An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 77

   

So, provided that he took care with the quaking bogs, didn’t fall prey to some large animal, wasn’t bitten by a venomous snake, and didn’t take a fever from putrid water or the swamp’s miasma, everything would be all right.

He tested the binding, jabbing the spear gently into the mud, and found it secure. Nothing to do but wait, then, for the fog to lift.

The fog showed no disposition to lift. If anything, it was thicker; he could barely make out his fingers, held a few inches from his eyes. Sighing, he gathered his damp coat round him, settled the gig by his side, and wriggled his spine into a precarious rest against the remaining alders. He put his arms round his knees to hoard what little heat his body still held, and closed his eyes to block the whiteness.

The frogs were still at it. Now without distraction, though, he began to hear the other noises of the swamp. Most of the birds were silent, waiting out the fog as he was, but now and then the deep, startling boom of a bittern echoed through the fog. There were scurrying noises and splashings now and then—muskrat? he wondered.

A loud plunk! betokened a turtle dropping off a log into water. He preferred those sounds, because he knew what they were. More unnerving were the faint rustlings, which might be the rubbing of branches—though the air was too still, surely, for wind?—or the movement of something hunting. The shrill cry of something small, cut off abruptly. And the creakings and groanings of the swamp itself.

He’d heard the rocks talking to themselves on the fells at Helwater. The Lake District, his maternal grandparents’ home. In the fog. He hadn’t told anyone that.

He moved a little and felt something just below his jaw. Clapping a hand to the spot, he discovered a leech that had attached itself to his neck. Revolted, he ripped it loose and flung it as hard as he could into the fog. Patting himself all over with trembling hands, he settled back into his crouch, trying to repel the memories that came flooding in with the swirling mist. He’d heard his mother—his real mother—whisper to him, too. That was why he’d gone into the fog. They’d been picnicking on the fells, his grandparents and Mama Isobel and some friends, with a few servants. When the fog came down, sudden as it sometimes did, there was a general scurry to pack up the luncheon things, and he had been left by himself, watching the inexorable white wall roll silently toward him.

And he’d swear he’d heard a woman’s whisper, too low to make out words but holding somehow a sense of longing, and he had known she spoke to him.

And he’d walked into the fog. For a few moments, he was fascinated by the movement of the water vapor near the ground, the way it flickered and shimmered and seemed alive. But then the fog grew thicker, and in moments he’d known he was lost.

He’d called out. First to the woman he thought must be his mother. The dead come down in the fog. That was nearly all he knew about his mother—that she was dead. She’d been no older than he was now when she died. He’d seen three paintings of her. They said he had her hair and her hand with a horse.

She’d answered him, he’d swear she’d answered him—but in a voice with no words. He’d felt the caress of cool fingers on his face, and he’d wandered on, entranced.

Then he fell, badly, tumbling over rocks into a small hollow, bruising himself and knocking out all his wind. The fog had billowed over him, marching past, urgent in its hurry to engulf things, as he lay stunned and breathless in the bottom of his small declivity. Then he began to hear the rocks murmur all around him, and he’d crawled, then run, as fast as he could, screaming. Fell again, got up and went on running.

Fell down, finally unable to go further, and huddled terrified and blind on the rough grass, surrounded by vast emptiness. Then he heard them calling out for him, voices he knew, and he tried to cry out in reply, but his throat was raw from screaming, and he made no more than desperate rasping noises, running toward where he thought the voices were. But sound moves in a fog, and nothing is as it seems: not sound, not time nor place.

Again and again and again, he ran toward the voices but fell over something, tripped and rolled down a slope, stumbled into rocky outcrops, found himself clinging to the edge of a scarp, the voices now behind him, fading into the fog, leaving him.

Mac had found him. A big hand had suddenly reached down and grabbed him, and the next minute he was lifted up, bruised and scraped and bleeding but clutched tight against the Scottish groom’s rough shirt, strong arms holding him as though they’d never let him go.

He swallowed. When he had the nightmare, sometimes he woke with Mac holding him. Sometimes he didn’t and woke in a cold sweat, unable to go back to sleep for fear of the waiting fog and the voices.

He froze now, hearing footsteps. Breathed cautiously—and smelled the unmistakable ripe smell of pig shit. He didn’t move; wild pigs were dangerous if you startled them.

Snuffling noises, more footsteps, the rustle and shower of water drops as heavy bodies brushed the leaves of holly and yaupon bushes. Several of them, moving slowly but moving nonetheless. He sat up sharp, turning his head to and fro, trying to locate the sound exactly. Nothing could move with purpose in this fog—unless they were following a path.

The swamp was crisscrossed with game paths, made by the deer and used by everything from possums to black bears. These paths wound aimlessly, only two things certain about them: one, that they did lead to drinkable water, and two, that they did not lead into a quaking bog. Which, under the circumstances, was enough for William.

They’d said one other thing about his mother. “Reckless,” his grandmother had said sadly, shaking her head. “She was always so reckless, so impulsive.” And her eyes had rested then on him, apprehensive. And you’re just like her, said those anxious eyes. God help us all.

“Maybe I am,” he said out loud, and, gripping his frog spear, stood up, defiant. “But I’m not dead. Not yet.”

He knew that much. And that to stand still when lost was a good idea only if someone was looking for you.

PURGATORY

AT MIDDAY ON THE third day, he found the lake.

He’d come to it through a cathedral of towering bald cypress, their great buttressed trunks rising like pillars from the flooded ground. Half starved, light-headed from a rising fever, he walked slowly through calf-deep water.

The air was still; so was the water. The only movement was the slow drag of his feet and the buzzing insects that plagued him. His eyes were swollen from the bites of mosquitoes, and the louse had company in the form of chiggers and sand fleas. The darning needles that darted to and fro didn’t bite like the hundreds of swarming tiny flies, but had their own form of torment—they made him glance at them, sunlight glinting gold and blue and red from their gauzy wings and shining bodies, dizzying in the light.

The smooth surface of the water reflected the trees standing in it so perfectly that he could not be sure quite where he himself was, balanced precariously between two looking-glass worlds. He kept losing his sense of up and down, the dizzying sight through the branches of the towering cypress above the same as that below. The trees loomed more than eighty feet over him, and the sight of drifting clouds seeming to sail straight through the gently stirring branches below gave him the constant queer sense that he was about to fall—up or down, he couldn’t tell.

He’d pulled the cypress splinter from his arm and done his best to bleed the wound, but there were smaller slivers of wood left behind, trapped under the skin, and his arm was hot and throbbing. So was his head. The chill and fog had disappeared as though they had never existed, and he walked slowly through a world of heat and stillness that shimmered round the edges. The backs of his eyes burned.

If he kept his eyes fixed on the purling of water away from his boots, the V-shaped waves broke the disturbing reflection and kept him upright. But watching the dragonflies… That made him sway and lose his bearings, as they seemed not fixed in either air or water, but part of both.

A strange depression appeared in the water, a few inches from his right calf. He blinked, then saw the shadow, sensed the weight of the heavy body undulating through the water. An evil, pointed, triangular head.

He gulped air and stopped dead. The moccasin, by great good fortune, did not.

He watched it swim away, and wondered whether it might be fit to eat. No matter; he’d broken his frog spear, though he’d caught three frogs before the fragile binding gave way. Small ones. They hadn’t tasted badly, despite the rubbery feel of the raw flesh. His stomach clenched, gnawing, and he fought the insane impulse to dive after the snake, seize it, and rip the flesh from its bones with his teeth.

Maybe he could catch a fish.

He stood still for several minutes, to be sure the snake had left. Then swallowed and took another step. And walked on, eyes fixed on the small waves his moving feet made, breaking the looking-glass water into fragments around him.

A short time later, though, the surface began to move, hundreds of tiny wavelets lapping against the gray-brown wood of the cypress trees, shimmering so that the dizzy swirl of trees and clouds disappeared. He lifted his head and saw the lake before him.

It was vast. Much bigger than he had thought it would be. Giant bald cypresses stood in the water, the stumps and carcasses of earlier progenitors bleaching in the sun among them. The far shore was dark, thick with tupelo, alder, and hobblebush. And the water itself seemed to stretch for miles before him, brown as tea with the infusions of the trees that grew in it.

Licking his lips, he bent and scooped up a handful of the brown water and drank, then drank again. It was fresh, a little bitter.

He wiped a wet hand across his face; the cool wetness made him shiver with a sudden chill.

“Right, then,” he said, feeling breathless. He pushed ahead, the ground sloping away gradually beneath him, until he stood in the open water, the dense growth of the swamp behind him. Chills still swept him, but he ignored them.

Lake Drummond had been named for an early governor of North Carolina. A hunting party, including Governor William Drummond, had gone into the swamp. A week later, Drummond, the sole survivor, had staggered out, half dead from hunger and fever but with news of a huge, unsuspected lake in the midst of the Great Dismal.

William drew a long, shuddering breath. Well, nothing had eaten him yet. And he’d reached the lake. Which way was Dismal Town?

He scanned the shore slowly, looking for any trace of chimney smoke, any break in the dense growth that might betoken a settlement. Nothing.

With a sigh, he reached into his pocket and found a sixpence. He flipped it into the air and nearly missed catching it, fumbling wildly as it bounced off his slow fingers. Got it, got it! Tails. Left, then. He turned resolutely and set off.

His leg knocked against something in the water, and he glanced down, just in time to see the white flash of the moccasin’s mouth as it rose up in the water and struck at his leg. Reflex alone jerked his foot up, and the snake’s fangs stuck briefly in the leather of his boot top.

He yelled and shook his leg violently, dislodging the reptile, which flew off and landed with a splash. Nothing daunted, the thing turned round upon itself almost instantly and arrowed toward him through the water.

William ripped the frying pan from his belt and swung it with all his strength, scooping the snake from the water and lofting it into the air. He didn’t wait to see where it landed, but turned and ran, splashing wildly toward the shore.

He rushed up into the growth of gum and juniper and paused, gasping for breath, relieved. The relief was short-lived. He did turn then, to look, and saw the snake, its brown skin gleaming like copper, slither its way up onto the bank in his wake and come undulating determinedly after him across the matted ground.

He let out a yelp and fled.

He ran blindly, feet squelching at every step, ricocheting off trees and through slapping branches, his legs seized by hobblebush and holly, through which he fought his way in a shower of leaves and torn-off twigs. He didn’t look back, but wasn’t really looking forward, either, and thus ran without warning slap into a man standing in his path.

The man let out a cry and went over backward, William atop him. He pushed himself up and found himself looking down into the face of an astonished Indian. Before he could apologize, someone else grabbed him by the arm and pulled him roughly upright.

It was another Indian, who said something to him, angry and interrogative.

He groped for any stray bit of trade talk, found nothing, and, pointing in the direction of the lake, gasped, “Snake!” The Indians evidently understood the word, though, for their faces changed at once to wariness, and they looked where he was pointing. In support of his story, the annoyed moccasin shot into sight, wriggling through the roots of a sweet gum.

The Indians both let out exclamations, and one of them seized a club from a sling at his back and struck at the snake. He missed, and the snake writhed up at once into a tight coil and struck at him. The snake missed, too, but not by much, and the Indian jerked back, dropping his club.

The other Indian said something in disgust. Taking his own club in hand, he began warily to circle the moccasin. The snake, further enraged by this persecution, spun upon its own contortious coils with a loud hiss and launched itself, spearlike, at the second Indian’s foot. He let out a cry and leapt back, though he did keep hold of his club.

William, meanwhile, delighted not to be the focus of the snake’s annoyance, had backed out of the way. Seeing the snake momentarily off balance, though—if snakes could be said to have any in the first place—he gripped his frying pan, swung it high, and brought it down, edge-on, with all his force.

Brought it down again, and again and again, his strength driven by panic. At last he stopped, breathing like a blacksmith’s bellows, sweat pouring down his face and body. Swallowing, he lifted the frying pan gingerly, expecting to find the snake a bloody mince on the riven ground.

Nothing. He could smell the reptile—a low stench, like that of rotten cucumbers—but could see nothing. He squinted, trying to make sense of the mass of cut-up mud and leaves, then looked up at the Indians.

Loading...