Claire, March 2014
My hands were trembling ever-so-slightly as I maneuvered the rented SUV through the hills of North Carolina. I had left Oxford behind, along with a wedding ring and a husband. My phone, my new one, with its strange American number, sat in a cup holder next to me and chimed incessantly with forwarded messages from my other phone. I’d wanted to get away, to cut the cord completely, but realizing the cruelty inherent in that, had set myself up to be tethered in some way to England and all I had left behind. I was still questioning the wisdom of that decision.
I was fatigued, battle-worn, and numb. Frank, whom I had loved for years and who had seemed to fit me like a well-worn glove in the beginning of our relationship, had grown in a different direction, and our explosive chemistry in bed could not, with the magnifying lens of time, heal the cracks between the people we had become, and the different priorities we had. His job as a history lecturer meant he saw the world and its wars, terror and violence with a detached long-range lens. That used to make me hopeful, as though, in some way, all of the useless violence I had seen would someday have meaning that would manifest itself to someone like Frank, who could then explain it to me. Over time, though, his callousness, for all that it was well-intentioned, had severed our bond.
I worried at my left hand ring finger, an old habit. The band of gold that had been a staple of my life for six years was gone now, and I was afraid I would wear a rash on the skin from the habit of spinning something that simply was no longer there.
The beauty of the scenery around me flashed in lush, dark greens and tall trees. I had rolled down my window and I could breathe in the damp and humid air, cool now with the beginning of spring. I endeavored to think as little of what I had left behind as possible, to embrace what was happening in the moment, so that end, I stopped in little towns and ate in small diners, waited on by staff who were thrilled with my accent, and happy to tell local stories. Then I would gather my courage, pay my bill with the monochromatic American money in my wallet, and leave again to drive the hills on the wrong side of the road. No small amount of fear or trepidation, for all that I was confident in my abilities, is likely what had made my hands shake.
For all that such a place was foreign to me, there was a history to this land, something deep and ancient and still, especially the further away I got from metropolitan areas and the closer I approached the mountains. I was coming here to heal, and find myself once again, discover who I was without Frank or the Army.
It might seem a strange choice, and in some ways it was. Once the divorce proceedings had begun, I knew I wanted to leave, but how far to go was somewhat in question. I had long been an orphan, my parents having died in a two-seater airplane crash on their way to visit my uncle at his post in Edinburgh. My father had been something of an amateur pilot, and a good one at that, but the plane had gone down, and neither had survived.
I was left then in the care of my Uncle Lamb, who was an archaeologist of some note who specialized in Egypt and the Middle East. The days of great digs into pyramids were long over by the time Lamb had risen to prominence in the field, and he had spent a large part of his career arguing for the restoration of the treasures of the Egyptian people back to themselves. We spent time in Egypt, Turkey, Syria, France, Spain, Italy… such a lifestyle meant that I was well-traveled, spoke a smattering of several languages (none of them as well as I’d like, with the exception of French, since we’d been there the longest) and could small-talk with everyone from peasants to princes. But I was also somewhat of a loner, difficult to get to know, perhaps, head-strong and stubborn and assured of my own path, since I had largely been responsible for myself for a large part of my childhood. My homeschooling overlapped with brief forays into more traditional schools, when it was convenient for Lamb to have me in them, and I felt keenly the loss of a set of bosom friends that would ease the transition from adolescence to adulthood.
Perhaps that was what had drawn me to the military, the promise of structure, and regulation, and a set of principles that would bring some order to my life. Lamb would, of course, have paid for any schooling I had desired, an educated man himself, but I liked the idea of earning my way, and so I enlisted and the military paid for my education as a battle medic and combat nurse.
It wasn’t worth thinking about what happened after that in any amount of detail. Lamb had died of a rather sudden heart attack, and I had deployed shortly there after. While there, I had met Frank, and we…
I stopped the train of thought abruptly. Reaching for my bottle of water, I took a large sip and let it settle in my mouth before I swallowed, as if to wash the taste of the memories away.
The thing about a marriage like mine coming to an end is that there’s nothing really to bitter about, nothing to rage over or shout. We’d never even had a proper fight like we did in the beginning. We’d sniped each other to death, passive-aggressived our way to the split with quiet words and British politeness, an icy death to an affair that in its inception had been hot to the touch.
It was killing me.
The GPS on my phone announced that I was to turn off the state high way to a county road, which I did, and then off again to a lane which came to a close at a private drive. “Welcome to Fraser’s Ridge”, the sign read, “Proud Home of Murray Distillery and Fraser Horse Farms”. It gave the hours of operation and pointed the visitors of the distillery down a southeast lane, and the horse farm to the northwest.
I parked the SUV in front of the sign and got out. There was nothing and no one on the road for miles and miles, as far as I could see in that moment, and the weight of what I’d done -- divorcing my husband, selling what possessions I owned save for the few things which had some sentimental meaning to me and could be packed into two checked bags and a carry-on, applying for a Visa, and flying across the Atlantic Ocean on little more than a wing and a prayer, hit me like a ton of bricks. I was rarely impulsive, but then again, I hadn’t felt like myself in so long that perhaps it wasn’t accurate to say such things. Maybe I was impulsive.
I touched the wood of the sign. It was white-washed, round, and hanging from a white post by an antiqued brass chain, with a lantern on top of the post. I walked around it and saw the name of an old friend: Ian Murray and James Fraser, proprietors, it read. James I had only met the once, but Ian had spent months with me when I worked at the rehabilitation hospital, steadily working to regain the use of his leg.
That had been nearly three years ago now, and I had been profoundly lucky that he had taken my call, remembered who I was, and offered me refuge before I had even thought to ask. Ian’s wife, Jenny, had offered the apartment over the garage for as long as I might need it, as well as the name of several local clinics who always seemed to be in the market for nurses. In the meantime, she assured me that anytime I wanted to help in the farm’s enormous gardens, I could.
I was coming to North Carolina to heal, recenter, and find myself. I left the sign and opened my car door, breathing in the air one more time. It might have been the jet lag or the exhaustion, but I could have sworn I felt North Carolina welcome me home.
Jamie, March 2014
On that morning, my very bones ached.
I’d spent years jumping out of airplanes and camping out in mountains, doing the unspeakable in the name of God and country, and having paid my dues in the marks on my soul, retired to Scotland with my brother-of-the-heart, Ian. But trying to make it work there on the ancestral lands had become nearly impossible, and when my uncle Colum MacKenzie, who had immigrated to America in the 80s, wanted to sell us his land and retire, after a brief discussion, we’d agreed.
My beloved little sister Jenny had her sights set on Ian, and no sooner had we announced that we were moving to America than they were engaged, and shortly thereafter, as shortly as the Church would allow, they were married. The memory of the day was one I cherished. If a brother has to let his sister marry, aye, well, it might as well be to a man as fine as Ian.
I didn’t feel old, most mornings. Sometimes I felt heavy, weighed down to the Earth, other times I felt numb, but mostly, I was… fine. Not unhappy, not happy. Driven to make a success of my side of Fraser’s Ridge, named so for the vast mountain property that came with the estate, but not satisfied, either. There was something missing.
But I could forget all that, even on days when the never-ending humditiy of the Carolinas made my very bones ache, when I was working with the horses.
I’d started small, with quality over quantity. Colum had had some good horseflesh here, aye, but I flattered myself to think I was a wee bit better at finding hidden gems than he was. At the moment, my favorite was a bonny wee filly named Precious. Of course, she had a more pretentious name than that on her papers, but just as I’d always felt more comfortable just being Jamie, I felt confident she was more confident being Precious.
“Alright, lass,” I said in a gentle voice, “what say we today to not tossing me off your back this time, eh?”
Precious tossed her head for my trouble, and I got a good chuckle out of imagining her rebuttal, were she inclined to speak with words. Breakfast, a good brushing, bit and harness and saddle on, and we were ready to try our days’ work.
Eventually, I would foal her, but for the moment, Precious’s job was learning how to be a good mount for the steady stream of young students from the county around that came here to learn to ride. She was far too headstrong to ever be a trail horse, but she would be a good first horse for a young woman to learn on. Smart enough not to get her rider in trouble, but obedient enough not to be a complete terror. I was fond of her indeed, and perhaps a little too trusting of her.
Maybe it was the trusting, who can say, or the ache in my bones, or the fact that I’d been a little overmuch in my head the last few hours, but I will say, when the silver-grey SUV came around the bend, and Precious and I both turned to look just as the tire blew on that vehicle, startling Precious…
I was in no way prepared. She throw me from her back against a fence, and I landed, painfully, on my shoulder and heard something pop. My vision went white, and then grey. I breathed out forcefully and managed to push myself up. The very last place any sensible person wants to be around a frightened horse is on the ground.
With my good arm, I vaulted over the fence.
“Oh my Lord! Jesus Christ!” A panicked, female voice caught my attention. “I’m so sorry! Are you okay?”
“Ach, aye, I’ll be fine.” I couldn’t spare another look for her. My arm hung oddly by my side, and would not respond no matter what I did. Precious was running the fence line, tossing her hair and whinnying furiously. I called out to her in Gaelic and ran up to meet her, catching her bridal with my good hand. “Dinnae fash, wee one,” I muttered as soon as I’d got her head and managed to calm her a little. “I ken it wasn’t your fault, aye?”
“Sir… I believe you’ve dislocated your shoulder.”
I laid my head against the filly’s forehead and sighed deeply. “Oh aye, it seems to be so.”
“How close is the nearest hospital? I can drive you. It’s Jamie, right?”
“I donna ken it’s a good idea to drive so far on a flat tire, Ms…?”
“Oh, you don’t remember, of course,” I turned and then I got my first proper look at her. Well, not proper. You ken, the world was a bit off, I was dizzy and near to fainting with pain, but trying not to look a complete fool. Young man’s foolishness. Anyway, I saw her… a torrent of black/brown curls, turned-up nose, concern in what were obviously kind eyes. She continued on, seemingly oblivious to my increased leaning on the fence. “I’m Claire R… Beauchamp.”
“Claire,” I breathed out. “Aye, Ian’s Claire?”
She blushed, something I dinna think women still did. “Yes. I imagine I look a bit different than I did in hospital.”
“You’re not wearing whatever you call them… ah… scrubs,” I managed to gasp.
“No, I’m not. And you, sir, are going whiter every second.”
“It hurts a fair amount,” I said through a grimace. “Oh…” The edges of my vision went black, slowly. “Shite.”
“I’m sorry, Ms. Claire, but I think I’m going to…”
"Mr. Fraser!" she rushed forward, and the last thing I knew before blackness was the warmth of Claire's arms around me.