An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 133


I hadn’t a looking glass, not having thought to acquire one in Edinburgh. I did still have a comb, though, and snuggling now with my head beneath Jamie’s chin, resolved to stop some way short of Lallybroch and employ it thoroughly, rain or no rain. Not, I thought, that it would likely make much difference whether I arrived looking like the Queen of England or like a dandelion gone to seed. It was Ian’s homecoming that was important.

On the other hand… I wasn’t sure quite what my own welcome might be. There was unfinished business, to put it mildly, between myself and Jenny Murray.

We had been good friends once. I hoped we might be again. But she had been the chief engineer of Jamie’s marriage to Laoghaire MacKenzie. From the best of motives, no doubt; she’d worried for him, lonely and rootless on his return from captivity in England. And in all justice, she’d thought me dead.

What had she thought, I wondered, when I’d suddenly appeared again? That I had abandoned Jamie before Culloden and then had second thoughts? There hadn’t been time for explanations and rapprochement—and there had been that very awkward moment when Laoghaire, summoned by Jenny, had showed up at Lallybroch, accompanied by her daughters, taking Jamie and me very much by surprise.

A bubble of laughter rose in my chest at thought of that encounter, though I certainly hadn’t laughed at the time. Well, perhaps there would be time to talk now, once Jenny and Ian had recovered from the shock of their youngest son’s homecoming.

I became aware, from subtle shiftings behind me, that while the horses were breathing heavily and peacefully in their byre and Ian had finally subsided into phlegm-rattling snores, I wasn’t the only one still lying awake thinking of what might await us.

“You aren’t asleep, either, are you?” I whispered to Jamie.

“No,” he said softly, and shifted his weight again, gathering me more closely against him. “Thinking about the last time I came home. I had such fear—and a verra wee bit of hope. I imagine it’s maybe like that for the lad now.”

“And for you now?” I asked, folding my own hands over the arm that encircled me, feeling the solid, graceful bones of wrist and forearm, gently touching his maimed right hand. He sighed deeply.

“Dinna ken,” he said. “But it’ll be all right. You’re with me, this time.”

THE WIND DROPPED sometime in the night, and the day, by some miracle, dawned clear and bright. Still cold as a polar bear’s bottom, but not raining. I thought that a good omen.

Nobody spoke as we cleared the last high pass that led to Lallybroch and saw the house below. I felt a loosening in my chest and only then realized how long I’d been holding my breath.

“It hasn’t changed, has it?” I said, my breath white on the cold air.

“There’s a new roof on the dovecote,” Ian said. “And Mam’s sheep pen is bigger.” He was doing his best to sound nonchalant, but there was no mistaking the eagerness in his voice. He nudged his horse and pulled a little in front of us, the turkey feathers in his hair lifting on the breeze.

It was early afternoon, and the place was quiet; the morning chores had been done, the evening milking and supper-making not yet started. I didn’t see anyone outside save a couple of big, shaggy Highland cattle munching hay in the near pasture, but the chimneys were smoking and the big white-harled farmhouse had its usual hospitable, settled air.

Would Bree and Roger ever go back here? I wondered suddenly. She’d mentioned it, when the notion of their leaving became fact and they had begun to plan.

“It’s vacant,” she’d said, eyes fixed on the twentieth-century-style shirt she was making. “For sale. Or it was, when Roger went there a few years—ago?” She looked up with a wry smile; it wasn’t really possible to discuss time in any customary way. “I’d like the kids to live there, maybe. But we’ll just have to see how… things work out.”

She’d glanced then at Mandy, asleep in her cradle, faintly blue around the lips.

“It will work out fine,” I’d said firmly. “Everything will be just fine.”

Lord, I prayed now silently, that they might be safe!

Ian had swung off his horse and was waiting impatiently for us. As we dismounted, he headed for the door, but our arrival had been noted, and it swung wide before he could touch it.

Jenny stopped dead in the doorway. She blinked, once, and her head tilted slowly back as her eyes traveled up the long, buckskin-covered body, with its roped muscles and small scars, to the crested, feathered head with its tattooed face, so carefully expressionless—save for the eyes, whose hope and fear he could not hide, Mohawk or no.

Jenny’s mouth twitched. Once… twice … then her face broke and she began to utter small, hysterical whoops that turned into unmistakable laughter. She gulped, whooped again, and laughed so hard that she staggered backward into the house and had to sit down on the bench in the hall, where she bent double with her arms wrapped round her middle and laughed until the sound gave out and her breath came in faint, wheezing gasps.

“Ian,” she said at last, shaking her head. “Oh, God, Ian. My wee lad.”

Ian looked entirely taken aback. He looked at Jamie, who shrugged, his own mouth twitching, then back at his mother.

She gulped for air, her chest heaving, then stood up, went to him, and wrapped her arms about him, her tear-streaked face pressed to his side. His arms went slowly, carefully around her, and he held her to him like something fragile, of immense value.

“Ian,” she said again, and I saw her small, taut shoulders suddenly slump. “Oh, Ian. Thank God ye’ve come in time.”

SHE WAS SMALLER than I had remembered, and thinner, her hair with a little more gray in it though still darkly vibrant—but the deep-blue cat-eyes were just the same, as was the natural air of command she shared with her brother.

“Leave the horses,” she said briskly, wiping her eyes on the corner of her apron. “I’ll have one o’ the lads take care of them. Ye’ll be frozen and starving—take off your things and come into the parlor.” She glanced at me, with a brief look of curiosity and something else that I couldn’t interpret—but didn’t meet my eyes directly or say more than “Come,” as she led the way to the parlor.

The house smelled familiar but strange, steeped in peat smoke and the scent of cooking; someone had just baked bread, and the yeasty smell floated down the hall from the kitchen. The hall itself was nearly as cold as the outdoors; all the rooms had their doors closed tight to keep in the heat from their fires, and a welcome wave of warmth eddied out when she opened the door to the parlor, turning to pull Ian in first.

“Ian,” she said, in a tone I’d never heard her use before. “Ian, they’ve come. Your son’s come home.”

Ian the elder was sitting in a large armchair close to the fire, a warm rug over his legs. He struggled to his feet at once, a little unsteady on the wooden peg he wore in replacement of a leg lost in battle, and took a few steps toward us.

“Ian,” Jamie said, his voice soft with shock. “God, Ian.”

“Oh, aye,” Ian said, his own voice wry. “Dinna fash; it’s still me.”

Phthisis, they called it. Or doctors did. It meant “wasting,” in the Greek. Laymen called it by the blunter name “consumption,” and the reason why was all too apparent. It consumed its victims, ate them alive. A wasting disease, and waste it did. Ate flesh and squandered life, profligate and cannibal.

I’d seen it many times in England of the thirties and forties, much more here in the past. But I’d never seen it carve the living flesh from the bones of someone I loved, and my heart went to water and drained from my chest.

Ian had always been whipcord thin, even in times of plenty. Sinewy and tough, his bones always near the surface of his skin, just as Young Ian’s were. Now…

“I may cough, but I won’t break,” he assured Jamie, and, stepping forward, put his arms round Jamie’s neck. Jamie enfolded him very gently, the gingerness of the embrace growing firmer as he found that Ian didn’t break—and closed his eyes to keep the tears in check. His arms tightened, trying involuntarily to keep Ian from the abyss that all too plainly yawned at his feet.

I can count all my bones. The Biblical quote came unbidden to my mind. I quite literally could; the cloth of his shirt lay over ribs that showed so clearly that I could see the articulations where each one joined the protruding knobs of his backbone.

“How long?” I blurted, turning to Jenny, who was watching the men, her own eyes bright with unshed tears. “How long has he had it?”

She blinked once and swallowed.

“Years,” she said, steadily enough. “He came back from the Tolbooth in Edinburgh with the cough, and it never left. It’s got worse over the last year, though.”

I nodded. A chronic case, then; that was something. The acute form—“galloping consumption,” they called it—would have taken him in months.

She gave me back the question I had asked her, but with a different meaning.

“How long?” she said, so softly that I barely heard her.

“I don’t know,” I said, with equal softness. “But… not long.”

She nodded; she had known this for a long time.

“Just as well ye came in time, then,” she said, matter-of-fact.

Young Ian’s eyes had been fixed on his father from the moment we entered the room. The shock showed plainly on his face, but he kept himself in hand.

“Da,” he said, and his voice was so hoarse that the word emerged in a strangled croak. He cleared it viciously and repeated, “Da,” coming forward. The elder Ian looked at his son, and his face lit with a joy so profound that it eclipsed the marks of illness and suffering.

“Oh, Ian,” he said, holding out his arms. “My wee lad!”

IT WAS THE Highlands. And it was Ian and Jenny. Which meant that matters that might have been avoided out of confusion or delicacy were instead addressed forthrightly.

“I may die tomorrow, or not for a year,” Ian said frankly, over jam bread and tea, hastily magicked out of the kitchen to sustain the weary travelers until supper should be ready. “I’m betting on three months, myself. Five to two, if anyone fancies a wager. Though I dinna ken how I’ll collect my winnings.” He grinned, the old Ian showing suddenly through his death’s-head face.

There was a murmur of something not quite laughter among the adults. There were a great many people crammed into the parlor, for the announcement that had brought forth bread and jam had also caused every inhabitant of Lallybroch to come boiling out of its rooms and recesses, thundering down the stairs in their anxiety to greet and reclaim their prodigal. Young Ian had nearly been knocked flat and trampled by his family’s affection, and this, coming on the heels of the shock of seeing his father, had stunned him into muteness, though he kept smiling, quite helpless in the face of a thousand questions and exclamations.

Jenny had rescued him at last from the maelstrom, taking him by the hand and pushing him firmly into the parlor with the elder Ian, then popping back out herself to quell the riot with a flashing eye and a firm word before ushering the rest of them in an orderly fashion.

Young Jamie—Ian and Jenny’s eldest, and Jamie’s namesake—now lived at Lallybroch with his wife and children, as did his sister, Maggie, and her two children, her husband being a soldier. Young Jamie was out on the estate, but the women came to sit with me. All of the children were clustered round Young Ian, staring and asking so many questions that they collided with one another, and pushed and shoved, arguing as to who asked what and who should be answered first.

The children had paid no attention to the elder Ian’s remark. They already knew Grandda was dying, and the fact was of no interest by comparison with the fact of their fascinating new uncle. A tiny girl with her hair in stubby plaits sat in Young Ian’s lap, tracing the lines of his tattoos with her fingers, now and then sticking one inadvertently in his mouth as he smiled and made hesitant answers to his inquisitive nieces and nephews.

“Ye could have written,” Jamie said to Jenny, with an edge of reproach in his voice.

“I did,” she said, with her own edge. “A year ago, when his flesh began to melt away and we kent it was more than a cough. I asked ye to send Young Ian then, if ye could.”

“Ah,” Jamie said, discomfited. “We must ha’ left the Ridge before it came. But did I not write last April, to tell ye we were coming? I sent the letter from New Bern.”

“If ye did, I never got it. Nay wonder, with the blockade; we see no more than half what we used to that’s sent from America. And if ye left last March, it’s been a long voyage, no?”

“A bit longer than I expected, aye,” Jamie said dryly. “Things happened along the way.”

“So I see.” Without the least hesitation, she picked up his right hand and examined the scar and the close-set fingers with interest. She glanced at me, one eyebrow quirked, and I nodded.

“It—he was wounded, at Saratoga,” I said, feeling oddly defensive. “I had to.”

“It’s a good job,” she said, gently flexing his fingers. “Does it pain ye much, Jamie?”

“It aches in the cold. Nay bother otherwise, though.”

“Whisky!” she exclaimed, sitting bolt upright. “Here ye are, frozen to the bone, and I’ve not thought—Robbie! Run and fetch down the special bottle from the shelf above the coppers.” A gangling boy who had been hovering on the edge of the crowd round Young Ian gave his grandmother a reluctant glance, but then, catching the depth charge of her eye, shot out of the room to do her bidding.

The room was more than warm; with a peat fire simmering on the hearth and so many people talking, laughing, and exuding body heat, it was on the verge of tropical. But there was a deep chill around my heart whenever I looked at Ian.