I will remember December as the month of cold … both the weather variety and what seemed to take up residence in my head and not want to go away. Doggone sniffles hung around for weeks leaving me cooped up in the cabin more often than not. I got reacquainted with relying on my own company and I was never as interesting as I wanted to be. Jonah, Cor, and others came by when they could but they were so busy during the day and tired at night that even when they came they weren’t really there.
Towards the end of the month there were a few extra visitors arrive but only for a few days. Just like where I come from Christmas is quiet, spent either resting or in thoughtfulness for those so inclined. The day after there was a fancy dinner up at the house where both the family and their visitors and the workers shared their meal but I stayed at the cabin; I was still coughing and hacking and sneezing and it wouldn’t have been very nice for people sitting anywhere near me.
I was in the middle of a long series of violent sneezes when Cor stuck his head in. “Well, at least I know why you didn’t come to the dinner. I thought maybe Francine had forgotten to … uh … I mean … hmmm …”
I shook my head and then had to sneeze two more times before I could explain, “Francine didn’t forget to tell me. She sent a note and everything. But as you can see, I wouldn’t have been a very good guest. I sound like someone is holding my nose and I spend more time with my face buried in a handkerchief than is polite.”
He gave me a small smile tinged with some relief that he hadn’t been right about Francine and said, “It’s more polite that not using a handkerchief.”
I gave him a small, tired smile back. “That’s finding the silver lining right enough.”
“Hungry?” he asked.
Cor placed a basket on the table and then turned to leave but stopped when he spied what I’d been doing to keep myself company. “Topher mentioned that you’d asked for some scraps from the woodshed. Who taught you to do this?”
“No one? But surely someone …”
I shook my head. “My Ma used to carve buttons and buckles to bring in some trade and she and Da would sometimes carve fancy wood or antler knife handles for the blades that Gramp would make. Not too many though because there was only time for the fancy stuff during the winter and most people found it too expensive to bother with at the markets. Mostly Outlanders are plain folk unless it is ceremonial dress. Besides, things that click and clack and make noise aren’t good for hunting or feuding.”
“So your mother taught you.”
I shook my head. “No. No one taught me. I remember watching them do it, so every once in a while when I have time on my hands … I put my hands to work. Better than sitting around doing nothing and being bored.”
“You just learned by watching? Amazing.”
His words were making me uncomfortable. “Don’t. I don’t want anyone to think I’m uppity. I just did it because I was bored. If you like it go ahead and take it.”
“Take … no Fel, this is yours. Brother Tayburn tells the story a couple of times a year and sometimes we have a live crèche scene for Christmas in the village but it was too cold this year. I bet he would like one of these for the church though.”
“Well then take it and give it to him.”
He shook his head. “I already told you I’m not taking …”
“It’s OK. I told you I just made this one to keep me busy. I have the one my Ma and Da made when they were first married. A couple of the animals are a little scorched but it was one of the few things that survived the fire since it was stored down in the cellar. You want to see it? Oh, wait, you better get back before you get in trouble for …”
He snorted, “I go where I want when I want. Francine’s a little busy entertaining anyway. They’ve got a line dance going and I don’t like to dance.”
That stopped me short. “Uh … like it or not maybe you should really go back to the house. I mean … those men and all and …”
He stopped and gave me a searching look. “Francine just likes people to admire her, she isn’t really interested in going off … it would … uh … tarnish her reputation.”
“It’d do more than that,” I said sarcastically. “And even if she wouldn’t – though why she’d want to in the first place is beyond me since she’s already got all the creature comforts and then some around here – you still don’t want some man to get the idea …”
I was uncomfortable but he wasn’t which was strange. “Relax. Francine already said you two had to put up with a little flirting. She said …”
“A little flirting?!” I blerted. “Well if that is all she had to put up with I’m glad but if you want my druthers I’d rather not have to put up with more visitors of the same nature next summer thank you very much. Some of those men had more arms than Shiva.”
His mouth fell open and then he got an angry look on his face and asked, “Who is this Shiva fella? I’ve never heard of him.”
I tried to laugh only coughed instead. “Sorry,” I told him after I spit the wad of phlegm into the ever present handkerchief. “Shiva isn’t a who really … he’s a what. There was a small tribe of people that used to trade with Gramp when I was little and one of their gods was named Shiva. They had these little metal figures of him, it, whatever and the man-god always had at least one extra set of arms. Gran didn’t have a lot of time for folks who believe in more than one diety and she used to say that men that were fast handed with the ladies had more hands than Shiva. I didn’t mean anything bad by it.”
He looked like he was ready to get wound up so I told him. “Water under the bridge. Besides, today isn’t a day for that kind of anger. Now do you want to see what my Da and Ma made or not?”
I could see how he forced himself to calm down and then he said, “Sure.”
I went to the corner cabinet and pulled out my old ruck sack and brought it over to the table and started carefully unwrapping the figures from pieces of an old serape that had burnt edges. I sat them out so that Cor could see how much finer the figures were than the rough ones that I had whittled were. “Every year Ma and Da would add another pair of animals. Gran said they were mixing up the stories … cows and goats and chickens were supposed to be for the nativity but all the other animals belonged in an ark. Da said it didn’t matter, that all animals bow to the Christ Child and besides he meant to make Georgie an ark to play with but … but he ran out of time.”
Cor picked up each piece reverently and looked at them. “How did your father know about all these animals. I’ve been all over and have seen some of these but I don’t even know the names of some of these others.”
“Da had an itchy foot before he run across Ma. From the time he was a little boy he’d roamed all over the place. Plus he said where he was from there was a building that had nothing but books in it and there were also stuffed animals on top of the shelves and hanging from the ceiling. His uncle was something called a taxidermist; means he fixed animals in poses – stuffed them sort of like dolls – only he was so good that he could make it look like they were still living. They kept the animals in a building called a mooseum.”
“Museum not Mooseum,” he corrected.
“You know what one of them places is?”
He nodded still looking at the animals then started pawing through some of the other stuff that had tumbled out of my rucksack. “They’ve got a small one at the fort. They have stuff there that tells us what life was like before now … some all the way back from way before the Dark Days. And the building with the books is called a library … like the one in the house only a lot bigger with a lot more books. What is all this stuff?”
I started trying to shove it back in the rucksack but he put his hands over mine. “You don’t have to tell me Fel. I was just asking a question. I didn’t mean to upset you. And I’m not going to take anything away.”
I blushed. “I … I didn’t really think you were. Just the only other person that has seen this stuff is Docia and Hannah and only Docia really knows … anyway … it’s just stuff.”
Persisting he asked, “Did it come from your house?”
I considered ignoring the question but then relaxed. “Some of it. Most everything from the house was stolen or burnt up by the time the Lakesiders were done with it. And it was weeks before I could … could stand to go back and sift through things. The only reason I did was because I needed clothes. Someone had already been going through what was left so there wasn’t all that much. There was a stable that used to go with the carvings but it was crushed by a floor joist. This is my Gramp’s pipe. He grew his own tobacco when he could and when he couldn’t Gran would make up some smoking mixture for him out of catnip, lavender, hops, marjoram, passion flower, marigold or any number of things she would gather out of her garden. Mostly it was to relax him and help him sleep when even a long day at the forge didn’t make him tired enough to forget the aches and pains of age.”
I picked up a scrap of fabric tied to large ring of bone that had been rubbed smooth. “This … this is a piece of one of Georgie’s nappies and this was his teething ring. He was just starting to get his first back teeth and they were pain … paining him a lot. He seemed to cry all the time.”
I put the ring and scrap in the bag down deep so I wouldn’t have to see it and think about what little had been left of my brother after the fire. Ma had tried to protect him but the fire had gotten her too; she was all curled up around him when the house finally cooled down enough for me to try and dig them out to bury them beside my Da.
I picked up a blade with a chunk missing out of it. “This was Da’s. It was one that Gramp made. Da used it to hold off a big Lakesider – it chipped when he used it to block a tomahawk – but then another one snuck in behind him and … and split his head open with a couple of heavy blows. They scalped him in front of me … only they didn’t know I was there. Probably would have done for me if they had known.” I picked up a metal tomahawk head off the table. “This is what they used to kill my Da. Gramp made this too, you can see his stamp on it right there. The Lakesiders and our town used to be allies until we both wound up with stupid Headman more interested in what was in their pants than what happened to their people.”
“Why’s it all misshapen like that?” Cor asked.
“Because after I killed the one that held it I beat it on a rock until it couldn’t be used to kill anyone else’s da,” I told him quietly but fiercely.
Cor reached over and gently laid his hand on mine. He said, “I burned down what was left of the building that fell on my father.”
I whispered, “It didn’t help did it.”
Slowly I pulled my hand out from under his. I picked up a green glass bottle and said, “This used to hold a scent that my Ma and Gran liked to wear for special times. It all boiled away in the fire but sometimes I imagine I can still smell it. Lemon Verbena. You’ve got some growing out in one of the gardens. I thought about … about trying to make some … just for old times sake you know. It really isn’t that big a deal.”
“You can if you want to. You could wear it to the village church when they start having services again in the spring. My mother liked roses and carnations. Dad always said she smelled like a wake when she wore it … but she didn’t, she smelled nice.”
“Francine likes rose scent too,” I said.
He shook his head. “No she doesn’t. She only wears it because Winnie told her my mother did.”
I looked at him and said, “You can’t know that.”
“I can too. She told me when we were fighting … after … you know … after I came back and had that big argument with you. And since she doesn’t wear it anymore I guess it’s true. Now she wears lavender.”
“I know … she smells like the old sheets that come out of storage when we check them for moth holes and mouse droppings.”
I’d caught him off guard and he gurgled a surprised laugh and suddenly we weren’t sad or serious anymore. He said, “Uh … maybe … maybe when you are up to it you can tell me more about your family. They sound different from mine.”
I smiled, “I reckon they are though maybe my Da came from someplace sort of like this. He gave it up for Ma … and because he said he needed to be free and not locked in to someone else’s plan for his future.”
He leaned back in the rocker he was sitting in and said, “I almost gave this all up … the estate, my name, everything. Uncle Rob and I had a rip roaring fight the night I turned fifteen. He kept going on about how important it was that I learn how to manage the estate because he wouldn’t be around to do it forever and all I wanted to do was being a boy and have some fun. That was also when I lost my last illusions about my father when I found out just how deep my father had sunk me in debt. I nearly ran away that night but something held me back. A couple of months later I was on my first barter run by myself with Luke Jackson and a couple of our friends; most of them were older and were talking about going out and finding brides for themselves. I could have run away again and no one would known what happened to me … but turns out I got more satisfaction out of paying off the bills than hiding from them. I’ve gone away too many times to count since them … but I’ve always come back. The estate always pulls me back. It’s home and where I belong.”
I looked away, serious once again and he noticed. He asked, “What are you thinking?”
I shrugged, “Just wondering what that feels like … to belong some place like that.”
“You belong here.”
I turned to look at him … really look at him and let him see my eyes. “Like a piece of furniture maybe. Bought and paid for. I’m useful for now. One of these days I’m not going to be useful anymore.”
Vehemently Cor said, “It’s not like that Fel. You’re family now. You belong here. The same way the rest of us do.”
It was sweet of him to think so but I knew better even if he didn’t. About the only thing that I could see keeping me here was to stop Francine from trying to bring on anymore wives for him to deal with. Maybe I could make that enough. Or maybe she’d give up that crazy idea altogether. Of course pigs could grow wings and start flying too.
“What are you smiling at?” he asked with a smile of his own I guess relieved that I had accepted what he said.
Suddenly I started sneezing again and he said, “You better eat your dinner and get back in bed. And whether I want to or not I need to go back to the house before someone comes looking for me. Luke wanted to come say hello but I told him you weren’t up for company.” He gave me a look and asked, “You … you didn’t want him to …”
“No! Uh uh. Nothing against your friend but he’s like being around a sack full of puppies.”
Giving me a suspicious look he went on to ask, “He … he didn’t … er … uh …”
“No. He didn’t er or uh or um or hmmm or anything else for that matter. He’s your friend and wouldn’t do that … or didn’t do that with me even if he might be inclined to do it with some other female. Got it?”
After a moment Cor said, “Jonah said you took the Jacksons hunting every day they were here. I think Luke expected you to do the same thing again.”
“Well what that boy expects and what he gets ain’t necessarily gonna be the same thing. Now stop messing around. Your friend is still your friend and I know how to protect myself from men that aren’t your friend. Enough said. OK?” I punctuated my statement with another sneeze.
Cor gave another relieved grin. “Sure. Still, I better hear you bolt this door after I leave and I’m going to check these windows too.”
As soon as he left I ate and then crawled back into bed to sleep, but my dreams were uneasy; they were all jumbled up with real scenes from the past and imagined scenes of the future. When I finally woke, I was more tired than when I had gone to bed. As bad as the memories of some of my past are, it feels like I might have even more to fear from my future.