An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 85

   

“Often enough for your face to say the same thing,” he whispered, and clenched his fists.

An interested murmur rose from the other men, but there was an intangible drawing away. They wouldn’t interfere in a fight over a woman. That was a blessing, Ian thought vaguely, watching Sun Elk’s hands. The man was right-handed, he remembered that. There was a knife on his belt, but his hand wasn’t hovering near it.

Ian spread his own hands peaceably.

“I wish only to talk with her.”

“Why?” Sun Elk barked. He was close enough for Ian to feel the spray of spittle on his face, but he didn’t wipe it away. He didn’t back away, either, and dropped his hands.

“That’s between me and her,” he said quietly. “I daresay she’ll tell ye later.” The thought of it gave him a pang. The statement didn’t seem to reassure Sun Elk, who without warning hit him in the nose.

The crunch echoed through his upper teeth, and Sun Elk’s other fist struck him a glancing blow on the cheekbone. He shook his head to clear it, saw the blur of movement through watering eyes, and—more by good fortune than intent—kicked Sun Elk solidly in the crotch.

He stood breathing heavily, dripping blood on the roadway. Six pairs of eyes went from him to Sun Elk, curled in the dust and making small, urgent noises. Rollo got up, walked over to the fallen man, and smelled him with interest. All the eyes came back to Ian.

He made a small motion of the hand that brought Rollo to heel and walked up the road toward Brant’s house, six pairs of eyes fixed on his back.

WHEN THE DOOR OPENED, the young white woman who stood there gaped at him, eyes round as pennies. He’d been in the act of wiping his bloody nose with his shirttail. He completed this action and inclined his head civilly.

“Will ye be so good as to ask Wakyo’teyehsnonhsa if she will be pleased to speak wi’ Ian Murray?”

The young woman blinked, twice. Then she nodded and swung the door to—pausing with it halfway shut, in order to look at him once more and assure herself that she’d really seen him.

Feeling strange, he stepped down into the garden. It was a formal English garden, with rosebushes and lavender and stone-flagged paths. The smell of it reminded him of Auntie Claire, and he wondered briefly whether Thayendanegea had brought back an English gardener from London.

There were two women at work in the garden, some distance away; one was a white woman, by the color of the hair beneath her cap, and in her middle years by the stoop of her shoulders—perhaps Brant’s wife? he wondered. Was the young woman who had answered the door their daughter? The other woman was Indian, with her hair in a plait down her back but streaked with white. Neither one turned to look at him.

When he heard the click of the door latch behind him, he waited a moment before turning around, steeling himself against the disappointment of being told that she was not here—or, worse, that she had refused to see him.

But she was there. Emily. Small and straight, with her br**sts showing round in the neck of a blue calico gown, her long hair bound up behind but uncovered. And her face fearful—but eager. Her eyes lit with joy at the sight of him, and she took a step toward him.

He would have crushed her to him had she come to him, made any gesture inviting it. And what then? he wondered dimly, but it didn’t matter; after that first impulsive movement toward him, she stopped and stood, her hands fluttering for an instant as though they would shape the air between them, but then folding tight before her, hidden in the folds of her skirt.

“Wolf’s Brother,” she said softly, in Mohawk. “My heart is warm to see you.”

“Mine, too,” he said in the same language.

“Have you come to speak with Thayendanegea?” she asked, tilting her head back toward the house.

“Perhaps later.” Neither of them mentioned his nose, though from the throbbing, it was likely twice its normal size and there was blood all down the front of his shirt. He glanced around; there was a path that led away from the house, and he nodded at that. “Will you walk with me?”

She hesitated for a moment. The flame in her eyes had not gone out, but it burned lower now; there were other things there—caution, mild distress, and what he thought was pride. He was surprised that he should see them so clearly. It was as though she were made of glass.

“I—the children,” she blurted, half turning toward the house.

“It doesna matter,” he said. “I only—” A dribble of blood from one nostril stopped him, and he paused to wipe the back of his hand across his upper lip. He took the two steps necessary to bring them within touching distance, though he was careful not to touch her.

“I wished to say to you that I am sorry,” he said formally, in Mohawk. “That I could not give you children. And that I am glad you have them.”

A lovely warm flush rose in her cheeks, and he saw the pride in her overcome the distress.

“May I see them?” he asked, surprising himself as much as her.

She wavered for an instant, but then turned and went into the house. He sat on a stone wall, waiting, and she returned a few moments later with a small boy, maybe five years old, and a girl of three or so in short plaits, who looked gravely at him and sucked her fist.

Blood had run down the back of his throat; it felt raw and tasted of iron.

Now and then on his journey, he’d gone carefully over the explanation Auntie Claire had given him. Not with any notion of telling it to Emily; it could mean nothing to her—he barely understood it himself. Only, maybe, as some shield against this moment, seeing her with the children he could not give her.

“Call it fate,” Claire had said, looking at him with a hawk’s eye, the one that sees from far above, so far above, maybe, that what seems mercilessness is truly compassion. “Or call it bad luck. But it wasn’t your fault. Or hers.”

“Come here,” he said in Mohawk, putting out a hand to the little boy. The boy glanced at his mother, but then came to him, looking up in curiosity to his face.

“I see you in his face,” he said softly to her, speaking English. “And in his hands,” he added in Mohawk, taking the child’s hands—so amazingly small—in his own. It was true: the boy had her hands, fine-boned and supple; they curled up like sleeping mice in his palms, then the fingers sprang out like a spider’s legs and the boy giggled. He laughed, too, closed his own hands swiftly on the boy’s, like a bear gulping a pair of trout, making the child shriek, then let go.

“Are you happy?” he asked her.

“Yes,” she said softly. She looked down, not meeting his eyes, and he knew it was because she would answer honestly but did not wish to see if her answer hurt him. He put a hand under her chin—her skin was so soft!—and lifted her face to him.

“Are you happy?” he asked again, and smiled a little as he said it.

“Yes,” she said again. But then gave a small sigh, and her own hand touched his face at last, light as a moth’s wing. “But sometimes I miss you, Ian.” There was nothing wrong with her accent, but his Scots name sounded impossibly exotic on her tongue—it always had.

He felt a lump in his throat, but kept the faint smile on his face.

“I see you dinna ask me whether I’m happy,” he said, and could have kicked himself.

She gave him a quick look, direct as a knife point.

“I have eyes,” she said, very simply.

There was a silence between them. He looked away but could feel her there, breathing. Ripe. Soft. He felt her softening further, opening. She had been wise not to go into the garden with him. Here, with her son playing in the dirt near her feet, it was safe. For her, at least.

“Do you mean to stay?” she asked at last, and he shook his head.

“I am going to Scotland,” he said.

“You will take a wife among your own people.” There was relief in that, but regret, too.

“Are your people no longer my own?” he asked, with a flash of fierceness. “They washed the white blood from my body in the river—you were there.”

“I was there.”

She looked at him for a long time, searching his face. Likely enough that she would never see him again; did she seek to remember him, or was she looking for something in his features, he wondered?

The latter. She turned abruptly, raising a hand to him to wait, and disappeared into the house.

The little girl ran after her, not wanting to stay with the stranger, but the little boy lingered, interested.

“Are you Wolf’s Brother?”

“I am, aye. And you?”

“They call me Digger.” It was a child’s sort of name, used for convenience until the person’s real name should declare itself in some way. Ian nodded, and they remained a few minutes, looking each other over with interest, but with no sense of awkwardness between them.

“She who is mother’s mother to my mother,” Digger said quite suddenly. “She talked about you. To me.”

“She did?” said Ian, startled. That would be Tewaktenyonh. A great woman, head of the Women’s Council at Snaketown—and the person who had sent him away.

“Does Tewaktenyonh still live?” he asked, curious.

“Oh, yes. She’s older than the mountains,” the little boy answered seriously. “She has only two teeth left, but she still eats.”

Ian smiled at that.

“Good. What did she say to you of me?”

The boy screwed up his face, recollecting the words.

“She said I was the child of your spirit but I should not say so to my father.”

Ian felt the blow of that, harder than any the child’s father had dealt him, and couldn’t speak for a moment.

“Aye, I dinna think ye should say so, either,” he said, when words returned to him. He repeated the sentiment in Mohawk, in case the boy might not have understood English, and the child nodded, tranquil.

“Will I be with you, sometime?” he asked, only vaguely interested in the answer. A lizard had come out onto the stone wall to bask, and his eyes were fixed on it.

Ian forced his own words to be casual.

“If I live.”

The boy’s eyes were narrowed, watching the lizard, and the tiny right hand twitched, just a little. The distance was too far, though; he knew it, and glanced at Ian, who was closer. Ian cut his eyes at the lizard without moving, then looked back at the boy and agreement sprang up between them. Don’t move, his eyes warned, and the boy seemed to cease breathing.

It didn’t do to think in such situations. Without pausing to draw breath, he snatched, and the lizard was in his hand, astonished and thrashing.

The little boy chortled and hopped up and down, clapping his hands with glee, then held them out for the lizard, which he received with the greatest concentration, folding his hands about it so that it might not escape.

“And what will ye do with him?” Ian asked, smiling.

The boy held the lizard up to his face, peering at it intently, and his brow furrowed in thought.

“I will name him,” he said at last. “Then he will be mine and bless me when I see him again.” He brought the lizard up, eyeball to eyeball, and each stared unblinking at the other.

“Your name is Bob,” the boy declared at last in English, and with great ceremony set the lizard on the ground. Bob leapt from his hands and disappeared under a log.

“A verra good name,” Ian said gravely. His bruised ribs hurt with the need not to laugh, but the urge vanished in the next moment, as the distant door opened and Emily came out, a bundle in her arms.

She came up to him and presented him with a child, swaddled and bound to a cradleboard, in much the same way he had presented the lizard to Digger.

“This is my second daughter,” she said, shyly proud. “Will you choose her name?”

He was moved, and touched Emily’s hand, very lightly, before taking the cradleboard onto his knee and looking searchingly into the tiny face. She could not have given him greater honor, this permanent mark of the feeling she had once held for him—still might hold for him.

But as he looked at the little girl—she regarded him with round, serious eyes, taking in this new manifestation of her personal landscape—a conviction took root in him. He didn’t question it; it was simply there, and undeniable.

“Thank you,” he said, and smiled at Emily with great affection. He laid his hand—huge, and rough with callus and the nicks of living—on the tiny, perfect, soft-haired head. “I will bless all your children wi’ the blessings of Bride and of Michael.” He lifted his hand then, and reaching out, drew Digger to him. “But this one is mine to name.”

Her face went quite blank with astonishment, and she looked quickly from him to her son and back. She swallowed visibly, unsure—but it didn’t matter; he was sure.

“Your name is Swiftest of Lizards,” he said, in Mohawk. The Swiftest of Lizards thought for a minute, then nodded, pleased, and with a laugh of pure delight, darted away.

SHELTER FROM THE STORM

NOT FOR THE FIRST time, William was startled to realize the breadth of his father’s acquaintance. In casual conversation as they rode, he had mentioned to Denzell Hunter that his father had once known a Dr. John Hunter—in fact, the association, involving an electric eel, an impromptu duel, and the implications of body-snatching, was part of the situation that had sent Lord John to Canada and the Plains of Abraham. Might this John Hunter perhaps be the beneficent relative that Miss Rachel had mentioned?

Denny Hunter had brightened at once.

“How remarkable! Yes, it must be the same. Particularly since thee mentions body-snatching in connection with him.” He coughed, seeming a little embarrassed.

“It was a most… educational association,” Hunter said. “Though a disturbing one, upon occasion.” He glanced back at his sister, but Rachel was well behind them, her mule ambling and Rachel herself half asleep in the saddle, her head nodding like a sunflower’s.

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