Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone (3 page)

BOOK: Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone
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Jamie shook his head and put an arm around me.

“Nay, dinna trouble yourself. We’ll maybe sit awhile and see the fire out.”

They moved off slowly down the hill, shambling like cattle, to the accompaniment of clanking noises from Brianna’s bag. The Higgins cabin, where they’d spend the night, showed as a tiny glimmer in the dark; Amy must have lit a lamp and pulled back the hide that covered the window.

Jamie was still holding the chisel in his hand; eyes fixed on his daughter’s disappearing back, he raised it and kissed it, as he’d once kissed the haft of his dirk before me, and I knew this, too, was a sacred promise.

He put the chisel away in his sporran and took me in his arms, my back to him, so we could both watch them out of sight. He rested his chin on top of my head.

“What are ye thinking, Sassenach?” he said softly. “I saw your eyes; there are clouds in them.”

I settled against him, feeling his warmth a bulwark at my back.

“The children,” I said, hesitant. “They—I mean, it’s
wonderful
that they’re here. To think we’d never see them again, and suddenly…” I swallowed, overcome by the dizzying joy of finding myself—finding
us
—once again and so unexpectedly part of that remarkable thing, a family. “To be able to see Jem and Mandy grow up…to have Bree and Roger again…”

“Aye,” he said, a smile in his voice. “But?”

It took a moment, both to gather my thoughts and to put them into words.

“Roger said that something bad had happened, in their own time. And you know it must have been something truly terrible.”

“Aye,” he said, his voice hardening a little. “Brianna said the same. But ken,
a nighean,
they’ve lived in this time before. They do know, I mean—what it’s like, what it
will
be like.”

The ongoing war, he meant, and I squeezed his hands, clasped about my middle.

“I don’t think they do,” I said softly, looking down across the broad cove. They had vanished into the darkness. “Nobody knows who hasn’t been there.” To war.

“Aye,” he said, and held me, silent, his hand resting on my side, over the scar of the wound made by a musket ball at Monmouth.

“Aye,” he said again after a long moment. “I ken what ye’re saying, Sassenach. I thought my heart would burst when I saw Brianna and kent it was really her, and the bairns…but for all the joy of it…see, I missed them cruelly, but I could take comfort in thinking they were safe. Now—”

He stopped and I felt his heart beating against me, slow and steady. He took a deep breath, and the fire popped suddenly, a pocket of pitch exploding in sparks that disappeared into the night. A small reminder of the war that was rising, slowly, all around us.

“I look at them,” he said, “and my heart is suddenly filled with…”

“Terror,” I whispered, holding tight to him. “Sheer terror.”

“Aye,” he said. “That.”

WE STOOD FOR
a bit, watching the darkness below, letting joy return. The window of the Higgins cabin still glowed softly on the far side of the clearing below.

“Nine people in that cabin,” I said. I took a deep breath of the cool, spruce-scented night, envisioning the fug and humid warmth of nine sleeping bodies, occupying every horizontal inch of the place, with a cauldron and kettle steaming on the hearth.

The second window bloomed into brightness.

“Four of them ours,” Jamie said, and laughed softly.

“I hope the place doesn’t burn down.” Someone had put fresh wood on the fire, and sparks were beginning to dance above the chimney.

“It willna burn down.” He turned me round to face him. “I want ye,
a nighean,
” he said softly. “Will ye lie wi’ me? It may be the last time we have any privacy for some while.”

I opened my mouth to say, “Of course!” and instead yawned hugely.

I clapped a hand to my mouth, removing it to say, “Oh, dear. I
really
didn’t mean that.”

He was laughing, almost soundlessly. Shaking his head, he straightened out the rumpled quilt I’d been sitting on, knelt on it, and stretched up a hand to me.

“Come lie wi’ me and watch the stars for a bit, Sassenach. If ye’re still awake in five minutes, I’ll take your clothes off and have ye naked in the moonlight.”

“And if I’m asleep in five minutes?” I kicked off my shoes and took his hand.

“Then I won’t bother takin’ your clothes off.”

The fire was burning lower but still steadily; I could feel the warm breeze of it touch my face and lift the hair at my temples. The stars were thick and bright as diamonds spilled in some celestial burglary. I shared this observation with Jamie, who made a very derogatory Scottish noise in response, but then lay back beside me, sighing in pleasure at the view.

“Aye, they’re bonnie. Ken Cassiopeia there?”

I looked at the approximate portion of the sky indicated by his nod, but shook my head. “I’m complete rubbish at constellations. I can see the Big Dipper, and I usually recognize Orion’s Belt, but damned if I see it at the moment. And the Pleiades are up there somewhere, aren’t they?”

“They’re part of Taurus—just there by the hunter.” He stretched out an arm, pointing. “And that’s Camelopardalis.”

“Oh, don’t be silly. There isn’t a giraffe constellation, I would have heard of that.”

“Well, it’s no really in the sky just now, but there is one. And come to think, is it any more ridiculous than what’s happened today?”

“No,” I said softly. “No, it’s not.” He put an arm around me and I rolled over to lay my cheek on his chest, and we watched the stars in silence, listening to the wind in the trees and the slow beat of our hearts.

It seemed a long time later when Jamie stirred and sighed.

“I dinna think I’ve ever seen such stars, not since the night we made Faith.”

I lifted my head in surprise. We seldom mentioned Faith—stillborn, but embedded in our hearts—to each other, though each of us knew the other’s feelings.

“You
know
when she was conceived?
I
don’t know that.”

He ran his hand slowly down my back, fingers pausing to rub circles in the small of it. If I’d been a cat, I would have waved my tail gently under his nose.

“Aye, well, I suppose I could be wrong, but I’ve always thought it was the night I went to your bed at the abbey. There was a tall window at the end o’ the hall, and I saw the stars as I came to ye. I thought it might be a sign to me—to see my way clear.”

For a moment, I groped among my memories. That time at the Abbey of Ste. Anne, when he’d come so close to a self-chosen death, was one I seldom revisited. It had been a terrifying time. Days full of fear and confusion running from one into the next, nights black with despair and desperation. And yet when I did look back, I found a handful of vivid images, standing out like the illuminated letters on a page of ancient Latin.

Father Anselm’s face, pale in candlelight, his eyes warm with compassion and then the growing glow of wonder as he heard my confession. The abbot’s hands, touching Jamie’s forehead, eyes, lips, and palms, delicate as a hummingbird’s touch, anointing his dying nephew with the holy chrism of Extreme Unction. The quiet of the darkened chapel where I had prayed for his life, and heard my prayer answered.

And among these moments was the night when I woke from sleep to find him standing, a pale wraith by my bed, naked and freezing, so weak he could barely walk, but filled once more with life and a stubborn determination that would never leave him.

“You remember Faith, then?” My hand rested lightly on my stomach, recalling. He’d never seen her, or felt her as more than random kicks and pushes from inside me.

He kissed my forehead briefly, then looked at me.

“Ye ken I do. Don’t you?”

“Yes. I just wanted you to tell me more.”

“Oh, I mean to.” He settled himself on one elbow and gathered me in so I could share his plaid.

“Do you remember that, too?” I asked, pulling down the fold of cloth he’d draped over me. “Sharing your plaid with me, the night we met?”

“To keep ye from freezing? Aye.” He kissed the back of my neck. “It was me freezing, at the abbey. I’d worn myself out tryin’ to walk, and ye wouldna let me eat anything, so I was starving to death, and—”

“Oh, you
know
that’s not true! You—”

“Would I lie to ye, Sassenach?”

“Yes, you bloody would,” I said. “You do it all the time. But never mind that now. You were freezing and starving, and suddenly decided that instead of asking Brother Paul for a blanket or a bowl of something hot, you should stagger naked down a dark stone corridor and get in bed with me.”

“Some things are more important than food, Sassenach.” His hand settled firmly on my arse. “And finding out whether I could ever bed ye again was more important than anything else just then. I reckoned if I couldn’t, I’d just walk on out into the snow and not come back.”

“Naturally, it didn’t occur to you to wait for a few more weeks and recover your strength.”

“Well, I was fairly sure I could walk that far leaning on the walls, and I’d be doin’ the rest lying down, so why wait?” The hand on my arse was idly stroking it now. “Ye do recall the occasion.”

“It was like making love to a block of ice.” It had been. It had also wrung my heart with tenderness, and filled me with a hope I’d thought I’d never know again. “Though you did thaw out after a bit.”

Only a bit, at first. I’d just cradled him against me, trying as hard as possible to generate body heat. I’d pulled off my shift, urgent to get as much skin contact as possible. I remembered the hard, sharp curve of his hipbone, the knobs of his spine, and the ridged fresh scars over them.

“You weren’t much more than skin and bones.”

I turned, drew him down beside me now, and pulled him close, wanting the reassurance of his present warmth against the chill of memory. He
was
warm. And alive. Very much alive.

“Ye put your leg over me to keep me from falling out the bed, I remember that.” He rubbed my leg slowly, and I could hear the smile in his voice, though his face was dark with the fire behind him, sparking in his hair.

“It was a small bed.” It had been—a narrow monastic cot, scarcely large enough for one normal-sized person. And even starved as he was, he’d occupied a lot of space.

“I wanted to roll ye onto your back, Sassenach, but I was afraid I’d pitch us both out onto the floor, and…well, I wasna sure I could hold myself up.”

He’d been shaking with cold and weakness. But now, I realized, probably with fear as well. I took the hand resting on my hip and raised it to my mouth, kissing his knuckles. His fingers were cold from the evening air and tightened on the warmth of mine.

“You managed,” I said softly, and rolled onto my back, bringing him with me.

“Only just,” he murmured, finding his way through the layers of quilt, plaid, shirt, and shift. He let out a long breath, and so did I. “Oh, Jesus, Sassenach.”

He moved, just a little.

“What it felt like,” he whispered. “Then. To think I’d never have ye again, and then…”

He
had
managed, and it
was
just barely.

“I thought—I’d do it if it was the last thing I ever did…”

“It almost bloody was,” I whispered back, and took hold of his bottom, firm and round. “I really did think you’d died, for a moment, until you started to move.”

“Thought I was going to,” he said, with the breath of a laugh. “Oh, God, Claire…” He stopped for a moment, lowered himself, and pressed his forehead against mine. He’d done it that night, too, cold-skinned and fierce with desperation, and I’d felt I was breathing my own life into him then, his mouth so soft and open, smelling faintly of the ale mixed with egg that was all he could keep down.

“I wanted…” he whispered. “I wanted you. Had to have ye. But once I was inside ye, I wanted…”

He sighed then, deep, and moved deeper.

“I thought I’d die of it, then and there. And I wanted to. Wanted to go—while I was inside ye.” His voice had changed, still soft but somehow distant, detached—and I knew he’d moved away from the present moment, gone back to the cold stone dark and the panic, the fear and overwhelming need.

“I wanted to spill myself into ye and let that be the last I ever knew, but then I started, and I kent it wasna meant to be that way—that I’d live, but that I
would
keep myself inside ye forever. That I was givin’ ye a child.”

He’d come back in the speaking, back into the now and into me. I held him tight, big and solid and strong in my arms, but shaking, helpless as he gave himself up. I felt my own warm tears well up and slide down cold into my hair.

After a time, he stirred and rolled off onto his side. A big hand still rested light on my belly.

“I did manage, aye?” he said, and smiled a little, firelight soft on his face.

“You did,” I said, and, pulling the plaid back over us, I lay with him, content in the light of dying flame and eternal stars.

A BLUE WINE DAY

SHEER EXHAUSTION MADE ROGER
sleep like the dead, in spite of the fact that the MacKenzies’ bed consisted of two ragged quilts that Amy Higgins had hastily dragged out of her piecework bag, these laid over a week’s worth of the Higginses’ dirty laundry, and the MacKenzies’ outer clothing used as blankets. It was a warm bed, though, with the heat of the smoored fire on one side and the body heat of two children and a snuggly wife on the other, and he’d fallen into sleep like a man falling down a well, with time for no more than the briefest prayer—though a profound one—of gratitude.

We made it. Thanks.

He woke to darkness and the smell of burnt wood and a freshly used chamber pot, feeling a sudden chill behind him. He had lain down with his back to the fire but had rolled over during the night, and now saw the sullen glow of the last embers a couple of feet from his face, crimson veins in a bank of gray ash and charred wood. He put a hand behind him: Brianna was gone. There was a vague heap that must be Jem and Mandy at the far side of the quilt; the rest of the cabin was still somnolent, the air thick with heavy breathing.

“Bree?” he whispered, raising himself on one elbow. She was close—a solid shadow with her bottom braced against the wall by the hearth, standing on one foot to pull a stocking on. She put down her foot and crouched beside him, fingers brushing his face.

“I’m going hunting with Da,” she whispered, bending close. “Mama will watch the kids if you have things to do today.”

“Aye. Where did ye get—” He ran a hand down the side of her hip; she was wearing a thick hunting shirt and loose breeches, much patched; he could feel the roughness of the stitching under his palm.

“They’re Da’s,” she said, and kissed him, the tinge of firelight glisking in her hair. “Go back to sleep. It won’t be dawn for another hour.”

He watched her step lightly through the bodies on the floor, boots in her hand, and a cold draft snaked through the room as the door opened and closed soundlessly behind her. Bobby Higgins said something in a sleep-slurred voice, and one of the little boys sat up, said “What?” in a clear, startled voice, and then flopped back into his quilt, dormant once more.

The fresh air vanished into the comfortable fug, and the cabin slept again. Roger didn’t. He lay on his back, feeling peace, relief, excitement, and trepidation in roughly equal proportions.

They really had made it.

All of them. He kept counting his family, compulsively. All four of them. Here, and safe.

Fragmented memories and sensations jostled through his mind; he let them flow through him, not trying to stay them or catch more than an image here and there: the weight of a small gold bar in his sweaty hand, the lurch of his stomach when he’d dropped it and seen it slide away across the tilting deck. The warm steam of parritch with whisky on it, fortification against a freezing Scottish morning. Brianna hopping carefully down a flight of stairs on one foot, the bandaged one lifted and the words of “My Dame Hath a Lame, Tame Crane” coming irresistibly to his mind.

The smell of Buck’s hair, acrid and unwashed, as they embraced each other on the edge of a dock and a final farewell. Cold, endless, indistinguishable days and nights in the lurching hold of the
Constance
on their way to Charles Town, the four of them huddled in a corner behind the cargo, deafened by the smash of water against the hull, too seasick to be hungry, too tired even to be terrified, hypnotized instead by the rising water in the hold, watching it inch higher, splashing them with each sickening roll, trying to share their pitiful store of body heat to keep the kids alive…

He let out the breath he hadn’t realized he was holding, put his hands on the solid wooden floor to either side, closed his eyes, and let it all drain away.

No looking back. They’d made their decision, and they’d made it here. To sanctuary.

So now what?

He’d lived in this cabin once, for a long time. Now he supposed he’d build a new one; Jamie had told him last night that the land Governor Tryon had given him was still his, registered in his name.

A small thrill of anticipation rose in his heart. The day lay before him; the beginning of a new life. What should he do first?

“Daddy!” a voice with a lot of spit whispered loudly in his ear. “Daddy, I hafta go potty!”

He sat up smiling, pushing cloaks and shirts out of the way. Mandy was hopping from foot to foot in agitation, a small black bird, solid against the shadows.

“Aye, sweetheart,” he whispered back, and took her hand, warm and sticky. “I’ll take ye to the privy. Try not to step on anybody.”

MANDY HAD ENCOUNTERED
quite a few privies by now, and wasn’t put off by this one. When Roger opened the door, though, a huge spider dropped suddenly from the lintel and hung swaying like a plumb bob, inches from his face. He and Mandy both screamed—well, she did; his own effort was no more than a croak, but a manly croak, at least.

There was no real light yet; the spider was a black blob with an impression of legs, but all the more alarming for that. Alarmed in turn by their cries, the spider hurried back up its thread into whatever invisible recess it normally occupied.

“Not going in dere!” Mandy said, backing up against his legs.

Roger shared her feelings, but taking her off the trail into the bushes in the dark held the threat not only of further (and possibly larger) spiders, or snakes and bats, but also of the things that hunted in the crepuscule. Panthers, for instance…Aidan McCallum had entertained them earlier with a story about meeting a painter on his way to the privy…this privy.

“It’s all right, honey.” He bent and picked her up. “It’s gone. It’s afraid of us, it won’t come back.”

“I scared!”

“I know, sweetie. Don’t worry; I don’t think it will come back, but I’ll kill it if it does.”

“Wif a gun?” she asked hopefully.

“Yes,” he said firmly, and clutching her to his chest he ducked under the lintel, remembering too late Claire’s own story about the enormous rattlesnake perched on the seat of their privy…

In the event, though, nothing untoward occurred, save his nearly losing Mandy down the hole when she let go her grip to try to wipe her bottom with a dried corncob.

Sweating slightly in spite of the chilly morning air, he made his way back to the cabin, to find that in his absence, the Higginses—and Jem and Germain—had risen
en masse.

Amy Higgins blinked slightly when told that Brianna had gone a-hunting, but when Roger added that she had gone with her father, the look of surprise faded into a nod of acceptance that made Roger smile inwardly. He was glad to see that Himself’s personality still dominated the Ridge, despite his long absence; Claire had told him last night that they’d only come back from exile the month before.

“Are there many new folk come to settle since we were last here?” he asked Bobby, sitting down on the bench beside his host, bowl of porridge in his hand.

“A mort of ’em,” Bobby assured him. “Twenty families, at least. A bit of milk and honey, Preacher?” He pushed the honey pot companionably in Roger’s direction—being an Englishman, Bobby was allowed such frivolities with his breakfast, rather than the severe Scottish pinch of salt. “Oh, sorry—I should have asked, are you still a preacher?”

Claire had asked him that last night, but it still came as a surprise.

“I am, aye,” he said, and reached for the milk jug. In fact, both question and answer made his heart speed up.

He
was
a minister. He just wasn’t sure how official he was. Granted, he’d christened, married, and buried the people of the Ridge for a year or more, and preached to them, as well as doing the lesser offices of a minister, and they’d all thought of him as such; no doubt they still did. On the other hand, he was not formally ordained as a Presbyterian minister. Not quite.

“I’ll maybe call on the new folk,” he said casually. “Do ye ken whether they’re any of them Catholic, or otherwise?” This was a rhetorical question; everyone on the Ridge knew the nature of everyone else’s beliefs—and weren’t at all shy of discussing them, if not always to their faces.

Amy plunked a tin mug of chicory coffee by his bowl and sat down to her own salted porridge with a sigh of relief.

“Fifteen Catholic families,” she said. “Twelve Presbyterians and three Blue Light—Methodies, aye? Ye’ll want to watch out for thon folk, Preacher. Hmm…oh, and maybe twa Anglicans…Orrie!” She sprang up, just in time to interrupt six-year-old Orrie, who had been stealthily, if unsteadily, lifting the full chamber pot above his head with the clear intent of emptying it over Jem, who was sitting cross-legged by the fire, blinking sleepily at the shoe in his hand.

Startled by his mother’s cry, Orrie dropped the chamber pot—more or less missing Jem but decanting its fetid contents into the newly stirred fire—and ran for the door. His mother pursued him, pausing only to snatch up a broom. Enraged Gaelic shouts and high-pitched yelps of terror receded into the distance.

Jem, to whom morning was anathema, looked at the spluttering mess in the hearth, wrinkled his nose, and stood up. He swayed for a moment, then ambled to the table and sat down next to Roger, yawning.

There was silence. A charred log broke suddenly in the hearth and a spurt of sparks flew out of the mess, like a final comment on the state of things.

Roger cleared his throat.

“Man that is born of woman is full of trouble as the sparks that fly upward,” he observed.

Bobby slowly turned his head from contemplation of the hearth to look at Roger. His eyes were smoke-reddened, and the old “M” brand on his cheek showed white in the dim light of the cabin.

“Well put, Preacher,” he said. “Welcome back.”

IT WAS WHAT
her mother called a blue wine day. One where air and sky were one thing together and every breath intoxication. Chestnut and oak leaves crackled with each step, the scent of them sharp as that of the pine needles higher up. They were climbing the mountain, guns in hand, and Brianna Fraser MacKenzie was one with the day.

Her father held back a hemlock branch for her, and she ducked past to join him.

“Feur-milis,”
he said, gesturing to the wide meadow that opened out before them. “Recall any of the
Gàidhlig,
do ye, lass?”

“You said something about the grass,” she said, scrabbling hastily through her mental closets. “But I don’t know the other word.”

“Sweet Grass. It’s what we call this wee meadow. Good pasture, but too great a climb for most of the stock, and ye dinna want to leave them here for days untended, because of painters and bears.”

The whole of the meadow rippled, the silver-green heads of millions of grass stems in movement catching morning sun. Here and there, yellow and white butterflies cruised, and at the far side of the grass there was a sudden crash as some large ungulate vanished into the brush, leaving branches swaying in its wake.

“A certain amount of competition as well, I see,” she said, nodding toward the place where the animal had disappeared. She lifted an eyebrow, wanting to ask whether they should not pursue it, but assuming that her father had some good reason why not, since he made no move.

BOOK: Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone
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