“Oh,” he said. “No. I hadna meant . . . no.” He tightened his arm around me and bent his head to mine.
“I dinna ken about that. If it should be—”
A breath of laughter stirred my hair.
“Ye sound verra sure of it, Sassenach.”
“The future can be changed; I do it all the time.”
I rolled away a bit, to look at him.
“I do. Look at Mairi MacNeill. If I hadn’t been there last week, she would have died, and her twins with her. But I was there, and they didn’t.”
I put a hand behind my head, watching the reflection of the flames ripple like water across the ceiling beams.
“I do wonder—there are lots I can’t save, but some I do. If someone lives because of me, and later has children, and they have children, and so on . . . well, by the time you reach my time, say, there are probably thirty or forty people in the world who wouldn’t otherwise have been there, hm? And they’ve all been doing things meanwhile, living their lives—don’t you think that’s changing the future?” For the first time, it occurred to me to wonder just how much I was single-handedly contributing to the population explosion of the twentieth century.
“Aye,” he said slowly. He picked up my free hand and traced the lines of my palm with one long finger.
“Aye, but it’s their future ye change, Sassenach, and perhaps you’re meant to.” He took my hand in his and pulled gently on the fingers. One knuckle popped, making a small sound like a log spitting in the hearth. “Physicians have saved a good many folk over the years, surely.”
“Of course they do. And not just physicians, either.” I sat up, impelled by the force of my argument. “But it doesn’t matter—don’t you see? You—” I pointed one finger at him, “—you’ve saved a life now and then. Fergus? Ian? And here they are, both going about the world doing things and procreating and what-not. You changed the future for them, didn’t you?”
“Aye, well . . . perhaps. I couldna do otherwise, though, could I?”
That simple statement stopped me, and we lay in silence for a bit, watching the flicker of light on the white-plastered wall. At last he stirred beside me, and spoke again.
“I dinna say it for pity,” he said. “But ye ken . . . now and then my bones ache a bit.” He didn’t look at me, but spread his crippled hand, turning it in the light, so the shadow of the crooked fingers made a spider on the wall.
Now and then. I kent, all right. I knew the limits of the body—and its miracles. I’d seen him sit down at the end of a day’s labor, exhaustion written in every line of his body. Seen him move slowly, stubborn against the protests of flesh and bone when he rose on cold mornings. I would be willing to bet that he had not lived a day since Culloden without pain, the physical damages of war aggravated by damp and harsh living. And I would also be willing to bet that he had never mentioned it to anyone. Until now.
“I know that,” I said softly, and touched the hand. The twisting scar that runneled his leg. The small depression in the flesh of his arm, legacy of a bullet.
“But not with you,” he said, and covered my hand where it lay on his arm. “D’ye ken that the only time I am without pain is in your bed, Sassenach? When I take ye, when I lie in your arms—my wounds are healed, then, my scars forgotten.”
I sighed and laid my head in the curve of his shoulder. My thigh pressed his, the softness of my flesh a mold to his harder form.
He was silent for a time, stroking my hair with his good hand. It was wild and bushy, freed from its moorings by our earlier struggles, and he smoothed one curly strand at a time, combing down each lock between his fingers.
“Your hair’s like a great storm cloud, Sassenach,” he murmured, sounding half-asleep. “All dark and light together. No two hairs are the same color.”
He was right; the lock between his fingers bore strands of pure white, of silver and blond, dark streaks, nearly sable, and several bits still of my young light brown.
His fingers went under the mass of hair, and I felt his hand cup the base of my skull, holding my head like a chalice.
“I saw my mother in her coffin,” he said at last. His thumb touched my ear, drew down the curve of helix and lobule, and I shivered at his touch.
“The women had plaited her hair, to be seemly, but my father wouldna have it. I heard him. He didna shout, though, he was verra quiet. He would have his last sight of her as she was to him, he said. He was half-crazed wi’ grief, they said, he should let well alone, be still. He didna trouble to say more to them, but went to the coffin himself. He undid her plaits and he spread out her hair in his two hands across the pillow. They were afraid to stop him.”
He paused, his thumb stilled.
“I was there, keepin’ quiet in the corner. When they all went out to meet the priest, I crept up close. I hadna seen a dead person before.”
I let my fingers curl over the ridge of his forearm, quietly. My mother had left me one morning, kissed my forehead, and slid in the clip that fell out of my curly hair. I had never seen her again. Her coffin had been closed.
“No,” he said softly. His eyes were half-lidded as he looked into the fire. “Not quite. The face had the look of her, but no more. Like as if someone had set out to carve her from birch wood. But her hair—that was still alive. That was still . . . her.”
I heard him swallow, and half-clear his throat.
“The hair lay down across her breast, so it covered the child who lay with her. I thought perhaps he wouldna like it; to be smothered so. So I lifted up the locks of red to let him out. I could see him—my wee brother, curled up in her arms, wi’ his head on her breast, all shadowed and snug under the curtain of her hair.
“So then I thought no, he’d be happier if I left him so—so I smoothed her hair down again, to cover his head.” He drew a deep breath, and I felt his chest rise under my cheek. His fingers ran slowly down through my hair.
“She hadna one white hair, Sassenach. Not one.”
Ellen Fraser had died in childbirth, aged thirty-eight. My own mother had been thirty-two. And I . . . I had the richness of all those long years lost to them. And more.
“To see the years touch ye gives me joy, Sassenach,” he whispered, “—for it means that ye live.”
He lifted his hand and let my hair fall slowly from his fingers, brushing my face, skimming my lips, floating soft and heavy on my neck and shoulders, lying like feathers at the tops of my br**sts.
“Mo nighean donn,” he whispered, “mo chridhe. My brown lass, my heart.”
“Come to me. Cover me. Shelter me, a bhean, heal me. Burn with me, as I burn for you.”
I lay on him, covered him, my skin, his bone, and still—still!—that fierce bright core of flesh to join us. I let my hair fall down around us both, and in the fire-shot cavern of its darkness, whispered back.
“Until we two be burned to ashes.”
THERE’S A HOLE IN THE
BOTTOM OF THE SEA
ROGER WAS INSTANTLY AWAKE, in that way that allowed no transition through drowsiness; body inert, but mind alert, ears tuned to the echo of what had wakened him. He had no conscious recollection of Jemmy’s cry, but it echoed in his inner ear, with that combination of hope and resignation that is the lot of the more-easily wakened parent.
Sleep dragged at him, pulling him back under the waves of slumber like a ten-ton boulder chained to his foot. A tiny rustling noise kept his head momentarily above the surface.
“Go back to sleep,” he thought fiercely, in the direction of the cradle. “Shhhhh. Hush. Quiet. Go . . . to . . . sleeeeeep.” This telepathic hypnosis seldom worked, but it delayed for a few precious seconds the necessity of moving. And now and then the miracle happened, and his son actually did go back to sleep, relaxing into the warm sogginess of wet diaper and crumb-caked dreams.
Roger held his breath, clinging to the fading edge of sleep, hoarding the cherished seconds of immobility. Then another small sound came, and he was on his feet at once.
“Bree? Bree, what is it?” The “r” in her name fluttered in his throat, not quite there, but he didn’t take the time to be troubled by it. All his attention was for her.
She was standing by the cradle, a ghostly column in the dark. He touched her, took her by the shoulders. Her arms were wrapped tight around the little boy, and she was shuddering with cold and fear.
He pulled her close by instinct; her cold infected him at once. He felt the chill on his heart and forced himself to hold tighter, not to look at the empty cradle.
“What is it?” he whispered. “Is it Jemmy? What’s . . . happened?”
A shiver rose up the length of her body, and he felt the goosebumps rise under the thin cloth of her shift. Despite the warmth of the room, he felt the hair on his own arms rising.
“Nothing,” she said. “He’s all right.” Her voice was thick, but she was right; Jem, waking to find himself uncomfortably squashed between his parents, let out a sudden yelp of surprised indignation, and began to churn his arms and legs like an eggbeater.
This sturdy battering filled Roger with a flood of warm relief, drowning the cold imaginings that had seized his mind at the sight of her. With a little difficulty, he pried Jemmy from his mother’s arms and hoisted him high against his own shoulder.
He patted the solid little back in reassurance—reassurance of himself, as much as Jemmy—and made soft hissing noises through his teeth. Jemmy, finding this accustomed procedure soothing, yawned widely, relaxed into his normal hamlike state, and began to hum drowsily in Roger’s ear, with the rising and falling note of a distant siren.
“DadeeDadeeDadee . . .”
Brianna was still standing by the cradle, empty arms wrapped now around herself. Roger reached out with his free hand and stroked her hair, her hard-boned shoulder, and drew her close against him.
“Shhh,” he said to them both. “Shhh, shhh. It’s all right now, shhh.”
Her arms went around him, and he could feel the wetness on her face through the linen shirt. His other shoulder was already damp with Jemmy’s sleepy, sweaty warmth.
“Come to bed,” he said softly. “Come under the quilt, it’s . . . cold out here.” It wasn’t; the air in the cabin was warm. She came, nonetheless.
Brianna reached for the child, taking him to her breast even before she lay down. Never one to refuse nourishment at any hour, Jemmy accepted the offer with alacrity, curling up into an apostrophe of content against his mother’s stomach as she settled on one side.
Roger slid into bed behind her, and echoed his son’s posture, bringing up his knees behind Brianna’s, curling his body in a protective comma around her. Thus securely punctuated, Brianna began slowly to relax, though Roger could still feel the tension in her body.
“All right now?” he asked softly. Her skin was still clammy to the touch, but warming.