He stared at his arm with interest. “I’ve germs in my arm, have I?”
“You very definitely have.” I tapped a finger on the small flat box. “The medicine I just shot into your backside kills germs, though. You get another shot every four hours ’til this time tomorrow, and then we’ll see how you’re doing.”
I paused. Jamie was staring at me, shaking his head.
“Do you understand?” I asked. He nodded slowly.
“Aye, I do. I should ha’ let them burn ye, twenty years ago.”
WHAT’S IN A NAME
After giving him a shot and settling him comfortably, I sat watching until he fell asleep again, allowing him to hold my hand until his own grip relaxed in sleep and the big hand dropped slack by his side.
I sat by his bed for the rest of the night, dozing sometimes, and rousing myself by means of the internal clock all doctors have, geared to the rhythms of a hospital’s shift changes. Two more shots, the last at daybreak, and by then the fever had loosed its hold perceptibly. He was still very warm to the touch, but his flesh no longer burned, and he rested easier, falling asleep after the last shot with no more than a few grumbles and a faint moan as his arm twinged.
“Bloody eighteenth-century germs are no match for penicillin,” I told his sleeping form. “No resistance. Even if you had syphilis, I’d have it cleaned up in no time.”
And what then? I wondered, as I staggered off to the kitchen in search of hot tea and food. A strange woman, presumably the cook or the housemaid, was firing up the brick oven, ready to receive the daily loaves that lay rising in their pans on the table. She didn’t seem surprised to see me, but cleared away a small space for me to sit down, and brought me tea and fresh girdle-cakes with no more than a quick “Good mornin’ to ye, mum” before returning to her work.
Evidently, Jenny had informed the household of my presence. Did that mean she accepted it herself? I doubted it. Clearly, she had wanted me to go, and wasn’t best pleased to have me back. If I was going to stay, there was plainly going to be a certain amount of explanation about Laoghaire, from both Jenny and Jamie. And I was going to stay.
“Thank you,” I said politely to the cook, and taking a fresh cup of tea with me, went back to the parlor to wait until Jamie saw fit to wake up again.
People passed by the door during the morning, pausing now and then to peep through, but always went on hurriedly when I looked up. At last, Jamie showed signs of waking, just before noon; he stirred, sighed, groaned as the movement jarred his arm, and subsided once more.
I gave him a few moments to realize that I was there, but his eyes stayed shut. He wasn’t asleep, though; the lines of his body were slightly tensed, not relaxed in slumber. I had watched him sleep all night; I knew the difference.
“All right,” I said. I leaned back in the chair, settling myself comfortably, well out of his reach. “Let’s hear it, then.”
A small slit of blue showed under the long auburn lashes, then disappeared again.
“Mmmm?” he said, pretending to wake slowly. The lashes fluttered against his cheeks.
“Don’t stall,” I said crisply. “I know perfectly well you’re awake. Open your eyes and tell me about Laoghaire.”
The blue eyes opened and rested on me with an expression of some disfavor.
“You’re no afraid of giving me a relapse?” he inquired. “I’ve always heard sick folk shouldna be troubled owermuch. It sets them back.”
“You have a doctor right here,” I assured him. “If you pass out from the strain, I’ll know what to do about it.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.” His narrowed gaze flicked to the little case of drugs and hypodermics on the table, then back to me. “My arse feels like I’ve sat in a gorse bush wi’ no breeks on.”
“Good,” I said pleasantly. “You’ll get another one in an hour. Right now, you’re going to talk.”
His lips pressed tight together, but then relaxed as he sighed. He pushed himself laboriously upright against the pillows, one-handed. I didn’t help him.
“All right,” he said at last. He didn’t look at me, but down at the quilt, where his finger traced the edge of the starred design.
“Well, it was when I’d come back from England.”
He had come up from the Lake District and over the Carter’s Bar, that great ridge of high ground that divides England from Scotland, on whose broad back the ancient courts and markets of the Borders had been held.
“There’s a stone there to mark the border, maybe you’ll know; it looks the sort of stone to last a while.” He glanced at me, questioning, and I nodded. I did know it; a huge menhir, some ten feet tall. In my time, someone had carved on its one face ENGLAND, and on the other, SCOTLAND.
There he stopped to rest, as thousands of travelers had stopped over the years, his exiled past behind him, the future—and home—below and beyond, past the hazy green hollows of the Lowlands, up into the gray crags of the Highlands, hidden by fog.
His good hand ran back and forth through his hair, as it always did when he thought, leaving the cowlicks on top standing up in small, bright whorls.
“You’ll not know how it is, to live among strangers for so long.”
“Won’t I?” I said, with some sharpness. He glanced up at me, startled, then smiled faintly, looking down at the coverlet.
“Aye, maybe ye will,” he said. “Ye change, no? Much as ye want to keep the memories of home, and who ye are—you’re changed. Not one of the strangers; ye could never be that, even if ye wanted to. But different from who ye were, too.”
I thought of myself, standing silent beside Frank, a bit of flotsam in the eddies of university parties, pushing a pram through the chilly parks of Boston, playing bridge and talking with other wives and mothers, speaking the foreign language of middle-class domesticity. Strangers indeed.
“Yes,” I said. “I know. Get on.”
He sighed, rubbing his nose with a forefinger. “So I came back,” he said. He looked up, a smile hidden in the corner of his mouth. “What is it ye told wee Ian? ‘Home is the place where, when ye have to go there, they have to take ye in’?”
“That’s it,” I said. “It’s a quotation from a poet called Frost. But what do you mean? Surely your family was glad to see you!”
He frowned, fingering the quilt. “Aye, they were,” he said slowly. “It’s not that—I dinna mean they made me feel unwelcome, not at all. But I had been away so long—Michael and wee Janet and Ian didna even remember me.” He smiled ruefully. “They’d heard about me, though. When I came into the kitchen, they’d squash back against the walls and stare at me, wi’ their eyes gone round.”
He leaned forward a little, intent on making me understand.
“See, it was different, when I hid in the cave. I wasna in the house, and they seldom saw me, but I was always here, I was always part of them. I hunted for them; I kent when they were hungry, or cold, or when the goats were ill or the kail crop poor, or a new draft under the kitchen door.
“Then I went to prison,” he said abruptly. “And to England. I wrote to them—and they to me—but it canna be the same, to see a few black words on the paper, telling things that happened months before.
“And when I came back—” He shrugged, wincing as the movement jarred his arm. “It was different. Ian would ask me what I thought of fencing in auld Kirby’s pasture, but I’d know he’d already set Young Jamie to do it. I’d walk through the fields, and folk would squint at me, suspicious, thinking me a stranger. Then their eyes would go big as they’d seen a ghost, when they knew me.”
He stopped, looking out at the window, where the brambles of his mother’s rose beat against the glass as the wind changed. “I was a ghost, I think.” He glanced at me shyly. “If ye ken what I mean.”
“Maybe,” I said. Rain was streaking the glass, with drops the same gray as the sky outside.
“You feel like your ties to the earth are broken,” I said softly. “Floating through rooms without feeling your footsteps. Hearing people speak to you, and not making sense of it. I remember that—before Bree was born.” But I had had one tie then; I had her, to anchor me to life.
He nodded, not looking at me, and then was quiet for a minute. The peat fire hissed on the hearth behind me, smelling of the Highlands, and the rich scent of cock-a-leekie and baking bread spread through the house, warm and comforting as a blanket.
“I was here,” he said softly, “but not home.”
I could feel the pull of it around me—the house, the family, the place itself. I, who couldn’t remember a childhood home, felt the urge to sit down here and stay forever, enmeshed in the thousand strands of daily life, bound securely to this bit of earth. What would it have meant to him, who had lived all his life in the strength of that bond, endured his exile in the hope of coming back to it, and then arrived to find himself still rootless?
“And I suppose I was lonely,” he said quietly. He lay still on the pillow, eyes closed.
“I suppose you were,” I said, careful to let no tone either of sympathy or condemnation show. I knew something of loneliness, too.
He opened his eyes then, and met my gaze with a naked honesty. “Aye, there was that too,” he said. “Not the main thing, no—but aye, that too.”
Jenny had tried, with varying degrees of gentleness and insistence, to persuade him to marry again. She had tried intermittently since the days after Culloden, presenting first one and then another personable young widow, this and that sweet-tempered virgin, all to no avail. Now, bereft of the feelings that had sustained him so far, desperately seeking some sense of connection—he had listened.
“Laoghaire was married to Hugh MacKenzie, one of Colum’s tacksmen,” he said, eyes closed once more. “Hugh was killed at Culloden, though, and two years later, Laoghaire married Simon MacKimmie of clan Fraser. The two lassies—Marsali and Joan—they’re his. The English arrested him a few years later, and took him to prison in Edinburgh.” He opened his eyes, looking up at the dark ceiling beams overhead. “He had a good house, and property worth seizing. That was enough to make a Highland man a traitor, then, whether he’d fought for the Stuarts openly or not.” His voice was growing hoarse, and he stopped to clear his throat.
“Simon wasn’t as lucky as I was. He died in prison, before they could bring him to trial. The Crown tried for some time to take the estate, but Ned Gowan went to Edinburgh, and spoke for Laoghaire, and he managed to save the main house and a little money, claiming it was her dower right.”
“Ned Gowan?” I spoke with mingled surprise and pleasure. “He can’t still be alive, surely?” It was Ned Gowan, a small and elderly solicitor who advised the MacKenzie clan on legal matters, who had saved me from being burned as a witch, twenty years before. I had thought him quite ancient then.