An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 47

   

“Ergo, it has more of the substance late at night, because that’s when the caterpillars feed?”

“Got it.” The stem was withdrawn, the plant thrust into her bag with a rustle of muslin, and her head bent as she felt about for more. “And some plants are fertilized by moths. Those, of course …”

“Bloom at night.”

“Most plants, though, are troubled by daylight insects, and so they begin to secrete their useful compounds at dawn; the concentration rises as the day waxes—but then, when the sun gets too hot, some of the oils will begin to vaporize from the leaves, and the plant will stop producing them. So most of the very aromatic plants, you pick in late morning. And so the shamans and the herbalists tell their apprentices to take one plant in the dark of the moon and another at midday—thus making it a superstition, hmm?” Her voice was rather dry, but still amused.

Roger sat back on his heels, watching her grope about. Now that his eyes were accustomed, he could make out her shape with ease, though the details of her face were still hidden.

She worked for a time, and then sat back on her heels and stretched; he heard the creak of her back.

“I saw him once, you know.” Her voice was muffled; she had turned away from him, probing under the drooping branches of a rhododendron.

“Saw him? Who?”

“The King.” She found something; he heard the rustle of leaves as she tugged at it, and the snap of the breaking stem.

“He came to Pembroke Hospital, to visit the soldiers there. He came and spoke separately to us—the nurses and doctors. He was a quiet man, very dignified, but warm in his manner. I couldn’t tell you a thing that he said. But it was … remarkably inspiring. Just that he was there, you know.”

“Mmphm.” Was it the onset of war, he wondered, making her recall such things?

“A journalist asked the Queen if she would be taking her children and evacuating to the country—so many were, you know.”

“I know.” Roger saw suddenly in his mind’s eye a pair of children: a boy and a girl, thin-faced and silent, huddling near each other beside a familiar hearth. “We had two of them—at our house in Inverness. How odd, I hadn’t remembered them at all until just now.”

She wasn’t paying attention, though.

“She said—and I may not have the quote exactly right, but this is the gist of it—‘Well, the children can’t leave me, and I can’t leave the King—and of course the king won’t leave.’ When was your father killed, Roger?”

Whatever he’d been expecting her to say, it wasn’t that. For an instant, the question seemed so incongruous as not to be comprehensible.

“What?” But he had heard her, and shaking his head to dispel a feeling of surreality, he answered, “October 1941. I’m not sure I remember the exact date—no, I do, the Reverend had it written on his genealogy. The thirty-first of October, 1941. Why?” “Why in God’s name,” he wanted to say, but he’d been trying to control the impulse toward casual blasphemy. He choked off the stronger impulse to escape into random thought and repeated, very calmly, “Why?”

“You said he’d been shot down in Germany, didn’t you?”

“Over the Channel on his way to Germany. So I was told.” He could just make out her features in the moonlight, but couldn’t read her expression.

“Who told you? Do you remember?”

“The Reverend, I suppose. Or I suppose it might have been my mother.” The sense of unreality was wearing off, and he was beginning to feel angry. “Does it matter?”

“Probably not. When we first met you—Frank and I, in Inverness—the Reverend said then that your father had been shot down over the Channel.”

“Yes? Well …” So what? was unspoken, but she plainly picked it up, for there was a small snort of not-quite laughter from the rhododendrons.

“You’re right, it doesn’t matter. But—both you and the Reverend mentioned that he was a Spitfire pilot. Is that correct?”

“Yes.” Roger wasn’t sure why, but he was beginning to have an uneasy sense at the back of his neck, as though something might be standing behind him. He coughed, making an excuse to turn his head, but glimpsed nothing behind him but the black-and-white forest, smudged by moonlight.

“I do know that for sure,” he said, feeling oddly defensive. “My mother had a photograph of him with his plane. Rag Doll, the plane was called; the name was painted on the nose, with a crude picture of a dolly in a red dress, with black curls.” He did know that for sure. He’d slept with the picture under his pillow for a long time after his mother was killed—the studio portrait of his mother was too big, and he worried that someone would notice it missing.

“Rag Doll,” he repeated, suddenly struck by something.

“What? What is it?”

He waved a hand, awkward.

“It—nothing. I—I just realized that ‘Rag Doll’ was probably what my father called my mother. A nickname, you know? I saw a few of his letters to her; they were usually addressed to Dolly. And just now, thinking of the black curls—my mother’s portrait … Mandy. Mandy’s got my mother’s hair.”

“Oh, good,” Claire said dryly. “I’d hate to think I was entirely responsible for it. Do tell her that, when she’s older, will you? Girls with very curly hair invariably hate it—at least in the early years, when they want to look like everyone else.”

Despite his preoccupation, he heard the small note of desolation in her voice, and reached for her hand, disregarding the fact that she still held a plant in it.

“I’ll tell her,” he said softly. “I’ll tell her everything. Don’t ever think we’d let the kids forget you.”

She squeezed his hand, hard, and the fragrant white flowers spilled over the darkness of her skirt.

“Thank you,” she whispered. He heard her sniff a little, and she wiped the back of her other hand swiftly across her eyes.

“Thanks,” she said again, more strongly, and straightened herself. “It is important. To remember. If I didn’t know that, I wouldn’t tell you.”

“Tell me … what?”

Her hands, small and hard and smelling of medicine, wrapped his.

“I don’t know what happened to your father,” she said. “But it wasn’t what they told you.”

“I WAS THERE, ROGER,” she repeated, patient. “I read the papers—I nursed airmen; I talked to them. I saw the planes. Spitfires were small, light planes, meant for defense. They never crossed the Channel; they hadn’t the range to go from England into Europe and back, though they were used there later.”

“But …” Whatever argument he’d meant to make—blown off course, miscalculation—faded. The hairs had risen on his forearms without his noticing.

“Of course, things happen,” she said, as though able to read his thoughts. “Accounts get garbled, too, over time and distance. Whoever told your mother might have been mistaken; she might have said something that the Reverend misconstrued. All those things are possible. But during the War, I had letters from Frank—he wrote as often as he could, up until they recruited him into MI6. After that, I often wouldn’t hear anything for months. But just before that, he wrote to me, and mentioned—just as casual chat, you know—that he’d run into something strange in the reports he was handling. A Spitfire had gone down, crashed—not shot down, they thought it must have been an engine failure—in Northumbria, and while it hadn’t burned, for a wonder—there was no sign of the pilot. None. And he did mention the name of the pilot, because he thought Jeremiah rather an appropriately doomed sort of name.”

“Jerry,” Roger said, his lips feeling numb. “My mother always called him Jerry.”

“Yes,” she said softly. “And there are circles of standing stones scattered all over Northumbria.”

“Near where the plane—”

“I don’t know. “ He saw the slight movement as she shrugged, helpless.

He closed his eyes and breathed deep, the air thick with the scent from the broken stems.

“And you’re telling me now because we’re going back,” he said, very calmly.

“I’ve been arguing with myself for weeks,” she said, sounding apologetic. “It was only a month or so ago that I remembered. I don’t often think about the—my—past, but what with everything …” She waved a hand, encompassing their imminent departure and the intense discussions surrounding it. “I was just thinking of the War—I wonder if anyone who was in it ever thinks of it without a capital ‘W’—and telling Jamie about it.”

It was Jamie who had asked her about Frank. Wanted to know what role he had played in the war.

“He’s curious about Frank,” she said abruptly.

“I would be, too, under the circumstances,” Roger had replied dryly. “Was Frank not curious about him?”

That seemed to unsettle her, and she’d not replied directly but had pulled the conversation firmly back on track—if you could use such a word for such a conversation, he thought.

“Anyway,” she said, “it was that that reminded me of Frank’s letters. And I was trying to recall the things he’d written me about, when suddenly I remembered that one phrase—about Jeremiah being a name with a certain doom about it.” He heard her sigh.

“I wasn’t sure … but I talked to Jamie, and he said I should tell you. He says he thinks you’ve a right to know—and that you’d do the right thing with the knowledge.”

“I’m flattered,” he said. More like flattened.

“SO THAT’S IT.” The evening stars had begun to come out, faint over the mountains. Not as brilliant as the stars had been on the Ridge, where the mountain night came down like black velvet. They’d come back to the house by now, but lingered in the dooryard, talking.

“I’d thought about it, now and again: how does the time-traveling fit into God’s plan? Can things be changed? Ought they be changed? Your parents—they tried to change history, tried damned hard, and couldn’t do it. I’d thought that was all there was to it—and from a Presbyterian point of view.” He let a little humor show in his voice. “It was a comfort, almost, to think that it couldn’t change. It shouldn’t be able to be changed. Ye know: God’s in His heaven, all’s right with the world sort of thing.”

“But.” Bree was holding the folded photocopy; she waved it at a passing moth, a tiny white blur.

“But,” he agreed. “Proof that things can be changed.”

“I talked to Mama a little bit about it,” Bree said, after a moment’s thought. “She laughed.”

“Did she?” Roger said dryly, and got the breath of a laugh from Bree in answer.

“Not like she thought it was funny,” she assured him. “I’d asked her if she thought it was possible for a traveler to change things, change the future, and she told me it was, obviously—because she changed the future every time she kept someone from dying who would have died if she hadn’t been there. Some of them went on to have children they wouldn’t have had, and who knew what those children would do, that they wouldn’t have done if they hadn’t … and that was when she laughed and said it was a good thing Catholics believed in Mystery and didn’t insist on trying to figure out exactly how God worked, like Protestants do.”

“Well, I don’t know that I’d say—oh, was she talking about me?”

“Probably. I didn’t ask.”

Now it was his turn to laugh, though it hurt his throat to do it.

“Proof,” she said thoughtfully. She was sitting on the bench near the front door, folding the photocopy in long, nervously deft fingers. “I don’t know. Is it proof?”

“Maybe not up to your rigorous engineering standards,” he said. “But I do remember—and so do you. If it was only me, then, yeah, I’d think it was just my mind going. But I’ve got a little more faith in your mental processes. Are you making a paper airplane out of that?”

“No, it’s—whoa. Mandy.” She was up and moving before he’d quite registered the wail from the nursery upstairs, and had vanished into the house a moment later, leaving him to lock up below. They didn’t usually bother locking the doors—no one did, in the Highlands—but tonight …

His heart rate surged as a long gray shadow shot out across the path in front of him. Then dropped as he smiled. Wee Adso, out for a prowl. A neighbor boy had come round with a basket of kittens a few months before, looking for homes for them, and Bree had taken the gray one, a green-eyed ringer for her mother’s cat, and given it the same name. If they got a watchdog, would they name it Rollo? he wondered.

“Chat a Mhinister …” he said. The minister’s cat is a hunting cat.

“Good hunting, then,” he added to the tail disappearing under the hydrangea bush, and bent to retrieve the half-folded paper from the path where Brianna had dropped it.

No, it wasn’t a paper airplane. What was it? A paper hat? No telling, and he tucked it into his shirt pocket and went in.

He found Bree and Mandy in the front parlor, in front of a freshly made fire. Mandy, comforted and given milk, had half-dozed off again already in Bree’s arms; she blinked sleepily at him, sucking on a thumb.

“Aye, what’s the trouble, then, a leannan?” he asked her softly, pushing tumbled curls out of her eyes.

“Bad dream,” Bree said, her voice carefully casual. “A naughty thing outside, trying to get in her window.”

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