“Is this enough, Claire?” asked Ellie. Her red hair was hanging down over her eyes, and she used her dirt-covered hands to push it aside, leaving a smear across her cheek.
“A little deeper. We want enough space for all the roots to fit in nicely.” I moved behind her and tied her hair back with a band I’d kept on my wrist. The red locks were the same color as Jamie’s, but it wasn’t quite as thick or heavy.
Most of the Fraser household was having a lie-in after a lengthy visit to the emergency room the night before. Ian and I were the only adults who woke up at a reasonable hour, so I invited wee Ellie to gather bluebells to plant at Brian’s grave.
“Why these flowers?” Ellie asked. “Why no’ daisies? I like daisies best.”
“Do you? Well, we’ll bring your grandda daisies next time we come, so he’ll know they’re especially from you.” I placed a few plants in the ground and began burying their roots. “I chose bluebells because they symbolize constancy and everlasting love. They were a special flower for your grandparents.”
“Will this make Grannie happy? She’s sae sad all the time now.”
“I should think it will. She’ll probably be sad for a good long time yet, missing your grandda, but that doesn’t mean other things can’t make her happy, as well…like spending time with you.” I looked up at her. “How about you? Are you missing your grandda?”
She nodded, bottom lip turning into a heartbreaking little frown.
“Well, like your grannie, you can feel sad about Grandda, and still find happiness in memories of him or in other people around you. It’s ok to feel two things at once. Or even lots of things at once.”
Ellie considered my words as she helped pat the dirt around the base of the plants. When we finished, we stood to admire our work.
Brian didn't have a headstone yet, so the flowers were meant to temporarily mark his grave.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“Shall we go back to the garden at Lallybroch and find your grannie a daisy? I think she has some white ones near the front gate.”
Ellie’s eyes lit up, and she nodded excitedly.
Before leaving, I picked a bluebell stalk that had several pretty blossoms running down in a line. I remembered Ellen’s words about Brian bringing them to her when her father died and kept them in mind as I made my way back to Jamie.
There were signs of life stirring when we arrived back home. Noisy household chatter floated through the open windows as the family welcomed a fresh summer breeze indoors. Rain wasn’t due to fall until later in the afternoon, so they were taking advantage of the dry weather while it lasted.
I was relieved to see Ellen smile when her namesake bounded up with a freshly picked daisy. She began sharing with the child how they symbolized new beginnings, purity, and innocence, and how that was a perfect flower for her to pick for her grannie on that particular day.
“Where’s Jamie?” I asked Willie. “Is he still in bed?”
“Nah. He woke at hauf noon in search of a bit o’ hair o’ the dog. I think he wandered off toward the creek.” Willie pointed to a poor excuse for a path that led deep into the woods.
“Did he say anything?”
“Only asked about you. Ian told him ye were out wi’ the lass.”
I worried my lip, staring out the window, wondering if I should follow or give him space.
“Go on,” said Willie. “I think ye’re the only one he cares to see right now.”
With Willie’s reassurances, I hunted down a few things for my jaunt out into the wilderness. Jenny helped me pack a tote with a few snacks, some water, a blanket, and a bottle of paracetamol. I carried the bluebell from Brian’s grave in one hand and the tote in the other, then I made my way down the faded path that led to the creek.
The long grass and groundcover grew thicker as the trees became more plentiful, which meant the path was harder to follow the deeper into the woods I went. It was a little nerve-racking to go wandering into an unfamiliar wilderness on my own, uncertain of my destination, but it soon didn’t matter. The sounds of a purling stream drew me forward, and the water would hopefully lead me to Jamie.
I was wearing the white summer dress I knew he liked and a pair of flat, comfortable sandals. I realized quickly that my attire wasn’t ideal for hiking alone in the woods as I slipped on mud and moss with every other step. I just prayed I wouldn’t land on my bum or crash head first into the creek along the way.
Blessedly, I found Jamie without incident. His blue henley stood out like a beacon amidst the browns and greens of the forest. He was sitting back against a tree, silently watching the water travel downstream, a look of quiet contemplation in his eyes.
He heard me gracelessly clunking along the path and turned to watch my approach. He observed me with a sweet, almost melancholic affection as I drew near.
When I was close enough to hear him whisper, he said:
“But I love your feet
only because they walked
upon the earth and upon
the wind and upon the waters,
until they found me.”
I retrieved the blanket from the tote and placed it down so I could kneel beside him, then I pulled out the water and painkillers to tend to the raging headache he was sure to have. He took the medication without protest, confirming my suspicions.
“Here.” When he was done, I traded him the bottle of water for the bluebells.
He smiled softly, shaking his head. “I dinna deserve ye, my Sassenach.”
I scoffed, thinking of the countless flowers, poems, notes, and meals he had brought me since we met. This was bare minimum in comparison.
He hooked me around the middle and pulled me onto his lap, settling us in comfortably against the tree. His skin smelled of metabolizing alcohol, a harsh reminder of his excessive drinking the night before, and was hot to the touch.
I curled up on his lap and soaked in his warmth, finally able to appreciate my surroundings now that I was in his arms.
The forest was a moist and vibrant green, stretching out as far as the eye could see. The soothing trickle of the creek drowned out most every other sound, save a few birds chirping in a nearby tree.
“Ye looked like an angel,” he said tenderly, “walking here to me in that dress.”
“I’m not sure an angel would fill a man’s camera roll will explicit pornographic content.”
His chest rumbled with humor. “I said ye looked like one. No’ that ye were one.”
I nuzzled against him, enjoying the privacy offered by the densely packed trees. I had grown fond of his family, but I very much missed our time alone.
“How’s the hangover?”
“Mmphm,” he grunted, communicating that it was bad, but manageable.
We sat there in silence a good long time. I restlessly traced the lines of his chest that showed through his cotton shirt, moving my finger from breastbone, to pectorals, and then to his nipples that were poking through the fabric from beneath. He shivered at my touch, so I fingered one of them back and forth a little more. He grabbed my hand to hold me still.
He took a deep breath and forced himself to speak. “I’m sorry, Claire.”
“For what exactly?”
“I’m sure I scairt ye last night. I dinna recall much of what happened, but I remember the pain in yer eyes. That’s something I never want to see again.”
“My fear was only for you, not of you. And any pain I felt was in seeing you suffering, and with a loss like you’ve had, that’s inevitable.”
“Then I apologize for worrying ye. And Mam. And Jenny.”
“I’m sure they’d appreciate the apology directly from you.”
“Aye.” He traced the bluebell down the line of my cheek. “So then…ye’re no’ regretting coming to Scotland and seeing me like this?”
“Of course not. You are a man who loves passionately, with all your heart. And you loved your father just so. I can’t even begin to fathom the pain his loss has caused you.” I lifted up and kissed him firmly on the mouth, once, twice, three times, then four. “So, no. No, I’m not regretting being here with you. I’m counting my blessings that you’ve fallen in love with me with the same ferocity, the same passion, that you feel for your family. I haven’t had a moment of regret in my life since I met you, James Fraser.”
“I’m pleased ye think I loved my father well, Sassenach…because…because…” His voice caught in his throat and a tear spilled down his cheek. He had to take several breaths to center himself before going on. “Ye ken, I’ve been thinking on my choice to leave here early when I came visiting last month. I had a chance to spend more time wi’ him, and I didna take it. I left him, desperate to return home to Boston and bury myself in ye.”
“Jamie…” My own guilt for pulling him away from his father had me stammering, “I’m so sorry. God forgive me. I shouldn’t have been so fucking needy. I’m so bloody sorry.”
“No, Claire. No. Not at all. There’s nothing to forgive.” More tears fell from his eyes. “I ken the thought of wishing I’d spent more time wi’ him is only a pathetic attempt at bargaining wi’ God. What good is it to even think about doing things different when it willna bring him back?”
“But you could’ve had more time.”
“Perhaps. But then I would’ve had less wi’ you. And as much as I loved the man, and always will, I wouldna trade a moment of my time with you for anyone or anything. Not ever.” He sniffed loudly and a tear dropped from his cheek to mine. He raised the bluebell again. “He sent me back to ye, lass, because you are to me what my mam was to him, and I canna regret listening.”
I was crying freely, tears falling down one after the other. There was so much in my heart, so much love and sadness, so much sympathy and hope, and so much bloody grief for a man I never even got to meet.
Thinking along the same lines, Jamie caught his breath and said, “I wish ye had a chance to know him, Claire. He would ha’ loved ye dearly, and you, him.”
“Oh, my love, I may have never met him, but I do know him.” I stifled a sob and wiped my nose, talking through the tears. “He’s everywhere, Jamie. He’s in the flowers in your mother’s garden and in the foundation of your home. He’s in the poems you tell and the posies you give. He’s with the children playing in the woods and with your brothers drinking whisky. He’s in your eyes and Jenny’s hair. He’s in the stories you write and share with the world. He taught you how to love, and he taught you how to be. I know your father, Jamie, because I know all of you. And you are marvelous.”
He stared at me wordlessly, jaw quivering and tears flowing. He was huffing ragged breaths and struggling to get them past the knot in his throat.
I lifted up to wrap my arms around him, and we cried together alone in the woods. He gripped me tight, like he needed me more than anything else in life, and I sighed in relief, because that was the way I needed him.
We held each other for as long as it took for the sobs to fade and tears to dry, and then we held each other longer still. At some point, the twittering birds and the babbling creek made themselves known again, and I recalled exactly where we were.
Jamie stroked my cheek and kissed me like he held my soul in his bare hands and it was the most precious part of all life’s existence. I felt like a child, overwhelmed and unable to comprehend how I could feel so much love and so much pain all in the same breath.
He laid the blanket down on a bed of ferns covering the forest floor. He kissed me slowly, mouth lingering on every surface. My naked body was cold in the shadows of the trees, but he warmed me with his heated skin.
We made love with aching slowness, eyes locked on each other, mesmerized by whatever it was drawing us together so powerfully. It felt like a sacrament of some sort, or a pagan ritual, binding us together, not to be rushed or overtaken by the needs of the flesh. Our bodies moved as one, surrounded by nature, touched by whatever ancient spirits the forest held.
I wondered, for a moment, how we could go back to the city streets of Boston when the time came. He belongs here in the Highlands, I thought to myself. This is his place. And he is mine.
We climaxed, breathless and shaky. Jamie wrapped us up in the blanket to shield us from the cold breeze coming off the creek and dancing on our skin.
“I don’t want this moment to end,” I whispered, but knowing the rain would come soon.
He kissed my forehead and cupped my cheek, smiling with the wisdom of a much older man.
“Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.”
“D’ye ken bluebells were my father’s favorite?” he asked, picking up the flower from the ground where he’d discarded it in our passion. “He brought them to my mother when her father died.”
“Yes. She told me.” I pulled my dress back over my head and retrieved my sandals.
“Did she now?”
“She said she knew she loved him then, and he knew he’d love her forever.”
“Is that why ye brought it for me, Sassenach?” He grinned at me, pulling his shoes back on. “Are ye saying ye’re mine forever?”
"For however long our forever lasts." I smiled at him, then puckered my lips for a kiss. He obliged, lingering long enough for the clouds to interrupt us with their sprinkles.
He quickly gathered the rest of our things and led me down the path back home. Even though the way was made slipperier by the rain coming down heavier with every step, my feet were sturdy in Jamie’s arms, and I knew that he'd guide me safely back home.