An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 44

   

“At last!” Clarewell muttered in his ear. “Bloody get on with it; I’m starving.”

A young black man named Billy Richmond, a private soldier whom William knew casually, was sent up the ladder to tie the rope to the tree. He came down now, nodding to the officer.

Now Hale was mounting the ladder, the sergeant major steadying him. The noose was round his neck, a thick rope, new-looking. Didn’t they say new ropes stretched? But it was a high ladder …

William was sweating like a pig, though the day was mild. He mustn’t close his eyes or look away. Not with Clarewell watching.

He tightened the muscles of his throat and concentrated again on Hale’s hands. The fingers were twisting, helplessly, though the man’s face was calm. They were leaving faint damp marks on the skirt of his coat.

A grunt of effort and a grating noise; the ladder was pulled away, and there was a startled whoof! from Hale as he dropped. Whether it was the newness of the rope or something else, his neck did not break cleanly.

He’d refused the hood, and so the spectators were obliged to watch his face for the quarter of an hour it took him to die. William stifled a horrific urge to laugh from pure nerves, seeing the pale blue eyes bulge to bursting point, the tongue thrust out. So surprised. He looked so surprised.

There was only a small group of men assembled for the execution. He saw Richardson a little way away, watching with a look of remote abstraction. As though aware of his glance, Richardson looked sharply up at him. William looked away.

THE MINISTER’S CAT

Lallybroch

October 1980

SHE WAS UP EARLY, before the children, though she knew this was foolish—whatever Roger had gone to Oxford for, it would take him a good four or five hours to drive there, and the same back. Even if he had left at dawn—and he might not be able to, if he hadn’t arrived in time to do whatever it was the day before—he couldn’t be home before midday at the earliest. But she’d slept restlessly, dreaming one of those monotonous and inescapably unpleasant dreams, this one featuring the sight and sound of the tide coming in, lapping wave by lapping wave by lapping … and wakened at first light feeling dizzy and unwell.

It had occurred to her for one nightmare instant that she might be pregnant—but she’d sat up abruptly in bed, and the world had settled at once into place around her. None of that sense of having shoved one foot through the looking glass that early pregnancy entails. She set one foot cautiously out of bed, and the world—and her stomach—stayed steady. Good, then.

Still, the feeling of unease—whether from the dream, Roger’s absence, or the specter of pregnancy—stayed with her, and she went about the daily business of the household with a distracted mind.

She was sorting socks toward midday when she became aware that things were quiet. Quiet in a way that made the hair rise on the back of her neck.

“Jem?” she called. “Mandy?”

Total silence. She stepped out of the laundry, listening for the usual thumps, bangings, and screeches from above, but there was not the slightest sound of trampling feet, toppling blocks, or the high-pitched voices of sibling warfare.

“Jem!” she shouted. “Where are you?”

No reply. The last time this had happened, two days before, she’d discovered her alarm clock in the bottom of the bathtub, neatly disassembled into its component parts, and both children at the far end of the garden, glowing with unnatural innocence.

“I didn’t do it!” Jem had declared virtuously, hauled into the house and faced with the evidence. “And Mandy’s too little.”

“Too widdle,” Mandy had agreed, nodding her mop of black curls so ferociously as to obscure her face.

“Well, I don’t think Daddy did it,” Bree said, raising a stern brow. “And I’m sure it wasn’t Annie Mac. Which doesn’t leave very many suspects, does it?”

“Shussspects, shussspects,” Mandy said happily, enchanted by the new word.

Jem shook his head in resigned fashion, viewing the scattered gears and dismembered hands.

“We must have got piskies, Mama.”

“Pishkies, pishkies,” Mandy chirped, pulling her skirt up over her head and yanking at her frilly underpants. “Needa go pishkie, Mama!”

In the midst of the urgency occasioned by this statement, Jem had faded artfully, not to be seen again until dinner, by which time the affair of the alarm clock had been superseded by the usual fierce rush of daily events, not to be recalled until bedtime, when Roger remarked the absence of the alarm clock.

“Jem doesn’t usually lie,” Roger had said thoughtfully, having been shown the small pottery bowl now containing the clock’s remains.

Bree, brushing out her hair for bed, gave him a jaundiced look.

“Oh, you think we have pixies, too?”

“Piskies,” he said absently, stirring the small pile of gears in the bowl with a finger.

“What? You mean they really are called ‘piskies’ here? I thought Jem was just mispronouncing it.”

“Well, no—‘pisky’ is Cornish; they’re called pixies in other parts of the West Country, though.”

“What are they called in Scotland?”

“We haven’t really got any. Scotland’s got its fair share of the fairy folk,” he said, scooping up a handful of clock innards and letting them tinkle musically back into the bowl. “But Scots tend toward the grimmer manifestations of the supernatural—water horses, ban-sidhe, blue hags, and the Nuckelavee, aye? Piskies are a wee bit frivolous for Scotland. We have got brownies, mind,” he added, taking the brush from her hand, “but they’re more of a household help, not mischief-makers like piskies. Can ye put the clock back together?”

“Sure—if the piskies didn’t lose any of the parts. What on earth is a Nuckelavee?”

“It’s from the Orkneys. Nothing ye want to hear about just before bed,” he assured her. And, bending, breathed very softly on her neck, just below the earlobe.

The faint tingle engendered by the memory of what had happened after that momentarily overlaid her suspicions of what the children might be up to, but the sensation faded, to be replaced by increasing worry.

There was no sign of either Jem or Mandy anywhere in the house. Annie MacDonald didn’t come on Saturdays, and the kitchen … At first glance, it seemed undisturbed, but she was familiar with Jem’s methods.

Sure enough, the packet of chocolate biscuits was missing, as was a bottle of lemon squash, though everything else in the cupboard was in perfect order—and the cupboard was six feet off the ground. Jem showed great promise as a cat burglar, she thought. At least he’d have a career if he got chucked out of school for good one of these days after telling his classmates something especially picturesque he’d picked up in the eighteenth century.

The missing food allayed her uneasiness. If they’d taken a picnic, they were outside, and while they might be anywhere within a half mile of the house—Mandy wouldn’t walk farther than that—chances were they wouldn’t have gone far before sitting down to eat biscuits.

It was a beautiful fall day, and despite the need to track down her miscreants, she was glad to be out in the sun and breeze. Socks could wait. And so could turning the vegetable beds. And speaking to the plumber about the geyser in the upstairs bath. And …

“It doesna matter how many things ye do on a farm, there’s always more than ye can do. A wonder the place doesna rise up about my ears and swallow me, like Jonah and the whale.”

For an instant, she heard her father’s voice, full of exasperated resignation at encountering another unexpected chore. She glanced round at him, smiling, then stopped, realization and longing sweeping over her in waves.

“Oh, Da,” she said softly. She walked on, more slowly, suddenly seeing not the albatross of a big, semi-decayed house, but the living organism that was Lallybroch, and all those of her blood who had been part of it—who still were.

The Frasers and Murrays who had put their own sweat and blood and tears into its buildings and soil, woven their lives into its land. Uncle Ian, Aunt Jenny—the swarm of cousins she had known so briefly. Young Ian. All of them dead now … but, curiously enough, not gone.

“Not gone at all,” she said aloud, and found comfort in the words. She’d reached the back gate of the kailyard and paused, glancing up the hill toward the ancient broch that gave the place its name; the burying ground was up on that same hill, most of its stones so weathered that the names and their dates were indecipherable, the stones themselves mostly obliterated by creeping gorse and sweet broom. And amidst the splashes of gray, black-green, and brilliant yellow were two small moving splotches of red and blue.

The pathway was badly overgrown; brambles ripped at her jeans. She found the children on hands and knees, following a trail of ants—who were in turn following a trail of cookie crumbs, carefully placed so as to lead the ants through an obstacle course of sticks and pebbles.

“Look, Mama!” Jem barely glanced up at her, absorbed in the sight before him. He pointed at the ground, where he had sunk an old teacup into the dirt and filled it with water. A black glob of ants, lured to their doom by chocolate crumbs, were struggling in the midst of it.

“Jem! That’s mean! You mustn’t drown ants—unless they’re in the house,” she added, with vivid memories of a recent infestation in the pantry.

“They’re not drowning, Mama. Look—see what they do?”

She crouched beside him, looking closer, and saw that, in fact, the ants weren’t drowning. Single ants that had fallen in struggled madly toward the center, where a large mass of ants clung together, making a ball that floated, barely denting the surface. The ants in the ball were moving, slowly, so that they changed places constantly, and while one or two near the edge of the mass were motionless, possibly dead, the majority were clearly in no immediate danger of drowning, supported by the bodies of their fellows. And the mass itself was gradually drawing closer to the rim of the cup, propelled by the movements of the ants in it.

“That’s really cool,” she said, fascinated, and sat beside him for some time, watching the ants, before finally decreeing mercy and making him scoop the ball of ants out on a leaf, where once laid on the ground, they scattered and at once went back to their business.

“Do you think they do it on purpose?” she asked Jem. “Cluster together like that, I mean. Or are they just looking for anything to hang on to?”

“Dinna ken,” he said, shrugging. “I’ll look in my ant book and see does it say.”

She gathered up the remnants of the picnic, leaving one or two biscuit fragments for the ants, who had, she felt, earned them. Mandy had wandered off while she and Jem watched the ants in the teacup, and was presently squatting in the shade of a bush some way uphill, engaged in animated conversation with an invisible companion.

“Mandy wanted to talk to Grandda,” Jem said matter-of-factly. “That’s why we came up here.”

“Oh?” she said slowly. “Why is here a good place to talk to him?”

Jem looked surprised, and glanced toward the weathered, tipsy stones of the burying ground.

“Isn’t he here?”

Something much too powerful to be called a shiver shot up her spine. It was as much Jem’s matter-of-factness as the possibility that it might be true that took her breath away.

“I—don’t know,” she said. “I suppose he could be.” While she tried not to think too much about the fact that her parents were now dead, she had somehow vaguely assumed that they would have been buried in North Carolina—or somewhere else in the Colonies, if war had taken them away from the Ridge.

But she remembered the letters suddenly. He’d said he meant to come back to Scotland. And Jamie Fraser being a determined man, more than likely he’d done just that. Had he never left again? And if he hadn’t—was her mother here, too?

Without really meaning to, she found herself making her way upward, past the foot of the old broch and through the stones of the burying ground. She’d come up here once, with her aunt Jenny. It had been early evening, with a breeze whispering in the grass, and an air of peace upon the hillside. Jenny had shown her the graves of her grandparents, Brian and Ellen, together under a marriage stone; yes, she could still make out the curve of it, overgrown and mossy as it was, the names weathered away. And the child who had died with Ellen was buried with her—her third son. Robert, Jenny said; her father, Brian, had insisted he be baptized, and her wee dead brother’s name was Robert.

She was standing among the stones now; so many of them. A good many of the later ones were still readable, these with dates in the late 1800s. Murrays and McLachlan’s and McLean’s, for the most part. Here and there the odd Fraser or MacKenzie.

The earlier ones, though, were all too weathered to read, no more than the shadows of letters showing through the black stains of lichen and the soft, obliterating moss. There, next to Ellen’s grave, was the tiny square stone for Caitlin Maisri Murray, Jenny and Ian’s sixth child, who had lived only a day or so. Jenny had shown Brianna the stone, stooping to run a gentle hand across the letters and laying a yellow rose from the path beside it. There had been a small cairn there, too—pebbles left by those who visited the grave. The cairn had been scattered long since, but Brianna stooped and found a pebble now and placed it by the little stone.

There was another, she saw, beside it. Another small stone, as for a child. Not quite as weathered, but plainly almost as old. Only two words on it, she thought, and, closing her eyes, ran her fingers slowly over the stone, feeling out the shallow, broken lines. There was an “E” in the first line. A “Y,” she thought, in the second. And maybe a “K.”

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