Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 104

   

His soul misgave him at the sight of the desolation below, but he searched carefully, squinting through the eye-stinging haze for any sign of life among the ruins. Nothing moved save the wavering smoke, its wraiths gliding silent, wind-driven through the blackened houses. Had it been the Cherokee or the Creek, raiding up from the south? Or one of the remnant Algonkian tribes to the north, the Nanticokes or the Tuteloes?

A gust of wind smote him full in the face with the stink of charred flesh. He bent and vomited, trying to rid himself of his bone-deep knowledge of burnt crofts and murdered families. As he straightened up, wiping his mouth on his sleeve, he heard a dog bark in the distance.

He turned and went quickly downhill toward the sound, his heart beating faster. Raiders would not bring dogs. If there were survivors of the massacre, the dogs would be with them.

Still, he went as silently as possible, not daring to call out. That fire had been burning for less than a day; half the walls were still standing. Whoever had set it was still nearby, without a doubt.

It was a dog that met him; a big yellow mongrel, one that he recognized as belonging to Ian’s friend Onakara. Off its normal territory, the dog neither barked nor rushed him, but stood its ground in the shadow of a pine tree, ears laid back and growling softly. He walked toward it slowly, holding out his closed fist.

“Balach math,” he murmured to it. “Hold. Where are your people, then?”

The dog extended its muzzle, still growling, and sniffed at the proffered hand. Its nostrils twitched, and it relaxed a little, nosing closer in recognition.

He felt rather than saw a human presence, and looked up into the face of the dog’s owner. Onakara’s face was painted, with white streaks that ran from hair to chin, and behind the pale bars of paint, his eyes were dead.

“What enemy has done this?” Jamie asked, in his halting Tuscaroran. “Does your uncle still live?”

Onakara didn’t answer, but turned and went back into the forest, followed by his dog. Jamie came after them, and within a half-hour’s walk emerged into a small clearing where the survivors had made a temporary camp.

As he passed through the camp, he saw faces he knew. Some of them registered awareness of his presence; others stared sightlessly into a distance he knew too well—the infinite prospect of sorrow and despair. All too many were missing.

He had seen this before, and the ghosts of war and murder dragged at his footsteps as he passed. He had seen a young woman in the Highlands, sitting on the doorstep of her smoking house with her husband’s body at her feet; she had worn the same stunned look as the young Indian woman by the sycamore tree.

Slowly, though, he became aware that something was different here. Wigwam shelters dotted the clearing; bundles lay piled near the edges of the clearing, and horses and ponies were tethered among the trees. This was no hasty exodus of people plundered and fleeing for their lives—it was an orderly retreat, with most of their worldly goods neatly packed and brought along. What in God’s name had happened in Anna Ooka this day?

Nacognaweto was in a wigwam at the far side of the clearing. Onakara lifted the flap and silently nodded Jamie in.

A sudden spark leapt in the older man’s eyes as he entered, but then died at once as Nacognaweto saw his face, with the shadow of reflected grief on it. The chieftain closed his eyes for a moment, and reopened them, composed.

“You have not met with her who heals, nor with the woman whose longhouse I dwelt in?”

Used to the Indian notion that it was rude to speak a person’s name aloud save for the sake of ceremony, Jamie knew he must refer to Gabrielle and old Nayawenne. He shook his head, knowing that that gesture must destroy the last flicker of hope the other had held. It was no consolation, but he took the flask of brandy from his belt, and offered that in mute apology for his failure to bring good news.

Nacognaweto accepted it, and with a tilt of his head, summoned a woman, who dug about in one of the bundles by the hide wall and produced a gourd cup. The Indian poured a quantity of spirit that would flatten a Scotsman, and drank deeply before handing the gourd to Jamie.

He took a small sip for the sake of politeness, and handed back the gourd. It wasn’t polite to come to the point of a visit at once, but he had no time for palaver and he could see that the other had no heart for it.

“What has happened?” he asked bluntly.

“Sickness,” Nacognaweto answered softly. His eyes shone wetly, watering from the fumes of brandy. “We are cursed.”

Haltingly, the story emerged, between the swallows of brandy. Measles had broken out in the village and swept through it like fire. Within the first week, a quarter of the people lay dead; now, at the end, there were no more than a quarter left alive.

When the sickness had begun, Nayawenne had sung over the victims. When more fell sick, she had gone out into the forest in search of…Jamie’s grasp of Tuscarora was not sufficient to interpret the words. A charm, he thought it was—some plant? Or perhaps she looked for a vision that would tell them what to do, how to make amends for whatever evil had brought the sickness on them, or the name of the enemy who had cursed them. Gabrielle and Berthe had gone with her, because she was old and should not go alone—and none of the three had come back.

Nacognaweto was swaying very slightly as he sat, the gourd cup clasped in his hands. The woman bent over him, trying to take it away, but he shrugged her aside, and she let him be.

They had searched for the women, but there was no sign. Perhaps they had been taken by raiders, perhaps they too had fallen ill, and died in the forest. But the village had no shaman to speak for them, and the gods had not listened.

“We are cursed.”

Nacognaweto’s words were slurred, and the cup tilted dangerously in his hands. The woman knelt behind him and put her hands on his shoulders, to steady him.

“We left the dead in the houses, and set fire to them,” she said to Jamie. Her eyes were black with sadness, too, but some life still lurked within them. “Now we will go north, to Oglanethaka.” Her hands tightened on Nacognaweto’s shoulders, and she nodded to Jamie. “You go now.”

He went, the grief of the place clinging to him like the smoke that permeated clothes and hair. And within his charred heart as he left the camp sprang a small green shoot of selfishness, relief that the grief was—for this time—not his own. His woman still lived. His children were safe.

He looked up at the sky and saw the dull glow of the sinking sun reflected in the pall of smoke. He lengthened his stride to a hill-walker’s lope that ate the miles. There was not much time; night was coming fast.

PART EIGHT

Beaucoup

30

INTO THIN AIR

Oxford, April 1971

No,” he said positively. Roger swung round to peer out the window at the soggy sky, holding the phone to his ear. “Not a chance. I’m off to Scotland next week, I’ve told you.”

“Oh, now, Rog,” coaxed the Dean’s voice. “It’s just your sort of thing. And it wouldn’t put you off your schedule by a lot; you could be in the Hielands a-chasin’ the deer this time a month—and you told me yourself your girrrl’s not due till July.”

Roger gritted his teeth at the Dean’s put-on Scots accent, and opened his mouth to say no again, but wasn’t quite fast enough.

“It’s Americans, too, Rog,” she said. “You’re so good with Americans. Speaking of girrls,” she added, with a brief chortle.

“Now, look, Edwina,” he said, summoning patience, “I’ve things to do this holiday. And they don’t include herding American tourists round the museums in London.”

“No, no,” she assured him. “We’ve paid minders to do the touristy bits; all you’d need to be concerned with is the conference itself.”

“Yes, but—”

“Money, Rog,” she purred down the phone, pulling out her secret weapon. “It’s Americans, I said. You know what that means.” She paused pregnantly, to allow him to contemplate the fee for running a week-long conference for a gang of visiting American scholars whose official minder had fallen ill. By comparison to his normal salary, it was an astronomical sum.

“Ah…” He could feel himself weakening.

“I hear you’re thinking of getting married one of these days, Rog. Buy an extra haggis for the wedding, wouldn’t it?”

“Anyone ever tell you how subtle you are, Edwina?” he demanded.

“Never.” She chortled again briefly, then snapped into executive mode. “Right, then, see you Monday week for the plans meeting,” and hung up.

He resisted the futile impulse to slam the receiver down, and dropped it on the hook instead.

Maybe it wasn’t a bad thing after all, he thought bleakly. He didn’t care about the money, in all truth, but having a conference to run might keep his mind off things. He picked up the much crumpled letter that lay next to the phone, and smoothed it out, his eye traveling over the paragraphs of apology without really reading them.

So sorry, she’d said. Special invitation to engineering conference in Sri Lanka (God, did all Americans go to conferences in the summer?) valuable contacts, job interviews (job interviews? Christ, he knew it, she was never coming back!)—couldn’t pass it up. Desperately sorry. See you in September. I’ll write. Love.

“Yeah, right,” he said. “Love.”

He balled up the sheet again and threw it at the dresser. It bounced off the edge of the silver picture frame and fell to the carpet.

“You could have told me straight,” he said aloud. “So you did find someone else; you were right then, weren’t you? You were wise, and me the fool. But could you not be honest, ye lying wee bitch?”

He was trying to work up a good rage; anything to fill the emptiness in the pit of his stomach. It wasn’t helping.

He took the picture in its silver frame, wanting to break it to bits, wanting to clutch it to his heart. In the end, he only stood looking at it for a long time, then put it down gently, on its face.

“So sorry,” he said. “Yeah, so am I.”

May 1971

The boxes were waiting for him at the porter’s lodge when he returned to college on the last day of the conference, hot, tired, and thoroughly fed up with Americans. There were five of them, large wooden crates plastered with the bright stickers of international shipping.

“What’s this?” Roger juggled the clipboard the deliveryman handed him, groping in his pocket with the other hand for a tip.

“Well, I dunno, do I?” The man, truculent and sweating from the trip through the courtyard to the porter’s lodge, dropped the last crate on top of the others with a bang. “All yours, mate.”

Roger gave the top box an experimental shove. If it wasn’t books, it was lead. The push had shown him the edge of an envelope taped securely to the box below, though. With some difficulty, he pried it loose and ripped it open.

You told me once that your father said that everyone needs a history, the note inside read. This is mine. Will you keep it with yours? There was neither salutation nor closing; only the single letter “B,” written in bold angular strokes.

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