I turned my head to hide a smile, and found Adso the kitten balanced on his hind legs on the bench, foreclaws anchored in the tabletop, his big green eyes watching the movements of the ladle with fascination.
“Oh, you want some, too?” I reached for a saucer from the shelf and filled it with a dark puddle of broth, savory with bits of goose meat and floating fat globules.
“This is from my half,” I assured Mrs. Bug, but she shook her head vigorously.
“Not a bit of it, Mrs. Fraser,” she said. “The bonnie wee laddie’s caught six mice in here in the past two days.” She beamed fondly at Adso, who had leaped down and was lapping broth as fast as his tiny pink tongue could move. “Yon cheetie’s welcome to anything he likes from my hearth.”
“Oh, has he? Splendid. He can come and have a go at the ones in my surgery, then.” We were presently entertaining a plague of mice; driven indoors by cold weather, they skittered along the baseboards like shadows after nightfall, and even in broad daylight, shot suddenly across floors and leaped out of opened cupboards, causing minor heart failure and broken dishes.
“Well, ye can scarcely blame the mice,” Mrs. Bug observed, darting a quick glance at me. “They go where the food is, after all.”
The pool of broth had nearly drained through the muslim, leaving a thick coating of flotsam behind. I scraped this off and dropped it on Adso’s saucer, then scooped up a fresh ladle of broth.
“Yes, they do,” I said, evenly. “And I’m sorry about it, but the mold is important. It’s medicine, and I—”
“Oh, aye! Of course it is,” she assured me hurriedly. “I ken that.” There was no tinge of sarcasm in her voice, which rather surprised me. She hesitated, then reached through the slit in her skirt, into the capacious pocket that she wore beneath.
“There was a man, as lived in Auchterlonie—where we had our hoose, Arch and me, in the village there. He was a carline, was Johnnie Howlat, and folk went wary near him—but they went. Some went by day, for grass cures and graiths, and some went by night, for to buy charms. Ye’ll ken the sort?” She darted another glance at me, and I nodded, a little uncertainly.
I knew the sort of person she meant; some Highland charmers dealt not only in remedies—the “graiths” she’d mentioned—but also in minor magic, selling lovephilters, fertility potions . . . ill wishes. Something cold slid down my back and vanished, leaving in its wake a faint feeling of unease, like the slime trail of a snail.
I swallowed, seeing in memory the small bunch of thorny plants, so carefully bound with red thread and with black. Placed beneath my pillow by a jealous girl named Laoghaire—purchased from a witch named Geillis Duncan. A witch like me.
Was that what Mrs. Bug was getting at? “Carline” was not a word I was certain of, though I thought it meant “witch,” or something like it. She was regarding me thoughtfully, her normal animation quite subdued.
“He was a filthy wee mannie, Johnnie Howlat was. He’d no woman to do for him, and his cot smelt of dreadful things. So did he.” She shivered suddenly, in spite of the fire at her back.
“Ye’d see him, sometimes, in the wood or on the moor, pokin’ at the ground. He’d find creatures that had died, maybe, and bring back their skins and their feet, bones and teeth for to make his charms. He wore a wretched auld smock, like a farmer, and sometimes ye’d see him comin’ doon the path wi’ something pooched up under his smock, and stains of blood—and other things—seepin’ through the cloth.”
“Sounds most unpleasant,” I said, eyes fixed on the bottle as I scraped the cloth again and ladled more broth. “But people went to him anyway?”
“There was no one else,” she said simply, and I looked up. Her dark eyes fixed unblinkingly on mine, and her hand moved slowly, fingering something inside her pocket.
“I didna ken at first,” she said. “For Johnnie kept mool from the graveyard and bone dust and hen’s blood and all manner of such things, but you”—she nodded thoughtfully at me, white kerch immaculate in the fire-glow—“ye’re a cleanly sort.”
“Thank you,” I said, both amused and touched. That was a high compliment from Mrs. Bug.
“Bar the moldy bread,” she added, the corners of her mouth primming slightly. “And that heathen wee pooch ye keep in your cabinet. But it’s true, no? Ye’re a charmer, like Johnnie was?”
I hesitated, not knowing what to say. The memory of Cranesmuir was vivid in my mind, as it had not been for many years. The last thing I wanted was for Mrs. Bug to be spreading the rumor that I was a carline—some already called me a conjure-woman. I was not worried about legal prosecution as a witch—not here, not now. But to have a reputation for healing was one thing; to have people come to me for help with the other things that charmers dealt in . . .
“Not exactly,” I said, guardedly. “It’s only that I know a bit about plants. And surgery. But I really don’t know anything at all about charms or . . . spells.”
She nodded in satisfaction, as though I had confirmed her suspicions instead of denying them.
Before I could respond, there was a sound from the floor like water hitting a hot pan, followed by a loud screech. Jemmy, tiring of his toy, had cast it aside and crawled over to investigate Adso’s saucer. The cat, disinclined to share, had hissed at the baby and frightened him. Jemmy’s shriek in turn had frightened Adso under the settle; only the tip of a small pink nose and a flicker of agitated whiskers showed from the shadows.
I picked Jem up and soothed his tears, while Mrs. Bug took over the broth-straining. She looked over the goose debris on the platter and picked out a leg bone, the white cartilage at the end smooth and gleaming.
“Here, laddie.” She waved it enticingly under Jemmy’s nose. He at once stopped crying, grabbed the bone, and put it in his mouth. Mrs. Bug selected a smaller wing bone, with shreds of meat still clinging to it, and put that down on the saucer.
“And that’s for you, lad,” she said to the darkness under the settle. “Dinna fill your wame too full, though—stay hungry for the wee moosies, aye?”
She turned back to the table, and began to scoop the bones into a shallow pan.
“I’ll roast these; they’ll do for soup,” she said, eyes on her work. Then without changing tone or looking up, she said, “I went to him once, Johnnie Howlat.”
“Did you?” I sat down, Jemmy on my knee. “Were you ill?”
“I wanted a child.”
I had no idea what to say; I sat still, listening to the drip of the broth through the muslin cloth, as she scraped the last bit of gristle neatly into the roasting pan, and carried it to the hearth.
“I’d slippit four, in the course of a year,” she said, back turned to me. “Ye’d not think it, to look at me now, but I was nay more than skin and bane, the color o’ whey, and my paps shrunk awa to nothing.”
She settled the pan firmly into the coals and covered it.
“So I took what money we had, and I went to Johnnie Howlat. He took the money, and put water in a pan. He sat me doon on the one side of it and him on the other, and there we sat for a verra long time, him starin’ into the water and me starin’ at him.
“At last, he shook himself a bit and got up, and went awa to the back of his cot. ’Twas dark, and I couldna see what he did, but he rummaged and poked, and said things beneath his breath, and finally he came back to me, and handed me a charm.”
Mrs. Bug straightened up and turned round. She came close, and laid her hand on Jemmy’s silky head, very gently.
“He said to me, Johnnie did, that here was a charm that would close up the mouth of my womb, and keep a babe safe inside, until it should be born. But there was a thing he’d seen, lookin’ in the water, and he must tell me. If I bore a live babe, then my husband would die, he said. So he would give me the charm, and the prayer that went with it—and then it was my choice, and who could say fairer than that?”
Her stubby, work-worn finger traced the curve of Jemmy’s cheek. Engaged with his new toy, he paid no attention.
“I carried that charm in my pocket for a month—and then I put it away.”
I reached up and put my hand over hers, squeezing. There was no sound but the baby’s slobbering and the hiss and pop of the bones in the coals. She stayed still for a moment, then drew her hand away, and put it back in her pocket. She drew out a small object, and put it on the table beside me.
“I couldna quite bring myself to throw it away,” she said, gazing down at it dispassionately. “It cost me three silver pennies, after all. And it’s a wee thing; easy enough to carry along when we left Scotland.”
It was a small chunk of stone, pale pink in color, and veined with gray, badly weathered. It had been crudely carved into the shape of a pregnant woman, little more than a huge belly, with swollen br**sts and buttocks above a pair of stubby legs that tapered to nothing. I had seen such figures before—in museums. Had Johnnie Howlat made it himself? Or perhaps found it in his pokings through wood and moor, a remnant of much more ancient times?
I touched it gently, thinking that whatever Johnnie Howlat might have been, or might have seen in his pan of water, he had no doubt been astute enough to have seen the love between Arch and Murdina Bug. Was it easier for a woman, then, to forswear the hope of children, thinking it a noble sacrifice for the sake of a much-loved husband, than to suffer bitterness and self-blame for constant failure? Carline he may have been, Johnnie Howlat—but a charmer, indeed.
“So,” Mrs. Bug said, matter-of-factly, “it may be as ye’ll find some lass who’s a use for it. Shame to let it go to waste, aye?”
THE YEAR ENDED clear and cold, with a small, brilliant moon that rose high in the violet-black vault of the sky, and flooded the coves and trails of the mountainside with light. A good thing, as people came from all over the Ridge—and some, even farther—to keep Hogmanay at “the Big House.”
The men had cleared the new barn and raked the floor clean for the dancing. Jigs and reels and strathspeys—and a number of other dances for which I didn’t know the names, but they looked like fun—were executed under the light of bear-oil lanterns, accompanied by the music of Evan Lindsay’s scratchy fiddle and the squeal of his brother Murdo’s wooden flute, punctuated by the heartbeat thump of Kenny’s bodhran.
Thurlo Guthrie’s ancient father had brought his pipes, too—a set of small uilleann pipes that looked nearly as decrepit as did Mr. Guthrie, but produced a sweet drone. The melody of his chanter sometimes agreed with the Lindsays’ notion of a particular tune, and sometimes didn’t, but the overall effect was cheerful, and sufficient whisky and beer had been taken by this point in the festivities that no one minded in the least.
After an hour or two of the dancing, I privately decided that I understood why the word “reel” had come to indicate drunkenness; even performed without preliminary lubrication, the dance was enough to make one dizzy. Done under the influence of whisky, it made all the blood in my head whirl round like the water in a washing machine. I staggered off at the end of one such dance, leaned against one of the barn’s uprights, and closed one eye, in hopes of stopping the spinning sensation.