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- Highland Ballad - 2/38 -
woman elucidated no surprise. She helped the frightened girl to her feet, and without a word, started her on the path to home.
But once Mary had gone the old woman turned, and made her way back to the grave. Reaching inside a goat-skin pouch that hung from her side she produced something cold and pale, and kneeling, laid it upon the heart of the mound. Then rose and looked about her with a narrowing eye. Clasping a withered hand about the amulet that hung from her neck she set off, leaving the bit of melancholy white behind.
A human finger.
The amulet about her neck was a raven's foot, clutching in frozen death a dark opal.
Many hours later the old woman had still not returned to the cottage. Mary sat with her elbows upon the sill of the loft window, the rage of thoughts and questions inside her gradually slowing to the one emotion possible in one who had seen and known such endless disappointment: disbelief.
But try as she might to resolve herself to it, to accept that it had not happened, still the phantom touch lingered inside her, denying all peace. "My Mary." How differently the voice had said those words, than on the day of her brother's passion! And yet how similar, how full of the same love and care. And the only thought that would take solid hold in her mind was that the two feelings, gentle love and hard desire, were one in a man, inseparable, and that even as a child she had inspired both in him. My Mary. Mine. She wanted to fall on her knees then and there, and pray to be taken to him, in death or in life. But the sound of her mother's voice stayed her, rising angrily from below.
"Mary! What are you about? Come down here at once."
Obediently, though without affection she submitted, descending the wooden ladder-stair from the loft that served as her bedroom. Her mother's face and whole bearing spoke of the cold composure, the loveless discipline which always followed such an outburst. It was an expression she had come to know all too well. Wherein lay the mystery of this woman? She did not know, only that there was no commiseration, no sense of shared loss between them, and that she was hardly what the younger woman imagined a mother should be.
But on this day there was especial agitation among her classic, though faded Scot features---round, sturdy face and steady, full blue eyes---and a greater visible effort to control herself. Of late this usually meant that she had quarreled with Margaret. And these arguments, Mary knew, somehow centered on herself.
"Where is she?" the mother burst all at once. Like Michael she often kept her deepest feelings under lock and key, revealing to the world only a lesser parody of herself. But now something had happened---
"Go and find her!" she cried, at long last giving in. "And if she has gone to that witch's hole of hers, then. . .tell her she may just as well stay there, and the Devil take her! I've had enough of it, do you hear? Let them burn her at the stake; I'll not have her bring shame upon this house. It's all the same to me!" And she ran to the armchair by the fireplace, hiding her face in her hands.
The daughter followed, more confused and forlorn than ever. She loved her aunt, though she also feared her, and could not understand the vindictive nature of the words spoken against her.
"Mother, what are you saying? What are you thinking of?"
The hands came down to reveal a tired, careworn face no longer able to think of pity. "So, you never knew she was a witch? How blind a woman can be, when she wants to. Why, you don't even know, still haven't guessed---" She faltered, then cried out. "Dear God, I cannot bear this cross any longer! You have taken my husband, my beloved son, and left me with his temptress." Then turning to Mary. "Go to her! Get out, I tell you! She will tell you everything, everything now. Make your home with her if you like. Leave me to my wretched memories." And physical sorrow bent her nearly double in the chair.
The girl took a step to console her, but the hateful, flashing eyes turned on her erased any such notion. She hesitated, then ran to the door in dismay, and out into the bracing, October wild. It seemed the last vestiges of solace and sanctuary were crumbling around her, leaving a world too terrible, too full of dark meaning to endure. She ran.
But her steps were not blind. Instinctively she stayed on the western side of the rise, which hid her from sight of the road. And though she had rarely seen it, the back of her mind knew where her aunt's strange and secret abode lay: beyond the ravine, in land too wild and rocky to grow or graze.
It was growing dark when she finally reached the high pass in which it lay, and in place of the wind a cold stillness reigned. The rocky culvert did not benefit from the failing light. It was a harsh and cheerless place, all thorn and sloe, with here and there a gnarled, leafless tree.
The faraway cry of a wolf froze her to the marrow: she was alone, and could not find what she sought. Why had she come in such haste, without horse or cloak? Her body ached and the sense of youthful despair, never far from her, returned with the added force of cold, helpless exposure.
An owl swooped, and half fearfully she followed the line of its flight. As it rose again against the near horizon, she saw there at the meeting of stone and sky a trail of black smoke, barely distinguishable in the darkening gloom. She followed it downward. And there, half buried in the hard earth which bounded it on three sides, she saw her aunt's sometime residence, the `witch's hole' as her mother had called it. And though she loved her aunt, and had nowhere else to go, she could not help feeling a moment of doubt.
A wedge of stone wall---one door, one window---was all the face it showed, the short chimney rising further to the sunken right. It was in fact a hole, dug and lined with stone perhaps a thousand years before by some wandering Pict, with a living roof of roots and turf. Her aunt had merely dug it out again and repaired the chimney. The window and door, framed in ready openings, were new, along with stout ceiling beams. Nothing more. It was a place that perhaps ten people knew of, and nine avoided.
She stood unresolved, chafing the arms of her dress, unable to keep warm. But at that moment a solitary figure came up the path towards her, and she recognized the shawl and bound hair of her aunt, stooped beneath a large bundle of sticks.
"Inside with you, lass," said the woman evenly, again not evincing the least surprise. "You'll catch your death."
"Let me help you with your load," the girl offered.
"I can quite carry my own burden, Mary. Just open the door for me; I'll walk through it." Mary did as she asked. They went inside.
The single room was dark and low-ceilinged, with no light but the hearth fire, which played strange shadows across the rough stones and wooden bracings. Herbs, tools and utensils, bizarre talismans hung from the walls. The floor was of solid earth. A wooden table and chair, two frameless beds, an ancient rocking chair---there were no other furnishings.
"Sit by the fire, child, and wrap a blanket around you. I'll have the tea....." But studying her face more closely, the old woman put a hand to her forehead, and could not entirely suppress a look of concern. "Into bed with you, Mary, you're burning with fever." And she quickly arranged warm coverings for the thin, down mattress, which lay on a jutting shelf of stone covered with straw, and threw more wood on the fire.
Soon the room was warm, and in its primitive way, quite comfortable. Mary lay in the bed, her shivering stopped, and the herb tea that her aunt had given her calming her nerves. But still there were the questions that would not rest.
"Aunt Margaret," she began pensively, eyes glittering. "You quarreled with mother, and now she can bear her cross no longer, and she says you must tell me everything." Though the sentence was hardly coherent, the old woman nodded her understanding. She came and sat on the bed, taking the young girl's hand in her own.
"I'll tell you this much now, and then you must sleep. There'll be worlds of time in the morning. Will you promise me you'll sleep, and trust
me till the sunrise?" The daughter nodded.
"She's not your mother, Mary. I am." Three
That night, her subconscious stirred by fever, and by the maelstrom of unsettling events, Mary dreamed more deeply and vividly than she had since childhood. The fire burned brightly before her as the old woman, ever mindful, rocked slowly back and forth, beside her.
She stood atop a high hill, looking down into a broad expanse of green valley. To the left she heard the stirring sound of bagpipes, to the right, the ominous drums and steady tramp of the English. Two armies advanced upon each other, making for some indefinable object in the center of the field, which for some reason both sides wanted. To the left the plaid kilts and mixed uniforms of the Highlanders, to the right a rigid, regimented sea of Red. She watched them draw together with the uncomprehending horror that every woman feels for war, unmoved by words of glory and patriotism, understanding only that men, men dear to herself and others, are about to die.
It seemed that the Scots would reach the object first, being the swifter and on their own ground; but suddenly they stopped. At their head she saw two men on horseback: a rugged, wizened general, and a handsome young prince with long plumes in his hat, seated on a brilliant white charger. The general was arguing and gesticulating sharply that they must advance and attack. But the Prince, with an air of supreme confidence and divine understanding, only made a sign of the cross and remained where he was, content.
The British halted and formed ranks, expecting a charge. But not receiving it, and perceiving their opponent's hesitation, they quickly brought their artillery to the fore. Unlimbering the cannon, they loaded and took aim, and began to shower the unmoving Highlanders with
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