An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 62

   

I sent him to rummage the crew’s quarters for utensils—each man would have his own mess kid and spoon—and set about the tricky task of lighting the two lamps that hung over the mess table, in hopes that we might see what we were eating.

Having got a closer look at the stew, I changed my mind about the desirability of more illumination, but considering how much trouble it had been to light the lamps, wasn’t disposed to blow them out, either.

All in all, the meal wasn’t bad. Though it likely wouldn’t have mattered if I’d fed them raw grits and fish heads; the men were famished. They devoured the food like a horde of cheerful locusts, their spirits remarkably high, considering our situation. Not for the first time, I marveled at the ability of men to function capably in the midst of uncertainty and danger.

Part of it, of course, was Jamie. One couldn’t overlook the irony of someone who hated the sea and ships as he did suddenly becoming the de facto captain of a naval cutter, but while he might loathe ships, he did in fact know more or less how one was run—and he had the knack of calm in the face of chaos, as well as a natural sense of command.

If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you … I thought, watching him talk calmly and sensibly to the men.

Pure adrenaline had kept me going until now, but, now out of immediate danger, it was fading fast. Between fatigue, worry, and a bruised throat, I was able to eat only a bite or two of the stew. My other bruises had begun to throb, and my knee still felt tender. I was taking a morbid inventory of physical damage when I saw Jamie’s eyes fixed on me.

“Ye need food, Sassenach,” he said mildly. “Eat.” I opened my mouth to say that I wasn’t hungry, but thought better of it. The last thing he needed was to worry about me.

“Aye, aye, Captain,” I said, and resignedly picked up my spoon.

A GUIDED TOUR THROUGH THE CHAMBERS OF THE HEART

I SHOULD BE GOING to sleep. God knew I needed sleep. And there would be precious little of it until we reached New Haven. If we ever do, the back of my mind commented skeptically, but I ignored this remark as unhelpful to the current situation.

I longed to plunge into sleep, as much to escape the fears and uncertainties of my mind as to restore my much abused flesh. I was so tired, though, that mind and body had begun to separate.

It was a familiar phenomenon. Doctors, soldiers, and mothers encounter it routinely; I had, any number of times. Unable to respond to an immediate emergency while clouded by fatigue, the mind simply withdraws a little, separating itself fastidiously from the body’s overwhelming self-centered needs. From this clinical distance, it can direct things, bypassing emotions, pain, and tiredness, making necessary decisions, cold-bloodedly overruling the mindless body’s needs for food, water, sleep, love, grief, pushing it past its fail-safe points.

Why emotions? I wondered dimly. Surely emotion was a function of the mind. And yet it seemed so deeply rooted in the flesh that this abdication of the mind always suppressed emotion, too.

The body resents this abdication, I think. Ignored and abused, it will not easily let the mind return. Often, the separation persists until one is finally allowed to sleep. With the body absorbed in its quiet intensities of regeneration, the mind settles cautiously back into the turbulent flesh, feeling its delicate way through the twisting passages of dreams, making peace. And you wake once more whole.

But not yet. I had the feeling that something remained to be done but no idea what. I had fed the men, sent food to the prisoners, checked the wounded… reloaded all the pistols … cleaned the stewpot… My slowing mind went blank.

I set my hands on the table, fingertips feeling out the grain of the wood as though the tiny ridges, worn smooth by years of service, might be the map that would enable me to find my way to sleep.

I could see myself in the eye of the mind, sitting there. Slender, nearly scrawny; the edge of my radius showed sharp against the skin of my forearm. I’d got thinner than I realized, over the last few weeks of traveling. Round-shouldered with fatigue. Hair a bushy, tangled mass of writhing strands, streaked with silver and white, a dozen shades of dark and light. It reminded me of something Jamie had told me, some expression the Cherokee had… combing snakes from the hair, that was it. To relieve the mind of worry, anger, fear, possession by demons—that was to comb the snakes from your hair. Very apt.

I did not, of course, possess a comb at the moment. I’d had one in my pocket, but had lost it in the struggle.

My mind felt like a balloon, tugging stubbornly at its tether. I wouldn’t let it go, though; I was suddenly and irrationally afraid that it might not come back at all.

Instead, I focused my attention fiercely on small physical details: the weight of the chicken stew and bread in my belly; the smell of the oil in the lamps, hot and fishy. The thump of feet on the deck above, and the song of the wind. The hiss of water down the sides of the ship.

The feel of a blade in flesh. Not the power of purpose, the guided destruction of surgery, damage done in order to heal. A panicked stab, the jump and stutter of a blade striking bone unexpected, the wild careen of an uncontrolled knife. And the wide dark stain on the deck, fresh-wet and smelling of iron.

“I didn’t mean it,” I whispered aloud. “Oh, God. I didn’t mean it.”

Quite without warning, I began to cry. No sobbing, no throat-gripping spasms. Water simply welled in my eyes and flowed down my cheeks, slow as cold honey. A quiet acknowledgment of despair as things spiraled slowly out of control.

“What is it, lass?” Jamie’s voice came softly from the door.

“I’m so tired,” I said thickly. “So tired.”

The bench creaked under his weight as he sat beside me, and a filthy handkerchief dabbed gently at my cheeks. He put an arm round me and whispered to me in Gaelic, the soothing endearments one makes to a startled animal. I turned my cheek into his shirt and closed my eyes. The tears were still running down my face, but I was beginning to feel better; still weary unto death, but not utterly destroyed.

“I wish I hadn’t killed that man,” I whispered. His fingers had been smoothing the hair behind my ear; they paused for a moment, then resumed.

“Ye didna kill anyone,” he said, sounding surprised. “Was that what’s been troubling ye, Sassenach?”

“Among other things, yes.” I sat up, wiping my nose on my sleeve, and stared at him. “I didn’t kill the gunner? Are you sure?”

His mouth drew up in what might have been a smile, if it were a shade less grim.

“I’m sure. I killed him, a nighean.”

“You—oh.” I sniffed, and looked at him closely. “You aren’t saying that to make me feel better.”

“I am not.” The smile faded. “I wish I hadna killed him, either. No much choice about it, though.” He reached out and pushed a lock of hair behind my ear with a forefinger. “Dinna fash yourself about it, Sassenach. I can stand it.”

I was crying again—but this time with feeling. I wept with pain and with sorrow, certainly with fear. But the pain and sorrow were for Jamie and the man he had no choice but to kill, and that made all the difference.

After a bit, the storm subsided, leaving me limp but whole. The buzzing sense of detachment had gone. Jamie had turned round on the bench, his back against the table as he held me on his lap, and we sat in peaceful silence for a bit, watching the glow of the fading coals in the galley fire and the wisps of steam rising from the cauldron of hot water. I should put something on to cook through the night, I thought drowsily. I glanced at the cages, where the chickens had settled themselves to sleep, with no more than an occasional brief cluck of startlement as one roused from whatever chickens dream about.

No, I couldn’t bring myself to kill a hen tonight. The men would have to do with whatever came to hand in the morning.

Jamie had also noticed the chickens, though to different effect.

“D’ye recall Mrs. Bug’s chickens?” he said, with a rueful humor. “Wee Jem and Roger Mac?”

“Oh, God. Poor Mrs. Bug.”

Jem, aged five or so, had been entrusted with the daily chore of counting the hens to be sure they had all returned to their coop at night. After which, of course, the door was fastened securely, to keep out foxes, badgers, or other chicken-loving predators. Only Jem had forgotten. Just once, but once was enough. A fox had got into the hen coop, and the carnage had been terrible.

It’s all rot to say that man is the only creature who kills for pleasure. Possibly they learned it from men, but all the dog family do it, too—foxes, wolves, and theoretically domesticated dogs, as well. The walls of the hen coop had been plastered with blood and feathers.

“Oh, my bairnies!” Mrs. Baird kept saying, tears rolling down her cheeks like beads. “Oh, my puir wee bairnies!”

Jem, called into the kitchen, couldn’t look.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, eyes on the floor. “I’m really sorry.”

“Well, and so ye should be,” Roger had said to him. “But sorry’s no going to help much, is it?”

Jemmy shook his head, mute, and tears welled in his eyes.

Roger cleared his throat, with a noise of gruff menace.

“Well, here it is, then. If ye’re old enough to be trusted with a job, ye’re old enough to take the consequences of breaking that trust. D’ye understand me?”

It was rather obvious that he didn’t, but he bobbed his head earnestly, sniffling.

Roger took in a deep breath through his nose.

“I mean,” he said, “I’m going to whip you.”

Jem’s small, round face went quite blank. He blinked and looked at his mother, openmouthed.

Brianna made a small movement toward him, but Jamie’s hand closed on her arm, stopping her.

Without looking at Bree, Roger put a hand on Jem’s shoulder and turned him firmly toward the door.

“Right, mate. Out.” He pointed toward the door. “Up to the stable and wait for me.”

Jemmy gulped audibly. He’d gone a sickly gray when Mrs. Bug brought in the first feathery corpse, and subsequent events had not improved his color.

I thought he might throw up, but he didn’t. He’d stopped crying and didn’t start again, but seemed to shrink into himself, shoulders hunching.

“Go,” said Roger, and he went.

As Jemmy trudged out, head hanging, he looked so exactly like a prisoner headed for execution that I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. I caught Brianna’s eye and saw that she was struggling with a similar feeling; she looked distressed, but her mouth twitched at the corner, and she looked hastily away.

Roger heaved an explosive sigh and made to follow, squaring his shoulders.

“Christ,” he muttered.

Jamie had been standing silent in the corner, watching the exchange, though not without sympathy. He moved just slightly, and Roger glanced at him. He coughed.

“Mmphm. I ken it’s the first time—but I think ye’d best make it hard,” he said softly. “The poor wee lad feels terrible.”

Brianna cut her eyes at him, surprised, but Roger nodded, the grim line of his mouth relaxing a little. He followed Jem out, unbuckling his belt as he left.

The three of us stood awkwardly round the kitchen, not quite sure what to do next. Brianna drew herself up with a sigh rather like Roger’s, shook herself like a dog, and reached for one of the dead chickens.

“Can we eat them?”

I prodded one of the hens experimentally; the flesh moved under the skin, limp and wobbly, but the skin hadn’t yet begun to separate. I picked the rooster up and sniffed; there was a sharp tang of dried blood and the musty scent of dribbled feces, but no sweet smell of rot.

“I think so, if they’re thoroughly cooked. The feathers won’t be much good, but we can stew some, and boil the rest for broth and fricassee.”

Jamie went to fetch onions, garlic, and carrots from the root cellar, while Mrs. Bug retired to lie down and Brianna and I began the messy job of plucking and gutting the victims. We didn’t say much, beyond brief murmured queries and answers about the job at hand. When Jamie came back, though, Bree looked up at him as he set the basket of vegetables on the table beside her.

“It will help?” she asked seriously. “Really?”

He’d nodded. “Ye feel badly when ye’ve done something wrong, and want to put it right, aye? But there’s no means to put something like that right again.” He gestured toward the pile of dead chickens. Flies were beginning to gather, crawling over the soft feathers.

“The best ye can do is feel ye’ve paid for it.”

A faint shriek reached us through the window. Brianna had started instinctively at the sound, but then shook her head slightly and reached for a chicken, waving away the flies.

“I remember,” I now said softly. “So does Jemmy, I’m sure.”

Jamie made a small sound of amusement, then lapsed into silence. I could feel his heart beating against my back, slow and steady.

WE KEPT WATCH AT two-hour intervals all night, making sure that either Jamie, Ian, or myself was awake. John Smith seemed solid—but there was always the possibility that someone from the Teal might take it into his head to liberate the sailors in the hold, thinking that might save them from being hanged as pirates later.

I managed the midnight watch well enough, but rousing at dawn was a struggle. I fought my way up out of a deep well lined with soft black wool, an aching fatigue clinging to my bruised and creaking limbs.

Jamie had promptly fallen into the blanket-lined hammock, directly I was out of it, and despite the urgent reflexive desire to tip him out and climb back in myself, I smiled a little. Either he had complete trust in my ability to keep watch, or he was about to die from fatigue and seasickness. Or both, I reflected, picking up the sea officer’s cloak he’d just discarded. That was one thing gained from the present situation: I’d left the horrid dead leper’s cloak aboard the Teal. This one was a vast improvement, being made of new dark-blue thick wool, lined with scarlet silk, and still holding a good deal of Jamie’s body heat.

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