Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone (84 page)

BOOK: Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone
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WE OPENED THE
front door in welcome, but stayed sheltering in the front hall from the wind until she should come closer. Fanny looked warily past Jamie’s elbow, at the small figure coming up the hill, and suddenly stiffened.

“She’s coming to stay!” she said, and looked accusingly at me.

“What?” I said, startled, and Fanny relaxed a little, seeing that my surprise at this remark was genuine.

“Th—
she
has her things.” She nodded at Agnes, who was now close enough that I could see her long, wispy blond hair escaping from a grubby cap. Agnes was indeed carrying a flour sack, the neck of it tied in a knot and the weight swinging like a pendulum as she walked.

“She’s likely bringing us something from her mother,” I said.

“Aye, she is.” Jamie’s eyes were fixed on her, interested. “Herself.” He glanced down at Fanny, who wore a slight frown. “Frances is right, Sassenach. Something’s happened, and the lass has left home.”

“Agnes!” I called, and came out and down the steps to meet her. “Agnes, are you all right?”

Her face was tired and grimy, but her eyes warmed when she saw me.

“Mrs. Fraser,” she said. Her voice was croaky, in the way of one who hasn’t spoken a word aloud in hours, or days, and she cleared her throat and tried again.

“I—it’s—I mean…I’m well.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” I reached out and took the flour sack from her—Jamie and Fanny had been right; I could tell from the feel of it that it held clothing, rather than a ham or a bag of onions. “Come in, child, and have something to eat; you look starved.”

Fanny eyed Agnes warily but went to fetch hot burgoo and some bread and butter when asked. Agnes ate hungrily, and we let her eat her fill without talking. As she began to show signs of slowing down, I exchanged a glance with Jamie that agreed I would ask the questions.

“How is your mother, dear?” I asked. “And would you like a bit of apple-and-raisin pie? I think there’s some left in the pie safe, isn’t there, Fanny?”

“Yes’m,” Fanny said. She hadn’t taken her eyes off Agnes since she’d entered the house, and was still eyeing her as though suspecting she might have come to steal the spoons, but she got up at once and went to get the pie.

“My mother’s well,” Agnes said, looking at me directly for the first time. Her face was strained and anxious, though, and another qualm of apprehension went through me.

“Your brothers? And…”

“My sister’s well,” she said, her face relaxing a little. “Thriving, Mam said to tell you. She’s near as big as her twin now, and eating like one o’ the piglets. My brothers
always
eat like pigs,” she added dismissively.

“I’m
so
glad to hear that,” I said, and warmth filled me. “About your little sister, I mean.”

I hesitated, not sure what to ask next, but her strength had come back with a little rest and food, and she straightened up on her stool, folded her hands on her knee, and looked at Jamie.

“I thank you kindly for the food, and I’ve come to ask for work, sir.”

“Have ye, then?” Jamie gave me a glance that said “See?” then smiled at her. “What sort of work did ye have in mind, lass?”

She looked rather nonplussed at that and spread her hands, frowning at them.

“Well…anything you need done, I suppose. Laundry?” she ventured, looking from Jamie to me and back. “Or maybe I could feed your animals or scrub the floors…” Everyone looked down at the kitchen floor, which was covered with dried muddy footprints at the moment; it had rained on and off all week.

“Mmphm,” Jamie said. “I imagine we can find enough for ye to do, lass. And we’ll give ye a bed and plenty to eat. But would ye tell me, then, why ye’ve left your family?”

A dull flush rose in her cheeks, and I knew what she was about to say.

“Your…um…stepfather, perhaps?” I asked delicately. She looked down and the flush got deeper. She nodded, once.

“He came back,” she blurted. “He always comes back. And mostly he’s all right for some time; he’s run out of drink and so long as there’s no money to buy more…it’s all right.” She took a deep breath and looked up, meeting Jamie’s eyes squarely. “It’s not what you’re thinkin’, sir; he hasn’t…you know.”

“I do,” Jamie said softly. “And I’m glad he hasn’t. But what
has
he done?”

She sighed.

“When he drinks, he gets angry and he…has ideas. So this time his idea was that we should all go into the Overhill people’s land and live in one of the villages there. My mother didn’t mind; she was glad to go to a place where there would be other women, people to be with and help.”

She looked at me, biting her lower lip.

“But I didn’t want to go. Aaron meant to marry me off to a friend of his in Chilhowee. He—we—don’t get on, him and me. He wanted me out of the house, and when I said I wouldn’t go and be married, he said I could suit myself but he was shut of me. And…he threw me out.” She’d kept a tight grip on her feelings so far, but a tear trickled down her cheek at this, and she swiped at it hastily, as though not wanting us to see it.

“I—I spent two days in the woods, sir. Not wanting to leave Ma and the little ones and not knowin’ what else to do. My brother Georgie snuck some food to me, and then finally Ma got out long enough to bring me my things—” She nodded at the forlorn little sack on the floor at her feet. “She said I should come to you. You were so kind and good to us, maybe…” She stopped and swallowed, hard.

“So I came,” she concluded, in a very small voice. She sat with her head bent. The room had grown dark by now, and the firelight flickered softly over her, as though the warmth reached out to her.

Fanny got up suddenly, came over to Agnes, and squatted down in front of her. She took Agnes’s hand in both of hers and patted it.

“Can you cook?” she asked hopefully.

DIASPORA

I SNIPPED SEVERAL SMALL
chunks of sugar off one of the loaves Jamie had brought back from Salisbury and carried them up to the garden, wrapped in my handkerchief. Long before I reached the garden itself, bees began to appear, circling me in interest.

“Just how far away can you smell it?” I asked. “Be patient; you’ll get your snack in a minute.” There were still flowers blooming on the mountain—asters, stonecrop, goldenrod, fall crocuses, Joe-Pye weed—but there were also caterpillars in a greater abundance than I was accustomed to, and the ones called woolly bears were noticeably larger and woolier than usual; sure sign of a hard winter, according to John Quincy, who ought to know. I wanted to make sure the bees would have enough honey to keep them ’til spring, so I augmented their diet with a treat of sliced fruit or sugar-water every few days.

Inside the garden—with the gate carefully closed against intrusions by deer or raccoons—I dipped water from the barrel with the shallow bowl I kept there and crumbled the sugar into it, stirring it with my finger. Bees at once lighted on the bowl, my clothes, the high stool I used as a workbench, and on my hand, their feet tickling with busy interest.

“Do you
mind
?” I said, shaking them off and carefully brushing a few strays from my face. I had had the forethought to wrap my hair in a cloth, having more than once had the unnerving experience of trying to disentangle a panicked bee from the floating strands.

“All right, then,” I said, putting down the dish of sugar-water with a sense of relief. “Go to it!” They didn’t need encouragement; bees were already clustered shoulder-to-shoulder on the rim of the dish, greedily sucking, then flying back to their hives—I had eight now, in the garden, and three more in the woods, all thriving—to be instantly supplanted by more.

“Well, then.” I stood back and watched them for a moment, with a sense of satisfaction. The thrum of their wings was a low, pleasant sound and I relaxed into the sense of the garden in early autumn, cool-leaved and pungent with the sharp scents of turnips, potato vines, and turned earth. I’d dug a deep trench for the spring peas along one side of the garden, one for pole beans on the other; Jamie or one of the girls would need to carry up a few baskets of manure for me to mix with the earth before filling them, so it could decay peacefully over the winter. A few late tomatoes glowed in the shadow of the northeast corner, and I went to pick whatever might be usable off the slug-tattered plants; they wouldn’t last much longer.

“So,” I said to a bee that had obligingly accompanied me to the tomato patch, “you already know about Roger and Bree and the children—I imagine you could smell the sauerkraut for miles. I hope they’ve made it to Charles Town by now and that things are all right between Germain and his family. I don’t think I told you about Rachel and Ian, though—they’ve gone off with Jenny—you know her, she was smelling like hickory nuts, goat’s milk, and bannocks the last time I saw her—to New York.

“Yes, that
is
a long way,” I continued, unrolling the small mat of woven reeds that I knelt on for weeding. “The only good thing is that there won’t be any more fighting up north—it’s all coming down
here.
But there
was
fighting up there, so they’ve gone to see Ian’s ex-wife and make sure that she and her children are all right. Rachel’s not happy about that, naturally, but her inner light obviously sees that Ian has to go, and so she’s going with him.
With
the baby,” I added, with a twinge of apprehension.

“Anyway, it’s quite the little diaspora—I suppose you’ll know what that is; you do it every day, don’t you?”
But then you come back at the end of the day,
I thought.

I said a quick prayer that our own busy bees would survive their adventures unscathed and make it back to our hive in the spring. Then I recalled Agnes.

“Oh, we’ve someone new. She’s called Agnes and at the moment she smells pretty strongly of lye soap and hyssop, because I had to nit-comb her hair, but I’m sure that’s only temporary—the smell, I mean; the nits are gone. I’ll bring her up tomorrow and introduce her to you.”

It was comforting to think that Fanny wasn’t rattling around in the big house by herself. She and Agnes had quite hit it off, after a brief initial wariness. When I’d left to come up to the garden, they’d been sitting on the porch braiding onions and garlic and speculating about Bobby Higgins’s marital prospects, since they could see the cabin below and Bobby repairing a rotted plank in the stoop, Aidan helping him, and the two little boys chasing each other round and round the cabin, shrieking.

“Would you have him?” Fanny had asked Agnes. “You had—I mean,
have,
” she corrected herself hastily, “little brothers, so maybe you could deal with the boys.”

“I
could,
” Agnes said doubtfully, laying a fresh braid of onions on the trug. “But I don’t know about
him.
Mr. Higgins, I mean. Judith MacCutcheon says the scar on his cheek is an
M,
and that stands for ‘Murderer.’ I think I’d be afraid to lie with a man who’s killed someone.”

“It’s easier than you think, child,” I said under my breath, recalling this.

Still, it was true that while the competition to be the next Mrs. Higgins continued, some of the young women—and some of their families—on the Ridge viewed Bobby with a slightly jaundiced eye, now that he was a widower and in the market for a wife. When he’d married Amy McCallum, taken on her sons Aidan and Orrie, and quickly produced little Rob, the community had come slowly to accept him. But now, when he might be marrying one of their daughters, they were seeing him again as a Sassenach and remembering that he had been a soldier—and a redcoat. And a murderer, with a brand on his face to testify to his crime.

I pushed aside the small pile of weeds—I had a row of such piles along the edge of the turnip patch, each more wilted and decaying than the one beside it. I kept them to prove to myself that I was, in fact, accomplishing something, though if I looked over my shoulder, it was apparent that the weeds were gaining on me. Jamie referred to the little heaps as my scalps—which, while he meant it to be funny, was actually not wrong.

There were other things to do today, though, so I rose, knees creaking, and rolled up my mat.

I picked up the basket of tomatoes, turnips, and herb cuttings and paused at the garden gate, looking down at the house. The girls had vanished from the porch, and the trug was gone, too—likely they’d gone to the root cellar with the onions.

Fanny was—we thought—thirteen now; Agnes fourteen. Girls
did
marry at such ages, but they weren’t going to if I—and Jamie—had anything to say about it, and we did.

A flicker of movement caught my eye through the trees. A woman…a young woman, in a blue-checked blouse and a gray skirt with an embroidered petticoat just showing beneath. Her head came into view and I recognized Caitriona McCaskill. She also carried a basket, and was headed downhill with a sense of purpose. Not everyone had reservations regarding Bobby Higgins.

“And what do you think of
her
?” I asked the bees, but if they had an opinion, they kept it to themselves.

RÉUNION

Charles Town, South Carolina

MANDY WAS BUG-EYED WITH
excitement and incoherent—but by no means silent—about everything she saw, from the clouds of mosquitoes drifting around them, and flocks of birds that were presumably eating the mosquitoes, to black slaves at work in the rice fields.

“Uncle Joe!” she shouted, hanging half out of the wagon and waving madly. “Uncle Joe, Uncle Joe!”

“That's not Uncle Joe,” Jem told her, grabbing the back of her pinafore. “He's in Boston.” He glanced quickly at his mother, who nodded, thankful for the intervention. She and Roger had had a private talk with both Jem and Germain about slavery—and a slightly more private talk with Jem.

“Look, Mandy!” Germain had grabbed Mandy's arm, turning her to see a huge blue heron looking disapprovingly at them from an undrained paddy, and no more was said about the men and women working with tiny hand scythes on the other side of the road, bending and stooping in the thick, hot air, harvesting the knee-deep yellowing grain.

On the outskirts of the city, they saw Continental soldiers.


Lots
of soldiers!” The boys were now hanging out of the wagon, pulling at each other's sleeves to see a new marvel. Small canvas tents, only large enough to shelter a man from the rain, but hundreds of them, seeming to breathe as a breeze from the distant river fluttered through them. The breeze brought the sound of rhythmic shouting: men drilling, marching to and fro in a distant cleared square of trodden dirt, muskets on their shoulders. And then a pair of cannon, dark and lethal, on their limbers and ready to move, with their caissons full of crates of balls and barrels of powder. The boys were struck speechless.

“Jesus Christ.” Brianna, parochial-school girl that she was, seldom took the Lord's name in vain, but this was a muttered prayer. Roger heard it and glanced at her.

“Aye,” he said, seeing what she was looking at. “They look harmless in a museum, don't they?” His mouth tightened a little as he looked at the openmouthed boys, but he gave Brianna a wry smile and handed her the reins.

“Distraction,” he said briefly, and hoisted Mandy onto his lap, where he took a firm grip on her waist and began pointing out flights of snowy egrets and what just might be the hazy masts of ships in the distant harbor.

HOW LONG HAD
it been since she'd seen a city? Brianna had been so keyed up when they came within sight of Charles Town that she'd scarcely noticed the city itself. She'd felt the heavy slosh of the sauerkraut barrels with every bump in the road, and when they reached the cobblestoned streets of Charles Town and the sloshing turned to a constant judder through the frame of the wagon, between nightmare visions of a barrel tipping out and bursting on the road and the necessity of keeping a grip on Mandy, she had little attention to spare.

But now, at last, they'd stopped. She felt weak-kneed, like someone stepping ashore after a long sea voyage, and thought she might smell of sauerkraut for the rest of her life, but such considerations weighed little against the relief of arrival. They'd had to leave the wagon in the yard of an inn and make their way on foot to the printshop. Charles Town had broad, gracious streets, but Fergus's establishment lurked modestly on a smaller lane near the edge of the business district, tree-lined and pleasant, with several small shops about it—but not a street wide enough for wagons to pass each other.

Roger had given the inn's ostler a few pennies to mind the wagon while they walked to the printshop, but he still felt uneasy at leaving it. On the other hand, the ostler had reared back, catching a whiff of sauerkraut, then spat on the cobbles and gave Roger a look indicating that a niggardly threepence was in no way enough for
this.

The MacKenzies had long since ceased to notice the reek of fermenting cabbage, but their noses were twitching now, avid for the smells of a city—particularly the city's food. They were near the river, and the scents of frying fish, chowder, and the briny whiff of fresh oysters mingled with the smell of grain and flowers and rose in an appetizing miasma around them.

“Oh, my God. Shrimp and grits?” Brianna's stomach gave an audible growl, throwing all the children into giggles.

“What's grits?” Mandy asked, sniffing hard. “I smell fish!”

“Grits are ground-up corn that's been soaked in lye,” Roger told her absently. Hungry as he was, he was more taken by the houses, painted in brilliant blues and pinks and yellows like a kid's crayon box. “Ye put butter or gravy on them.”

“Lye?”
all three children chorused, aghast. All of them had been routinely threatened since babyhood not to go within a yard of the eye-watering lye bucket, Or Else.

“You wash the lye off it before you grind it up and eat it,” Brianna assured them. “You've eaten it before.” She glanced at Mandy, then at Roger. “Should we get something to eat before we…”

“No,” he said firmly, barely forestalling an outburst of enthusiasm from his troops. He was looking at Germain, who looked like he might throw up at any moment. “We need to go to the printshop first.”

Germain didn't say anything, but swallowed visibly and licked his lips. He'd been doing that for the last couple of days; his lips were dry and cracked at the corners.

Brianna touched his shoulder gently.

“Je suis prest,”
she said, and the look of apprehension lifted briefly from his face.

“You're a girl, Auntie,” he said, with a roll of his eyes. “You have to say,
‘Je suis preste.' 

“You can't make me,” she said, and laughed.

“There it is!” Jem said suddenly and stopped dead, pointing. It was across the street: a small building with its bricks painted blue and its shutters and door a vivid purple. A large window beside the door displayed an array of books, and above it hung a neatly lettered sign that said,
FERGUS FRASER AND SONS, PRINTING AND BOOKS
.

“Merde,”
Germain whispered.

“Sons?” Jem asked, puzzled.

“Germain and his wee brothers, I expect,” Roger replied. He spoke matter-of-factly, but his own heart had suddenly clenched and then beat faster. He reached to take Germain's hand. “Come on, Germain, we'll go in first.”

THE DIRECTION OF
the breeze changed and suddenly the smells of ink and hot metal from the open door breathed upon them, a warm invisible cloud surrounding them. Germain took a big gulp of it and coughed. Coughed again and cleared his throat, eyes watering—possibly not just from the acrid scent, Roger thought. He thumped Germain lightly on the back.

“Going to be all right, then?” he asked. Germain nodded, but before he could say anything, footsteps came pounding over the cobbles behind Roger and, with a shout of
“Germain!”
Fergus flung his arms about his son and snatched him hard against his chest.

“Mon fils! Mon bébé!”

“Bébé?”
Germain said. His face was flexing through emotions ranging from astonishment to joy to pretended indignation, so fast that Roger could hardly read them—but there wasn't any doubt as to what the boy really felt. His cheek was pressed tight to his father's shabby waistcoat and now he turned his head, buried his face in his father's heart, and sobbed with relief.

“Certainly,
bébé,
” Fergus said, softly, and Roger saw that tears were running down his own cheeks. He held Germain a little way away from him and said, “I see you are a man now, and yet when I look at you—always, always—I see you as I first saw you.” He let go, gently, and took an ink-stained handkerchief from his pocket. “Short, fat, and covered with drool,” he added, wiping his nose and grinning at his son.

Everyone laughed, including—after a brief, stunned moment—Germain.

“What's going on out— Germain!” There was a flurry of skirts and Marsali rushed out of the shop and engulfed her wayward son.

Roger heard a small sound from Brianna and, stepping back, took her hand and held it hard.

“Mam! What's—
Eeeeeee!
Fizzy, Fizzy, come see, it's
Germain
!” Joan, small round face flaming with excitement, ran back into the shop and ran back an instant later, yanking her younger sister half off her feet.

Roger felt a small hand tugging on his breeches and looked down.

“Who's dose?” Mandy asked, clinging to his leg and frowning suspiciously at the tearstained, laughing mob scene taking place before them.

“Our cousins,” Jem said tolerantly. “You know—just more family.”

SANCTUARY
WAS BREE'S
first thought at sight of the printshop, and the feeling continued to grow as the commotion of arrival gradually smoothed out into small eddies: the brief exchange of news, down payment on further conversation; water for washing; the orderly bustle of making supper; the less orderly business of eating it, with half the people sitting at the table and the others mostly under it, giggling over their bowls of rice and red beans; and then the washing-up and changing of clothes and clouts for bed, as the heat of many bodies and of the banked type-forge was gradually wicked away by a cool, dark breeze that rose from the river and ran through the house from the open back door to the open front door, harbinger of a peaceful night.

All of the children at last in bed, the adults sat down in the tiny parlor to toast their reunion with a bottle of very good French wine.

“Where did ye
get
this?” Roger asked, after the first sip. He lifted his glass to admire the color, sparkling like a ruby in the firelight. “I haven't drunk anything like this since—since—well, I'm no sure I've ever drunk anything this good.”

Marsali and Fergus exchanged a marital glance.

“It's likely better ye dinna ken,” she told Roger, laughing. “But there's a wee bit more where that came from—dinna hold back!”

BOOK: Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone
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