An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 33

   

He coughed, recollecting—with a mixture of embarrassment and lust—a number of interesting images from their encounter more than two years before. Outwardly, she was a plain woman past thirty, her face and manner much more those of an autocratic nun than a whore. Beneath the unassuming calico gown and muslin apron, though … she gave fair value, did Mistress Sylvie.

“I’m no asking as a favor, aye?” he said, and nodded at the pouch, which he had put down on the table by his chair. “I had it in mind to apprentice them, maybe?”

“Apprentice girls. In a brothel.” She didn’t make it a question, but her mouth twitched again.

“Ye could start them as maids—surely ye’ve cleaning to be done? Chamber pots to be emptied, and the like? And then if they should be clever enough”—he shot them a narrow glance of his own, and Hermione stuck out her tongue at him—“ye could maybe train them up to be cooks. Or sempstresses. Ye must need a deal of mending done, aye? Torn sheets and the like?”

“Torn shifts, more like,” she said, very dryly. Her eyes flickered toward the ceiling, where a sound of rhythmic squeaking indicated the presence of a paying customer.

The girls had sidled off their stools and were prowling the parlor like wild cats, nosing things and bristling with caution. He realized suddenly that they’d never seen a town, let alone a civilized person’s house.

Mrs. Sylvie leaned forward and picked up the pouch, her eyes widening in surprise at the weight of it. She opened it and poured a handful of greasy black shot into her hand, glancing sharply up from it to him. He didn’t speak, but smiled and, reaching forward, took one of the balls from the palm of her hand, dug his thumbnail hard into it, and dropped it back into her hand, the scored line glinting bright gold amid the darkness.

She pursed her lips, weighing the bag again.

“All of it?” It was, he’d estimated, more than fifty pounds’ worth of gold: half what he’d been carrying.

He made a long reach and took a china ornament out of Hermione’s hands.

“It’ll no be an easy job,” he said. “Ye’ll earn it, I think.”

“I think so, too,” she said, watching Trudy, who—with extreme nonchalance—had lowered her breeches and was relieving herself in a corner of the hearth. The secret of their sex revealed, the girls had quite abandoned their requirements of privacy.

Mrs. Sylvie rang her silver bell, and both girls turned toward the sound in surprise.

“Why me?” she asked.

“I couldna think of anyone else who might be able to deal with them,” Ian said simply.

“I’m very flattered.”

“Ye should be,” he said, smiling. “Have we a bargain, then?”

She drew a deep breath, eyeing the girls, who had their heads together, whispering, as they viewed her with the deepest suspicion. She let it out again, shaking her head.

“I think it’s likely a bad bargain—but times are hard.”

“What, in your business? I should think the demand must be fairly constant.” He’d meant to joke, but she rounded on him, eyes narrowing.

“Oh, the customers are ready enough to knock on my door, no matter what,” she said. “But they’ve no money these days—no one does. I’ll take a chicken or a flitch of bacon—but half of them haven’t got so much as that. They’ll pay with proclamation money, or Continentals, or scrip from a militia unit—want to guess how much any of those are worth in the market?”

“Aye, I—” But she was steaming like a kettle, and turned on him, hissing.

“Or they don’t pay at all. When times are fair, so are men, mostly. But pinch them a bit, and they stop seeing just why they need to pay for their pleasure—after all, what does it cost me? And I cannot refuse, or they will simply take what they want and then burn my house or hurt us for my temerity. You see that, I suppose?”

The bitterness in her voice stung like a nettle, and he abruptly abandoned a half-formed impulse to propose that they seal their bargain in a personal way.

“I see that,” he replied, as evenly as he could. “Is such a thing not always a risk of your profession, though? And ye’ve prospered so far, aye?”

Her mouth compressed for an instant.

“I had a … patron. A gentleman who offered me protection.”

“In return for … ?”

A hot flush rose in her thin cheeks.

“None of your business, sir.”

“Is it not?” He nodded at the pouch in her hand. “If I’m placing my—these—well, them”—he gestured at the girls, now fingering the fabric of a curtain—“with you, surely I am entitled to ask whether I might be placing them in danger by doing so?”

“They’re girls,” she replied briefly. “They were born in danger and will live their lives in that condition, regardless of circumstance.” But her hand had tightened on the pouch, knuckles white. He was that bit impressed that she was so honest, given that she plainly did need the money badly. In spite of her bitterness, though, he was rather enjoying the joust.

“D’ye think life’s no dangerous for a man, then?” he asked, and without pausing, “What happened to your pimp?”

The blood washed abruptly from her face, leaving it white as bleached bone. Her eyes flashed in it like sparks.

“He was my brother,” she said, and her voice dropped to a furious whisper. “The Sons of Liberty tarred and feathered him and left him on my doorstep to die. Now, sir—have you any further questions regarding my affairs, or is our business done?”

Before he could make shift to find any response at all to this, the door opened and a young woman came in. He felt a visceral shock at seeing her, and the edges of his vision went white. Then the room steadied round him and he found he could draw breath again.

It wasn’t Emily. The young woman—looking curiously from him to the little savages wrapped in the curtains—was part-Indian, small and gracefully built, with Emily’s long, thick, raven’s-wing hair flowing loose down her back. With Emily’s broad cheekbones and delicate round chin. But she wasn’t Emily.

Thank God, he thought, but at the same time suffered a hollowness of the wame. He felt as though the sight of her had been a cannonball that had struck him and, having passed straight through his body, left a gaping hole in its wake.

Mrs. Sylvie was giving the Indian girl brisk instructions, pointing at Hermione and Trudy. The girl’s black brows rose briefly, but she nodded, and smiling at the girls, invited them to accompany her to the kitchen for some food.

The little girls promptly disentangled themselves from the curtains; it had been a long time since breakfast, and he’d had nothing for them then save a bit of drammach and some jerked bear meat, hard as shoe leather.

They followed the Indian girl to the door of the room, sparing him not a glance. At the door, though, Hermione turned, and hitching up her baggy-seated breeches, fixed him with a glare and pointed a long, skinny finger of accusation at him.

“If we turns out to be whores after all, you f**ker, I’m gonna hunt you down, cut your balls off, and stuff ’em up your arse.”

He took his leave with what dignity he could, the peals of Mrs. Sylvie’s laughter ringing in his ears.

PULLING TEETH

New Bern, colony of North Carolina

April 1777

I HATED PULLING TEETH. The figure of speech that likens something of extreme difficulty to pulling teeth is not hyperbole. Even in the best of situations—a large person with a big mouth and a placid temperament, the affected tooth one of those toward the front of the mouth and in the upper jaw (less in the way of roots and much easier of access)—it was a messy, slippery, bone-crack business. And underlying the sheer physical unpleasantness of the job was usually an inescapable feeling of depression at the probable outcome.

It was necessary—beyond the pain of an abscessed tooth, a bad abscess could release bacteria into the bloodstream, causing septicemia and even death—but to remove a tooth, with no good means of replacing it, was to compromise not merely the patient’s appearance but also the function and structure of the mouth. A missing tooth allowed all those near it to shift out of place, altering the bite and making chewing much less efficient. Which in turn affected the patient’s nutrition, general health, and prospects for a long and happy life.

Not, I reflected grimly, changing position yet again in hopes of gaining a view of the tooth I was after, that even the removal of several teeth would greatly damage the dentition of the poor little girl whose mouth I was working on.

She couldn’t be more than eight or nine, with a narrow jaw and a pronounced overbite. Her canine baby teeth had not fallen out on time, and the permanent ones had come in behind them, giving her a sinister double-fanged appearance. This was aggravated by the unusual narrowness of her upper jaw, which had forced the two emergent front incisors to buckle inward, turning toward each other in such a way that the front surfaces of each tooth almost touched each other.

I touched the abscessed upper molar and she jerked against the straps that bound her to the chair, letting out a shriek that ran under my fingernails like a bamboo splinter.

“Give her a bit more, please, Ian.” I straightened up, feeling as though my lower back had been squeezed in a vise; I’d been working for several hours in the front room of Fergus’s printshop, and had a small bowl full of bloodstained teeth at my elbow and a rapt crowd outside the window to show for it.

Ian made a dubious Scottish noise, but picked up the bottle of whisky and made an encouraging clucking noise toward the little girl, who screamed again at sight of his tattooed face and clamped her mouth shut. The girl’s mother, out of patience, slapped her briskly, snatched the bottle from Ian’s hand, and inserting it into her daughter’s mouth, upended it, pinching the girl’s nose shut with the other hand.

The child’s eyes went round as pennies and an explosion of whisky droplets sprayed from the corners of her mouth—but her scrawny little neck bobbed convulsively as she swallowed, nonetheless.

“I really think that’s enough,” I said, rather alarmed at the quantity of whisky the child was swallowing. It was very bad whisky, acquired locally, and while Jamie and Ian had both tasted it and, after some discussion, decided that it probably wouldn’t make anyone go blind, I had reservations about using it in any great amount.

“Hmm,” said the mother, examining her daughter critically, but not removing the bottle. “That’ll do it, I suppose.”

The child’s eyes had rolled back in her head, and the straining little body suddenly relaxed, falling limp against the chair. The mother removed the whisky bottle, wiped the mouth of it tidily on her apron, and handed it back to Ian with a nod.

I hastily examined her pulse and breathing, but she seemed in reasonably good shape—so far, at least.

“Carpe diem,” I muttered, grabbing my tooth pliers. “Or perhaps I mean carpe vinorum? Watch to see she keeps breathing, Ian.”

Ian laughed and tilted the bottle, wetting a tiny swab of clean cloth with whisky for the mopping up.

“I think ye’ll have time to take more than the one tooth, Auntie, if ye want. Ye could likely pull every tooth in the poor lassie’s head and she wouldna twitch.”

“It’s a thought,” I said, turning the child’s head. “Can you bring the mirror, Ian?”

I had a tiny square of looking glass which could, with luck, be used to direct sunlight into a patient’s mouth. And there was sunlight streaming through the window in abundance, warm and bright. Unfortunately, there were any number of curious heads pressed against the window, too, which kept moving into the path of the sun, frustrating Ian’s attempts to beam sunlight where I needed it.

“Marsali!” I called, a thumb on the girl’s pulse, just in case.

“Aye?” She came through from the back room where she’d been cleaning—or, rather, dirtying—type, wiping inky hands on a rag. “D’ye need Henri-Christian again?”

“If you—or he—don’t mind.”

“Not him,” she assured me. “Likes nothing better, the wee praise-hog. Joanie! Félicité! Come fetch the wean, will ye? He’s wanted out front.”

Félicité and Joan—aka the hell-kittens, as Jamie called them—came eagerly; they enjoyed Henri-Christian’s performances nearly as much as he did.

“Come on, Bubbles!” Joanie called, holding open the door to the kitchen. Henri-Christian came scampering out, rolling from side to side on short, bowed legs, ruddy face beaming.

“Hoopla, hoopla, hoopla!” he shouted, making for the door.

“Put his hat on him!” Marsali called. “The wind will get in his ears.”

It was a bright day, but was windy, and Henri-Christian had a tendency to ear infection. He had a woolen hat that tied under the chin, though, knitted in blue and white stripes and decorated with a row of red bobbles—Brianna had made it for him, and the sight of it squeezed my heart a little, warmth and pain together.

The girls each took him by a hand—Félicité stretching up at the last moment to grab an old slouch hat of her father’s from the peg, to put out for coins—and went out, to cheers and whistles from the crowd. Through the window, I could see Joanie clearing the books displayed on the table outside, and Félicité hoisting Henri-Christian up in their stead. He spread his stubby, powerful arms, beaming, and bowed in accomplished fashion to one side and the other. Then he bent, put his hands on the tabletop, and, with a remarkable degree of controlled grace, stood on his head.

I didn’t wait to watch the rest of his show—it was mostly simple dancing and kicks, interspersed with somersaults and headstands, but made enchanting by his dwarfed stature and vivid personality. He had shifted the crowd away from the window momentarily, though, which was what I wanted.

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