Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 151

   

“What would you sing?” Brianna’s voice was low, too, barely audible above the crackle of the fire. I could see her hand, resting on his shoulder. Her index finger touched a long, bright strand of his hair, tentatively stroking its softness.

“Old songs. Lullabies I could remember, that my mother sang to me, the same that my sister Jenny would sing to her bairns.”

She sighed, a long, slow sound.

“Sing to me now, please, Da.”

He hesitated, but then tilted his head toward hers and began to chant softly, an odd tuneless song in Gaelic. Jamie was tone-deaf; the song wavered oddly up and down, bearing no resemblance to music, but the rhythm of the words was a comfort to the ear.

I caught most of the words; a fisher’s song, naming the fish of loch and sea, telling the child what he would bring home to her for food. A hunter’s song, naming birds and beasts of prey, feathers for beauty and furs for warmth, meat to last the winter. It was a father’s song—a soft litany of providence and protection.

I moved quietly around the room, taking down the pewter plates and wooden bowls for supper, coming back to cut bread and spread it with butter.

“Do you know something, Da?” Bree asked softly.

“What’s that?” he said, momentarily suspending his song.

“You can’t sing.”

There was a soft exhalation of laughter and the rustle of cloth as he shifted to make them both more comfortable.

“Aye, that’s true. Shall I stop, then?”

“No.” She snuggled closer, tucking her head into the curve of his shoulder.

He resumed his tuneless crooning, only to interrupt himself a few moments later.

“D’ye ken something yourself, a leannan?”

Her eyes were closed, her lashes casting deep shadows on her cheeks, but I saw her lips curve in a smile.

“What’s that, Da?”

“Ye weigh as much as a full-grown deer.”

“Shall I get off, then?” she asked, not moving.

“Of course not.”

She reached up and touched his cheek.

“Mi gradhaich a thu, athair,” she whispered. My love to you, Father.

He gathered her tightly against him, bent his head and kissed her forehead. The fire struck a knot of pitch and blazed up suddenly behind the settle, limning their faces in gold and black. His features were harsh-cut and bold; hers, a more delicate echo of his heavy, clean-edged bones. Both stubborn, both strong. And both, thank God, mine.

Brianna fell asleep after supper, worn out from emotion. I was feeling rather limp, myself, but not yet in any mood to sleep. I was at once exhausted and jittery, with that horrible battlefield feeling, of being in the midst of events beyond my ability to control, but which must be dealt with anyway.

I didn’t want to deal with anything. What I wanted was to push away all thought of both present and future, and go back to the peace of the night before.

I wanted to crawl into bed with Jamie, and lie warm against him, the two of us sealed safe beneath the quilts against the growing chill of the room. Watch the embers fade as we talked softly, colloquy changing from the gossip and small jokes of the day to the language of the night. Let our talk go from words to touch, from breath to the small movements of the body that were in themselves question and answer; the completion of our conversation come at last to silence in the unity of sleep.

But trouble lay on the house tonight, and there was no peace between us.

He roamed the house like a caged wolf, picking things up and putting them down. I tidied away the things from dinner, watching him from the corners of my eyes. I wanted nothing more than to talk to him—and at the same time, dreaded it. I had promised Bree not to tell him about Bonnet. But I was a bad enough liar at any time—and he knew my face so well.

I filled a bucket of hot water from the big cauldron, and took the pewter plates outside to rinse clean.

I came back to find Jamie standing by the small shelf where he kept his inkhorn, quills and paper. He had not undressed for bed, but he made no move to take them down and begin the usual evening’s work. But of course—he couldn’t write, with his damaged hand.

“Do you want me to write something for you?” I asked, seeing him pick up a quill and put it down again.

He turned away with a restless gesture.

“No. I must write to Jenny, of course—and there are other things that must be done—but I canna bear to sit down and think just now.”

“I know how you feel,” I said sympathetically. He looked at me, a trifle startled.

“I canna tell quite how I feel myself, Sassenach,” he said, with a queer laugh. “If ye think ye know, tell me.”

“Tired,” I said, and laid a hand on his arm. “Angry. Worried.” I glanced at Brianna asleep in the trundle. “Heartbroken, maybe,” I added softly.

“All of that,” he said. “And a good bit more.” He wore no stock, but plucked at the collar of his shirt, as though it choked him.

“I canna stay in here,” he said. He glanced at me; I was still dressed in my day clothes; skirt, shift, and bodice. “Will ye come out and walk wi’ me a bit?”

I went at once to fetch my cloak. It was dark outside; he wouldn’t be able to watch my face.

We paced slowly together, across the dooryard and past the sheds, down to the penfold and the field beyond. I held his arm, feeling it tense and stiff under my fingers.

I had no notion how to begin, what to say. Perhaps I should simply keep quiet, I thought. Both of us were still upset, though we had done our best to be calm for Brianna.

I could feel the rage boiling just under his skin. Very understandable, but anger is as volatile as kerosene—bottled under pressure, with no target on which to unleash it. An unwary word of mine might be enough to trigger an explosion. And if he exploded at me, I might either cry or go for his throat—my own mood was far from certain.

We walked for quite a long time, through the trees to the dead cornfield, all round the edge and back, moving all the time soft-footed through a minefield of silence.

“Jamie,” I said at last, as we reached the edge of the field, “what have you been doing with your hands?”

“What?” He swung toward me, startled.

“Your hands.” I caught one of them, held it between my own. “You didn’t do that kind of damage stacking chimney stones.”

“Ah.” He stood still, letting me touch the swollen knuckles of his hand.

“Brianna,” he said. “She—she didna tell ye anything about the man? Did she tell ye his name?”

I hesitated—and was lost. He knew me very well.

“She did tell ye, no?” His voice was thick with danger.

“She made me promise not to tell you,” I blurted. “I told her you’d know I was keeping something from you; but Jamie, I did promise—don’t make me tell you, please!”

He snorted again, in half-amused disgust.

“Aye, I ken ye well, Sassenach; ye couldna keep a secret from anyone who knows ye in the slightest. Even wee Ian can read ye like a book.”

He flapped a hand in dismissal.

“Dinna trouble your conscience. Let her tell me herself, when she will. I can wait.” His bruised hand curled slowly against his kilt, and a small shiver ran up my back.

“Your hands,” I said again.

He took a deep breath and held them out before him, backs up. He flexed them, slowly.

“D’ye recall, Sassenach, once when we were first acquent? Dougal deviled me to where I thought I must pound him, and yet I couldna do it, then. You told me, ‘Hit something, you’ll feel better.’ ” He gave me a wry, lopsided smile. “And I hit a tree. It hurt, but you were right, no? I did feel better, at least for a bit.”

“Oh.” I let out my breath, relieved that he didn’t mean to press the matter. Let him wait, then; I doubted that he quite realized yet that his daughter could be as stubborn as he was himself.

“Did she—did she tell ye what happened?” I couldn’t see his face, but the hesitation in his speech was noticeable. “I mean—” He drew in his breath with a deep hiss. “Did the man hurt her?”

“No, not physically.”

I hesitated myself, imagining that I could feel the weight of the ring in my pocket, though of course I couldn’t. Brianna had not asked me to keep anything to myself, other than Bonnet’s name, but I would not tell Jamie any of the details she had told me, unless he asked. And I did not think he would ask; it was the last thing he would want to know.

He didn’t ask; only muttered something under his breath in Gaelic and walked on, head bent.

The silence once broken, I found that I could not bear it any longer. Better to explode than suffocate. I took my hand from his arm.

“What are you thinking?”

“I am wondering—if it is as terrible to be—to be violated…if it is—is not…if there is not…damage.” He shifted his shoulders restlessly, half shrugging as though his coat were too tight.

I knew very well what was in his mind. Wentworth prison, and the faint scars that webbed his back, a net of dreadful memory.

“Bad enough, I suppose,” I said. “Though I expect you’re right, it would be easier to stand if there were no physical reminder of it. But then, there is a physical reminder of it,” I felt obliged to add. “And a bloody noticeable one, come to that!” His left hand curled at his side, clenching involuntarily.

“Aye, that’s so,” he muttered. He glanced uncertainly at me, the half-moon’s light gilding the planes of his face. “But still—he didna hurt her, that’s something. If he had…killing would be too good for him,” he finished abruptly.

“There is the very minor detail that you don’t precisely ‘recover’ from pregnancy,” I said with a marked edge to my voice. “If he’d broken her bones or shed her blood, she’d heal. As it is—she isn’t ever going to forget it, you know.”

“I know!”

I flinched slightly, and he saw it. He made a sketchy gesture of apology.

“I didna mean to shout.”

I gave him back a brief nod of acknowledgment, and we walked on, side by side, but not touching.

“It—” he began, and then broke off, glancing at me. He grimaced, impatient with himself.

“I do know,” he said, more quietly. “Ye’ll forgive me, Sassenach, but I ken the hell of a lot more about the matter than you do.”

“I wasn’t arguing with you. But you haven’t borne a child; you can’t know what that’s like. It’s—”

“You are arguing wi’ me, Sassenach. Don’t.” He squeezed my arm, hard, and let it go. There was a touch of humor in his voice, but he was dead serious overall.

“I am trying to tell ye what I know.” He stood still for a minute, gathering himself.

“I havena put myself in mind of Jack Randall for some good time,” he said at last. “I dinna want to do it now. But there it is.” He shrugged again, and rubbed a hand hard down one cheek.

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