Author: P Hana

Page 8


Everything that had happened during the day whirled through my mind in a disjointed welter of thoughts and feelings. Coatless, I was shaking with cold from the short walk through the parking lot, but slowly I grew warm again, and my clenched hands relaxed in my lap.

At last, as usually happened here, I ceased to think. Whether it was the stoppage of time in the presence of eternity, or only the overtaking of a bone-deep fatigue, I didn’t know. But the guilt over Frank eased, the wrenching grief for Jamie lessened, and even the constant tug of motherhood upon my emotions receded to the level of background noise, no louder than the slow beating of my own heart, regular and comforting in the dark peace of the chapel.

“O Lord,” I whispered, “I commend to your mercy the soul of your servant James.” And mine, I added silently. And mine.

I sat there without moving, watching the flickering glow of the candle flames in the gold surface of the monstrance, until the soft footsteps of the next adorer came down the aisle behind me, ending in the heavy creak of genuflection. They came once each hour, day and night. The Blessed Sacrament was never left alone.

I stayed for a few minutes more, then slid out of the pew, with my own nod toward the altar. As I walked toward the back of the chapel, I saw a figure in the back row, under the shadow of the statue of St. Anthony. It stirred as I approached, then the man rose to his feet and made his way to the aisle to meet me.

“What are you doing here?” I hissed.

Frank nodded toward the form of the new adorer, already kneeling in contemplation, and took my elbow to guide me out.

I waited until the chapel door had closed behind us before pulling away and whirling to confront him.

“What is this?” I said angrily. “Why did you come after me?”

“I was worried about you.” He gestured toward the empty car park, where his large Buick nestled protectively next to my small Ford. “It’s dangerous, a lone woman walking about in the very late night in this part of town. I came to see you home. That’s all.”

He didn’t mention the Hinchcliffes, or the dinner party. My annoyance ebbed a bit.

“Oh,” I said. “What did you do with Brianna?”

“Asked old Mrs. Munsing from next door to keep an ear out in case she cried. But she seemed dead asleep; I didn’t think there was much chance. Come along now, it’s cold out.”

It was; the freezing air off the bay was coiling in white tendrils around the posts of the arc lights, and I shivered in my thin blouse.

“I’ll meet you at home, then,” I said.

The warmth of the nursery reached out to embrace me as I went in to check Brianna. She was still asleep, but restless, turning her russet head from side to side, the groping little mouth opening and closing like the breathing of a fish.

“She’s getting hungry,” I whispered to Frank, who had come in behind me and was hovering over my shoulder, peering fondly at the baby. “I’d better feed her before I come to bed; then she’ll sleep later in the morning.”

“I’ll get you a hot drink,” and he vanished through the door to the kitchen as I picked up the sleepy, warm bundle.

She had only drained one side, but she was full. The slack mouth pulled slowly away from the nipple, rimmed with milk, and the fuzzy head fell heavily back on my arm. No amount of gentle shaking or calling would rouse her to nurse on the other side, so at last I gave up and tucked her back in her crib, patting her back softly until a faint, contented belch wafted up from the pillow, succeeded by the heavy breathing of absolute satiation.

“Down for the night, is she?” Frank drew the baby blanket, decorated with yellow bunnies, up over her.

“Yes.” I sat back in my rocking chair, mentally and physically too exhausted to get up again. Frank came to stand behind me; his hand rested lightly on my shoulder.

“He’s dead, then?” he asked gently.

I told you so, I started to say. Then I stopped, closed my mouth and only nodded, rocking slowly, staring at the dark crib and its tiny occupant.

My right breast was still painfully swollen with milk. No matter how tired I was, I couldn’t sleep until I took care of it. With a sigh of resignation, I reached for the breast pump, an ungainly and ridiculous-looking rubber contraption. Using it was undignified and uncomfortable, but better than waking up in an hour in bursting pain, sopping wet from overflowing milk.

I waved a hand at Frank, dismissing him.

“Go ahead. It will only take a few minutes, but I have to…”

Instead of leaving or answering, he took the pump from my hand and laid it down on the table. As though it moved of its own will, without direction from him, his hand rose slowly through the warm, dark air of the nursery and cupped itself gently around the swollen curve of my breast.

His head bowed and his lips fastened softly on my nipple. I groaned, feeling the half-painful prickle of the milk rushing through the tiny ducts. I put a hand behind his head, and pressed him slightly closer.

“Harder,” I whispered. His mouth was soft, gentle in its pressure, nothing like the relentless grasp of a baby’s hard, toothless gums, that fasten on like grim death, demanding and draining, releasing the bounteous fountain at once in response to their greed.

Frank knelt before me, his mouth a supplicant. Was this how God felt, I wondered, seeing the adorers before Him—was He, too, filled with tenderness and pity? The haze of fatigue made me feel as though everything happened in slow motion, as though we were under water. Frank’s hands moved slowly as sea fronds, swaying in the current, moving over my flesh with a touch as gentle as the brush of kelp leaves, lifting me with the strength of a wave, and laying me down on the shore of the nursery rug. I closed my eyes, and let the tide carry me away.

The front door of the old manse opened with a screech of rusty hinges, announcing the return of Brianna Randall. Roger was on his feet and into the hall at once, drawn by the sound of girls’ voices.

“A pound of best butter—that’s what you told me to ask for, and I did, but I kept wondering whether there was such a thing as second-best butter, or worst butter—” Brianna was handing over wrapped packages to Fiona, laughing and talking at once.

“Well, and if ye got it from that auld rascal Wicklow, worst is what it’s likely to be, no matter what he says,” Fiona interrupted. “Oh, and ye’ve got the cinnamon, that’s grand! I’ll make cinnamon scones, then; d’ye want to come and watch me do it?”

“Yes, but first I want supper. I’m starved!” Brianna stood on tiptoe, sniffing hopefully in the direction of the kitchen. “What are we having—haggis?”

“Haggis! Gracious, ye silly Sassenach—ye dinna have haggis in the spring! Ye have it in the autumn when the sheep are killed.”

“Am I a Sassenach?” Brianna seemed delighted at the name.

“Of course ye are, gowk. But I like ye fine, anyway.”

Fiona laughed up at Brianna, who towered over the small Scottish girl by nearly a foot. Fiona was nineteen, prettily charming and slightly plump; next to her, Brianna looked like a medieval carving, strong-boned and severe. With her long, straight nose and the long hair glowing red-gold beneath the glass bowl of the ceiling fixture, she might have walked out of an illuminated manuscript, vivid enough to endure a thousand years unchanged.

Roger was suddenly conscious of Claire Randall, standing near his elbow. She was looking at her daughter, with an expression in which love, pride, and something else were mingled—memory, perhaps? He realized, with a slight shock, that Jamie Fraser too must have had not only the striking height and Viking red hair he had bequeathed to his daughter, but likely the same sheer physical presence.

It was quite remarkable, he thought. She didn’t do or say anything so out of the ordinary, and yet Brianna undeniably drew people. There was some attraction about her, almost magnetic, that drew everyone near into the glow of her orbit.

It drew him; Brianna turned and smiled at him, and without consciousness of having moved, he found himself near enough to see the faint freckles high on her cheekbones, and smell the whiff of pipe tobacco that lingered in her hair from her expeditions to the shops.

“Hullo,” he said, smiling. “Any luck with the Clans office, or have you been too busy playing dogsbody for Fiona?”

“Dogsbody?” Brianna’s eyes slanted into blue triangles of amusement. “Dogsbody? First I’m a Sassenach, and now I’m a dogsbody. What do you Scots call people when you’re trying to be nice?”

“Darrrrlin’,” he said, rolling his r’s exaggeratedly, and making both girls laugh.

“You sound like an Aberdeen terrier in a bad mood,” Claire observed. “Did you find anything at the Highland Clans library, Bree?”

“Lots of stuff,” Brianna replied, rummaging through the stack of photocopies she had set down on the hall table. “I managed to read most of it while they were making the copies—this one was the most interesting.” She pulled a sheet from the stack and handed it to Roger.

It was an extract from a book of Highland legends; an entry headed “Leap O’ the Cask.”

“Legends?” said Claire, peering over his shoulder. “Is that what we want?”

“Could be.” Roger was perusing the sheet, and spoke absently, his attention divided. “So far as the Scottish Highlands go, most of the history is oral, up to the mid-nineteenth century or so. That means there wasn’t a great distinction made between stories about real people, stories of historical figures, and the stories about mythical things like water horses and ghosts and the doings of the Auld Folk. Scholars who wrote the stories down often didn’t know for sure which they were dealing with, either—sometimes it was a combination of fact and myth, and sometimes you could tell that it was a real historical occurrence being described.

“This one, for instance”—he passed the paper to Claire-“sounds like a real one. It’s describing the story behind the name of a particular rock formation in the Highlands.”

Claire brushed the hair behind her ear and bent her head to read, squinting in the dim light of the ceiling fixture. Fiona, too accustomed to musty papers and boring bits of history to be interested, disappeared back into her kitchen to see to the dinner.

“‘Leap O’ the Cask,’” Claire read. “‘This unusual formation, located some distance above a burn, is named after the story of a Jacobite laird and his servant. The laird, one of the few fortunates to escape the disaster of Culloden, made his way with difficulty to his home, but was compelled to lie hidden in a cave on his lands for nearly seven years, while the English hunted the Highlands for the fugitive supporters of Charles Stuart. The laird’s tenants loyally kept his presence a secret, and brought food and supplies to the laird in his hiding place. They were careful always to refer to the hidden man only as the “Dunbonnet,” in order to avoid any chance of giving him away to the English patrols who frequently crossed the district.

“‘One day, a boy bringing a cask of ale up the trail to the laird’s cave met a group of English dragoons. Bravely refusing either to answer the soldiers’ questions, or to give up his burden, the boy was attacked by one of the dragoons, and dropped the cask, which bounded down the steep hill, and into the burn below.’”