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Queen of swords, p.15
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       Queen of Swords, p.15

           Sara Donati
 
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  Julia, who was not easily amazed, openly wondered what exactly had just happened.

  “Sometimes a harangue-maker is more use than a surgeon,” said Jennet, who was just now beginning to get her color back. “At least when it’s a Scot ye’ve got to cut on.”

  Hannah realized she hadn’t heard Mr. Corbin say even a single word. She said, “He’s a Scot?”

  “Och, aye,” said Jennet. “Were he anything else, I wadnae have spoke half so sweet.”

  The day’s work was almost—but not quite—enough to make Hannah put aside all thought of Ben Savard. But when Jennet had gone back to the Livingstons’ and Hannah was climbing the stairs to eat her supper with the family, she felt her pulse pick up. Unless he had gone back to the front, he would be there at the table.

  According to Paul he hadn’t gone back to his company yet, but neither was he at supper. Hannah felt Rachel watching her, but resisted the inclination to meet the girl’s gaze. At this moment she could hardly hide what she was feeling.

  Rachel said, “Mama, Hannah hasn’t heard my news.”

  “That’s true,” Julia said. Her smile was a little sad. “Would you like to tell her?”

  “I’ll tell it,” said Dr. Savard, throwing a look at his stepdaughter that was partial amusement and a greater part pride. “Rachel has had an invitation to spend a season in Manhattan in her uncle’s household.”

  The girl’s face shone to hear those words spoken out loud. Her joy was so overwhelming that Hannah could hardly look at her.

  Henry, who had been scowling at his plate, looked at Hannah. “She’ll find somebody to marry there and never come back home again.”

  “Nothing in this world is certain,” said his mother in a calm tone. “But at this moment we are all in good health, and your sister is very happy. Won’t you be pleased for her?”

  “No,” said Henry shortly. “Not if she’s going away.”

  “You’ll go to your room to think about that,” said Henry’s father. “And come back when you’re prepared to be kind to your sister, and conduct yourself reasonably at table.”

  “Reasonable,” Henry said, with all the dignity he could muster, “is a word grown-ups use when they can’t make you agree with them.”

  Later, alone in Ben’s apartment, Hannah sat down heavily on the bed in the empty room.

  Reasonable is the word you use when you can’t get somebody to agree with you.

  Laughing, she lay down and fell asleep watching her breath make white clouds in the air.

  Late in the night Ben came, and leaning over her where she slept, said her name.

  Hannah woke immediately. In the light of the candle he carried his expression was severe, his eyes shadowed.

  “Have you changed your mind? I can find a bed elsewhere.”

  “I haven’t changed my mind.”

  She moved to the far side of the narrow bed and then watched as he undressed. He seemed far away in his thoughts, almost unaware of her. Certainly unconcerned that she watched him as his clothes fell to the floor. He pulled his hunting shirt over his head, arms crossed and elbows pointed at the ceiling so that his muscles jumped into stark relief. His skin was the color of old honey, the hair that feathered across his chest and abdomen dark. There was a new scar on his right side, short but wide, and new enough to still be bright pink.

  Hannah said, “Did you stitch that yourself?”

  He looked down in surprise, as if he had forgot about a wound that might have killed him. With the flat of his hand he covered it briefly and then glanced at her with a grin.

  “Surprised I know how to use a needle?”

  “Not in the least,” Hannah said. “I’m sure you are very handy. But you didn’t stitch that yourself; the angle is all wrong.”

  “Is it?” He came and sat down on the edge of the bed. The air was very cold and his skin had risen in bumps all over his arms and back. Hannah could have held up the covers for him, but somehow it seemed too much work just at this moment.

  He said, “A woman on the Sabine River did it for me.” And then, when it was clear she wouldn’t ask, he said: “I want to tell you about where I was. Do you want to hear?”

  Hannah held out the blanket. “Come,” she said. “Tell your story.”

  Jennet was one kind of storyteller, and Ben was another. Jennet used her hands and body and voice, like the actors in the play Hannah had seen at the Park Place theater in Manhattan. Ben went still while he talked, and let his voice create a bubble, and inside the bubble, a world.

  He told her about a place called the Disputed Lands, a day’s ride to the west. Five thousand square miles, the Calcasieu River on the east, the Sabine on the west. An old Caddo Indian village on the north, and the Gulf on the south. Ciprière, canebrake, savannahs, a hundred kinds of water, a thousand kinds of birds and game. Hills covered with yellow pine as far as the eye could see. White oak in the river bottoms, cypress trees five hundred years old.

  Mexico claimed it and so did the Americans, but both countries were wound up in other, bigger wars. They agreed to disagree. They called those five thousand square miles neutral territory, but there was nothing neutral about them. Both sides retreated: no troops, no law, and so the lawless moved in.

  “The worst of the worst,” Ben said. “Men with no footing in the world.”

  Men who robbed and murdered and raped. Slave-runners determined to ply their trade even after the laws were passed to stop them. And runaway slaves who banded together, determined to survive.

  Hannah sat up so suddenly that the room swam a little. Ben was looking at her, cautious, waiting.

  She said, “Red Rock.”

  His hands grasped her forearms and he brought her back down. Ben held her like that, calmly, until her heart regained its normal rhythm.

  “Red Rock.”

  “Yes, Red Rock. Before slavery was outlawed in New-York State, the runaways would go north to Canada, but some of them stayed in the endless forests. Friends of ours—” Her voice wobbled, thinking of Curiosity Freeman, of her son Almanzo. Here they would be called free people of color.

  “It ended badly,” she said. “The whites won’t let them be, you know. It always ends badly.”

  He was lying on his side, his hands still on her forearms. There was nothing sexual about the way he touched her, which was right and good, and still it made her ache in an unexpected way.

  Ben said, “Does that mean they shouldn’t try?”

  There was something in his tone of disappointment. He had expected a different reaction.

  “I couldn’t bear it,” Hannah said. “I couldn’t bear to see it happen again.”

  There was a long silence, and then Hannah said, “That’s what you wanted to ask me, isn’t it? You want me to go west with you, to live in that place with the lawless and the runaways. To be a doctor and your woman and anything else that’s needed.”

  He didn’t make excuses, or try to hide his feelings. “Yes. I thought—I think it could be a good place. For us. For you, and me.”

  “No,” Hannah said, pulling her hands from his. “I’m not strong enough to go west again, not like that. Not even for you. And you don’t need to go, either.”

  He was silent for a long moment. “They need my help.”

  Hannah choked out a little cough. “They will die with or without you. Sooner or later the Americans will remember those thousands of acres and the timber and the game, and then they’ll come and they’ll show no mercy. You know that. You know it.”

  “And between now and then,” Ben said. “They have a chance. We would have a chance.”

  “I can’t,” Hannah almost moaned. “I can’t watch it all happen again. It would kill me this time. Please, don’t ask me.”

  He held her gaze for a long moment, and then he nodded.

  In the morning Hannah was stiff from sleeping perched on the edge of the narrow bed. Her joints ached and her face felt swollen, as though she been crying all night, though the pillow sl
ip was dry.

  Ben was dressing with his back to her, and the silence in the room was heavy. Hannah’s throat felt tight and hot, incapable of words. And what was there to say, really: He had asked her to go west, and she had given him the only possible answer.

  Ben came to sit on the edge of the bed. He leaned over and kissed her, a soft kiss full of longing and affection. Against her mouth he said, “You are a wonder to me, Walks-Ahead.”

  He got up and went to the table where he had laid out his weapons. Tomahawk and war club, a knife and a long rifle. Ammunition pouches, a patch box, a powder horn. Today or tomorrow or the day after he would find himself on a battlefield. While Hannah worked in the surgery, putting O’seronni soldiers to rights, he would be fighting with a company of Choctaw.

  Hannah sat up, and held the blanket to her chest. The sun wasn’t up yet, but the sky outside the windows was lighter. There had been a frost; she could smell it in the air.

  She said, “I’ll come with you, when you go into battle. To tend to the Choctaw under Juzan, and anyone else who asks me.”

  He stopped and looked at her, his eyes moving over her face as if he might find some answer written there. She watched him consider, and then decide.

  Ben nodded. “It may be later today, or early tomorrow.” He studied the floor for a moment. “I brought clothes for you.” With a swing of his head he indicated one of the two chairs in the room. There was a bundle there, tied with string.

  “Thank you,” Hannah said.

  “I’ll try to give you as much notice as possible, but you may not see me until it’s time to go.”

  Hannah pushed out a sound that was meant to be an acknowledgment, or a question, or a request for help. She didn’t quite know herself what she hoped for. Even when Ben had gone and her heartbeat had quieted, she couldn’t put words to the ache in her belly.

  The day passed, far more quickly than Hannah thought it would. She spent the morning in the surgery, again assisted by Julia and Jennet, and the afternoon in the little clinic.

  She had expected that the afternoon would be as busy as or busier than the morning, and learned that she was wrong. There were only three people waiting for her. The first was Rattling-Gourd, the old Chickasaw chief who had explained to her the difference between white and black and red. She was surprised to see that he was still alive, and even more surprised that he had managed to get here at all.

  He came into the clinic still wrapped in his blanket, now gaunt and stripped down to the bone by pain, hardly able to walk. With him he brought a granddaughter, whose swollen abdomen and sticklike arms and legs made a lengthy examination unnecessary. When Hannah asked her name, the girl looked at her as if she had never heard human language before.

  The third patient was the young pregnant woman she had treated for swollen legs and ankles. She was pregnant still, but Hannah could see without being told that the child was dead in her belly.

  “Make it come,” said the young woman, who gave her name as Helen. “Make it come out of me before I die. I have four other children; they will starve.”

  Without Leo to run errands, Hannah had to leave the clinic to get what she needed, but first she put Rattling-Gourd in one cot and Helen in the other, and set out a pallet for the little girl. Then she went to the kitchen to ask Clémentine to send bread and soup. Finally she went to the apothecary, where she found Julia hard at work.

  Hannah took down what she needed from the shelves: roots of black cohosh and goldenseal, borage, flaxseed. Julia, busy with the mortar and pestle, watched for a while as Hannah tied everything into a square of gauze that she would steep in hot water.

  She said, “Overdue?”

  “Dead in the womb.”

  Julia nodded. “Will you need help?”

  “I’m going to get Yellow-Sapling,” Hannah said. “If Rachel could sit with her while I’m gone—”

  Julia nodded. “How long do you need?”

  Hannah considered. “Send her in a half hour.”

  Though it had been weeks since Hannah had visited the Indian village at the edge of the city, she remembered the way. She slipped through the crowds, staying clear of troop movements, keeping her head down and the hood of her boiled-wool cloak pulled low.

  Luke would be angry if he knew what she was doing, but Luke was not here, and she had no one but herself to call on.

  She turned into the narrow street, and stopped short. Where the Redbone village had been was now a sea of army tents. The militia were turning out to be mustered under the hectoring cries of their officers.

  Hannah slipped back into the shadows and away, and didn’t stop until she was out of breath.

  How stupid she had been, not to realize. Of course her patients hadn’t come to the little clinic. The Redbones were gone; there was no room or tolerance for them with the English so close. The three who had come to her were here only because they were too sick to go. She wondered fleetingly where Helen had hidden her other children. She thought of the labor to come. Even with Yellow-Sapling it would be difficult and dangerous, but without her—Hannah forced herself to breathe deeply and think. After a moment, she set off again for a different part of the city.

  She found Maman Zuzu and Maman Antoinette together, drinking coffee. Hannah had time to think about that, as coffee was precious now and expensive, but she didn’t ask. Nor did they ask her questions, once they understood she needed help with a difficult delivery. Both of them got up and put things in baskets, pulled shawls around themselves, and waited for her to show the way.

  When they got to the little clinic, Rachel met them at the door. She was very pale and her face was damp with sweat, which must mean something; it was hard to upset this girl, for all her youth.

  “What is it? Has the labor started?” She had dosed Helen before leaving, because the effect of the tea would take a little while to be felt. Sometimes things moved more quickly than expected, and Hannah had been longer on her errand than she meant to be.

  “Step aside, missy,” said Maman Antoinette in a creaking English, no hint of deference or apology. “Let us see to her.”

  Rachel stood aside.

  Things were as Hannah had left them. Rattling-Gourd on one cot, staring at the ceiling. His granddaughter on a pallet beside him, asleep now that she had eaten, with a thick rug folded over her thin frame. Helen on the other cot, the great mound of her belly with her hands crossed over it. If she was in labor, she was hiding it well.

  Then Hannah saw that there was someone else. She sat on a stool near the hearth, a slight form wrapped in a blanket that was more holes than wool. She raised her head to look at Hannah. A brand on her cheek, so new that it was still mostly blister. How beautiful she had been.

  “Rachel,” Hannah said. “Who is this?”

  “She won’t give me a name.”

  “Jacinthe,” said Zuzu. “She’s called Jacinthe, her. Belonged once to Poiterin. They sold her because she let the white baby get stole away.”

  Hannah knew that she had heard the young woman’s name, and now she remembered. The young woman who had nursed Jennet’s son. What Ben had done for them wasn’t without cost.

  “She’s asking for Jennet,” Rachel said. “I wasn’t sure what to do.”

  “You leave her to us,” said Maman Antoinette. “We care for our own.”

  “Jacinthe,” Maman Zuzu said.

  She said the name aloud, and the girl rose from her stool. She was unsteady on her feet, which were bare and filthy with dirt and dried blood. And in her arms was a bundle that flexed and squirmed.

  Hannah and Maman Zuzu reached her at the same moment. Zuzu helped her to sit back down, and Hannah found herself holding the child that Jacinthe had almost dropped. It was no more than a few hours old. Still streaked with the evidence of the womb, its head lopsided from the birth canal. Too small, but it breathed and mewled and flexed, a living child.

  “Poiterin’s?” She asked the question though she already knew the answer.


  “Who else?” said Zuzu.

  The two old ladies spoke to Jacinthe in a low singsong, their tone comforting but firm. They asked questions in quick patois. Hannah caught only one word in five, but she understood what they wanted to know, because the same question was foremost in her mind.

  Where had Jacinthe been, and how did she get here?

  But the young woman only looked at them, dry-eyed, uncomprehending. Blank. When they pressed a cup of water on her she took it and drank, and then she took the bread and chewed it slowly and swallowed.

  Hannah had passed the baby to Rachel, and now it let out a thin cry. Jacinthe didn’t even blink at the sound.

  In the local French Rachel said, “Your baby needs you. Do you have milk?”

  Jacinthe turned her face to Rachel. “I have no baby,” she said. “I have no milk.”

  “Jacinthe,” said Maman Zuzu in a sharper tone. “Wake up, now. We got no time for such foolishness.”

  Jacinthe looked at her finally, some life coming back into her expression. “I am looking for Honoré.” As if it should be obvious, as if it were Zuzu who were not in command of her senses.

  “You don’t need that man,” said Zuzu. “You don’t need that devil.”

  “His grand-mère is dead,” Jacinthe went on, and then she smiled. It was a young girl’s smile, simple and pure and frightening. “The woman who carries fire came, and now his grand-mère is dead. He will need me.”

  Hannah thought, the woman who carries fire, but she asked a different question. She said, “What can we do for her?”

  “You can’t do anything,” said Zuzu. “Maman will take her home. We can hide her until we can send her west.”

  She would go to the Disputed Territories, of course. The memories that came to Hannah were so strong that it was hard to push them aside. Another young woman, heavy with child, fleeing for her life.

  Hannah said, “What about the baby?”

 
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