An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 7

   

“Eh?” he said vaguely.

“Nothing,” I said, my voice trembling. “Nothing at all. Sit—sit down.” I put down the stool and my medical kit, took the candle and tin of hot water from him, and tried to think of absolutely nothing but the job before me. Not feet. Not, for God’s sake, Arch Bug.

Jamie had a blanket wrapped round his shoulders, but his legs were necessarily bare, and I could feel the hairs bristling with gooseflesh as my hand brushed them. The bottom of his shirt was soaked with half-dried blood; it stuck to his leg, but he made no sound when I pulled it loose and nudged his legs apart.

He had been moving like a man in a bad dream, but the approach of a lighted candle to his balls roused him.

“Ye’ll take care wi’ that candle, Sassenach, aye?” he said, putting a protective hand over his genitals.

Seeing his point, I gave him the candle to hold, and with a brief admonition to beware of dripping hot wax, returned to my inspection.

The wound was oozing blood, but plainly minor, and I plunged a cloth into the hot water and began to work. His flesh was chilled, and the cold damped even the pungent odors of the pantry, but I could still smell him, his usual dry musk tainted with blood and frantic sweat.

It was a deep gouge that ran four inches through the flesh of his thigh, high up. Clean, though.

“A John Wayne special,” I said, trying for a light, dry tone. Jamie’s eyes, which had been fixed on the candle flame, changed focus and fixed on me.

“What?” he said hoarsely.

“Nothing serious,” I said. “The ball just grazed you. You may walk a little oddly for a day or two, but the hero lives to fight another day.” The ball had in fact gone between his legs, deeply creasing the inside of his thigh, near both to his testicles and his femoral artery. One inch to the right, and he’d be dead. One inch higher …

“Not a great help, Sassenach,” he said, but the ghost of a smile touched his eyes.

“No,” I agreed. “But some?”

“Some,” he said, and briefly touched my face. His hand was very cold, and trembled; hot wax ran over the knuckles of his other hand, but he didn’t seem to feel it. I took the candlestick gently from him and set it on the shelf.

I could feel the grief and self-reproach coming off him in waves, and fought to keep it at bay. I couldn’t help him if I gave in to the enormity of the situation. I wasn’t sure I could help him in any case, but I’d try.

“Oh, Jesus,” he said, so softly I barely heard him. “Why did I not let him take it? What did it matter?” He struck a fist on his knee, soundless. “God, why did I not just let him take it!?”

“You didn’t know who it was, or what they meant to do,” I said, just as softly, putting a hand on his shoulder. “It was an accident.” His muscles were bunched, hard with anguish. I felt it, too, a hard knot of protest and denial—No, it can’t be true, it can’t have happened!—in my throat, but there was work to be done. I’d deal with the inescapable later.

He put a hand over his face, shaking his head slowly to and fro, and neither spoke nor moved while I finished the cleaning and bandaging of the wound.

“Can ye do aught for Ian?” he said, when I’d finished. He took his hand away and looked up at me as I stood, his face drawn in exhausted misery, but calm again. “He’s …” He swallowed, and glanced at the door. “He’s badly, Sassenach.”

I glanced at the whisky I’d brought: a quarter of a bottle. Jamie followed the direction of my gaze and shook his head.

“Not enough.”

“You drink it, then.” He shook his head, but I put the bottle in his hand and pressed his fingers round it.

“Orders,” I said, soft but very firm. “Shock.” He resisted, made to put the bottle back, and I tightened my hand on his.

“I know,” I said. “Jamie—I know. But you can’t give in. Not now.”

He looked up at me for a moment, but then he nodded, accepting it because he had to, the muscles of his arm relaxing. My own fingers were stiff, chilled from water and frigid air, but still warmer than his. I folded both hands round his free one, and held it, hard.

“There’s a reason why the hero never dies, you know,” I said, and attempted a smile, though my face felt stiff and false. “When the worst happens, someone still has to decide what to do. Go into the house now, and get warm.” I glanced out at the night, lavender-skied and wild with swirling snow. “I’ll … find Ian.”

WHERE WOULD HE have gone? Not far, not in this weather. Given his state of mind when he and Jamie had come back with Mrs. Bug’s body, he might, I thought, simply have walked off into the woods, not caring where he went or what happened to him—but he’d had the dog with him. No matter what he felt like, he wouldn’t take Rollo off into a howling blizzard.

And a blizzard was what it was shaping up to be. I made my way slowly uphill toward the outbuildings, sheltering my lantern under a fold of my cloak. It came to me suddenly to wonder whether Arch Bug might have taken shelter in the springhouse or the smoke shed. And … oh, God—did he know? I stopped dead on the path for an instant, letting the thickly falling snow settle like a veil on my head and shoulders.

I had been so shocked by what had happened that I hadn’t thought to wonder whether Arch Bug knew that his wife was dead. Jamie said that he had called out, called for Arch to come, as soon as he realized—but there had been no answer. Perhaps Arch had suspected a trick; perhaps he had simply fled, seeing Jamie and Ian and assuming that they would certainly not harm his wife. In which case …

“Oh, bloody hell,” I said under my breath, appalled. But there was nothing I could do about that. I hoped there was something I could do about Ian. I rubbed a forearm over my face, blinked snow from my lashes, and went on, slowly, the light from the lantern swallowed in the vortex of whirling snow. Were I to find Arch … My fingers clenched on the lantern’s handle. I’d have to tell him, bring him back to the cabin, let him see … Oh, dear. If I came back with Arch, could Jamie and Ian occupy him long enough for me to remove Mrs. Bug from the pantry and display her in more seemly fashion? I hadn’t had time to remove the jutting arrow or lay out the body decently. I dug the fingernails of my free hand into the palm, trying to get a grip of myself.

“Jesus, don’t let me find him,” I said under my breath. “Please don’t let me find him.”

But springhouse, smoke shed, and corncrib were all—thank God—empty, and no one could have hidden in the chicken coop without the chickens making a fuss about it; they were silent, sleeping out the storm. The sight of the coop brought Mrs. Bug suddenly to mind, though—the vision of her scattering corn from her apron, crooning to the silly things. She’d named them all. I didn’t bloody care whether we were eating Isobeaìl or Alasdair for supper, but just at the moment, the fact that no one now would ever be able to tell one from another, or rejoice in the fact that Elspeth had hatched ten chicks, seemed unspeakably heartrending.

I found Ian at last in the barn, a dark form huddled in the straw by the feet of Clarence the mule, whose ears pricked up at my appearance. He brayed ecstatically at the prospect of more company, and the goats blatted hysterically, thinking I was a wolf. The horses, surprised, tossed their heads, snorting and nickering in question. Rollo, nestled in the hay next to his master, gave a short, sharp bark of displeasure at the racket.

“Ruddy Noah’s Ark in here,” I remarked, shaking snow off my cloak and hanging the lantern on a hook. “All we need is a pair of elephants. Hush, Clarence!”

Ian turned his face toward me, but I could see from his blank expression that he hadn’t taken in what I’d said.

I squatted next to him and cupped a hand round his cheek; it was cold, bristled with young beard.

“It wasn’t your fault,” I said gently.

“I know,” he said, and swallowed. “But I dinna see how I can live.” He wasn’t dramatic about it at all; his voice was simply bewildered. Rollo licked his hand, and his fingers sank into the dog’s ruff, as though for support.

“What can I do, Auntie?” He looked at me, helpless. “There’s nothing, is there? I canna take it back, or undo it. And yet I keep looking for some way that I can. Something I can do to make things right. But there’s … nothing.”

I sat down in the hay next to him and put an arm round his shoulder, pressing his head toward me. He came, reluctantly, though I felt small constant shudders of exhaustion and grief running through him like a chill.

“I loved her,” he said, so low I could barely hear him. “She was like my grandmother. And I—”

“She loved you,” I whispered. “She wouldn’t blame you.” I had been holding on to my own emotions like grim death, in order to do what had to be done. But now … Ian was right. There was nothing, and in sheer helplessness, tears began to roll down my face. I wasn’t crying. Grief and shock simply overflowed; I could not contain them.

Whether he felt the tears on his skin or only the vibrations of my grief, I couldn’t tell, but quite suddenly Ian gave way as well, and he wept in my arms, shaking.

I wished with all my heart that he was a small boy, and that the storm of grief could wash away his guilt and leave him cleansed, at peace. But he was far beyond such simple things; all I could do was hold him, and stroke his back, making small, helpless noises myself. Then Clarence offered his own support, breathing heavily on Ian’s head and nibbling thoughtfully on a lock of his hair. Ian jerked away, slapping at the mule’s nose.

“Och, awa’ wi’ ye!”

He choked, laughed in a shocked way, wept a little more, and then straightened up and wiped his nose on his sleeve. He sat still for a little while, gathering the pieces of himself, and I let him be.

“When I killed that man in Edinburgh,” he said at last, his voice thick but controlled, “Uncle Jamie took me to confession, and told me the prayer that ye say when ye’ve killed someone. To commend them to God. Will ye say it with me, Auntie?”

I hadn’t thought of—let alone said—“Soul Leading” in many years, and stumbled awkwardly through the words. Ian spoke it without hesitation, though, and I wondered how often he had used it through those years.

The words seemed puny and powerless, swallowed among the sounds of hay rustling and beasts chewing. But I felt a tiny bit of comfort for having said them. Perhaps it was only that the sense of reaching out to something larger than yourself gives you some feeling that there is something larger—and there really has to be, because plainly you aren’t sufficient to the situation. I surely wasn’t.

Ian sat for a time, eyes closed. Finally, he opened them and looked at me, his eyes black with knowledge, face very pale under the stubble of his beard.

“And then, he said, ye live with it,” he said softly.

He rubbed a hand across his face.

“But I dinna think I can.” It was a simple statement of fact, and scared me badly. I had no more tears, but felt as though I looked into a black, bottomless hole—and couldn’t look away.

I drew a deep breath, trying to think of something to say, then pulled a handkerchief from my pocket and gave it to him.

“Are you breathing, Ian?”

His mouth twitched a little.

“Aye, I think so.”

“That’s all you have to do, for now.” I got up, brushed hay from my skirts, and held out a hand to him. “Come along. We need to go back to the cabin before we’re snowed in here.”

The snow was thicker now, and a gust of wind put out the candle in my lantern. It didn’t matter; I could have found the cabin blindfolded. Ian went ahead of me without comment, breaking a trail through the fresh-fallen snow. His head was bent against the storm, his narrow shoulders hunched.

I hoped the prayer had helped him, at least a little, and wondered whether the Mohawk had any better means of dealing with unjust death than did the Catholic Church.

Then I realized that I knew exactly what the Mohawk would do in such a case. So did Ian; he’d done it. I pulled the cloak tighter round me, feeling as though I had swallowed a large ball of ice.

NOT YET AWHILE

AFTER A GOOD DEAL of discussion, the two corpses were carried gently outside and laid at the edge of the porch. There simply was no room to lay them out properly inside, and given the circumstances …

“We canna let auld Arch be in doubt any longer than he must,” Jamie had said, putting an end to the arguments. “If the body’s in plain sight, maybe he’ll come out and maybe he’ll not—but he’ll ken his wife’s dead.”

“He will,” Bobby Higgins said, with an uneasy look toward the trees. “And what d’ye think he’ll do then?”

Jamie stood for a moment, looking toward the wood, then shook his head.

“Grieve,” he said quietly. “And in the morning, we’ll see what’s to do.”

It wasn’t the normal sort of wake, but it was conducted with what ceremony we could manage. Amy had donated her own shroud—made after her first wedding, and carefully kept by—for Mrs. Bug, and Grannie MacLeod was clad in the remnants of my spare chemise and a couple of aprons, hastily stitched up into respectability. They were laid one on either side of the porch, foot to foot, with a small saucer of salt and a slice of bread on the chest of each corpse, though no sin-eater was available. I had packed a small clay firepot with coals and set this near the bodies, and it was agreed that we would all take it in turns through the night to sit over the deceased, as the porch would hold no more than two or three people.

“The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow/Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,” I said softly. It did; the storm had blown over and the three-quarter moon cast a pure, cold light that made each snow-covered tree stand out, stark and delicate as a painting in Japanese ink. And in the distant ruins of the Big House, the jackstraw of charred timbers hid whatever lay below.

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