“Yes, you said it happened before. When was that?”
He stirred briefly and settled, pressing back against my palms with a small groan.
“Och! Damn, that hurts. At the prison.”
“Pain in the same place?”
I could feel a hard knot in the muscle on his right side, just below the kidney, and a bunching in the erector spinae, the long muscles near the spine. From his description of the prior occurrence, I was fairly sure it was only severe muscle spasm. For which the proper prescription was warmth, rest, and anti-inflammatory medication.
Couldn’t get much further away from those conditions, I thought with some grimness.
“I suppose I could try acupuncture,” I said, thinking aloud. “I’ve got Mr. Willoughby’s needles in my pouch, and—”
“Sassenach,” he said, in measured tones. “I can stand fine bein’ hurt, cold, and hungry. I wilna put up wi’ being stabbed in the back by my own wife. Can ye not offer a bit of sympathy and comfort instead?”
I laughed, and slid an arm around him, pressing close against his back. I let my hand slide down and rest in delicate suggestion, well below his navel.
“Er…what sort of comfort did you have in mind?”
He hastily grasped my hand, to prevent further intrusions.
“Not that,” he said.
“Might take your mind off the pain.” I wiggled my fingers invitingly, and he tightened his grip.
“I daresay,” he said dryly. “Well, I’ll tell ye, Sassenach; once we’ve got home, and I’ve a warm bed to lie in and a hot supper in my belly, that notion might have a good bit of appeal. As it is, the thought of—for Christ’s sake, have ye not the slightest idea how cold your hands are, woman?”
I laid my cheek against his back and laughed. I could feel the quiver of his own mirth, though he couldn’t laugh aloud without hurting his back.
At last we lay silent, listening to the whisper of falling snow. It was dark under the hemlock boughs, but my eyes were adapted enough to be able to see patches of the oddly glowing snow-light through the screen of needles overhead. Tiny flakes came through the open patches; I could see it in some places, as a thin cloud of white mist, and I could feel the cold tingle as it struck my face.
Jamie himself was no more than a humped dark shape in front of me, though as my eyes became accustomed to the murk, I could see the paler stalk where his neck emerged between his shirt and his queued hair. The queue itself lay cool and smooth against my face; by turning my head only a bit, I could brush it with my lips.
“What time do you think it is?” I asked. I had no idea, myself; I had left the house well after dark, and spent what seemed an eternity looking for him on the mountain.
“Late,” he said. “It will be a long time before the dawn, though,” he added, answering my real question. “It’s just past the solstice, aye? It’s one of the longest nights of the year.”
“Oh, lovely,” I said, in dismay. I wasn’t warm, by any means—I still couldn’t feel my toes—but I had stopped shivering. A dreadful lethargy was stealing over me, my muscles yielding to fatigue and cold. I had visions of the two of us freezing peacefully together, curled up like hedgehogs in the leaves. They did say it was a comfortable death, but that didn’t make the prospect any more appealing.
Jamie’s breathing was getting slower and deeper.
“Don’t go to sleep!” I said urgently, poking him in the armpit.
“Agh!” He pressed his arm tight to his side, recoiling. “Why not?”
“We mustn’t sleep; we’ll freeze to death.”
“No, we won’t,” he said crossly. “It’s snowing outside; we’ll be covered over soon.”
“I know that,” I said, rather cross in my turn. “What’s that got to do with it?”
He tried to turn his head to look at me, but couldn’t, quite.
“Snow’s cold if ye touch it,” he explained, striving for patience, “but it keeps the cold out, aye? Like a blanket. It’s a great deal warmer in a house that’s covered wi’ snow than one that’s standing clean in the wind. How d’ye think bears manage? They sleep in the winter, and they dinna freeze.”
“They have layers of fat,” I protested. “I thought that kept them warm.”
“Ha ha,” he said, and reaching back with some effort, grabbed me firmly by the bottom. “Well, then, ye needna worry a bit, eh?”
With great deliberation I pulled down his collar, stretched my head up, and licked the back of his neck, in a lingering swipe from nape to hairline.
“Aaah!” He shuddered violently, making a sprinkle of snow fall from the branches above us. He let go of my bottom to scrub at the back of his neck.
“That was a terrible thing to do!” he said, reproachful. “And me lyin’ here helpless as a log!”
“Bah, humbug,” I said. I nestled closer, feeling somewhat reassured. “You’re sure we aren’t going to freeze to death, then?”
“No,” he said. “But I shouldna think it likely.”
“Hm,” I said, feeling somewhat less reassured. “Well, perhaps we’d better stay awake for a bit, then, just in case?”
“I wilna wave my arms about anymore,” he said definitely. “There’s no room. And if ye stick your icy wee paws in my breeks, I swear I’ll throttle ye, bad back or no.”
“All right, all right,” I said. “What if I tell you a story, instead?”
Highlanders loved stories, and Jamie was no exception.
“Oh, aye,” he said, sounding much happier. “What sort of story is it?”
“A Christmas story,” I said, settling myself along the curve of his body. “About a miser named Ebenezer Scrooge.”
“An Englishman, I daresay?”
“Yes,” I said. “Be quiet and listen.”
I could see my own breath as I talked, white in the dim, cold air. The snow was falling heavily outside our shelter; when I paused in the story, I could hear the whisper of flakes against the hemlock branches, and the far-off whine of wind in the trees.
I knew the story very well; it had been part of our Christmas ritual, Frank’s and Brianna’s and mine. From the time Bree was five or six, we had read A Christmas Carol every year, starting a week or two before Christmas, Frank and I taking it in turns to read to her each night before bed.
“And the specter said, ‘I am the Ghost of Christmas Past…’ ”
I might not be freezing to death, but the cold had a strange, hypnotic effect nonetheless. I had gone past the phase of acute discomfort and felt now slightly disembodied. I knew my hands and feet were icy, and my body chilled half through, but it didn’t seem to matter anymore. I floated in a peaceful white mist, seeing the words swirl round my head like snowflakes as I spoke them.
“…and there was dear old Fezziwig, among the lights and music…”
I couldn’t tell whether I was gradually thawing or becoming colder. I was conscious of an overall feeling of relaxation, and an altogether peculiar sense of déjà vu, as though I had once before been entombed, insulated in snow, snug despite desolation outside.
As Bob Cratchit bought his meager bird, I remembered. I went on talking automatically, the flow of the story coming from somewhere well below the level of consciousness, but my memory was in the front seat of a stalled 1956 Oldsmobile, its windscreen caked with snow.
We had been on our way to visit an elderly relative of Frank’s, somewhere in upstate New York. The snow came on hard, halfway there, howling down across the icy roads with gusts of wind. Before we knew where we were, we had skidded off the road and halfway into a ditch, the windscreen wipers slashing futilely at the pelting snow.
There was nothing to be done but wait for morning, and rescue. We had had a picnic hamper and some old blankets; we brought Brianna up into the front seat between us, and huddled all together under coats and blankets, sipping lukewarm cocoa from the thermos and making jokes to keep her from being frightened.
As it grew later, and colder, we huddled closer, and to distract Brianna, Frank began to tell her Dickens’s story from memory, counting on me to supply the missing bits. Neither of us could have done it alone, but between us, we managed well. By the time the sinister Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come had made his appearance, Brianna was snuggled sound asleep under the coats, a warm, boneless weight against my side.
There was no need to finish the story, but we did, talking to each other below the words, hands touching below the layers of blankets. I remembered Frank’s hands, warm and strong on mine, thumb stroking my palm, outlining my fingers. Frank had always loved my hands.
The car had filled with the mist of our breathing, and drops of water ran down inside the white-choked windows. Frank’s head had been a dark cameo, dim against the white. He had leaned toward me at the last, nose and cheeks chilled, lips warm on mine as he whispered the last words of the story.
“ ‘God bless us, every one,’ ” I ended, and lay silent, a small needle of grief like an ice splinter through my heart. It was quiet inside the shelter, and seemed darker; snow had covered over all the openings.
Jamie reached back and touched my leg.
“Put your hands inside my shirt, Sassenach,” he said softly. I slid one hand up under his shirt in front, to rest against his chest, the other up his back. The faded whip marks felt like threads under his skin.
He laid his hand against mine, pressing it tight against his chest. He was very warm, and his heart beat slow and strong under my fingers.
“Sleep, a nighean donn,” he said. “I wilna let ye freeze.”
I woke abruptly from a chilly doze, with Jamie’s hand squeezing my thigh.
“Hush,” he said softly. Our tiny shelter was still dim, but the quality of the light had changed. It was morning; we were covered over with a thick blanket of snow that blocked the daylight, but the faint otherworldly quality of the night’s darkness had vanished.
The silence had vanished, too. Sounds from outside were muffled, but audible. I heard what Jamie had heard—a faint echo of voices—and jerked up in excitement.
“Hush!” he said again, in a fierce whisper, and squeezed my leg harder.
The voices were drawing closer, and it became almost possible to pick out words. Almost. Strain as I might, I could make no sense of what was being said. Then I realized that it was because they were not speaking any language I recognized.
Indians. It was an Indian tongue. But I thought the language was not Tuscarora, even though I couldn’t yet make out words; the rise and fall was similar, but the rhythm was somehow different. I brushed the hair out of my eyes, feeling torn in two directions.
Here was the help we so badly needed—by the sound of it, there were several men in the party, enough to move Jamie safely. On the other hand, did we really want to attract the attention of a band of unfamiliar Indians who might be raiders?
Rather plainly we didn’t, judging from Jamie’s attitude. He had managed to lift himself on one elbow, and he had his knife drawn, ready in his right hand. He scratched his stubbled chin absently with the point as he tilted his head to listen more intently to the approaching voices.