An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 120


“Oh, shit,” he mumbled. He lay still, breathing heavily, then sat up abruptly, exclaiming, “Oh, shit!”—whether at the pain of the movement or the memory of the robbery, I didn’t know. There was mumbled cursing, a sigh, silence… then a shriek of pure terror that hit my spinal cord like a jolt of electricity.

Mad scrambling sounds as the man scuffled to his feet—why, why, what was going on? Crashing and rattling of flight. Terror was infectious; I wanted to run, too, was on my feet, my heart in my mouth, but didn’t know where to go. I couldn’t hear anything above that idiot’s crashing. What was bloody out there?

A faint rustle of dry leaves made me jerk my head round—and saved me by a split second from having a heart attack when Rollo thrust his wet nose into my hand.

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!” I exclaimed, relieved at the sound of my own voice. The sound of rustling footsteps came toward me through the leaves.

“Oh, there ye are, Auntie.” A tall presence loomed up, no more than a shadow in the dark, and Young Ian touched my arm. “Are ye all right, Auntie?” There was an anxious tone in his voice, bless him.

“Yes,” I said rather faintly, then with more conviction, “Yes. I am. I got turned about, in the dark.”

“Oh.” The tall figure relaxed. “I thought ye must have lost your way. Denny Hunter came and said ye’d gone off to find some grease but ye’d no come back, and he was worrit for ye. So Rollo and I came to find ye. Who was yon fellow that Rollo scared the bejesus out of?”

“I don’t know.” The mention of grease made me look for the cup of possum grease. It was on the ground, empty and clean. From the lapping noises, I deduced that Rollo, having finished off what was in the cup, was now tidily licking the dead leaves on which grease had spilled when I dropped it. Under the circumstances, I didn’t feel I could really complain.

Ian bent and scooped up the cup.

“Come back to the fire, Auntie. I’ll find some more grease.”

I made no demur at this and followed him down off the hillside, paying no real attention to my surroundings. I was too occupied in rearranging my mental state, settling my feelings, and trying to regain some kind of equilibrium.

I’d heard the word “flashback” only briefly, in Boston in the sixties. We didn’t call it flashback earlier, but I’d heard about it. And I’d seen it. Shell shock, they said in the First World War. Battle fatigue, in the Second. It’s what happens when you live through things you shouldn’t have been able to live through and can’t reconcile that knowledge with the fact that you did.

Well, I did, I said defiantly to myself. So you can just get used to it. I wondered for an instant who I was talking to and—quite seriously—whether I was losing my mind.

I certainly remembered what had happened to me during my abduction years before. I’d have strongly preferred not to but knew enough about psychology not to try to suppress the memories. When they showed up, I looked carefully at them, doing deep-breathing exercises, then stuffed them back where they’d come from and went to find Jamie. After a time, I found that only certain details showed up vividly: the cup of a dead ear, purple in the dawn light, looking like an exotic fungus; the brilliant burst of light I’d seen when Harley Boble had broken my nose; the smell of corn on the breath of the teenaged idiot who’d tried to rape me. The soft, heavy weight of the man who did. The rest was a merciful blur.

I had nightmares, too, though Jamie generally woke at once when I began to make whimpering noises and grabbed me hard enough to shatter the dream, holding me against him and stroking my hair, my back, humming to me, half asleep himself, until I sank back into his peace and slept again. This was different.

IAN WENT FROM fire to fire in search of grease and at length obtained a small tin containing half an inch of goose grease mixed with comfrey. It was more than a bit rancid, but Denny Hunter had told him what it was for, and he didn’t suppose the state of it mattered so much.

The state of his aunt concerned him somewhat more. He knew fine well why she sometimes twitched like a wee cricket or moaned in her sleep. He’d seen the state of her when they’d got her back from the bastards, and he knew the sort of things they’d done to her. Blood rose in him and the vessels at his temples swelled at memory of the fight when they’d taken her back.

She hadn’t wished to take her own revenge, when they’d rescued her; he thought perhaps that had been a mistake, though he understood the part about her being a healer and sworn not to kill. The thing was, some men needed killing. The Church didn’t admit that, save it was war. The Mohawk understood it fine. So did Uncle Jamie.

And the Quakers…

He groaned.

Out of the frying pan, into the fire. The instant he’d got the grease, his steps had turned, not toward the hospital tent where Denny almost surely was—but toward the Hunters’ tent. He could pretend he was going to the hospital tent; the two were near enough together. But he’d never seen any point in lying to himself.

Not for the first time, he missed Brianna. He could say anything to her, and she to him—more, he thought, than she could sometimes say to Roger Mac.

Mechanically, he crossed himself, muttering, “Gum biodh iad sabhailte, a Dhìa.” That they might be safe, O God.

For that matter, he wondered what Roger Mac might have counseled were he here. He was a quiet man, and a godly one, if a Presbyterian. But he’d been on that night’s ride and joined in the work, and not a word said about it after.

Ian spared a moment’s contemplation of Roger Mac’s future congregation and what they’d think of that picture of their minister, but shook his head and went on. All these wonderings were only means to keep him from thinking what he’d say when he saw her, and that was pointless. He wanted only to say one thing to her, and that was the one thing he couldn’t say, ever.

The tent flap was closed, but there was a candle burning within. He coughed politely outside, and Rollo, seeing where they were, wagged his tail and uttered a cordial woof !

The flap was thrust back at once, and Rachel stood there, mending in one hand, squinting into the dark but already smiling; she’d heard the dog. She’d taken off her cap, and her hair was messed, coming down from its pins.

“Rollo!” she said, bending down to scratch his ears. “And I see thee’ve brought thy friend along, too.”

Ian smiled, lifting the little tin.

“I brought some grease. My aunt said your brother needed it for his arsehole.” An instant too late, he re-collected himself. “I mean—for an arsehole.” Mortification flamed up his chest, but he was speaking to perhaps the only woman in camp who might take arseholes as a common topic of conversation. Well, the only one save his auntie, he amended. Or the whores, maybe.

“Oh, he’ll be pleased; I thank thee.”

She reached to take the tin from him, and her fingers brushed his. The tin box was smeared with the grease and slippery; it fell and both of them bent to retrieve it. She straightened first; her hair brushed his cheek, warm and smelling of her.

Without even thinking, he put both hands on her face and bent to her. Saw the flash and darkening of her eyes, and had one heartbeat, two, of perfect warm happiness, as his lips rested on hers, as his heart rested in her hands.

Then one of those hands cracked against his cheek, and he staggered back like a drunkard startled out of sleep.

“What does thee do?” she whispered. Her eyes wide as saucers, she had backed away, was pressed against the wall of the tent as though to fall through it. “Thee must not!”

He couldn’t find the words to say. His languages boiled in his mind like stew, and he was mute. The first word to surface through the moil in his mind was the Gàidhlig, though.

“Mo chridhe,” he said, and breathed for the first time since he’d touched her. Mohawk came next, deep and visceral. I need you. And tagging belatedly, English, the one best suited to apology. “I—I’m sorry.”

She nodded, jerky as a puppet.

“Yes. I—yes.”

He should leave; she was afraid. He knew that. But he knew something else, too. It wasn’t him she was afraid of. Slowly, slowly, he put out a hand to her, the fingers moving without his will, slowly, as though to guddle a trout.

And by an expected miracle, but miracle nonetheless, her hand stole out toward his, trembling. He touched the tips of her fingers, found them cold. His own were warm, he would warm her…. In his mind, he felt the chill of her flesh against his own, noted the ni**les hard against the cloth of her dress and felt the small round weight of her br**sts, cold in his hands, the press of her thighs, chill and hard against his heat.

He was gripping her hand, drawing her back. And she was coming, boneless, helpless, drawn to his heat.

“Thee must not,” she whispered, barely audible. “We must not.”

It came to him dimly that of course he could not simply draw her to him, sink to the earth, push her garments out of the way, and have her, though every fiber of his being demanded that he do just that. Some faint memory of civilization asserted itself, though, and he grabbed for it. At the same time, with a terrible reluctance, he released her hand.

“No, of course,” he said, in perfect English. “Of course we mustn’t.”

“I—thee—” She swallowed and ran the back of her hand across her lips. Not as though to wipe away his kiss, but in astonishment, he thought. “Does thee know—” She stopped dead, helpless, and stared at him.

“I’m not worried about whether ye love me,” he said, and knew he spoke the truth. “Not now. I’m worried about whether ye might die because ye do.”

“Thee has a cheek! I didn’t say I loved thee.”

He looked at her then, and something moved in his chest. It might have been laughter. It might not.

“A great deal better ye don’t,” he said softly. “I’m no a fool, and neither are you.”

She made an impulsive gesture toward him, and he drew back, just a hair.

“I think ye’d best not touch me, lass,” he said, still staring intently into her eyes, the color of cress under rushing water. “Because if ye do, I’ll take ye, here and now. And then it’s too late for us both, isn’t it?”

Her hand hung in the air, and while he could see her willing it, she could not draw it back.

He turned from her then and went out into the night, his skin so hot that the night air turned to steam as it touched him.

RACHEL STOOD stock-still for a moment, listening to the pounding of her heart. Another regular sound began to intrude, a soft lapping noise, and she looked down, blinking, to see that Rollo had tidily polished off the last of the goose grease from the tin she had dropped and was now licking the empty tin.

“Oh, Lord,” she said, and put a hand over her mouth, afraid that if she laughed, it would erupt into hysterics. The dog looked up at her, his eyes yellow in the candlelight. He licked his lips, long tail waving gently.

“What am I to do?” she asked him. “Well enough for thee; thee can chase about after him all day, and share his bed at night, and not a word said.”

She sat down on the stool, her knees feeling weak, and took a grip of the thick fur that ruffed the dog’s neck.

“What does he mean?” she asked him. “ ‘I’m worried about whether ye might die because ye do?’ Does he think me one of those fools who pines and swoons and looks pale for love, like Abigail Miller? Not that she’d think of actually dying for anyone’s sake, let alone her poor husband’s.” She looked down at the dog and shook his ruff. “And what does he mean, kissing that chit—forgive my lack of charity, Lord, but there’s no good to be done by ignoring the truth—and not three hours later kissing me? Tell me that! What does he mean by it?”

She let go of the dog then. He licked her hand politely, then vanished silently through the tent flap, no doubt to convey her question to his annoying master.

She ought to be putting coffee on to boil and getting up some supper; Denny would be back soon from the hospital tent, hungry and cold. She continued to sit, though, staring at the candle flame, wondering whether she would feel it were she to pass her hand through it.

She doubted it. Her whole body had ignited when he’d touched her, sudden as a torch soaked in turpentine, and she was still afire. A wonder her shift did not burst into flames.

She knew what he was. He’d made no secret of it. A man who lived by violence, who carried it within him.

“And I used that when it suited me, didn’t I?” she asked the candle. Not the act of a Friend. She had not been content to trust in God’s mercy, not willing to accept His will. She’d not only connived at and encouraged violence, she’d put Ian Murray in gross danger of both soul and body. No, no good to be done by ignoring the truth.

“Though if it’s truth we’re speaking here,” she said to the candle, still feeling defiant, “I bear witness that he did it for Denny, as much as for me.”

“Who did what?” Her brother’s bent head poked into the tent, and he straightened up, blinking at her.

“Will thee pray for me?” she asked abruptly. “I am in great danger.”

Her brother stared at her, eyes unblinking behind his spectacles.

“Indeed thee is,” he said slowly. “Though I am in doubt that prayer will aid thee much.”

“What, has thee no faith left in God?” She spoke sharp, made still more anxious by the thought that her brother might have been overcome by the things he had seen in the last month. She feared they had shaken her own faith considerable but depended upon her brother’s faith as she would on shield and buckler. If that were gone …

“Oh, endless faith in God,” he said, and smiled. “In thee? Not quite so much.” He took off his hat and hung it on the nail he had driven into the tent pole, and checked to be sure that the flap was closed and tied fast behind him.