An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 72

   

“And what did you tell them?”

“Told them aye, I was hangit in America, but I lived, praise God. And a couple of them had elder siblings who’d seen High Plains Drifter and told them about it, so that raised my stock a good bit. I think they expect me to wear my six-guns to the next practice, though, now the secret’s out.” He gave her a Clint Eastwood one-eyed squint, which had made her burst out laughing.

She laughed now, remembering it, and just in time, for Roger stuck his head in, saying, “How many different versions of the Twenty-third Psalm would ye say there are, set to music?”

“Twenty-three?” she guessed, rising.

“Only six in the Presbyterian hymnal,” he admitted, “but there are metrical settings for it—in English, I mean—that go back to 1546. There’s one in the Bay Psalm Book and another in the old Scottish Psalter, and any number of others here and there. I’ve seen the Hebrew version, too, but I think I’d best not try that one on the St. Stephen’s congregation. Do the Catholics have a musical setting?”

“Catholics have a musical setting for everything,” she told him, lifting her nose to sniff for indications of lunch from the kitchen. “But psalms we usually sing to a chant setting. I know four different Gregorian chant forms,” she informed him loftily, “but there are lots more.”

“Yeah? Chant it for me,” he demanded, and stopped dead in the corridor, while she hastily tried to recall the words to the Twenty-third Psalm. The simplest chant form came back automatically—she’d sung it so often in childhood that it was part of her bones.

“That’s really something,” he said, appreciative, when she’d finished. “Go through it a time or two with me later? I’d like to do it for the kids, just for them to hear. I think they could do Gregorian chant really well.”

The kitchen door burst open and Mandy scampered out, clutching Mr. Polly, a stuffed creature who had started out life as a bird of some kind, but now resembled a grubby terry-cloth bag with wings.

“Soup, Mama!” she shouted. “Come eat soup!”

And soup they ate, Campbell’s Chicken Noodle made from the can, and cheese sandwiches and pickles to fill the cracks. Annie MacDonald was not a fancy cook, but everything she made was edible, and that was saying a good deal, Brianna thought, with memories of other meals eaten around dying fires on soggy mountaintops or scraped as burnt offerings out of an ashy hearth. She cast a glance of deep affection at the gas-fired Aga cooker that kept the kitchen the coziest room in the house.

“Sing me, Daddy!” Mandy, teeth coated in cheese and mustard round her mouth, gave Roger an entreating grin.

Roger coughed on a crumb and cleared his throat.

“Oh, aye? Sing what?”

“ ‘Free Bly Mice’!”

“All right. Ye’ll need to sing with me, though—keep me from getting off.” He smiled at Mandy and beat time softly on the table with the handle of his spoon.

“Three blind mice…” he sang, and pointed the handle at Mandy, who drew a heroic breath and echoed, “Free, Bly, MICE!” at the top of her lungs—but with perfect rhythm. Roger raised his eyebrows at Bree and continued the song, in the same counterpoint fashion. After five or six rousing repetitions, Mandy tired of it, and, with a brief “M’scuse me,” rose from the table and took off like a low-flying bumblebee, caroming off the doorjamb on her way out.

“Well, she’s got a definite sense of rhythm,” Roger said, wincing as a loud thud echoed back from the corridor, “if not of coordination. Be a little while before we know if she’s got any pitch, though. Your da had a great sense of rhythm, but he couldn’t hit the same note twice.”

“That reminded me a bit of what you used to do on the Ridge,” she said, on impulse. “Singing a line of a psalm and having the people answer it back.”

His face changed a little at mention of that time. He’d come newly to his vocation then, and the certainty of it had transformed him. She’d never seen him so happy before—or since, and her heart turned over at the flash of longing she saw in his eyes.

He smiled, though, and, reaching out a napkin-covered finger, wiped a smear of mustard from beside her own mouth.

“Old-fashioned,” he said. “Though they still do it that way—the line-singing in kirk—on the Isles, and maybe in the remoter bits of the Gaeltacht. The American Presbyterians won’t have it, though.”

“They won’t?”

“It is proper to sing without parceling out the psalm line by line,” he quoted. “The practice of reading the psalm, line by line, was introduced in times of ignorance, when many in the congregation could not read; therefore, it is recommended that it be laid aside, so far as convenient. That’s from the Constitution of the American Presbyterian Church.”

Oh, so you did think about being ordained while we were in Boston, she thought but didn’t say aloud.

“Times of ignorance,” she repeated, instead. “I’d like to know what Hiram Crombie would have had to say to that!”

He laughed, but shook his head.

“Well, it’s true enough; most of the folk on the Ridge couldn’t read. But I’d disagree with the notion that ye’d only sing the psalms that way because of ignorance, or a lack of books.” He paused for thought, idly scraping up a stray noodle and eating it.

“Singing all together, that’s grand, no doubt about it. But to do it in that back-and-forth way—I think there’s maybe something about it that draws the people closer, makes them feel more involved in what they’re singing, what’s truly happening. Maybe it’s only because they’ve got to concentrate harder to remember each line.” He smiled briefly, and looked away.

Please! she thought passionately, whether to God, the Blessed Virgin, Roger’s guardian angel, or all three. You’ve got to let him find a way!

“I… meant to ask ye something,” he said, suddenly diffident.

“What’s that?”

“Well… Jemmy. He can sing. Would ye—of course he’d go to Mass with you still—but would ye mind if he was to come along with me, as well? Only if he liked,” he added hastily. “But I think he might enjoy being in the choir. And I’d… like him to see I have a job, too, I suppose,” he added, with a half-rueful smile.

“He’d love that,” Brianna said, remarking mentally to the heavenly host, Well, that was fast! Because she saw at once—and wondered whether Roger had, but she didn’t think so—that this offered a graceful way by which she and Mandy could attend the Presbyterian services, as well, without any overt conflict between their two faiths.

“Would you come with us to the early Mass at St. Mary’s?” she asked. “Because then we could all just go across to St. Stephen’s together and see you and Jem sing.”

“Yes, of course.”

He stopped, the sandwich halfway to his mouth, and smiled at her, his eyes green as moss.

“It’s better, isn’t it?” he said.

“Lots,” she said.

LATER IN THE AFTERNOON, Roger called her across to the study. There was a map of Scotland laid on his desk, next to the open notebook in which he was compiling the thing they had taken to calling—with a jokiness that barely covered the aversion they felt in even talking about it—“The Hitchhiker’s Guide,” after the BBC radio comedy.

“Sorry to interrupt,” he said. “But I thought we’d best do it before Jem comes home. If ye’re going back to Loch Errochty tomorrow…” He put the point of his pencil on the blue blotch labeled L.Errochty. “You could maybe get an accurate bearing for the tunnel, if ye’re not quite sure where it is. Or are you?”

She swallowed, feeling the remains of her cheese sandwich stir uneasily at the memory of the dark tunnel, the rocking of the little train, of passing through… it.

“I don’t, but I have something better. Wait.” She stepped across to her own office and brought back the binder of Loch Errochty’s specs.

“Here are the drawings for the tunnel construction,” she said, flipping the binder open and laying it on the desk. “I have the blueprints, too, but they’re at the main office.”

“No, this is great,” he assured her, poring over the drawing. “All I really wanted is the compass orientation of the tunnel to the dam.” He glanced up at her. “Speaking of that—have ye been all across the dam itself?”

“Not all across,” she said slowly. “Just the east side of the servicing bay. But I don’t think—I mean, look.” She put a finger on the drawing. “I hit it somewhere in the middle of the tunnel, and the tunnel is nearly in a straight line with the dam. If it runs in a line—is that what you think it does?” she added, looking at him curiously. He shrugged.

“It’s a place to start. Though I suppose engineers would have a better-sounding word than ‘guess’?”

“Working hypothesis,” she said dryly. “Anyway, if it does run in a line, rather than just existing in random spots, I’d probably have felt it in the dam if it was there at all. But I could go back and check.” Even she could hear the reluctance in her voice; he certainly did, and ran a light hand down her back in reassurance.

“No. I’ll do it.”

“What?”

“I’ll do it,” he repeated mildly. “We’ll see if I feel it, too.”

“No!” She straightened up abruptly. “You can’t. You don’t—I mean, what if something… happens? You can’t take that kind of risk!”

He looked at her thoughtfully for a moment, and nodded.

“Aye, I suppose there’s something of a risk. But small. I’ve been all over the Highlands, ken, in my younger years. And now and again I’ve felt something queer pass through me. So have most folk who live here,” he added with a smile. “Queerness is part of the place, aye?”

“Yes,” she said, with a brief shudder at thought of water horses, ban-sidhe, and Nuckelavees. “But you know what sort of queerness this is—and you know damned well it can kill you, Roger!”

“Didn’t kill you,” he pointed out. “Didn’t kill us on Ocracoke.” He spoke lightly, but she could see the shadow of that journey on his face with the speaking. It hadn’t killed them—but it had come close.

“No. But—” She looked at him and had a deep, wrenching instant in which she experienced at once the feel of his long, warm body next to hers in bed, the sound of his deep, corncrake voice—and the cold silence of his absence. “No,” she said, and made it apparent by her tone that she was prepared to be as stubborn as necessary about it. He heard that and gave a mild snort.

“All right,” he said. “Let me just put it down, then.” Comparing drawing and map, he chose a spot on the map that might correspond roughly with the center of the tunnel and raised one dark eyebrow in question. She nodded, and he made a light pencil mark in the shape of a star.

There was a large, definite star, made in black ink, over the site of the stone circle on Craigh na Dun. Smaller ones in light pencil at the sites of other stone circles. Someday, they might have to visit those circles. But not yet. Not now.

“Ever been to Lewis?” Roger asked—casually, but not as though it were an idle question.

“No, why?” she said warily.

“The Outer Hebrides are part of the Gaeltacht,” he said. “They do the line-singing in the Gàidhlig on Lewis, and on Harris, too. Don’t know about Uist and Barra—they’re mostly Catholic—but maybe. I’m thinking I’d like to go and see what it’s like these days.”

She could see the Isle of Lewis on the map, shaped like a pancreas, off the west coast of Scotland. It was a large map. Large enough for her to see the small legend Callanish Stones, on the Isle of Lewis.

She exhaled slowly.

“Fine,” she said. “I’ll go with you.”

“Ye’ve got work, haven’t you?”

“I’ll take time off.”

They looked at each other in silence for a moment. Brianna broke away first, glancing at the clock on the shelf.

“Jem’ll be home soon,” she said, the prosaic nature of daily life asserting itself. “I’d better start something for supper. Annie brought us a nice salmon that her husband took. Shall I marinate it and bake it, or would you like it grilled?”

He shook his head and, rising, began to fold the map away.

“I won’t be in to supper tonight. It’s lodge night.”

THE PROVINCIAL GRAND Masonic Lodge of Inverness-shire included a number of local lodges, two of them in Inverness. Roger had joined Number 6, the Old Inverness Lodge, in his early twenties, but had not set foot inside the building in fifteen years, and did so now with a mingled sense of wariness and anticipation.

It was, though, the Highlands—and home. The first person he saw upon walking in was Barney Gaugh, who had been the burly, smiling station agent when Roger had come to Inverness on the train, aged five, to live with his great-uncle. Mr. Gaugh had shrunk considerably, and his tobacco-stained teeth had long since been replaced by equally tobacco-stained dentures, but he recognized Roger at once and beamed in delight, seizing him by the arm and towing him into a group of other old men, half of whom likewise exclaimed over his return.

It was weird, he thought a bit later, as they settled to the business of the lodge, doing the routine rituals of the Scottish Rite. Like a time warp, he thought, and nearly laughed out loud.

There were differences, aye, but they were slight—and the feeling of it… He could close his eyes and, if he imagined the haze of stubbed-out cigarettes to be the smoke of a hearth, it could be the Crombies’ cabin on the Ridge, where the lodge there had met. The close murmur of voices, line and response, and then the relaxation, the shifting of bodies, fetching of tea and coffee, as the evening became purely social.

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