The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 220

   

“What?” she said, in an edgy tone. “What do you mean, they’re born potty?” She had one hand on Jemmy’s shoulder, balancing him, while the other cupped his round little belly, an index finger disappearing into the shadows below to direct his aim.

“Potty,” Roger explained, with a brief circular gesture at his temple in illustration. “You know, barmy. Daft.”

She opened her mouth to say something in reply to this, but Jemmy swayed alarmingly, his head sagging forward.

“No, no!” she said, taking a fresh grip. “Wake up, honey! Wake up and go potty!”

The insidious term had somehow taken up residence in Roger’s mind, and was merrily replacing half the fading words of the verse he had been trying to recapture.

Willie sat upon his pot/The sword to potty gane . . .

He shook his head, as though to dislodge it, but it was too late—the real words had fled. Resigned, he gave it up as a bad job and crouched down next to Brianna to help.

“Wake up, chum. There’s work to be done.” He drew a finger gently under Jemmy’s chin, then blew in his ear, ruffling the silky red tendrils that clung to the child’s temple, still damp with sleep-sweat.

Jemmy’s eyelids cracked in a slit-eyed glower. He looked like a small pink mole, cruelly excavated from its cozy burrow and peering balefully at an inhospitable upper world.

Brianna yawned widely, and shook her head, blinking and scowling in the candlelight.

“Well, if you don’t like ‘go potty,’ what do you say in Scotland, then?” she demanded crabbily.

Roger moved the tickling finger to Jem’s navel.

“Ah . . . I seem to recall a friend asking his wee son if he needed to do a poo,” he offered. Brianna made a rude noise, but Jemmy’s eyelids flickered.

“Poo,” he said dreamily, liking the sound.

“Right, that’s the idea,” Roger said encouragingly. His finger twiddled gently in the slight depression, and Jemmy gave the ghost of a giggle, beginning to wake up.

“Pooooooo,” he said. “Poopoo.”

“Whatever works,” Brianna said, still cross, but resigned. “Go potty, go poo—just get it over with, all right? Mummy wants to go to sleep.”

“Perhaps you should take your finger off of his . . . mmphm?” Roger nodded toward the object in question. “You’ll give the poor lad a complex or something.”

“Fine.” Bree took her hand away with alacrity, and the stubby object sprang back up, pointing directly at Roger over the rim of the pot.

“Hey! Now, just a min—”he began, and got his hand up as a shield just in time.

“Poo,” Jemmy said, beaming in drowsy pleasure.

“Shit!”

“Chit!” Jemmy echoed obligingly.

“Well, that’s not quite—would you stop laughing?” Roger said testily, wiping his hand gingerly on a kitchen rag.

Brianna snorted and gurgled, shaking her head so the straggling locks of hair that had escaped her plait fell down around her face.

“Good boy, Jemmy!” she managed.

Thus encouraged, Jemmy took on an air of inner absorption, scrunched his chin down into his chest, and without further ado, proceeded to Act Two of the evening’s drama.

“Clever lad!” Roger said sincerely.

Brianna glanced at him, momentary surprise interrupting her own applause.

He was surprised himself. He had spoken by reflex, and hearing the words, just for a moment, his voice hadn’t sounded like his own. Very familiar—but not his own. It was like writing the words of Clellan’s song, hearing the old man’s voice, even as his own lips formed the words.

“Aye, that’s clever,” he said, more softly, and patted the little boy gently on his silky head.

He took the pot outside to empty it while Brianna put Jemmy back to bed with kisses and murmurs of admiration. Basic sanitation accomplished, he went to the well to wash his hands before coming back inside to bed.

“Are you through working?” Bree asked drowsily, as he slid into bed beside her. She rolled over and thrust her bottom unceremoniously into his stomach, which he took as a gesture of affection, given the fact that she was about thirty degrees warmer than he was after the sortie outside.

“Aye, for tonight.” He put his arms round her and kissed the back of her ear, the warmth of her body a comfort and delight. She took his chilly hand in hers without comment, folded it, and tucked it snugly beneath her chin, with a small kiss on the knuckle. He stretched slightly, then relaxed, letting his muscles go slack and feeling the tiny movements as their bodies adjusted, shaping to each other. A faint buzzing snore rose from the trundle, where Jemmy slept the sleep of the righteously dry.

Brianna had freshly smoored the fire; it burned with a low, even heat and the sweet scent of hickory, making small occasional pops as the buried flame reached a pocket of resin or a spot of damp. Warmth crept over him, and sleep tiptoed in its wake, drawing a blanket of drowsiness up round his ears, unlocking the tidy cupboards of his mind, and letting all the thoughts and impressions of the day spill out in brightly colored heaps.

Resisting unconsciousness for a last few moments, he poked desultorily among the scattered riches thus revealed, in the faint hope of finding a corner of the Telfer song poking out; some scrap of word or music that would allow him to seize the vanished verses and drag them back into the light of consciousness. It wasn’t the story of the ill-fated Willie that emerged from the rubble, though, but rather a voice. Not his own, and not that of old Kimmie Clellan, either.

Clever lad! it said, in a clear warm contralto, tinged with laughter. Roger jerked.

“Whaju say?” Brianna mumbled, disturbed by the movement.

“Go on—be clever,” he said slowly, echoing the words as they formed in his memory. “That’s what she said.”

“Who?” Brianna turned her head, with a rustle of hair on the pillow.

“My mother.” He put his free hand round her waist, resettling them both. “You asked what they said in Scotland. I’d forgotten, but that’s what she used to say to me. ‘Go on—be clever!’ or ‘Do ye need to be clever?’ ”

Bree gave a small grunt of sleepy amusement.

“Well, it’s better than poo,” she said.

They lay quiet for a bit. Then she said, still speaking softly, but with all traces of sleep gone from her voice, “You talk about your dad now and then—but I’ve never heard you mention your mother before.”

He gave a one-shouldered shrug, bringing his knees up against the yielding backs of her thighs.

“I don’t remember a lot about her.”

“How old were you when she died?” Brianna’s hand floated up to rest over his.

“Oh, four, I think, nearly five.”

“Mmm.” She made a small sound of sympathy, and squeezed his hand. She was quiet for a moment, alone in private thought, but he heard her swallow audibly, and felt the slight tension in her shoulders.

“What?”

“Oh . . . nothing.”

“Aye?” He disengaged his hand, used it to lift the heavy plait aside, and gently massaged the nape of her neck. She turned her head away to make it easier, burying her face in the pillow.

“Just—I was just thinking—if I died now, Jemmy’s so young—he wouldn’t remember me at all,” she whispered, words half-muffled.

“Yes, he would.” He spoke in automatic contradiction, wanting to give her reassurance, even knowing that she was likely right.

“You don’t remember, and you were lots older when you lost your mother.”

“Oh . . . I do remember her,” he said slowly, digging the ball of his thumb into the place where her neck joined her shoulder. “Only, it’s just in bits and pieces. Sometimes, when I’m dreaming, or thinking of something else, I get a quick glimpse of her, or some echo of her voice. A few things I recall clearly—like the locket she used to wear round her neck, with her initials on it in wee red stones. Garnets, they were.”

That locket had perhaps saved his life, during his first ill-fated attempt to pass through the stones. He felt the loss of it now and then, like a small thorn buried beneath the surface of the skin, but pushed the feeling aside, telling himself that after all, it was nothing more than a bit of metal.

At the same time, he missed it.

“That’s a thing, Roger.” Her voice held a hint of sharpness. “Do you remember her? I mean—what would Jemmy know about me—about you, for that matter—if all he had left of us was”—she cast about for some suitable object—“was your bodhran and my pocket knife?”

“He’d know his dad was musical, and his mum was bloodthirsty,” Roger said dryly. “Ouch!” He recoiled slightly as her fist came down on his thigh, then set his hands placatingly on her shoulders. “No, really. He’d know a lot about us, and not just from the bits and bobs we’d left behind, though those would help.”

“How?”

“Well . . .” Her shoulders had relaxed again; he could feel the slender edge of her shoulder blade, hard against the skin—she was too thin, he thought. “You studied history for a time, didn’t you? You know how much one can tell from homely objects like dishes and toys.”

“Mmm.” She sounded dubious, but he thought that she simply wanted to be convinced.

“And Jem would know a lot more than that about you, from your drawings,” he pointed out. And a hell of a lot more than a son ought, if he ever read your dream-book, he thought. The sudden impulse to say so, to confess that he himself had read it, trembled on his tongue, but he swallowed it. Beyond simple fear of how she might respond if she discovered his intrusion, was the greater fear that she would cease to write in it, and those small secret glimpses of her mind would be lost to him.

“I guess that’s true,” she said slowly. “I wonder if Jem will draw—or be musical.”

If Stephen Bonnet plays the flute, Roger thought cynically, but choked off that subversive notion, refusing to contemplate it.

“That’s how he’ll know the most of us,” he said instead, resuming his gentle kneading. “He’ll look at himself, aye?”

“Mmm?”

“Well, look at you,” he pointed out. “Everyone who sees you says, ‘You must be Jamie Fraser’s lass!’ And the red hair isn’t the only thing—what about the shooting? And the way you and your mother are about tomatoes . . .”

She smacked her lips reflexively, and giggled when he laughed.

“Yeah, all right, I see,” she said. “Mmm. Why did you have to mention tomatoes? I used the last of the dried ones last week, and it’ll be six months before they’re on again.”

“Sorry,” he said, and kissed the back of her neck in apology.

“I did wonder,” he said, a moment later. “When you found out about Jamie—when we began to look for him—you must have wondered what he was like.” He knew she had; he certainly had. “When you found him—how did he compare? Was he at all like you thought he’d be, from what you knew about him already? Or—from what you knew about yourself?”

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