“Did you bring that with you from Scotland?” I asked, accepting the flask, which had a crude fleur-de-lis on the side.
“Aye, it was Ian’s. He had it from when he and Jamie were soldiering in France; brought it back wi’ him when he lost his leg. We’d sit on the wall by his da’s house and share a dram, while he was mending; he’d need it, poor lad, after I made him walk up and down the road ten times every day, to learn the use of his peg.” She smiled, slanted eyes creasing, but with a wistful turn to her lips.
“I said I wouldna marry him, aye? Unless he could stand up beside me at the altar on two legs and walk me up the aisle after the vows.”
“That’s not quite the way he told it.” I took a cautious sip, but the liquid inside was amazingly good, fiery but smooth. “Where did you get this?”
“A man named Gibbs, from Aberdeenshire. Ye wouldna think they ken anything about whisky-making there, but doubtless he learnt it somewhere else. He lives in a place called Hogue Corners; d’ye ken it?”
“No, but it can’t be that far away. It’s his own make, is it? Jamie would be interested.” I took a second mouthful and handed back the flask, holding the whisky in my mouth to savor.
“Aye, I thought so, too. I have a wee bottle for him in my sack.” She sipped and nodded approvingly. “Who was the dirty fat lumpkin that scairt ye at Beardsley’s?”
I choked on the whisky, swallowed it the wrong way, and nearly coughed my lungs out in consequence. Jenny put down the flask, kirtled up her skirts, and waded into the creek, sousing her hankie in the cold water; she handed it to me, then cupped water in her hand and poured a little into my mouth.
“Lucky there’s plenty of water, as ye said,” she remarked. “Here, have a bit more.” I nodded, eyes streaming, but pulled up my skirts, got down on my knees, and drank for myself, pausing to breathe between mouthfuls, until I stopped wheezing.
“I wasna in any doubt, mind,” Jenny said, watching this performance. “But if I had been, I wouldn’t be now. Who is he?”
“I don’t bloody know,” I said crossly, climbing back on my rock. Jenny wasn’t one to be daunted by tones of voice, though, and merely raised one gull-wing-shaped brow.
“I don’t,” I repeated, a little more calmly. “I—had just seen him somewhere else. I have no idea who he is, though.”
She was examining me with the interested air of a scientist with a new microorganism trapped under her microscope.
“Aye, aye. And where was it ye saw the fellow before? Because ye certainly kent him this time. Ye were fair gobsmacked.”
“If I thought it would make the slightest bit of difference, I’d tell you it’s none of your business,” I said, giving her a look. “Give me that flask, will you?”
She gave it to me, watching patiently while I took several tiny sips and made up my mind what to say. At last I drew a deep, whisky-scented breath and gave her back the flask.
“Thank you. I don’t know whether Jamie told you that about five years ago a gang of bandits who were terrorizing the countryside came through the Ridge. They burnt our malting shed—or tried to—and hurt Marsali. And they—they took me. Hostage.”
Jenny handed back the flask, not speaking, but with a look of deep sympathy in her dark-blue eyes.
“Jamie . . . got me back. He brought men with him, and there was a terrible fight. Most of the gang was killed, but—obviously a few got away in the darkness. That—that man was one of them. No, it’s all right, I don’t need any more.” I’d held the flask like a talisman of courage while I told her but now handed it back. She took a long, meditative swallow.
“But ye didna try to find out his name? Folk there kent him, I could see; they’d have told ye.”
“I don’t want to know!” I spoke loudly enough that one of the goats nearby emitted a startled meh-eh-eh! and bounded over a tussock of grass, evidently not discommoded at all by its hobbles.
“I—it doesn’t matter,” I said, less loudly but no less firmly. “The—ringleaders—are all dead; so are most of the others. This fellow . . . he . . . well, you can tell by looking at him, can’t you? What did you call him—‘a dirty fat lumpkin’? That’s just what he is. He’s no danger to us. I just—want to forget about him,” I ended, rather lamely.
She nodded, stifled a small belch, looked startled at the sound, and, shaking her head, corked the flask and put it away.
We sat for a bit in silence, listening to the rush of water and the birds in the trees behind us. There was a mockingbird somewhere nearby, running through its lengthy repertoire in a voice like brass.
After ten minutes or so, Jenny stretched, arching her back and sighing.
“Ye’ll remember my daughter Maggie?” she asked.
“I do,” I said, smiling a little. “I delivered her. Or, rather, I caught her. You did the work.”
“So ye did,” she said, splashing one foot in the water. “I’d forgotten.”
I gave her a sharp look. If she had, it would be the first thing she ever had forgotten, at least to my knowledge, and I didn’t think she was old enough to have begun forgetting things now.
“She was raped,” she said, eyes on the water and her voice very steady. “Not badly—the man didna beat her—but she got wi’ child by him.”
“How terrible,” I said quietly, after a pause. “It—not a government soldier, though, surely?” That had been my first thought—but Maggie would have been no more than a child during the years of the Rising and Cumberland’s clearing of the Highlands, when the British army had burned, plundered, and, yes, indeed, raped their way through any number of villages and crofts.
“No, it wasn’t,” Jenny said thoughtfully. “It was her husband’s brother.”
“Aye, that’s what I said about it, when she told me.” She grimaced. “That was the one good thing about it, though; Geordie—that was the brother—had the same color hair and eyes as her husband, Paul, so the bairn could be passed off easy enough.”
“And—did she?” I couldn’t help asking. “Pass it off?”
Jenny let out a long sigh and nodded, taking her feet out of the water and tucking them up beneath her petticoat.
“She asked me what to do, poor lassie. I prayed about it—God, I prayed!” she said, with sudden violence, then snorted a little. “And I told her not to tell him—tell Paul, I mean. For if she did, what would be the end of it? One of them dead—for a Hieland man canna live wi’ a man who’s raped his wife nearby, nor should he—and it might be Paul, as like as not. And even if he only beat Geordie and drove him off, everyone would get to know what was behind it, and the poor wee lad—that was Wally, though of course we didna ken that yet, whilst we were talking it over—but the bairn branded as a bastard and the child of rape—what would become of it?”
She leaned down and, scooping up a handful of water, threw it over her face. She put her head back, eyes closed and the water running off her high, sharp cheekbones, and shook her head.
“And the family—Paul and Geordie’s? A thing like that would tear them to pieces—and put them at loggerheads wi’ us, nay doubt, for they’d be insisting up and down that Maggie was lying, rather than believe such a thing. Fat-heided creatures, the Carmichaels,” she said judiciously. “Loyal enough, but stubborn as rocks.”
“Thus sayeth a Fraser,” I remarked. “The Carmichaels must be something special in that line.”
Jenny snorted but didn’t reply for a moment or two.
“So,” she said at last, turning to look at me, “I said to Maggie that I’d prayed about it, and it seemed to me that if she could bear it for the sake of her man and her bairns, she should say nothing. Try to forgive Geordie if she could, and if she couldn’t, keep away from him—but say nothing. And that’s what she did.”
“What—did Geordie do?” I asked curiously. “Did he—does he know that Wally is his son?”
She shook her head.
“I dinna ken. He left, a month after the bairn was born—emigrated to Canada. No one was surprised at that; everyone kent he was mad in love wi’ Maggie and beside himself when she chose Paul. I expect that made it easier.”
“Out of sight, out of mind? Yes, I’d suppose so,” I said dryly. I thought I shouldn’t ask but couldn’t help myself. “Did Maggie ever tell Paul—after Geordie left, I mean?”
She shook her head and stood up, a little stiffly, shaking down her skirts.
“I dinna ken for sure, but I dinna think so. For her to tell him, after so long of keeping silent . . . how would he take that? And he’d still hate his brother, even if he couldna kill him right away.” Her blue eyes, so like Jamie’s, looked at me with rueful amusement. “Ye canna have been marrit to a Hieland man all these years and not ken how deep they can hate. Come on—we’d best gather these creatures before they burst.” And she waded off into the grass, shoes in her hand, calling out a Gàidhlig charm for gathering livestock:
“The Three who are above in the City of glory,
Be shepherding my flock and my kine,
Tending them duly in heat, in storm, and in cold,
With the blessing of power driving them down
From yonder height to the sheiling fold.”
I THOUGHT about it, after everyone had rolled up in their blankets and begun snoring that night. Well . . . I hadn’t stopped thinking about it since I’d seen the man. But in light of the story that Jenny had told me, my thoughts began to clarify, much as throwing an egg into a pot of coffee will settle the grounds.
The notion of saying nothing was of course the first one to come to my mind and was still my intent. The only difficulty—well, there were two, to be honest. But the first one was that, irritating as it was to be told so repeatedly, I couldn’t deny the fact that I had a glass face. If anything was seriously troubling me, the people I lived with immediately began glancing at me sideways, tiptoeing exaggeratedly around me—or, in Jamie’s case, demanding bluntly to know what the matter was.
Jenny had done much the same thing, though she hadn’t pressed me for details of my experience. Quite plainly, she’d guessed the outlines of it, though, or she wouldn’t have chosen to tell me Maggie’s story. It occurred to me belatedly to wonder whether Jamie had told her anything about Hodgepile’s attack and its aftermath.
The underlying difficulty, though, was my own response to meeting the dirty fat lumpkin. I snorted every time I repeated the description to myself, but it actually helped. He was a man, and not a very prepossessing one. Not a monster. Not . . . not bloody worth making a fuss about. God knew how he’d come to join Hodgepile’s band—I supposed that most criminal gangs were largely composed of feckless idiots, come to that.
And . . . little as I wanted to relive that experience . . . I did. He hadn’t come to me with any intent of hurting me, in fact hadn’t hurt me (which was not to say that he hadn’t crushed me with his weight, forced my thighs apart, and stuck his c**k into me . . .).
I unclenched my teeth, drew a deep breath, and started over.
He’d come to me out of opportunity—and need.
“Martha,” he’d said, sobbing, his tears and snot warm on my neck. “Martha, I loved you so.”
Could I forgive him on those grounds? Put aside the unpleasantness of what he’d done to me and see him only as the pathetic creature that he was?
If I could—would that stop him living in my mind, a constant burr under the blanket of my thoughts?
I put back my head, looking up at the deep black sky swimming with hot stars. If you knew they were really balls of flaming gas, you could imagine them as van Gogh saw them, without difficulty . . . and looking into that illuminated void, you understood why people have always looked up into the sky when talking to God. You need to feel the immensity of something very much bigger than yourself, and there it is—immeasurably vast, and always near at hand. Covering you.
Help me, I said silently.
I never talked to Jamie about Jack Randall. But I knew from the few things he told me—and the disjointed things he said in the worst of his dreams—that this was how he had chosen to survive. He’d forgiven Jack Randall. Over and over. But he was a stubborn man; he could do it. A thousand times, and still one more.
Help me, I said, and felt tears trickle down my temples, into my hair. Please. Help me.
THINGS COMING INTO VIEW
IT WORKED. NOT EASILY, and often not for more than a few minutes at a time—but the shock faded and, back at home, with the peace of the mountain and the love of family and friends surrounding me, I felt a welcome sense of balance return. I prayed, and I forgave, and I coped.
This was greatly helped by distraction. Summer is the busiest time in an agricultural community. And when men are working with scythes and hoes and wagons and livestock and guns and knives—they hurt themselves. As for the women and children—burns and household accidents and constipation and diarrhea and teething and . . . pinworms.
“There, you see?” I said in a low voice, holding a lighted candle a few inches from the bu**ocks of Tammas Wilson, aged two. Tammas, drawing the not unreasonable conclusion that I was about to scorch his bum or ram the candle up his backside, shrieked and kicked, trying to escape. His mother took a firmer grip on him, though, and pried his bu**ocks apart again, revealing the tiny white wriggles of female pinworms swarming round his less than ideally immaculate small anus.
“Christ between us and evil,” Annie Wilson said, letting go with one hand in order to cross herself. Tammas made a determined effort at escape and nearly succeeded in pitching himself headfirst into the fire. I seized him by one foot, though, and hauled him back.