An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 94

   

Down below, he saw Rob Cameron’s battered truck parked in the dooryard and Rob himself sitting on the back stoop, Mandy, Jem, and Jem’s friends leaning in on either side of him, evidently absorbed in the pages he held. What the devil was he doing?

“Is that singing I hear?” Callahan, who had been looking off to the north, turned half round, and as he did so, Roger heard it, too. Faint and sweet, no more than a thread of sound, but enough to pick up the tune of “Crimond.”

The strength of the stab of jealousy that went through him took his breath, and he felt his throat close as though some strong hand choked him.

Jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire.

He closed his eyes for an instant, breathing slow and deep, and with a little effort, dredged up the first bit of that quotation: Love is strong as death.

He felt the choking sensation begin to ease and reason return. Of course Rob Cameron could sing; he was in the men’s choir. Only make sense that if he saw the rudimentary musical settings Roger had noted for some of the old songs, he’d try to sing them. And kids—especially his kids—were attracted to music.

“Have you known Rob for long, then?” he asked, and was pleased to hear his voice sound normal.

“Oh, Rob?” Callahan considered. “Fifteen years, maybe… No, I tell a lie, more like twenty. He came along as a volunteer on a dig I had going on Shapinsay—that’s one of the Orkneys—and he wasn’t but a lad then, in his late teens, maybe.” He gave Roger a mild, shrewd look. “Why?”

Roger shrugged.

“He works with my wife, for the Hydro Board. I don’t know him much myself. Only met him recently, in lodge.”

“Ah.” Callahan watched the scene below for a moment, silent, then said, not looking at Roger, “He was married, to a French girl. Wife divorced him a couple of years ago, took their son back to France. He’s not been happy.”

“Ah.” That explained Rob’s attachment to his widowed sister’s family, then, and his enjoyment of Jem and Mandy’s company. He breathed once more, freely, and the small flame of jealousy flickered out.

As though this brief exchange had put a period to the day, they picked up the leavings from their lunch and Callahan’s rucksack and came down the hill, companionable in silence.

“WHAT’S THIS?” There were two wineglasses set on the counter. “Are we celebrating something?”

“We are,” Bree said firmly. “The children going to bed, for one thing.”

“Oh, bad, were they?” He felt a small twinge of guilt—not very severe— for having spent the afternoon in the high, cool peace of the ruined chapel with Callahan rather than chivvying small mad things out of the kailyard.

“Just really energetic.” She cast a suspicious glance toward the door to the hall, through which the muted roar of a television came from the big front parlor. “I hope they’ll be too worn out to spend the night jumping on the beds. They’ve had enough pizza to put six grown men into a coma for a week.”

He laughed at that—he’d eaten most of a full-sized pepperoni himself and was beginning to feel comfortably stuporous.

“What else?”

“Oh, what else are we celebrating?” She gave him a cat-in-the-cream look. “Well, as for me …”

“Yes?” he said, obliging.

“I’ve passed the provisional employment period; now I’m permanent, and they can’t get rid of me, even if I wear perfume to work. And you,” she added, reaching into the drawer and placing an envelope in front of him, “are formally invited by the school board to do a reprise of your Gàidhlig triumph at five different schools next month!”

He felt a moment’s shock, then a warm flood of something he couldn’t quite identify, and realized with a greater shock that he was blushing.

“Really?”

“You don’t think I’d tease you about something like that?” Not waiting for an answer, she poured the wine, purple-rich and aromatic, and handed him a glass. He clinked it ceremoniously against her own.

“Here’s tae us. Wha’s like us?”

“Damned few,” she replied in broad Scots, “and they’re all deid.”

THERE WAS A certain amount of crashing upstairs after the children were sent to bed, but a brief appearance by Roger in the persona of Heavy Father put a stop to that, and the slumber party simmered down into storytelling and stifled giggles.

“Are they telling dirty jokes?” Bree asked, when he came back down.

“Very likely. Ought I make Mandy come down, do you think?”

She shook her head.

“She’s probably asleep already. And if not, the sort of jokes nine-year-old boys tell won’t warp her. She isn’t old enough to remember the punch lines.”

“That’s true.” Roger took up his refilled glass and sipped, the wine soft on his tongue and dense with the scents of black currant and black tea. “How old was Jem when he finally learned to tell jokes? You remember how he got the form of jokes but didn’t really understand the idea of content?”

“What’s the difference between a … a … a button and a sock?” she mimicked, catching Jem’s breathless excitement to a T. “A… BUFFALO! HAHAHAHAHA!”

Roger burst out laughing.

“Why are you laughing?” she demanded. Her eyes were growing heavy-lidded, and her lips were stained dark.

“Must be the way you tell it,” he said, and lifted his glass to her. “Cheers.”

“Slàinte.”

He closed his eyes, breathing the wine as much as drinking it. He was beginning to have the pleasant illusion that he could feel the heat of his wife’s body, though she sat a few feet away. She seemed to emanate warmth, in slow, pulsing waves.

“What do they call it, how you find distant stars?”

“A telescope,” she said. “You can’t be drunk on half a bottle of wine, good as it is.”

“No, that’s not what I mean. There’s a term for it—heat signature? Does that sound right?”

She closed one eye, considering, then shrugged.

“Maybe. Why?”

“You’ve got one.”

She looked down at herself, squinting.

“Nope. Two. Definitely two.”

He wasn’t quite drunk, and neither was she, but whatever they were was a lot of fun.

“A heat signature,” he said, and, reaching out, took hold of her hand. It was markedly warmer than his, and he was positive he could feel the heat of her fingers throb slowly, increasing and diminishing with her pulse. “I could pick you out of a crowd blindfolded; you glow in the dark.”

She put aside her glass and slid out of her chair, coming to a stop kneeling between his knees, her body not quite touching his. She did glow. If he closed his eyes, he could just about see it through the white shirt she wore.

He tipped up his glass and drained it.

“Great wine. Where did ye get it?”

“I didn’t. Rob brought it—a thank-you, he said, for letting him copy the songs.”

“Nice guy,” he said generously. At the moment, he actually thought so.

Brianna reached for the wine bottle and poured the last of it into Roger’s glass. Then she sat back on her heels and looked at him owl-eyed, the empty bottle clutched to her chest.

“Hey. You owe me.”

“Big-time,” he assured her gravely, making her giggle.

“No,” she said, recovering. “You said if I brought my hard hat home, you’d tell me what you were doing with that champagne bottle. All that hooting, I mean.”

“Ah.” He considered for a moment—there was a distinct possibility she’d hit him with the wine bottle if he told her, but then, a bargain was a bargain, after all—and the vision of her naked save for the hard hat, radiating heat in all directions, was enough to make a man cast caution to the winds.

“I was trying to see if I could get the exact pitch of the sounds ye make when we’re making love and you’re just about to … er… to … it’s something between a growl and a really deep hum.”

Her mouth opened slightly, and her eyes slightly more. The tip of her tongue was a dark, dark red.

“I think it’s the F below middle C,” he concluded hurriedly. She blinked.

“You’re kidding.”

“I am not.” He picked up his half-full glass and tilted it gently, so the rim touched her lip. She closed her eyes and drank, slowly. He smoothed her hair behind her ear, his finger moving slowly down the length of her neck, watching her throat move as she swallowed, moved his fingertip along the strong arch of her collarbone.

“You’re getting warmer,” she whispered, not opening her eyes. “The second law of thermodynamics.”

“What’s that?” he said, his voice dropping, too.

“The entropy of an isolated system that is not in equilibrium tends to increase, reaching a maximum at equilibrium.”

“Oh, aye?”

“Mmm-hmm. That’s why a warm body loses heat to a colder one, until they’re the same temperature.”

“I knew there had to be a reason why that happened.” All sounds from upstairs had ceased, and his voice sounded loud, even though he was whispering.

Her eyes opened suddenly, an inch from his, and her black-currant breath on his cheek was as warm as his skin. The bottle hit the parlor carpet with a soft thud.

“Want to try for E flat?”

HENRY

June 14, 1777

HE HAD FORBIDDEN Dottie to accompany him. He wasn’t sure what he might find. In the event, though, he was surprised. The address to which he had been directed was in a modest street in Germantown, but the house was commodious and well kept, though not large.

He knocked at the door and was greeted by a pleasant-faced young African woman in neat calico, whose eyes widened at sight of him. He had thought best not to wear his uniform, though there were men in British uniform here and there in the streets—paroled prisoners, perhaps, or soldiers bearing official communications. Instead, he had put on a good suit of bottle-green, with his best waistcoat, this being gold China silk, embroidered with a number of fanciful butterflies. He smiled, and the woman smiled in turn and put a hand over her mouth to hide it.

“May I help you, sir?”

“Is your master at home?”

She laughed. Softly, and with real amusement.

“Bless you, sir, I have no master. The house is mine.”

He blinked, disconcerted.

“Perhaps I have been misdirected. I am in search of a British soldier, Captain Viscount Asher—Henry Grey is his name. A British prisoner of war?”

She lowered her hand and stared at him, eyes wide. Then her smile returned, broad enough to show two gold-stuffed teeth at the back.

“Henry! Well, why didn’t you say so, sir? Come in, come in!”

And before he could put down his stick, he was whisked inside, up a narrow staircase, and into a neat small bedroom, where he discovered his nephew Henry, sprawled on his back and naked from the waist up, with a small, beaky-looking man in black poking at his belly—this crisscrossed with a number of violent-looking scars.

“I beg your pardon?” He peered over the beaky man’s shoulder and waved gingerly. “How do you do, Henry?”

Henry, whose eyes had been fastened on the ceiling in a tense sort of way, glanced at him, away, back, then sat up abruptly, this movement resulting in an exclamation of protest from the little beaky person and a cry of pain from Henry.

“Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God.” Henry doubled over, arms clutching his belly and his face clenched in pain. Grey seized him by the shoulders, seeking to ease him back.

“Henry, my dear. Do forgive me. I didn’t mean—”

“And who are you, sir?” the beaky man cried angrily, springing to his feet and facing Grey with clenched fists.

“I am his uncle,” Grey informed him shortly. “Who are you, sir? A doctor?”

The little man drew himself up with dignity.

“Why, no, sir. I am a dowser. Joseph Hunnicutt, sir, professional dowser.”

Henry was still bent double, gasping, but seemed to be getting a little of his breath back. Grey touched his bare back gently. The flesh was warm, a little sweaty, but didn’t seem fevered.

“I am sorry, Henry,” he said. “Will you survive, do you think?”

Henry, to his credit, managed a breathless grunt of laughter.

“It’ll do,” he got out. “Just… it takes… a minute.”

The pleasant-faced black woman was hovering at the door, a sharp eye on Grey.

“This man says he’s your uncle, Henry. Is that so?”

Henry nodded, panting a little. “Lord John … Grey. May I pre … sent Mrs. Mercy Wood… cock?”

Grey bowed punctiliously, feeling slightly ridiculous.

“Your servant, madam. And yours, Mr. Hunnicutt,” he added politely, bowing again.

“Might I ask,” he said, straightening up, “why there is a dowser poking you in the abdomen, Henry?”

“Why, to find the bit o’ metal what’s a-troubling the poor young man, o’ course,” said Mr. Hunnicutt, looking up his long nose—for he was shorter than Grey by several inches.

“I called for him, sir—your lordship, I mean.” Mrs. Woodcock had come into the room by this time, and was looking at him with a faint air of apology. “It’s only that the surgeons hadn’t any luck, and I was so afraid that they’d kill him next time.”

Henry had by now managed to unbend. Grey eased him slowly back until he lay against the pillow, pale and sweating.

“I couldn’t bear it again,” he said, closing his eyes briefly. “I can’t.”

With Henry’s stomach exposed to view and an opportunity to examine it at leisure, Grey could see the puckered scars of two bullet wounds and the longer, clean-edged scars made by a surgeon digging for metal. Three of them. Grey had five such scars himself, crisscrossing the left side of his chest, and he touched his nephew’s hand in sympathy.

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