I had never felt so desolate, so in need of his understanding. Did he not realize how horrible the prospect was for me, as well as him? Worse, because it was my hand that must do the damage.
I came up behind him, and laid a hand on his back. He stood unmoving, and I stroked him lightly, taking some comfort from the simple fact of his presence, of the solid strength of him.
“Jamie.” My thumb left a slight smear of red on the linen of his shirt. “It will be all right. I’m sure it will.” I was talking to convince myself, as much as him. He didn’t move, and I ventured to put my arm around his waist, laying my cheek against the curve of his back. I wanted him to turn and take me in his arms, to assure me that it would indeed somehow be all right—or at the least, that he would not blame me for whatever happened.
He moved abruptly, dislodging my hand.
“Ye’ve a high opinion of your power, have ye no?” He spoke coldly, turning to face me.
“What do you mean by that?”
He grasped my wrist in one hand, pinning it to the wall above my head. I could feel the tickle of blood down my wrist, flowing from my wounded thumb. His fingers wrapped around my hand, squeezing tight.
“Ye think it’s yours alone to say? That life and death is yours?” I could feel the small bones of my hand grind together, and I stiffened, trying to pull free.
“It’s not mine to say! But if she says—then yes, it’s my power. And yes, I’ll use it. Just like you would—like you have, when you’ve had to.” I shut my eyes, fighting down fear. He wouldn’t hurt me…surely? It occurred to me with a small shock that he could indeed stop me. If he broke my hand…
Very slowly, he bent his head and rested his forehead against mine.
“Look at me, Claire,” he said, very quietly.
Slowly, I opened my eyes and looked. His eyes were no more than an inch away; I could see the tiny gold flecks near the center of his iris, the black ring surrounding it. My fingers in his were slippery with blood.
He let go of my hand, and touched my breast lightly, cupping it for a moment.
“Please,” he whispered, and then was gone.
I stood quite still against the wall, and then slowly slid to the floor in a bloom of skirts, the cut on my thumb throbbing with my heartbeat.
I was so shaken by the quarrel with Jamie that I couldn’t settle to anything. At last, I put on my cloak and went out, walking up the ridge. I avoided the path that led across the Ridge toward Fergus’s cabin, and down toward the road. I didn’t want to risk meeting anyone at all.
It was cold and cloudy, with a light rain sputtering intermittently among the leaf-bare branches. The air was heavy with cold moisture; let the temperature drop a few degrees more, and it would snow. If not tonight, tomorrow—or next week. Within a month at the most, the Ridge would be cut off from the lowlands.
Ought I to take Brianna to Cross Creek? Whether she decided to bear the child or not, might she be safer there?
I shuffled through layers of wet, yellow leaves. No. My impulse was to think that civilization must offer some advantage, but not in this case. There was nothing Cross Creek could offer that would truly be of help in case of any obstetrical emergency; in fact, she might well be in active danger from the medical practitioners of the time.
No, whatever she decided, she was better off here, with me. I wrapped my arms about myself under my cloak, and flexed my fingers, trying to work some warmth and suppleness into them, to feel some sense of surety in touch.
Please, he’d said. Please what? Please don’t ask her, please don’t do it if she asks? But I had to. I swear by Apollo the physician…not to cut for the stone, nor to procure abortion…Well, and Hippocrates was neither a surgeon, a woman…nor a mother. As I’d told Jamie, I’d sworn by something a lot older than Apollo the physician—and that oath was in blood.
I never had done an abortion though I had had some experience as a resident, in the post-care of miscarriage. On the rare occasions a patient had asked it of me, I had referred them to a colleague. I had no absolute objection; I had seen too many women killed in body or spirit by untimely children. If it was killing—and it was—then I thought it not murder, but a justifiable homicide, undertaken in desperate self-defense.
At the same time, I could not bring myself to do it. The surgeon’s sense that gave me knowledge of the flesh under my hands gave me also an acute awareness for the living contents of the womb. I could touch a pregnant woman’s belly, and feel in my fingertips the second beating heart; could trace unseeing the curve of limb and head, and the snakelike curl of the umbilicus with its rush of blood, all red and blue.
I could not bring myself to destroy it. Not until now; when it was a matter of killing my own flesh and blood.
How? It would have to be surgical. Dr. Rawlings had evidently not done such procedures; he had no uterine “spoon” for scraping the womb, nor any of the slender rods for dilation of the cervix. I could manage, though. One of the ivory knitting needles, its point blunted; the scalpel, bent to a shallow curve, its deadly edge sanded down for the delicate—but no less deadly—job of scraping.
When? Now. She was already three months gone; if it was to be done, it must be as soon as possible. Neither could I bear to be in the same room with Jamie while the matter was unresolved, feeling his anguish added to my own.
Brianna had taken Lizzie to Fergus’s house. Lizzie was to stay and help Marsali, who had her hands full with the distillery, little Germaine, and the farm work that Fergus couldn’t manage single-handed. It was a terrible load for an eighteen-year-old girl to be carrying, but she managed, with tenacity and style. Lizzie could at least help with the household chores, and mind the little fiend long enough to let his mother rest now and then.
Brianna would come back before suppertime. Ian was away, hunting with Rollo. Jamie…without being told, I knew that Jamie would not be back for some time. We would have a little while alone.
Would it be a suitable moment to ask her such a question, though—fresh from seeing Germaine’s cherubic face? Though on reflection, exposure to a two-year-old boy was probably the best possible object lesson in the dangers of motherhood, I thought wryly.
Vaguely lightened by the faint whiff of humor, I turned back, drawing my cloak around me against the increasing wind. As I came down the hill I saw Brianna’s horse in the penfold; she was home. My stomach clenched in dread, I went to lay the choice before her.
“I thought of it,” she said, with a deep breath. “As soon as I realized. I wondered if you could do—something like that, here.”
“It wouldn’t be easy. It would be dangerous—and it would hurt. I don’t even have any laudanum; only whisky. But yes, I can do it—if you want me to.” I forced myself to sit still, watching her pace slowly back and forth before the hearth, hands folded behind her in thought.
“It would have to be surgical,” I said, unable to keep quiet. “I don’t have the right herbs—and they aren’t always reliable, in any case. At least surgery is…certain.” I laid the scalpel on the table; she should not be under any illusions as to what I was suggesting. She nodded at my words, but didn’t stop her pacing. Like Jamie, she always thought better while moving.
A trickle of sweat ran down my back, and I shivered. The fire was warm enough, but my fingers were still cold as ice. Christ, if she wanted it, would I even be able to do it? My hands had begun to tremble, with the strain of waiting.
She turned at last to look at me, eyes clear and appraising under thick, ruddy brows.
“Would you have done it? If you could?”
“If I could—?”
“You said once that you hated me, when you were pregnant. If you could have not been—”
“God, not you!” I blurted, horror-stricken. “Not you, ever. It—” I knotted my hands together, to still their trembling. “No,” I said, as positively as I could. “Never.”
“You did say so,” she said, looking at me intently. “When you told me about Da.”
I rubbed a hand across my face, trying to focus my thoughts. Yes, I had told her that. Idiot.
“It was a horrible time. Terrible. We were starving, it was war—the world was coming apart at the seams.” Wasn’t hers? “At the time, it seemed as though there was no hope; I had to leave Jamie, and the thought drove almost everything else out of my mind. But there was one other thing,” I said.
“What was that?”
“It wasn’t rape,” I said softly, meeting her eyes. “I loved your father.”
She nodded, her face a little pale.
“Yes. But it might be Roger’s. You did say that, didn’t you?”
“Yes. It might. Is the possibility enough for you?”
She laid a hand over her stomach, long fingers gently curved.
“Yeah. Well. It isn’t an it, to me. I don’t know who it is, but—” She stopped suddenly and glanced at me, looking suddenly shy.
“I don’t know if this sounds—well…” She shrugged abruptly, dismissing doubt. “I had this sharp pain that woke me up in the middle of the night, a few days…after. Quick, like somebody had stabbed me with a hatpin, but deep.” Her fingers curled inward, her fist pressing just above her pubic bone, on the right side.
“Implantation,” I said softly. “When the zygote takes root in the womb.” When that first, eternal link is formed between mother and child. When the small blind entity, unique in its union of egg and sperm, comes to anchor from the perilous voyage of beginning, home from its brief, free-floating existence in the body, and settles to its busy work of division, drawing sustenance from the flesh in which it embeds itself, in a connection that belongs to neither side, but to both. That link, which cannot be severed, either by birth or by death.
She nodded. “It was the strangest feeling. I was still half asleep, but I…well, I just knew all of a sudden that I wasn’t alone.” Her lips curved in a faint smile, reminiscent of wonder. “And I said to…it…” Her eyes rested on mine, still lit by the smile, “I said, ‘Oh, it’s you.’ And then I went back to sleep.”
Her other hand crossed the first, a barricade across her belly.
“I thought it was a dream. That was a long time before I knew. But I remember. It wasn’t a dream. I remember.”
I remembered, too.
I looked down and saw beneath my hands not the wooden tabletop nor gleaming blade, but the opal skin and perfect sleeping face of my first child, Faith, with slanted eyes that never opened on the light of earth.
Looked up into the same eyes, open now and filled with knowledge. I saw that baby, too, my second daughter, filled with bloody life, pink and crumpled, flushed with fury at the indignities of birth, so different from the calm stillness of the first—and just as magnificent in her perfection.
Two miracles I had been given, carried beneath my heart, born of my body, held in my arms, separated from me and part of me forever. I knew much too well that neither death nor time nor distance ever altered such a bond—because I had been altered by it, once and forever changed by that mysterious connection.