An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 125

   

That’s true of most human transactions, by the way. Hence the flowering of wartime romances and the founding of great fortunes in the wake of wars. It seems rather paradoxical—though maybe it’s only logic (ask Roger whether there is such a thing as a logical paradox, will you?)—that a process so wasteful of lives and substance should then result in an explosion of babies and business.

Since I speak of war—we are all alive, and mostly intact. Your father was slightly wounded during the first battle at Saratoga (there were two, both very bloody), and I was obliged to remove the fourth finger of his right hand—the stiff one; you’ll recall it. This was traumatic, of course (as much to me as to him, I think), but not altogether a disaster. It’s healed very well, and while the hand is still giving him a good bit of pain, it’s much more flexible and I think will be more useful to him overall.

We are—belatedly—about to take ship to Scotland, under rather peculiar circumstances. We are to sail tomorrow, on HMS Ariadne, accompanying the body of Brigadier General Simon Fraser. I met the brigadier very briefly before his death—he was dying at the time—but he was evidently a very good soldier and much beloved by his men. The British commander at Saratoga, John Burgoyne, asked as a sort of footnote to the surrender agreement that your father (he being a kinsman of the brigadier’s and knowing where his family place in the Highlands is) take the body to Scotland, in accordance with the brigadier’s wishes. This was unexpected, but rather fortuitous, to say the least. I can’t think how we should have managed it otherwise, though your father says he would have thought of something.

The logistics of this expedition are a trifle delicate, as you might suppose. Mr. Ko?ciuszko (known as “Kos” to his intimates, which includes your father—well, actually, he’s known as “Kos” to everybody, because no one (other than your father) can pronounce his name, or cares to try. Your father’s very fond of him and vice versa) offered his services, and with the aid of General Burgoyne’s butler (doesn’t everyone take their butler to war with them?), who supplied him with a great deal of lead foil from wine bottles (well, you really can’t blame General Burgoyne if he’s taken to drink, in the circumstances, though my general impression is that everyone on both sides drinks like a fish all of the time, regardless of the military situation of the moment), has produced a miracle of engineering: a lead-lined coffin (very necessary) on detachable wheels (also very necessary; the thing must weigh close to a ton—your father says no, it’s only seven or eight hundredweight, but as he hasn’t tried to lift it, I don’t see how he would know).

General Fraser had been buried for a week or so and had to be exhumed for transport. It wasn’t pleasant, but could have been worse. He had a number of Indian rangers, many of whom also esteemed him; some of these came to the unburying with a medicine person (I think it was a man but couldn’t be sure; it was short and round and wore a bird mask), who incensed the remains heavily with burning sage and sweetgrass (not much help in terms of olfaction, but the smoke did draw a gentle veil over the more horrid aspects of the situation) and sang over him at some length. I should have liked to ask Ian what was being sung, but owing to an unpleasant set of circumstances that I won’t go into here, he wasn’t present.

I’ll explain it all in a later letter; it’s very complicated, and I must finish this before the sailing. The important points, in re Ian, are that he is in love with Rachel Hunter (who is a lovely young woman, and a Quaker, which presents some difficulties) and that he is technically a murderer and thus unable to appear in public in the vicinity of the Continental army. As a side result of the technical murder (a very unpleasant person, and no great loss to humanity, I assure you), Rollo was shot and injured (beyond the superficial bullet wound, he has a broken scapula; he should recover but can’t be moved easily. Rachel is keeping him for Ian while we go to Scotland).

As the brigadier was known to be revered by his Indian associates, the Ariadne’s captain was startled, but not overly disturbed, to be informed that the body is being accompanied not only by his close kinsman (and wife) but by a Mohawk who speaks little English (I should be more than surprised if anyone in the royal navy can tell the difference between Gaelic and Mohawk, come to that).

I hope this attempt is rather less eventful than our first voyage. If so, the next letter should be written in Scotland. Keep your fingers crossed.

All my love,

Mama

P.S. Your father insists upon adding a few words to this. This will be his first try at writing with his altered hand, and I would like to watch to see how it’s working, but he instructs me firmly that he requires privacy. I don’t know whether this is to do with his subject matter or simply with the fact that he doesn’t want anyone to see him struggle. Both, probably.

The third page of the letter was markedly different. The writing was much larger than usual, and more sprawling. Still identifiably her father’s hand, but the letters seemed looser, less jagged somehow. She felt her heart twist, not only from the thought of her father’s mutilated hand, slowly drawing each letter—but for what he had thought it worth so much effort to write:

My Dearest,

Your Brother is alive, and unwounded. I saw him march out from Saratoga with his Troops, bound for Boston and eventually England. He will not fight again in this War. Deo gratias.

Your most loving Father,

JF

Postscriptum: It is the Feast of All Saints. Pray for me.

The nuns had always told them—and she’d told him. By saying an Our Father, a Hail Mary, and a Glory Be on the Feast of All Saints, you can obtain the release of a soul from purgatory.

“You bloody man,” she muttered, sniffing ferociously and fumbling in her desk for a tissue. “I knew you’d make me cry. Again.”

“BRIANNA?”

Roger’s voice came from the kitchen, surprising her. She hadn’t expected him to come down from the chapel ruins for another hour or two, and she blew her nose hastily, calling, “Coming!” and hoping that the recent tears didn’t show in her voice. It was only as she hit the corridor and saw him holding the green baize door to the kitchen half open that it occurred to her that there had been something odd about his voice, as well.

“What is it?” she said, hastening her step. “The kids—”

“They’re fine,” he interrupted. “I told Annie to take them down to the post office in the village for an ice cream.” He stepped away from the door then and beckoned her to enter.

She stopped dead, just inside the door. A man was leaning back against the old stone sink, arms folded. He straightened up when he saw her and bowed, in a way that struck her as terribly odd and yet familiar. Before she could think why that should be, he straightened again and said, “Your servant, ma’am,” in a soft Scottish voice.

She looked straight into eyes that were the twins of Roger’s, then glanced wildly at Roger, just to be sure. Yes, they were.

“Who—”

“Allow me to introduce William Buccleigh MacKenzie,” Roger said, a distinct edge in his voice. “Also known as the Nuckelavee.”

For an instant, none of this made any sense whatever. Then things—astonishment, fury, disbelief—came flooding into her mind at such a rate that none of them could make it to her mouth, and she simply gaped at the man.

“I’ll ask your pardon, ma’am, for frightening your weans,” the man said. “I’d nay notion they were yours, for the one thing. I ken what weans are like, though, and I didna wish to be discovered before I’d made some sense of it all.”

“All… what?” Brianna finally found a couple of words. The man smiled, very slightly.

“Aye, well. As to that, I think you and your husband may know better than I.”

Brianna pulled out a chair and sat down rather abruptly, motioning to the man to do the same. As he came forward into the light from the window, she saw that there was a graze on his cheekbone—a prominent cheekbone, and one that with the modeling of his temple and eye socket seemed terribly familiar; the man himself seemed familiar. But of course he was, she thought dazedly.

“Does he know who he is?” she asked, turning to Roger. Who, now that she noticed, was nursing his right hand, which appeared to have blood on the knuckles. He nodded.

“I told him. Not sure he believes me, though.”

The kitchen was its usual solid, homely place, peaceful with the autumn sun coming in and the blue-checkered dish towels hung on the Aga. But now it felt like the backside of Jupiter, and when she reached for the sugar bowl, she would not have been at all surprised to see her hand pass through it.

“I should be inclined to believe a good deal more today than I should have been three months ago,” the man said, with a dry intonation that held some faint echo of her father’s voice.

She shook her head violently, in hopes of clearing it, and said, “Would you like some coffee?” in a polite voice that could have belonged to a sitcom housewife.

His face lightened at that, and he smiled. His teeth were stained and a little crooked. Well, of course they are, she thought with remarkable lucidity. No dentists to speak of in the eighteenth century. The thought of the eighteenth century sent her surging to her feet.

“You!” she exclaimed. “You got Roger hanged!”

“I did,” he said, not looking very perturbed. “Not that I meant to. And if he likes to strike me again for it, I’ll let him. But—”

“That was for scaring the kids,” Roger said with equal dryness. “The hanging … we’ll maybe talk about that a bit later.”

“Fine talk for a minister,” the man said, looking faintly amused. “Not that most ministers go about interfering wi’ a man’s wife.”

“I—” Roger began, but she interrupted him.

“I’ll bloody hit you,” Brianna said, glaring at the man. Who, to her annoyance, squinched his eyes shut and leaned forward, features clenched.

“All right,” he said, through compressed lips. “Go ahead.”

“Not in the face,” Roger advised, surveying a bruised knuckle. “Make him stand up and go for his balls.”

William Buccleigh’s eyes popped open, and he looked reproachfully at Roger.

“D’ye think she needs advice?”

“I think you need a fat lip,” she told him, but sat slowly down again, eyeing him. She took a breath down to her toenails and let it out.

“Right,” she said, more or less calmly. “Start talking.”

He nodded cautiously and touched the bruise on his cheekbone, wincing a little.

Son of a witch, she thought suddenly. Does he know that?

“Did ye not mention coffee?” he asked, sounding a little wistful. “I havena had real coffee in years.”

HE WAS FASCINATED by the Aga and pressed his backside against it, fairly shivering with delight.

“Oh, sweet Virgin,” he breathed, eyes closed as he reveled in the heat. “Is it not the lovely thing.”

The coffee he pronounced good in itself but rather feeble—reasonable, Brianna thought, knowing that such coffee as he was used to was boiled over a fire, often for several hours, rather than gently perked. He apologized for his manners, which were actually fine, saying that he hadn’t eaten in some little while.

“How have ye been feeding yourself?” Roger asked, eyeing the steadily diminishing pile of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.

“Stole from cottages, to begin with,” Buccleigh admitted frankly. “After a bit, I found my way to Inverness and was sittin’ on the curb of the street, quite dazed by the huge great roaring things goin’ by me—I’d seen the cars on the road north, of course, but it’s different when they’re whizzin’ past your shins. Anyway, I’d sat down outside the High Street Church, for I knew that place, at least, and thought I’d go and ask the minister for a bite of bread when I’d got myself a bit more in hand. I was that wee bit rattled, ken,” he said, leaning confidentially toward Brianna.

“I suppose so,” she murmured, and lifted an eyebrow at Roger. “Old High St. Stephen’s?”

“Aye, it was the High Church—meaning on the High Street, not Anglican—before it was Old, or joined congregations with St. Stephen’s.” He switched his attention to William Buccleigh. “Did ye, then? Speak to the minister? Dr. Weatherspoon?”

Buccleigh nodded, mouth full.

“He saw me sitting there and came out to me, the kind man. Asked was I in need, and when I assured him I was, he told me where to go for food and a bed, and I went there. An aid society, they called it, a charity, and it surely was.”

The people who ran the aid society had given him clothes—“for what I had on was little more than rags”—and helped him to find a job doing rough labor for a dairy farm outside the town.

“So why are ye not on the dairy farm?” Roger asked, at the same moment that Brianna asked, “But how did you come to Scotland?” Their words colliding, they stopped, gesturing to each other to continue, but William Buccleigh waved a hand at them both and chewed rapidly for a moment, then swallowed several times and gulped more coffee.

“Mother of God, that stuff’s tasty, but it sticks in your craw. Aye, ye want to know why I’m here in your kitchen eating your food and not dead in a creek in North Carolina.”

“Since you mention it, yes,” said Roger, leaning back in his chair. “Start with North Carolina, why don’t you?”

Buccleigh nodded once more, leaned back in turn with his hands linked comfortably over his stomach, and began.

HE’D BEEN STARVED out of Scotland, like so many folk after Culloden, and had scraped together the money to emigrate with his wife and infant son.

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