The floor was clean—or had been—its white-pine boards scrubbed, and the corners strewn with dried rosemary. He could see the tumbled bed past her ear, and realized that she’d made it up with fresh linen and a new quilt. She’d taken trouble for his homecoming. And he’d come barging in, brimming with his adventures, expecting praise for the feat of coming back alive, and seeing none of it—blind to everything in his urgent need to get his hands on her and feel her body under his.
“Hey,” he said softly in her ear. “I may be a fool, but I love you, aye?”
She sighed deeply, her br**sts pushing against his bare chest, warm even through the cloth of shift and gown. They were firm; filling with milk, but not yet hard.
“Yeah, you are,” she said frankly, “but I love you too. And I’m glad you’re home.”
He laughed and let go. There was a branch of juniper tacked above the window, heavy with its clouded blue-green berries. He reached up and broke off a sprig, kissed it, and tucked it into the neck of her gown, between her br**sts, as a token of truce—and apology.
“Merry Christmas. Now, what was it about the geese?”
She put a hand to the juniper sprig, a half-smile growing, then fading.
“Oh. Well. It’s not important. It’s just . . .” He followed the direction of her eyes, turned, and saw the sheet of paper, propped up behind the basin on the washstand.
It was a drawing, done in charcoal; wild geese against a stormy sky, striving through the air above a lash of wind-tossed trees. It was a wonderful drawing, and looking at it gave him the same odd feeling at the heart that hearing the geese themselves had done—half joy, half pain.
“Merry Christmas,” Brianna said softly, behind him. She came to stand beside him, wrapping a hand around his arm.
“Thanks. It’s . . . God, Bree, you’re good.” She was. He bent and kissed her, hard, needing to do something to lessen the sense of yearning that haunted the paper in his hand.
“Look at the other one.” She pulled a little away from him, still holding his arm, and nodded at the washstand.
He hadn’t realized there were two. The other drawing had been behind the first.
She was good. Good enough to chill the blood at his heart. The second drawing was in charcoal, too, the same stark blacks and whites and grays. In the first, she had seen the wildness of the sky, and put it down: yearning and courage, effort enduring in faith amid the emptiness of air and storm. In this, she had seen stillness.
It was a dead goose, hung by the feet, its wings half-spread. Neck limp and beak half-open, as though even in death it sought flight and the loud-calling company of its companions. The lines of it were grace, the details of feather, beak, and empty eyes exquisite. He had never seen anything so beautiful, nor so desolate, in his life.
“I drew that last night,” she said quietly. “Everybody was in bed, but I couldn’t sleep.”
She had taken a candlestick and prowled the crowded house, restless, going outside at last in spite of the cold, seeking solitude, if not rest, in the chill dark of the outbuildings. And in the smokeshed, by the light of the embers there, had been struck by the beauty of the hanging geese, their clear plumage black and white against the sooty wall.
“I checked to be sure Jemmy was sound asleep, then brought my sketch box down and drew, until my fingers were too cold to hold the charcoal anymore. That was the best one.” She nodded at the picture, her eyes remote.
For the first time, he saw the blue shadows in her face, and imagined her by candlelight, up late at night and all alone, drawing dead geese. He would have taken her in his arms then, but she turned away, going to the window, where the shutters had begun to bang.
The thaw had faded, to be followed by a freezing wind that stripped the last sere leaves from the trees and sent acorns and chestnut hulls sailing through the air to rattle on the roof like buckshot. He followed her, reached past her to draw in the shutters and fasten them against the bitter wind.
“Da told me stories, while I was—while I was waiting for Jemmy to be born. I wasn’t paying close attention”—the corner of her mouth quirked with wryness—“but a bit here and there stuck with me.”
She turned around then, and leaned against the shutters, hands gripping the sill behind her.
“He said when a hunter kills a greylag goose, he must wait by the body, because the greylag mate for life, and if you kill only one, the other will mourn itself to death. So you wait, and when the mate comes, you kill it, too.”
Her eyes were dark on his, but the candle flames struck glints of blue in their depths.
“What I wondered is—are all geese like that? Not only greylags?” She nodded at the pictures.
He touched her, and cleared his throat. He wanted to comfort her, but not at the price of an easy lie.
“Maybe so. I don’t know for sure, though. You’re worried, then, about the mates of the birds you shot?”
The soft pale lips pressed tight together, then relaxed.
“Not worried. Just . . . I couldn’t help thinking about it, afterward. About them, flying on . . . alone. You were gone—I couldn’t help thinking—I mean, I knew you were all right, this time, but next time, you might not come—well, never mind. It’s just silly. Don’t worry about it.”
She stood up, and would have pushed past him into the room, but he put his arms around her and held her, close so she couldn’t see his face.
He knew that she didn’t absolutely require him—not to make hay, to plow, to hunt for her. If needs must, she could do those things herself—or find another man. And yet . . . the wild geese said she needed him—would mourn his loss if it came. Perhaps forever. In his present vulnerable mood, that knowledge seemed a great gift.
“Geese,” he said at last, his voice half-muffled in her hair. “The next-door neighbors kept geese, when I was a wee lad. Big white buggers. Six of them; they went round in a gang, all high-nosed and honking. Terrorized dogs and children and folk that passed by on the street.”
“Did they terrorize you?” Her breath tickled warm on his collarbone.
“Oh, aye. All the time. When we played in the street, they’d rush out honking and peck at us and beat us with their wings. When I wanted to go out into the back garden to play with a mate, Mrs. Graham would have to come, too, to drive the bastards off to their own yard with a broomstick.
“Then the milkman came by one morning while the geese were in their front garden. They went for him, and he ran for his float—and his horse took fright at all the honking and screeching, and stamped two of the geese flatter than bannocks. The kids on the street were all thrilled.”
She was laughing against his shoulder, half-shocked but amused.
“What happened then?”
“Mrs. Graham took them and plucked them, and we had goose pie for a week,” he said matter-of-factly. He straightened up and smiled at her. She was flushed and rosy. “That’s what I ken about geese—they’re wicked buggers, but they taste great.”
He turned and plucked his mud-stained coat from the floor.
“So, then. Let me help your Da with the chores, and then I want to see how ye’ve taught my son to crawl.”
I TOUCHED A FINGER to the gleaming white surface, then rubbed my fingers together appraisingly.
“There is absolutely nothing greasier than goose grease,” I said with approval. I wiped my fingers on my apron and took up a large spoon.
“Nothing better for a nice pastry crust,” Mrs. Bug agreed. She stood on her tiptoes, watching jealously as I divided the soft white fat, ladling it from the kettle into two large stone crocks; one for the kitchen, one for my surgery.
“A nice venison pie we’ll have for Hogmanay,” she said, eyes narrowing as she envisioned the prospect. “And the haggis to follow, wi’ cullen skink, and a bit o’ corn crowdie . . . and a great raisin tart wi’ jam and clotted cream for sweeties!”
“Wonderful,” I murmured. My own immediate plans for the goose grease involved a salve of wild sarsaparilla and bittersweet for burns and abrasions, a mentholated ointment for stuffy noses and chest congestion, and something soothing and pleasantly scented for diaper rash—perhaps a lavender infusion, with the juice of crushed jewelweed leaves.
I glanced down in search of Jemmy; he had learned to crawl only a few days before, but was already capable of an astonishing rate of speed, particularly when no one was looking. He was sitting peaceably enough in the corner, though, gnawing intently at the wooden horse Jamie had carved for him as a Christmas present.
Catholic as many of them were—and nominally Christian as they all were—Highland Scots regarded Christmas primarily as a religious observance, rather than a major festive occasion. Lacking priest or minister, the day was spent much like a Sunday, though with a particularly lavish meal to mark the occasion, and the exchange of small gifts. My own gift from Jamie had been the wooden ladle I was presently using, its handle carved with the image of a mint leaf; I had given him a new shirt with a ruffle at the throat for ceremonial occasions, his old one having worn quite away at the seams.
With a certain amount of forethought, Mrs. Bug, Brianna, Marsali, Lizzie, and I had made up an enormous quantity of molasses toffee, which we had distributed as a Christmas treat to all the children within earshot. Whatever it might do to their teeth, it had the beneficial effect of gluing their mouths shut for long periods, and in consequence, the adults had enjoyed a peaceful Christmas. Even Germain had been reduced to a sort of tuneful gargle.
Hogmanay was a different kettle of fish, though. God knew what feverish pagan roots the Scottish New Year’s celebration sprang from, but there was a reason why I wanted to have a good lot of medicinal preparations made up in advance—the same reason Jamie was now up at the whisky spring, deciding which barrels were sufficiently aged as not to poison anyone.
The goose grease disposed of, there was a good bit of dark broth left in the bottom of the kettle, aswirl with bits of crackled skin and shreds of meat. I saw Mrs. Bug eyeing it, visions of gravy dancing in her brain.
“Half,” I said sternly, reaching for a large bottle.
She didn’t argue; merely shrugged her rounded shoulders and settled back on her stool in resignation.
“Whatever will ye do with that, though?” she asked curiously, watching as I put a square of muslin over the neck of the bottle, in order to strain the broth. “Grease, aye, it’s a wonder for the salves. And broth’s good for a body wi’ the ague or a wabbly wame, to be sure—but it willna keep, ye know.” One sketchy eyebrow lifted at me in warning, in case I hadn’t actually known that. “Leave it more than a day or two, and it’ll be blue with the mold.”
“Well, I do hope so,” I told her, ladling broth into the muslin square. “I’ve just set out a batch of bread to mold, and I want to see if it will grow on the broth, too.”
I could see assorted questions and responses flickering through her mind, all based on a growing fear that this mania of mine for rotten food was expanding, and would soon engulf the entire output of the kitchen. Her eyes darted toward the pie safe, then back at me, dark with suspicion.