“I’ll live with it, a nighean,” he said softly, and kissed my forehead. “For now.”
THE OTHER MAJOR THINGS requiring a healer’s attention in summer were pregnancy and birth. I prayed every day that Marsali had safely delivered her child. Even though it was already June 1, it would likely be months before we had any news, but I had examined her before we parted company—with tears—in Charleston, and all seemed normal.
“Do ye think this one might be . . . like Henri-Christian?” She spoke the name with difficulty and pressed a hand to her swelling belly.
“Probably not,” I said, and saw the emotions ripple across her face like wind passing over water. Fear, regret . . . relief.
I crossed myself, with another quick prayer, and walked up the path to the MacDonald cottage, where Rachel and Ian were staying until Ian could build them a place of their own. Rachel was sitting on the bench out front, shelling peas into a basin, the basin sitting comfortably atop her stomach.
“Madainn mhath!” she said, smiling in delight when she saw me. “Is thee not impressed with my linguistic facility, Claire? I can say ‘Good morning,’ ‘Good night,’ ‘How are you?’ and ‘Bugger off to St. Kilda’ now.”
“Congratulations,” I said, sitting down next to her. “How does that last one go?”
“Rach a h-Irt,” she told me. “I gather ‘St. Kilda’ is actually a figure of speech indicating some extremely remote location, rather than being specified as the actual destination.”
“I wouldn’t be at all surprised. Do you try to impose the principles of plain speech on Gàidhlig, or is that even possible?”
“I have no idea,” she said frankly. “Mother Jenny proposes to teach me the Lord’s Prayer in Gàidhlig. Perhaps I can tell from that, as presumably one addresses the Creator in the same sort of voice that one uses for plain speech.”
“Oh.” I hadn’t thought about that, but it was sensible. “So you call God ‘Thee’ when speaking to Him?”
“Of course. Who should be a closer Friend?”
It hadn’t occurred to me, but presumably that was why one used “thou,” “thy,” et cetera, in prayer; that was originally the familiar form of the singular pronoun “you,” even though common English speech had now moved on and lost the distinction, save for the Friends’ plain speech.
“How interesting,” I said. “And how is Oggy today?”
“Restless,” she said, catching the edge of the basin as a vigorous kick made it bounce, scattering peas. “So am I,” she added, as I brushed the spilled peas off her petticoat and poured them back into the pan.
“I don’t doubt it,” I said, smiling. “Pregnancy actually does last forever—until suddenly you go into labor.”
“I can’t wait,” she said fervently. “Neither can Ian.”
“Any particular reason?”
A slow, glorious blush rose up from the neck of her shift and suffused her to the hairline.
“I wake him six times a night, rising to piss,” she said, avoiding my eye. “And Oggy kicks him, nearly as much as he does me.”
“And?” I said invitingly.
The blush deepened slightly.
“He says he can’t wait to, er, suckle me,” she said diffidently. She coughed and then looked up, the blush fading a little.
“Really,” she said, now serious, “he’s anxious for the child. Thee knows about his children by the Mohawk woman; he said he’d told thee, making up his mind if it was right for him to marry again.”
“Ah. Yes, he would be.” I laid a hand on her belly, feeling the reassuring pressure of a thrusting foot and the long curve of a tiny back. The baby hadn’t dropped, but Oggy was at least head-down. That was a great relief.
“It will be all right,” I said, and squeezed her hand. “I’m sure of it.”
“I’m not afraid for myself at all,” she said, smiling and squeezing back. The smile faded a little as she put her hand on her stomach. “But very much afraid for them.”
THE WEATHER being fine—and the smallest Higgins teething—we took a pair of quilts and walked up to the house site after supper, to enjoy the long twilight. And a little privacy.
“You don’t think we’re likely to be interrupted by a bear or some other form of wildlife, do you?” I asked, shimmying out of the rough gown I wore for foraging.
“No. I spoke wi’ Jo Beardsley yesterday; he told me the nearest bear is a good league that way—” He nodded toward the far side of the cove. “And they dinna travel far in the summer, while the eating’s good where they are. And painters wouldna trouble wi’ people while there are easier things to kill. I’ll make a bitty fire, though, just on principle.”
“How’s Lizzie?” I asked, unfolding the quilts as I watched him assemble a small fire with deft efficiency. “Did Jo say?”
Jamie smiled, eyes on what he was doing.
“He did, at some length. The meat of it bein’ that she’s well enough but summat inclined to bite pieces out o’ him and Kezzie to distract her mind. That’s why Jo was out hunting; Kezzie stays in when she’s frachetty, because he canna hear her so well.” The Beardsley twins were identical, and so alike that the only sure way to tell which you were talking to was that Keziah was hard of hearing, as the result of a childhood infection.
“That’s good. No malaria, I mean.” I’d visited Lizzie soon after our arrival and found her and the brood thriving—but she’d told me that she’d had a few “spells” of fever during the last year, doubtless owing to lack of the Jesuit bark. I’d left her with most of what I’d brought from Savannah. I should have thought to ask if they had any at the trading post, I thought—and pushed away the heavy sense of uneasiness that came with the thought of that place, thinking firmly, I forgive you.
The fire built, we sat feeding it sticks and watching the last of the sunset go down in flaming banners of golden cloud behind the black pickets of the farthest ridge.
And with the light of the fire dancing on the stacked timbers and the piles of foundation stones, we enjoyed the privacy of our home, rudimentary as said home might be at the moment. We lay peacefully afterward between our quilts—it wasn’t cold but, so high up, the heat of the day vanished swiftly from the air—and watched the flickering lights of chimney sparks and lighted windows, in the few houses visible among the trees of the cove. Before the lights were extinguished for the night, we were asleep.
I woke sometime later from an erotic dream, squirming slowly on the lumpy quilt, limbs heavy with desire. This seemed to happen more frequently as I grew older, as though making love with Jamie ignited a fire that didn’t quite die but continued to smolder through the night. If I didn’t wake enough to do something about it, I’d wake in the morning stupid and foggy with unslaked dreams and unquiet sleep.
Fortunately, I was awake and, while still very pleasantly drowsy, quite capable of doing something about it, the process made much easier by the presence of the large, warm, pungent-smelling male beside me. He shifted a little as I edged onto my back, making a little space between us, but resumed his regular heavy breathing at once, and I edged my hand downward, encountering tumid warmth. It wouldn’t take long.
A few minutes later, Jamie shifted again, and my hand stilled between my thighs. Then his hand slid swiftly under the quilt and touched me in the same place, nearly stopping my heart.
“I dinna mean to interrupt ye, Sassenach,” he whispered in my ear. “But would ye like a bit of help wi’ that?”
“Um,” I said rather faintly. “Ah . . . what did you have in mind?”
In answer, the tip of his tongue darted into my ear, and I let out a small shriek. He snorted with amusement and cupped his hand between my legs, dislodging my own fingers, which had gone rather limp. One large finger stroked me delicately, and I arched my back.
“Ooh, ye’re well started, then,” he murmured. “Ye’re slick and briny as an oyster, Sassenach. Ye hadna finished yet, though?”
“No, I—how long were you listening?”
“Oh, long enough,” he assured me, and, ceasing operations for a moment, took hold of my disengaged hand and folded it firmly round a very enthusiastic bit of his own anatomy. “Mmm?”
“Oh,” I said. “Well . . .” My legs had taken stock of the situation much more quickly than my mind had, and so had he. He lowered his head and kissed me in the dark with a soft, eager thoroughness, then pulled his mouth away long enough to ask, “How do elephants make love?”
Fortunately, he didn’t wait for an answer, as I hadn’t got one. He rolled over me and slid home in the same movement, and the universe shrank suddenly to a single vivid point.
A few minutes later, we lay under the blazing stars, quilt thrown off and hearts thumping slowly back to normal.
“Did you know,” I said, “that your heart actually does stop for a moment at the point of climax? That’s why your heartbeat is slow for a minute or two after; the sympathetic nervous system has fired all its synapses, leaving the parasympathetic to run your heart, and the parasympathetic decreases heart rate.”
“I noticed it stopped,” he assured me. “Didna really care why, as long as it started again.” He put his arms over his head and stretched luxuriously, enjoying the cool air on his skin. “Actually, I never cared whether it started again, either.”
“There’s a man for you,” I remarked tolerantly. “No forethought.”
“Ye dinna need forethought for that, Sassenach. What ye were doing when I interrupted ye, I mean. I admit, if there’s a woman involved, ye have to think of all sorts of things, but no for that.” He paused for a moment.
“Um. Did I not . . . serve ye well enough earlier, Sassenach?” he asked, a little shyly. “I would ha’ taken more time, but I couldna wait, and—”
“No, no,” I assured him. “It wasn’t that—I mean, I just . . . enjoyed it so much I woke up wanting more.”
He relaxed with a deep, contented sigh, closing his eyes. There was a waxing moon and I could see him clearly, though the moonlight washed all color from the scene, leaving him a sculpture in black and white. I ran a hand down his chest and lightly over his still-flat belly—hard physical labor had its price, but also its benefits—and cupped his genitals, warm and damp in my hand.
“Tha ball-ratha sìnte riut,” he said, putting a big hand over mine.
“A what?” I said. “A lucky . . . leg?”
“Well, limb, really; leg would be overstating it by a good deal. ‘There is a lucky limb stretched against you.’ It’s the first line of a poem by Alasdair mac Mhaighistir Alasdair. ‘To an Excellent Penis,’ it’s called.”
“Thought highly of himself, did Alasdair?”
“Well, he doesna say it’s his—though I admit that’s the implication.” He squinted a little, eyes still closed, and declaimed:
“Tha ball-ratha sìnte riut
A choisinn mìle buaidh
Sàr-bodh iallach acfhainneach
Rinn-gheur sgaiteach cruaidh
Ùilleach feitheach feadanach
Làidir seasmhach buan
Beòdha treòrach togarrach
Nach diùltadh bog no cruaidh.”
“I daresay,” I said. “Do it in English; I believe I’ve missed a few of the finer points. He can’t really have compared his penis to a bagpipe’s chanter, can he?”
“Oh, aye, he did,” Jamie confirmed, then translated:
“There is a lucky limb stretched against you
That has made a thousand conquests:
An excellent penis that is leathery, well-equipped,
Sharp-pointed, piercing, firm,
Lubricated, sinewy, chanter-like,
Strong, durable, long-enduring,
Vigorous, powerful, joyous,
That would not jilt either soft or hard body.”
“Leathery, is it?” I said, giggling. “I don’t wonder, after a thousand conquests. What does he mean, ‘well-equipped,’ though?”
“I wouldna ken. I suppose I must have seen it once or twice—havin’ a piss by the side o’ the road, I mean—but if so, I wasna greatly struck by its virtues.”
“You knew this Alasdair?” I rolled over and propped my head on my arm.
“Oh, aye. So did you, though ye maybe didna ken he wrote poetry, you not having much Gàidhlig in those days.”
I still didn’t have a great deal, though now that we were among Gàidhlig-speaking people again, it was coming back.
“Where did we know him? In the Rising?”
He was Prince Tearlach’s Gàidhlig tutor.
“Aye. He wrote a great many poems and songs about the Stuart cause.” And now that he reminded me, I thought I did perhaps recall him: a middle-aged man singing in the firelight, long-haired and clean-shaven, with a deep cleft in his chin. I’d always wondered how he managed to shave so neatly with a cutthroat razor.
“Hmm.” I had distinctly mixed feelings about people like Alasdair. On the one hand, without them stirring the pot and exciting irrational romanticism, the Cause might easily have withered and died long before Culloden. On the other . . . because of them, the battlefields—and those who had fallen there—were remembered.
Before I could think too deeply on that subject, though, Jamie interrupted my thoughts by idly brushing his penis to one side.
“The schoolmasters made me learn to write wi’ my right hand,” he remarked, “but luckily it didna occur to anyone to force me to abuse myself that way, too.”