The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 59

   

The sight of the assembled medicines was calming. I touched a jar of anti-louse ointment, feeling a miser’s sense of gratification at the number and variety of bags and jars and bottles.

Alcohol lamp, alcohol bottle, microscope, large amputation saw, jar of sutures, box of plasters, packet of cobweb—all were arrayed with military precision, drawn up in ranks like ill-assorted recruits under the eye of a drill sergeant. Mrs. Bug might have the flaws of her greatness, but I couldn’t help but admit her virtue as a housekeeper.

The only thing in the cabinet that plainly hadn’t been touched was a tiny leather bag, the amulet given to me by the Tuscaroran shaman Nayawenne; that lay askew in a corner by itself. Interesting that Mrs. Bug wouldn’t touch that, I thought; I had never told her what it was, though it did look Indian, with the feathers—from raven and woodpecker—thrust through the knot. Less than a year in the Colonies, and less than a month in the wilderness, Mrs. Bug regarded all things Indian with acute suspicion.

The odor of lye soap hung in the air, reproachful as a housekeeper’s ghost. I supposed I couldn’t really blame her; moldy bread, rotted melon, and mushy apple slices might be research to me; to Mrs. Bug, they could be nothing but a calculated offense to the god of cleanliness.

I sighed and closed the cupboard, adding the faint perfume of dried lavender and the skunk scent of pennyroyal to the ghosts of lye and rotted apples. I had lost experimental preparations many times before, and this one had not been either complex or in a greatly advanced state. It would take no more than half an hour to replace it, setting out fresh bits of bread and other samples. I wouldn’t do it, though; there wasn’t enough time. Jamie was clearly beginning to gather his militiamen; it could be no more than a few days before they would depart for Salisbury, to report to Governor Tryon. Before we would depart—for I certainly meant to accompany them.

It occurred to me, quite suddenly, that there hadn’t been enough time to finish the experiment when I had set it up to begin with. I had known we would leave soon; even if I got immediate good growth, I would not have had time to collect, dry, purify . . . I’d known that, consciously—and yet I had done it anyway, gone right on with my plans, pursuing my routines, as though life were still settled and predictable, as though nothing whatever might threaten the tenor of my days. As though acting might make it true.

“You really are a fool, Beauchamp,” I murmured, pushing a curl of hair tiredly behind one ear. I went out, shutting the door of the surgery firmly behind me, and went to negotiate peace between Mrs. Bug and Mrs. Chisholm.

SUPERFICIALLY, peace in the house was restored, but an atmosphere of uneasiness remained. The women went about their work tense and tight-lipped; even Lizzie, the soul of patience, was heard to say “Tcha!” when one of the children spilled a pan of buttermilk across the steps.

Even outside, the air seemed to crackle, as though a lightning storm were near. As I went to and fro from sheds to house, I kept glancing over my shoulder at the sky above Roan Mountain, half-expecting to see the loom of thunderheads—and yet the sky was still the pale slate-blue of late autumn, clouded with nothing more than the wisps of mare’s tails.

I found myself distracted, unable to settle to anything. I drifted from one task to another, leaving a pile of onions half-braided in the pantry, a bowl of beans half-shelled on the stoop, a pair of torn breeks lying on the settle, needle dangling from its thread. Again and again, I found myself crossing the yard, coming from nowhere in particular, bound upon no specific errand.

I glanced up each time I passed the cross, as though expecting it either to have disappeared since my last trip, or to have acquired some explanatory notice, neatly pinned to the wood. If not Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, then something. But no. The cross remained, two simple sticks of pinewood, bound together by a rope. Nothing more. Except, of course, that a cross is always something more. I just didn’t know what it might be, this time.

Everyone else seemed to share my distraction. Mrs. Bug, disedified by the conflict with Mrs. Chisholm, declined to make any lunch, and retired to her room, ostensibly suffering from headache, though she refused to let me treat it. Lizzie, normally a fine hand with food, burned the stew, and billows of black smoke stained the oak beams above the hearth.

At least the Muellers were safely out of the way. They had brought a large cask of beer with them, and had retired after breakfast back to Brianna’s cabin, where they appeared to be entertaining themselves very nicely.

The bread refused to rise. Jemmy had begun a new tooth, a hard one, and screamed and screamed and screamed. The incessant screeching twisted everyone’s nerves to the snapping point, including mine. I should have liked to suggest that Bree take him away somewhere out of earshot, but I saw the deep smudges of fatigue under her eyes and the strain on her face, and hadn’t the heart. Mrs. Chisholm, tried by the constant battles of her own offspring, had no such compunction.

“For God’s sake, why do ye no tak’ that bairn awa to your own cabin, lass?” she snapped. “If he mun greet so, there’s no need for us all to hear it!”

Bree’s eyes narrowed dangerously.

“Because,” she hissed, “your two oldest sons are sitting in my cabin, drinking with the Germans. I wouldn’t want to disturb them!”

Mrs. Chisholm’s face went bright red. Before she could speak, I quickly stepped forward and snatched the baby away from Bree.

“I’ll take him out for a bit of a walk, shall I?” I said, hoisting him onto my shoulder. “I could use some fresh air. Why don’t you go up and lie down on my bed for a bit, darling?” I said to Bree. “You look just a little tired.”

“Uh-huh,” she said. One corner of her mouth twitched. “And the Pope’s a little bit Catholic, too. Thanks, Mama.” She kissed Jemmy’s hot, wet cheek, and vanished toward the stairwell.

Mrs. Chisholm scowled horridly after her, but caught my eye, coughed, and called to her three-year-old twins, who were busily demolishing my sewing basket.

The cold air outside was a relief, after the hot, smoky confines of the kitchen, and Jemmy quieted a little, though he continued to squirm and whine. He rubbed his hot, damp face against my neck, and gnawed ferociously on the cloth of my shawl, fussing and drooling.

I paced slowly to and fro, patting him gently and humming “Lilibuleero” under my breath. I found the exercise soothing, in spite of Jemmy’s crankiness. There was only one of him, after all, and he couldn’t talk.

“You’re a male, too,” I said to him, pulling his woolen cap over the soft bright down that feathered his skull. “As a sex, you have your defects, but I will say that catfighting isn’t one of them.”

Fond as I was of individual women—Bree, Marsali, Lizzie, and even Mrs. Bug—I had to admit that taken en masse, I found men much easier to deal with. Whether this was the fault of my rather unorthodox upbringing—I had been raised largely by my Uncle Lamb and his Persian manservant, Firouz—my experiences in the War, or simply an aspect of my own unconventional personality, I found men soothingly logical and—with a few striking exceptions—pleasingly direct.

I turned to look at the house. It stood serene amid the spruce and chestnut trees, elegantly proportioned, soundly built. A face showed at one of the windows. The face stuck out its tongue and pressed flat against the pane, crossing its eyes above squashed nose and cheeks. High-pitched feminine voices and the sound of banging came to me faintly through the cold, clean air.

“Hmm,” I said.

Reluctant as I was to leave home again so soon, and little as I liked the idea of Jamie being involved in armed conflicts of any kind, the thought of going off to live in the company of twenty or thirty unshaven, reeking men for a week or two had developed a certain undeniable attraction. If it meant sleeping on the ground . . .

“Into each life some rain must fall,” I told Jemmy with a sigh. “But I suppose you’re just learning that now, aren’t you, poor thing?”

“Gnnnh!” he said, and drew himself up into a ball to escape the pain of his emergent teeth, his knees digging painfully into my side. I settled him more comfortably on my hip, and gave him an index finger to chew on. His gums were hard and knobbly; I could feel the tender spot where the new tooth was coming in, swollen and hot under the skin. A piercing shriek came from the house, followed by the sound of shouts and running feet.

“You know,” I said conversationally, “I think a bit of whisky would be just the thing for that, don’t you?” and withdrawing the finger, I tucked Jemmy up against my shoulder. I ducked past the cross and into the shelter of the big red spruce—just in time, as the door of the house burst open and Mrs. Bug’s penetrating voice rose like a trumpet on the chilly air.

IT WAS A LONG WAY to the whisky clearing, but I didn’t mind. It was blessedly quiet in the forest, and Jemmy, lulled by the movement, finally relaxed into a doze, limp and heavy as a little sandbag in my arms.

So late in the year, all the deciduous trees had lost their leaves; the trail was ankle-deep in a crackling carpet of brown and gold, and maple seeds whirled past on the wind, brushing my skirt with a whisper of wings. A raven flew past, high above. It gave an urgent, raucous cry, and the baby jerked in my arms.

“Hush,” I said, hugging him close. “It’s nothing, lovey; just a bird.”

Still, I looked after the raven, and listened for another. They were birds of portent—or so said Highland superstition. One raven was an omen of change; two were good fortune; three were ill. I tried to dismiss such notions from my mind—but Nayawenne had told me the raven was my guide, my spirit animal—and I never saw the big, black shadows pass overhead without a certain shiver up the spine.

Jemmy stirred, gave a brief squawk, and fell back into silence. I patted him and resumed my climb, wondering as I made my way slowly up the mountain, what animal might be his guide?

The animal spirit chose you, Nayawenne told me, not the other way around. You must pay careful attention to signs and portents, and wait for your animal to manifest itself to you. Ian’s animal was the wolf; Jamie’s the bear—or so the Tuscarora said. I had wondered at the time what one was supposed to do if chosen by something ignominious like a shrew or a dung beetle, but was too polite to ask.

Only one raven. I could still hear it, though it was out of sight, but no echoing cry came from the firs behind me. An omen of change.

“You could have saved yourself the trouble,” I said to it, under my breath so as not to wake the baby. “Hardly as though I needed telling, is it?”

I climbed slowly, listening to the sigh of the wind and the deeper sound of my own breath. At this season, change was in the air itself, the scents of ripeness and death borne on the breeze, and the breath of winter in its chill. Still, the rhythms of the turning earth brought change that was expected, ordained; body and mind met it with knowledge and—on the whole—with peace. The changes coming were of a different order, and one calculated to disturb the soul.

I glanced back at the house; from this height, I could see only the corner of the roof, and the drifting smoke from the chimney.

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