Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 73

   

“I should think that one would be fairly obvious.”

“Hush. Or a veterinarian—that’s a doctor who treats animals—or a dentist, that’s a special doctor who deals only with teeth—”

“With teeth? What can ye do to a tooth, besides pull it?”

“You’d be surprised.” I brushed the hair out of my face and up off my neck. “Anyway, they’d always ask me to come, because it wasn’t at all common for a woman to be a doctor then.”

“Ye think it’s common now?” He laughed, and I kicked him lightly in the shin.

“Well, it got more common rather soon after that. But at the time, it wasn’t. And when I’d got done speaking and asked if there were any questions, an obnoxious little boy piped up and said that his mother said women who worked were no better than prostitutes, and they ought to be home minding their families, instead of taking jobs away from men.”

“I shouldna think his mother can have met many prostitutes.”

“No, I don’t imagine. Nor all that many women with jobs, either. But when he said that, Brianna stood up and said in a very loud voice, ‘Well, you’d better be glad my mama’s a doctor, because you’re going to need one!’ Then she hit him on the head with her arithmetic book, and when he lost his balance and fell down, she jumped on his stomach and punched him in the mouth.”

I could feel his chest and stomach quivering against my back.

“Oh, braw lassie! Did the schoolmaster not tawse her for it, though?”

“They don’t beat children in school. She had to write a letter of apology to the little beast, but then, he had to write one to mem, and she thought that was a fair exchange. The more embarrassing part was that it turned out his father was a doctor too; one of my colleagues at the hospital.”

“I wouldna suppose you’d taken a job he’d wanted?”

“How did you guess?”

“Mmm.” His breath was warm and ticklish on the back of my neck. I reached back and stroked the length of a long, hairy thigh, enjoying the hollow and swell of the muscle.

“Ye said she was at a university, and studying history, like Frank Randall. Did she never want to be a doctor, like you?” A large hand cupped my bottom and began to knead it gently.

“Oh, she did when she was little—I used to take her to the hospital now and then, and she was fascinated by all the equipment; she loved to play with my stethoscope and the otoscope—a thing you look in ears with—but then she changed her mind. She changed it a dozen times, at least; most children do.”

“They do?” This was a novel thought to him. Most children of the time would simply adopt the professions of their parents—or perhaps be apprenticed to learn one chosen for them.

“Oh, yes. Let me see…she wanted to be a ballerina for a while, like most little girls. That’s a dancer who dances on her toes,” I explained, and he laughed in surprise. “Then she wanted to be a garbageman—that was after our garbageman gave her a ride in his truck—and then a deep-sea diver, and a mailman, and—”

“What in God’s name is a deep-sea diver? Let alone a garbageman?”

By the time I had finished a brief catalog of twentieth-century occupations, we were facing each other, our legs twined comfortably together, and I was admiring the way his nipple stiffened to a tiny bump under the ball of my thumb.

“I never was sure whether she really wanted to read history, or whether she did it mostly to please Frank. She loved him so much—and he was so proud of her.” I paused, thinking, as his hand played down the length of my back.

“She started taking history classes at the university when she was still in high school—I told you how the school system works? And then when Frank died…I rather think she went ahead with history because she thought he would have wanted it.”

“That’s loyal.”

“Yes.” I ran my hand up through his hair, feeling the solid, rounded bones of his skull, and his scalp under my fingers. “Can’t think where she got that particular trait from.”

He snorted briefly and gathered me closer.

“Can’t you?” Without waiting for an answer, he went on, “If she goes on wi’ the history—d’ye think she’ll find us? Written down somewhere, I mean.”

The thought had honestly not occurred to me, and for a moment I lay quite still. Then I stretched a bit, and laid my head on his shoulder with a small laugh, not altogether humorous.

“I shouldn’t think so. Not unless we were to do something newsworthy.” I gestured vaguely toward the cabin wall, and the endless wilderness outside. “Not much chance of that here, I don’t imagine. And she’d have to be deliberately looking, in any case.”

“Would she?”

I was silent for a moment, breathing the musky, deep scent of him.

“I hope not,” I said quietly, at last. “She should have her own life—not spend her time looking back.”

He didn’t respond directly to this, but took my hand and eased it between us, sighing as I took hold of him.

“Ye’re a verra intelligent woman, Sassenach, but shortsighted, forbye. Though perhaps it’s only modesty.”

“And what makes you say that?” I asked, mildly piqued.

“The lassie’s loyal, ye said. She’ll have loved her father enough to shape her life to do as he would have wanted, even after he’s dead. D’ye think she loved you less?”

I turned my head, and let the piled hair fall down over my face.

“No,” I said at last, voice muffled in the pillow.

“Well, then.” He took me by the h*ps and turned me, rolling slowly on top of me. We didn’t speak anymore, then, as the melting boundaries of our bodies disappeared.

It was slow, dreamy and peaceful, his body and mine as much as mine was his, so that I curled my foot round his leg and felt both smooth sole and hairy shin, felt callused palm and tender flesh, was knife and sheath together, the rhythm of our movement that of one heart beating.

The fire crackled softly to itself, casting red and yellow highlights on the wooden walls of our snug refuge, and we lay in quiet peace, not bothering to sort out whose limbs were whose. On the very verge of sleep, I felt Jamie’s breath, warm on my neck.

“She’ll look,” he said, with certainty.

There was a brief thaw two days later, and Jamie—suffering slightly from cabin fever himself—decided to take advantage of it to go hunting. There was still snow on the ground, but it was thin and patchy; the going would be easy enough on the slopes, he thought.

I wasn’t so sure as I scooped snow into a basket for melting, later in the morning. The snow under the bushes still lay thick, though it had indeed melted on the exposed ground. I hoped he was right, though—our food supplies were low, and we had had no meat at all for more than a week; even the snares Jamie kept set had been buried under the snow.

I took my snow inside and tipped it into the large cauldron, feeling, as I always did, rather like a witch.

“ ‘Double, double, toil and trouble’ ” I muttered, watching the white clumps hiss and fade into the roiling liquid.

I had one large cauldron, filled with water, which bubbled constantly on the fire. This was not only the basic supply for washing but the means of cooking everything that could not be grilled, fried, or roasted. Stews and things to be boiled were put into hollow gourds or stoneware jars, sealed, and lowered on strings into the bubbling depths, to be hauled out at intervals for checking. By this means, I could cook an entire meal in the one pot, and have hot water for washing afterward.

I dumped a second basket of snow into a wooden bowl and left it to melt more slowly; drinking water for the day. Then, with nothing of great urgency to do, I sat down to read Daniel Rawlings’s casebook and mend stockings, my toes comfortably toasting by the fire.

At first, I didn’t worry when Jamie didn’t come back. That is, I did worry—I always worried when he was gone for long—but in a small and secret way that I succeeded for the most part in hiding from myself. When the shadows on the snow turned violet with the sinking sun, though, I began to listen for him with an increasing intensity.

I went about my work in constant expectation of the crunch of his footsteps, listening for a shout, ready to run out and lend a hand if he had brought back a turkey for plucking or some more or less edible thing in need of cleaning. I fed and watered the mules and horses, looking always up the mountain. As the afternoon light died around me, though, the expectation faded into hope.

It was growing chilly in the cabin, and I went out for more wood. It couldn’t be much past four o’clock, I thought, and yet the shadows under the huckleberry bushes were already cold and blue. Another hour, and it would be dusk; it would be full dark in two.

The woodpile was dusted with snow, the outer logs damp. By pulling a chunk of hickory from the side, though, I could reach inside and extract dry splits—being always mindful of snakes, skunks, and anything else that might have sought shelter in the hollow thus provided.

I sniffed, then bent and peered cautiously inside, and as a final precaution poked a long stick inside and stirred it briefly round. Hearing no scuffles, slitherings, or other sounds of alarm, I reached inside with confidence, and groped until my fingers encountered the deep-ridged grain of a chunk of fat pine. I wanted a hot, quick-burning fire tonight; after a full day spent hunting in snow, Jamie would be chilled through.

Fat pine for the heart of the fire, then, and three small chunks of slower-burning hickory from the wet outer layer of the woodpile. I could stack those inside the hearth to dry, while I finished the supper making; then when we went to bed, I’d smoor the fire with the damp hickory, which would burn more slowly, smoldering till morning.

The shadows went to indigo and faded into the gray winter dusk. The sky was lavender with thick cloud; snow clouds. I could breathe the cold wetness in the air; when the temperature fell after dark, so would the snow.

“Bloody man,” I said aloud. “What have you done, shot a moose?” My voice sounded small in the muffled air, but the thought made me feel better. If he had in fact bagged something large near the end of the day, he might well have chosen to camp by the carcass; butchering a large animal was exhausting, lengthy work, and meat was too hard come by to leave it to the mercies of predators.

My vegetable stew was bubbling, and the cabin was filled with the savory scent of onions and wild garlic, but I had no appetite. I pushed the kettle on its hook to the back of the hearth—easy enough to heat again when he came. A tiny flash of green caught my eye, and I stooped to look. A tiny salamander, frightened out of its winter refuge in a crack of the wood.

It was green and black, vivid as a tiny jewel; I scooped him up before he could panic and run into the fire, and carried the damp little thing outside, wriggling madly against my palm. I put him back in the woodpile, safely near the bottom.

“Watch out,” I said to him, “you might not be so lucky next time!”

I paused before going back inside. It had gone dark now, but I could still make out the trunks of the trees around the clearing, chalk and gray against the looming black bulk of the mountain beyond. Nothing stirred among the trees, but a few fat wet flakes of snow began to fall from the soft pink sky, melting at once on the bare ground of the dooryard.

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