The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 168


“It’s awfully hot, isn’t it?” She waved at the window, where warm air—but moving air—came in. He nodded, poking at the collar of his shirt with one bandaged hand. She took the hint and untied it, spreading the slit open as far as it would go, to expose his chest to the breeze.

His n**ples were small and neat, the aureoles pinkish-brown under the dark curly hairs. The sight reminded her of her own milk-full br**sts, and she had a moment’s insane urge to lift his head, pull down her shift, and put his mouth to her breast. She had an instant’s vivid recall of the moment when he had done that, under the willows at River Run, and a warm rush spread through her, tingling from br**sts to womb. Blood rising in her cheeks, she turned to look over the nourishment available on the bedside table.

There was cold meat-broth—spiked with penicillin—in a covered bowl, and a flask of honey-sweetened tea alongside. She took up the spoon and raised a brow inquiringly, her hand hovering over the table.

He grimaced slightly, but nodded at the broth. She picked up the cup and sat down on the stool beside him.

“Open up the stable-door,” she said cheerily, circling the spoon toward his mouth as though he were Jem. “Heeeeere comes the horsie!” He rolled his eyes upward in exasperation.

“When I was little,” she said, ignoring his scowl, “my parents said things like, ‘Here comes the tugboat, open the drawbridge!’ ‘Open the garage, here comes the car!’—but I can’t use those with Jem. Did your mother do cars and airplanes?”

His lips twisted, but finally settled on a reluctant smile. He shook his head and lifted one hand, pointing toward the ceiling. She turned to see a dark spot on the plaster—looking closer, she could see that it was a vagrant bee, blundered in from the garden during the day, somnolent now in the shadows.

“Yeah? Okay, here comes the honeybee,” she said, more softly, slipping the spoon into his mouth. “Bzzz, bzzz, bzzz.”

She couldn’t keep up the attempted air of playfulness, but the atmosphere had relaxed a little. She talked about Jem, who had a new favorite word—“Wagga”—but no one yet had figured out what he meant by it.

“I thought maybe it meant ‘cat,’ but he calls the cat ‘Mow-mow.’” She brushed a drop of sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand, then dipped the spoon again.

“Mrs. Sherston says he should be walking by now,” she said, eyes fixed on his mouth. “Her sister’s children were both walking at a year old, naturally! I asked Mama, though; she says he’s fine. She says kids walk when they’re ready, and it can be any time between ten months and as much as eighteen, but fifteen months is about the usual.”

She had to watch his mouth in order to guide the spoon, but was aware of his eyes, watching her. She wanted to look into them, but was halfway afraid of what she might see in those dark green depths; would it be the Roger she knew, or the silent stranger—the hanged man?

“Oh—I almost forgot.” She interrupted herself in the middle of an account of the Wilburs. She hadn’t forgotten, but hadn’t wanted to blurt the news out right away. “Da spoke to the Governor this afternoon. He—the Governor, I mean—is giving you a land grant. Five thousand acres.” Even as she said it, she realized the absurdity of it. Five thousand acres of wilderness, in exchange for a life almost destroyed. Cancel the “almost,” she thought suddenly, looking at Roger.

He frowned at her in what looked like puzzlement, then shook his head and lay back on the pillow, eyes closing. He lifted his hands and let them fall, as though this was simply too much to be asked to contemplate. Maybe it was.

She stood watching him in silence, but he didn’t open his eyes. There were deep creases where his brows drew together.

Moved by the need to touch him, to bridge the barrier of silence, she traced the shadow of the bruise that lay over his cheekbone, her fingers drifting, barely touching his skin.

She could see the oddly blurred edges of the bruise, could almost see the dark clotted blood beneath the skin, where the capillaries had ruptured. It was beginning to yellow; her mother had told her that the body’s leukocytes would come to the site of an injury, where they gradually broke down the injured cells, thriftily recycling the spilled blood; the changing colors were the result of this cellular housekeeping.

His eyes opened, fixed on her face, his own expression impassive. She knew she looked worried, and tried to smile.

“You don’t look dead,” she said. That broke the impassive facade; his eyebrows twitched upward, and a faint gleam of humor came into his eyes.

“Roger—” At a loss for words, she moved impulsively toward him. He stiffened slightly, hunching instinctively to protect the fragile tube in his throat, but she put her arms around his shoulders, careful, but needing desperately to feel the substance of his flesh.

“I love you,” she whispered, and her hand tightened on the muscle of his arm, urging him to believe it.

She kissed him. His lips were warm and dry, familiar—and yet a feeling of shock ran through her. No air moved against her cheek, no warm breath touched her from his nose or mouth. It was like kissing a mask. Air, damp from the secret depths of his lungs, hissed cool from the amber tube against her neck, like the exhalation from a cave. Gooseflesh ran down her arms and she stepped back, hoping that neither shock nor revulsion showed on her face.

His eyes were closed, squeezed tight shut. The muscle of his jaw bulged; she saw the shift of the shadow there.

“You . . . rest,” she managed, her voice shaky. “I’ll—I’ll see you in the morning.”

She made her way downstairs, barely noticing that the candlestick in the hall was lit now, or that the waiting slave slid silently from the shadows back into the room.

Her hunger had come back, but she didn’t go downstairs in search of food. She had to do something about the unused milk, first. She turned toward her parents’ room, feeling a faint draft move through the stifling shadows. In spite of the warm, muggy air, her fingers felt cold, as though turpentine was still evaporating from her skin.

Last night I dreamed about my friend Deborah. She used to make money doing Tarot readings in the Student Union; she’d always offer to do one for me, for free, but I wouldn’t let her.

Sister Marie Romaine told us in the fifth grade that Catholics aren’t allowed to do divination—we weren’t to touch Ouija boards or Tarot cards or crystal balls, because things like that are seductions of the D-E-V-I-L—she always spelled it out like that, she’d never say the word.

I’m not sure where the Devil came into it, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to let Deb do readings for me. She was, last night, though, in my dream.

I used to watch her do it for other people; the Tarot cards fascinated me—maybe just because they seemed forbidden. But the names were so cool—the Major Arcana, the Minor Arcana; Knight of Pentacles, Page of Cups, Queen of Wands, King of Swords. The Empress, the Magician. And the Hanged Man.

Well, what else would I dream about? I mean, this was not a subtle dream, no doubt about it. There it was, right in the middle of the spread of cards, and Deb was telling me about it.

“A man is suspended by one foot from a pole laid across two trees. His arms, folded behind his back, together with his head, form a triangle with the point downward; his legs form a cross. To an extent, the Hanged Man is still earthbound, for his foot is attached to the pole.”

I could see the man on the card, suspended permanently halfway between heaven and earth. That card always looked odd to me—the man didn’t seem to be at all concerned, in spite of being upside-down and blind-folded.

Deb kept scooping up the cards and laying them out again, and that one kept coming up in every spread.

“The Hanged Man represents the necessary process of surrender and sacrifice,” she said. “This card has profound significance,” she said, and she looked at me and tapped her finger on it. “But much of it is veiled; you have to figure out the meaning for yourself. Self-surrender leads to transformation of the personality, but the person has to accomplish his own regeneration.”

Transformation of the personality. That’s what I’m afraid of, all right. I liked Roger’s personality just fine the way it was!

Well . . . rats. I don’t know how much the D-E-V-I-L has to do with it, but I am sure that trying to look too far into the future is a mistake. At least right now.



IT WAS TEN DAYS before Penelope Sherston’s portrait was completed to her satisfaction. By that point, both Isaiah Morton and Roger had recovered sufficiently for travel. Given the imminence of Morton’s offspring and the danger to him in coming anywhere near either Granite Falls or Brownsville, Jamie had arranged for him and Alicia to lodge with the brewmaster of Mr. Sherston’s brewery; Isaiah would undertake employment as a wagoner for the brewery, as soon as his strength permitted.

“I canna imagine why,” Jamie had said to me privately, “but I’ve grown a bit fond of the immoral wee loon. I shouldna like to see him murdered in cold blood.”

Isaiah’s spirits had revived spectacularly upon the arrival of Alicia, and within a week, he had made his way downstairs, to sit watching Alicia like a devoted dog as she worked in the kitchen—and to pause on his way back to bed to offer comments on the progress of Mrs. Sherston’s portrait.

“Don’t it look just like her?” he’d said admiringly, standing in his nightshirt in the door of the drawing-room where the sitting was in progress. “Why, if you was to see that picture, you’d know just who it was.”

Given the fact that Mrs. Sherston had chosen to be painted as Salome, I was not positive that this would be considered a compliment, but she flushed prettily and thanked him, evidently recognizing the sincerity in his tone.

Bree had done a marvelous job, contriving to portray Mrs. Sherston both realistically and flatteringly, but without overt irony—difficult as that must have been. The only point where she had given in to temptation was in a minor detail; the severed head of John the Baptist bore a striking resemblance to Governor Tryon’s saturnine features, but I doubted that anyone would notice, what with all the blood.

We were ready to go home, and the house was filled with a spirit of restless excitement and relief—except for Roger.

Roger was indisputably better, in purely physical terms. His hands were mobile again, bar the broken fingers, and most of the bruising over his face and body had faded. Best of all, the swelling in his throat had subsided enough that he could move air through his nose and mouth again. I was able to remove the tube from his throat, and stitch up the incision—a small but painful operation that he had borne with body stiff and eyes wide open, staring up at the ceiling while I worked.

In mental terms, I was not so sure of his recovery. After stitching his throat, I had helped him sit up, wiped his face, and given him a little water mixed with brandy as a restorative. I had watched carefully as he swallowed, then put my fingers lightly on his throat, felt carefully, and asked him to swallow again. I closed my eyes, feeling the movement of his larynx, the rings of his trachea as he swallowed, assessing as best I could the degree of damage.