wood. The sight of the marks made my stomach plunge again, but I took a deep breath and turned my back on them.

“Have you had a trial yet?”

She shook her head, light glinting off her spectacles.

“No, praise God. I hear from Maisie that the court’s shut down; all the justices gone into hiding. Hasn’t been anybody tried in the last two months.”

This was not good news. Evidently the thought showed on my face, for she leaned forward and patted my arm sympathetically.

“I wouldn’t be in a hurry, dearie. Not in your shoes, I wouldn’t. If they’ve not tried you, they can’t hang you. And while I have met those as say the waiting’s like to kill them, I’ve not seen anybody die of it. And I have seen them die at the end of a rope. Nasty business, that is.”

She spoke almost negligently, but her own hand rose, as though by itself, and touched the soft white flesh of her neck. She swallowed, the tiny bump of her Adam’s apple bobbing.

I swallowed, too, an unpleasantly constricted feeling in my own throat.

“But I’m innocent,” I said, wondering even as I said it how I could sound so uncertain.

“‘Course you are,” she said stoutly, giving my arm a squeeze. “You stick to it, dearie—don’t you let ’em bully-whack you into admitting the least little thing!”

“I won’t,” I assured her dryly.

“One of these days, a mob’s like to come here,” she said, nodding. “String up the sheriff, if he don’t look sharp. He’s not popular, Tolliver.”

“I can’t imagine why not—a charming fellow like that.” I wasn’t sure how I felt about the prospect of a mob storming the house. Stringing up Sheriff Tolliver was all very well, so far as that went—but with the memory of the hostile crowds in Salisbury and Hillsboro fresh in mind, I wasn’t sure at all that they’d stop with the sheriff. Dying at the hands of a lynch mob wasn’t at all preferable to the slower sort of judicial murder I likely faced. Though I supposed there was always a possibility of escaping in the riot.

And go where, if you did? I wondered.

With no good answer to that question, I shoved it to the back of my mind and turned my attention back to Mrs. Ferguson, who was still holding out the cards invitingly.

“All right,” I said. “But not for money.”

“Oh, no,” Mrs. Ferguson assured me. “Perish the thought. But we must have some sort of stake to make it interesting. We’ll play for beans, shall we?” She set down the cards, and digging under the pillow, withdrew a small pouch, from which she poured a handful of small white beans.

“Splendid,” I said. “And when we’re finished, we’ll plant them, shall we, and hope for a giant beanstalk to spring up and burst through the roof, so we can escape up it.”

She burst into giggles at that, which somehow made me feel very slightly better.

“From your mouth to God’s ear, dearie!” she said. “I’ll deal first, shall I?”

BRAG APPEARED TO BE a form of poker. And while I had lived with a cardsharp long enough to know one when I saw one, Mrs. Ferguson appeared to be playing honestly—for the moment. I was forty-six beans to the good, by the time Mrs. Tolliver returned.

The door opened without ceremony, and she came in, holding a three-legged stool and a chunk of bread. This latter appeared to be both my supper and her ostensible excuse for visiting the cell, for she shoved it at me with a loud, “This will have to keep you ’til tomorrow, Mrs. Fraser!”

“Thank you,” I said mildly. It was fresh, and appeared to have been hastily dragged through bacon drippings, in lieu of butter. I bit into it without hesitation, having sufficiently recovered from shock now as to feel very hungry indeed.

Mrs. Tolliver, glancing over her shoulder to be sure the coast was clear, shut the door quietly, put down the stool, and drew a squat bottle from her pocket, blue glass and filled with some clear liquid.

She pulled the cork from it, tilted it, and drank deeply, her long, lean throat moving convulsively.

Mrs. Ferguson said nothing, but watched the process with a sort of analytic attention, light glinting from her spectacles, as though comparing Mrs. Tolliver’s behavior with that of previous occasions.

Mrs. Tolliver lowered the bottle and stood for a moment grasping it, then handed it abruptly to me and sat down suddenly on the stool, breathing heavily.

I wiped the neck of the bottle as inconspicuously as possible on my sleeve, then took a token sip. It was gin, all right—heavily flavored with juniper berries to hide the poor quality, but powerfully alcoholic.

Mrs. Ferguson took a healthy guzzle in her turn, and so we continued, passing the bottle from hand to hand, exchanging small cordialities with it. Her first thirst slaked, Mrs. Tolliver became almost affable, her frosty manner thawing substantially. Even so, I waited until the bottle was nearly empty before asking the question foremost in my mind.

“Mrs. Tolliver, the men who brought me—did you happen to hear them say anything about my husband?”

She put a fist to her mouth to stifle a belch.

“Say anything?”

“About where he is,” I amended.

She blinked a little, looking blank.

“I didn’t hear,” she said. “But I suppose they may have told Tolly.”

Mrs. Ferguson handed down the bottle to her—we were sitting side by side on the bed, that being the only place to sit in the small room—nearly falling off the bed in the process.

“S’pose you could ask him, could you, Maisie?” she said.

An uneasy look came into Mrs. Tolliver’s eyes, glazed as they were.

“Oh, no,” she said, shaking her head. “He doesn’t talk to me about such things. Not my business.”

I exchanged a glance with Mrs. Ferguson, and she shook her head slightly; best not to press the matter now.

Worried as I was, I found it difficult to abandon the subject, but plainly there was nothing to be done. I gathered what shreds of patience I had, estimating how many bottles of gin I could afford before my money ran out—and what I might accomplish with them.

I LAY STILL THAT NIGHT, breathing the damp, thick air with its scents of mold and urine. I could smell Sadie Ferguson next to me, too: a faint miasma of stale sweat, overlaid with a strong perfume of gin. I tried to close my eyes, but every time I did, small waves of claustrophobia washed over me; I could feel the sweating plaster walls draw closer, and gripped my fists in the cloth of the mattress ticking, to keep from throwing myself at the locked door. I had a nasty vision of myself, pounding and shrieking, my nails torn and bloody from clawing at the unyielding wood, my cries unheard in the darkness—and no one ever coming.

I thought it a distinct possibility. I had heard more from Mrs. Ferguson regarding Sheriff Tolliver’s unpopularity. If he were to be attacked and dragged from his home by a mob—or to lose his nerve and run—the chances of him or his wife remembering the prisoners were remote.

A mob might find us—and kill us, in the madness of the moment. Or not find us, and fire the house. The storeroom was clay brick, but the adjoining kitchen was timber; damp or not, the place would burn like a torch, leaving nothing but that bloody brick wall standing.

I took an especially deep breath, smell notwithstanding, exhaled, and shut my eyes with decision.

Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. That had been one of Frank’s favorite expressions, and by and large, a good sentiment.

Depends a bit on the day, though, doesn’t it? I thought in his direction.

Does it? You tell me. The thought was there, vivid enough that I might have heard it—or only imagined it. If I had imagined it, though, I had imagined also a tone of dry amusement that was particularly Frank’s.

Fine, I thought. Reduced to having philosophical arguments with a ghost. It’s been a worse day than I thought.

Imagination or not, the thought had succeeded in wrenching my attention off the single-minded track of worry. I felt a sense of invitation—or temptation, perhaps. The urge to talk to him. The need to escape into conversation, even if one-sided . . . and imaginary.

No. I won’t use you that way, I thought, a little sadly. Not right that I should only think of you when I need distraction, and not for your own sake.

And do you never think of me, for my own sake? The question floated in the darkness of my eyelids. I could see his face, quite clearly, the lines of it curved in humor, one dark eyebrow raised. I was dimly surprised; it had been so long since I thought of him in any focused way that I should have long since forgotten exactly what he looked like. But I hadn’t.

And I suppose that’s the answer to your question, then, I thought silently to him. Good night, Frank.

I turned onto my side, facing the door. I felt a little calmer now. I could just make out the outlines of the door, and being able to see it lessened that feeling of being buried alive.

I closed my eyes again, and tried to concentrate on the processes of my own body. That often helped, bringing me a sense of quiet, listening to the purling of blood through my vessels and the subterranean gurglings of organs all carrying peacefully on without the slightest need of my conscious direction. Rather like sitting in the garden, listening to the bees hum in their hives—

I stopped that thought in its tracks, feeling my heart jolt in memory, electric as a bee sting.

I thought quite fiercely about my heart, the physical organ, its thick soft chambers and delicate valves—but what I felt was a soreness there. There were hollow places in my heart.

Jamie. A gaping, echoing hollow, cold and deep as the crevasse of a glacier. Bree. Jemmy. Roger. And Malva, like a tiny, deep-drilled sore, an ulcer that wouldn’t heal.

I had managed so far to ignore the rustlings and heavy breathings of my companion. I couldn’t ignore the hand that brushed my neck, then slipped down my chest and rested lightly, cupped around my breast.

I stopped breathing. Then, very slowly, exhaled. Entirely without my intent, my breast settled into her cupped palm. I felt a touch on my back; a thumb, gently tracing the groove of my spine through my shift.

I understood the need of human comfort, the sheer hunger for touch. I had taken it, often, and given it, part of the fragile web of humanity, constantly torn, constantly made new. But there was that in Sadie Ferguson’s touch that spoke of more than simple warmth, or the need of company in the dark.

I took hold of her hand, and lifting it from my breast, squeezed the fingers gently shut, and put it firmly away from me, folded back against her own bosom.

“No,” I said softly.

She hesitated, moved her h*ps so that her body curved behind me, thighs warm and round against mine, offering encompassment and refuge.

“No one would know,” she whispered, still hopeful. “I could make you forget—for a bit.” Her hand stroked my hip, gentle, insinuating.

If she could, I thought wryly, I might be tempted. But that pathway was not one I could take.

“No,” I said more firmly, and shifted, rolling onto my back, as far away as I could get—which was roughly an inch and a half. “I’m sorry—but no.”

She was silent for a moment, then sighed heavily.

“Oh, well. Perhaps a bit later.”

“No!”

The noises from the kitchen had ceased, and the house settled into silence. It wasn’t the silence of the mountains, though, that cradle of boughs and whispering winds and the vast deep of the starry sky. It was the silence of a town, disturbed by smoke and the fogged dim glow of hearth and candle; filled with slumbering thoughts unleashed from waking reason, roaming and uneasy in the dark.

“Could I hold you?” she asked wistfully, and her fingers brushed my cheek. “Only that.”

“No,” I said again. But I reached for her hand, and held it. And so we fell asleep, hands chastely—and firmly—linked between us.

WE WERE ROUSED BY what I thought at first was the wind, moaning in the chimney whose back bulged into our cubbyhole. The moaning grew louder, though, broke into a full-throated scream, then stopped abruptly.

“Ye gods and little fishes!” Sadie Ferguson sat up, eyes wide and blinking, groping for her spectacles. “What was that?”

“A woman in labor,” I said, having heard that particular pattern of sounds fairly often. The moaning was starting up again. “And very near her time.” I slid off the bed and shook my shoes, dislodging a small roach and a couple of silverfish who had taken shelter in the toes.

We sat for nearly an hour, listening to the alternate moaning and screaming.

“Shouldn’t it stop?” Sadie said, swallowing nervously. “Shouldn’t the child be birthed by now?”

“Perhaps,” I said absently. “Some babies take longer than others.” I had my ear pressed to the door, trying to make out what was going on on the other side. The woman, whoever she was, was in the kitchen, and no more than ten feet away from me. I heard Maisie Tolliver’s voice now and then, muffled and sounding doubtful. But for the most part, only the rhythmic panting, moaning, and screaming.

Another hour of it, and my nerves were becoming frayed. Sadie was on the bed, the pillow pressed down hard over her head, in hopes of blocking the noise.

Enough of this, I thought, and when next I heard Mrs. Tolliver’s voice, I banged on the door with the heel of my shoe, shouting, “Mrs. Tolliver!” as loudly as I could, to be heard over the noise.

She did hear me, and after a moment, the key grated in the lock and a wave of light and air fell into the cell. I was momentarily blinded by the daylight, but blinked and made out the shape of a woman on her hands and knees by the hearth, facing me. She was black, bathed in sweat, and, raising her head, howled like a wolf. Mrs. Tolliver started as though someone had run a pin into her from behind.

“Excuse me,” I said, pushing past her. She made no move to stop me, and I caught a strong blast of juniper-scented gin fumes as I brushed by her.

The black woman sank down on her elbows, panting, her uncovered rear in the air. Her belly hung like a ripe guava, pale in the sweat-soaked shift that clung to it.

I asked sharp questions in the brief interval before the next howl, and ascertained that this was her fourth child and that she had been laboring since her water had broken the night before. Mrs. Tolliver contributed the information that she was also a prisoner, and a slave. I might have guessed that, from the purplish weals on her back and buttocks.

Mrs. Tolliver was of little other use, swaying glassy-eyed over me, but had managed to provide a small pile of rags and a basin of water, which I used to mop the woman’s sweating face. Sadie Ferguson poked her bespectacled nose cautiously out of the cell, but drew back hastily when the next howl broke forth.

It was a breech birth, which accounted for the difficulty, and the next quarter-hour was hair-raising for all concerned. At length, though, I eased a small baby into the world, feet first, slimy, motionless, and the most unearthly shade of pale blue.

“Oh,” said Mrs. Tolliver, sounding disappointed. “It’s dead.”

“Good,” said the mother, in a hoarse, deep voice, and closed her eyes.

“Damned if he is,” I said, and turned the child hastily facedown, tapping its back. No movement, and I brought the sealed, waxy face to my own, covered nose and mouth with my own mouth, and sucked hard, then turned my head to spit away the mucus and fluid. Face slimy and the taste of silver in my mouth, I blew gently into him, paused, holding him, limp and slippery as a fresh fish, blew—and saw his eyes open, a deeper blue than his skin, vaguely interested.

He took a startled, gasping breath and I laughed, a sudden wellspring of joy bubbling up from my depths. The nightmare memory of another child, a flicker of life blinking out between my hand, faded away. This child was well and truly lit, burning like a candle with a soft, clear flame.

“Oh!” said Mrs. Tolliver, again. She leaned forward to look, and an enormous smile spread across her face. “Oh, oh!”

The baby started crying. I cut the cord, wrapped him in some of the rags, and with some reservation, handed him to Mrs. Tolliver, hoping she wouldn’t drop him in the fire. Then I turned my attention to the mother, who was drinking thirstily from the basin, water spilling down her front and soaking the already wet shift further.

She lay back and allowed me to tend her, but without speaking, rolling her eyes occasionally toward the child with a brooding, hostile look.

I heard footsteps coming through the house, and the sheriff appeared, looking surprised.

“Oh, Tolly!” Mrs. Tolliver, smeared with birth fluids and reeking of gin, turned to him happily, holding out the baby to him. “Look, Tolly, it’s alive!”

The sheriff looked quite taken aback, and his brow furrowed as he looked at his wife, but then he seemed to catch the scent of her happiness, above the gin. He leaned forward and touched the little bundle gently, his stern face relaxing.

“That’s good, Maisie,” he said. “Hallo, little fellow.” He caught sight of me, then, kneeling on the hearth, doing my best to clean up with a rag and what was left of the water.

“Mrs. Fraser brought the child,” Mrs. Tolliver explained eagerly. “It was laid catty-wumpus, but she brought it so cleverly, and made it breathe—we thought ’twas dead, it was so still, but it wasn’t! Isn’t that wonderful, Tolly?”

“Wonderful,” the sheriff repeated a little bleakly. He gave me a hard look, then transferred the same look to the new mother, who gazed back with a sullen indifference. He beckoned me to my feet, then, and with a curt bow, gestured me back into the cell and shut the door.

Only then did I recall what it was he thought I’d done. Little wonder if my juxtaposition with a newborn child made him a trifle nervous, I supposed. I was wet and filthy, and the cell seemed particularly hot and airless. Nonetheless, the miracle of birth was still tingling through my synapses, and I sat down on the bed, still smiling, a wet rag in my hand.

Sadie was regarding me with respect, mingled with a slight revulsion.

“That’s the messiest business I ever did see,” she said. “Heavens above, is it always like that?”

“More or less. Haven’t you ever seen a child born? You’ve never had one yourself?” I asked curiously. She shook her head vigorously, and made the sign of the horns, which made me laugh, giddy as I was.

“Had I ever been disposed to let a man near me, the thought of that would dissuade me,” she assured me fervently.

“Oh, yes?” I said, belatedly recalling her overtures of the night before. It wasn’t merely comfort she’d been offering, then. “And what about Mister Ferguson?”

She gave me a demure look, blinking through her spectacles.

“Oh, he was a farmer—much older than I. Dead of the pleurisy, these five years gone.”

And totally fictitious, I was inclined to think. But a widow had a great deal more freedom than did a maid or a wife, and if ever I saw a woman capable of taking care of herself . . .

I had been paying no attention to the sounds in the kitchen, but at this point, there was a heavy crash and the sheriff’s voice, cursing. No sound of the child or Mrs. Tolliver.

“Taking the black bitch back to her quarters,” Sadie said, with such a hostile intonation that I glanced at her in amazement.

“Didn’t you know?” she said, seeing my surprise. “She’s killed her babies. They can hang her, now she’s borne this one.”

“Oh,” I said a little blankly. “No. I didn’t know.” The noises in the kitchen receded, and I sat staring at the rush dip, the sense of life still moving in my hands.

91

A REASONABLY

NEAT SCHEME

WATER LAPPED JUST UNDER JAMIE’S EAR, Jamie’s ear, the mere sound of it making him feel queasy. The reek of decaying mud and dead fish didn’t help, nor did the dunt he’d taken when he fell against the wall.

He shifted, trying to find some position that would ease head, stomach, or both. They’d trussed him like a boiled fowl, but he managed with some effort to roll onto his side and bring his knees up, which helped a bit.

He was in a dilapidated boat shed of some sort; he’d seen it in the last of the twilight, when they’d brought him down to the shore—he’d thought at first they meant to drown him—and carried him inside, dropping him on the floor like a sack of flour.

“Hurry up, Ian,” he muttered, shifting again, in increasing discomfort. “I’m a great deal too old for this sort of nonsense.”

He could only hope his nephew had been close enough when Brown moved to have been able to follow, and to have some notion where he was now; certainly the lad would be looking. The shore where the shed stood was open, no cover, but there was plenty among the brush below Fort Johnston, standing on the headland a little way above him.

The back of his head throbbed dully, giving him a nasty taste in the back of the mouth, and a disquieting echo of the shattering headaches he used to suffer in the wake of an ax wound that had cracked his skull, many years before. He was shocked at how easily the recollection of those headaches came back; it had happened a lifetime ago, and he had thought even the memory of it dead and buried. His skull clearly had a much more vivid memory of its own, though, and was determined to make him sick by way of revenge for his forgetfulness.

The moon was up, and bright; the light shone soft through the cracks between the crude boards of the wall. Dim as it was, it seemed to shift, wavering in a disturbingly qualmish fashion, and he shut his eyes, concentrating grimly on what he might do to Richard Brown, and he got the man alone someday.

Where in the name of Michael and all the saints had he taken Claire, and why? Jamie’s only comfort was that Tom Christie had gone with them. He was fairly sure that Christie wouldn’t let them kill her—and if Jamie could find him, he would lead him to her.

A sound reached him above the nauseating lapping of the tide. Faint whistling—then singing. He could just make out the words, and smiled a little, in spite of everything. “Marry me, marry me, minister—or else I’ll be your priest, your priest—or else I’ll be your priest.”

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