An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 80

   

“A bit about what he’d done: his victories, valiant warriors he’d killed, and how they’d welcome him in death. Then… how he proposed to cross the …” He groped for a word. “… the—it—the way between here and what lies after death. The divide, I suppose ye’d say, though the word means something more like a chasm.”

He was quiet for a moment, but not as though he had finished—more as though trying to recall something exactly. He straightened himself suddenly, took a deep breath, and with his eyes closed, began to recite something in what William supposed to be the Mohawk tongue. It was fascinating—a tattoo of “n”s and “r”s and “t”s, steady as a drumbeat.

“Then there was a bit where he went on about the nasty creatures he’d encounter on his way to paradise,” Murray said, breaking off abruptly. “Things like flying heads, wi’ teeth.”

“Ew,” said William, and Murray laughed, taken by surprise.

“Aye. I wouldna like to see one, myself.”

William considered this for a moment.

“Do you compose your own death song ahead of time—in case of need, I mean? Or just trust to the, um, inspiration of the moment?”

Murray looked a little taken back by that. He blinked and looked aside.

“I… well… it’s no usually talked about, ken? But aye—I did have a friend or two who told me a bit about what they’d thought of, should there ever be need.”

“Hmm.” William turned on his back, looking up at the stars. “Do you sing a death song only if you’re being tortured to death? What if you’re only ill but think you might die?”

Murray stopped what he was doing and peered toward him, suspicious.

“Ye’re no dying, are ye?”

“No, just wondering,” William assured him. He didn’t think he was dying.

“Mmphm,” the Scot said dubiously. “Aye, well. No, ye sing your death song if ye’re sure ye’re about to die; it doesna matter why.”

“The more credit to you, though,” William suggested, “if you do it whilst having burning splinters stuck into you?”

The Scot laughed out loud, and suddenly looked much less like an Indian. He rubbed his knuckles across his mouth.

“To be honest… the Onondaga… I didna think he did it so verra well,” Murray blurted. “It doesna seem right to criticize, though. I mean, I canna say I’d do better—in the circumstances.”

William laughed, too, but both men fell silent then. William supposed that Murray was, as he was, imagining himself in such case, tied to a stake, about to suffer appalling torture. He gazed up into the void above, tentatively composing a few lines: I am William Clarence Henry George Ransom, Earl of… No, he’d never liked his string of names. I am William … he thought muzzily. William… James… James was his secret name; he hadn’t thought of it in years. Better than Clarence, though. I am William. What else was there to say? Not much, as yet. No, he’d better not die, not until he’d done something worth a proper death song.

Murray was silent, the fire reflected in his somber eyes. Watching him, William thought the Scottish Mohawk had had his own death song ready for some time. Shortly he fell asleep to the crackle of fire and the quiet crunching of bones, burning, but brave.

HE WAS WANDERING through a haze of tortured dreams involving being chased by black serpents across an endless wobbling bridge over a bottomless chasm. Flying yellow heads with rainbow eyes attacked him in swarms, their tiny teeth, sharp as a mouse’s, piercing his flesh. He waved an arm to beat them off, and the pain that shot through the arm at the motion roused him.

It was still dark, though the cool, live feel of the air told him the dawn was not far off. The touch of it on his face made him shiver, prompting another chill.

Someone said something that he didn’t understand, and still entangled in the miasma of fever dreams, he thought it must be one of the serpents he’d been talking to earlier, before they started chasing him.

A hand touched his forehead, and a large thumb pried up one of his eyelids. An Indian’s face floated in his sleep-bleared vision, looking quizzical.

He made an irritable noise and jerked his head away, blinking. The Indian said something, questioning, and a familiar voice replied. Who … Murray. The name seemed to have been floating by his elbow, and he recalled dimly that Murray himself had accompanied him in his dream, rebuking the serpents in a stern Scotch burr.

He wasn’t speaking English now, though, nor even the peculiar Scotch tongue from the Highlands. William forced his head to turn, though his body was still convulsed with chill.

A number of Indians were crouched round the fire, squatting to keep their backsides from the dew-wet grass. One, two, three… six of them. Murray was sitting on the log with one of them, engaged in conversation.

No, seven. Another man, the one who had touched him, leaned over him, peering into his face.

“Think you’re going to die?” the man asked, with a faint air of curiosity.

“No,” William said between clenched teeth. “Who the devil are you?”

The Indian seemed to think this an amusing question and called to his fellows, apparently repeating it. They all laughed, and Murray glanced in his direction, rising as he saw that William was awake.

“Kahnyen’kehaka,” the man looming over him said, and grinned. “Who the devil are you?”

“My kinsman,” Murray said shortly, before William could reply. He nudged the Indian aside and squatted beside William. “Still alive, then?”

“Evidently.” He scowled up at Murray. “Care to introduce me to your… friends?”

The first Indian went off into gales of laughter at this and apparently translated it to the two or three others who had come to peer interestedly at him. They thought it funny, too.

Murray seemed substantially less amused.

“My kinsmen,” he said dryly. “Some of them. D’ye need water?”

“You have a lot of kinsmen… cousin. Yes, if you please.”

He struggled upright, one-armed, reluctant to leave the clammy comfort of his dew-wet blanket but obeying an innate urge that told him he wanted to be on his feet. Murray seemed to know these Indians well, but kin or not, there was a certain tenseness to Murray’s mouth and shoulders. And it was plain enough that Murray had told them that William was his kinsman because if he hadn’t…

“Kahnyen’kehaka.” That’s what the Indian had said when asked who he was. It wasn’t his name, William realized suddenly. It was what he was. Murray had used the word yesterday, when he’d sent away the two Mingos.

“I’m Kahnyen’kehaka,” he’d said. “A Mohawk. They’re afraid of me.” He’d said it as a simple statement of fact, and William had not chosen to make an issue of it, circumstances being as they were. Seeing a number of what were plainly Mohawk together, he could appreciate the Mingos’ prudence. The Mohawk gave off an air of genial ferocity, this overlying a casual confidence entirely proper to men who were prepared to sing—however badly—whilst being emasculated and burnt alive.

Murray handed him a canteen, and he drank thirstily, then splashed a little water over his face. Feeling a bit better, he went for a piss, then walked to the fire and squatted between two of the braves, who eyed him with open curiosity.

Only the man who had pried his eyelid open seemed to speak English, but the rest nodded to him, reserved but friendly enough. William glanced across the fire and started back, nearly losing his balance. A long, tawny shape lay in the grass beyond the fire, the light gleaming on its flanks.

“It’s dead,” Murray said dryly, seeing his startlement. The Mohawk all laughed.

“Gathered that,” he replied, just as dryly, though his heart was still pounding from the shock. “Serve it right, if it’s the one that took my horse.” Now he came to look, he perceived other shapes beyond the fire. A small deer, a pig, a spotted cat, and two or three egrets, small white mounds in the dark grass. Well, that explained the Mohawks’ presence in the swamp: they’d come for the hunting, like everyone else.

Dawn was coming; the faint wind stirred the damp hair on his neck and brought him the tang of blood and musk from the animals. Both his mind and his tongue felt thick and slow, but he managed a few words of praise for the success of the hunters; he knew how to be polite. Murray, translating for him, looked surprised, though pleased, to discover that William had manners. William didn’t feel well enough to take offense.

Conversation became general then, accomplished for the most part in Mohawk. The Indians showed no particular interest in William, though the man beside him handed him a chunk of cold meat in a companionable fashion. He nodded thanks and made himself eat it, though he would as soon have forced down one of his shoe soles. He felt unwell and clammy, and when he had finished the meat, nodded politely to the Indian next him and went to lie down again, hoping he wouldn’t vomit.

Seeing this, Murray lifted his chin in William’s direction and said something to his friends in Mohawk, ending with a question of some kind.

The English-speaker, a short, thickset fellow in a checked wool shirt and buckskin trousers, shrugged in reply, then got up and came to bend over him again.

“Show me this arm,” he said, and without waiting for William to comply, picked up his wrist and pulled up the sleeve of his shirt. William nearly passed out.

When the black spots stopped whirling in front of his eyes, he saw that Murray and two more Indians had come to join the first. All of them were looking at his exposed arm in open consternation. He didn’t want to look, but risked a glance. His forearm was grotesquely swollen, nearly twice its normal size, and dark reddish streaks ran from under the tightly bandaged poultice, down his arm toward the wrist.

The English-speaker—what had Murray called him? Glutton, he thought, but why?—drew his knife and cut the bandage. Only with the removal of its constriction did William realize how uncomfortable the binding had been. He repressed the urge to rub his arm, feeling the pins and needles of returning circulation. Pins and needles, bloody hell. It felt as though his arm were engulfed by a mass of fire ants, all stinging.

“Shit,” he said, through his teeth. All the Indians knew that word, evidently, for they all laughed, save Glutton and Murray, who were squinting at his arm.

Glutton—he didn’t look fat, why was he called that?—poked gingerly at the arm, shook his head, and said something to Murray, then pointed off toward the west.

Murray rubbed a hand over his face, then shook his head violently, in the manner of a man shaking off fatigue or worry. Then he shrugged and asked something of the group at large. Nods and shrugs, and several of the men got up and went into the wood.

A number of questions revolved slowly through William’s brain, round and bright like the metal globes of his grandfather’s orrery in the library of the London house at Jermyn Street.

What are they doing?

What’s happening?

Am I dying?

Am I dying like a British soldier?

Why did he… British soldier… His mind caught the tail of that one as it passed, pulling it down to look at more carefully. “British soldier”—who had said that? The answer spun slowly into view. Murray. When they’d talked in the night… what had Murray said?

“Is it different for a British soldier, then? Ye dinna want to die as a coward, do ye?”

“Not going to die at all,” he muttered, but his mind ignored him, intent on tracking this small mystery. What had Murray meant by that? Had he been speaking theoretically? Or had he in fact recognized William as a British soldier?

Not possible, surely.

And what the devil had he said in reply? The sun was coming up, the dawning light bright enough to hurt his eyes, soft as it was. He squinted, concentrating.

“It’s not so different—the hoping to die well if you have to,” he’d said. So he’d answered as though he was a British soldier, damn him.

At the moment, he didn’t really care whether he died well or like a dog…. Where was the—oh, there. Rollo sniffed at his arm, making a small whining noise in the back of his throat, then nosed at the wound and began to lick it. It felt most peculiar: painful, but weirdly soothing, and he made no move to drive the dog away.

What… oh, yes. He had simply replied, not noticing what Murray had said. But what if Murray did know who—or what—he was? A small stab of alarm pierced the muddle of his slowing thoughts. Had Murray been following him, before he came into the swamp? Seen him speaking to the man at the wilderness farm near the edge of the swamp, perhaps, and followed, ready to intercept him when the opportunity should offer? But if that were true …

What Murray had said about Henry Washington, about Dismal Town—was it a lie?

The stocky Indian knelt down beside him, nudging the dog away. William couldn’t ask any of the questions clogging his brain.

“Why do they call you Glutton?” he asked instead, through the haze of hot pain.

The man grinned and pulled open the neck of his shirt, to display a mass of welted scars that covered neck and chest.

“Killed one,” he said. “With my hands. My spirit animal now. You have one?”

“No.”

The Indian looked reproving at this.

“You need one, you going to live through this. Pick one. Pick a strong one.”

Muzzily obedient, William groped through random images of animals: pig… snake… deer… catamount… no, too rank, foul-smelling.

“Bear,” he said, settling on that with a sense of certainty. Didn’t get any stronger than a bear, did it?

“Bear,” the Indian repeated, nodding. “Yes, that’s good.” He slit William’s sleeve with his knife; the fabric would no longer fit easily over the swollen arm. Sunlight washed suddenly over him, glanced silver from the blade of his knife. He looked at William then and laughed.

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