An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 46

   

He wasn’t, though. No one with sense would have gone to the upper floors of the broch; the boards were half rotted, and as his eyes adjusted, he could see the gaping holes, a faint light coming through them from the slit windows higher up. Roger heard nothing, but an urge to be certain propelled him up the narrow stone stair that spiraled round the inside of the tower, testing each step for loose stones before trusting his weight to it.

He disturbed a quantity of pigeons on the top floor, who panicked and whirled round the inside of the tower like a feathery tornado, shedding down feathers and droppings, before finding their way out of the windows. He pressed himself against the wall, heart pounding as they battered blindly past his face. Something—a rat, a mouse, a vole—ran over his foot, and he jerked convulsively, nearly losing his torch.

The broch was alive, all right; the bats up above were shifting around, uneasy at all the racket below. But no sign of an intruder, human or not.

Coming down, he put his head out to signal to Bree that all was well, then closed the door and made his way down to the house, brushing dirt and pigeon feathers off his clothes.

“I’ll put a new hasp and a padlock on that door,” he told Brianna, lounging against the old stone sink as she started the supper. “Though I doubt he’ll be back. Likely just a traveler.”

“From the Orkneys, do you think?” She was reassured, he could tell, but there was still a line of worry between her brows. “You said that’s where they have stories about the Nuckelavee.”

He shrugged.

“Possible. But ye find the stories written down; the Nuckelavee’s not so popular as kelpies or fairies, but anyone might come across him in print. What’s that?” She had opened the refrigerator to get the butter out, and he’d glimpsed the bottle of champagne on the shelf, its foiled label gleaming.

“Oh, that.” She looked at him, ready to smile, but with a certain apprehension in her eyes. “I, um, got the job. I thought we might … celebrate?” The tentative question smote him to the heart, and he smacked himself on the forehead.

“Christ, I forgot to ask! That’s great, Bree! I knew ye would, mind,” he said, smiling with every bit of warmth and conviction he could muster. “Never a doubt.”

He could see the tension leave her body as her face lit up, and felt a certain peace descend on him, as well. This pleasant feeling lasted through the rib-cracking hug she gave him and the very nice kiss that followed, but was obliterated when she stepped back and, taking up a saucepan, asked with elaborate casualness, “So … did you find what you were looking for in Oxford?”

“Yeah.” It came out in a gruff croak; he cleared his throat and tried again. “Yeah, more or less. Look—can the supper wait a bit, d’ye think? I think I’d have more appetite if I tell ye first.”

“Sure,” she said slowly, putting down the saucepan. Her eyes were fixed on him, interested, maybe a bit fearful. “I fed the kids before you got home. If you’re not starving …”

He was; he hadn’t stopped for lunch on the way back and his stomach was flapping, but it didn’t matter. He reached out a hand to her.

“Come on out. The evening’s fine.” And if she took it badly, there were no saucepans out of doors.

“I WENT ROUND to Old St. Stephen’s,” he said abruptly, as soon as they’d left the house. “To talk to Dr. Weatherspoon; he’s rector there. He was a friend of the Reverend’s—he’s known me since I was a lad.”

Her hand had tightened on his arm as he spoke. He risked a glance at her and saw her looking anxious but hopeful.

“And … ?” she said, tentative.

“Well … the upshot of it is I’ve got a job, too.” He smiled, self-conscious. “Assistant choirmaster.”

That, of course, hadn’t been what she was expecting at all, and she blinked. Then her eyes went to his throat. He knew fine what she was thinking.

“Are you going to wear that?” she had asked, hesitant, the first time they prepared to go into Inverness for shopping.

“I was, aye. Why, have I got a spot?” He’d craned to look over the shoulder of his white shirt. No surprise if he had. Mandy had rushed in from her play to greet him, plastering his legs with sandy hugs. He’d dusted her off a bit before lifting her for a proper kiss, but …

“Not that,” Bree had said, her lips compressing for a minute. “It’s just … What will you say about …”She made a throat-cutting gesture.

His hand had gone to the open collar of his shirt, where the rope scar made a curving line, distinct to the touch, like a chain of tiny pebbles under the skin. It had faded somewhat, but was still very visible.

“Nothing.”

Her brows rose, and he’d given her a lopsided smile.

“But what will they be thinking?”

“I suppose they’ll just assume I’m into autoerotic asphyxiation and went a bit too far one day.”

Familiar as he was with the rural Highlands, he imagined that was the least of what they would think. Externally proper his putative congregation might be—but no one could imagine more lurid depravity than a devout Scottish Presbyterian.

“Did … er … did you tell Dr. Weatherspoon … What did you tell him?” she asked now, after a moment’s consideration. “I mean—he had to have noticed.”

“Oh, aye. He noticed. I didn’t say anything, though, and neither did he.”

“Look, Bree,” he’d told her on that first day, “it’s a straight choice. We tell everyone the absolute truth, or we tell them nothing—or as close to nothing as possible—and let them think what they like. Concocting a story won’t work, will it? Too many ways to trip up.”

She hadn’t liked it; he could still see the way her eyes had drawn down at the corners. But he was right, and she knew it. Decision had spread across her face, and she’d nodded, her shoulders squaring.

They’d had to do a certain amount of lying, of course, in order to legalize the existence of Jem and Mandy. But it was the late seventies; communes abounded in the States, and impromptu bands of “travelers,” as they called themselves, drifted to and fro across Europe in cavalcades of rusted buses and clapped-out vans. They had brought very little through the stones with them, bar the children themselves—but among the tiny hoard Brianna had tucked into her pockets and down her stays were two handwritten birth certificates, attested by one Claire Beauchamp Randall, MD, attending physician.

“It’s the proper form for a home birth,” Claire had said, making the loops of her signature with care. “And I am—or I was,” she’d corrected, with a wry twist of the mouth, “a registered physician, licensed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

“Assistant choirmaster,” Bree said now, eyeing him.

He drew a deep breath; the evening air was fine, clear and soft, if beginning to be populated by midgies. He waved a cloud of them away from his face, and grasped the nettle.

“I didn’t go for a job, mind. I went to … to get my mind clear. About being a minister.”

She stopped dead at that.

“And … ?” she prompted.

“Come on.” He pulled her gently into motion once more. “We’ll be eaten alive if we stand here.”

They strolled through the kailyard and out past the barn, walking along the path that led by the back pasture. He’d already milked the two cows, Milly and Blossom, and they’d settled for the night, big humped dark shapes in the grass, peacefully chewing their cuds.

“I told you about the Westminster Confession, aye?” This was the Presbyterian equivalent to the Catholics’ Nicene Creed—their statement of officially accepted doctrine.

“Uh-huh.”

“Well, see, to be a Presbyterian minister, I’d need to be able to swear that I accepted everything in the Westminster Confession. I did, when I—well, before.” He’d come so close, he thought. He’d been on the eve of ordination as a minister when fate had intervened, in the person of Stephen Bonnet. Roger had been compelled to drop everything, to find and rescue Brianna from the pirate’s lair on Ocracoke. Not that he regretted doing it, mind…. She paced beside him, red and long-limbed, graceful as a tiger, and the thought that she might so easily have vanished from his life forever—and that he’d never have known his daughter …

He coughed and cleared his throat, abstractedly touching the scar.

“Maybe I still do. But I’m not sure. And I have to be.”

“What changed?” she asked curiously. “What could you accept then that you can’t now?”

What changed? he thought wryly. Good question.

“Predestination,” he said. “In a manner of speaking.” There was still enough light that he saw a look of mildly derisive amusement flicker across her face, though whether simply from the ironic juxtaposition of question and answer or from the concept itself, he didn’t know. They’d never argued questions of faith—they were more than cautious with each other on those grounds—but they were at least familiar with the general shape of each other’s beliefs.

He’d explained the idea of predestination in simple terms: not some inescapable fate ordained by God, nor yet the notion that God had laid out each person’s life in great detail before his or her birth—though not a few Presbyterians saw it just that way. It had to do with salvation and the notion that God chose a pathway that led to that salvation.

“For some people,” she’d said skeptically. “And He chooses to damn the rest?”

A lot of people thought that, too, and it had taken better minds than his to argue their way past that impression.

“There are whole books written about it, but the basic idea is that salvation’s not just the result of our choice—God acts first. Extending the invitation, ye might say, and giving us an opportunity to respond. But we’ve still got free choice. And really,” he added quickly, “the only thing that’s not optional—to be a Presbyterian—is a belief in Jesus Christ. I’ve still got that.”

“Good,” she said. “But to be a minister … ?”

“Yeah, probably. And—well, here.” He reached abruptly into his pocket and handed her the folded photocopy.

“I thought I’d best not steal the book,” he said, trying for levity. “In case I do decide to be minister, I mean. Bad example for the flock.”

“Ho-ho,” she said absently, reading. She looked up, one eyebrow quirked.

“It’s different, isn’t it?” he said, the breathless feeling back beneath his diaphragm.

“It’s …” Her eyes shot back to the document, and a frown creased her brow. She looked up at him a moment later, pale and swallowing. “Different. The date’s different.”

He felt a slight easing of the tension that had wound him up for the last twenty-four hours. He wasn’t losing his mind, then. He put out a hand, and she gave him back the copy of the clipping from the Wilmington Gazette—the death notice for the Frasers of the Ridge.

“It’s only the date,” he said, running a thumb beneath the blurred type of the words. “The text—I think that’s the same. Is it what you remember?” She’d found the same information, looking for her family in the past—it was what had propelled her through the stones, and him after her. And that, he thought, has made all the difference. Thank you, Robert Frost.

She’d pressed against him, to read it over again. Once, and twice, and once more for good measure, before she nodded.

“Only the date,” she said, and he heard the same breathlessness in her voice. “It … changed.”

“Good,” he said, his voice sounding queer and gruff. “When I started wondering … I had to go and see, before I talked to you about it. Just to check—because the clipping I’d seen in a book, that couldn’t be right.”

She nodded, still a little pale.

“If I … if I went back to the archive in Boston where I found that newspaper—would it have changed, too, do you think?”

“Yeah, I do.”

She was silent for a long moment, looking at the paper in his hand. Then she looked at him, intent.

“You said, when you started wondering. What made you start wondering?”

“Your mother.”

IT HAD BEEN a couple of months before they left the Ridge. Unable to sleep one night, he’d gone out into the woods and, roaming restlessly to and fro, had encountered Claire, kneeling in a hollow full of white flowers, their shapes like a mist around her.

He’d just sat down then and watched her at her gathering, as she broke stems and stripped leaves into her basket. She wasn’t touching the flowers, he saw, but pulling up something that grew beneath them.

“You need to gather these at night,” she remarked to him after a little. “Preferably at the dark of the moon.”

“I shouldn’t have expected—” he began, but broke off abruptly.

She laughed, a small fizzing sound of amusement.

“You wouldn’t have expected that I should put stock in such superstitions?” she asked. “Wait, young Roger. When you’ve lived as long as I, you may begin to regard superstitions yourself. As for this one …” Her hand moved, a pale blur in the darkness, and broke a stem with a soft, juicy snap. A pungent aroma suddenly filled the air, sharp and plangent through the softer aroma of the flowers.

“Insects come and lay their eggs on the leaves of some plants, do you see? The plants secrete certain rather strong-smelling substances in order to repel the bugs, and the concentration of these substances is highest when the need is greatest. As it happens, those insecticidal substances happen also to have quite powerful medicinal properties, and the chief thing that troubles this particular sort of plant”—she brushed a feathery stem under his nose, fresh and damp—“is the larvae of moths.”

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