Despite all the years Jamie has been an author—his success turned moderate after a succession of similarly moderate novels—he has never become accustomed to seeing his own face in public. His 35-year old hair, fuller than it is now, on a book jacket. His 35-year old eyes, suggesting a wisdom he is gradually losing, on a poster. The ghost of him, always haunting.
It is a strange thing to see oneself in the hands of strangers—and stranger still to imagine the places in which one’s face has unknowingly been. A woman in Tallahassee carries What My Father Told Me in her beach bag. Two of Us Now is piled among the Strand’s $2 pickings.
Right now, his current face is looking at his former face from across the aisle of a plane. The reader—a young woman, chipped nails, roughly 30—has failed to notice the resemblance between JAMES FRASER (emboldened, size 45 font, Times New Roman) and Jamie Fraser (human, 6’3”, approaching old age). For this, he cannot blame her. Even he finds the connection between himself and this shade, though only a few feet away, incredibly tenuous.
Over the intercom, the pilot announces their impending arrival with a lilt and un-American vowels—a voice that sounds like home. The young woman looks up from Jamie’s book and squints, as if, by narrowing her vision, the pilot’s words will write themselves into the air, more easily deciphered. Jamie laughs quietly to himself, suddenly proud of the physical (and unlikely) contact between his face, his words, and this person who is so very different from him.
(He has touched more people than he knows.)
Jamie looks out the plane window. Through the darkening light, he can almost spot the places he and Claire will visit in Scotland: Lallybroch, the university. The small studio where he had once made promises that, for the most part, he has managed to keep. He watches his wife, whose head rests just beneath his ear, and listens to her breathing—a whistle more constant than his own reflection. He turns to the reader, then back to window, the sky growing darker, darker. The tarmac coming closer, closer. And as the ground nears, he sees that familiar but foreign thing lying in the shadowed moors: His face, forever a part of this land, staring up at him.
Jamie has begun to write separate reflections, expanding the narrative of their story with brief asides. They are scrawled on napkins, on hotel stationary, on the coasters he has swiped from corner pubs. Jamie has slipped them between the pages of Claire’s notebook, their crumpled edges sticking out like so many erratic pathways, which mirror the aimless movements of his mind.
In the hotel lobby, Claire reads them before she writes, though she has not mentioned this to Jamie. His honesty—stated so freely in these passages—could find no justice in spoken language. Out of respect, she has let his words sit between them, a significant but mute presence, for the past three days:
Today, I watched you kneel down to touch our daughter’s grave and say, “Hi sweetheart.” Today, I wondered when I’ll forget her. Today, your voice kept cracking and your eyes kept watering, and I thought, Turn away. And I thought, Give her privacy. And I thought, I should have been there, I should have been there, I should have been there. But I did not turn away, and I did not give you privacy—and no, I had not been there on that day in April. Instead, I crouched beside you today. I held your trembling hands today. After all these years I have learned to bear my pain, but still—I can never bear yours.
Today, we stumbled upon a small café and you told me it was planned, it was all on purpose. This was where I kissed you in front of our closest friends, the very first time, did I remember? I could see it meant something to you—my memory of that old gesture and that old kiss—and because you mean the world to me, I lied. “Yes,” I said. “I remember.” Today, you couldn’t stop taking pictures.
Today, you made bannocks with Jenny and sang lullabies in broken Gaelic. You knew exactly where the extra blankets were kept. Today, you did not ask Ian if he needed help carrying in the firewood. You knew it would hurt his pride. And when you passed the portrait of my mother, hanging in the upstairs hallway, I saw you incline your head, just so, as if you knew her too. Sometimes I worry that I have not said “I love you” enough.
Claire returns from the lobby to their room and crawls between the covers. Jamie’s honesty may be unspeakable, but she can acknowledge it with her body: flesh to flesh and mouths in the dark. Her hips, in sure but languid motion, are her own confession. The vulnerable way she shakes when she’s unraveled by his hands—the purest reciprocation she can offer.
A woman lets them into the apartment building on Fury Street. She grins when she sees Jamie and Claire, whose feet—now dancing a nervous shuffle—once walked this path every day. The woman’s mouth reveals crooked teeth, and the grip on her groceries shows the blue-green ropes of her veins. Claire is twenty years her senior, at least—and yet. Standing before the brick and mortar of her past, Claire feels so young, so prepared to beg for the approval of those yellowed teeth and those blue-green cords. She rushes to take a bag and open the door like coming here is a race she could lose.
“I canna very well let James Fraser wait on me doorstep,” the woman says, once they’ve introduced themselves and their purpose for coming. “Welcome. I’m Fiona, by the way. Fiona Graham.”
It is surreal, climbing these stairs, surrounded by the ghosts of their 20-something selves. The band stickers, once pasted above the landing, have been scraped away. The section of banisters that gaped like a broken smile have been replaced. The door does not stick when a man, dressed in an Argyle sweater, swings it open and says, “Well, what have we here?”
“Oh, these people used to live here, Mr. Wakefield. Before the expansion, aye?”
“My, is that so?”
There is also no sign of their former neighbors—a couple whose screams had matched the music of their faulty plumbing. And when Mr. Wakefield shows Jamie and Claire their old studio, having so graciously invited them inside, they can only walk in circles. One thing, at least, has been preserved: the weak floorboards near the entrance. (A fleeting fancy: Claire wants to yell, Babe, I’m home, just to see what it’d sound like again.)
“They tore down the walls to make a bigger place, you see,” the Reverend says. “Hardly enough room for one person, much less two. Don’t know how you folks managed.”
Claire nods, yes, though her eyes are fixed elsewhere, on a certain window just ahead.
This had been their window—the one whose lancing evening light had lit up their bodies in the dark. It was by this window that Claire had learned Jamie’s secrets: the triangular birthmark on his chest, the scar on his thigh, the slight curve of his lips when he slept. It was this window that had given her a view of a world she’d thought was permanent.
To be kind, Jamie says, “It’s verra nice, sir,” though his eyes are fixed upon his wife, whose eyes are still fixed upon the window. This is the window, he vaguely realizes, from which he saw a group of carolers sing and the glare of a golden light, sparkling in the snow. He had paced before this window, a lump in his throat, before packing a bag of clothes—the tiniest clothes—inside a garbage bag. Long ago, he had spoken out of this window and wondered if she could hear him. These memories emerge and bring a hot wetness to his eyes.
“And how long have you lived here, Mr. Wakefield?” Claire asks.
“Oh, about fifteen years now.”
After all this time, Jamie is able to derive the meaning from his wife’s pleasantries and the false bravado of her chin. There is a sadness in the way she is looking at that window, trying to summon the past back through it.
Jamie steps forward to take the crook of her arm and ignores the Reverend’s endless rambling. He points to the ceiling and says, “Look.”
They had both been secretly hoping it was there—and it is. Like a solar eclipse, a speck of marigold still shines in the northernmost corner.
Years later, the Reverend will remember the couple who seemed more at home in his place than himself. He will remark—perhaps to Fiona—about the way they moved, as if in orbit. A sort of cosmic revolution that required a certain degree of closeness and a certain degree of separation, for their own balance.
In passing, the Reverend and Fiona will say things like, “I’m so glad they came by,” and, “They were a lovely couple.” On the surface, these will seem like complimentary remarks, but they will mean something else entirely.
What they will mean: I haven’t forgotten.
What they have not forgotten: the way this brief entrance has reverberated throughout their lives. Like two stars, which have long since smoldered, but whose light can still be seen from the distance of a thousand years.
And it will be the same for others as well. A nurse in 1968 can still feel the trickle down her brow, precipitated by the birth of red-haired child. A priest who said a funeral in 1992 still holds the sound of the mother’s remorseful keening. And a writer named Mary McNab still recalls a night of half-hearted passion. She can feel the magnitude of an invisible sorrow, her own willing surrender, and her own gentle possession inside a lonely mountain cabin.
All of them will think of Jamie and Claire Fraser, two strangers who became a part of their own story and changed it—even if just for a moment.
People’s stories are so malleable. One decision causes a ripple and then, however infinitesimally, changes their trajectories. A look, a touch, a conversation—what if the nurse had not delivered the baby into his mother’s dying arms? What if the priest had not said the service? How much of their stories would be different? And for that matter, how much of their stories have been edited by the stories of others?
Jamie and Claire live on in such memories—the small legacies they have carved for themselves in different lives. Pieces of them will remain, thriving, even when it seems they have been forgotten. They are two points, forever at the origin of a stranger’s long-ago decision: to say “push,” to oversee the funeral, to knock on the door at midnight. In this way, Jamie and Claire are immortal. In this way, the universe remembers them.
In the end, we are all echoes carried in the bones of things.
Today, you wore the bracelet I gave you when Brianna was born. Today, I didn’t realize you meant to kiss me, and so you found my cheek like a teenage lover. The charms moved, tinkling, when you held my hand. Have I told you that I always think of this? Those little tokens of your life, calling out as you reach for me. I felt the baby rattle, the stethoscope. The small penguin, with its jewel encrusted eye, pressed its wing into my skin. Here’s the thing, Claire: it has always been forever.
They are at Arthur’s Seat. The wind blows them sideways, and it threatens to sweep them into the city below. Claire’s earring falls from her lobe, and Jamie catches them. Jamie’s scarf unwinds from his neck, and Claire snatches its tasseled ends before it flies towards the sea. Their feet are imbalanced on the uneven terrain, and they duck haphazardly out of tourists’ photos.
Claire, seeing Jamie hoist up a struggling climber, thinks of how recklessly, how wholly she has loved him. And Jamie, seeing Claire let down her hair, marvels at their easy tumble—how effortlessly they have become a staple of his life.
Eventually, the darkening horizon predicts a storm, and the clouds roll in. Jamie and Claire are one of the few still on the peak, most visitors already picking their way down the hillside, hidden beneath plastic ponchos.
“There,” Claire says. She points to something in the distance: a dark-brick building, just on the edges of Edinburgh. “Where we first met,” she clarifies.
“Does it look the same, d’ye think?”
“Yes,” Claire says. Looking down, she laces her fingers through his, as if to give him the understanding of its sameness. “Yes, I suppose it does.”
They both support each other against the wind, thinking of the opening words in their now-shared notebook. Like a dream—to see the place where Claire had once fixed her lipstick, where Jamie had once loosened his shirt collar, where they had once walked together through a crowded room and realized how easy it was to fall in love.
They both laugh when two little girls stick out their tongues to catch the rain.
“So here were are,” Claire says.
“Here we are,” Jamie replies. And he kisses her.