A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 9

   

“We’ll be all right,” I said quietly. I meant it to be a reassuring statement, but it came out with a tinge of question.

“Aye, I know,” he said. He put the last iron in its box, but didn’t replace the lid. Instead, he stood, hands spread flat on the counter, looking straight ahead.

“I dinna want to go,” he said softly. “I dinna want to do this.”

I wasn’t sure whether he was speaking to me, or to himself—but I thought he wasn’t referring only to his journey to the Cherokee village.

“Neither do I,” I whispered, and moved a little closer, so I felt his breathing. He lifted his hands then and turned toward me, taking me into his arms, and we stood wrapped close, listening to each other’s breathing, the bitter smell of the brewing tea seeping through the homely scents of linen, dust, and sun-warmed flesh.

There were still choices to be made, decisions to reach, actions to take. Many of them. But in one day, one hour, one single declaration of intent, we had stepped across the threshold of war.

10

DUTY CALLS

JAMIE HAD SENT BOBBY after Roger Mac, but found himself too restless to wait, and set off himself, leaving Claire to her brewing.

Everything seemed peaceful and beautiful outside. A brown sheep with a pair of lambs stood indolently in her pen, jaws moving in a slow stupor of satisfaction, the lambs hopping awkwardly to and fro like fuzzy grasshoppers behind her. Claire’s herb bed was full of leafing greens and sprouting flowers.

The well lid was ajar; he bent to draw it into place and found the boards had warped. He added fixing that to the constant list of chores and repairs that he carried in his head, wishing fervently that he could devote the next few days to digging, hauling manure, shingling, and the like, instead of what he was about to do.

He’d rather bury the old privy pit or castrate pigs than go and ask Roger Mac what he kent about Indians and revolutions. He found it mildly gruesome to discuss the future with his son-in-law, and tried never to do it.

The things Claire told him of her own time seemed often fantastic, with the enjoyable half-real sense of faery tales, and sometimes macabre, but always interesting, for what he learned of his wife from the telling. Brianna tended to share with him small, homely details of machinery, which were interesting, or wild stories of men walking on the moon, which were immensely entertaining, but no threat to his peace of mind.

Roger Mac, though, had a cold-blooded way of talking that reminded him to an uncomfortable degree of the works of the historians he’d read, and had therefore a sense of concrete doom about it. Talking to Roger Mac made it seem all too likely that this, that, or the other frightful happenstance was not only indeed going to happen—but would most likely have direct and personal consequences.

It was like talking to a particularly evil-minded fortune-teller, he thought, one you hadn’t paid enough to hear something pleasant. The thought made a sudden memory pop up on the surface of his mind, bobbing like a fishing cork.

In Paris. He’d been with friends, other students, drinking in the piss-smelling taverns near the université. He’d been fairly drunk himself when someone took a fancy to have his palms read, and he had pushed with the others into the corner where the old woman who did it always sat, scarcely visible amid the gloom and clouds of pipe smoke.

He hadn’t intended to do it himself; he had only a few pennies in his pocket, and didn’t mean to waste them on unholy nonsense. He’d said so, loudly.

Whereupon a scraggy claw had shot out of the darkness and seized his hand, sinking long, filthy nails into his flesh. He’d yelped in surprise, and his friends all laughed. They laughed harder when she spat in his palm.

She rubbed the spittle into his skin in a businesslike way, bent close enough that he could smell the ancient sweat of her and see the lice crawling in the grizzled hair that keeked from the edge of her rusty-black shawl. She peered into his hand and a dirty nail traced the lines of it, tickling. He tried to pull his hand away, but she tightened her grip on his wrist, and he found to his surprise that he could not break it.

“T’es un chat, toi,” the old woman had remarked, in tones of malicious interest. “You’re a cat, you. A little red cat.”

Dubois—that was his name, Dubois—had at once begun to miaou and yowl, to the amusement of the others. He himself refused to rise to the bait, and saying only, “Merci, madame,” tried again to pull away.

“Neuf,” she said, tapping rapid random places on his palm, then seizing a finger and wiggling it by way of emphasis. “You have a nine in your hand. And death,” she’d added offhandedly. “You’ll die nine times before you rest in your grave.”

She’d let go then, amidst a chorus of sarcastic “aou-la-las!” from the French students, and laughter from the rest.

He snorted, sending the memory back where it came from, and good riddance to it. The old woman refused to go so easily, though, and called to him through the years, as she’d called through the raucous, beer-filled air of the tavern.

“Sometimes dying doesn’t hurt, mon p’tit chat,” she’d called after him, mocking. “But more often it does.”

“No it doesn’t,” he muttered, and stopped, appalled, hearing himself. Christ. It wasn’t himself he was hearing, but his godfather.

“Don’t be afraid, laddie. It doesna hurt a bit, to die.” He missed his footing and staggered, caught himself and stood still, a taste of metal on the back of his tongue.

His heart was thumping, suddenly, for no reason, as though he had run miles. He saw the cabin, certainly, and heard the calling of jays in the half-leafed chestnut trees. But he saw even more clearly Murtagh’s face, the grim lines of it relaxing into peace and the deep-set black eyes fixed on his, shifting in and out of focus, as though his godfather looked at once at him and at something far beyond him. He felt the weight of Murtagh’s body in his arms, growing suddenly heavy as he died.

The vision vanished, as abruptly as it had come, and he found himself standing next to a rain puddle, staring at a wooden duck half-mired in the mud.

He crossed himself, with a quick word for the repose of Murtagh’s soul, then bent and retrieved the duck, washing the mud away in the puddle. His hands were trembling, and little wonder. His memories of Culloden were few and fragmentary—but they were beginning to come back.

So far, such things had come to him only in glimpses at the edge of sleep. He’d seen Murtagh there before, and in the dreams that followed.

He hadn’t told Claire about them. Not yet.

He pushed open the door of the cabin, but it was empty, the hearth smoored, spinning wheel and loom standing idle. Brianna was likely at Fergus’s place, visiting Marsali. Where would Roger Mac be now? He stepped back outside and stood listening.

The thump of an ax came faintly from somewhere in the forest beyond the cabin. It stopped, then, and he heard men’s voices, raised in greeting. He turned and headed for the trail that led upslope, half grown over with spring grass, but showing the black smudges of fresh footmarks.

What might the old woman have told him if he’d paid her? he wondered. Had she lied to spite him for his miserliness—or told him the truth, for the same reason?

One of the more disagreeable things about talking to Roger Mac was that Jamie was sure he always told the truth.

He’d forgotten to leave the duck at the cabin. Wiping it on his breeches, he pushed grimly through the sprouting weeds, to hear what fate awaited him.

11

BLOODWORK

I PUSHED THE MICROSCOPE toward Bobby Higgins, who had returned from his errand, his own discomforts forgotten in worry for Lizzie.

“See the round pinkish things?” I said. “Those are Lizzie’s blood cells. Everyone has blood cells,” I added. “They’re what make your blood red.”

“‘Strewth,” he muttered, amazed. “I never knew!”

“Well, now you do,” I said. “Do you see that some of the blood cells are broken? And that some have little spots in them?”

“I do, mum,” he said, screwing up his face and peering intently. “What are ’ey, then?”

“Parasites. Little beasts that get into your blood if a certain kind of mosquito bites you,” I explained. “They’re called Plasmodium. Once you’ve got them, they go on living in your blood—but every so often, they begin to . . . er . . . breed. When there are too many of them, they burst out of the blood cells, and that’s what causes a malarial attack—the ague. The sludge of the broken blood cells sort of silts up, you see, in the organs, and makes you feel terribly sick.”

“Oh.” He straightened up, making a face of deep aversion at the microscope. “That’s . . . that’s pure gashly, that is!”

“Yes, it is,” I said, succeeding in keeping a straight face. “But quinine—Jesuit bark, you know?—will help stop it.”

“Oh, that’s good, mum, very good,” he said, his face lightening. “However you do come to know such things,” he said, shaking his head. “’Tis a wonder!”

“Oh, I know quite a lot of things about parasites,” I said casually, taking the saucer off the bowl in which I had been brewing the mix of dogwood bark and gallberries. The liquid was a rich purplish black, and looked slightly viscous, now that it had cooled. It also smelled lethal, from which I deduced that it was about ready.

“Tell me, Bobby—have you ever heard of hookworms?”

He looked at me blankly.

“No, mum.”

“Mm. Would you hold this for me, please?” I put a folded square of gauze over the neck of a flask and handed him the bottle to hold while I poured the purple mixture into it.

“These fainting fits of yours,” I said, eyes on the stream. “How long have you had them?”

“Oh . . . six months, mebbe.”

“I see. Did you by chance notice any sort of irritation—itching, say? Or a rash? Happening maybe seven months ago? Most likely on your feet.”

He stared at me, soft blue eyes thunderstruck as though I had performed some feat of mind reading.

“Why, so I did have, mum. Last autumn, ’twas.”

“Ah,” I said. “Well, then. I think, Bobby, that you may just possibly have a case of hookworms.”

He looked down at himself in horror.

“Where?”

“Inside.” I took the bottle from him and corked it. “Hookworms are parasites that burrow through the skin—most often through the soles of the feet—and then migrate through the body until they reach your intestines—your, um, innards,” I amended, seeing incomprehension cross his face. “The adult worms have nasty little hooked bills, like this”—I crooked my index finger in illustration—“and they pierce the intestinal lining and proceed to suck your blood. That’s why, if you have them, you feel very weak, and faint frequently.”

From the suddenly clammy look of him, I rather thought he was about to faint now, and guided him hastily to a stool, pushing his head down between his knees.

“I don’t know for sure that that’s the problem,” I told him, bending down to address him. “I was just looking at the slides of Lizzie’s blood, though, and thinking of parasites, and—well, it came to me suddenly that a diagnosis of hookworms would fit your symptoms rather well.”

“Oh?” he said faintly. The thick tail of wavy hair had fallen forward, leaving the back of his neck exposed, fair-skinned and childlike.

“How old are you, Bobby?” I asked, suddenly realizing that I had no idea.

“Twenty-three, mum,” he said. “Mum? I think I s’all have to puke.”

I snatched a bucket from the corner and got it to him just in time.

“Have I got rid of them?” he asked weakly, sitting up and wiping his mouth on his sleeve as he peered into the bucket. “I could do it more.”

“I’m afraid not,” I said sympathetically. “Assuming that you have got hookworms, they’re attached very firmly, and too far down for vomiting to dislodge them. The only way to be sure about it, though, is to look for the eggs they shed.”

Bobby eyed me apprehensively.

“It’s not exactly as I’m horrible shy, mum,” he said, shifting gingerly. “You know that. But Dr. Potts did give me great huge clysters of mustard water. Surely that would ha’ burnt they worms right out? If I was a worm, I s’ould let go and give up the ghost at once, did anyone souse me with mustard water.”

“Well, you would think so, wouldn’t you?” I said. “Unfortunately not. But I won’t give you an enema,” I assured him. “We need to see whether you truly do have the worms, to begin with, and if so, there’s a medicine I can mix up for you that will poison them directly.”

“Oh.” He looked a little happier at that. “How d’ye mean to see, then, mum?” He glanced narrowly at the counter, where the assortment of clamps and suture jars were still laid out.

“Couldn’t be simpler,” I assured him. “I do a process called fecal sedimentation to concentrate the stool, then look for the eggs under the microscope.”

He nodded, plainly not following. I smiled kindly at him.

“All you have to do, Bobby, is shit.”

His face was a study in doubt and apprehension.

“If it’s all the same to you, mum,” he said, “I think I’ll keep the worms.”

12

FURTHER MYSTERIES

OF SCIENCE

LATE IN THE AFTERNOON, Roger MacKenzie came back from the cooper’s shop to discover his wife deep in contemplation of an object sitting on his dinner table.

“What is that? Some type of prehistoric Christmas tinned goods?” Roger extended a ginger forefinger toward a squat jar made of greenish glass and sealed with a cork, the latter covered with a stout layer of red wax. An amorphous chunk of something was visible inside, evidently submerged in liquid.

“Ho ho,” said his wife tolerantly, moving the jar out of his reach. “You think you’re being funny. It’s white phosphorus—a present from Lord John.”

He glanced at her; she was excited, the tip of her nose gone pink and bits of red hair pulled loose and waving in the breeze; like her father, she was inclined to run her hands through her hair when thinking.

“And you intend to do . . . what with it?” he asked, trying to keep any note of foreboding from his voice. He had the vaguest memories of hearing about the properties of phosphorus in his distant school days; he thought either it made you glow in the dark or it blew up. Neither prospect was reassuring.

“Wellll . . . make matches. Maybe.” Her upper teeth fastened momentarily in the flesh of her lower lip as she considered the jar. “I know how—in theory. But it might be a little tricky in practice.”

“Why is that?” he asked warily.

“Well, it bursts into flame if you expose it to air,” she explained. “That’s why it’s packed in water. Don’t touch, Jem! It’s poisonous.” Grabbing Jemmy round the middle, she pulled him down from the table, where he had been eyeing the jar with greedy curiosity.

“Oh, well, why worry about that? It will explode in his face before he has a chance to get it in his mouth.” Roger picked up the jar for safekeeping, holding it as though it might go off in his hands. He wanted to ask whether she were insane, but had been married long enough to know the price of injudicious rhetorical questions.

“Where d’ye mean to keep it?” He cast an eloquent glance round the confines of the cabin, which in terms of storage boasted a blanket chest, a small shelf for books and papers, another for comb, toothbrushes, and Brianna’s small cache of personal belongings, and a pie hutch. Jemmy had been able to open the pie hutch since the age of seven months or so.

“I’m thinking I’d better put it in Mama’s surgery,” she replied, keeping an absentminded grip on Jem, who was struggling with single-minded energy to get at the pretty thing. “Nobody touches anything in there.”

That was true enough; the people who were not afraid of Claire Fraser personally were generally terrified of the contents of her surgery, these featuring fearsomely painful-looking implements, mysterious murky brews, and vile-smelling medicines. In addition, the surgery had cupboards too high for even a determined climber like Jem to reach.

“Good idea,” Roger said, anxious to get the jar out of Jem’s vicinity. “I’ll take it up now, shall I?”

Before Brianna could answer, a knock came at the door, followed immediately by Jamie Fraser. Jem instantly ceased trying to get at the jar and instead flung himself on his grandfather with shrieks of joy.

“How is it, then, a bhailach?” Jamie inquired amiably, neatly turning Jem upside down and holding him by the ankles. “A word, Roger Mac?”

“Sure. Ye’ll sit, maybe?” He’d told Jamie earlier what he knew—lamentably little—regarding the role of the Cherokee in the upcoming Revolution. Had he come to inquire further? Reluctantly setting down the jar, Roger pulled out a stool and pushed it in his father-in-law’s direction. Jamie accepted it with a nod, dexterously transferring Jemmy to a position over one shoulder and sitting down.

Jemmy giggled madly, squirming until his grandfather slapped him lightly on the seat of his breeches, whereupon he subsided, hanging contentedly upside-down like a sloth, his bright hair spilling down the back of Jamie’s shirt.

“It’s this way, a charaid,” Jamie said. “I must be going in the morning to the Cherokee villages, and there is a thing I’d ask ye to do in my place.”

“Oh, aye. D’ye want me to see to the barley harvest, then?” The early grain was still ripening. Everyone had his fingers crossed that the weather would keep fair for another few weeks, but the prospects were good.

“No, Brianna can do that—if ye will, lass?” He smiled at his daughter, who raised thick ruddy eyebrows, the twins of his.

“I can,” she agreed. “What are you planning to do with Ian, Roger, and Arch Bug, though?” Arch Bug was Jamie’s factor, and the logical person to be overseeing the harvest in Jamie’s absence.

“Well, I shall take Young Ian with me. The Cherokee ken him well, and he’s comfortable wi’ their speech. I’ll take the Beardsley lads, too, so they can fetch back the berries and bits o’ things your mother wants for Lizzie, straightaway.”

“I go, too?” Jemmy inquired hopefully.

“Not this time, a bhailach. In the autumn, maybe.” He patted Jemmy on the bottom, then returned his attention to Roger.

“That being so,” he said, “I need ye to go to Cross Creek, if ye will, and collect the new tenants.” Roger felt a small surge of excitement—and alarm—at the prospect, but merely cleared his throat and nodded.

“Aye. Of course. Will they—”

“Ye’ll take Arch Bug along, and Tom Christie.”

A moment of incredulous silence greeted this statement.

“Tom Christie?” Bree said, exchanging a glance of bafflement with Roger. “What on earth for?” The schoolmaster was a notably dour sort, and no one’s idea of a congenial traveling companion.

Her father’s mouth twisted wryly.

“Aye, well. There’s the one small thing MacDonald neglected to tell me, when he asked if I’d take them. They’re Protestants, the lot.”

“Ah,” said Roger. “I see.” Jamie met his eye and nodded, relieved to be so immediately understood.

“I don’t see.” Brianna patted her hair, frowning, then pulled off the ribbon and began to comb her fingers slowly through it, undoing the tangles as a preliminary to brushing it. “What difference does it make?”

Roger and Jamie exchanged a brief but eloquent glance. Jamie shrugged, and pulled Jem down into his lap.

“Well.” Roger rubbed his chin, trying to think how to explain two centuries of Scottish religious intolerance in any way that would make sense to an American of the twentieth century. “Ahh . . . ye recall the civil-rights thing in the States, integration in the South, all that?”

“Of course I do.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “Okay. So, which side are the Negroes?”

“The what?” Jamie looked entirely baffled. “Where do Negroes come into the matter?”

“Not quite that simple,” Roger assured her. “Just an indication of the depth of feeling involved. Let us say that the notion of having a Catholic landlord is likely to cause our new tenants severe qualms—and vice versa?” he asked, glancing at Jamie.

“What’s Negroes?” Jemmy asked with interest.

“Er . . . .dark-skinned people,” Roger replied, suddenly aware of the potential quagmire opened up by this question. It was true that the term “Negro” didn’t invariably mean also “slave”—but near enough that there was little difference. “D’ye not remember them, from your great-auntie Jocasta’s place?”

Jemmy frowned, adopting for an unsettling instant the precise expression his grandfather was wearing.

“No.”

“Well, anyway,” Bree said, calling the meeting to order with a sharp rap of her hairbrush on the table, “the point is that Mr. Christie is enough of a Protestant to make the new people feel comfortable?”

“Something of the sort,” her father agreed, one side of his mouth curling up. “Between your man here and Tom Christie, at least they’ll not think they’re entering the Devil’s realm entirely.”

“I see,” Roger said again, in a slightly different tone. So it wasn’t only his position as son of the house and general right-hand man, was it—but the fact that he was a Presbyterian, at least in name. He raised a brow at Jamie, who shrugged in acknowledgment.

“Mmphm,” Roger said, resigned.

“Mmphm,” said Jamie, satisfied.

“Stop doing that,” Brianna said crossly. “Fine. So you and Tom Christie are going to Cross Creek. Why is Arch Bug going?”

Roger became aware, in a subliminally marital way, that his wife was disgruntled at the thought of being left behind to organize the harvest—a filthy, exhausting job at the best of times—whilst he frolicked with a squad of his co-religionists in the romantically exciting metropolis of Cross Creek, population two hundred.

“It will be Arch, mostly, helping them to settle and build themselves shelter before the cold,” Jamie said logically. “Ye dinna mean to suggest, I hope, that I send him alone to talk to them?”

Brianna smiled involuntarily at that; Arch Bug, married for decades to the voluble Mrs. Bug, was famous for his lack of speech. He could talk, but seldom did so, limiting his conversational contributions to the occasional genial “Mmp.”

“Well, they’ll likely never realize that Arch is Catholic,” Roger said, rubbing his upper lip with a forefinger. “Or is he, come to that? I’ve never asked him.”

“He is,” Jamie said, very dryly. “But he’s lived long enough to ken when to be silent.”

“Well, I can see this is going to be a jolly expedition,” Brianna said, raising one brow. “When do you think you’ll be back?”

“Christ, I don’t know,” Roger said, feeling a stab of guilt at the casual blasphemy. He’d have to revise his habits, and quickly. “A month? Six weeks?”

“At least,” his father-in-law said cheerfully. “They’ll be on foot, mind.”

Roger took a deep breath, contemplating a slow march, en masse, from Cross Creek to the mountains, with Arch Bug on one side of him and Tom Christie on the other, twin pillars of taciturnity. His eyes lingered wistfully on his wife, envisioning six weeks of sleeping by the roadside, alone.

“Yeah, fine,” he said. “I’ll . . . um . . . go speak to Tom and Arch tonight, then.”

“Daddy go?” Catching the gist of the conversation, Jem scrambled off his grandfather’s knee and scampered over to Roger, grabbing him round the leg. “Go with you, Daddy!”

“Oh. Well, I don’t think—” He caught sight of Bree’s face, resigned, and then the green and red jar on the table behind her. “Why not?” he said suddenly, and smiled at Jem. “Great-Auntie Jocasta would love to see you. And Mummy can blow things up to her heart’s content without worrying where you are, aye?”

“She can do what?” Jamie looked startled.

“It doesn’t explode,” Brianna said, picking up the jar of phosphorus and cradling it possessively. “It just burns. Are you sure?” This last was addressed to Roger, and accompanied by a searching look.

“Yeah, sure,” he said, affecting confidence. He glanced at Jemmy, who was chanting “Go! Go! Go!”, meanwhile hopping up and down like a demented popcorn kernel. “At least I’ll have someone to talk to on the way.”

13

SAFE HANDS

IT WAS NEARLY DARK when Jamie came in to find me sitting at the kitchen table, head on my arms. I jerked upright at the sound of his footstep, blinking.

“Are ye all right, Sassenach?” He sat down on the opposite bench, eyeing me. “Ye look as though ye’ve been dragged through a hedge backward.”

“Oh.” I patted vaguely at my hair, which did seem to be sticking out a bit. “Um. Fine. Are you hungry?”

“Of course I am. Have ye eaten, yourself?”

I squinted and rubbed my face, trying to think.

“No,” I decided at last. “I was waiting for you, but I seem to have fallen asleep. There’s stew. Mrs. Bug left it.”

He got up and peered into the small cauldron, then pushed the swinging hook back to bring it over the fire to warm.

“What have ye been doing, Sassenach?” he asked, coming back. “And how’s the wee lass?”

“The wee lass is what I’ve been doing,” I said, suppressing a yawn. “Mostly.” I rose, slowly, feeling my joints protest, and staggered over to the sideboard to cut some bread.

“She couldn’t keep it down,” I said. “The gallberry medicine. Not that I blame her,” I added, cautiously licking my lower lip. After she’d thrown it up the first time, I’d tasted it myself. My tastebuds were still in a state of revolt; I’d never met a more aptly named plant, and being boiled into syrup had merely concentrated the flavor.

Jamie sniffed deeply as I turned.

“Did she vomit on ye?”

“No, that was Bobby Higgins,” I said. “He’s got hookworms.”

He raised his brows.

“Do I want to hear about them whilst I’m eating?”

“Definitely not,” I said, sitting down with the loaf, a knife, and a crock of soft butter. I tore off a piece, buttered it thickly, and gave it to him, then took one for myself. My tastebuds hesitated, but wavered on the edge of forgiving me for the gallberry syrup.

“What have you been doing?” I asked, beginning to wake up enough to take notice. He seemed tired, but more cheerful than he had been when he’d left the house.

“Talking to Roger Mac about Indians and Protestants.” He frowned at the half-eaten chunk of bread in his hand. “Is there something amiss wi’ the bread, Sassenach? It tastes odd.”

I waved a hand apologetically.

“Sorry, that’s me. I washed several times, but I couldn’t get it off completely. Perhaps you’d better do the buttering.” I pushed the loaf toward him with my elbow, gesturing at the crock.

“Couldna get what off?”

“Well, we tried and tried with the syrup, but no good; Lizzie simply couldn’t hold it down, poor thing. But I remembered that quinine can be absorbed through the skin. So I mixed the syrup into some goose grease, and rubbed it all over her. Oh, yes, thanks.” I leaned forward and took a delicate bite of the buttered bit of bread he held out for me. My tastebuds gave in gracefully, and I realized that I hadn’t eaten all day.

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