The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 175

   

“Jeremiah Alexander MacKenzie,” Brianna said, in awful tones, “you are a Bad Boy!” She checked him hastily for blood or injury, found none, and fetched him a smack on the bottom, hard enough to make the palm of her hand sting.

The resulting screech gave her an instant qualm of guilt. Then she saw the rest of the carnage in the surgery, and quelled the impulse to spank him again.

“Jeremiah!”

Bunches of dried rosemary, yarrow, and thyme had been pulled out of the drying rack and shredded. One of the gauze shelves of the rack itself had been pulled loose, the fabric ripped and hanging. Bottles and jars from the cupboards lay tipped and rolling; some of the corks had fallen out, spilling multi-colored powders and liquids. A big linen bag of coarse ground salt had been rifled, handsful of the crystals tossed around with abandon.

Worst of all, her mother’s amulet lay on the floor, the little leather pouch torn open, flat and empty. Scattered bits of dried plants, a few tiny bones, and other debris lay strewn round it.

“Mama, I’m so sorry—he got away. I wasn’t looking—I should have kept a better eye on—” She had nearly to shout her apologies, to be heard above Jemmy’s bawling.

Claire, flinching slightly at the noise, looked round the surgery, taking hasty inventory. Then she stooped and picked Jemmy up, disregarding the honey.

“Shhhh,” she said, putting a hand lightly over his mouth. This proving ineffective, she patted the hand over the gaping orifice, producing a “wa-wa-wa-wa” sound that made Jemmy stop bellowing at once. He stuck a thumb in his mouth, snuffling loudly round it, and pressed a filthy cheek to Claire’s shoulder.

“Well, they do get into things,” she said to Bree, looking more amused than upset. “Don’t worry, darling, it’s only a bit of a mess. He couldn’t reach the knives, thank goodness, and I keep the poisons up high, too.”

Brianna felt her heart begin to slow down. Her hand felt hot, pulsing with blood.

“But your amulet . . .” She pointed, and saw a shadow cross her mother’s face when she saw the desecration.

“Oh.” Claire took a deep breath, patted Jemmy’s back, and put him down. Her teeth set in her lower lip, she stooped and gingerly picked up the limp pouch with its draggled feathers.

“I’m sorry,” Brianna repeated, helplessly.

She could see the effort it cost, but her mother made a small dismissive gesture, before crouching to pick up the bits and pieces from the floor. Her curly hair was untied, and swung forward, hiding her face.

“I always did wonder what was in this thing,” Claire said. She gingerly began to pick up the tiny bones, collecting them carefully in the palm of one hand. “What do you think these are from—a shrew?”

“I don’t know.” Keeping a wary eye on Jemmy, Brianna squatted and began to pick things up. “I thought maybe they were from a mouse or a bat.”

Her mother glanced up at her, surprised. “Aren’t you clever—look.” She plucked a small, papery brown object from the floor and held it out. Bending to look closer, Brianna could see that the thing that looked like a crumpled dried leaf was in fact a fragment of a tiny bat’s wing, the fragile leather dried to translucence, a bone slender as a needle curving through it like the central rib of a leaf.

“Eye of newt, and toe of frog/ Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,” Claire quoted. She spilled the handful of bones onto the counter, looking at them with fascination. “I wonder what she meant by that?”

“She?”

“Nayawenne—the woman who gave me the pouch.” Crouching, Claire swept up the crumbled bits of leaf—at least Brianna hoped they were real leaves—into her hand, and sniffed them. There were so many odors in the air of the surgery that she herself couldn’t distinguish anything beyond the overwhelming sweetness of honey, but evidently her mother’s sensitive nose had no trouble in making out individual scents.

“Bayberry, balsam fir, wild ginger, and Arsesmart,” she said, sniffing like a truffle-hound. “Bit of sage, too, I think.”

“Arsesmart? Is that a comment on what she thought of you?” In spite of her distress, Brianna laughed.

“Ha bloody ha,” he mother replied tartly, dusting the little heap of dried plant matter onto the table with the bones. “Otherwise known as water-pepper. It’s a rather irritating little thing that grows near brooks—gives you blisters and smarts the eyes—or other things, I imagine, if you happen to carelessly sit on it.”

Jemmy, rebukes forgotten, had got hold of a surgical clamp and was turning it to and fro, evidently trying to decide whether it was edible. Brianna debated taking it away from him, but given that her mother always sterilized her metal implements by boiling, decided to let him keep it for the moment, since it had no sharp edges.

Leaving him with Claire, she went back to the kitchen to fetch hot water and some cloths with which to deal with the honey. Mrs. Bug was there but was sound asleep, snoring gently on the settle, hands folded on her rounded stomach, her kerch comfortably askew over one ear.

Tiptoeing back with the bucket of water and a handful of cloths, she found most of the debris already swept up, and her mother crawling round on hands and knees, peering under things.

“Have you lost something?” She glanced at the bottom shelf of the cupboard, but didn’t see anything missing, bar the honey-jar. The other bottles had been neatly stoppered and replaced, and everything looked much as usual.

“Yes.” Claire crouched lower, frowning as she peered under the cupboard itself. “A stone. About so big”—she held out a hand, thumb and index finger circled, describing a sphere about the diameter of a small coin—“and a sort of grayish-blue. Translucent in spots. It’s a raw sapphire.”

“Was it in the cupboard? Maybe Mrs. Bug moved it.”

Claire sat back on her heels, shaking her head.

“No, she doesn’t touch anything in here. Besides, it wasn’t in the cupboard—it was in there.” She nodded at the table, where the amulet’s empty pouch lay beside the bones and plant debris.

A quick search—and then a slower one—of the surgery revealed no sign of the stone.

“You know,” Claire said, running a hand through her hair as she looked thoughtfully at Jemmy, “I hate to suggest this, but do you think . . . ?”

“Shi—I mean rats,” Brianna said, concern escalating to mild alarm. She stooped to look at Jemmy, who loftily ignored her, concentrating on the job of inserting the surgical clamp into his left nostril. “There were crumbs of dried plant matter stuck to the honey around his mouth, but surely that was just rosemary or thyme . . .”

Offended at the close scrutiny, he tried to whack her with the clamp, but she seized his wrist in a grip of iron, removing the clamp from his grasp with her other hand.

“Don’t hit Mummy,” she said automatically, “it’s not nice. Jem—did you swallow Grannie’s rock?”

“No,” he said, just as automatically, grabbing at the clamp. “Mine!”

She sniffed at his face, causing him to lean back at an alarming angle, but couldn’t be sure. She didn’t think it was rosemary, though.

“Come smell him,” she said to her mother, standing up. “I can’t tell.”

Claire stooped to oblige, and Jemmy shrieked in giggling alarm, preparing for an enjoyable game of “Eat me up.” He was disappointed, though; his grandmother merely inhaled deeply, said definitely, “wild ginger,” then leaned in for a closer look, seizing a damp cloth to rub away the honey smears, in spite of increasing howls of protest.

“Look.” Claire pointed at the soft skin around his mouth. Freshly cleansed, Brianna could see them clearly—two or three tiny blisters, like seed pearls.

“Jeremiah,” she said sternly, attempting to look him in the eye. “Tell Mummy. Did you eat Grannie’s rock?”

Jeremiah avoided her gaze and wriggled away, putting both hands protectively behind him.

“No hit,” he said. “Nod nice!”

“I’m not going to spank you,” she assured him, grabbing an escaping foot. “I just want to know. Did you swallow a rock about this big?” She held up thumb and forefinger. Jemmy giggled.

“Hot,” he said. That was his new favorite word, applied without distinction to any object he liked.

Brianna closed her eyes, sighing in exasperation, then opened them to look at her mother.

“I’m afraid so. Will it hurt him?”

“Shouldn’t think so.” Claire regarded her grandson thoughtfully, tapping a finger against her lips. Then she crossed the room, opening one of the high cupboards and withdrawing a large brown-glass bottle.

“Castor-bean oil,” she explained, rummaging in a drawer for a spoon. “Not quite as tasty as honey,” she added, fixing Jemmy with a gimlet eye, “but very effective.”

CASTOR OIL MIGHT BE EFFECTIVE, but it took a while. Keeping a close eye on Jemmy, who was set down to play with his basket of wooden blocks after being dosed, Brianna and Claire used the waiting time to tidy the surgery, and then turned to the peaceful, but time-consuming, job of compounding medicines. It was some time since Claire had had time to do this, and there was a staggering profusion of leaves and roots and seeds to be shredded, grated, pounded, boiled in water, steeped in oil, extracted with alcohol, strained through gauze, stirred into melted beeswax or bear grease, mixed with ground talc or rolled into pills, then jarred or bottled or bagged for preservation.

It was a pleasantly warm day, and they left the windows open for the breeze, even though this meant constantly swatting flies, shooing gnats, and picking the occasional enthusiastic bumblebee out of some bubbling solution.

“Be careful, sweetie!” Brianna reached hastily to brush away a honeybee that had lighted on one of Jemmy’s blocks, just before Jem could grab it. “Bad bug. Ouchie!”

“They smell their honey,” Claire said, waving away another. “I’d better give them some of it back.” She set a bowl of honey-water on the windowsill, and within moments, bees were thick about the rim of it, drinking greedily.

“Single-minded, aren’t they?” Brianna observed, blotting a trickle of sweat that ran between her br**sts.

“Well, single-mindedness will get you a long way,” Claire murmured absently, frowning slightly as she stirred a solution warming over an alcohol lamp. “Does this look done to you?”

“You know a lot better than I do.” Still, she bent obligingly and sniffed. “I think so; it smells pretty strong.”

Claire dipped a quick finger into the bowl, then tasted it.

“Mm, yes, I think so.” Taking the bowl off the flame, she poured the dark greenish liquid carefully through a gauze strainer into a bottle. Several other tall glass bottles stood in a row on the counter, the sunlight glowing through their contents like red and green and yellow gems.

“Did you always know you were meant to be a doctor?” Brianna asked curiously. Her mother shook her head, skillfully shredding a handful of dogwood bark with a sharp knife.

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