An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 132

   

So were all the noses around me. Some of them possibly from grief, though I suspected that either the weather or the catarrh was responsible for most of them. The men had all gathered without comment—they’d had practice—around the coffin and, with concerted heaving, managed to get it out of the ruts and onto a firmer section of road, this covered mostly in rocks.

“How long do you think it’s been since Simon Fraser last came home?” I whispered to Jamie, as he came back to take his place beside me toward the end of the funeral procession. He shrugged and wiped his nose with a soggy handkerchief.

“Years. He wouldna really have had cause, would he?”

I supposed not. As a result of the wake held the night before at the farmhouse—a place a little smaller than Lallybroch but constructed on much the same lines—I now knew a great deal more about Simon Fraser’s military career and exploits than I had before, but the eulogy hadn’t included a timetable. If he’d fought everywhere they said he had, though, he would hardly have had time to change his socks between campaigns, let alone come home to Scotland. And the estate wasn’t his, after all; he was the second youngest of nine children. His wife, the tiny bainisq trudging at the head of the procession on her brother-in-law Hugh’s arm, had no household of her own, I gathered, and lived with Hugh’s family, she having no children alive—or nearby, at least—to care for her.

I did wonder whether she was pleased that we’d brought him home. Would it not have been better just to know that he’d died abroad, doing his duty and doing it well, than to be presented with the dismayingly pitiful detritus of her husband, no matter how professionally packaged?

But she had seemed, if not happy, at least somewhat gratified at being the center of such a fuss. Her crumpled face had flushed and seemed to unfold a little during the festivities of the night, and now she walked on with no sign of flagging, doggedly stepping over the ruts made by her husband’s coffin.

It was Hugh’s fault. Simon’s much elder brother and the owner of Balnain, he was a spindly little old man, barely taller than his widowed sister-in-law, and with romantic notions. It was his pronouncement that, instead of planting Simon decently in the family burying ground, the family’s most gallant warrior should be interred in a place more suited to his honor and the reverence due him.

Bainisq, pronounced “bann-eeshg,” meant a little old lady; was a little old man merely an “eeshg”? I wondered, looking at Hugh’s back. I thought I wouldn’t ask until we were back at the house—assuming we made it there by nightfall.

At long last, Corrimony hove into sight. According to Jamie, the name meant “a hollow in the moor,” and it was. Within the cup-shaped hollow in the grass and heather rose a low dome; as we grew closer, I saw that it was made from thousands and thousands of small river rocks, most the size of a fist, some the size of a person’s head. And around this dark gray rain-slicked cairn was a circle of standing stones.

I clutched Jamie’s arm by reflex. He glanced at me in surprise, then realized what I was looking at and frowned.

“D’ye hear anything, Sassenach?” he murmured.

“Only the wind.” This had been moaning along with the funeral procession, mostly drowning out the old man chanting the coronach before the coffin, but as we came out onto the open moor, it picked up speed and rose several tones in pitch, sending cloaks and coats and skirts flapping like ravens’ wings.

I kept a cautious eye on the stones but sensed nothing as we drew to a halt before the cairn. It was a passage tomb, of the general kind they called a clava cairn; I had no notion what that signified, but Uncle Lamb had had photographs of many such sites. The passage was meant to orient with some astronomical object on some significant date. I glanced up at the leaden, weeping sky and decided that today was probably not the day, anyway.

“We dinna ken who was buried there,” Hugh had explained to us the day before. “But clearly a great chieftain of some sort. Must ha’ been, the terrible trouble it is to build a cairn like that!”

“Aye, to be sure,” Jamie had said, adding delicately. “The great chieftain: he’s no buried there anymore?”

“Oh, no,” Hugh assured us. “The earth took him, long since. There’s no but a wee stain of his bones there now. And ye needna be worrit about there being a curse upon the place, either.”

“Oh, good,” I murmured, but he paid no attention.

“Some lang nebbit opened the tomb a hundred years ago or more, so if there was to be a curse on it, it surely went off attached to him.”

This was comforting, and in fact none of the people now standing about the cairn seemed at all put off or bothered by its proximity. Though it might just be that they had lived near it for so long that it had become no more than a feature of the landscape.

There was a certain amount of practical discussion, the men looking at the cairn and shaking their heads dubiously, gesturing in turn toward the open passage that led to the burial chamber, then toward the top of the cairn, where the stones had either been removed or had simply fallen in and been cleared away below. The women gravitated closer together, waiting. We had arrived in a fog of fatigue the day before, and while I had been introduced to all of them, I had trouble keeping the proper name attached to the proper face. In truth, their faces all looked similar—thin, worn, and pale, with a sense of chronic exhaustion about them, a tiredness much deeper than waking the dead would account for.

I had a sudden recollection of Mrs. Bug’s funeral. Makeshift and hasty—and yet carried out with dignity and genuine sorrow on the part of the mourners. I thought these people had barely known Simon Fraser.

How much better to have regarded his own last wish as stated and left him on the battlefield with his fallen comrades, I thought. But whoever said funerals were for the benefit of the living had had the right of it.

The sense of failure and futility that had followed the defeat at Saratoga had made his own officers determined to accomplish something, to make a proper gesture toward a man they had loved and a warrior they honored. Perhaps they had wanted to send him home, too, because of their desire for their own homes.

The same sense of failure—plus a deadly streak of romanticism—had doubtless made General Burgoyne insist upon the gesture; I thought he likely felt his own honor required it. And then Hugh Fraser, reduced to a hand-to-mouth existence in the wake of Culloden and faced with the unexpected homecoming of his younger brother, unable to produce much in the way of a funeral, but deeply romantic himself… and the end of it this strange procession, bringing Simon Fraser to a home no longer his and a wife who was a stranger to him.

And his place will know him no more. The line came to mind as the men made their decision and began to dismount the coffin from its wheels. I had drawn closer, along with the other women, and found I was now standing within a foot or two of one of the standing stones that ringed the cairn. These were smaller than the stones on Craigh na Dun—no more than two or three feet high. Moved by sudden impulse, I reached out and touched it.

I hadn’t expected anything to happen, and it very luckily didn’t. Though had I suddenly vanished in the midst of the burial, it would have substantially enlivened the event.

No buzzing, no screaming, no sensation at all. It was just a rock. After all, I thought, there was no reason why all standing stones should be assumed to mark time portals. Presumably the ancient builders had used stones to mark any place of significance—and surely a cairn like this one must have been significant. I wondered what sort of man—or woman, perhaps?—had lain here, leaving no more than an echo of their bones, so much more fragile than the enduring rocks that sheltered them.

The coffin was lowered to the ground and—with much grunting and puffing—shoved through the passage into the burial chamber in the center of the tomb. There was a large flat slab of stone that lay against the cairn, this incised with strange cup-shaped marks, presumably made by the original builders. Four of the stronger men took hold of this and maneuvered it slowly over the top of the cairn, sealing the hole above the chamber.

It fell with a muffled thud that sent a few small rocks rolling down the sides of the cairn. The men came down then, and we all stood rather awkwardly round it, wondering what to do next.

There was no priest here. The funeral Mass for Simon had been said earlier, in a small, bare stone church, before the procession to this thoroughly pagan burial. Evidently, Hugh’s researches hadn’t discovered anything regarding rites for such things.

Just when it seemed that we would be obliged simply to turn round and slog our way back to the farmhouse, Ian coughed explosively and stepped forward.

The funeral procession was drab in the extreme, none of the bright tartans that had graced Highland ceremonies in the past. Even Jamie’s appearance was subdued, cloaked, and his hair covered with a black slouch hat. The sole exception to the general somberness was Ian.

He had provoked stares when he’d come downstairs this morning, and the staring hadn’t stopped. With good reason. He’d shaved most of his head and greased the remaining strip of hair into a stiff ridge down the middle of his scalp, to which he had attached a dangling ornament of turkey feathers with a pierced silver sixpence. He was wearing a cloak, but under it had put on his worn buckskins, with the blue-and-white wampum armlet his wife, Emily, had made for him.

Jamie had looked him slowly up and down when he appeared and nodded, one corner of his mouth turning up.

“It willna make a difference, aye?” he’d said quietly to Ian as we headed for the door. “They’ll still ken ye for who ye are.”

“Will they?” Ian had said, but then ducked out into the downpour without waiting for an answer.

Jamie had undoubtedly been right; the Indian finery was a dress rehearsal in preparation for his arrival at Lallybroch, for we were bound there directly, once Simon’s body was decently disposed of and the farewell whisky had been drunk.

It had its uses now, though. Ian slowly removed his cloak and handed it to Jamie, then walked to the entrance of the passage and turned to face the mourners—who watched this apparition, bug-eyed. He spread his hands, palms upward, closed his eyes, put back his head so the rain ran down his face, and began to chant something in Mohawk. He was no singer, and his voice was so hoarse from his cold that many words broke or disappeared, but I caught Simon’s name in the beginning. The general’s death song. It didn’t go on for long, but when he dropped his hands, the congregation uttered a deep, collective sigh.

Ian walked away, not looking back, and without a word the mourners followed. It was finished.

BY THE WIND GRIEVED

THE WEATHER CONTINUED to be terrible, with fitful gusts of snow now added to the rain, and Hugh pressed us to stay, at least for another few days, until the sky should clear.

“It might well be Michaelmas before that happens,” Jamie said to him, smiling. “Nay, cousin, we’ll be off.”

And so we were, bundled in all the clothes we possessed. It took more than two days to reach Lallybroch, and we were obliged to shelter overnight in an abandoned croft, putting the horses in the cow byre next to us. There was no furniture nor peat for the hearth, and half the roof had gone, but the stone walls broke the wind.

“I miss my dog,” Ian grumbled, huddling under his cloak and pulling a blanket over his goose-pimpled head.

“Would he sit on your heid?” Jamie inquired, taking a firmer hold on me as the wind roared past our shelter and threatened to rip away the rest of the threadbare thatch overhead. “Ye should have thought about it being January, before ye shaved your scalp.”

“Well enough for you,” Ian replied, peering balefully out from under his blanket. “Ye’ve got Auntie Claire to keep warm with.”

“Well, ye might get a wife yourself one of these days. Is Rollo going to sleep with the both of ye when ye do?” Jamie inquired.

“Mmphm,” Ian said, and pulled the blanket down over his face, shivering.

I shivered, too, in spite of Jamie’s warmth, our combined cloaks, three woolen petticoats, and two pairs of stockings. I had been in a number of cold places in my life, but there’s something remarkably penetrating about the Scottish cold. In spite of my longing for a warm fire and the remembered coziness of Lallybroch, though, I was almost as uneasy about our approaching homecoming as Ian was—and Ian had been growing more like a cat on hot bricks, the farther we got into the Highlands. He twitched and muttered to himself now, thrashing in his blankets in the darkened confines of the shed.

I had wondered when we landed in Edinburgh whether we ought to send word of our arrival to Lallybroch. When I’d suggested this, though, Jamie laughed.

“D’ye think we stand the slightest chance of getting within ten miles o’ the place without everyone hearing of it? Never fear, Sassenach,” he’d assured me. “The minute we set foot in the Highlands, everyone from Loch Lomond to Inverness will know that Jamie Fraser’s comin’ home with his English witch, and a red Indian with him, to boot.”

“English witch?” I said, not sure whether to be entertained or offended. “Did they call me that? When we were at Lallybroch?”

“Frequently to your face, Sassenach,” he said dryly. “But ye didna have enough Gaelic then to know it. They didna mean it as an insult, a nighean,” he added more gently. “Nor will they now. It’s only that Highlanders call a thing as they see it.”

“Hmm,” I said, a trifle taken back.

“They’ll no be wrong, now, will they?” he’d asked, grinning.

“Are you implying that I look like a witch?”

“Well, not sae much just this minute,” he said, narrowing one eye judiciously. “First thing in the morning, maybe—aye, that’s a more fearsome prospect.”

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