An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 9

   

“It’s always been ‘when,’ Sassenach,” he said gently. “Every chapter must be so translated. Aye?”

I took a deep breath and watched it drift out in a plume of mist.

“I sincerely hope I’m not going to have to do it,” I said, “but should the question arise—would you want to be buried here? Or taken back to Scotland?” I was thinking of a granite marriage stone in the graveyard at St. Kilda, with his name on it, and mine, too. The bloody thing had nearly given me heart failure when I saw it, and I wasn’t sure I had forgiven Frank for it, even though it had accomplished what he’d meant it to.

Jamie made a small snorting noise, not quite a laugh.

“I shall be lucky to be buried at all, Sassenach. Much more likely I shall be drowned, burnt, or left to rot on some battlefield. Dinna fash yourself. If ye’ve got to dispose of my carcass, just leave it out for the crows.”

“I’ll make a note of that,” I said.

“Will ye mind going to Scotland?” he asked, eyebrows raised.

I sighed. Despite my knowing that he wasn’t going to lie under that particular gravestone, I couldn’t quite rid myself of the notion that he would at some point die there.

“No. I’ll mind leaving the mountains. I’ll mind watching you turn green and puke your guts out on the ship, and I may well mind whatever happens on the way to said ship, but … Edinburgh and printing presses aside, you want to go to Lallybroch, don’t you?”

He nodded, eyes on the glowing coals. The light from the firepot was faint but warm on the ruddy arch of his brows, a line of gilding down the long, straight bridge of his nose.

“I promised, aye?” he said simply. “I said I’d bring Young Ian back to his mother. And after this … best he goes.”

I nodded silently. Three thousand miles of ocean might not be enough for Ian to escape his memories—but it couldn’t hurt. And perhaps the joy of seeing his parents, his brothers and sisters, the Highlands … perhaps it would help heal him.

Jamie coughed, and rubbed a knuckle over his lips.

“There’s the one other thing,” he said, a little shy. “Another promise, ye might say.”

“What’s that?”

He turned his head then, and met my eyes, his own dark and serious.

“I’ve sworn to myself,” he said, “that I shallna ever face my son across the barrel of a gun.”

I took a deep breath and nodded. After a moment’s silence, I looked up from my contemplation of the shrouded women.

“You didn’t ask what I want done with my body.” I’d meant it at least half in jest, to lighten his mood, but his fingers curled so abruptly over mine that I gasped.

“No,” he said softly. “And I never will.” He wasn’t looking at me but at the whiteness before us. “I canna think of ye dead, Claire. Anything else—but not that. I can’t.”

He stood abruptly. The rattle of wood, the clang of a falling pewter dish, and voices raised in adjuration inside saved me from reply. I simply nodded and let him lift me to my feet, as the door opened, spilling light.

THE MORNING DAWNED clear and bright, with a scant foot of fresh snow on the ground. By noon, the icicles that hung from the cabin’s eaves had begun to loose their hold, dropping like random daggers with muffled, intermittent thunks. Jamie and Ian had gone up the hill to the small burying ground, with spades, to see whether the ground might be dug deep enough for two decent graves.

“Take Aidan and one or two of the other boys with you,” I’d said at breakfast. “They need to be gotten out from underfoot.” Jamie had given me a sharp glance, but nodded. He knew very well what I was thinking. If Arch Bug didn’t yet know that his wife was dead, he’d certainly start drawing conclusions if he saw a grave being dug.

“Best if he’ll come and speak to me,” Jamie had said quietly to me, under cover of the noise made by the boys readying themselves to go, their mothers packing lunch to be taken up the hill, and the smaller children playing ring-a-round-a-rosy in the back room.

“Yes,” I said, “and the boys won’t stop him doing that. But if he doesn’t choose to come out and speak to you …” Ian had told me that he’d heard a rifle fired during the encounter the night before; Arch Bug was no particular marksman, though, and would presumably hesitate to fire on a group that included young children.

Jamie had nodded, silent, and sent Aidan to fetch his two eldest cousins.

Bobby and Clarence the mule had gone up with the grave-digging party. There was a stock of freshly sawn pine boards at the site higher up on the mountainside, where Jamie had declared our new house would one day rise; if graves could be dug, Bobby would bring back some of the boards to make coffins.

From my viewpoint on the front porch, I could see Clarence now, heavily laden, but mincing downhill with ballerina grace, ears pointed delicately to either side as though to aid his balance. I caught a glimpse of Bobby walking on the far side of the mule, reaching up now and then to keep the load from slipping; he saw me and waved, smiling. The M branded on his cheek was visible even at this distance, livid against the cold-chapped ruddiness of his skin.

I waved back and turned in to the house, to tell the women that we would indeed have a funeral.

WE MADE OUR WAY up the winding trail to the small graveyard next morning. The two old ladies, unlikely companions in death, lay side by side in their coffins on a sledge, pulled by Clarence and one of the McCallum women’s mules, a little black jenny called Puddin’.

We were not dressed in our best; no one had a “best,” with the exception of Amy McCallum Higgins, who had worn her lace-trimmed wedding kerchief as a sign of respect. We were mostly clean, though, and the adults at least were sober in aspect, and watchful. Very watchful.

“Which will be the new guardian, Mam?” Aidan asked his mother, eyeing the two coffins as the sledge creaked slowly uphill ahead of us. “Which died first?”

“Why … I dinna ken, Aidan,” Amy replied, looking mildly taken aback. She frowned at the coffins, then glanced at me. “D’ye know that, Mrs. Fraser?”

The question hit me like a thrown pebble, and I blinked. I did know, of course, but—with some effort, I refrained from glancing into the trees that lined the trail. I had no idea exactly where Arch Bug was, but he was near; I had no doubt of that at all. And if he were near enough to overhear this conversation …

Highland superstition held that the last person to be buried in a graveyard became the guardian and must defend the souls who rested there from any evil, until another should die and take the guardian’s place—whereupon the earlier guardian was released and might go on to heaven. I didn’t think Arch would be at all happy about the notion of his wife trapped on earth to guard the graves of Presbyterians and sinners like Malva Christie.

I felt a small chill in the heart at thought of Malva—who was, now I thought of it, presumably the graveyard’s present guardian. “Presumably,” because while other people had died on the Ridge since her own death, she was the last to have been buried in the graveyard proper. Her brother, Allan, was buried nearby, a little way into the forest, in a secret, unmarked grave; I didn’t know whether that was near enough to count. And her father …

I coughed into my fist, and clearing my throat said, “Oh, Mrs. MacLeod. She was dead when we came back to the cabin with Mrs. Bug.” Which was strictly true; the fact that she’d been dead when I left the cabin seemed better suppressed.

I had been looking at Amy when I spoke. I turned my head back to the trail, and there he was, right in front of me. Arch Bug, in his rusty black cloak, white head bared and bent, following the sledge through the snow, slow as an earthbound raven. A faint shudder ran through the mourners.

He turned his head then, and saw me.

“Will ye sing, Mrs. Fraser?” he asked, his voice quiet and courtly. “I’d have her taken to her rest wi’ the proper observances.”

“I—yes, of course.” Enormously flustered, I groped for something suitable. I simply wasn’t up to the challenge of composing a proper caithris, a lament for the dead—let alone providing the formal wailing that a truly first-class Highland funeral would have.

I settled hastily for a Gaelic psalm that Roger had taught me, “Is e Dia fèin a’s buachaill dhomh.” It was a line chant, each line meant to be sung by a precentor, then echoed line by line by the congregation. It was simple, though, and while my voice seemed thin and insubstantial on the mountainside, those around me were able to take it up, and by the time we reached the burying ground, we had achieved a respectable level of fervor and volume.

The sledge stopped at the edge of the pine-circled clearing. A few wooden crosses and cairns were visible through the half-melted snow, and the two fresh graves gaped in the center, muddy and brutal. The sight of them stopped the singing as abruptly as a pail of cold water.

The sun shone pale and bright through the trees, and there was a gang of nuthatches conversing in the branches at the edge of the clearing, incongruously cheerful. Jamie had been leading the mules, and had not glanced back at Arch’s appearance. Now, though, he turned to Arch and with a small gesture at the nearer coffin, asked in a low voice, “Will ye look upon your wife once more?”

It was only as Arch nodded and moved to the side of the sledge, that I realized that while the men had nailed down the lid of Mrs. MacLeod’s coffin, they had left Mrs. Bug’s lying loose. Bobby and Ian lifted it off, their eyes on the ground.

Arch had unbound his hair as a sign of grief; I had never seen it loose before. It was thin, pure white, and wavered about his face like wisps of smoke as he bent and gently lifted the shroud from Murdina’s face.

I swallowed hard, clenching my hands. I’d removed the arrow—not a pleasant business—and had then wrapped her throat carefully in a clean bandage before combing her hair. She looked all right, though terribly unfamiliar; I didn’t think I’d ever seen her without her cap, and the bandage across her full throat gave her the sternly formal air of a Presbyterian minister. I saw Arch flinch, just slightly, and his own throat move. He got control of his face almost at once, but I saw the lines that ran from nose to chin like gullies through wet clay, and the way in which he opened and closed his hands, over and over, seeking a grip on something that wasn’t there.

He gazed into the coffin for a long moment, then reached into his sporran and drew out something. I saw when he put back his cloak that his belt was empty; he had come without weapons.

The thing in his hand was small and glittering. He leaned down and tried to fix it to the shroud, but could not, with his missing fingers. He fumbled, said something under his breath in Gaelic, then looked up at me, with something near panic in his eyes. I went at once to him, and took the thing from his hand.

It was a brooch, a small, beautifully made thing in the shape of a flying swallow. Made of gold, and very new-looking. I took it from him and, turning back the shroud, pinned it to Mrs. Bug’s kerchief. I’d never seen the brooch before, either on Mrs. Bug or among her things, and it came to me that Arch had likely had it made from the gold he had taken from Jocasta Cameron—perhaps when he began to take the ingots, one by one; perhaps later. A promise made to his wife—that their years of penury and dependence were over. Well … indeed they were. I glanced at Arch, and at his nod, pulled the shroud gently up over his wife’s cold face.

I put out a hand impulsively to touch him, take his arm, but he drew away and stood back, watching impassively as Bobby nailed down the lid. At one point, his gaze rose and passed slowly over Jamie, then Ian, in turn.

I pressed my lips tight, glancing at Jamie as I came back to his side, seeing the trouble etched so plainly on his face. So much guilt! Not that there wasn’t enough and to spare—and plainly enough, Arch felt his own. Did it not occur to any of them that Mrs. Bug had had something to do with this, herself? Had she not fired at Jamie … but people didn’t always behave intelligently, or well, and did the fact that someone had contributed to their own demise lessen the tragedy of it?

I caught sight of the small boulder that marked the grave of Malva and her son, only the top of it visible through the snow—rounded, wet, and dark, like the crowning of a baby’s head at birth.

Rest in peace, I thought, and felt a small easing of the tension I’d been under for the last two days. You can go now.

It occurred to me that whatever I’d told Amy and Aidan, it didn’t alter the truth of which woman really had died first. Still, considering Mrs. Bug’s personality, I rather thought she might enjoy being in charge, clucking and fussing after the resident souls like her flock of much-loved chickens, banishing evil spirits with a sharp word and a brandished sausage.

That thought got me through the brief reading from the Bible, the prayers, the tears—from the women and the children, most of whom had no idea why they were crying—the removal of the coffins from the sledge, and a rather disjoint recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. I missed Roger very much—his sense of calm order and genuine compassion in the conducting of a funeral. And he would, perhaps, have known what to say in eulogy of Murdina Bug. As it was, no one spoke when the prayer concluded, and there was a long, awkward pause, people shifting uneasily from foot to foot—we were standing in a foot of snow, and the women’s petticoats were wet to the knee.

I saw Jamie shift his shoulders, as though his coat was too tight, and glance at the sledge, where the shovels lay under a blanket. Before he could signal Ian and Bobby, though, Ian drew a deep, gasping breath and stepped forward.

He came to the side of Mrs. Bug’s waiting coffin, opposite the bereaved husband, and stopped, plainly wanting to speak. Arch ignored him for a long moment, staring down into the hole, but finally raised his face, impassive. Waiting.

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