An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 143

   

He turned away from the house and its outbuildings and headed up the hill, past the sheep pen, where the sheep lay in somnolent mounds, pale under the moon, now and then emitting a soft, sudden bah!, as though startled by some sheep dream.

Such a dream took shape before him suddenly, a dark form moving against the fence, and he uttered a brief cry that made the nearer sheep start and rustle in a chorus of low-pitched bahs.

“Hush, a bhailach,” his mother said softly. “Get this lot started, and ye’ll wake the dead.”

He could make her out now, a small, slender form, with her unbound hair a soft mass against the paleness of her shift.

“Speak o’ the dead,” he said rather crossly, forcing his heart down out of his throat. “I thought ye were a ghost. What are ye doing out here, Mam?”

“Counting sheep,” she said, a thread of humor in her voice. “That’s what ye’re meant to do when ye canna sleep, aye?”

“Aye.” He came and stood beside her, leaning on the fence. “Does it work?”

“Sometimes.”

They stood still for a bit, watching the sheep stir and settle. They smelled sweetly filthy, of chewed grass and sheep shit and greasy wool, and Ian found that it was oddly comforting just to be with them.

“Does it work to count them, when ye ken already how many there are?” he asked, after a short silence. His mother shook her head.

“No, I say their names over. It’s like saying the rosary, only ye dinna feel the need to be asking. It wears ye down, asking.”

Especially when ye ken the answer’s going to be no, Ian thought, and moved by sudden impulse, put his arm around her shoulders. She made a small sound of amused surprise, but then relaxed, laying her head against him. He could feel the small bones of her, light as a bird’s, and thought his heart might break.

They stood for a while that way, and then she freed herself, gently, moving away a little and turning to him.

“Sleepy yet?”

“No.”

“Aye, well. Come on, then.” Not waiting for an answer, she turned and made her way through the dark, away from the house.

There was a moon, half full, and he’d been out more than long enough for his eyes to adjust; it was simple to follow, even through the jumbled grass and stones and heather that grew on the hill behind the house.

Where was she taking him? Or rather, why? For they were heading uphill, toward the old broch—and the burying ground that lay nearby. He felt a chill round his heart—did she mean to show him the site of his father’s grave?

But she stopped abruptly and stooped, so he nearly tripped over her. Straightening up, she turned and put a pebble into his hand.

“Over here,” she said softly, and led him to a small square stone set in the earth. He thought it was Caitlin’s grave—the child who’d come before Young Jenny, the sister who’d lived but one day—but then saw that Caitlin’s stone lay a few feet away. This one was the same size and shape, but—he squatted by it, and running his fingers over the shadows of its carving, made out the name.

Yeksa’a.

“Mam,” he said, and his voice sounded strange to his own ears.

“Is that right, Ian?” she said, a little anxious. “Your da said he wasna quite certain of the spelling of the Indian name. I had the stone carver put both, though. I thought that was right.”

“Both?” But his hand had already moved down and found the other name.

Iseabaíl.

He swallowed hard.

“That was right,” he said very softly. His hand rested flat on the stone, cool under his palm.

She squatted down beside him, and reaching, put her own pebble on the stone. It was what you did, he thought, stunned, when you came to visit the dead. You left a pebble to say you’d been there; that you hadn’t forgotten.

His own pebble was still in his other hand; he couldn’t quite bring himself to lay it down. Tears were running down his face, and his mother’s hand was on his arm.

“It’s all right, mo duine,” she said softly. “Go to your young woman. Ye’ll always be here wi’ us.”

The steam of his tears rose like the smoke of incense from his heart, and he laid the pebble gently on his daughter’s grave. Safe among his family.

It wasn’t until many days later, in the middle of the ocean, that he realized his mother had called him a man.

THE RIGHT OF IT

IAN DIED JUST after dawn. The night had been hellish; a dozen times, Ian had come close to drowning in his own blood, choking, eyes bulging, then rising up in convulsion, spewing up bits of his lungs. The bed looked like some slaughter had taken place, and the room reeked of the sweat of a desperate, futile struggle, the smell of Death’s presence.

In the end, though, he had lain quiet, thin chest barely moving, the sound of his breathing a faint rattle like the scratch of the rose briers at the window.

Jamie had stood back, to give Young Jamie the place at Ian’s side as eldest son; Jenny had sat all night on his other side, wiping away the blood, the evil sweat, all the foul liquids that oozed from Ian, dissolving his body before their eyes. But near the end, in the dark, Ian had raised his right hand and whispered, “Jamie.” He hadn’t opened his eyes to look, but all of them knew which Jamie it was that he wanted, and Young Jamie had made way, stumbling, so that his uncle could come and grasp that seeking hand.

Ian’s bony fingers had closed round his with surprising strength. Ian had murmured something, too low to hear, and then let go—not in the involuntary relaxation of death; simply let go, that business done, and let his hand fall back, open, to his children.

He did not speak again but seemed to settle, his body diminishing as life and breath fled from it. When his last breath came, they waited in dull misery, expecting another, and only after a full minute of silence did they begin to look at one another covertly, steal glances at the ravaged bed, the stillness in Ian’s face—and realize slowly that it was over at last.

DID JENNY MIND? he wondered. That Ian’s last words had been to him? But he thought not; the one mercy to a going such as his brother-in-law’s had been was that there was time to take leave. He had made a time to speak alone with each of his children, Jamie knew. Comfort them as he could, maybe leave them with a bit of advice, at the least the reassurance that he loved them.

He had been standing next to Jenny when Ian died. She had sighed and seemed to slump beside him, as though the iron rod that had run up her back for the last year had suddenly been pulled out through her head. Her face had showed no sorrow, though he knew it was there; for that moment, though, she had only been glad it was over—for Ian’s sake, for all their sakes.

So surely they had found time, she and Ian, to say what had to be said between them, in the months since they knew.

What would he say to Claire in such circumstances? he wondered suddenly. Probably what he had said to her, in parting. “I love you. I’ll see you again.” He didn’t see any way of improving on the sentiment, after all.

He couldn’t stay in the house. The women had washed Ian and laid him out in the parlor and were now embarked on an orgy of furious cooking and cleaning, for word had gone out and people were already beginning to come for the wake.

The day had dawned spitting rain, but for the moment, none was falling. He went out through the kailyard and climbed the little slope to the arbor. Jenny was sitting there, and he hesitated for a moment, but then came and sat down beside her. She could send him away if she wanted solitude.

She didn’t; she reached up for his hand and he took it, engulfing hers, thinking how fine-boned she was, how frail.

“I want to leave,” she said calmly.

“I dinna blame ye,” he said, with a glance at the house. The arbor was covered with new leaves, the green of them fresh and soft from the rain, but someone would find them soon. “Shall we walk down by the loch for a bit?”

“No, I mean I want to leave here. Lallybroch. For good.”

That took him aback more than a bit.

“Ye dinna mean that, I think,” he said at last, cautious. “It’s been a shock, after all. Ye shouldna—”

She shook her head and put a hand to her breast.

“Something’s broken in me, Jamie,” she said softly. “Whatever it was that bound me … it binds me nay more.”

He didn’t know what to say. He’d avoided the sight of the broch and the burying ground at its foot when he came out of the house, unable to bear the dark wet patch of raw ground there—but now he turned his head deliberately and raised his chin to point at it.

“And ye’d leave Ian?” he asked.

She made a small noise in her throat. Her hand lay against her breast still, and at this she pressed it flat, fierce against her heart.

“Ian’s with me,” she said, and her back straightened in defiance of the fresh-dug grave. “He’ll never leave me, nor I him.” She turned her head and looked at him then; her eyes were red, but dry.

“He’ll never leave ye, either, Jamie,” she said. “Ye ken that, as well as I do.”

Tears welled in his own eyes then, unexpected, and he turned his head away.

“I ken that, aye,” he muttered, and hoped it was true. Just now the place inside him where he was accustomed to find Ian was empty, hollow and echoing as a bodhran. Would he come back? Jamie wondered. Or had Ian only moved a bit, to a different part of his heart, a place he hadn’t yet looked? He hoped—but he wouldn’t go looking just yet awhile and kent it was for fear of finding nothing.

He wanted to change the subject, give her time and space to think. But it was difficult to find anything to say that didn’t have to do with Ian being dead. Or with death in general. All loss is one, and one loss becomes all, a single death the key to the gate that bars memory.

“When Da died,” he said suddenly, surprising himself as much as her. “Tell me what happened.”

He felt her turn to look at him but kept his own eyes on his hands, the fingers of his left hand rubbing slowly over the thick red scar that ran down the back of his right.

“They brought him home,” she said at last. “Lying in a wagon. It was Dougal MacKenzie with them. He told me Da had seen ye being whipped, and all of a sudden he’d fallen down, and when they picked him up, one side of his face was drawn up in anguish but the other was slack. He couldna speak, or walk, and so they took him away and brought him home.”

She paused, swallowing, her eyes fixed on the broch and the burying ground.

“I had a doctor to him. He bled Da, more than once, and burned things in a wee burner and wafted the smoke under his nose. He tried to give him medicine, but Da couldna really swallow. I put drops of water on his tongue, but that was all.” She sighed deeply. “He died the next day, about noon.”

“Ah. He… never spoke?”

She shook her head. “He couldna speak at all. Only moved his mouth now and then and made wee gurgling sounds.” Her chin puckered a little at the memory, but she firmed her lips. “I could see, though, near the end, he was trying to speak. His mouth was trying to shape the words, and his eyes were on mine, trying to make me understand.” She glanced at him.

“He did say, ‘Jamie,’ the once. I ken that much for sure. For I thought he was trying to ask for you, and I told him Dougal said ye were alive and promised that ye’d be all right. That seemed to comfort him a bit, and he died soon after.”

He swallowed thickly, the sound of it loud in his ears. It had begun to rain again, lightly, drops pattering on the leaves overhead.

“Taing,” he said softly at last. “I wondered. I wish I could have said ‘Sorry’ to him.”

“Ye didna need to,” she said just as softly. “He’d ha’ known it.”

He nodded, unable to speak for a moment. Getting himself under control, though, he took her hand again and turned to her.

“I can say ‘Sorry’ to you, though, a pìuthar, and I do.”

“For what?” she said, surprised.

“For believing Dougal when he told me… well, when he said ye’d become an English soldier’s whore. I was a fool.” He looked at his maimed hand, not wanting to meet her eyes.

“Aye, well,” she said, and laid her hand on his, light and cool as the new leaves that fluttered round them. “Ye needed him. I didn’t.”

They sat awhile longer, feeling peaceful, holding hands.

“Where d’ye think he is now?” Jenny said suddenly. “Ian, I mean.”

He glanced at the house, then at the new grave waiting, but of course that wasn’t Ian anymore. He was panicked for a moment, his earlier emptiness returning—but then it came to him, and, without surprise, he knew what it was Ian had said to him.

“On your right, man.” On his right. Guarding his weak side.

“He’s just here,” he said to Jenny, nodding to the spot between them. “Where he belongs.”

PART SEVEN

Reap the Whirlwind

SON OF A WITCH

WHEN ROGER AND Buccleigh drove up to the house, Amanda rushed out to meet them and returned to her mother, waving a blue plastic pinwheel on a stick.

“Mama! Look what I got, look what I got!”

“Oh, how pretty!” Brianna bent to admire it and, blowing, made the toy spin round.

“I do it, I do it!” Amanda grabbed it back, puffing and blowing with great determination but making little headway.

“From the side, a leannan, from the side.” William Buccleigh came round the car and picked Amanda up, gently turning her hand so the pinwheel was perpendicular to her face. “Now blow.” He put his face close to hers and helped blow, and the pinwheel whirred like a June bug.

“Aye, that’s fine, isn’t it? You have a go, then, on your own.” He gave Bree a half-apologetic shrug and carried Amanda up the path, she industriously puffing and blowing. They passed Jem, who stopped to admire the pinwheel. Roger got out of the car with a couple of carrier bags and paused for a private word with Brianna.

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