“What do you think?” I said softly, Jemmy’s head beneath my chin, round and warm in its knitted cap. “Will it be yours? Will you live here, and your children after you?”
It would be a very different life, I thought, from the one he might have led. If Brianna had risked the stones to take him back—but she had not, and so the little boy’s fate lay here. Had she thought of that? I wondered. That by staying, she chose not only for herself, but him? Chose war and ignorance, disease and danger, but had risked all that, for the sake of his father—for Roger. I was not entirely sure it had been the right choice—but it hadn’t been my choice to make.
Still, I reflected, there was no way of imagining beforehand what having a child was like—no power of the mind was equal to the knowledge of just what the birth of a child could do, wresting lives and wrenching hearts.
“And a good thing, too,” I said to Jemmy. “No one in their right mind would do it, otherwise.”
My sense of agitation had faded by now, soothed by the wind and the peace of the leafless wood. The whisky clearing, as we called it, was hidden from the trail. Jamie had spent days searching the slopes above the Ridge, before finding a spot that met his requirements.
Or spots, rather. The malting floor was built in a small clearing at the foot of a hollow; the still was farther up the mountain in a clearing of its own, near a small spring that provided fresh, clear water. The malting floor was out of direct sight of the trail, but not difficult to get to.
“No point in hiding it,” Jamie had said, explaining his choice to me, “when anyone wi’ a nose could walk to it blindfolded.”
True enough; even now, when there was no grain actively fermenting in the shed or toasting on the floor, a faintly fecund, smoky scent lingered in the air. When grain was “working,” the musty, pungent scent of fermentation was perceptible at a distance, but when the sprouting barley was spread on the floor above a slow fire, a thin haze of smoke hung over the clearing, and the smell was strong enough to reach Fergus’s cabin, when the wind was right.
No one was at the malting floor now, of course. When a new batch was working, either Marsali or Fergus would be here to tend it, but for the moment, the roofed floor lay empty, smooth boards darkened to gray by use and weather. There was a neat stack of firewood piled nearby, though, ready for use.
I went close enough to see what sort of wood it was; Fergus liked hickory, both because it split more easily, and for the sweet taste it gave the malted grain. Jamie, deeply traditional in his approach to whisky, would use nothing but oak. I touched a chunk of split wood; wide grain, light wood, thin bark. I smiled. Jamie had been here recently, then.
Normally, a small keg of whisky was kept at the malting floor, both for the sake of hospitality and caution. “If someone should come upon the lass alone there, best she have something to give them,” Jamie had said. “It’s known what we do there; best no one should try to make Marsali tell them where the brew is.” It wasn’t the best whisky—generally a very young, raw spirit—but certainly good enough either for uninvited visitors or a teething child.
“You haven’t got any taste buds yet, anyway, so what’s the odds?” I murmured to Jemmy, who stirred and smacked his lips in his sleep, screwing up his tiny face in a scowl.
I hunted about, but there was no sign of the small whisky keg either in its usual place behind the bags of barley or inside the pile of firewood. Perhaps taken away for refilling, perhaps stolen. No great matter, in either case.
I turned to the north, past the malting floor, took ten steps and turned right. The stone of the mountain jutted out here, a solid block of granite thrusting upward from the growth of turpelo and buttonbush. Only it wasn’t solid. Two slabs of stone leaned together, the open crack below them masked by holly bushes. I pulled my shawl over Jemmy’s face to protect him from the sharp-edged leaves, and squeezed carefully behind them, ducking down to go through the cleft.
The stone face fell away in a crumple of huge boulders on the far side of the cleft, with saplings and undergrowth sprouting willy-nilly in the crevices between the rocks. From below, it looked impassable, but from above, a faint trail was visible, threading down to another small clearing. Hardly a clearing; no more than a gap in the trees, where a clear spring bubbled from the rock and disappeared again into the earth. In summer, it was invisible even from above, shielded by the leafy growth of the trees around it.
Now, on the verge of winter, the white glimmer of the rock by the spring was easily visible through the leafless scrim of alder and mountain ash. Jamie had found a large, pale boulder, and rolled it to the head of the spring, where he had scratched the form of a cross upon it, and said a prayer, consecrating the spring to our use. I had thought at the time of making a joke equating whisky with holy water—thinking of Father Kenneth and the baptisms—but had on second thoughts refrained; I wasn’t so sure Jamie would think it a joke.
I made my way cautiously down the slope, the faint trail leading through the boulders, and finally round an outcrop of rock, before debouching into the spring clearing. I was warm from the walking, but it was cold enough to numb my fingers where I gripped the edges of my shawl. And Jamie was standing at the edge of the spring in nothing but his shirt.
I stopped dead, hidden by a scrubby growth of evergreens.
It wasn’t his state of undress that halted me, but rather something in the look of him. He looked tired, but that was only reasonable, since he had been up and gone so early.
The ragged breeks he wore for riding lay puddled on the ground nearby, his belt and its impedimenta neatly coiled beside them. My eye caught a dark blotch of color, half-hidden in the grass beyond; the blue and brown cloth of his hunting kilt. As I watched, he pulled the shirt over his head and dropped it, then knelt down nak*d by the spring and splashed water over his arms and face.
His clothes were mud-streaked from riding, but he wasn’t filthy, by any means. A simple hand-and-face wash would have sufficed, I thought—and could have been accomplished in much greater comfort by the kitchen hearth.
He stood up, though, and taking the small bucket from the edge of the spring, scooped up cold water and poured it deliberately over himself, closing his eyes and gritting his teeth as it streamed down his chest and legs. I could see his balls draw up tight against his body, looking for shelter as the icy water sluiced through the auburn bush of his pubic hair and dripped off his cock.
“Your grandfather has lost his bloody mind,” I whispered to Jemmy, who stirred and grimaced in his sleep, but took no note of ancestral idiosyncrasies.
I knew Jamie wasn’t totally impervious to cold; I could see him gasp and shudder from where I stood in the shelter of the rock, and I shivered in sympathy. A Highlander born and bred, he simply didn’t regard cold, hunger, or general discomfort as anything to take account of. Even so, this seemed to be taking cleanliness to an extreme.
He took a deep, gasping breath, and poured water over himself a second time. When he bent to scoop up the third bucketful, it began to dawn on me what he was doing.
A surgeon scrubs before operating for the sake of cleanliness, of course, but that isn’t all there is to it. The ritual of soaping the hands, scrubbing the nails, rinsing the skin, repeated and repeated to the point of pain, is as much a mental activity as a physical one. The act of washing oneself in this obsessive way serves to focus the mind and prepare the spirit; one is washing away external preoccupation, sloughing petty distraction, just as surely as one scrubs away germs and dead skin.
I had done it often enough to recognize this particular ritual when I saw it. Jamie was not merely washing; he was cleansing himself, using the cold water not only as solvent but as mortification. He was preparing himself for something, and the notion made a small, cold trickle run down my own spine, chilly as the spring water.
Sure enough, after the third bucketful, he set it down and shook himself, droplets flying from the wet ends of his hair into the dry grass like a spatter of rain. No more than half-dry, he pulled the shirt back over his head, and turned to the west, where the sun lay low between the mountains. He stood still for a moment—very still.
The light streamed through the leafless trees, bright enough that from where I stood, I could see him now only in silhouette, light glowing through the damp linen of his shirt, the darkness of his body a shadow within. He stood with his head lifted, shoulders up, a man listening.
For what? I tried to still my own breathing, and pressed the baby’s capped head gently into my shoulder, to keep him from waking. I listened, too.
I could hear the sound of the woods, a constant soft sigh of needle and branch. There was little wind, and I could hear the water of the spring nearby, a muted rush past stone and root. I heard quite clearly the beating of my own heart, and Jemmy’s breath against my neck, and suddenly I felt afraid, as though the sounds were too loud, as though they might draw the attention of something dangerous to us.
I froze, not moving at all, trying not to breathe, and like a rabbit under a bush, to become part of the wood around me. Jemmy’s pulse beat blue, a tender vein across his temple, and I bent my head over him, to hide it.
Jamie said something aloud in Gaelic. It sounded like a challenge—or perhaps a greeting. The words seemed vaguely familiar—but there was no one there; the clearing was empty. The air felt suddenly colder, as though the light had dimmed; a cloud crossing the face of the sun, I thought, and looked up—but there were no clouds; the sky was clear. Jemmy moved suddenly in my arms, startled, and I clutched him tighter, willing him to make no sound.
Then the air stirred, the cold faded, and my sense of apprehension passed. Jamie hadn’t moved. Now the tension went out of him, and his shoulders relaxed. He moved just a little, and the setting sun lit his shirt in a nimbus of gold, and caught his hair in a blaze of sudden fire.
He took his dirk from its discarded sheath, and with no hesitation, drew the edge across the fingers of his right hand. I could see the thin dark line across his fingertips, and bit my lips. He waited a moment for the blood to well up, then shook his hand with a sudden hard flick of the wrist, so that droplets of blood flew from his fingers and struck the standing stone at the head of the pool.
He laid the dirk beneath the stone, and crossed himself with the blood-streaked fingers of his right hand. He knelt then, very slowly, and bowed his head over folded hands.
I’d seen him pray now and then, of course, but always in public, or at least with the knowledge that I was there. Now he plainly thought himself alone, and to watch him kneeling so, stained with blood and his soul given over, made me feel that I spied on an act more private than any intimacy of the body. I would have moved or spoken, and yet to interrupt seemed a sort of desecration. I kept silent, but found I was no longer a spectator; my own mind had turned to prayer unintended.
Oh, Lord, the words formed themselves in my mind, without conscious thought, I commend to you the soul of your servant James. Help him, please. And dimly thought, but help him with what?
Then he crossed himself, and rose, and time started again, without my having noticed it had stopped. I was moving down the hillside toward him, grass brushing my skirt, with no memory of having taken the first step. I didn’t recall his rising, but Jamie was walking toward me, not looking surprised, but his face filled with light at sight of us.