Brianna ignored this, and shoved her feet under the covers. "Roger’s invited us to go up to a place called St. Kilda tomorrow. He says it’s an interesting old church."
"I’ve heard of it," I said, yawning. "All right, why not? I’ll take my plant press; maybe I can find some crown vetch—I promised some to Dr. Abernathy for his research. But if we’re going to spend the day tramping round reading old gravestones, I’m turning in now. Digging up the past is strenuous work."
There was a brief flicker in Brianna’s face, and I thought she was about to say something. But she merely nodded, and reached to turn out the light, the secretive smile still lurking in the corners of her mouth.
I lay looking up into the darkness, hearing her small tossings and turnings fade into the regular cadences of her sleeping breath. St. Kilda, eh? I had never been there, but I knew of the place; it was an old church, as Brianna had said, long deserted and out of the way for tourists—only the occasional researcher ever went there. Perhaps this was the opportunity I had been waiting for, then?
I would have Roger and Brianna together there, and alone, with little fear of interruption. And perhaps it was a suitable place to tell them—there among the long-dead parishioners of St. Kilda. Roger had not yet verified the whereabouts of the rest of the Lallybroch men, but it seemed fairly sure that they had at least left Culloden Field alive, and that was really all I needed to know, now. I could tell Bree the end of it, then.
My mouth grew dry at the thought of the coming interview. Where was I to find the words for this? I tried to visualize how it might go; what I might say, and how they might react, but imagination failed me. More than ever, I regretted my promise to Frank that had kept me from writing to the Reverend Wakefield. If I had, Roger at least might already know. Or perhaps not; the Reverend might not have believed me.
I turned restlessly, seeking inspiration, but weariness crept over me. And at last I gave up and turned onto my back, closing my eyes on the dark above me. As though my thinking of him had summoned the Reverend’s spirit, a biblical quotation drifted into my fading consciousness: Sufficient unto the day, the Reverend’s voice seemed to murmur to me, sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. And then I slept.
I woke up in the shadowed dark, hands clenched in the bedclothes, heart beating with a force that shook me like the skin of a kettledrum. "Jesus!" I said.
The silk of my nightgown was hot and clinging; looking down, I could dimly see my n**ples thrusting through it, hard as marbles. The quivering spasms were still rippling through wrists and thighs, like the aftershocks of an earthquake. I hoped I hadn’t cried out. Probably not; I could hear Brianna’s breathing, untroubled and regular across the room.
I fell back on the pillow, shaking with weakness, the sudden flush washing my temples with damp.
"Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ," I muttered, breathing deeply as my heart slowly returned to normal.
One of the effects of a disturbed sleep cycle is that one stops dreaming coherently. Through the long years of early motherhood, and then of internship, residency, and nights on-call, I had got used to falling at once into oblivion when I lay down, with such dreams as occurred nothing more than fragments and flashes, restless flickers in the dark as synapses fired at random, recharging themselves for the work of the day that would come too soon.
In more recent years, with the resumption of something resembling a normal schedule, I had begun to dream again. The usual kinds of dreams, whether nightmare or good dream—long sequences of images, wanderings in the wood of the mind. And I was familiar with this kind of dream, too; it was common to what might politely be called periods of deprivation.
Usually, though, such dreams came floating, soft as the touch of satin sheets, and if they woke me, I fell at once back into sleep, glowing dimly with a memory that would not last ’til morning.
This was different. Not that I remembered much about it, but I had a vague impression of hands that gripped me, rough and urgent, not wooing but compelling. And a voice, nearly shouting, that echoed in the chambers of my inner ear, along with the sound of my fading heartbeat.
I put my hand on my chest over the leaping pulse, feeling the soft fullness of my breast beneath the silk. Brianna’s breath caught in a soft snore, then resumed its even cadence. I remembered listening for that sound when she was small; the slow, stertorous rhythm of reassurance, sounding through the darkened nursery, even as a heartbeat.
My own heartbeat was slowing under my hand, under the deep rose silk, the color of a baby’s sleep-flushed cheek. When you hold a child to your breast to nurse, the curve of the little head echoes exactly the curve of the breast it suckles, as though this new person truly mirrors the flesh from which it sprang.
Babies are soft. Anyone looking at them can see the tender, fragile skin and know it for the rose-leaf softness that invites a finger’s touch. But when you live with them and love them, you feel the softness going inward, the round-checked flesh wobbly as custard, the boneless splay of the tiny hands. Their joints are melted rubber, and even when you kiss them hard, in the passion of loving their existence, your lips sink down and seem never to find bone. Holding them against you, they melt and mold, as though they might at any moment flow back into your body.
But from the very start, there is that small streak of steel within each child. That thing that says "I am," and forms the core of personality.
In the second year, the bone hardens and the child stands upright, skull wide and solid, a helmet protecting the softness within. And "I am" grows, too. Looking at them, you can almost see it, sturdy as heartwood, glowing through the translucent flesh.
The bones of the face emerge at six, and the soul within is fixed at seven. The process of encapsulation goes on, to reach its peak in the glossy shell of adolescence, when all softness then is hidden under the nacreous layers of the multiple new personalities that teenagers try on to guard themselves.
In the next years, the hardening spreads from the center, as one finds and fixes the facets of the soul, until "I am" is set, delicate and detailed as an insect in amber.
I had thought I was well beyond that stage, had lost all trace of softness and was well set on my way to a middle age of stainless steel. But now I thought that Frank’s death had cracked me in some way. And the cracks were widening, so that I could no longer patch them with denial. I had brought my daughter back to Scotland, she with those bones strong as the ribs of Highland mountains, in the hope that her shell was strong enough to hold her together, while the center of her "I am" might still be reachable.
But my own core held no longer in the isolation of "I am," and I had no protection to shield me from the softness from within. I no longer knew what I was or what she would be; only what I must do.
For I had come back, and I dreamed once more, in the cool air of the Highlands. And the voice of my dream still echoed through ears and heart, repeated with the sound of Brianna’s sleeping breath.
"You are mine," it had said. "Mine! And I will not let you go."
The kirkyard of St. Kilda lay quiet in the sun. Not entirely flat, it occupied a plateau carved from the side of the hill by some geological freak. The land sloped and curved, so that the gravestones lay hidden in small hollows or jutted suddenly from the crest of a rise. The shifting of the earth had moved many, tilting them drunkenly or toppling them altogether, to lie flattened and broken in the long grass.
"It’s a bit untidy," Roger said, apologetically. They paused in the kirkyard gate, looking over the small collection of ancient stones, overgrown and shadowed by the row of giant yews, planted long ago as a windbreak against the storms that rolled in from the northern sea. Clouds massed there now, far out over the distant firth, but the sun shone on the hilltop, and the air was still and warm.
"My father used to get together a gang of men from the church once or twice a year, and bring them up to keep the place in order, but I’m afraid it’s rather gone to seed lately." He swung the lych-gate experimentally, noting the cracked hinge and the latch-fitting, dangling by one nail.
"It’s a lovely, quiet place." Brianna edged carefully past the splintery gate. "Really old, isn’t it?"
"Aye, it is. dad thought the kirk itself was built on the site of an early church or an even older temple of some kind; that’s why it’s up here in such an inconvenient spot. One of his friends from Oxford was always threatening to come up and excavate the place to see what was under it, but of course he couldn’t get clearance from the Church authorities, even though the place has been deconsecrated for years."
"It’s kind of a climb." The flush of exertion was beginning to fade from Brianna’s face as she fanned her cheeks with a guidebook. "Beautiful, though." She eyed the facade of the kirk with appreciation. Built into a natural opening in the crag, the stones and timbers of the kirk had been fitted by hand, the chinks caulked with peat and mud, so that it seemed to have grown there, a natural part of the cliff face. Ancient carvings decorated door sill and window frame, some showing the symbols of Christianity, some obviously much older.
"Is Jonathan Randall’s stone over there?" She waved toward the kirkyard, visible beyond the gate. "Mother will be so surprised!"
"Aye, I expect so. Haven’t seen it myself." He hoped the surprise would be a pleasant one; when he had mentioned the stone cautiously to Brianna over the phone the night before, she had been enthusiastic.
"I know about Jonathan Randall," she was telling Roger. "Daddy always admired him; said he was one of the few interesting people in the family tree. I guess he was a good soldier; Daddy had lots of commendations and things he’d gotten."
"Really?" Roger looked back, in search of Claire. "Does your mother need help with that plant press?"
Brianna shook her head. "Nah. She just found a plant by the path she couldn’t resist. She’ll be up in a minute."
It was a silent place. Even the birds were quiet as midday approached, and the dark evergreens that edged the plateau were still, with no breeze to stir their branches. Without the raw scars of recent graves or the flags of plastic flowers as testimony to still-fresh grief, the kirkyard breathed only the peace of the long-dead. Removed from strife and trouble, only the fact of their life remained to give the comfort of a human presence on the lonely heights of an empty land.
The progress of the three visitors was slow; they wandered their way casually through the old kirkyard, Roger and Brianna pausing to read aloud quaint inscriptions from the weathered stones, Claire, on her own, stooping now and then to clip a vine or uproot a small flowering plant.
Roger bent over one stone, and grinning, beckoned Brianna to read the inscription.
" ‘Approach and read, not with your hats on,’ " she read. " ‘For here lies Bailie William Watson/Who was famous for his thinking/And moderation in his drinking.’ " Brianna rose from examining the stone, her face flushed with laughter. "No dates—I wonder when William Watson lived."
"Eighteenth century, most likely," Roger said. "The seventeenth-century stones are mostly too weathered to read, and no one’s been buried here in two hundred years; the church was deconsecrated in 1800."
A moment later, Brianna let out a muffled whoop. "Here it is!" She stood up and waved to Claire, who was standing on the far side of the kirkyard, peering inquisitively at a length of greenery she held in one hand. "Mama! Come look at this!"
Claire waved back, and made her way to where they stood beside the flat, square stone, stepping carefully across the crowded graves.
"What is it?" she asked. "Find an interesting grave?"
"I think so. Recognize this name?" Roger stepped back, so she could have a clear view.
"Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!" Mildly startled, Roger glanced at Claire, and was alarmed to see how pale she was. She stared down at the weathered stone, and the muscles of her throat moved in a convulsive swallow. The plant she had pulled was crushed in her hand, unregarded.
"Dr. Randall—Claire—are you all right?"
The amber eyes were blank, and she appeared not to hear him for a moment. Then she blinked, and looked up. She was still pale, but seemed better now; back in control.
"I’m fine," she said, voice flat. She stooped, and ran her fingers over the letters of the stone as though reading them in Braille.
"Jonathan Wolverton Randall," she said softly, "1705–1746. I told you, didn’t I? You bastard, I told you!" Her voice, so flat an instant before, was suddenly vibrant, filled with a restrained fury.
"Mama! Are you all right?" Brianna, obviously upset, pulled at her mother’s arm.
Roger thought it was as though a shade had dropped behind Claire’s eyes; the feeling that had shone there was suddenly hidden, as she snapped back to a realization of the two people staring at her, aghast. She smiled, a brief, mechanical grimace, and nodded.
"Yes. Yes, of course. I’m fine." Her hand opened, and the stalk of limp greenery dropped to the ground.
"I thought you’d be surprised." Brianna was looking worriedly at her mother. "Isn’t this Daddy’s ancestor? The soldier who died at Culloden?"
Claire glanced down at the gravestone near her feet.
"Yes, it is," she said. "And he is dead, isn’t he?"
Roger and Brianna exchanged looks. Feeling responsible, Roger touched Claire on the shoulder.
"It’s rather a hot day," he said, trying for a note of casual matter-of-factness. "Perhaps we should go into the church for a little shade. There are some very interesting carvings on the font; well worth seeing."
Claire smiled at him. A real smile this time, a little tired, but eminently sane.
"You go," she said, including Brianna with a tilt of her head. "I need a little air. I’ll stay out here for a bit."
"I’ll stay with you." Brianna was hovering, clearly unwilling to leave her mother on her own, but Claire had recovered both her equanimity and her air of command.
"Nonsense," she said briskly. "I’m perfectly all right. I’ll go sit in the shade of the trees over there. You go along. I’d rather be by myself for a bit," she added firmly, seeing Roger opening his mouth to protest.
With no further ado, she turned and walked off, toward the line of dark yew trees that edged the kirkyard to the west. Brianna hesitated, looking after her, but Roger took the girl by the elbow, and drew her toward the church.
"Best leave her alone," he murmured. "After all, your mother’s a doctor, isn’t she? She’ll know if it’s all right."
"Yeah…I suppose so." With a final troubled glance after Claire’s retreating figure, Brianna allowed him to lead her away.
The kirk was no more than an empty wood-floored room, with the abandoned font left in place only because it could not be removed. The shallow basin had been scooped out of the stone ledge that ran along one side of the room. Above the basin, the carved visage of St. Kilda gazed emptily toward the ceiling, eyes piously upturned.
"It was probably one of the pagan gods to start with," Roger said, tracing the line of the carving with a finger. "You can see where they added the veil and wimple to the original figure—not to mention the eyes."
"Like poached eggs," Brianna agreed, rolling her own up in imitation. "What’s this carving over here? It looks a lot like the patterns on those Pictish stones outside Clava."
They strolled casually around the walls of the kirk, breathing the dusty air, examining the ancient carvings in the stone walls, and reading the small wooden plaques affixed by long-vanished parishioners in memory of ancestors gone still longer. They spoke quietly, both keeping an ear out for any sounds from the kirkyard, but all was quiet, and slowly they began to relax again.
Roger followed Brianna toward the front of the room, watching the curling tendrils that escaped from her braid to coil damply on her neck.
All that remained now at the front of the kirk was a plain wooden ledge above the hole where the altarstone had been removed. Still, Roger felt something of a quiver up his spine as he stood beside Brianna, facing the vanished altar.
The sheer intensity of his feelings seemed to echo in the empty place. He hoped she couldn’t hear them. They had known each other barely a week, after all, and had had scarcely any private conversation. She would be taken aback, surely, or frightened, if she knew what he felt. Or worse yet, she would laugh.
Yet, when he stole a glance at her, her face was calm and serious. It was also looking back at him, with an expression in the dark blue of her eyes that turned him toward her and made him reach for her without conscious thought.
The kiss was brief and gentle, scarcely more than the formality that concludes a wedding, yet as striking in its impact as though they had this minute plighted a troth.
Roger’s hands fell away, but the warmth of her lingered, in hands and lips and body, so that he felt as though he held her still. They stood a moment, bodies grazing, breathing each other’s air, and then she stepped back. He could still feel the touch of her on the palms of his hands. He curled his fingers into fists, seeking to hold the feeling.
The still air of the church shivered suddenly into bits, the echoes of a scream scattering the dust motes. Without conscious thought, Roger was outside, running, stumbling and scrambling over the tumbled stones, heading for the dark line of the yews. He pushed his way between the overgrown branches, not bothering to hold back the scaly twigs for Brianna, hot on his heels.
Pale in the shadows, he saw Claire Randall’s face. Completely drained of color, she looked like a wraith against the dark branches of the yew. She stood for a moment, swaying, then sank to her knees in the grass, as though her legs would no longer support her.
"Mother!" Brianna dropped to her knees beside the crouching figure, chafing one of the limp hands. "Mama, what is it? Are you faint? You should put your head between your knees. Here, why don’t you lie down?"
Claire resisted the helpful proddings of her offspring, and the drooping head came upright on its slender neck once more.
"I don’t want to lie down," she gasped. "I want.…oh, God. Oh, dear holy God." Kneeling among the unmowed grass she stretched out a trembling hand to the surface of the stone. It was carved of granite, a simple slab.
"Dr. Randall! Er, Claire?" Roger dropped to one knee on her other side, putting a hand under her other arm to support her. He was truly alarmed at her appearance. A fine sweat had broken out on her temples and she looked as though she might keel over at any moment. "Claire," he said again, urgently, trying to rouse her from the staring trance she had fallen into. "What is it? Is it a name you know?" Even as he spoke, his own words were ringing in his ears. No one’s been buried here since the eighteenth century, he’d told Brianna. No one’s been buried here in two hundred years.