“Er . . . Rodney?” I asked, making a hasty guess. I hadn’t seen him since he was two or so, but I couldn’t think who else might be accompanying Mr. Wemyss.
The child nodded, examining me soberly.
“You be the conjure-woman?” he said, in a remarkably deep voice.
“Yes,” I said, rather surprised at this address, but still more surprised at how right my acknowledgment of it felt. I realized at that moment that I had been resuming my identity as we walked, that step by step as we climbed the mountain, smelling its scents and harvesting its plenty, I had sloughed off a few layers of the recent past and become again what I had last been in this place. I had come back.
“Yes,” I said again. “I am Mrs. Fraser. You may call me Grannie Fraser, if you like.”
He nodded thoughtfully, taking this in and mouthing “Grannie Fraser” to himself once or twice, as though to taste it. Then he looked at Jamie, who had set Mr. Wemyss back on his feet and was smiling down at him with a look of joy that turned my heart to wax.
“Izzat Himself?” Rodney whispered, drawing close to me.
“That is Himself,” I agreed, nodding gravely.
“Aidan said he was big,” Rodney remarked, after another moment’s scrutiny.
“Is he big enough, do you think?” I asked, rather surprised by the realization that I didn’t want Rodney to be disappointed in this first sight of Himself.
Rodney gave an odd sideways tilt of his head, terribly familiar—it was what his mother, Lizzie, did when making a judgment about something—and said philosophically, “Well, he’s lot’s bigger ’n me, anyway.”
“Everything is relative,” I agreed. “And speaking of relatives, how is your mother? And your . . . er . . . father?”
I was wondering whether Lizzie’s unorthodox marriage was still in effect. Having fallen accidentally in love with identical-twin brothers, she had—with a guile and cunning unexpected in a demure nineteen-year-old Scottish bond servant—contrived to marry them both. There was no telling whether Rodney’s father was Josiah or Keziah Beardsley, but I did wonder—
“Oh, Mammy’s breedin’ again,” Rodney said casually. “She says she’s a-going to castrate Daddy or Da or both of ’em, if that’s what it takes to put a stop to it.”
“Ah . . . well, that would be effective,” I said, rather taken aback. “How many sisters or brothers have you got?” I’d delivered a sister before we’d left the Ridge, but—
“One sister, one brother.” Rodney was clearly growing bored with me and stood on his toes to look down the path behind me. “Is that Mary?”
“What?” Turning, I saw Ian and Rachel navigating a horseshoe bend some way below; they vanished into the trees even as I watched.
“You know, Mary ’n Joseph a-flying into Egypt,” he said, and I laughed in sudden understanding. Rachel, very noticeably pregnant, was riding Clarence, with Ian, who hadn’t troubled to shave for the last several months and was sporting a beard of quasi-biblical dimensions, walking beside her. Jenny was presumably still out of sight behind them, riding the mare with Franny and leading the pack mule.
“That’s Rachel,” I said. “And her husband, Ian. Ian is Himself’s nephew. You mentioned Aidan—is his family well, too?” Jamie and Mr. Wemyss had started off toward the trailhead, talking sixteen to the dozen about affairs on the Ridge. Rodney took my hand in a gentlemanly way and nodded after them.
“We’d best be going down. I want to tell Mam first, afore Opa gets there.”
“Opa . . . oh, your grandfather?” Joseph Wemyss had married a German lady named Monika, soon after Rodney’s birth, and I thought I recalled that “Opa” was a German expression for “grandfather.”
“Ja,” Rodney said, confirming this supposition.
The trail meandered back and forth across the upper slopes of the Ridge, offering me tantalizing glimpses through the trees of the settlement below: scattered cabins among the bright-flowered laurels, the fresh-turned black earth of vegetable gardens—I touched the digging knife at my belt, suddenly dying to have my hands in the dirt, to pull weeds . . .
“Oh, you are losing your grip, Beauchamp,” I murmured at the thought of ecstatic weed-pulling, but smiled nonetheless.
Rodney was not a chatterbox, but we kept up an amiable conversation as we walked. He said that he and his opa had walked up to the head of the pass every day for the last week, to be sure of meeting us.
“Mam and Missus Higgins have a ham saved for ye, for supper,” he told me, and licked his lips in anticipation. “And there’s honey to have with our corn bread! Daddy found a bee tree last Tuesday sennight and I helped him smoke ’em. And . . .”
I replied, but absentmindedly, and after a bit we both lapsed into a companionable silence. I was bracing myself for the sight of the clearing where the Big House had once stood—and a brief, deep qualm swept through me, remembering fire.
The last time I had seen the house, it was no more than a heap of blackened timbers. Jamie had already chosen a site for a new house and had felled the trees for it, leaving them stacked. Sadness and regret there might be in this return—but there were bright green spikes of anticipation poking through that scorched earth. Jamie had promised me a new garden, a new surgery, a bed long enough to stretch out in—and glass windows.
Just before we came to the spot where the trail ended above the clearing, Jamie and Mr. Wemyss stopped, waiting for Rodney and me to catch up. With a shy smile, Mr. Wemyss kissed my hand and then took Rodney’s, saying, “Come along, Roddy, you can be first to tell your mam that Himself and his lady have come back!”
Jamie took my hand and squeezed it hard. He was flushed from the walk, and even more from excitement; the color ran right down into the open neck of his shirt, turning his skin a beautiful rosy bronze.
“I’ve brought ye home, Sassenach,” he said, his voice a little husky. “It willna be the same—and I canna say how things will be now—but I’ve kept my word.”
My throat was so choked that I could barely whisper “Thank you.” We stood for a long moment, clasped tight together, summoning up the strength to go around that last corner and look at what had been, and what might be.
Something brushed the hem of my skirt, and I looked down, expecting that a late cone from the big spruce we were standing by had fallen.
A large gray cat looked up at me with big, calm eyes of celadon green and dropped a fat, hairy, very dead wood rat at my feet.
“Oh, God!” I said, and burst into tears.
JAMIE HAD SENT word ahead, and preparations had been made for our coming. Jamie and I would stay with Bobby and Amy Higgins; Rachel and Ian with the MacDonalds, a young married couple who lived up the Ridge a way; and Jenny, Fanny, and Germain would bide for the nonce with Widow MacDowall, who had a spare bed.
There was a modest party thrown in our honor the first night—and in the morning we rose and were once more part of Fraser’s Ridge. Jamie disappeared into the forest, coming back at nightfall to report that his cache of whisky was safe, and brought a small cask back with him to use as trade goods for what we might need to set up housekeeping, once we had a house to keep again.
As to said house—he’d begun the preparations for building a new house before we had left the Ridge, selecting a good site at the head of the wide cove that opened just below the ridge itself. The site was elevated but the ground there fairly level, and thanks to Bobby Higgins’s industry, it had been cleared of trees, timber for the framing of the house laid in stacks, and an amazing quantity of large stones lugged uphill and piled, ready to be used for the foundation.
For Jamie, the first order of business was to see that his house—or the beginnings of it—was as it should be, and the second was to visit every household on the Ridge, hearing and giving news, listening to his tenants, reestablishing himself as the founder and proprietor of Fraser’s Ridge.
My first order of business was Fanny’s frenulum. I spent a day or two in organizing the various things we had brought with us, in particular my medical equipment, while visiting with the various women who came to call at the Higginses’ cabin—our own first cabin, which Jamie and Ian had built when we first came to the Ridge. But once that was done, I summoned my troops and commenced the action.
“YE MAY PUT the poor lass off drinking whisky for good,” Jamie observed, casting a worried look at the cup full of amber liquid sitting on the tray next to my embroidery scissors. “Would it not be easier for her to have the ether?”
“In one way, yes,” I agreed, sliding the scissors point-first into a second cup, this one filled with clear alcohol. “And if I were going to do a lingual frenectomy, I’d have to. But there are dangers to using ether, and I don’t mean merely burning down the house. I’m going to do just a frenotomy, at least for now. That is a very simple operation; it will literally take five seconds. And, besides, Fanny says she doesn’t want to be put to sleep—perhaps she doesn’t trust me.” I smiled at Fanny as I said this; she was sitting on the oak settle by the hearth, solemnly taking note of my preparations. At this, though, she looked at me abruptly, her big brown eyes surprised.
“Oh, doh,” she said. “I twust oo. I zhust wanna thee.”
“Don’t blame you a bit,” I assured her, handing her the cup of whisky. “Here, then, take a good mouthful of that and hold it in your mouth—let it go down under your tongue—for as long as you can.”
I had a tiny cautery iron, its handle wrapped in twisted wool, heating on Amy’s girdle. I supposed it didn’t matter if it tasted like sausages. I had a fine suture needle, threaded with black silk, too, just in case.
The frenulum is a very thin band of elastic tissue that tethers the tongue to the floor of the mouth, and in most people it is exactly as long as it needs to be to allow the tongue to make all the complex motions required for speaking and eating, without letting it stray between the moving teeth, where it could be badly damaged. In some, like Fanny, the frenulum was too long and, by fastening most of the length of the tongue to the floor of her mouth, prevented easy manipulations of that organ. She often had bad breath because, while she cleaned her teeth nightly, she couldn’t use her tongue to dislodge bits of food that stuck between cheek and gum or in the hollows of the lower jaw below the tongue.
Fanny gulped audibly, then coughed violently.
“Tha’th . . . thtrong!” she said, her eyes watering. She wasn’t put off, though, and at my nod took another sip and sat stoically, letting the whisky seep into her buccal tissues. It would in fact numb the frenulum, at least a bit, and at the same time provide disinfection.
I heard Aidan and Germain calling outside; Jenny and Rachel had come down for the operation.
“I think we’d better do this outside,” I said to Jamie. “They’ll never all fit in here—not with Oglethorpe.” For Rachel’s belly had made considerable strides in the last few weeks and was of a size to make men shy nervously away from her lest she go off suddenly, like a bomb.
We took the tray of instruments outside and set up our operating site on the bench that stood by the front door. Amy, Aidan, Orrie, and wee Rob clustered together behind Jamie, who was charged with holding the looking glass—both to direct light into Fanny’s mouth to assist me and so that Fanny could indeed watch what was going on.
As Oglethorpe precluded Rachel being called into service as a back brace, though, we reshuffled the staff a bit and ended with Jenny holding the looking glass and Jamie sitting on the bench, holding Fanny on his knee, his arms wrapped comfortingly around her. Germain stood by, holding a stack of clean cloths, solemn as an altar boy, and Rachel sat beside me, the tray between us, so that she could hand me things.
“All right, sweetheart?” I asked Fanny. She was round-eyed as a sun-stunned owl, and her mouth hung open just a little. She heard me, though, and nodded. I took the cup from her limp hand—it was empty, and I handed it to Rachel, who refilled it briskly.
“Mirror, please, Jenny?” I knelt on the grass before the bench, and with no more than a little trial and error, we had a beam of sunlight trained on Fanny’s mouth. I took the embroidery scissors from their bath, wiped them, and, with a pledget of cloth, took hold of Fanny’s tongue with my left hand and lifted it.
It didn’t take even three seconds. I’d examined her carefully several times, making her move her tongue as far as she could, and knew exactly where I thought the point of attachment should be. Two quick snips and it was done.
Fanny made a surprised little noise and jerked in Jamie’s arms, but didn’t seem to be in acute pain. The wound was bleeding, though, suddenly and profusely, and I hurriedly pushed her head down, so that the blood could run out of her mouth onto the ground and not choke her.
I had another pledget waiting; I dipped this quickly into the whisky and, seizing Fanny’s chin, brought her head up and tucked the pledget under her tongue. That made her emit a stifled “Owy!” but I cupped her chin and shut her mouth, adjuring her sternly to press down on the pledget with her tongue.
Everyone waited breathlessly while I counted silently to sixty. If the bleeding showed no sign of stopping, I’d have to put in a suture, which would be messy, or cauterize the wound, which would certainly be painful.
“. . . fifty-nine . . . sixty!” I said aloud, and peering into Fanny’s mouth, found the pledget substantially soaked with blood but not overwhelmed by it. I extracted it and put in another, repeating my silent count. This time, the pledget was stained, no more; the bleeding was stopping on its own.
“Hallelujah!” I said, and everyone whooped. Fanny’s head bobbed a bit and she smiled, very shyly.