“Why call it that?” I asked, laughing. “Abusing yourself, I mean.”
“Well, ‘masturbate’ sounds a great deal more wicked, aye? And if ye’re abusing yourself, it sounds less like ye’re havin’ a good time.”
“Strong, durable, long-enduring,” I quoted, stroking the object in question lightly. “Perhaps Alasdair meant something like glove leather?”
“Vigorous and powerful it may be, Sassenach, and certainly joyous—but I tell ye, it’s no going to rise to the occasion three times in one night. Not at my age.” Detaching my hand, he rolled over, scooping me into a spoon shape before him, and in less than a minute was sound asleep.
When I woke in the morning, he was gone.
VISIT TO A HAUNTED GARDEN
I BLOODY KNEW. From the moment I woke to birdsong and a cold quilt beside me, I knew. Jamie often rose before dawn, for hunting, fishing, or travel—but he invariably touched me before he left, leaving me with a word or a kiss. We’d lived long enough to know how chancy life could be and how swiftly people could be parted forever. We’d never spoken of it or made a formal custom of it, but we almost never parted without some brief token of affection.
And now he’d gone off in the dark, without a word.
“You bloody, bloody man!” I said, and thumped the ground with my fist in frustration.
I made my way down the hill, quilts folded under my arm, fuming. Jenny. He’d gone and talked to Jenny. Of course he had; why hadn’t I foreseen that?
He’d agreed not to ask me. He hadn’t said he wouldn’t ask anyone else. And while Jenny clearly loved me, I’d never been under any illusions as to where her ultimate loyalty lay. She wouldn’t have voluntarily given up my secret, but if her brother asked her, point-blank, she would certainly have told him.
The sun was spreading warmth like honey over the morning, but none of it was reaching my cold bones.
He knew. And he’d gone a-hunting.
I DIDN’T NEED to look but looked anyway. Jamie’s rifle was gone from its place behind the door.
“He came in early,” Amy Higgins told me, spooning out a bowl of parritch for me. “We were all in bed still, but he called out soft, and Bobby got up to unbar the door. I would have fed him, but he said he was well enough and away he went. Hunting, he said.”
“Of course,” I said. The bowl was warm to my hands, and in spite of what I thought—what I knew—was going on, the thick grainy smell of it was enticing. And there was honey, and a little cream kept back from the butter-making; Amy allowed these in deference to Bobby’s debauched English tastes, though she stuck to the usual virtuously Scottish salt on parritch herself.
Eating settled me, a little. The blunt fact was that there was absolutely nothing I could do. I didn’t know the lumpkin’s name or where he lived. Jamie might. If he’d talked to Jenny right away, he could easily have sent word to Beardsley’s trading post and asked who was the fat man with the port-wine stain on his face. Even if he didn’t yet know and was on his way to find out, I had no means of catching up with him—let alone stopping him.
“A Hieland man canna live wi’ a man who’s raped his wife nearby, nor should he.” That’s what Jenny had said to me. In warning, I now realized.
“Gak!” It was wee Rob, toddling round the room, who had seized my skirt in both hands and was giving me a toothy smile—all four teeth of it. “Hungy!”
“Hallo, there,” I said, smiling back despite my disquiet. “Hungry, you say?” I extended a small spoonful of honeyed parritch in his direction, and he went for it like a starving piranha. We shared the rest of the bowl in companionable silence—Rob wasn’t a chatty child—and I decided that I would work in the garden today. I didn’t want to go far afield, as Rachel could go into labor at any moment, from the looks of it. And a short spell of solitude amid the soothing company of the vegetable kingdom might lend me a bit of much-needed calm.
It would also get me out of the cabin, I reflected, as Rob, having licked the bowl, handed it back to me, toddled across the cabin, and, lifting his dress, peed in the hearth.
THERE WOULD BE a new kitchen garden near the new house. It was measured and planned, the earth broken, and poles for the deer fence had begun accumulating. But there was little point in walking that far each day to tend a garden when there was not yet a house to live in. I minded Amy’s plot in the meantime, sneaking occasional seedlings and propagules into it between the cabbages and turnips—but today I meant to visit the Old Garden.
That’s what the people of the Ridge called it, and they didn’t go there. I privately called it Malva’s Garden, and did.
It was on a small rise behind where the Big House had stood. With the new house rising already in my mind, I passed the bare spot where the Big House had been, without a qualm. There were more exigent things to be qualm about, I thought, and sniggered.
“You are losing your mind, Beauchamp,” I murmured, but felt better.
The deer fence had weathered and broken down in spots, and the deer had naturally accepted the invitation. Most of the bulbs had been pawed up and eaten, and while a few of the softer plants, like lettuce and radishes, had escaped long enough to reseed themselves, the growing plants had been nibbled to scabby white stalks. But a very thorny wild rose brier flourished away in one corner, cucumber vines crawled over the ground, and a massive gourd vine rippled over a collapsed portion of the fence, thick with infant fruits.
A monstrous pokeweed rose from the center of the patch, nearly ten feet high, its thick red stem supporting a wealth of long green leaves and hundreds of purplish-red flower stalks. The nearby trees had grown immensely, shading the plot, and in the diffuse green light the long, nubbly stalks looked like nudibranchs, those colorful sea slugs, gently swaying in currents of air rather than water. I touched it respectfully in passing; it had an odd medicinal smell, well deserved. There were a number of useful things one could do with pokeweed, but eating it wasn’t one of them. Which was to say, people did eat the leaves on occasion, but the chances of accidental poisoning made it not worth the trouble of preparation unless there was absolutely nothing else to eat.
I couldn’t remember the exact spot where she’d died. Where the pokeweed grew? That would be entirely apropos, but maybe too poetic.
Malva Christie. A strange, damaged young woman—but one I’d loved. Who perhaps had loved me, as well as she could. She’d been with child and near her time when her brother—the child’s father—had cut her throat, here in the garden.
I’d found her moments later and tried to save the child, performing an emergency cesarean with my gardening knife. He’d been alive when I pulled him from his mother’s womb but died at once, the brief flame of his life a passing blue glow in my hands.
Did anyone name him? I wondered suddenly. They’d buried the baby boy with Malva, but I didn’t recall anyone mentioning his name.
Adso came stalking through the weeds, eyes intent on a fat robin poking busily for worms in the corner. I kept still, watching, admiring the lithe way in which he sank imperceptibly lower as he came more slowly, creeping on his belly for the last few feet, pausing, moving, pausing again for a long, nerve-racking second, no more than the tip of his tail a-twitch.
And then he moved, too fast for the eye to see, and in a brief and soundless explosion of feathers, it was over.
“Well done, cat,” I said, though in fact the sudden violence had startled me a little. He paid no attention but leapt through a low spot in the fence, his prey in his mouth, and disappeared to enjoy his meal.
I stood still for a moment. I wasn’t looking for Malva; the Ridge folk said that her ghost haunted the garden, wailing for her child. Just the sort of thing they would think, I thought, rather uncharitably. I hoped her spirit had fled and was at peace. But I couldn’t help thinking, too, of Rachel, so very different a soul, but a young mother, as well, so near her time, and so nearby.
My old gardening knife was long gone. But Jamie had made me a new one during the winter evenings in Savannah, the handle carved from whalebone, shaped, as the last one had been, to fit my hand. I took it from its sheath in my pocket and nicked my wrist, not stopping to think.
The white scar at the base of my thumb had faded, no more now than a thin line, almost lost in the lines that scored my palm. Still legible, though, if you knew where to look: the letter “J” he had cut into my flesh just before Culloden. Claiming me.
I massaged the flesh near the cut gently, until a full red drop ran down the side of my wrist and fell to the ground at the foot of the pokeweed.
“Blood for blood,” I said, the words quiet in themselves but seeming drowned by the rustle of leaves all around. “Rest ye quiet, child—and do no harm.”
DO NO HARM. Well, you tried. As doctor, as lover, as mother and wife. I said a silent goodbye to the garden and went up the hill, toward the MacDonalds’ cottage.
How would Jamie do it? I wondered, and was surprised to find that I did wonder, and wondered in a purely dispassionate way. He’d taken the rifle. Would he pick the man off at a distance, as if he were a deer at water? A clean shot, the man dead before he knew it.
Or would he feel he must confront the man, tell him why he was about to die—offer him a chance to fight for his life? Or just walk up with the cold face of vengeance, say nothing, and kill the man with his hands?
“Ye canna have been marrit to a Hieland man all these years and not ken how deep they can hate.”
I really didn’t want to know.
Ian had shot Allan Christie with an arrow, as one would put down a rabid dog, and for precisely similar reasons.
I’d seen Jamie’s hate flame bright the night he saved me and said to his men, “Kill them all.”
How was it now for him? If the man had been found on that night, there would have been no question that he would die. Should it be different now, only because time had passed?
I walked in the sun now but still felt cold, the shadows of Malva’s Garden with me. The matter was out of my hands; no longer my business, but Jamie’s.
I MET JENNY on the path, coming up briskly, a basket on her arm and her face alight with excitement.
“Already?” I exclaimed.
“Aye, Matthew MacDonald came down a half hour ago to say her water’s broken. He’s gone to find Ian now.”
He had found Ian; we met the two young men in the dooryard of the cabin, Matthew bright red with excitement, Ian white as a sheet under his tan. The door of the cabin was open; I could hear the murmur of women’s voices inside.
“Mam,” Ian said huskily, seeing Jenny. His shoulders, stiff with terror, relaxed a little.
“Dinna fash yourself, a bhalaich,” she said comfortably, and smiled sympathetically at him. “Your auntie and I have done this a time or two before. It will be all right.”
“Grannie! Grannie!” I turned to find Germain and Fanny, both covered with dirt and with sticks and leaves in their hair, faces bright with excitement. “Is it true? Is Rachel having her baby? Can we watch?”
How did it work? I wondered. News in the mountains seemed to travel through the air.
“Watch, forbye!” Jenny exclaimed, scandalized. “Childbed isna any kind of a place for men. Be off with ye this minute!”
Germain looked torn between disappointment and pleasure at being called a man. Fanny looked hopeful.
“I’m no-t a man,” she said.
Jenny and I both looked dubiously at her and then at each other.
“Well, ye’re no quite a woman yet, either, are ye?” Jenny said to her. If not, she was close. Tiny br**sts were beginning to show when she was in her shift, and her menarche wasn’t far off.
“I’ve s-seen babies bor-n.” It was a simple statement of fact, and Jenny nodded slowly.
“Aye. All right, then.”
“What do we do?” Germain demanded, indignant. “Us men.”
I smiled, and Jenny gave a deep chuckle that was older than time. Ian and Matthew looked startled, Germain quite taken aback.
“Your uncle did his part of the business nine months ago, lad, just as ye’ll do yours when it’s time. Now, you and Matthew take your uncle awa’ and get him drunk, aye?”
Germain nodded quite seriously and turned to Ian.
“Do you want Amy’s wine, Ian, or shall we use Grandda’s good whisky, do ye think?”
Ian’s long face twitched, and he glanced at the open cabin door. A deep grunt, not quite a groan, came out and he looked away, paling further. He swallowed and groped in the leather bag he wore at his waist, coming out with what looked like a rolled animal skin of some kind and handing it to me.
“If—” he started, then stopped to gather himself and started again. “When the babe is born, will ye wrap him—or her,”—he added hastily, “in this?”
It was a small skin, soft and flexible, with very thick, fine fur in shades of gray and white. A wolf, I thought, surprised. The hide of an unborn wolf pup.
“Of course, Ian,” I said, and squeezed his arm. “Don’t worry. It will be all right.”
Jenny looked at the small, soft skin and shook her head.
“I doubt, lad, if that will half-cover your bairn. Have ye no seen the size o’ your wife lately?”
AND YOU KNOW THAT
JAMIE CAME HOME three days later, with a large buck tied to Miranda’s saddle. The horse seemed unenthused about this, though tolerant, and she whuffed air through her nostrils and shivered her hide when he dragged the carcass off, letting it fall with a thump.
“Aye, lass, ye’ve done brawly,” he said, clapping her on the shoulder. “Is Ian about, a nighean?” He paused to kiss me briefly, glancing up the hill toward the MacDonald cottage. “I could use a bit of help wi’ this.”