Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 82

   

More digging yielded nothing. Either the rest of Yorick wasn’t here, or it was buried so far down that I had no chance of discovering it. I put the stone in my pocket, sat back on my heels, and rubbed my sandy hands on my skirts. At least the exercise had warmed me again.

I sat down again and picked up the skull, holding it in my lap. Gruesome as it was, it was the semblance of company, some distraction from my own plight. And I was quite aware that all my actions of the last hour or so had been distractions; designed to fight off the panic that I could feel submerged below the surface of my mind, waiting to erupt like the sharp end of a drowned tree branch. It was going to be a long night.

“Right,” I said aloud to the skull. “Read any good books lately? No, I suppose you don’t get round much anymore. Poetry, maybe?” I cleared my throat and started in on Keats, warming up with “Written in Disgust of Vulgar Superstition” and going on with “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

“ ‘…Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!’ ” I declaimed. “There’s more of that one, but I forget. Not too bad, though, was it? Want to try a little Shelley? ‘Ode to the West Wind’ is good—you’d like that one, I think.”

It occurred to me to wonder why I thought so; I had no particular reason to think Yorick was an Indian rather than a European, but I realized that I did think so—perhaps it was the stone I had found with him. Shrugging, I set in again, trusting that the repellent effect of great English poetry would be the equal of a campfire, so far as the bears and panthers were concerned.

“Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:

What if my leaves are falling like its own!

The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,

Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,

My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

“Drive my dead thoughts over the universe

Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth;

And, by the incantation of this verse,

“Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth

Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth

“The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind…”

The final stanza faded on my lips. There was a light on the ridge. A small spark, growing to a flame. At first I thought it was the lightning-blasted tree, some smoldering ember come to life—but then it moved. It glided slowly down the hill toward me, floating just above the bushes.

I sprang to my feet, realizing only then that I had no shoes on. Frantically, I groped about the floor, covering the small space again and again. But it was no use. My shoes were gone.

I seized the skull and stood barefoot, turning to face the light.

I watched the light come nearer, drifting down the hill like a milkweed puff. One thought floated in my paralyzed mind—a random line of Shelley’s: Fiend, I defy thee! with a calm, fixed mind. Somewhere in the dimmer recesses of my consciousness, something observed that Shelley had had much better nerves than I. I clutched the skull closer. It wasn’t much of a weapon—but somehow I didn’t think that whatever was coming would be deterred by knives or pistols, either.

It wasn’t only that the wet surroundings made it seem grossly improbable that anyone was strolling through the woods with a blazing torch. The light didn’t burn like a pine torch or oil lantern. It didn’t flicker, but burned with a soft, steady glow.

It floated a few feet above the ground, just about where someone would hold a torch they carried before them. It drew slowly nearer, at the pace of a man walking. I could see it bob slightly, moving to the rhythm of a steady stride.

I cowered in my burrow, half hidden by the bank of earth and severed roots. I was freezing cold, but sweat ran down my sides and I could smell the reek of my own fear. My numb toes curled in the dirt, wanting to run.

I had seen St. Elmo’s fire before, at sea. Eerie as that was, its liquid blue crackle didn’t resemble at all the pale light approaching. This had neither spark nor color; only a spectral glow. Marsh gas, people in Cross Creek said when the mountain lights were mentioned.

Ha, I said to myself, though soundlessly. Marsh gas my left foot!

The light moved through a small thicket of alders, and out into the clearing before me. It wasn’t marsh gas.

He was tall, and he was nak*d. Beyond a breechclout, he wore nothing but paint; long stripes of red down arms and legs and torso, and his face was solid black, from chin to forehead. His hair was greased and dressed in a crest, from which two turkey feathers stiffly pointed.

I was invisible, completely hidden in the darkness of my refuge, while the torch he held washed him in soft light, gleaming off his hairless chest and shoulders, shadowing the orbits of his eyes. But he knew I was there.

I didn’t dare to move. My breath sounded painfully loud in my ears. He simply stood there, perhaps a dozen feet away, and looked straight into the dark where I was, as though it were the broadest day. And the light of his torch burned steady and soundless, pallid as a corpse candle, the wood of it not consumed.

I don’t know how long I had been standing there before it occurred to me that I was no longer afraid. I was still cold, but my heart had slowed to its normal pace, and my bare toes had uncurled.

“Whatever do you want?” I said, and only then realized that we had been in some sort of communication for some time. Whatever this was, it had no words. Nothing coherent passed between us—but something passed, nonetheless.

The clouds had lifted, shredding away before a light wind, and dark streaks of starlit sky showed through rents in the racing cirrus. The wood was quiet, but in the usual way of a drenched night-wood; the creaks and sighs of tall trees moving, the rustle of shrubs brushed by the wind’s restless edge, and in the background the constant rush of invisible water, echoing the turbulence of the air above.

I breathed deeply, feeling suddenly very much alive. The air was thick and sweet with the breath of green plants, the tang of herbs and musk of dead leaves, overlaid and interlaced with the scents of the storm—wet rock, damp earth, and rising mist, and a sharp hint of ozone, sudden as the lightning that had struck the tree.

Earth and air, I thought suddenly, and fire and water too. And here I stood with all the elements; in their midst and at their mercy.

“What do you want?” I said again, feeling helpless. “I can’t do anything for you. I know you’re there; I can see you. But that’s all.”

Nothing moved, no words were spoken. But quite clearly the thought formed in my mind, in a voice that was not my own.

That’s enough, it said.

Without haste, he turned and walked away. By the time he had gone two dozen paces, the light of his torch disappeared, fading into nonexistence like the final glow of twilight into night.

“Oh,” I said, a little blankly. “Goodness.” My legs were trembling, and I sat down, the skull—which I had almost forgotten—cradled in my lap.

I sat there for a long time, watching and listening, but nothing further happened. The mountains surrounded me, dark and impenetrable. Perhaps in the morning, I could find my way back to the trail, but for now, wandering about in darkness could lead to nothing but disaster.

I was no longer afraid; my fear had left me during my encounter with—whatever it was. I was still cold, though, and very, very hungry. I put down the skull and curled myself up beside it, pulling my damp cloak around me. It took a long time to fall asleep, and I lay in my chilly burrow watching the evening stars wheel overhead through rifts in the cloud.

I tried to make sense of the last half hour, but there was really nothing to make sense of; nothing, really, had happened. And yet it had; he had been there. The sense of him remained with me, somehow vaguely comforting, and at last I fell asleep, cheek pillowed on a clump of dead leaves.

I dreamt uneasily, because of cold and hunger; a procession of disjoint images. Lightning-blasted trees, blazing like torches. Trees uprooted from the earth, walking on their roots with a dreadful lurching gait.

Lying in the rain with my throat cut, warm blood pulsing down across my chest, a queer comfort to my chilling flesh. My fingers numb, unable to move. The rain striking my skin like hail, each cold drop a hammer blow, and then the rain itself seemed warm, and soft upon my face. Buried alive, black soil showering down into open eyes.

I woke, heart pounding. Lay silent. It was deep night now; the sky stretched clear and endless overhead, and I lay in a bowl of darkness. After a time, I slept again, pursued by dreams.

Wolves howling in the distance. Fleeing panicked through a forest of white aspen that stood in snow, the trees’ red sap glowing like bloody jewels on white-paper trunks. A man standing in the bleeding trees with his head plucked bald, save a standing crest of black, greased hair. He had deep eyes and a shattered smile, and the blood on his breast was brighter than the tree sap.

Wolves, much closer. Howling and barking and the scent of blood hot in my own nose, running with the pack, running from the pack. Running. Harefooted, white-toothed, and the ghost of blood a taste in my mouth, a tingle in my nose. Hunger. Chase and catch and kill and blood. Heart hammering, blood racing, sheer panic of the hunted.

I felt my armbone crack with a noise like a dry branch snapping, and tasted marrow warm and salty, slippery on my tongue.

Something brushed my face and I opened my eyes. Great yellow eyes stared into mine, from the dark ruff of a white-toothed wolf. I screamed and struck at it and the beast started back with a startled “Woof!”

I floundered to my knees and crouched there, gibbering. It had just gone daybreak. The dawning light was new and tender, and showed me plainly the huge black outline of…Rollo.

“Oh, Jesus God, what the bloody hell are you doing here, frigging bloody horrible…filthy beast!” I might eventually have gotten a grip on myself, but Jamie got one first.

Big hands pulled me up and out of my hiding place, held me tight and patted me anxiously, checking for damage. The wool of his plaid was soft against my face; it smelt of wet and lye soap and his own male scent and I breathed it in like oxygen.

“Are ye all right? For God’s sake, Sassenach, are ye all right?”

“No,” I said. “Yes,” I said, and started to cry.

It didn’t last long; it was no more than the shock of relief. I tried to say as much, but Jamie wasn’t listening. He scooped me up in his arms, filthy as I was, and began to carry me toward the small stream.

“Hush, then,” he said, squeezing me tightly against him. “Hush, mo chridhe. It’s all right now; you’re safe.”

I was still fuddled with cold and dreams. Alone so long with no voice but my own, his sounded odd, unreal and hard to understand. The warm solidness of his grasp was real, though.

“Wait,” I said, tugging feebly at his shirt. “Wait, I forgot. I have to—”

“Jesus, Uncle Jamie, look at this!”

Jamie turned, holding me. Young Ian was standing in the mouth of my refuge, framed in dangling roots, holding up the skull.

I felt Jamie’s muscles tighten as he saw it.

“Holy God, Sassenach, what’s that?”

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