An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 141

   

“Aye, of course.” He couldn’t help a small smile of his own, a painful one.

They’d been eight years old, the two of them. Jamie’s mother and her bairn had died the day before. The house had been full of mourners, his father dazed with shock. They had slipped out, he and Ian, scrambling up the hill behind the house, trying not to look at the fresh-dug grave by the broch. Into the wood, safe under the trees.

Had slowed then, wandering, come to a stop at last at the top of the high hill, where some old stone building that they called the fort had fallen down long ago. They’d sat on the rubble, wrapped in their plaids against the wind, not talking much.

“I thought I’d have a new brother,” he’d said suddenly. “But I don’t. It’s just Jenny and me, still.” In the years since, he’d succeeded in forgetting that small pain, the loss of his hoped-for brother, the boy who might have given him back a little of his love for his older brother, Willie, dead of the smallpox. He’d cherished that pain for a little, a flimsy shield against the enormity of knowing his mother gone forever.

Ian had sat thinking for a bit, then reached into his sporran and got out the wee knife his father had given him on his last birthday.

“I’ll be your brother,” he’d said, matter-of-fact, and cut across his thumb, hissing a little through his teeth.

He’d handed the knife to Jamie, who’d cut himself, surprised that it hurt so much, and then they’d pressed their thumbs together and sworn to be brothers always. And had been.

He took a deep breath, bracing himself against the nearness of death, the black finality.

“Ian. Shall I…” Ian’s eyelids lifted, the soft brown of his gaze sharpening into clarity at what he heard in the thickness of Jamie’s voice. Jamie cleared his throat hard and looked away, then looked back, feeling obscurely that to look away was cowardly.

“Will ye have me hasten ye?” he asked, very softly. Even as he spoke, the cold part of his mind sought the way. Not by the blade, no; it was quick and clean, a proper man’s departure, but it would cause his sister and the weans grief; neither he nor Ian had the right to leave a final memory stained with blood.

Ian’s grip neither slackened nor clung, but of a sudden Jamie felt the pulse he had looked for in vain, a small, steady throb against his own palm.

He hadn’t looked away, but his eyes blurred, and he bent his head to hide the tears.

Claire… She would know how, but he couldn’t ask her to do it. Her own vow kept her from it.

“No,” Ian said. “Not yet, anyway.” He’d smiled, eyes soft. “But I’m glad to ken ye’ll do it if I need ye to, mo brathair.”

The flicker of a movement stopped him in his tracks and jerked him instantly from his thoughts.

It hadn’t seen him, though he was in sight. The wind was toward him, though, and the deer was busy, nibbling among the crusts of dry heather for sheltered bits of grass and softer moor plants. He waited, listening to the wind. Only the deer’s head and shoulders were visible behind a gorse bush, though he thought from the size of the neck that it was a male.

He waited, feeling the way of it seep back into him. Hunting red deer on the moor was different from hunting in the forests of North Carolina. A slower thing altogether. The deer moved out a little from behind the gorse bush, intent on its feeding, and he began, by imperceptible degrees, to raise his rifle. He’d had a gunsmith in Edinburgh straighten the barrel for him but hadn’t used it since; he hoped it would aim true.

Hadn’t used it since he’d clouted the Hessian with it in the redoubt. He had a sudden, vivid recollection of Claire dropping the misshapen bullet that had killed Simon into the china plate, felt the chink and roll of it in his blood.

Another step, two; the deer had found something tasty and was tugging and chewing with great concentration. Like a thing completing itself, the muzzle of the rifle settled gently on its target. A big buck deer, and no more than a hundred yards. He could feel the big solid heart, pumping under his own ribs, pulsing in the tips of his fingers on the metal. The stock snugged hard into the hollow of his shoulder.

He was just beginning to squeeze the trigger when he heard the screams from the wood behind him. The gun went off, the shot went wild, the deer vanished with a crash of breaking heather, and the screams stopped.

He turned and strode fast into the woods, in the direction where he’d heard them, his heart pounding. Who? A woman, but who?

He found Jenny without much difficulty, standing frozen in the small clearing where he and she and Ian came when they were young, to share out stolen treats and play at knights and soldiers.

She’d been a good soldier.

Maybe she’d been waiting for him, having heard his gun. Maybe she just couldn’t move. She stood straight-backed but empty-eyed and watched him come, her shawls wrapped like rusty armor round her.

“Are ye all right, lass?” he asked, setting down his rifle by the big pine where she’d read to him and Ian in the long summer nights when the sun barely set from dusk to dawn.

“Aye, fine,” she said, her voice colorless.

“Aye, right,” he said, sighing. Coming close, he insisted upon taking her hands in his; she didn’t give them to him but didn’t resist. “I heard ye scream.”

“I didna mean anyone to hear.”

“Of course ye didn’t.” He hesitated, wanting to ask again was she all right, but that was foolish. He knew fine well what the trouble was and why she needed to come and scream in the wood, where no one would hear her and ask stupidly was she all right.

“D’ye want me to go away?” he asked instead, and she grimaced, pulling at her hand, but he didn’t let go.

“No. What difference does it make? What difference does anything make?” He heard the note of hysteria in her voice.

“At least… we brought the lad home in time,” he said, for lack of anything else to offer her.

“Aye, ye did,” she said, with an effort at self-control that shredded like old silk. “And ye brought your wife back, too.”

“Ye blame me for bringing my wife?” he said, shocked. “Why, for God’s sake? Should ye no be happy she’s come back? Or d’ye—” He choked off the next words fast; he’d been about to demand whether she resented him still having a wife when she was about to lose her husband, and he couldn’t say that.

But that wasn’t what Jenny had meant, at all.

“Aye, she’s come back. But for what?” she cried. “What good is a faery-woman too coldhearted to lift a finger to save Ian?”

He was so staggered by this that he couldn’t do anything but repeat “Coldhearted? Claire?” in a dazed fashion.

“I asked, and she denied me.” His sister’s eyes were tearless, frantic with grief and urgency. “Can ye not make her help me, Jamie?”

The life in his sister, always bright and pulsing, thrummed under his fingers like chained lightning now. Better if she let it loose on him, he thought. She couldn’t hurt him.

“ Mo pìuthar, she’d heal him if she could,” he said, as gently as possible without letting go of her. “She told me ye’d asked—and she wept in the telling. She loves Ian as much—”

“Don’t ye dare be telling me she loves my husband as much as I do!” she shouted, jerking her hands out of his with such violence that he was sure she meant to strike him. She did, slapping his face so hard that his eye watered on that side.

“I wasna going to tell ye that at all,” he said, keeping his temper. He touched the side of his face gingerly. “I was going to say that she loves him as much—”

He’d intended to say, “as she loves me,” but didn’t get that far. She kicked him in the shin hard enough to buckle his leg, and he stumbled, flailing to keep his balance, which gave her the opportunity to turn and fly down the hill like a witch on a broomstick, her skirts and shawls whirling out like a storm around her.

DISPOSITIONS

CLEANSING OF WOUNDS, I wrote carefully, and paused, marshaling my thoughts. Boiling water, clean rags, removal of foreign matter. Use of maggots on dead flesh (with a note of caution regarding blowfly and screwworm larvae? No, pointless; no one would be able to tell the difference without a magnifying glass). The stitching of wounds (sterilization of needle and thread). Useful poultices. Ought I to put in a separate section on the production and uses of penicillin?

I tapped the quill on the blotter, making tiny stars of ink, but finally decided against it. This was meant to be a useful guide for the common person. The common person was not equipped for the painstaking process of making penicillin, nor yet likely to have an injection apparatus—though I did think briefly of the penis syringe Dr. Fentiman had shown me, with a faint twinge of amusement.

That in turn made me think—briefly but vividly—of David Rawlings and his jugum penis. Did he really use it himself? I wondered, but hastily dismissed the vision conjured up by the thought and flipped over a few sheets, looking for my list of main topics.

Masturbation, I wrote thoughtfully. If some doctors discussed it in a negative light—and they most certainly did—I supposed there was no reason why I shouldn’t give the opposing view—discreetly.

I found myself still making inky stars a few moments later, thoroughly distracted by the problem of talking discreetly about the benefits of mast***ation. God, what if I said in print that women did it?

“They’d burn the whole printing, and likely Andy Bell’s shop, too,” I said aloud.

There was a sharp intake of breath, and I glanced up to see a woman standing in the door of the study.

“Oh, are you looking for Ian Murray?” I said, pushing back from the desk. “He’s—”

“No, it’s you I was looking for.” There was a very odd tone to her voice, and I stood up, feeling suddenly defensive without knowing why.

“Ah,” I said. “And you are… ?”

She stepped out of the shadowed hall into the light.

“Ye’ll not know me, then?” Her mouth twitched in an angry half smile. “Laoghaire MacKenzie… Fraser,” she added, almost reluctantly.

“Oh,” I said.

I would have recognized her at once, I thought, save for the incongruity of context. This was the last place I would have expected her to be, and the fact that she was here… A recollection of what had happened the last time she had come to Lallybroch made me reach inconspicuously for the letter opener on the desk.

“You were looking for me,” I repeated warily. “Not Jamie?”

She made a contemptuous gesture, pushing the thought of Jamie aside, and reached into the pocket at her waist, bringing out a folded letter.

“I’ve come to ask ye a favor,” she said, and for the first time I heard the tremor in her voice. “Read that. If ye will,” she added, and pressed her lips tight together.

I looked warily at her pocket, but it was flat; if she’d brought a pistol, she wasn’t carrying it there. I picked up the letter and motioned her to the chair on the other side of the desk. If she took it into her head to attack me, I’d have a little warning.

Still, I wasn’t really afraid of her. She was upset; that was clear. But very much in control of herself.

I opened the letter, and, with the occasional glance to be sure she stayed where she was, began to read.

15 February 1778

Philadelphia

“Philadelphia?” I said, startled, and looked up at Laoghaire. She nodded.

“They went there in the summer last year, himself thinking ’twould be safer.” Her lips twisted a little. “Two months later, the British army came a-marching into the city, and there they’ve been since.”

“Himself,” I supposed, was Fergus. I noted the usage with interest; evidently Laoghaire had become reconciled to her older daughter’s husband, for she used the word without irony.

Dear Mam,

I must ask you to do something for love of me and my children. The trouble is with Henri-Christian. Because of his oddness of form, he has always had some trouble in breathing, particularly when suffering from the catarrh, and has snored like a grampus since he was born. Now he has taken to stopping breathing altogether when he sleeps, save he is propped up with cushions in a particular position. Mother Claire had looked in his throat when she and Da saw us in New Bern and said then that his adenoids—this being something in his throat—were overlarge and might give trouble in future. (Germain has these, also, and breathes with his mouth open a good deal of the time, but it is not a danger to him as it is to Henri-Christian.)

I am in mortal terror that Henri-Christian will stop breathing one night and no one will know in time to save him. We take it in turns to sit up with him, to keep his head just right and to wake him when he stops breathing, but I do not know how long we can contrive to keep it up. Fergus is worn out with the work of the shop and I with the work of the house (I help in the shop, as well, and so of course does Germain. The little girls are great help to me in the house, bless them, and so willing to care for their little brother—but they cannot be left to sit up with him by night alone).

I have had a physician to look at Henri-Christian. He agrees that the adenoids are likely to blame for the obstruction of breathing, and he bled the wee lad and gave me medicine to shrink them, but this was of no use at all and only made Henri-Christian cry and vomit. Mother Claire—-forgive me for speaking of her to you, for I know your feelings, but I must—had said that it might be necessary to remove Henri-Christian’s tonsils and adenoids at some point, to ease his breathing, and plainly this point has been reached. She did this for the Beardsley twins some time ago on the Ridge, and I would trust no one else to attempt such an operation on Henri-Christian.

Will you go to see her, Mam? I think she must be at Lallybroch now, and I will write to her there, begging her to come to Philadelphia as soon as possible. But I fear my inability to communicate the horror of our situation.

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