An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 75

   

I rubbed a knuckle across my lips, disconcerted. I knew—Bree had told me—that he had had a stillborn daughter with his Mohawk wife, Emily, and that she had then miscarried at least twice. Also that it was this failure that had led to Ian’s leaving the Mohawk at Snaketown and returning to us.

“Why do you think it might be you?” I asked bluntly. “Most men blame the woman when a child is stillborn or miscarried. So do most women, for that matter.”

I had blamed both myself and Jamie.

He made a small Scottish noise in his throat, impatient.

“The Mohawk don’t. They say when a man lies wi’ a woman, his spirit does battle with hers. If he overcomes her, then the child is planted; if not, it doesna happen.”

“Hmm,” I said. “Well, that’s one way of putting it. And I wouldn’t say they’re wrong, either. It can be something to do with either the man or the woman—or it may be something about them together.”

“Aye.” I heard him swallow before he went on. “One of the women wi’ the Huron was Kahnyen’kehaka—a woman from Snaketown, and she kent me, from when I was there. And she said to me that Emily has a child. A live child.”

He had been moving restlessly from foot to foot as he talked, cracking his knuckles. Now he stilled. The moon was well up and shone on his face, making hollows of his eyes.

“I’ve been thinking, Auntie,” he said softly. “I’ve been thinking for a verra long time. About her. Emily. About Yeksa’a. The—my wee bairn.” He stopped, big knuckles pressed hard into his thighs, but he gathered himself again and went on, more steadily.

“And just lately I have been thinking something else. If—when,” he corrected, with a glance over one shoulder, as though expecting Jamie to pop up through a trap, glaring, “we go to Scotland, I dinna ken how things might be. But if I—if I was to wed again, maybe, either there or here…” He looked up at me suddenly, his face old with sorrow but heartbreakingly young with hope and doubt.

“I couldna take a lass to wife if I kent that I should never give her live bairns.”

He swallowed again, looking down.

“Could ye maybe … look at my parts, Auntie? To see if maybe there’s aught amiss?” His hand went to his breechclout, and I stopped him with a hasty gesture.

“Perhaps that can wait a bit, Ian. Let me take a history first; then we’ll see if I need to do an examination.”

“Are ye sure?” He sounded surprised. “Uncle Jamie told me about the sperm ye showed him. I thought maybe mine might not be quite right in some way.”

“Well, I’d need a microscope to see, in any case. And while there are such things as abnormal sperm, usually when that’s the case, conception doesn’t take place at all. And as I understand it, that wasn’t the difficulty. Tell me—” I didn’t want to ask, but there was no way round it. “Your daughter. Did you see her?”

The nuns had given me my stillborn daughter. “ It’s better if you see,” they had said, gently insistent.

He shook his head.

“Not to say so. I mean—I saw the wee bundle they’d made of her, wrapped in rabbit skin. They put it up high in the fork of a red cedar. I went there at night, for some time, just to … well. I did think of taking the bundle down, of unwrapping her, just to see her face. But it would ha’ troubled Emily, so I didn’t.”

“I’m sure you’re right. But did… oh, hell, Ian, I’m so sorry—but did your wife or any of the other women ever say that there was anything visibly wrong with the child? Was she… deformed in any way?”

He glanced at me, eyes wide with shock, and his lips moved soundlessly for a moment.

“No,” he said at last, and there was both pain and relief in his voice. “No. I asked. Emily didna want to talk about her, about Iseabaìl—that’s what I would ha’ named her, Iseabaìl—” he explained, “but I asked and wouldna stop until she told me what the baby looked like.

“She was perfect,” he said softly, looking down at the bridge, where a chain of lanterns glowed, reflected in the water. “Perfect.”

So had Faith been. Perfect.

I put a hand on his forearm, ropy with hard muscle.

“That’s good,” I said quietly. “Very good. Tell me as much as you can, then, about what happened during the pregnancy. Did your wife have any bleeding between the time you knew she was pregnant and when she gave birth?”

Slowly I led him through the hope and fear, the desolation of each loss, such symptoms as he could remember, and what he knew of Emily’s family; had there been stillbirths among her relations? Miscarriages?

The moon passed overhead and started down the sky. At last I stretched and shook myself.

“I can’t be positive,” I said. “But I think it’s at least possible that the trouble was what we call an Rh problem.”

“A what?” He was leaning against one of the big guns, and lifted his head at this.

There was no point in trying to explain blood groups, antigens, and antibodies. And it wasn’t actually all that different from the Mohawk explanation of the problem, I thought.

“If a woman’s blood is Rh-negative, and her husband’s blood is Rh-positive,” I explained, “then the child will be Rh-positive, because that’s dominant—never mind what that means, but the child will be positive like the father. Sometimes the first pregnancy is all right, and you don’t see a problem until the next time—sometimes it happens with the first. Essentially, the mother’s body produces a substance that kills the child. But, if an Rh-negative woman should have a child by an Rh-negative man, then the fetus is always Rh-negative, too, and there’s no problem. Since you say Emily has had a live birth, then it’s possible that her new husband is Rh-negative, too.” I knew absolutely nothing about the prevalence of Rhesus-negative blood type in Native Americans, but the theory did fit the evidence.

“And if that’s so,” I finished, “then you shouldn’t have that problem with another woman—most European women are Rh-positive, though not all.”

He stared at me for so long that I wondered whether he had understood what I’d said.

“Call it fate,” I said gently, “or call it bad luck. But it wasn’t your fault. Or hers.” Not mine. Nor Jamie’s.

He nodded, slowly, and leaning forward, laid his head on my shoulder for a moment.

“Thank ye, Auntie,” he whispered, and lifting his head, kissed my cheek.

The next day, he was gone.

THE GREAT DISMAL

June 21, 1777

WILLIAM MARVELED AT THE road. True, there were only a few miles of it, but the miracle of being able to ride straight into the Great Dismal, through a place where he vividly recalled having had to swim his horse on a previous visit, all the while dodging snapping turtles and venomous snakes—the convenience of it was astonishing. The horse seemed of similar mind, picking up its feet in a lighthearted way, outpacing the clouds of tiny yellow horseflies that tried to swarm them, the insects’ eyes glinting like tiny rainbows when they drew close.

“Enjoy it while you can,” William advised the gelding, with a brief scratch of the mane. “Muddy going up ahead.”

The road itself, while clear of the sweet gum saplings and straggling pines that crowded its edge, was muddy enough, in all truth. Nothing like the treacherous bogs and unexpected pools that lurked beyond the scrim of trees, though. He rose a little in the stirrups, peering ahead.

How far? he wondered. Dismal Town stood on the shore of Lake Drummond, which lay in the middle of the swamp. He had never come so far into the Great Dismal as he was now, though, and had no notion of its actual size.

The road didn’t go so far as the lake, he knew that. But surely there was a trace to follow; those inhabitants of Dismal Town must come and go on occasion.

“Washington,” he repeated under his breath. “Washington, Cartwright, Harrington, Carver.” Those were the names he’d been given by Captain Richardson, of the Loyalist gentlemen from Dismal Town; he’d committed them to memory and punctiliously burned the sheet of paper containing them. Having done so, though, he was seized by irrational panic lest he forget the names, and had been repeating them to himself at intervals throughout the morning.

It was well past noon now, and the wispy clouds of the morning had been knitting themselves up into a low sky the color of dirty wool. He breathed in slowly, but the air didn’t have that prickling scent of impending downpour—yet. Besides the ripe reek of the swamp, rich with mud and rotting plants, he could smell his own skin, salty and rank. He’d washed his hands and head as he could but hadn’t changed nor washed his clothes in two weeks, and the rough hunting shirt and homespun breeches were beginning to itch considerably.

Though perhaps it wasn’t just dried sweat and dirt. He clawed viciously at a certain crawling sensation in his breeches. He’d swear he’d picked up a louse in the last tavern.

The louse, if there was one, wisely desisted, and the itch died. Relieved, William breathed deep and noticed that the swamp’s scents had grown more pungent, the sap of resinous trees rising in answer to the oncoming rain. The air had suddenly assumed a muffled quality that deadened sound. No birds sang now; it was as though he and the horse rode alone through a world wrapped in cotton wool.

William didn’t mind being alone. He’d grown up essentially alone, without brothers or sisters, and was content in his own company. Besides, solitude, he told himself, was good for thinking.

“Washington, Cartwright, Harrington, and Carver,” he chanted softly. But beyond the names, there was little to think of with regard to his present errand, and he found his thoughts turn in a more familiar direction.

What he thought of most frequently on the road was women, and he touched the pocket under the tail of his coat, reflective. The pocket would hold one small book; it had been a choice on this journey between the New Testament his grandmother had given him or his treasured copy of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies. No great contest.

When William was sixteen, his father had caught him and a friend engrossed in the pages of his friend’s father’s copy of Mr. Harris’s notorious guide to the splendors of London’s women of pleasure. Lord John had raised an eyebrow and flipped slowly through the book, pausing now and then to raise the other eyebrow. He had then closed the book, taken a deep breath, administered a brief lecture on the necessary respect due to the female sex, then told the boys to fetch their hats.

At a discreet and elegant house at the end of Brydges Street, they took tea with a beautifully gowned Scottish lady, a Mrs. McNab, who appeared to be on the friendliest of terms with his father. At the conclusion of the refreshment, Mrs. McNab had rung a small brass bell, and…

William shifted in his saddle, sighing. Her name had been Margery, and he had written a perfervid panegyric to her. Had been madly in love with her.

He’d gone back, after a fevered week of reckoning his accounts, with the fixed intent of proposing marriage. Mrs. McNab had greeted him kindly, listened to his stumbling professions with the most sympathetic attention, then told him that Margery would, she was sure, be pleased with his good opinion but was, alas, occupied just this minute. However, there was a sweet young lass named Peggy, just come from Devonshire, who seemed lonely and would doubtless be so pleased to have a bit of conversation whilst he was waiting to speak with Margery…

The realization that Margery was just that minute doing with someone else what she’d done with him was such a staggering blow that he’d sat staring openmouthed at Mrs. McNab, rousing only when Peggy came in, fresh-faced, blond, and smiling, and with the most remarkable—

“Ah!” William slapped at the back of his neck, stung by a horsefly, and swore.

The horse had slowed without his noticing, and now that he did notice…

He swore again, louder. The road had disappeared.

“How the bloody hell did that happen?” He’d spoken loudly, but his voice seemed small, muted by the staggered trees. The flies had followed him; one bit the horse, who snorted and shook his head violently.

“Come on, then,” William said, more quietly. “Can’t be far off, can it? We’ll find it.”

He reined the horse’s head around, riding slowly in what he hoped was a wide semicircle that might cut the road. The ground was damp here, rumpled with tussocks of long, tangled grass, but not boggy. The horse’s feet left deep curves where they struck in the mud, and thick flecks of matted mud and grass flew up, sticking to the horse’s hocks and sides and William’s boots.

He had been heading north-northwest…. He glanced instinctively at the sky, but no help to be found there. The uniform soft gray was altering, here and there a heavy-bellied cloud bulging through the muffling layer, sullen and murmurous. A faint rumble of thunder reached him, and he swore again.

His watch chimed softly, the sound strangely reassuring. He reined up for a moment, not wanting to risk dropping it in the mud, and fumbled it out of his watch pocket. Three o’clock.

“Not so bad,” he said to the horse, encouraged. “Plenty of daylight left.” Of course, this was a mere technicality, given the atmospheric conditions. It might as well have been the far side of twilight.

He looked up at the gathering clouds, calculating. No doubt about it: it was going to rain, and soon. Well, it wouldn’t be the first time he and the horse had gotten wet. He sighed, dismounted, and unrolled his canvas bed-sack, part of his army equipment. He got up again and, with the canvas draped round his shoulders, his hat unlaced and pulled well down, resumed a dogged search for the road.

The first drops came pattering down, and a remarkable smell rose from the swamp in response. Earthy, rich, green, and … fecund, somehow, as though the swamp stretched itself, opening its body in lazy pleasure to the sky, releasing its scent like the perfume that wafts from an expensive whore’s tumbling hair.

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