An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 18


Matters thereafter became generally chaotic, with a great deal of promiscuous splashing, yelling, hooting, and jumping off of rocks, which gave me the opportunity to reflect on just how delightful naked men are. Not that I hadn’t seen a good many of them in my time, but aside from Frank and Jamie, most men I’d seen undressed usually had been either ill or injured, and were encountered in such circumstances as to prevent a leisurely appreciation of their finer attributes.

From Orrie’s chubbiness and Aidan’s spidery winter-white limbs to Bobby’s skinny, pale torso and neat little flat behind, the McCallum-Higginses were as entertaining to watch as a cageful of monkeys.

Ian and Jamie were something different—baboons, perhaps, or mandrills. They didn’t really resemble each other in any attribute other than height, and yet were plainly cut from the same cloth. Watching Jamie squatting on a rock above the pool, thighs tensing for a leap, I could easily see him preparing to attack a leopard, while Ian stretched himself glistening in the sun, warming his dangly bits while keeping an alert watch for intruders. All they needed were purple bottoms, and they could have walked straight onto the African veldt, no questions asked.

They were all lovely, in their wildly various ways, but it was Jamie my gaze returned to, over and over again. He was battered and scarred, his muscles roped and knotted, and age had grooved the hollows between them. The thick welt of the bayonet scar writhed up his thigh, wide and ugly, while the thinner white line of the scar left by a rattlesnake’s bite was nearly invisible, clouded by the thick fuzz of his body hair, this beginning to dry now and stand out from his skin in a cloud of reddish-gold. The scimitar-shaped sword cut across his ribs had healed well, too, no more than a hair-thin white line by now.

He turned round and bent to pick up a cake of soap from the rock, and my insides turned over. It wasn’t purple but could not otherwise have been improved on, being high, round, delicately dusted with red-gold, and with a delightful muscular concavity to the sides. His balls, just visible from behind, were purple with the cold, and gave me a strong urge to creep up behind him and cup them in my rock-warmed hands.

I wondered whether the resultant standing broad-jump would enable him to clear the pool.

I had not, in fact, seen him naked—or even substantially undressed—in several months.

But now … I threw back my head, closing my eyes against the brilliant spring sun, enjoying the tickle of my own fresh-washed hair against my shoulder blades. The snow was gone, the weather was good—and the whole outdoors beckoned invitingly, filled with places where privacy could be assured, bar the odd skunk.

I LEFT THE MEN dripping and sunning themselves on the rocks, and went to retrieve my clothes. I didn’t put these on, though. Instead, I went quickly up to the springhouse, where I submerged my basket of greens in the cool water—if I took it to the cabin, Amy would seize them and boil them into submission—and left my gown, stays, and stockings rolled up on the shelf where the cheeses were stacked. Then I went back toward the stream.

The splashing and shouting had ceased. Instead, I heard low-voiced singing, coming along the trail. It was Bobby, carrying Orrie, sound asleep after his exertions. Aidan, groggy with cleanliness and warmth, ambled slowly beside his stepfather, dark head tilting to and fro to the rhythm of the song.

It was a lovely Gaelic lullaby; Amy must have taught it to Bobby. I did wonder if she’d told him what the words meant.

S’iomadh oidhche fhliuch is thioram

Sìde nan seachd sian

Gheibheadh Griogal dhomhsa creagan

Ris an gabhainn dìon.

(Many a night, wet and dry

Even in the worst of weather

Gregor would find a little rock for me

Beside which I could shelter.)

Òbhan, òbhan òbhan ìri

Òbhan ìri ò!

Òbhan, òbhan òbhan ìri

’S mòr mo mhulad’s mòr.

(Woe is me, woe is me

Woe is me, great indeed is my sorrow.)

I smiled to see them, though with a catch in my throat. I remembered Jamie carrying Jem back from swimming, the summer before, and Roger singing to Mandy in the night, his harsh, cracked voice little more than a whisper—but music, all the same.

I nodded to Bobby, who smiled and nodded back, though without interrupting his song. He raised his brows and jerked a thumb over his shoulder and uphill, presumably indicating where Jamie had gone. He betrayed no surprise at seeing me in shift and shawl—doubtless he thought I was bound for the stream to wash, as well, inspired by the singular warmth of the day.

Eudail mhòir a shluagh an domhain

Dhòirt iad d’ fhuil an dè

’S chuir iad do cheann air stob daraich

Tacan beag bhod chrè.

(Great sweetheart of all people of the world

They poured your blood yesterday

And they put your head on an oak stick

A short distance from your body.)

Òbhan, òbhan òbhan ìri

Òbhan ìri ò!

Òbhan, òbhan òbhan ìri

’S mòr mo mhulad ’s mòr.

(Woe is me, woe is me

Woe is me, great indeed is my sorrow.)

I waved briefly and turned up the side trail that led to the upper clearing. “New House,” everyone called it, though the only indications that there might someday be a house there were a stack of felled logs and a number of pegs driven into the ground, with strings tied between them. These were meant to mark the placement and dimensions of the house Jamie intended to build in replacement of the Big House—when we came back.

He’d been moving the pegs, I saw. The wide front room was now wider, and the back room intended for my surgery had developed a growth of some sort, perhaps a separate stillroom.

The architect was sitting on a log, surveying his kingdom, stark naked.

“Expecting me, were you?” I asked, taking off my shawl and hanging it on a convenient branch.

“I was.” He smiled, and scratched his chest. “I thought the sight of my naked backside would likely inflame ye. Or was it maybe Bobby’s?”

“Bobby hasn’t got one. Do you know, you haven’t got a single gray hair below the neck? Why is that, I wonder?”

He glanced down, inspecting himself, but it was true. There were only a few strands of silver among the fiery mass of his hair, though his beard—the winter growth tediously and painfully removed a few days before—was heavily frosted with white. But the hair on his chest was still a dark auburn, and that below a fluffy mass of vivid ginger.

He combed his fingers thoughtfully through the exuberant foliage, looking down.

“I think it’s hiding,” he remarked, and glanced up at me, one eyebrow raised. “Want to come and help me hunt for it?”

I came round in front of him and obligingly knelt down. The object in question was in fact quite visible, though admittedly looking rather shell-shocked by the recent immersion, and a most interesting shade of pale blue.

“Well,” I said, after a moment’s contemplation. “Great oaks from tiny acorns grow. Or so I’m told.”

A shiver ran through him at the warmth of my mouth and I lifted my hands involuntarily, cradling his balls.

“Holy God,” he said, and his hands rested lightly on my head in benediction.

“What did ye say?” he asked, a moment later.

“I said,” I said, coming up momentarily for air, “I find the gooseflesh rather erotic.”

“There’s more where that came from,” he assured me. “Take your shift off, Sassenach. I havena seen ye naked in nearly four months.”

“Well … no, you haven’t,” I agreed, hesitating. “And I’m not sure I want you to.”

One eyebrow went up.

“Whyever not?”

“Because I’ve been indoors for weeks on end without sun or exercise to speak of. I probably look like one of those grubs you find under rocks—fat, white, and squidgy.”

“Squidgy?” he repeated, breaking into a grin.

“Squidgy,” I said with dignity, wrapping my arms around myself.

He pursed his lips and exhaled slowly, eyeing me with his head on one side.

“I like it when ye’re fat, but I ken quite well that ye’re not,” he said, “because I’ve felt your ribs when I put my arms about you, each night since the end of January. As for white—ye’ve been white all the time I’ve known ye; it’s no likely to come a great shock to me. As for the squidgy part”—he extended one hand and wiggled the fingers beckoningly at me—“I think I might enjoy that.”

“Hmm,” I said, still hesitant. He sighed.

“Sassenach,” he said, “I said I havena seen ye naked in four months. That means if ye take your shift off now, ye’ll be the best thing I’ve seen in four months. And at my age, I dinna think I remember farther back than that.”

I laughed, and without further ado, stood up and pulled the ribbon tie at the neck of my shift. Wriggling, I let it fall in a puddle round my feet.

He closed his eyes. Then breathed deep and opened them again.

“I’m blinded,” he said softly, and held out a hand to me.

“Blinded as in sun bouncing off a vast expanse of snow?” I asked dubiously. “Or as in coming face to face with a gorgon?”

“Seeing a gorgon turns ye to stone, not strikes ye blind,” he informed me. “Though come to think”—he prodded himself with an experimental forefinger—“I may turn to stone yet. Will ye come here, for God’s sake?”

I came.

I FELL ASLEEP IN the warmth of Jamie’s body, and woke some time later, snugly wrapped in his plaid. I stretched, alarming a squirrel overhead, who ran out on a limb to get a better view. Evidently he didn’t like what he saw, and began scolding and chattering.

“Oh, hush,” I said, yawning, and sat up. The squirrel took exception to this gesture and began having hysterics, but I ignored him. To my surprise, Jamie was gone.

I thought he’d likely just stepped into the wood to relieve himself, but a quick glance round didn’t discover him, and when I scrambled to my feet, the plaid clutched to me, I saw no sign of him.

I hadn’t heard anything; surely if someone had come, I would have wakened—or Jamie would have wakened me. I listened carefully, but—the squirrel having now gone about its own business—heard nothing beyond the normal sounds of a forest waking to spring: the murmur and rush of wind through new-leafed trees, punctuated by the occasional crack of a falling branch, or the rattle of last year’s pinecones and chestnut hulls bouncing through the canopy; the call of a distant jay, the conversation of a gang of pygmy nuthatches foraging in the long grass nearby, the rustle of a hungry vole in the winter’s dead leaves.

The jay was still calling; another had joined it now, shrill with alarm. Perhaps that was where Jamie had gone.

I unwound myself from the plaid and pulled on my shift and shoes. It was getting on for evening; we—or I, at least—had slept a long time. It was still warm in the sun, but the shadows under the trees were cold, and I put on my shawl and bundled up Jamie’s plaid into my arms—likely he’d want it.

I followed the calling of the jays uphill, away from the clearing. There was a pair nesting near the White Spring; I’d seen them building the nest only two days before.

It wasn’t far from the house site at all, though that particular spring always had the air of being remote from everything. It lay in the center of a small grove of white ash and hemlock, and was shielded on the east by a jagged outcropping of lichen-covered rock. All water has a sense of life about it, and a mountain spring carries a particular sense of quiet joy, rising pure from the heart of the earth. The White Spring, so called for the big pale boulder that stood guardian over its pool, had something more—a sense of inviolate peace.

The closer I came to it, the surer I was that that was where I’d find Jamie.

“There’s something there that listens,” he’d told Brianna once, quite casually. “Ye see such pools in the Highlands; they’re called saints’ pools—folk say the saint lives by the pool and listens to their prayers.”

“And what saint lives by the White Spring?” she’d asked, cynical. “Saint Killian?”

“Why him?”

“Patron saint of gout, rheumatism, and whitewashers.”

He’d laughed at that, shaking his head.

“Whatever it is that lives in such water is older than the notion of saints,” he assured her. “But it listens.”

I walked softly, approaching the spring. The jays had fallen silent now.

He was there, sitting on a rock by the water, wearing only his shirt. I saw why the jays had gone about their business—he was still as the white boulder itself, his eyes closed, hands turned upward on his knees, loosely cupped, inviting grace.

I stopped at once when I saw him. I had seen him pray here once before—when he’d asked Dougal MacKenzie for help in battle. I didn’t know who he was talking to just now, but it wasn’t a conversation I wished to intrude upon.

I ought to leave, I supposed—but aside from the fear that I might disturb him by an inadvertent noise, I didn’t want to go. Most of the spring lay in shadow, but fingers of light came down through the trees, stroking him. The air was thick with pollen, and the light was filled with motes of gold. It struck answering glints from the crown of his head, the smooth high arch of his foot, the blade of his nose, the bones of his face. He might have grown there, part of earth and stone and water, might have been himself the spirit of the spring.

I didn’t feel unwelcome. The peace of the place reached out to touch me gently, slow my heart.

Was that what he sought here, I wondered? Was he drawing the peace of the mountain into himself, to remember, to sustain him during the months—the years, perhaps—of coming exile?