An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 8

   

Jamie and I were taking the first watch. No one had argued when Jamie announced this. No one spoke of it, but the image of Arch Bug, lurking alone in the forest, was in everyone’s mind.

“You think he’s there?” I asked Jamie, low-voiced. I nodded toward the dark trees, peaceful in their own soft shrouds.

“If it were you lying here, a nighean,” Jamie said, looking down at the still white figures at the edge of the porch, “I should be beside ye, alive or dead. Come sit down.”

I sat down beside him, the firepot close to our cloak-wrapped knees.

“Poor things,” I said, after a bit. “It’s a long way from Scotland.”

“It is,” he said, and took my hand. His fingers were no warmer than my own, but the size and strength of them were a comfort, nonetheless. “But they’ll be buried amongst folk who ken their ways, if not among their own kin.”

“True.” Should Grannie MacLeod’s grandsons ever come back, at least they would find a marker for her grave and know she had been treated with kindness. Mrs. Bug hadn’t any kin, save Arch—no one to come and look for the grave marker. But she would be among people who’d known and loved her. What about Arch, though? If he had kin in Scotland, he’d never mentioned it. His wife had been everything to him, as he to her.

“You, um, don’t think that Arch might … do away with himself?” I asked delicately. “Once he knows?”

Jamie shook his head, definite.

“No,” he said. “It’s not in him.”

On one level, I was relieved to hear this. On a lower and less compassionate level, I couldn’t help wondering uneasily just what a man of Arch’s passions might do, stricken by this mortal blow, now bereft of the woman who had been his anchor and safe harbor for most of his life.

What would such a man do? I wondered. Run before the wind until he hit a reef and sank? Or tie his life to the makeshift anchor of fury, and take revenge as his new compass? I’d seen the guilt Jamie and Ian were bearing; how much more was Arch carrying? Could any man bear such guilt? Or must he turn it outward, as a matter of simple survival?

Jamie had said nothing about his own speculations, but I’d noticed that he had both pistol and dirk in his belt—and the pistol was loaded and primed; I could smell the whiff of black powder under the resinous breath of spruce and fir. Of course, it might be for driving off a roving wolf or foxes …

We sat in silence for a little while, watching the shifting glow of the coals in the firepot and the flicker of light in the folds of the shrouds.

“Ought we to pray, do you think?” I whispered.

“I havena given over praying since it happened, Sassenach.”

“I know what you mean.” I did—the passionate prayer that it might not be, and the desperate prayer for guidance thereafter; the need to do something, when nothing, really, could be done. And, of course, prayer for the repose of the recently departed. At least Grannie MacLeod had expected death—and welcomed it, I thought. Mrs. Bug, on the other hand, must have been terribly startled at being so suddenly dead. I had a disconcerting vision of her standing in the snow just off the porch, glaring at her corpse, hands on stout hips, lips pursed in annoyance at having been so rudely disembodied.

“It was rather a shock,” I said apologetically to her shade.

“Aye, it was that.”

Jamie reached into his cloak and drew out his flask. Uncorking this, he leaned forward and carefully poured a few drops of whisky on the head of each of the dead women, then lifted the flask in silent toast to Grannie MacLeod, then to Mrs. Bug.

“Murdina, wife of Archibald, ye were a great cook,” he said simply. “I’ll recall your biscuits all my life, and think of ye wi’ my morning parritch.”

“Amen,” I said, my voice trembling between laughter and tears. I accepted the flask and took a sip; the whisky burned through the thickness in my throat, and I coughed.

“I know her receipt for piccalilli. That shouldn’t be lost; I’ll write it down.”

The thought of writing reminded me quite suddenly of the unfinished letter, still folded up in my workbag. Jamie felt the slight stiffening of my posture and turned his head toward me in question.

“I was only thinking of that letter,” I said, clearing my throat. “I mean, in spite of Roger and Bree knowing the house has burnt down, they’ll be happy to hear that we’re still alive—always supposing they do eventually get it.”

Aware both of the precarious times and of the uncertain survival of historical documents, Jamie and Roger had worked out several schemes for the passage of information, ranging from the publication of coded messages in various newspapers to something elaborate involving the Church of Scotland and the Bank of England. All of these, of course, relied upon the basic fact of the MacKenzie family having made the passage through the stones safely and arrived in more or less the right time—but I was obliged for my own peace of mind to assume that they had.

“But I don’t want to end it by having to tell them—about this.” I nodded toward the shrouded figures. “They loved Mrs. Bug—and Bree would be so upset for Ian.”

“Aye, ye’re right,” Jamie said thoughtfully. “And chances are that Roger Mac would think it all through and realize about Arch. Knowing, and not able to do anything about it … aye, they’d be worrit, ’til they found another letter telling them how it’s all come out—and God knows how long it may be before it has all come out.”

“And if they didn’t get the next letter …” Or if we didn’t survive long enough to write it, I thought.

“Aye, best not tell them. Not yet awhile.”

I moved closer, leaning against him, and he put his arm round me. We sat quiet for a bit, still troubled and sorrowful, but comforted at thought of Roger, Bree, and the children.

I could hear sounds from the cabin behind me; everyone had been quiet, shocked—but normality was fast reasserting itself. Children couldn’t be kept quiet long, and I could hear high-pitched questions, demands for food, the chatter of little ones excited at being up so late, their voices threading through the clanging and thumps of food preparation. There would be bannocks and pasties for the next part of the wake; Mrs. Bug would be pleased. A sudden shower of sparks flew from the chimney and fell all round the porch like falling stars, brilliant against the dark night and the white, fresh snow.

Jamie’s arm tightened round me, and he made a small sound of pleasure at the sight.

“That—what ye said about the breast o’ the new-fallen snow”—the word emerged as “breest” in his soft Highland lilt—“that’s a poem, is it?”

“It is. Not really appropriate to a wake—it’s a comic Christmas poem called ‘A Visit from Saint Nicholas.’ ”

Jamie snorted, his breath white.

“I dinna think the word ‘appropriate’ has much to do wi’ a proper wake, Sassenach. Give the mourners enough drink, and they’ll be singing ‘ O thoir a-nall am Botul ’ and the weans dancing ring-a-round-a-rosy in the dooryard by moonlight.”

I didn’t quite laugh, but could envision it, all too easily. There was enough to drink, too; there was a fresh tub of beer just brewed in the pantry, and Bobby had fetched down the emergency keg of whisky from its hiding place in the barn. I lifted Jamie’s hand and kissed the cold knuckles. The shock and sense of dislocation had begun to fade with the growing awareness of the pulse of life behind us. The cabin was a small, vibrant island of life, afloat in the cold of the black and white night.

“No man is an island, entire of itself,” Jamie said softly, picking up my unspoken thought.

“Now, that one is appropriate,” I said, a little dryly. “Maybe too appropriate.”

“Aye? How so?”

“Never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee? I never hear No man is an island without that last line tolling right behind it.”

“Mmphm. Ken the whole of it, do ye?” Not waiting for my reply, he leaned forward and stirred the coals with a stick, sending up a tiny drift of silent sparks. “It isna really a poem, ken—or the man didna mean it to be one.”

“No?” I said, surprised. “What is it? Or was it?”

“A meditation—something atwixt a sermon and a prayer. John Donne wrote it as part of his ‘Devotions upon Emergent Occasions.’ That’s sufficiently appropriate, no?” he added, with a hint of wry humor.

“They don’t get much more emergent than this, no. What am I missing, then?”

“Mmm.” He pulled me closer, and bent his head to rest on mine. “Let me call what I can to mind. I’ll not have all of it, but there are bits that struck me, so I remember those.” I could hear his breathing, slow and easy, concentrating.

“All mankind is of one author,” he said slowly, “ and is one volume. When one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. Then there are bits I havena got by heart, but I liked this one: The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth”—and his hand squeezed mine gently—“and though it intermit again, yet from that minute that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God.”

“Hmm.” I thought about that for a bit. “You’re right; that’s less poetic, but a bit more … hopeful?”

I felt him smile.

“I’ve always found it so, aye.”

“Where did you get that?”

“John Grey lent me a wee book of Donne’s writing, when I was prisoner at Helwater. That was in it.”

“A very literate gentleman,” I said, somewhat piqued at this reminder of the substantial chunk of Jamie’s life that John Grey had shared and I had not—but grudgingly glad that he had had a friend through that time of trial. How often, I wondered suddenly, had Jamie heard that tolling bell?

I sat up, reached for the flask, and took a cleansing swallow. The smell of baking, of onion and simmered meat, was seeping through the door, and my stomach rumbled in an unseemly manner. Jamie didn’t notice; he was squinting thoughtfully off toward the west, where the bulk of the mountain lay hidden by cloud.

“The MacLeod lads said the passes were already hip-deep in snow when they came down,” he said. “If there’s a foot of new snow on the ground here, there are three in the high passes. We’re going nowhere ’til the spring thaw, Sassenach. Time enough to carve proper grave markers, at least,” he added, with a glance at our quiet guests.

“You do still mean to go to Scotland, then?” He’d said so, after the Big House burned, but hadn’t mentioned it since then. I wasn’t sure whether he’d meant it or had merely been reacting to the pressure of events at the time.

“Aye, I do. We canna be staying here, I think,” he said, with some regret. “Come the spring, the backcountry will be boiling again. We’ve come close enough to the fire.” He lifted his chin in the direction of the Big House’s charred remains. “I’ve no mind to be roasted, next time.”

“Well … yes.” He was right, I knew. We could build another house—but it was unlikely we would be allowed to live peaceably in it. Among other things, Jamie was—or at least had been—a colonel of militia. Short of physical incapacity or simple absence, he couldn’t relinquish that responsibility. And sentiment in the mountains was by no means all in favor of rebellion. I knew a number of people who had been beaten, burnt out, and driven into the woods or swamps, or killed outright as the direct result of injudiciously expressed political sentiments.

The weather prevented our leaving, but it also put a stopper on the movement of militias—or roving bands of brigands. The thought of that sent a sudden bolt of cold through me, and I shivered.

“Shall ye go in, a nighean?” Jamie asked, noticing. “I can bear watch alone for a bit.”

“Right. And we’ll come out with the bannocks and honey and find you stretched out beside the old ladies with an ax in your head. I’m fine.” I took another sip of whisky, and handed him the flask.

“We wouldn’t necessarily have to go to Scotland, though,” I said, watching him drink. “We could go to New Bern. You could join Fergus in the printing business there.” That’s what he’d said he meant to do: go to Scotland, fetch the printing press he had left in Edinburgh, then come back to join the fight, armed with lead in the form of type slugs, rather than musket balls. I wasn’t sure which method might be the more dangerous.

“Ye dinna suppose your presence would stop Arch trying to brain me, if that’s what he’s got in mind?” Jamie smiled briefly at that, slanted eyes creasing into triangles. “No—Fergus has a right to put himself in danger, and he wants to. But I’ve no right to drag him and his family into my own.”

“Which tells me all I need to know about what sort of printing you have in mind to do. And my presence might not stop Arch going for you, but I could at least shout ‘Look out!’ if I saw him creeping up behind you.”

“I should always want ye at my back, Sassenach,” he assured me gravely. “Ye kent already what I mean to do, surely?”

“Yes,” I said with a sigh. “Occasionally I have the vain hope that I’m wrong about you—but I never am.”

That made him laugh outright.

“No, ye’re not,” he agreed. “But ye’re still here, aye?” He lifted the flask in salute to me, and drank from it. “Good to know someone will miss me, when I fall.”

“I did not miss that ‘when,’ rather than ‘if,’ ” I said coldly.

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