Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 72

   

“My goodness—it’s a sapphire, isn’t it?”

“Sapphire?” Gabrielle turned the word over in her mouth, tasting it. “We call it…” She hesitated, looking for the proper French translation. “…pierre sans peur.”

“Pierre sans peur?” A fearless stone?

Nayawenne nodded, talking again. Berthe butted in with the translation, before her mother could speak.

“My father’s grandmother says a stone like this, it keeps people from being afraid, and so it makes their spirit strong, so they will be healed more easily. Already, this stone has healed two people of fever, and cured a soreness of the eyes that my younger brother had.”

“My husband’s grandmother wishes to thank you for this gift.” Gabrielle neatly took back the conversation.

“Ah…do tell her she’s quite welcome.” I nodded cordially at the old lady, and gave her back the blue stone. She popped it into the bag and drew the string tight about its neck. Then she peered closely at me, and reaching out, drew down a curl of my hair, talking as she rubbed the lock between her fingers.

“My husband’s grandmother says that you have medicine now, but you will have more. When your hair is white like hers, that is when you will find your full power.”

The old lady dropped the lock of hair, and looked into my eyes for a moment. I thought I saw an expression of great sadness in the faded depths, and reached involuntarily to touch her.

She stepped back and said something else. Gabrielle looked at me queerly.

“She says you must not be troubled; sickness is sent from the gods. It won’t be your fault.”

I looked at Nayawenne, startled, but she had already turned away.

“What won’t be my fault?” I asked, but the old lady refused to say more.

21

NIGHT ON A SNOWY MOUNTAIN

December 1767

The winter held off for some time, but snow began to fall in the night on November 28, and we woke to find the world transformed. Every needle on the great blue spruce behind the cabin was frosted, and ragged fringes of ice dripped from the tangle of wild raspberry canes.

The snow wasn’t deep, but its coming changed the shape of daily life. I no longer foraged during the day, save for short trips to the stream for water, and for lingering bits of green cress salvaged from the icy slush along the banks. Jamie and Ian ceased their work of log felling and field clearing, and turned to roof shingling. The winter drew in on us, and we in turn withdrew from the cold, turning inward.

We had no candles; only grease lamps and rushlights, and the light of the fire that burned constantly on the hearth, blackening the roof beams. We therefore rose at first light, and lay down after supper, in the same rhythm as the creatures of the forest around us.

We had no sheep yet, and thus no wool to card or spin, no cloth to weave or dye. We had no beehives yet, and thus no wax to boil, no candles to dip. There was no stock to care for, save the horses and mules and the piglet, who had grown considerably in both size and irascibility, and in consequence been exiled to a private compartment in the corner of the crude stable Jamie had built—this itself no more than a large open-fronted shelter with a branch-covered roof.

Myers had brought a small but useful selection of tools, the iron parts clanking in a bag, to be supplied with wooden handles from the forest close at hand: a barking ax and another felling ax, a plowshare for the spring planting, augers, planes and chisels, a small grass scythe, two hammers and a handsaw, a peculiar thing called a “twibil” that Jamie said was for cutting mortises, a “drawknife”—a curved blade with handles at either end, used to smooth and taper wood—two small sharp knives, a hatchet-adze, something that looked like a medieval torture device but was really a nail-header, and a froe for splitting shingles.

Between them, Jamie and Ian had succeeded in getting a roof on the cabin before snow fell, but the sheds were less important. A block of wood sat constantly by the fire, the froe stuck through it, ready for anyone with an idle moment to strike off a few more shingles. That corner of the hearth was in fact devoted to wood carving; Ian had made a rough but serviceable stool, which sat under one of the windows for good light, and the shavings could all be tossed thriftily into the fire, which burned day and night.

Myers had brought a few woman’s tools for me, as well: a huge sewing basket, well supplied with needles, pins, scissors, and balls of thread, and lengths of linen, muslin, and woven wool. While sewing was not my favorite occupation, I was nonetheless delighted to see these, since owing to Jamie and Ian’s constantly lurching through thickets and crawling about on the roofs, the knees, elbows, and shoulders of all their garments were in constant disrepair.

“Another one!” Jamie sat bolt upright in bed beside me.

“Another what?” I asked sleepily, opening one eye. It was very dark in the cabin, the fire burnt to coals on the hearth.

“Another bloody leak! It hit me in the ear, damn it!” He sprang out of bed, went to the fire and thrust in a stick of wood. Once it was alight, he brought it back and stood on the bedstead, thrusting his torch upward as he glowered at the roof in search of the fiendish leak.

“Urmg?” Ian, who slept on a low trundle bed, rolled over and groaned inquiringly. Rollo, who insisted on sharing it with him, emitted a brief “uff,” relapsed into a heap of gray fur, and resumed his loud snoring.

“A leak,” I told Ian, keeping a narrow eye on Jamie’s torch. I wasn’t having my precious feather bed set alight by stray sparks.

“Oh.” Ian lay with an arm across his face. “Has it snowed again?”

“It must have.” The windows were covered with squares of oiled deerhide, tacked down, and there was no sound from outside, but the air had the peculiar muffled quality that came with snow.

Snow came silently, and mounded on the roof, then, beginning to melt from the warmth of the shingles underneath, would drip down the slope of the roof, to leave a gleaming portcullis of icicles along the eaves. Now and then, though, the roaming water found a split in a shingle, or a join where the overlapping edges had warped, and drips poked their icy fingers through the roof.

Jamie regarded all such intrusions as a personal affront, and brooked no delay in dealing with them.

“Look!” he exclaimed. “There it is. See it?”

I shifted my glassy gaze from the hairy ankles in front of my nose, to the roof overhead. Sure enough, the torchlight revealed the black line of a split in one shingle, with a spreading dark patch of dampness on the underside. As I watched, a clear drop formed, glistening red in the torchlight, and fell with a plop onto the pillow beside me.

“We could shift the bed a bit,” I suggested, though with no particular hope. I had been through this before. All suggestions that repair work could wait till daylight were met with astonished refusal; no proper man, I was given to understand, would countenance such a thing.

Jamie stepped down off the bedstead and prodded Ian in the ribs with his foot.

“Get up and knock at the spot where the split is, Ian. I’ll deal with it on the outside.” Seizing a fresh shingle, a hammer, a hatchet, and a bag of nails, he headed for the door.

“Don’t you go up on the roof in that!” I exclaimed, sitting up abruptly. “That’s your good woolen shirt!”

He halted by the door, glared briefly at me, then, with the rebuking expression of an early Christian martyr, laid down his tools, stripped off the shirt, dropped it on the floor, picked up the tools, and strode majestically out to deal with the leak, buttocks clenched with determined zeal.

I rubbed a hand over my sleep-puffed face and moaned softly to myself.

“He’ll be all right, Auntie,” Ian assured me. He yawned widely, not bothering to cover his mouth, and reluctantly rolled out of his own warm bed.

Thumps on the roof that were definitely not the feet of eight tiny reindeer announced that Jamie was in place. I rolled out of the way and got up, resigned, as Ian mounted the bedstead and jabbed a stick of firewood upward into the damp patch, jarring the shingles enough for Jamie to locate the leak on the outside.

A short period of rending and banging followed, as the defective shingle was yanked loose and replaced, and the leak was summarily extinguished, leaving no more evidence of its existence than the small heap of snow that had fallen in through the hole left by the removed shingle.

Back in bed, Jamie curled his freezing body around me, clasped me to his icy bosom, and fell promptly asleep, full of the righteous satisfaction of a man who has defended hearth and home against all threat.

It was a fragile and tenuous foothold that we had upon the mountain—but a foothold, for all that. We had not much meat—there had been little time for hunting, beyond squirrel and rabbit, and those useful rodents had gone to their winter rest by now—but a fair amount of dried vegetables, from yams to squash to wild onions and garlic, plus a bushel or two of nuts, and the small stock of herbs I had managed to gather and dry. It made for a sparse diet, but with careful management, we could survive till spring.

With few chores to do outside, there was time to talk, to tell stories, and to dream. Between the useful objects like spoons and bowls, Jamie took time to carve the pieces of a wooden chess set, and spent a good deal of his time trying to inveigle me or Ian into playing with him.

Ian and Rollo, who both suffered badly from cabin fever, took to visiting Anna Ooka frequently, sometimes going on extended hunting trips with young men from the village, who were pleased to have the benefit of his and Rollo’s company.

“The lad speaks the Indian tongue a great deal better than he does Greek or Latin,” Jamie observed with some dourness, watching Ian exchanging cordial insults with an Indian companion as they left on one such excursion.

“Well, if Marcus Aurelius had written about tracking porcupines, I expect he’d have found a more eager audience,” I replied soothingly.

Dearly as I loved Ian, I was myself not displeased by his frequent absence. There were definitely times when three was a crowd.

There is nothing more delightful in life than a feather bed and an open fire—except a feather bed with a warm and tender lover in it. When Ian was gone, we would not trouble with rushlights but would go to bed with the dark, and lie curled together in shared warmth, talking late into the night, laughing and telling stories, sharing our pasts, planning our future, and somewhere in the midst of the talking, pausing to enjoy the wordless pleasures of the present.

“Tell me about Brianna.” These were Jamie’s favorite stories; the tales of Brianna as a child. What she had said and worn and done; how she had looked, all her accomplishments and her tastes.

“Did I tell you about the time I was invited to her school, to talk about being a doctor?”

“No.” He shifted to make himself more comfortable, rolling onto his side and fitting himself to my shape behind. “Why should you do that?”

“It was what they called Career Day; the schoolteachers invited a lot of people with different jobs to come and explain what they did, so the children would have some idea of what a lawyer does, for instance, or a firefighter—”

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