The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 54

   

He did, then sat back, his eyes gone soft green and clear, free of the shadow that had haunted them.

“Pizza,” he said.

She blinked, then laughed. It was one of their games; taking turns to think of things they missed from the other time, the time before—or after, depending how you looked at it.

“Coke,” she said promptly. “I think I could maybe do pizza—but what good is pizza without Coca-Cola?”

“Pizza with beer is perfectly fine,” he assured her. “And we can have beer—not that Lizzie’s homemade hell-brew is quite on a par with MacEwan’s Lager, yet. But you really think you could make pizza?”

“Don’t see why not.” She nibbled at the cheese, frowning. “This wouldn’t do”—she brandished the yellowish remnant, then popped it in her mouth—“too strong-flavored. But I think . . .” She paused to chew and swallow, then washed it down with a long drink of rough cider.

“Come to think of it, this would go pretty well with pizza.” She lowered the leather bottle and licked the last sweet, semi-alcoholic drops from her lips. “But the cheese—I think maybe sheep’s cheese would do. Da brought some from Salem last time he went there. I’ll ask him to get some more and see how it melts.”

She squinted against the bright, pale sun, calculating.

“Mama’s got plenty of dried tomatoes, and tons of garlic. I know she has basil—don’t know about the oregano, but I could do without that. And crust—” She waved a dismissive hand. “Flour, water, and lard, nothing to it.”

He laughed, handing her a biscuit filled with ham and Mrs. Bug’s piccalilli.

“How Pizza Came to the Colonies,” he said, and lifted the cider bottle in brief salute. “Folk always wonder where humanity’s great inventions come from; now we know!”

He spoke lightly, but there was an odd tone in his voice, and his glance held hers.

“Maybe we do know,” she said softly, after a moment. “You ever think about it—why? Why we’re here?”

“Of course.” The green of his eyes was darker now, but still clear. “So do you, aye?”

She nodded, and took a bite of biscuit and ham, the piccalilli sweet with onion and pungent in her mouth. Of course they thought of it. She and Roger and her mother. For surely it had meaning, that passage through the stones. It must. And yet . . . her parents seldom spoke of war and battle, but from the little they said—and the much greater quantity she had read—she knew just how random and how pointless such things could sometimes be. Sometimes a shadow rises, and death lies nameless in the dark.

Roger crumbled the last of his bread between his fingers, and tossed the crumbs a few feet away. A chickadee flew down, pecked once, and was joined within seconds by a flock that swooped down out of the trees, vacuuming up the crumbs with chattering efficiency. He stretched, sighing, and lay back on the quilt.

“Well,” he said, “if you ever figure it out, ye’ll be sure to tell me, won’t you?”

Her heartbeat was tingling in her br**sts; no longer safely contained behind the rampart of her breastbone, but set loose to crackle through her flesh, small jolts of electricity tweaking her n**ples. She didn’t dare to think of Jem; the barest hint of him and her milk would let down in a gush.

Before she could let herself think too much about it, she pulled the hunting shirt over her head.

Roger’s eyes were open, fixed on her, soft and brilliant as the moss beneath the trees. She undid the knot of the linen strip, and felt the cool touch of the wind on her bare br**sts. She cupped them in her hands, feeling the heaviness rise, begin to tingle and crest.

“Come here,” she said softly, eyes on his. “Hurry. I need you.”

THEY LAY HALF-CLOTHED and comfortably tangled beneath the tattered quilt, sleepy and sticky with half-dried milk, the heat of their joining still warm around them.

The sun through the empty branches overhead made black ripples behind the lids of her closed eyes, as though she looked down through a dark red sea, wading in the blood-warm water, seeing black volcanic sand change and ripple round her feet.

Was he awake? She didn’t turn her head or open her eyes to see, but tried to send a message to him, a slow, lazy pulse of a heartbeat, a question surging from blood to blood. Are you there? she asked silently. She felt the question move up through her chest and out along her arm; she imagined the pale underside of her arm and the blue vein along it, as though she might see some telltale subterranean flash as the impulse threaded through her blood and down her forearm, reached her palm, her finger, and delivered the faintest throb of its pressure against his skin.

Nothing happened at once. She could hear his breathing, slow and regular, a counterpoint to the sough of breeze through trees and grass, like surf coming in upon a sandy shore.

She imagined herself as a jellyfish, he another. She could see them clearly; two transparent bodies, lucent as the moon, veils pulsing in and out in hypnotic rhythm, borne on the tide toward one another, tendrils trailing, slowly touching . . .

His finger crossed her palm, so lightly it might have been the brush of fin or feather.

I’m here, it said. And you?

Her hand closed over it, and he rolled toward her.

LATE IN THE YEAR as it was, the light died early. It was still a month ’til the winter solstice, but by mid-afternoon, the sun was already brushing the slope of Black Mountain, and their shadows stretched to impossible lengths before them as they turned eastward, toward home.

She carried the gun; instruction was over for the day, and while they weren’t hunting, if the opportunity of game offered, she would take it. The squirrel she had killed earlier was already cleaned and tucked in her sack, but that was barely flavoring for a vegetable stew. A few more would be nice. Or a possum, she thought dreamily.

She wasn’t sure of the habits of possum, though; perhaps they hibernated over winter, and if so, they might already be gone. The bears were still active; she’d seen half-dried scat on the trail, and scratches on the bark of a pine, still oozing yellow sap. A bear was good game, but she didn’t mean either to look for one, or to risk shooting at one unless it attacked them—and that wasn’t likely. Leave bears alone, and they’ll generally leave you alone; both her fathers had told her that, and she thought it excellent advice.

A covey of bobwhite blasted out of a nearby bush like exploding shrapnel, and she jerked, heart in her mouth.

“Those are good to eat, aren’t they?” Roger nodded at the last of the disappearing gray-white blobs. He had been startled, too, but less than she had, she noticed with annoyance.

“Yeah,” she said, disgruntled at being taken unawares. “But you don’t shoot them with a musket, unless all you want is feathers for a pillow. You use a fowling piece, with bird shot. It’s like a shotgun.”

“I know,” he said, shortly.

She felt disinclined to talk, jarred out of their peaceful mood. Her br**sts were beginning to swell again; it was time to go home, to find Jemmy.

Her step quickened a little at the thought, even as her mind reluctantly surrendered the memory of the pungent smell of crushed dry fern, the glow of sunlight on Roger’s bare brown shoulders above her, the hiss of her milk, gilding his chest in a spray of fine droplets, slick and warm and cool by turns between their writhing bodies.

She sighed deeply, and heard him laugh, low in his throat.

“Mmm?” She turned her head, and he motioned to the ground before them. They had begun to move together as they walked, neither noticing the unconscious pull of the gravitational force that bound them. Now their shadows had merged at the top, so an odd, four-legged beast paced spiderlike before them, its two heads tilted toward each other.

He put an arm around her waist, and one shadow-head dipped, joining the other in a single bulbous shape.

“It’s been a good day, aye?” he said softly.

“Aye, it has,” she said, and smiled. She might have spoken further, but a sound came to her above the rattle of tree branches, and she pulled suddenly away.

“What—” he began, but she put a finger to her lips to shush him, beckoning as she crept toward a growth of red oak.

It was a flock of turkeys, scratching companionably in the earth beneath a large oak tree, turning up winter grubs from the mat of fallen leaves and acorns. The late sun shone low, lighting the iridescence in their breast feathers, so the birds’ drab black glimmered with tiny rainbows as they moved.

She had the gun already loaded, but not primed. She groped for the powder flask at her belt and filled the pan, scarcely looking away from the birds. Roger crouched beside her, intent as a hound dog on the scent. She nudged him, and held the gun toward him in invitation, one eyebrow up. The turkeys were no more than twenty yards away, and even the smaller ones were the size of footballs.

He hesitated, but she could see the desire to try it in his eyes. She thrust the gun firmly into his hands and nodded toward a gap in the brush.

He shifted carefully, trying for a clear line of sight. She hadn’t taught him to fire from a crouch as yet, and he wisely didn’t try, instead standing, though it meant firing downward. He hesitated, the long barrel wavering as he shifted his aim from one bird to another, trying to choose the best shot. Her fingers curled and clenched, aching to correct his aim, to pull the trigger.

She felt him draw breath and hold it. Then three things happened, so quickly as to seem simultaneous. The gun went off with a huge phwoom!, a spray of dried oak leaves fountained up from the earth under the tree, and fifteen turkeys lost their minds, running like a demented football squad straight at them, gobbling hysterically.

The turkeys reached the brush, saw Roger, and took to the air like flying soccer balls, wings frantically clapping the air. Roger ducked to avoid one that soared an inch above his head, only to be struck in the chest by another. He reeled backward, and the turkey, clinging to his shirt, seized the opportunity to run nimbly up his shoulder and push off, raking the side of his neck with its claws.

The gun flew through the air. Brianna caught it, flipped a cartridge from the box on her belt, and was grimly reloading and ramming as the last turkey ran toward Roger, zigged away, saw her, zagged in the other direction, and finally zoomed between them, gobbling alarms and imprecations.

She swung around, sighted on it as it left the ground, caught the black blob outlined for a split second against the brilliant sky, and blasted it in the tail feathers. It dropped like a sack of coal, and hit the ground forty yards away with an audible thud.

She stood still for a moment, then slowly lowered the gun. Roger was staring at her, openmouthed, pressing the cloth of his shirt against the bloody scratches on his neck. She smiled at him, a little weakly, feeling her hands sweaty on the wooden stock and her heart pounding with delayed reaction.

“Holy God,” Roger said, deeply impressed. “That wasn’t just luck, was it?”

“Well . . . some,” she said, trying for modesty. She failed, and felt a grin blossom across her face. “Maybe half.”

Roger went to retrieve her prize while she cleaned the gun again, coming back with a ten-pound bird, limp-necked and leaking blood like a punctured waterskin.

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