Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 158


“Those are the females,” I explained. “They crawl out at night and lay eggs on the skin. The eggs cause itching, and so, of course, your wee lad scratches. That’s what causes the redness and rash. But then he spreads the eggs to things he touches”—and, Tammas being two, he touched everything within reach—“and that’s why your whole family is likely infected.”

Mrs. Wilson squirmed slightly on her stool, whether because of pinworms or embarrassment, I couldn’t tell, and righted Tammas, who promptly wriggled out of her lap and made for the bed containing his two elder sisters, aged four and five. I grabbed him round the waist and lugged him back over to the hearth.

“Bride save us, what shall I do for it?” Annie asked, glancing helplessly from the sleeping girls to Mr. Wilson, who—worn out from his day’s work—was curled in the other bed, snoring.

“Well, for the older children and adults, you use this.” I took a bottle out of my basket and handed it over, rather gingerly. It wasn’t actually explosive, but, knowing its effects, it always gave me that illusion.

“It’s a tonic of flowering spurge and wild ipecac root. It’s a very strong laxative—that means it will give you the blazing shits,” I amended, seeing her incomprehension, “but a few doses will get rid of the pinworms, provided you can keep Tammas and the girls from respreading them. And for the smaller children—” I handed over a pot of garlic paste, strong enough to make Annie wrinkle her nose, even though it was corked. “Take a large glob on your finger and smear it round the child’s bumhole—and, er, up inside.”

“Aye,” she said, looking resigned, and took both pot and bottle. It probably wasn’t the worst thing she’d ever done as a mother. I gave her instructions regarding the boiling of bedding and strict advice about soap and religious hand-washing, wished her well, and left, feeling a strong urge to scratch my own bottom.

This faded on the walk back to the Higginses’ cabin, though, and I slid into the pallet beside Jamie with the peaceful sense of a job well done.

He rolled over drowsily and embraced me, then sniffed.

“What in God’s name have ye been doing, Sassenach?”

“You don’t want to know,” I assured him. “What do I smell like?” If it was just garlic, I wasn’t getting up. If it was feces, though . . .

“Garlic,” he said, luckily. “Ye smell like a French gigot d’agneau.” His stomach rumbled at the thought, and I laughed—quietly.

“I think the best you’re likely to get is parritch for your breakfast.”

“That’s all right,” he said comfortably. “There’s honey for it.”

THE NEXT AFTERNOON, there being no pressing medical calls, I climbed up to the new house site with Jamie. The shield-shaped green leaves and arching stems of the wild strawberries were everywhere, spattering the hillside with tiny, sour-sweet red hearts. I’d brought a small basket with me—I never went anywhere without one in spring or summer—and had it half filled by the time we reached the clearing, with its fine view of the whole cove that lay below the Ridge.

“It seems like a lifetime ago that we came here first,” I remarked, sitting down on one of the stacks of half-hewn timbers and pulling off my wide-brimmed hat to let the breeze blow through my hair. “Do you remember when we found the strawberries?” I offered a handful of the fruit to Jamie.

“More like two or three. Lifetimes, I mean. But, aye, I remember.” He smiled, sat down beside me, and plucked one of the tiny berries from the palm of my hand. He motioned at the more or less level ground before us, where he’d laid out a rough floor plan with pegs driven into the earth and string outlining the rooms.

“Ye’ll want your surgery in the front, aye? The same as it was? That’s how I’ve put it, but it’s easy changed, if ye like.”

“Yes, I think so. I’ll be in there more than anywhere; be nice to be able to look out the window and see what sort of hideous emergency is coming.”

I’d spoken in complete seriousness, but he laughed and took a few more strawberries.

“At least if they have to come uphill, it will slow them down a bit.” He’d brought up the rough writing desk he’d made and now put it on his knee, opening it to show me his plans, neatly ruled in pencil.

“I’ll have my speak-a-word room across the hall from you, like we did before—ye’ll see I’ve made the hallway wider, because of the staircase landing—and I think I’d maybe like a wee parlor there, between the speak-a-word room and the kitchen. But the kitchen . . . d’ye think we should maybe have a separate cookhouse, as well, like John Grey did in Philadelphia?”

I considered that one for a moment, my mouth puckering a bit from the astringent berries. I wasn’t surprised that the thought had occurred to him; anyone who’d lived through one house fire, let alone two, would have a very lively awareness of the dangers.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” I said at last. “They do that as much because of the summer heat as for the danger of fire, and that’s not a problem here. We’ll have to have hearths in the house, after all. The danger of fire can’t be that much greater if we’re cooking on one of them.”

“Surely that depends who’s doin’ the cooking,” Jamie said, cocking an eyebrow at me.

“If you mean anything personal by that remark, you may retract it,” I said coolly. “I may not be the world’s best cook, but I’ve never served you cinders.”

“Well, ye are the only member o’ the family who’s ever burnt the house down, Sassenach. Ye’ve got to admit that much.” He was laughing and put up a casual hand to intercept the mock blow I aimed at him. His hand completely enclosed my fist, and he pulled me effortlessly off my perch and onto his knee.

He put an arm round me and his chin on my shoulder, brushing my hair out of his face with his free hand. He was barefoot and wearing only a shirt and his threadbare green-and-brown working plaid, the one he’d bought from a rag dealer in Savannah. It was rucked up over his thigh; I pulled the fold out from under my bottom and smoothed it down over the long muscle of his leg.

“Amy says there’s a Scottish weaver in Cross Creek,” I said. “When you next go down, maybe you should commission a new plaid—maybe one in your own tartan, if the weaver’s up to a Fraser red.”

“Aye, well. There’re plenty other things to spend money on, Sassenach. I dinna need to be grand to hunt or fish—and I work the fields in my shirt.”

“I could go round day in and day out in a gray flannel petticoat with holes in it and it wouldn’t make any difference to my work—but you wouldn’t want me to do that, would you?”

He made a low Scottish noise of amusement and shifted his weight, settling me more firmly.

“I would not. I like to look at ye now and then in a fine gown, lass, wi’ your hair put up and your sweet br**sts showin’. Besides,” he added, “a man’s judged by how well he provides for his family. If I let ye go around in rags, folk would think I was either mean or improvident.” It was clear from his tone which of these conditions would be the more frightful sin.

“Oh, they would not,” I said, mostly teasing for the sake of argument. “Everyone on the Ridge knows perfectly well that you’re neither one. Besides, don’t you think I like to look at you in all your glory?”

“Why, that’s verra frivolous of ye, Sassenach; I should never have expected something like that from Dr. C.E.B.R. Fraser.” He was laughing again but stopped abruptly as he turned a little.

“Look,” he said into my ear, and pointed down the side of the cove. “Just there, on the right, where the creek comes out o’ the trees. See her?”

“Oh, no!” I said, spotting the smudge of white moving slowly among the green mats of cress and duckweed. “It can’t be, surely?” I couldn’t make out details at that distance without my glasses, but from the way it moved, the object in question was almost certainly a pig. A big pig. A big white pig.

“Well, if it’s no the white sow, it’s a daughter just like her. But my guess is that it’s the auld besom herself. I’d know that proud rump anywhere.”

“Well, then.” I leaned back against him with a little sigh of satisfaction. “Now I know we’re home.”

“Ye’ll sleep under your own roof within a month, a nighean,” he said, and I could hear the smile in his voice. “Mind, it may not be more than the roof of a lean-to, to start—but it’ll be our own. By the winter, though, I’ll have the chimneys built, the walls all up, and the roof on; I can be puttin’ in the floors and the doors while there’s snow on the ground.”

I put a hand up to cup his cheek, warm and lightly stubbled. I didn’t fool myself that this was paradise or even a refuge from the war—wars tended not to stay in one place but moved around, much in the manner of cyclones and even more destructive where they touched down. But for however long it lasted, this was home, and now was peace.

We sat in silence for a while, watching hawks circle over the open ground below and the machinations of the white sow—if indeed it was she—who had now been joined in her foraging by a number of smaller porcine blobs, doubtless this spring’s litter. At the foot of the cove, two men on horseback came into sight from the wagon road, and I felt Jamie’s attention sharpen, then relax.

“Hiram Crombie and the new circuit rider,” he said. “Hiram said he meant to go down to the crossroads and fetch the man up, so he’d not lose his way.”

“You mean so Hiram can make sure he’s dour enough for the job,” I said, laughing. “You realize they’ll have got out of the habit of thinking you’re human, don’t you?” Hiram Crombie was head man of the little group of settlers that Jamie had acquired six years before. All of them were Presbyterians of a particularly rock-ribbed disposition and inclined to regard Papists as being deeply perverse, if not actually the spawn of Satan.

Jamie made a small noise, but it was one of tolerant dismissal.

“They’ll get used to me again,” he said. “And I’d pay money to watch Hiram talk to Rachel. Here, Sassenach, my leg’s gone asleep.” He helped me off his lap and stood up, shaking his kilt into place. Faded or not, it suited him, and my heart rose to see him looking so much as he should: tall and broad-shouldered, head of his household, once more master of his own land.

He looked out over the cove again, sighed deeply, and turned to me.

“Speakin’ of hideous emergencies,” he said thoughtfully, “ye do want to see them coming. So ye can be fettled against them, aye?” His eyes met mine directly. “Would now be a good time to tell me what’s coming, d’ye think?”

“THERE’S NOTHING wrong,” I said, for probably the tenth time. I picked at a scab of bark still clinging to the timber I sat on. “It’s perfectly all right. Really.”

Jamie was standing in front of me, the cove and the clouded sky bright behind him, his face shadowed.

“Sassenach,” he said mildly. “I’m a great deal more stubborn than you are, and ye ken that fine. Now, I know something upset ye when ye went to Beardsley’s place, and I know ye dinna want to tell me about it. Sometimes I ken ye need to fettle your mind about a matter before ye speak, but you’ve had time and more to do that—and I see that whatever it is is worse than I thought, or ye’d have said by now.”

I hesitated, trying to think of something to tell him that perhaps wasn’t quite . . . I looked up at him and decided that, no, I couldn’t lie to him—and not only because he’d be able to tell immediately that I was lying.

“Do you remember,” I said slowly, looking up at him, “on our wedding night? You told me you wouldn’t ask me to tell you things that I couldn’t. You said that love had room for secrets, but not for lies. I won’t lie to you, Jamie—but I really don’t want to tell you.”

He shifted his weight from one leg to the other and sighed.

“If ye think that’s going to relieve my mind, Sassenach . . .” he said, and shook his head. “I didna say that, anyway. I do remember the occasion—vividly”—and he smiled a little at me—“and what I said was that there was nothing between us then but respect—and that I thought respect maybe had room for secrets, but not for lies.”

He paused for a moment, then said very gently, “D’ye no think there’s more than respect between us now, mo chridhe?”

I took a very deep breath. My heart was thumping against my stays, but it was just normal agitation, not panic.

“I do,” I said, looking up at him. “Jamie . . . please don’t ask me just now. I truly think it’s all right; I’ve been praying about it, and—and—I think it will be all right,” I ended, rather lamely. I stood up, though, and took his hands. “I’ll tell you when I think I can,” I said. “Can you live with that?”

His lips tightened as he thought. He wasn’t a man for facile answers. If he couldn’t live with it, he’d tell me.

“Is it a matter that I might need to make preparation for?” he asked seriously. “If it might cause a fight of some kind, I mean, I should need to be ready.”

“Oh.” I let out the breath I’d been holding, somewhat relieved. “No. No, it isn’t anything like that. More of a moral question kind of thing.”

I could see that he wasn’t happy about that; his eyes searched my face, and I saw the troubled look in them, but at last he nodded, slowly.