Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 66

   

Despite himself, Roger felt a slight sense of shocked distaste; the mixture of barbaric pageantry and the undulations of sung Latin were quite foreign to what he subconsciously felt was proper in church.

Still, as the Mass went on, things seemed more normal; there were Bible readings, quite familiar, and then the accustomed descent into the vaguely pleasant boredom of a sermon, in which the inevitable Christmas annunciations of “peace,” “goodwill,” and “love” rose to the surface of his mind, tranquil as white lilies floating on a pond of words.

By the time the congregation rose again, Roger had lost all sense of strangeness. Surrounded by a warm, familiar church fug composed of floor polish, damp wool, naphtha fumes, and a faint whiff of the whisky with which some worshipers had fortified themselves for the long service, he scarcely noticed the sweet, musky scent of frankincense. Breathing deeply, he thought he caught the hint of fresh grass from Brianna’s hair.

It shone in the dim light of the transept, thick and soft against the dark violet of her jumper. Its copper sparks muted by the dimness, it was the deep rufous color of a red deer’s pelt, and it gave him the same sense of helpless yearning he had felt when surprised by a deer on a Highland path—the strong urge to touch it, stroke the wild thing and keep it somehow with him, coupled with the sure knowledge that a finger’s move would send it flying.

Whatever one thought of Saint Paul, he thought, the man had known what he was on about with respect to women’s hair. Unseemly lust, was it? He had a sudden memory of the bare hallway and the steam rising from Brianna’s body, the wet snakes of her hair cold on his skin. He looked away, trying to concentrate on the goings-on at the altar, where the priest was raising a large flat disk of bread, while a small boy madly shook a chime of bells.

He watched her when she went up to take Communion, and became aware with a slight start that he was praying wordlessly.

He relaxed just a bit when he realized the content of his prayer; it wasn’t the ignoble “Let me have her” he might have expected. It was the more humble—and acceptable, he hoped—“Let me be worthy of her, let me love her rightly; let me take care of her.” He nodded toward the altar, then caught the curious eye of the man next to him, and straightened up, clearing his throat, embarrassed as though he had been surprised in private conversation.

She came back, eyes wide-open and fixed on something deep inside, a small dreaming smile on her wide sweet mouth. She knelt, and he beside her.

She had a tender look at the moment, but it was not a gentle face. Straight-nosed and severe, with thick red brows redeemed from heaviness only by the grace of their arch. The cleanness of jaw and cheek might have been cut from white marble; it was the mouth that could change in a moment, from soft generosity to the mouth of a medieval abbess, lips sealed in cool stone celibacy.

The thick Glaswegian voice beside him bawling “We Three Kings” brought him to with a start, in time to see the priest sweep down the aisle, surrounded by his acolytes, in clouds of triumphant smoke.

“ ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are,’ ” Brianna sang quietly as they made their way down River Walk, ‘Going to smoke a rubber cigar…It was loaded, and explo-oo-ded’—you did turn out the gas, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” he assured her. “Not to worry; between the cooker and the bathroom geyser, if the manse hasn’t gone up in flames yet, it must be proof of divine protection.”

She laughed.

“Do Presbyterians believe in guardian angels?”

“Certainly not. Popish superstition, aye?”

“Well, I hope I haven’t damned you to perdition by making you go to Mass with me. Or do Presbyterians believe in hell?”

“Oh, that we do,” he assured her. “As much as heaven, if not more.”

It was even foggier, here by the river. Roger was glad they hadn’t driven; you couldn’t see more than five feet or so in the thick white murk.

They walked arm in arm beside the River Ness, footsteps muffled. Swaddled by the fog, the unseen city around them might not have existed. They had left the other churchgoers behind; they were alone.

Roger felt strangely exposed, chilled and vulnerable, stripped of the warmth and assurance he had felt in the church. Only nerves, he thought, and took a firmer grip of Brianna’s arm. It was time. He took a deep breath, cool fog filling his chest.

“Brianna.” He had her by the arm, turned to face him before she had stopped walking, so her hair swung heavy through the dim arc from the streetlamp overhead.

Water droplets gleamed in a fine mist on her skin, glowed like pearls and diamonds in her hair, and through the padding of her jacket, he felt in memory her bare skin, cool as fog to his fingers, flesh-hot in his hand.

Her eyes were wide and dark as a loch, with secrets moving, half seen, half sensed, under rippling water. A kelpie for sure. Each urisge, a water horse, mane flowing, skin glowing. And the man who touches such a creature is lost, bound to it forever, taken down and drowned in the loch that gives it home.

He felt suddenly afraid, not for himself but for her; as though something might materialize from that water world to snatch her back, away from him. He grasped her by the hand, as if to prevent her. Her fingers were cold and damp, a shock against the warmth of his palm.

“I want you, Brianna,” he said softly. “I cannot be saying it plainer than that. I love you. Will you marry me?”

She didn’t say anything, but her face changed, like water when a stone is thrown into it. He could see it plainly as his own reflection in the bleakness of a tarn.

“You didn’t want me to say that.” The fog had settled in his chest; he was breathing ice, crystal needles piercing heart and lungs. “You didn’t want to hear it, did you?”

She shook her head, wordless.

“Aye. Well.” With an effort, he let go her hand. “That’s all right,” he said, surprised at the calmness in his voice. “You’ll not be worried about it, aye?”

He was turning to walk on when she stopped him, hand on his sleeve.

“Roger.”

It was a great effort to turn and face her; he had no wish for empty comfort, no desire to hear a feeble offer to “be friends.” He didn’t think he could bear even to look at her, so crushing was his sense of loss. But he turned nonetheless and then she was against him, her hands cold on his ears as she gripped his head and pushed her mouth hard onto his, not so much a kiss as blind frenzy, awkward with desperation.

He gripped her hands and pulled them down, pushing her away.

“What in God’s name are you playing at?” Anger was better than emptiness, and he shouted at her in the empty street.

“I’m not playing! You said you wanted me.” She gulped air. “I want you, too, don’t you know that? Didn’t I say so in the hall this afternoon?”

“I thought you did.” He stared at her. “What in hell do you mean?”

“I mean—I mean I want to go to bed with you,” she blurted.

“But you don’t want to marry me?”

She shook her head, white as a sheet. Something between sickness and fury stirred in his gut, and then erupted.

“So you’ll not marry me, but you’ll f**k me? How can ye say such a thing?”

“Don’t use that sort of language to me!”

“Language? You can suggest such a thing, but I must not say the word? I have never been so offended, never!”

She was trembling, strands of hair sticking to her face with the damp.

“I didn’t mean to insult you. I thought you wanted to—to—”

He grabbed her arms and jerked her toward him.

“If all I wanted was to f**k you, I would have had ye on your back a dozen times last summer!”

“Like hell you would!” She wrenched loose one arm and slapped him hard across the jaw, surprising him.

He grabbed her hand, pulled her toward him and kissed her, a good deal harder and a good deal longer than he ever had before. She was tall and strong and angry—but he was taller, stronger, and much angrier. She kicked and struggled, and he kissed her until he was good and ready to stop.

“The hell I would,” he said, gasping for air as he let her go. He wiped his mouth and stood back, shaking. There was blood on his hand; she’d bitten him and he hadn’t felt a thing.

She was shaking, too. Her face was white, lips pressed so tight together that nothing showed in her face but dark eyes, blazing.

“But I didn’t,” he said, breathing slower. “That wasn’t what I wanted; it’s not what I want now.” He wiped his bloody hand against his shirt. “But if you don’t care enough to marry me, then I don’t care enough to have ye in my bed!”

“I do care!”

“Like hell.”

“I care too damn much to marry you, you bastard!”

“You what?”

“Because when I marry you—when I marry anybody—it’s going to last, do you hear me? If I make a vow like that, I’ll keep it, no matter what it costs me!”

Tears were running down her face. He groped in his pocket for a handkerchief and gave it to her.

“Blow your nose, wipe your face, and then tell me what the bloody hell ye think you’re talking about, aye?”

She did as he said, sniffing and brushing back her damp hair with one hand. Her foolish little veil had fallen off; it was hanging by its bobby pin. He plucked it off, crumpling it in his hand.

“Your Scottish accent comes out when you get upset,” she said, with a feeble attempt at a smile as she handed back the wadded hanky.

“I shouldn’t wonder,” Roger said in exasperation. “Now tell me what you mean, and do it plainly, before ye drive me all the way to the Gaelic.”

“You can speak Gaelic?” She was gradually getting possession of herself.

“I can,” he said, “and if you don’t want to learn a good many coarse expressions right swiftly…talk. What d’ye mean by making me such an offer—and you a nice Catholic girl, straight out of Mass! I thought ye were a virgin.”

“I am! What does that have to do with it?”

Before he could answer this piece of outrageousness, she followed it up with another.

“Don’t you tell me you haven’t had girls, I know you have!”

“Aye, I have! I didn’t want to marry them, and they didn’t want to marry me. I didn’t love them, they didn’t love me. I do love you, damn it!”

She leaned against the lamppost, hands behind her, and met his eyes directly. “I think I love you, too.”

He didn’t realize he had been holding his breath until he let it out.

“Ah. You do.” The water had condensed in his hair, and icy trickles were running down his neck. “Mmphm. Aye, and is the operative word there ‘think,’ then, or is it ‘love’?”

She relaxed, just a little, and swallowed.

“Both.”

She held up a hand as he started to speak.

“I do—I think. But—but I can’t help thinking what happened to my mother. I don’t want that to happen to me.”

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