[December 24th, 1989]
It is the beginning of their story, the first time Jamie sees her. The dividing line between 'what was' and 'what would be.' The setting is a Christmas party: an Edinburgh flat, roaring on the cusp of a new decade. Champagne bubbles float in flutes and greetings. The players are just two university students, dancing across a stage of shaggy green carpet. Garlands of tinsel trip their feet.
And the opening scene? Well. It goes something like this:
She is wearing a holiday sweater, a confection of silver bells and sequined penguins. It is the hard-won earnings of an hour’s wade through mothballs, she says, of a knee-deep dive in a charity shop bargain bin. All of this she relays to Jamie with a smirk, a precocious, all-knowing smile that he will come to know so well.
The lights dim, and her eyes flicker. Lit coals in the flat’s half-dark. She smells of fresh rain, of flowers just beginning to open, and the scent forms a sweet, perceptible weight in the air. It settles on him, around him, when she leans forward, straining to hear his stuttered—
“Hello,” Jamie says, or tries to. He forgets his vowels and it comes as, “Hlllll?”
“Sorry, what was that?”
Claire starts when his hand takes hers, crunches it firmly inside his palm. For Claire, this moment will never lose its clarity, and in the years that follow she will argue that this is where their story begins: nestled in the slight curl of Jamie’s lips; his voice, as smooth as the whisky he offers to pour her; another ugly sweater, this one boasting a lager-stained Santa and a hem of unraveling wool. The red string hangs there for her to tug and close the gulf between them, and she does. Twenty one (him) and twenty two (her) years of strangerhood reduced to nothing—and then, so suddenly, transformed into knowing.
They make small talk in the corner, mentioning the weather (“seasonably cold”) and her biology exam (“after break”). Eventually Claire asks, “Do you know anyone here?”, and bracketed inside this question is her secret hope that he does not. She wants to believe that Jamie is on her side, that it is only the two of them (it has only ever been the two of them) against the world. She is so used to feeling alone in crowds—but here! Oh, but here in the rainbow glow of tree lights, she feels a part of Something. She holds onto it, wishing her hand was as big as his so that his curling lips and his whisky voice would never seep through her fingers.
“Dinna ken anyone,” Jamie confirms, “though I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.”
He inclines his head towards the mass of bodies, all gyrating in a singular, chaotic wave. Music plays in the background, oppressive and electronic, as a third year belts Bowie between tokes. Jamie lets it fade away, forgets it all—the noise, how to blink, how to breathe. Forgets everything except her.
Claire wrinkles her nose.
“The problem with these people is that they think they’re interesting.” She is yelling into his ear but even so, it seems strangely intimate. Every word exchanged is a secret between them, one they tuck inside their pockets, will place under their pillows when they lay their heads to sleep. “But they aren’t. Not even remotely!”
“Weel, fortunately you’ve met me now.”
“Mmm. But are you truly interesting or only remotely?”
“That’s for you to decide, lass. You being the expert on such things.”
Claire grins at the floor. “You haven’t even told me your name, y’know.”
“James Fraser,” he says, all too quickly, and he’s unreasonably embarrassed. James, he thinks. How many ‘James’ were in this very room, wearing equally hideous and soiled sweaters? How many ‘James’ had she met in Scotland? Would she even remember him, one of 337 (to be precise), after this night? (She would, of course. During her biology exam, she will think of James Fraser and leave fifteen questions blank. She will get a C—a grade as average as his name.)
“But you can call me Jamie,” he adds over the roar.
“I’m Claire Beauchamp. Just plain Claire Beauchamp!”
And Jamie laughs—a beautiful laugh, the best laugh, a laugh Claire will spend the rest of her life wanting to hear (she will have to work harder on certain days).
“If I call ye anything, it’ll be ‘Sassenach’. Whereabouts in England are ye from?”
And Claire smiles—a beautiful smile, the best smile, a smile Jamie will spend the rest of his life trying to earn (finding success and failure in turns).
“Oxford by birth,” Claire says. “But from nowhere, really.”
She pauses, hearing the third-year shout, “Bowie, man! Greatest artist of all time!” and swears the kid is wrong. It’s God who was the greatest artist, and this six-foot deity with his lager-stained knit was His chef d’ouevre.
“Do you want to make this night interesting, Jamie?”
“More than remotely.”
“That depends. What d’ye have in mind?”
Claire reaches for his hand, and he gives it to her. Jamie squeezes, she squeezes back. She leads him through the throng. He follows, licking his lips and at her heels.
(Who knew it could ever be this easy? Falling in love.)
[December 24th, 1990]
Their home is a modest one—a studio clinging to edges of the city, not far from where they first met. It’s an older building, mid-19th century, with pipes that freeze in the winter, burst like Scottish primrose in the summer. There is a single window on its western side, which welcomes the December-white sun at each day’s end. And it is here, lined along this sill, that Claire’s plants reach hungry towards the sky, try to trap this silver sliver of heat inside their veins.
Save for the flowers, theirs is an ascetic sort of décor. Sparse like a monk’s quarters—though Jamie and Claire hardly mind. They decorate the empty corners with their future, hatched in whispers during the night.
One day, Jamie promises, they’ll have Persian rugs and a four-poster bed. One day, they’ll own a leather sofa, its cushions like butter against Claire’s bare thighs. “And a vase!” she adds. “All fancy people have vases.”
But for now, they sleep on a musty twin cot, their belongings stored in the trunk at its foot. Jamie’s manuscripts are stacked inside, their pages marked in ballpoint scribbles and soil-dusted fingerprints. (“I canna read what this says anymore!” Jamie yells. “S’okay,” Claire says. “That paragraph was rubbish anyways.”) He’s an editorial assistant, the paltry salary worth the power of the red pen, which reshapes the written world to his liking. It buys food and rent, and covers what med school tuition Claire’s scholarship does not.
It’s a quiet life, but a happy life.
Claire yawns. “Did you know that every Christmas Eve my uncle told me a story? Made it up himself, right on the spot.”
“Are ye trying to tell me ye want a story?”
“I may be hinting at that, yes.”
“Ach,” Jamie says. Her favorite sound, every inch of him encapsulated in this strange, Scottish scoff. “Your subtly always turns me on.”
“Oh, hush. C’mon.”
He runs a hand through his hair, auburn and cinnabar limned in moonbeam.
“A good story on the spot? That’s no small amount of pressure, Sassenach.”
“How about a request then?” she offers, and Jamie raises a brow. “How about my favorite?”
“Don’t play coy. You know. The one you always start incorrectly? She is wearing a holiday sweater, a confection of silver bells and sequined penguins…”
“Weel, it’s a much better beginning than the ‘curl of my lips’…”
“Debatable,” Claire replies, tongue tracing the valley of his cupid’s bow.
But Jamie nods, chooses a different beginning this time: “It was immediate…”
He twists one of Claire’s curls around his finger and inhales. She still smells like the springtime, earthy and ripe, and perhaps there’s a hint of his own musk now, too. He likes it this way, enjoys finding proof of his existence somewhere beneath her skin. Permanent.
“Immediate!” Claire echoes, a one-woman Greek chorus. She is pressed into him, feeling his chest curve around her spine. It always surprises her how their bodies fit so perfectly, their limbs folding and molding to fill all their negative spaces. (And she has so many, our Claire, between her toes and between her ribs. Vacant rooms where her mother, her father, and her uncle once lived.)
“Aye, from the minute I saw ye, I ken you belonged wi’ me.”
“Mmm,” she hums, not saying, “Of course I felt the same thing,” or “Of course I loved you from the very first.” Because, of course, Jamie knows this already. (Strange, they both think, how the heart can move faster than the speed of light.)
“Speaking of which…” she says.
“Ye don’t want to hear the rest?”
“In a sec,” she replies. “But your friends seem to think we should get married. Dougal especially.”
“They do,” Jamie says softly. “And Dougal does—to him, maybe.” He brings Claire’s hand to his lips, smiles into the Christmas present he’s wrapped around her finger. A ring: one mounted pearl, taken from his mother’s necklace. (“No’ an engagement ring, mind,” though they both knew it meant forever.)
“Do you, though? Think we should get married?”
“I’ll do anything that means I can call ye mine.”
“You already can.”
“Aye, but I dinna think the law agrees wi’ you.”
“Devil take the law.”
Jamie laughs. “I reckon the Devil doesna want the law either, Sassenach. He hates the law.”
“You’re avoiding my question.”
Claire turns towards him, remembers this past year together: their first date (Italian restaurant, 9PM showing of Pretty Woman), their first fight (broken coffee mugs, a noise complaint). She remembers the first time they made love in this small, crooked flat: middle of the floor, surrounded by packing boxes and crumpled newspaper. The bubble wrap had crackled beneath them—pop-pop-pop!—as if they were dancing on fireworks. (“I never want to leave this place,” she’d told him. He thought she’d meant the flat, but she’d meant his arms.)
“Which is…Well. Do you want to marry me, James Fraser?”
He squints. “Is that a proposal?”
“Then why aren’t ye on your knees?”
Claire’s elbow swings towards his face, but Jamie catches it, stretches her arm back so that her palm lies flat against the wall. He rolls on top of her, leans down and lets her heart beat against his lips. Wills it into him until his blood thrums with it. The sound of their story.
“Yes,” Jamie says. “I want to marry you, Claire Beauchamp.”
“You mean Claire Fraser?”
He laughs; she smiles (they are both winners on this day).
“Aye. Beauchamp, Sassenach, Fraser.” His voice drops, a whisper: “My wife.”
[December 24th, 1991]
While Jamie and Claire’s studio remains the same, the flowers change with the turn of seasons: baby-skinned petals become felted cloth, neon-bright as they hang from a child’s mobile. The pots along the sill are gone, their soil-dust trails swiped away and their roots transplanted to a community garden. In their place, sits a collection of shiny, new tools for a shiny, new crib, which stands half-assembled beside the cot. The flower mobile blooms above it, suspended in silent wait for spring. For Faith.
Come April, Jamie and Claire will bring the sunshine into their home, no longer needing the single window and its lancing, evening light. Come April, they will have marigold walls, yellow linens, and bright rubber duckies floating in the sink. All of this for the baby that will sleep inside the shiny, new crib beneath the flowers that will never die.
Faith. This is the name they have given their future, no longer an unfurnished corner in their studio, but a growing presence inside Claire’s belly.
“That bad is it?”
“Worse than bad. I look like a whale who’s just fucked a Christmas tree.”
Jamie opens his eyes, his wife framed by his fingers, and he moves his hands to stifle a laugh.
“And a few wee penguins at that…”
“You’re not helping,” Claire whines, examining her reflection in the mirror. Rounded cheeks, rounder stomach; sharp lines blurred by months of pregnancy. All afternoon, she has scolded and cajoled, bribed and threatened, her cottons and nylons. But the fabrics have been stubborn, loath to surrender their bodily claims to the child pushing against them.
“Jamie, I can’t go out wearing this.”
“I dinna see how you’ve much choice in the matter, Sassenach. We should've gone to Waverly yesterday,” Jamie replies. The sweater—the same one she’d worn the evening they met—hugs her stomach. Tight but still discreet, the purest flash of flesh above her waistline. “Party’s at 8. We’ve no time to go shopping for a proper outfit. It’s either that or what God gave ye.”
“Oh, wouldn’t that be a treat? A naked, pregnant woman sipping virgin egg nog in front of the buffet. Happy bloody Christmas!”
“Angus wouldna mind.”
“Well, so long as the host is happy.”
“I wouldna mind.”
Claire snorts and twirls, as if to say, “Are you sure of that?” (He is, absolutely, and to the marrow of his bones.)
Jamie sighs. “D’ye want me to wear mine too?”
“You mean your lager-stained pullover? With the Santa looks that looks like he’s got vomit in his beard?
“Aye, that’s the one.”
“Yes,” she replies, grinning. She remembers where it lies amongst the rest of their clothes, just as she remembers its wooly scratch against her breasts two years before. Jaime’s hands (so much larger than hers, even then) lifting it up and over, laying her bare beneath the fluorescent lights of his dorm room. “Yes, I want you to wear your Belligerent Santa jumper.”
“And no beer for you, either. Just store-bought non-alcoholic egg nog. My misery needs company.”
“Fair is fair.”
“Ach, weel. Anything for the most beautiful woman in the room.”
“Oh, Rupert will be so grateful you think so, Jamie.”
“What are friends for?” He draws closer, vibrating. “But what about you, Sassenach?”
“Me? You’ll look more ridiculous than I will. I’ll be peachy and taking shots of fake egg-nog!”
Claire finds the sweater and throws it to Jamie, watches him catch the frayed and wrinkled ball of it. The hem is still an unraveled spool, which she winds and winds around her finger. Once, twice, three times until it marks her skin in a pale, white ring. She pulls it taut, feels the slow draining of her finger as the blood retreats, towards her husband. Electricity between them (the pipes groan, the winter thaw come at last).
“Now,” Claire purrs, “put that on so I can take it off you.”
“D’ye think we have time?”
“Of course we do,” she says. "We always have time." (Not always, not forever.)
“Well then,” Jamie says, bowing. “Your servant, madam.”
[December 24, 1992]
The yellow mocks him. Lines of it cross the walls, broad brushstrokes that climb from floor to the ceiling, ceiling to floor. Back again.
Once, Jamie and Claire had laughed at the names underneath, the written ghosts of other possibilities:
“How about Lambert?”
“Nay, Dalhousie is much better.
“Dalhousie?” Claire’s paintbrush strike-through, a definite no. “That sounds like a bloody sneeze.”
He thinks of them now: the would-be Dalhousie, the would-be Lambert who still exist, half-formed, beneath the layers of paint. Two futures they’d decidedly rejected, covering them with white and then, finally, in the brightest yellow. F-A-I-T-H, they’d declared instead. So bold and sure—what they’d chosen and surrendered, by force, to the grave.
I dinna ken how to say this, man, but the hospital called and…
It was the prison guard who’d told Jamie this, watery eyes peering apologies through the bars. For the first time since Jamie’s arrest, the man’s scowl had lifted, and under the twitching bush of mustache, a grimmer line rose up. Solid as any wall. (That line marks the end of this part of the story. Jamie and Claire’s marigold paradise, gone forever.)
Jamie sees the proof of this all around him: the crib is empty, its sheets unused and its teddy unloved. A bed that will wait and wait, its expectations never met. Right above, the mobile’s flowers droop, dead before tiny fingers could swat them into life. Jamie rips it from the ceiling, and the plaster falls. Little chips of white on his shoulders.
It has been eight months since Claire kneeled alone, veiled in black. It has been eight months since Jamie wept in orange, that very same day, behind a sheet of Plexiglass. He had stared into the other side, willing every visitor’s face into Claire’s. (None of them right; none of them hers.)
And it has been eight days since Claire left and Jamie woke up, drowning in their empty cot. He still smells her, all flowers and wet soil because, even gone, she is there beneath his skin.
Outside, Jamie hears carolers sing, voices carried on the upward swing of the wind. Silent night, holy night. He slides the window open, letting the ice fill his lungs. He holds his breath, welcomes the sting, and listens for the reassuring sounds of her. Claire, a memory under the gust and song:
“You should’ve seen the hernia I treated today!”
“He shushed me, can you believe it? What a wanker.”
“Chinese take-out for dinner, yeah?”
“Jamie, will you come to bed?”
But his wife grows faint beneath the rising bellows, the carolers cheered by the promise of warmth. Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright. And so Jamie exhales—nothing else to do but mouth along, swallow that calm, bright place within the wind; conjure it inside the studio.
In this new place, Jamie does not betray his wife or know the cold, unforgiving grip of handcuffs and the cold, unforgiving grip of grief. In this place, husbands say the right words and wives accept them, do not leave in the dead of night. Here is a place where things make sense, and where babies breathe. Holy infant so tender and mild.
And yet. Jamie and Claire’s home, with its frozen pipes and its skeleton crib, is not that place, does not make sense anymore. The great, illogical impossibility of it all—this:
It was here that Jamie, so desperate for money, siphoned off what little they had. A gamble gone wrong, behind Claire’s back and against his word. And it is here that Jamie wrapped his wrists each morning, bandaging the marks of four weeks in a cell. His skin had bruised, like his heart, which still sits feather-light in his chest. So soft, so quiet. So much of it gone without Claire.
From his window, Jamie watches the carolers advance towards a church, its doors sprung wide. Their footprints sign farewells in the snow, walking away, away, away. The wind howls in their wake, alive with Jamie’s loneliness.
“Come back!” he yells from above, and his own voice is a shock to him. He yells a second time, more frantic now. It comes so easily, these pleas to the retreating strangers. So much easier than calling his wife, begging for her forgiveness, because finally—finally—he has found the words. Come back, come back, come back.
But when it counted, Jamie had turned inward and away; had said nothing. Wasn’t silence better than the wrong words? Smile, rub your hand along her back, take her to bed and fill the void with another, different child? But in that silence, Claire had heard the rip—that swift severance of the bright, red string between them. The two of them, suddenly on their own, waging separate wars against the world. And so she’d left—and he has not called.
“Come back!” he yells again. His desperation echoes between the buildings.
For a second, Jamie thinks they’ve heard him. Their shuffling stops and a woman, fingers clutching her naked neck, turns around. She looks to the ground, all frenzied eyes, before someone grabs her, saying, “It’s cold! Leave it!” She resists at first, peering over her shoulder, but then forges onwards with the crowd. Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace…
It is quiet now. Jamie closes the window and leans against it, coming face to face with the empty crib. It is this, this above all else, that does not make sense to him. Hadn’t he seen the pictures—those blurry, vague promises of a little girl? Tacked them to the visor of his car, folded them into his wallet to brandish at the office? And hadn’t he felt the kicks against Claire’s stomach, and assembled this crib, this damn crib?
And yet—there is nothing that makes sense.
And yet—he knows handcuffs and he knows grief.
And yet—she’d had no words to accept, simply left in the dead of night.
And yet. And yet. And yet.
The baby did not breathe.
(Later, Jamie will rise from his sleep and look out the window. He will follow the path of the sinking sun until it catches a necklace, glaring golden in the snow. Jamie will brace the storm, put the necklace in his pocket. Wait. And when the sidewalk has melted, he will place the necklace there, precisely where it was dropped, for the caroler to find.
Of all the things that do not make sense, he is sure of this: soon, the woman will remember her father clasping it around her neck. Or she will remember when her boyfriend said, “I saw this, and I thought of you.” When she tried it on, just a child, in front of her mother’s mirror. She will remember how much she loves this necklace, this slice of paradise in the dark, cold winter, and she will look for it. This, Jamie knows: she will come back.)
Before she signs the papers, her lawyer asks, “Are ye sure of this, Claire?”
And when she sees the page, filled with so many endings, she wants to say, “No. No, I’m not sure.”
No, I don’t know if this is the right thing to do.
I don’t know.
I don’t know.
But, Claire thinks, what other option is there? How else to forget the butterfly ears, or the way Faith’s skin had caught the dawn? Such a beautiful, translucent thing: strawberry hair, blue lightning across the pales of her lids. How else to forget that Claire had clung to the hospital sheets, so damp and so bloody, after they’d taken Faith away? Just to remember, please, she’d cried. Those dirty sheets, the only sign that the child had ever been there. Please, please. Just to remember.
She’s grown so tired of remembering, now craves the oblivion of forget. She does not want the memory of Jamie’s sleep-smile, lit red and blue (just like their daughter) by the Christmas tree’s glow. She does not want the memory of how she almost didn’t leave, how she’d stood in the gateway to their marigold paradise, paralyzed. A moment in time where she might have gone back, lain down beside her husband and unpacked the suitcase. Never called Ned Gowan.
Standing there that night, Claire had watched Jamie sleep and wondered: Would she have been like you? and Would she have looked like you? And the answers, so immediate and so clear in the rainbow tree light were, Yes. Because how could God resist?
And so what else is there to do but sign the papers? Jamie, day after day, staring back at her with their would-be-child’s face. Claire had closed the door, had not looked back. Because how could she possibly stay?
At her silence, Ned Gowan probes again, “Are ye sure of this, Claire?” and calmly, calmly she takes the pen. She signs along the blank line, and every loop of her name—now: Beauchamp, Beauchamp, Beauchamp—swirls with all her doubts.
No, I’m not sure.
No, I don’t know if this is the right thing to do.
I don’t know.
I don’t know.
(If the heart moves at the speed of light, then it will shatter upon impact. A million broken shards, all strewn across the world. Pieces of Claire will remain in that studio, in that cot, in her husband’s arms. But most will be found buried deep below the ground. Inside the tiny, wooden box that holds their baby girl.)
Here marks the middle of our tale, that vast, perilous land between the beginning and the end. The going is treacherous in these parts—the wayward couple must heal on their own, tread the sea of two decades with arms and souls akimbo—but still, it is not unnecessary. The middle is never aimless. Always, always, it has one goal: the ending.
When the lights go up and the curtains close, you clap—perhaps, should the couple reunite (which, of course, they will), you shout “Encore, encore!” But then, at last, you return to your car. You catch the train, or you grab a taxi. At last, having started at the beginning and waded through the middle, you reach the final destination. The night is over; you go home.
Home. Whether a place, a person, a feeling, or a thing—it does not matter. Home is always the goal and the ending, the northernmost star we pray to and walk towards.
[December 24th, 1996]
Two weeks’ vacation in a cabin, tucked deep inside a fold of mountains. Here, amongst the stretches of living nothingness, even the silence has a voice. Owls hoot in the night. The pines’ chatter, their needle-whispers pierced by caws and shifted air—a hawk swooping to ensnare her prey. And if one listens closely enough, one can hear the hunter's a shaky, traitorous breath, which launches the doe across the snow—the echo of his heartsong, the drum to which the doe’s hooves beat. Come back, come back, come back.
This is why Jamie has come here: for the endless conversation between man and mountain, more steadfast than the chill in his heart. In the past four years, Jamie has sold the twin cot (it lies in a salvage yard somewhere, all broken springs and dreams). A different couple has moved into the studio, and when they had spoken of paint jobs—“Perhaps mint green, what d’ye say, hon?”— Jamie had thought, Thank God. He’d happily offered them the keys when they turned to him, pupils dilated with youthful optimism. By that point, there was no space for Jamie and Claire inside that Edinburgh Eden, and so he’d chimed in, “Aye, a bonny color.” (Indeed, the walls are mint now, though a forgotten strip of marigold shines in the northern corner.)
For two years, Jamie has lived with Murtagh in Glasgow, having shed not just his home but his editorial career in publishing. He has grown tired of fixing other’s mistakes—too many of his own in need of correction—and so here he sits on this Christmas Eve, writing towards redemption.
The Grampians are a peaceful place, big hulks of rock scattered with trees—bouquets of fir, oak, and pine cradling other cabins. At dark, their windows flicker, candlelit with the dreams of the aspiring novelists, essayists, playwrights therein. Men and women, all bowed before the cleansing hum of nature’s speech. Like Jamie, they had seen the fliers: WRITER’S RETREAT, TWO WEEKS IN THE MOUNTAINS—and so it was. They were small colony taking its temporary leave, hoping to reconstruct the world according to their own, more favorable terms.
Over supper, the group gathers and shares their ideas: outlines, pieces of dialogue, an inspiring poem they’ve loved since childhood. And while Jamie is generous with his advice, he holds his notebooks against his chest. Enraptured by this warm aloofness (for is it not the way of all great wordsmiths?), the others whisper behind their palms, “Have you read Fraser’s story?” Into napkins, “No, have you?”
But among the fifteen guests, only one has read Jamie’s story—and tonight, Jamie waits for her inside his cabin. His latest draft is fanned around him, some sections highlighted and others slashed. They are not unlike Claire’s old strike-throughs, which had snipped the would-be Dalhousie and eventually, Jamie’s own name, from her life (a reclamation of Beauchamp, a transformation to Randall). Among Jamie’s scribbles are his friend’s edits, which are much more forgiving, much less forceful than the lines of his own red pen. Each comment reads like a bashful request: “More clarity?”, “Switch the verb here?”, “Too many adjectives?” as if she needs permission to occupy the margins. Should I really be reading this?, she seems to say, the bare-backed rawness making her squirm.
But she is helping him, his friend. And so she sees Jamie’s drafts before John, his agent, and before Fergus, his assistant and most loyal advocate. With each comment, she brings him closer to understanding, to the better beginning, middle and end. Note by note, to the way his story (their story, for it can never be Jamie’s alone) should be. All rhymes and logic, had it not veered off-course.
Is Alexander too cold here? Shouldn’t he say something? (He should have.)
It seems out of character for Alexander to never visit his daughter’s grave? (Grief carves cowards out of heroes.)
Shouldn’t he try to win Elizabeth back? (God, yes. He should have tried harder.)
The knock comes three minutes later, as expected.
“Oh!” A muffled apology, embarrassment for the delay. “Sorry,” the visitor says. “It’s late. Didna ken if ye still wanted to talk or not. I brought—well, I finished reading your last chapter.”
And now another player enters this fifth act, tip-toes quietly onto the stage. Only a slip of a thing in the cabin’s doorway, cheeks pinked by the storm’s sharp nip. She is Jamie’s friend-slash-critique partner, and even her entrance is punctuated by a question mark. The score of owl, pine, hawk and hunter swells, buffeted now by new notes: the crack of chapped lips smiling, the anxious shuffle of papers, and—
“Dinna fash, I couldna sleep anyways,” Jamie assures her. “Did ye like it, though? The new ending?”
His friend inhales sharply, stealing as much oxygen as the room will allow. Everything—the threadbare futon, the TV’s antennae, the welcome mat and Jamie’s body—bends towards some invisible presence. A ghost between between all.
“It was…a bit different from the last one.”
“I’ll take that as a ‘Nay, I didna like it.’”
She looks shyly at the ground, one foot treading nervous circles into the planks.
“It was a bit too sentimental is all. After everything. All that time and silence…D’ye really think Alex and Lizzie could make it?”
Her words are a blow to Jamie’s stomach, and the pages are fire in his hands. He puts them down, wants to thrust himself under a blanket of snow to freeze the flames.
“In a fairy tale, maybe, but life isna a fairy tale. And d’ye no want to write truths?” She looks up, and her eyes gore him. “This story isna a fairy tale either, Jamie. Yours never are.”
“Aye…aye, I s’pose they’re not,” he replies, thinking of his other novels and short stories, essays and poems. Each accepted by John’s gimlet eye, only to meet their end in a publisher’s slush pile. (“Too dark, too wallowing,” an editor once wrote.)
“Give it another go. I’ll help ye tomorrow, if ye’d like,” his friend offers. “Three days left. I reckon we’ve time to sort the kinks, right the wrongs.” (Three days will never be enough for Jamie’s wrongs.)
“I’d appreciate that, lass. Verra much.”
His friend looks behind her and at the moon, a shy sickle in the sky. It draws her toward the door and the snow-covered mountainside.
“Weel, it’s a long walk back,” she says. “Wanted to give ye that before the morning, so I guess I’ll just…”
“Will ye stay with me tonight?” Jamie blurts. And he hates himself for saying this, the way it sounds outside his mouth and inside his cabin, landing on the unmade bed. Its despair makes it ugly. But.
But if his friend stays, Jamie thinks, perhaps the emptiness will leave. If his friend stays, perhaps his story will correct itself, falling into its natural rhythm, by the force of whatever solace she can give him.
“It’s Christmas Eve,” he continues, “and I…I dinna want to be alone.”
She pauses, thinks it over before saying, “Okay. Just for a bit?” (Just for a bit? Another loaded question, and one he doesn’t want to answer.)
“Thank you,” Jamie whispers, and Mary McNab removes her coat.
Long before daybreak, Jamie wakes. He gathers his draft, made complete by that final failing chapter, into a single stack. He retrieves a box from his suitcase, which is swathed in his old holiday sweater, and it speaks to him. A quiet loudness, like the murmur of the Grampians. You mean your lager-stained pullover? With the Santa looks that looks like he’s got vomit in his beard?
Inside the box is a gift—a vase, azure porcelain—though Jamie has no plans to send it across the Atlantic, to the Boston apartment where his ex-wife kisses another man. No. This vase will stay with Jamie, forever hidden on the high shelf of a closet, or exiled to the back corner of a desk drawer. Like his grief, it is something that he owns—this small cut from a cloth of unraveled dreams—to be kept and locked safely away. There, there, always there. All fancy people have vases.
Jamie wraps the box with his manuscript. One by one, he folds the pages over and under, seals the edges with tape to form an inch-thick layer. So much history around this small, delicate thing—their story, with the ending Jamie cannot use and which cannot be the truth. At last, he cuts the string of wool, which still drips from his sweater after all these years, and it rasps, Do we have time? Of course we do.
Finally, Jamie weeps—a mournful sound that joins the chorus of this great, big mountain—and ties a frayed, red bow.
(Jamie does not realize that Mary watches him from the bed. “Tell me about her,” she wants to say—for once a statement and not a question—but she does not. Instead, she calls to Jamie, presses her goosefleshed nakedness to his. And as they move together, slow but unfeeling, she pretends she is a vessel. Closes her eyes. Makes room for the ghost. I’m Claire Beauchamp. Just plain Claire Beauchamp.)
[December 24th, 1998]
There is something to be said for the peculiar hour of the blue-morning, when a hospital beeps into quiet life. Death rattles behind drawn curtains, expletives are spat over set bones, and shots are taken in the thigh. It is not like Jamie’s Grampian refuge, which springs forth naturally from the earth. Instead, Boston GH scars the landscape, numbing loneliness through morphine drips and the tug of sheer necessity.
It is during this gradual reawakening that Claire hides in a closet, imagines the pink, wet sacs of her lungs contract and expand. She counts her breaths to release the night’s chaos, still lodged deep in her throat.
During the wild evening hours, Claire sees only what exists outside her body. Such an easy thing to do as a doctor, this sudden corporeal separation—a leap into the procedural dance, a temporary loss of oneself to the staunching of blood and the sewing of sutures.
But eventually the window of calm arrives, and the wall of dissociation begins to crumble. Claire, in her closet sanctuary, returns to her body once more, the sight of her arms and her hands like four old friends reacquainted.
Claire hunkers down between two shelves, and relief travels from foot to torso, settling somewhere inside her gut. As always, she has brought her medical bag—a gift from her husband, CER embossed in golden filigree—and rummages through it. As always, she finds the folder and flicks it open, seeking the page that is stowed inside. She is forever tethered to its final sentence, which launches a fresh rip of longing straight to her chest.
And as always, she goes back to the beginning, following the words. Fingers like greedy sponges, text absorbing into skin.
NEW YORK CITY, 11:30AM - The diner hushes when the bell tinkles, announcing the arrival of literary darling James Fraser. He is a giant in more ways than one: six-feet tall, wide-set shoulders, and a critically-acclaimed author with legions of fans. But for all his inches and his clout, Fraser is blissfully unaware of the eyes on his back. When he sits opposite me and shakes my hand, I, like the rest of the world, find him to be impulsively likable.
Sporting one month’s growth of beard and a wrinkled v-neck, it doesn’t take long for Fraser’s roguish charm to earn a complimentary meal. He is quick to thank the waitress, and for not the first time, one has to wonder how the man could possibly be single. Surely his good looks, his talent, and Reformed Bad Boy reputation draws the ladies in?
Point proven: Our waitress lingers, hungry for Fraser’s attention, but he closes his menu after ordering a glass of lemonade. (An odd choice, but then our writing heroes are full of idiosyncrasies, aren’t they?) I almost leap to console the girl, that poor thing, as she runs a self-conscious hand down her apron.
Alas, one gets the impression that it isn’t pickiness keeping Fraser romantically unattached. Nor is it misogyny or closeted homosexuality (despite what those tabloid vipers spit). James Fraser simply enjoys his place in the lonely hearts club—and is perfectly content to stay there, sipping ice-cold lemonade.
Frank’s ring glides across the lines, pauses over “single”. Such a different life, so removed from Claire’s, though here it thrums beneath her hands. Suddenly, her head grows heavier, weighted by the chain draped around her neck. Jamie’s thistle ring dangles there, cold as death. Forever tucked inside her shirts, a secret between her breasts. (Frank lets her wear it, just as she lets him wear his stained button-downs, other women smiling from the collars.)
Fraser’s second and latest novel, Two Centuries in Purgatory, released just last month to stellar reviews. Hailed as a “modern classic” by The New York Times (and truly, it is), Purgatory has found a comfortable seat at the top of the bestseller lists, and shows no signs of losing momentum. Now touring the U.S., Fraser seems nonplussed by the bustle of the Big Apple, his eighth time to our concrete jungle (“I’ve a parade of publisher meetings and interviews tomorrow,” he grumbles). Though he’s a longtime resident of both Edinburgh and Glasgow, he says no city feels like home nowadays. “Where is home then?” I ask him, and in traditional Fraser fashion, he deadpans: “Lost.”
For all his fame and glory, there is something decidedly melancholy about James Fraser. But of course, we all know why. We’ve read his books, haven’t we? We know his story.
Gillian Edgars: Are you enjoying your lemonade, Mr. Fraser?
James Fraser: Aye, verra much so. Lemonade in Scotland doesna taste like this.
GE: Mmmm, exploring the pleasures of America. I like it. Now, shall we begin? Let’s start with Two Centuries in Purgatory.
Claire brings the page a few inches closer. This is not the first time she has read the article, its edges worn to yellowing curls.
A familiar anger sinks its claws into her side as this reproduction of Jamie staggers into a flickering half-life. Gillian Edgars thinks she knows the man behind the book jacket. The entire world, for that matter, believes they can claim the bold-faced names on their hardbacks.
But, Claire seethes, do these people know that Jamie smiles in his sleep? That he’s prone to seasicknesses, could not wink at the waitress even if he tried? No. Only Claire knows these smaller, intimate truths—but still, they are not enough. Jamie is no longer only hers, but a communal being disseminated and shared amongst millions. Strangers have molded her Jamie into something new, into hollow casts of their false impressions.
Without warning, the closet door swings open and Joe Abnernathy leans in. “Knew I’d find you in here,” he says, but he draws up short. His smile falters when he sees Claire on the ground. Falters further still when he reads the headline, "Scotland’s Newest Literary Hero," on the page and on her face.
“Lady Jane, why do you do this to yourself? We’re working, I know, but can’t you try to be merry? It’s officially Christmas Eve!”
Joe kneels down, and levels his gaze with hers—the gentle but silent disappointment of an older brother. Claire holds firm when he pries the clipping from her grasp, the paper snagging the skin of her palm. It glides over and up, a shallow curve that splits into fine, shining rubies. A jeweled J, just at the base of her thumb.
Claire presses the wound to her teeth, tastes the heady, metallic taste of herself. (Later, she will trace the cut with reverence, grateful to be marred, at the very least, by a shade of Jamie.)
Joe tsks and reaches for a shelf, bringing back the first aid kit.
“Perks of hiding in a hospital supply closet. Bandages, everywhere. Take this.”
“It’s fine, Joe,” Claire assures him but accepts the bandaid anyways. “I’m fine—just a bad day and a scratch. See? No significant blood loss.”
“Thought I’d witnessed the first fatal paper cut,” Joe says, but then continues, more softly, “LJ, I thought you’d given this up. That Frank made you promise you’d stop.”
“He did,” Claire replies. “And I did too, for a while.”
Her stomach turns as the memory resurfaces: her husband, feeding the shredder a feast of papers. The machine’s tight-lipped and fanged smile destroying Claire’s collection of articles, her glimpses of Jamie. Frank had held her as the teeth had chewed, tightened his grip when she repeated his words back to him, “Time to leave the past behind.” And afterwards, once the the bin had emptied into the trash, Frank had dragged the bag of shreds to the curb. Claire had looked on, standing in the doorway, a soldier’s wife already in mourning.
(That evening, she almost snuck outside to piece the words together, for old habits die hard and a planet will always yearn for her sun. But then Frank’s arm had risen in the darkness, flopped sleepily across her waist. The weight of it had held her there, and so she’d stayed, picturing the night creatures stealing Jamie away, piece by piece.)
“I just…wanted to see what people were saying. About his new book.” She sighs. “I know I’m being ridiculous. It’s just that…”
“He’s everywhere, isn't he? In the papers, on TV. Saw they’re making a Lifetime adaptation of A Blade of Grass. Jesus.”
Claire nods. “Steering clear of that one.” (But she won’t, of course. Claire will want to see herself and Jamie on that screen, their better, manufactured selves broadcasted in technicolor.)
“You’re really gonna let me down like that, Lady Jane? I thought we’d drink cheap Scotch, put the movie on mute, and invent the dialogue ourselves. Next weekend, the two of us. Drunk and vengeful. Whaddya say?”
“A hard pass, Joe. We’ll be in Oxford for the holidays, anyways. Visiting Frank’s family.”
“Well, la-di-dah. I’ll be on this side of Atlantic throwing popcorn at my TV.” Joe leaps to his feet when his pager beeps. As he walks out the door, his hand flies to his coat pocket and he withdraws a shabby paperback. “Before I forget—a Christmas gift, for the Lady. If you’re gonna scramble your brain with nonsense, let it be Tessa’s ‘membrane of innocence’. Not ‘Scotland’s Newest Literary Hero.’”
Claire laughs and flips through The Impetuous Pirate, inhaling its smell of antiseptic and mildew and the vestiges of long-ago fingerprints. A Harlequin, taken from the hospital waiting room. “Aye aye, captain. But if it’s all the same to you, I’ll stay here in Davy Jones’ Locker for a while longer.”
Joe nods, consoling, before he turns to answer an intern's cries for help.
Alone again, Claire tucks The Impetuous Pirate inside her bag, picks up the discarded article from the floor. For the first time, she notices its publication date, October 20th, was her 31st birthday. She cannot remember the details of the occasion—Did Frank take her to a concert, or to a movie? Buy her flowers or chocolates?—and yet a foreign scene plays so clearly in her mind. It is something cut from the script of her life, the stagehand’s hook pulling her to the wings before she has a chance to speak. Cast in the closet’s dim spotlight, it unfolds as the playact that could have been but never was:
Jamie, in the New York diner, drinking lemonade. Condensation like dew drops, rolling down the pitcher. A young girl in Gillian Edgars’ place, singing a high soprano. And Claire, beside her, blowing out candles in a single huff.
As she slices the birthday cake, this almost-Claire nicks her finger on the knife’s blade. “Kiss to make it better!” the young girl cries, and Jamie does, his lips are on the sting, and then Claire’s mouth. He tastes of citrus, of yellow and sunshine, a marigold paradise in a city of dying autumn leaves. “Does it still hurt, Sassenach?” he asks her. “Not anymore,” she says. And when the little girl giggles, watching them, it is something sacred. She licks the frosting from the candles. “So what’d you wish for, Mama?” she asks, not knowing that, in a moments like these, there is no need for wishes.
Claire’s pager rings, rearranging her memories. Now she remembers her 31st birthday—and knows it did not happen in that diner. On that day, there was no little girl; no citrus kisses in a molting New York.
Instead, Frank had taken Claire to the opera house, a drawn-out affair they had both fidgeted through. Back at home, he had led her to the bedroom and its king-sized bed, had slipped off her dress while she kept her chain on. “Talk to me,” he’d panted, silver thistles against her chest. And when she came, it was not Frank’s body that drew her cries. It was not Frank’s name that rose from her lips.
Claire scans the article, skipping again to the final paragraphs. Here lies the line she reads over and over, the very reason she shells $15 for subscriptions and scavenges in bins for scraps. Anything to discover some evidence of herself, some proof that she still lives in the peripheries of Jamie’s life. And whenever she finds it, it pours into her and lingers, like wine.
GE: Your debut was quite impressive—an instant bestseller, an Oprah Book Club pick, an upcoming TV movie. I’m sure you’ve been asked this before…but allow me to be a hack for just one moment. Let me ask the nosy questions. Let me pry.
JF: I dinna have a fear of rats [SMILES]. Get on wi’ it then.
GE: I appreciate it, Mr. Fraser, I do [LAUGHS]. The protagonist’s struggles in A Blade of Grass—the financial woes, the criminal record, the years of solitude—they seem to mirror your own. Is it accurate to say that the book is autobiographical?
“Randall?” a voice calls from outside the closet. “Randall, are you in there? Mr. Duncan in Room #18 needs to be—”
“Prepped for surgery, I know!” Claire finishes. Her voice is shrill, rising with her goosebumps as she nears the interview’s end. “I’ll be out in a second, Dr. Hildegarde!”
JF: In some respects, aye, A Blade of Grass is autobiographical. Mind, I made a lot of it up myself. Embellished a few things.
GE: Oh yes, certainly. But even without your embellishments, your life does make for such an interesting tale. In a way, your struggles are what made you a literary sensation. But still, I do wonder—do you regret any of it? The gamble, the money, the arrest?
JF: [LAUGHS QUIETLY] I thank ye for the compliment, Ms. Edgars, but I hope my sins are no’ responsible for the book’s success. And for the record, they were largely exaggerated by the press.
GE: Ah, right. We rats are despicable creatures, always desperate for crumbs. But they never fill the belly, not really.
JF: Have ye tried poetry before, Ms. Edgars? You’ve a knack for it [LOOKS AWAY]. But nay, it isna the crimes themselves that I regret most. Whether they were exaggerated or no.
GE: Really? There’s something else [LEANS FORWARD]? Will you tell me then, your life’s biggest regret? Or will you keep me and your readers in the dark, forever wondering what keeps our beloved James Fraser up at night?
Now Claire closes her hand into a fist, forces herself to bleed out from that thin, half-mooned J. She imagines Jamie’s face, inscrutable to Gillian Edgars, but fixed in an expression that she, and only she, can read. And if Claire had been there on that October afternoon, sitting in the diner’s vinyl booth, she would have understood. Would’ve known already what Jamie regretted most, what he would and could not say aloud. For within this precious, final line—their spoken and unspoken wishes:
JF: My biggest regret? I let the story end early.
(JF: I should have loved her better—God! I should have loved her better.)
Honestly, even I can't keep the ages/dates straight, so if you spot a glaring mistake, lmk! :)
We often lose track of time in this great, big world of ours, in much the same way we lose a pair of keys, a couple of pens. “I swear I saw them two seconds ago!” we groan, groping to purse-bottoms, finding only lint and chump-change. So many things—these small facets of our lives—sucked into the void of bygones, taken before we can ever think to tie them down.
“I swear I was twenty-two just yesterday.”
This is how it is for Jamie and Claire, their years like old playbills confiscated by the wind and an invisible clock. Certain acts reappear from time to time, when the arm of a broom sweeps them into the light, when the frosting of dust disturbs, then floats. And for a brief moment, as the particles of time and forget resettle themselves, Jamie and Claire can hear their lives’ most glorious crescendos. The lowest notes tip-toe from the long-kept silence, rising and sinking slowly, steadily. All plucked strings, still vibrating, until the echoes die, cradling the past.
You can write an entire story with these bits and pieces of their lives, cut the acts together to form one winding opera. It plays and stops until, eventually, the grand finale. The overlap: a perfect harmony which carries them from their separate wings, to center stage and to each other.
And it is there, finally, that they meet again, lips and lives melding. They stand together in the orb of the spotlight. A single sun, glowing.
The Spirit in the Horse, 2000
Starring James Fraser, Jenny Fraser, Brian Fraser, The Doctor, Ellen Fraser, Fitzy (and a More-Than-Flash of Someone Else)
Though a bestselling author, JAMES FRASER did not grow up with dreams of books, but of horses.
He was born on an unusually hot day, spring 1968. Everything melting at its very seams, the birthing room’s thermometer feverish with mercury blood. His father and sister had fashioned fans from intake forms, moving heat-murk and birth-stink with the accordioned papers. They looked on with damp foreheads, lips white and tight, so that Ellen could have the breaths they saved.
At half-past noon, the doctor had caught Jamie’s auburn crown, dripping more heavily than his own laboring mother. All of this—the heat, the sweat, the waving forms—was taken as the stamp of Jamie’s fate. Surely, they had all agreed, he would set the world on fire, would be a brand forever puckering its skin.
The hibernators had emerged early that year, scurrying from their earthen wombs just as Jamie had slipped from his mother’s. Heat-drunk and dizzied, they had eaten everything in sight. Corn stalks, cabbage leaves, whole fields of barley—gone. Even Ellen’s strawberries, barely ripened—devoured by mid-April. The red fruits had shrunk to halves, then thirds, as the creatures munched and munched. Fleshy hearts eaten to bleeding, the pulp left to the sleepy stragglers.
And so on the day Jamie entered the world, the Frasers had returned to a dark and stifling house. Rot wafted from the windows, and the electrical wires were chewed cleanly through. One rabbit, the chosen martyr, had laid cooked in the grass, fur spiked.
Brian had thrust Jamie into his daughter’s arms, ran inside to rescue what unspoiled food he could (three eggs, a loaf of bread). Waiting in the yard, Jenny had imagined the wilting lettuce inside the fridge and Ellen, equally wilted under the blue hospital sheet. She had watched a squirrel leap across the berry guts, a rope of black wire between his paws.
How—if at all, she had wondered—would they survive without her mother?
Too exhausted for a trip to the store, Brian had fried the eggs on the driveway. The yolk was thick in his mouth and the sorrow thicker in his chest, before he realized Jamie’s cries had quieted. He started when he heard the horse’s whinny, the snorty exhale through its nostrils. Beside him, Jenny had scuttled away, feet scraping at the egg crusts.
Incensed by the heat and the crowd, Fitzy the horse had stormed her stable doors to freedom. She had brayed, desolate to find her owner gone, until she spotted the flame in Brian’s arms. Copper, auburn, cinnabar—all Ellen’s colors—poking from a swaddle of blue. And so Fitzy had bowed her head, brought Jamie into her awed silence. One shining moment, the first since Ellen’s passing—calm and peaceful.
Even now, 32 years later, Jamie loves to tell this story. How Brian had pressed his baby fist to the mane, his mother still a stickiness on his baby thumb. And how, as a young boy, Jamie had thought Ellen lived somewhere inside auld Fitzy. Something in the black bead of the mare’s eye: a flash, a peculiar spark. It was an acknowledgement that, until one night in 1989, Jamie had never felt before.
After his book tour in ’99, Jamie Fraser decided to take the leap—carpe diem—and purchase his own horse and his own land (fields way out in the Highlands; a farmhouse converted to splendor by his millions). The horse, like Fitzy, wears a chestnut coat. She is stubborn but loving, recognizes Jamie’s voice when he calls and his face when it floats above her stable door. He sees a flash of Fitzy—and of his mother, he thinks—when she surrenders her anger to Jamie’s flags of truce: a fresh Granny Smith, a carrot stick plucked from the ground. He sees a More-Than-Flash of Someone Else when she nudges his shoulder, apologetic. The only source of happiness, this beautiful beast, outside of his writing.
“Ye see?” Jamie had said after their first standoff, “Ye canna stay mad at me forever.” And when the horse had chomped the apple from his hand, he’d sworn that she was smiling.
“Mo nighean donn,” he’d whispered, and decided, then and there, to name her Sorcha.
Carroll’s Theory of Truth, 2003
Starring Claire Randall, Frank Randall, Joe Abernathy, duncandonuts, wetwillie, mark_me_1745, parsleymarsley, l.mackenzie (and The Author)
When CLAIRE RANDALL is not working at the hospital, her nose is pressed to a blue-white screen.
For years, she had resisted those monstrous, blocky machines—Macintosh, Dell, Gateway—all brand names accompanied by her husband’s greedy and jabbing elbows.
But there was value in tradition, Claire had argued. A kind of sanctity in the ping of an Underwood or the swish of pen; privacy and authentic connection. Frank had merely rolled his eyes, always lusting after the new and shiny—whether it was a computer or a student’s gloss-plumped lips—knowing it was not “tradition” itself that his wife was holding onto.
“So like you, Claire,” he’d said bitterly one day, “wanting to stay stuck in the past.” And, of course, he’d been right. Just to spite him, she’d finally surrendered and gave him one for Christmas.
Gradually, Claire came to love the whirring engine, the wail of the dial-up, the period of isolation where she was unreachable by phone. Like time travel, almost, the way it took her places past and present, opening every door like some futuristic gentleman.
But mostly, Claire loved the computer for the freedom it gave her. Boot up the system, click the mouse, log on, be someone else. Online, Claire could play a different role than the surgeon or the amateur gardener, pretend she was not the wife who turned her cheek as often as she made her husband’s dinner. On the Internet, her identity was a thirty-word bio, her face a grey silhouette displayed comfortably—anonymously—inside a neat, square frame. A million different bodies growing inside her, once her fingers flew across keyboard:
Claire Randall, the British spy.
Claire Randall, the avid hiker, climbing the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Claire Randall, the mother, who loved the melt of ice cream down her daughter’s chin. Her tiny mouth, sweet and sugared, when it met hers for a kiss.
One website, her favorite, was this: a forum, populated by other faceless humans who, like Claire, could recite page 451 (or any others) of A Blade of Grass. In this corner of the online universe, they had spoken of The Author on a first-name basis, trading facts like prized baseball cards. But it was only Claire who could share the most private knowledge, attribute it all to her keen nose and thus earn the respect of 16 anonymous users.
Even so, Claire had been surprised by what they knew solely through their reading. The Author’s childhood, his relationships, his favorite color. She was able to ask her own prodding questions and receive correct answers, such as:
whiteraven: A long shot, but does anyone know how to contact him by telephone?
And five of the grey-faced few had responded.
duncandonuts: easier to send him send him a letter (might get lost among the rest of his fan mail though).
wetwillie: have you tried his agent, john grey, in london?
mark_me_1745: if u meet him, tell him 2 come 2 brasil!!!!!!! we <3 him!!!!!!!
parsleymarsali: Publishers Weekly mentioned he’s now with Geordie Gibbons at the Claude F. Agency, not Grey, @wetwillie. Think it had something to do with creative differences and missed deadlines.
l.mackenzie: pass that info onto _me_ if you find it, girl! <g>
By a stroke of luck, someone had known someone who’d known someone who’d known someone. And just like that, she was given a phone number the following Wednesday. A day like any other, if it weren’t for a single string of digits sitting in her inbox, a silent but ticking grenade.
She spent three months with the numbers inside her head, stored in a folder marked with The Author’s name. She did manage to call though—once—when her hand finally lowered from its hover. She’d waited out the sonorous ring-ring-ring, the robotic chime, “You have reached the voice mailbox of..." She had listened to the beep that followed and then the silence, stretching, until she remembered her mouth. It opened, exhaled, then shut abruptly with the click of her teeth. There was the clatter of keys and the thwop of a briefcase—Frank home from work.
She had almost whispered, but did not.
It was too much to have both men in the same room: one gently pecking her lips, the other pressing an electric current into her cheek, crackling. Too much, too much. Claire had slammed the phone down and cursed, “Bloody teleprompter. Always calling before dinner,” which had made her husband laugh. She’d made him spaghetti that night, the spices forming twelve digits in the saucepan no matter how many times she swirled the spoon.
It’s been four months since that first and only call, though Claire still remembers The Author’s number. She thinks of if—when—she will have the courage to call again, to finally speak and fill the space of eleven empty years. While Frank snores beside her, she plays the scene from start to finish, like a draft of the real, inevitable thing.
Again: the sonorous ring, the tinny greeting, the beep, and the silence that waits for her. But this time: her mouth opens—one, two three times—and five words repeated, again and again.
In some versions, she says them aloud. In others, merely pushes them, soundless, into the air. Still, they are there, held aloft by satellite arms high up in the sky. Somewhere between her and The Author, existing: I was born for you, I was born for you, I was born for you.
And what is said three times—even unfinished, even without words—is always, always true.
Three Times the World Ended , 2004
Starring Jamie Fraser, Jenny Fraser, and Laoghaire Mackenzie (and The Girl)
JAMES FRASER, age 34, can pinpoint three moments where his world fell apart.
He was eighteen during the first, a brazen thing, but still as green as the pot freshly stinking his Levi’s. After reading the call notice pasted to his door, he’d floated to the common room on a cloud of White Widow weed. He dialed, laughing, until Jenny’s voice had sobbed down the line, breaking the peace of his druggy fug.
Their father, she’d cried, had died the previous evening.
With the news, the had drugs turned. Floors slanted, limbs jellied. Jamie watched as a hole ripped open the wall behind him, its enormous black void revealing the space Brian Fraser had left behind. It had swallowed Jamie up, refused to spit him back again until The Girl reached inside and found his heart two years later. Returned it to him, like a love note, passed on the inside of her smile.
Jamie describes the second collapse in his two famous novels, A Blade of Grass and Two Centuries in Purgatory. This time, the world had split completely, Jamie and The Girl like two tectonic plates shifting in the night. It was his writing that had bound Jamie’s world together again, though the spine remained cracked, a few of the pages missing.
The third time occurred just last week though Jamie was not entirely surprised. It’s what happens, he supposes, when you build something on uneven ground. Physical presence—someone’s here-ness—does not equate to love.
Nine years after the second earthquake, a new person had come into Jamie’s life. She would stand in the doorway at 6:30PM, jump to her tip-toes to welcome him home. There would be steam from the stove, and utensils would gleam in perfect, shining order. Napkins would wait with their patient folds, each prepared to catch the food that she, his ever-present Laoghaire, had prepared during the day. And for those three years, Laoghaire’s toothbrush had sat next to Jamie’s, her silks hanging beside his cottons. Evidence, he had thought, that he maybe-almost loved her.
But then Laoghaire had grown curious—“Why’ve no made progress on yer novel? What are ye writing all day if it isna yer third book?”—and stuck her piglet nose into places it did not belong. She, in a rare moment of ingenuity, had unlocked the safe and found his letters.
And so this time, Jamie’s world had not ripped or split—but exploded with a thousand sticks of paper dynamite. Laoghaire had burned through the house, burned through the letters. She’d called the magazines and the bloggers, vowing to tarnish his reputation with lies: cheater, drunk, lunatic, fraud. Finally, she’d left, taking the napkins, the cutlery, and the toothbrush—but leaving the embers in her wake, smoldering. A few scraps had avoided the fire, and Jamie read them as the night rose.
My da once told me I’d know straight away, that I’d have no doubt. And I didn’t.
For so many years, for so long, I have been so many different men.
The love of you was my soul.
Come home, my heart. I am not as brave as I was before, Jamie
On and on and on they went. Singed pieces of his letters. Every one meant for The Girl who’d confronted his darkness, had rescued his heart at a Christmas Eve party.
4,380. One letter for every day he had missed her.
The Killing Girl, 2006
Starring Claire Randall*, Henry Beauchamp, Julia Beauchamp, Quentin Lambert Beauchamp, Frank Randall (and The One Person)
CLAIRE RANDALL* , resident at Boston GH, was five years old when she thought she was murderer. For years, she could hardly sleep, fearing not the monster beneath her bed, but the one beneath her covers.
Instead of counting sheep, she’d recounted facts as they’d been reported in the paper: Henry and Julia Beauchamp, parents of one Claire Beauchamp. Their mangled car, and a rocky deathbed set one hundred feet below. Both husband and wife, father and mother—dead upon impact.
Rarely, did this guide Claire towards sleep, and so she began to picture the accident as she’d recorded it in her diary. The same story, but more accurate—one that played behind her eyelids as if she had watched it all, a spectator on the road’s shoulder.
There was her parents’ blue Ford ribboning the cliffside. The low hum of conversation and the static of the radio. There was Claire’s goodbye before they left—“You always go without me! IhateyouIhateyou!”— which followed her parents and pushed them off the edge. She was sure it was her words that had broken her mother’s neck, had snapped it like a flower’s stem. One Claire Beauchamp, the little killing girl.
Five years passed before Lamb had found her in the courtyard, weeping her guilt into a mat of grey feathers. She had confessed to her five-year old anger then; how she’d pried open the rocky mouth and dropped her parents in.
“Death doesn’t move according to reason, my dear,” Lamb had said, “but only chance. And by no fault of yours.” He had patted her on the head like a priest grants forgiveness, and they buried the bird in the Nyungwe Forest. Wings and Claire’s blame laid to rest beneath the trees.
Still, Claire likes how accountability sets her world—so wracked by coincidence—back on its axis. Responsibility, however false, is easier to accept than the fickleness of husbands, of dead parents, of love and life. She assumes the role of the guilty to feel a sense of control, like she herself is in charge of the scale’s tip. And so:
It was Claire’s fault that the frost returned in May, all her marigold suns snuffed out.
It was Claire’s fault that the infection took the wound, gnawed the patient’s flesh so that a saw had to chop the bone.
It was Claire’s fault that midnight voices chirped down the receiver. The girls’ lovesick pleas—I need you. I love you. Leave her.—placed in Frank’s pockets by Claire’s own hands.
And of course, it was Claire’s fault that things had ended as they did. The final fight, every bit of hate, hers to claim:
“I am not an idiot, Frank! And I’m tired of being made into one.”
“Darling, you aren’t an idiot. I never said you were an idiot.”
“Don’t bloody ‘darling’ me, you bloody cad.”
“Truly, I am.”
“So that’s it, then? Just ‘I’m sorry.’ No excuses? No begging-on-bended-knee?” (Claire had scoffed. Her laughter, like the paring knife that guts the beast.) “No, of course not. Begging would be too embarrassing for you. Too much effort. All your energy is spent chasing skirts and quick fucks. You selfish, disgusting man.”
“So I’m the only selfish one here, is that it? Just me?”
“You’re saying that I’m selfish?”
“Yes, you, Claire! You, who is always working and never here. You, who sleeps with his books under our mattress, still wears the man’s goddamn ring on a chain. Like a fucking noose around our marriage, from the start.” (Claire had winced; Frank’s knuckles had cracked the wall.) “No, I’m not selfish, Claire. I’ve shared you with another man for thirteen years.”
“So I see you’ve lost all sense, but still have some fucking nerve."
“Cursing doesn’t improve your argument.”
And thus, it was Claire’s fault that Frank had whispered, “You’ve never looked at me. Not once, not really.” And it was her fault that he had grabbed his keys, slipped into the blizzard and into his car.
And it was Claire—Claire, Claire, Claire—who became the ice that hissed against tires. Who launched Frank’s body through the glass, turned his skin purple-blue and the snow dark red. Her fault that the last thing she’d said was “go”, and Frank had taken her at her very word.
All of this, she has put upon her shoulders, for its burden is lesser than the truth: that she has no control, never did and never would. Claire is forever held at the mercy of a capricious gravity—she and everyone else, a little bit helpless. Always.
But there was One Person, she often remembers, who had given her a kind of foothold. On their wedding night, she had whispered about her mother’s flower neck, about the grey bird whose wings she’d given to the Nyungwe. And he had understood, promised forgiveness for whatever wrongs she had and would commit. “Real or imagined, Sassenach” he’d said into hair, “Already forgiven.” They had spiraled through life, the pair of them, both a little bit helpless—but everything shared.
But of all of her false faults, this is one Claire fears is true: that she is the reason The One Person is not here, but some 3,000 miles away. She was, after all, the one who had packed the suitcase and caused the gavel to fall, Divorce.
All her fault: Claire Randall. The guilty one, the killing girl, the widow. Spinning and spinning into empty space, grasping at stars, alone.
*[Note from director: Ms. Claire Randall has requested we change her name to Claire Beauchamp. Please reprint with this correction ASAP. Thank you.]
Point of Convergence, 2007
Starring Jamie Fraser (The Author, The One Person), Claire Beauchamp (A More-Than-Flash Of Someone-Else, The Girl), Geordie Gibbons
JAMES FRASER does not like to disappoint. It is his greatest fear, seeing someone’s face pull, twist, and finally droop into an expression of discontent. Even worse: when the expression is given a name, “I’m so disappointed in you, Jamie.” And worst of all: when the name is given by his agent, Geordie Gibbons.
One of the most important days of Jamie’s life began in anticipation of such disappointment. He had twiddled his thumbs beneath a table, dreading the moment Geordie’s fedora ducked beneath the restaurant’s eaves. The wait staff had milled around him: A waiter dashed towards snapping fingers, the hostess offered towels for rain-soaked heads. He’d felt jealous, watching them, of their readiness—how they could be so effortlessly on time. Jamie couldn’t even manage to meet his deadlines, the desk calendar at home flipped far beyond the designated X.
Jamie and Geordie were to have “lunch” and “catch up”. This would, inadvertently, devolve into an interrogation about Jamie’s third novel, which was nothing more than a series of working titles. It was a pattern, this lateness and lunching, never changing despite the demands and promises made by both parties. Geordie would remove his hat, exposing the frown previously shadowed beneath its brim. Their food would be served—Jamie, something yeasty; Geordie, a taxidermist’s culinary experiment—and Jamie would choke down a side of his agent’s disappointment. Eventually, they would part ways, and Jamie would return home, knock out a few pages. Turn in a shitty draft the next morning for the sake of postponing a second “lunch.”
But on this day, the universe had shifted; the pattern broke. Jamie had continued to sit there, all sweat and nerves, but Geordie’s fedora, the interrogation, and the food never came.
Because while Jamie had waited in the restaurant, CLAIRE BEAUCHAMP was arguing in her bedroom mirror: Claire vs. Claire, Head vs. Heart. She was thousands of miles away in a Boston apartment, but still—the tremor traveled, pushing a storm across the Atlantic, down the Royal Mile, to Jamie. The trajectory of his day and his life had changed as Claire gesticulated wildly at her own reflection.
So at 12:14, Jamie had been alone, Geordie unusually late for a man so fond of punctuality. He read the menu three times, settled on a whisky. Thought better of it; ordered two.
At 12:30, Claire’s battle had still raged, no victor in sight. The thunder had shaken the house, shaken the mirror on the wall.
At 12:46, Jamie had condemned Geordie, then deadlines. Art, he’d fumed, was beyond time, existed outside of it. He had ordered a third whisky when a wine spill was wiped up, gone before it had the chance to leave its mark.
At 12:48, Claire had moved to the kitchen. Both armies were advancing quickly, charging into the living room, to the yard, back to the living room, over and over. She and herself, it seemed, had reached a stalemate. Head and Heart had squatted, dripping rain, and awaited the other's surrender.
At 12:50, Claire had paused and looked through the window. She caught a glimpse of her garden, reborn and thriving despite the storm, and the sight of the marigold blooms did not reveal an emptiness inside her. She felt, for once, happy. Her Heart had stormed her Head’s walls, then, the gates of decision giving way.
At 12:51, Claire had opened her scrapbook, a secret once kept from Frank. It was filled with bits and bobs: a piece of bubble wrap, a bell from her holiday sweater. Both of them glued beside old polaroids. Again, she did not feel her Heart stutter, but expand; lift straight out of her chest. A full siege after that. Her Head’s weakest men fell beneath the lash of artery whips.
At 12:52, the end was near, and Claire’s Heart marched to her computer, hunted through years of mail. Its trophy had laid buried in a folder—one message with twelve digits—and the battle, at last, was won.
At 12:53, both Jamie and his phone had buzzed. The door opened, letting in the air. It had smelled of wet soil, earthy and ripe. Familiar, like a ghost’s kiss on the back of his neck. He put the phone to his ear, and…
At 12:53:05, he said, “Jesus, man! Where are ye? I’ve been waiting nigh on 50 minutes!” There was no response.
At 12:53:08: “Did ye get caught in the storm? Are ye calling from a pay phone?” More silence.
At 12:53:13: “Hello? Anyone there?”
At 12:53:20: “Geordie, man, is that you?”
At 12:53:25: A deep, shaking breath. An audible gulp. Claire’s Heart whispering its victory song.
12:53:26: “It’s isn’t Geordie.”
12:53:27: “It’s me.”
And at 12:53:28, everywhere, suddenly—the brightest sun.
[December 24th, 2007]
When another deadline flies by, Jamie is flying at 10,000 feet, Boston-bound with a mouthful of pretzels. He can almost see Geordie in his Glasgow office, fat fingers typing misspelled threats into a text: droppING representaton, beach of contract. But no matter. How could anything matter, when the sea is a sheet of blue glass below? When a woman—his woman—is waiting for the sound of his knuckles on the other side of her door?
Later that evening, Jamie’s rental pulls up outside Claire’s home. He does not move from his seat, but waits, wanting to see what fragments of life he can snatch from the trees, or the waft of peanut butter from the swaying pinecones. The house is large and painted brick, with a mismatched patch of white above the garage. Roman Column instead of Lily of the Valley. (He imagines a man, Frank, on a ladder; Claire looking up, shielding her frustration from him and the sun). The grass is freshly cut, and Jamie knows that if he wanders to the back, he will find a garden. Marigolds sleeping until spring.
Jamie thinks, with a certain sense of awe, This is the place. This is the place and that is the yard and that is the door. Inside, there is the kitchen where she has eaten breakfast, the table where she’s done her taxes, the mirror that has fogged with her breath when she leans close. (He remembers being that close, once.)
Finally, he gets out of the car.
The slats of thin metal clank when Claire pulls at the blinds. She sees Jamie striding up the pathway, looking as impressive as he does on glossy paper, or in the intricate webbings of her late-night brain. She smooths her curls and her skirt to tame whatever has burst inside her. (Loneliness, that old friend—just a puff of smoke.)
The first thing Claire says when she opens the door is, “You broke your nose.”
There is no intonation at the end, implying doubt, or criticism (“You broke your nose.”). Rather, there is only quiet evidence that Claire has not forgotten, still knows Jamie and the once-sharp bridge of his nose, through and through.
And Jamie, seeing Claire, says, “Aye, and you’ve gone a bit gray.”
Similarly, it is not a question or an insult (he thinks she looks wiser, wants to see what she’d look like in all white), but merely a quiet recognition that time has passed, they are older, and he does not care.
“I’m assuming there’s a story to go with it.”
Claire squints, trying to mine the details from his face. The possibilities: a horse, riled by the teeth of flies. An angry lover, whose palm soars, her heel shoved outwards and up. It’s unsettling, almost, how Claire can only fill these blank spaces with assumptions.
“There’s always a story,” Jamie says.
With her face pinched this way, Jamie can read the years in the crinkles of her forehead. He sees the spot where the furrow is at its deepest, the place where she probably wonders, “What other parts of you have broken?” He wants to put his lips there, tell her about every splinter and fracture without speaking them aloud.
Claire’s eyes travel downwards until they sparkle. Apparently, she has found something in the cut of his jaw because she puts a hand to her chin, saying, “I’m going to assume…an unfortunate encounter with a mountain lion? No. A bear. A grizzly. Are there grizzlies in the Highlands?”
“Nay, unless ye count Rupert,” Jamie replies and, as if on cue, a roar comes from a nearby porch. A man staggers towards an idled taxi, all hairy haunches and pale flanks in the streetlight. “Merry Christmas!” he shouts to no one, voice ringing with booze. He draws up when he spots Jamie and Claire across the way, and his lips are spit-shined when he puckers them, cooing, “Now kissssssssssssss!”
Jamie laughs quietly, so that Claire must work to hear it once the engine putters awake. (When she moves a bit closer, she does; decides it is still the best thing she’s ever heard.)
“Well, there appears to be a small population of them in Boston,” she jokes. “Now’s your chance. I’ll hold those flowers while you two go at it.”
Christ, he’d forgotten the flowers.
“Thank you,” he says, placing them in her arms (the pulse of an old grief when she cradles the roses). “Make sure ye dinna crush them, mind. The woman I’m taking to dinner wouldna appreciate crushed flowers.”
“Better crushed flowers than a crushed date. Not much you can do with that.”
Whether either of them realizes it, the four feet between them have become one, and if Jamie were to extend his arm, he could wrap it entirely around Claire’s waist. Instead, he jerks his head towards the car, and she follows him.
“But if a ghastly beast did break your nose, I’d love to hear about it.”
“The story’s not as exciting as all that,” he replies, opening the passenger door, taking an extra second to admire the clumsy way she ducks inside. “Just a rugby match against the Mackenzies.”
“Beasts enough,” she says, once he’s in his seat. “Was it worth it?”
Already, the new-car smell has been replaced by hers: that fertile spring scent, moss and rain and opening flowers. Jamie rubs his nose and wonders if, after all these years, Claire’s green thumb would set it straight by simple touch. Crunch, click, wholeness.
“A broken nose in exchange for Dougal on his arse, doing the splits for all king and country? Worth it, I’d say.”
“Oof.” Claire cringes. “Think I could die happy without that one.”
“Aye, there’s a few other things I’d rather see…” Suddenly bold, Jamie lets his words become a suggestion. A flush blooms across Claire’s cheeks as she reaches toward the dashboard.
“Easy there, lad.”
Jamie notices how her fingers waver in the air, seem to yearn for the knob of his knee. But Claire freezes, suddenly self-conscious, and only turns the radio dial. When Joni Mitchell sings through the speakers, she hoots, “You’re still listening to this stuff?”
“Always,” he wants to say.
“Better than what’s on nowadays,” he says instead, tapping the cracked CD case on the consul. “And my iPod broke.”
“Broken nose, broken iPod…” Claire looks out the window and hums. (What other parts of you have broken?)
It’s as though the music is dragging them from Jamie’s car, pushing them into a crooked Edinburgh flat where a needle crackles and the record spins. The soundtrack of their newlywed bliss, “Blue”—forever playing in tune with the creak of their cot, the groan of the pipes behind their heads. Lying awake at night, they had dreamt aloud of the 70’s—of history—believing they’d both been born late, two souls adrift. (“If you could be anyone, who would you want to be?” they had asked each other. But whatever time or place, the answer was always, “Yours.”)
“So where exactly are you taking me?”
“That’s for me to ken and for you to find out.”
“I do hope it’s at least remotely interesting,” Claire replies.
“Jury’s still out. Awaiting yer judgment.”
“Hope you remember I’m a difficult one to please.”
“Not as difficult as ye think,” he says. Another suggestion. Suddenly, Claire remembers bubble wrap and a weightlessness where there was nothing but the flutter between her legs. Jamie remembers her face, gone slack, and her heavy-lidded sighs above him.
“No,” Claire says, “maybe not.”
And when she smiles, it is just as Jamie remembers (the most beautiful, the best thing). He feels himself wrap and wind, like a red string, around her finger.
Jeanne’s, the place is called, a tiny French joint where a glass of water costs $2 and the tablecloths feel like spider silk. It is a short walk from Jamie’s hotel and a much longer drive to Claire’s home, out in the suburbs. Both of them silently agree to ignore the implications of these distances, shunting away thoughts of alabaster shoulders and muscled calves under a hotel bedspread.
“So tell me,” Claire says, their meals ordered, “why this place?”
“You have to promise ye won’t laugh.”
“Promise,” she says (though she will giggle halfway through, a teenager’s star crossed giddiness). “I won’t laugh.”
So this is what Jamie tells her: that he’d once looked up restaurants in Boston, and found this one. That he’d used it as a reference—a stage set in his mind, which he could place Claire easily inside, see her occupy. That, in knowing the menu and the wine list and the painting near the bar, his memory of her could be something more than memory. Something just short of real because there she’d be, ordering from the menu and the wine list, sitting beneath the painting that he’d memorized from the bookmarked Yelp page. (This, Claire understands. It’s why she used to read the articles, why Frank shredding her collection seemed like the greatest theft.)
There’s a synchronicity to their movements as they eat. When Claire reaches for the salt shaker, Jamie’s hand is already there, passing it to her. And when Jamie spills his whisky, Claire is already advancing with a napkin, blushing as she grazes his lap and feels a hardened promise in his trousers. At one point, there is a crumb at the corner of Claire’s mouth, and Jamie does not feel shy about telling her it is there, about flicking it away with his finger (but God, does he wish it was his tongue) when her own cannot seem to find it.
They talk about everything: Sorcha the horse, the online forum, Laoghaire, Frank. The random moments when they were reminded of each other: a particular slant of light on a penny, a navigation system set to British English. They smile, they laugh, and begin to think that a span of fifteen years is no significant thing. No time at all.
But for all their honesty, they are skirting around the great, fat elephant. It squats in the middle of their table, fattening itself on the bread basket, until it grows too large to ignore. A breathing wall that Claire considers hopping, sticking one brave limb over the edge; testing, testing. Are ye sure about this, Claire?
Their conversation halts when a fight breaks out beside them. A couple, much younger than they, lips curling with their fists. Everyone—Jamie and Claire included—braces for the smack of a cheek or the slosh of drink, but a waiter intercedes and guides them out. The combatants rush into the night, huffing a trail of hate that only lovers know.
Claire seems to wilt then, her shoulders and eyes lowering. The last bite of coq au vin is left untouched.
“I suppose we should….” She pauses, bullying a lone mushroom onto the table. “We should talk about some things.”
It is then that Jamie realizes what is to come and that—no matter how hard he wishes it wouldn’t—it must. He straightens himself in his chair, gives a noncommittal, “Mmm.” And only after Claire’s lips tremble does he realize his mistake: like so many years ago, he has not said the right words.
“Ironic,” she says. “You seemed to have a lot to say about it in your books.”
He stares at his plate.
“You’re not going to say anything?”
“Not here, no.”
Jamie’s gaze falls further, to the floor. The hardwood is darker than in the pictures, he thinks. More mahogany than chestnut. Suddenly, he feels betrayed, like his picture-perfect stage was built from rotten planks all along.
When he finally looks up, he sees Claire’s empty chair, spots her back as she spins through the revolving door.
“Wait!” he shouts (A word! A word!). He slams $100 onto the table and weaves his way to the entrance, rattled nerves rattling wine glasses. Once he’s outside, he finds Claire leaning against the building. Eyes like smothered coals in the full dark.
“Don’t say it,” she barks, so fiercely, that he shuts his mouth. “You don’t get to say that. Not yet.” (He had forgotten her fury, how her tiny body could hold so much of it, wield it carefully or recklessly whenever she wanted.) “You know, I’ve never heard you say her name since that day.”
Jamie thinks his gut has been sliced open. Believes that, if he looked down, he would see his liver, his intestines, his kidneys—a collection of his organs—soaking into the sidewalk. Streams of his blood trickling into five letters.
No, he hasn’t said it. Can’t.
“Of course I remember,” he grumbles.
“Then what else do you remember?” she asks, but she gives him no time to respond. “Do you remember that morning, Jamie? The half-empty church? The too-full cemetery?” She shakes her head, laughing. “No, you wouldn’t, would you? Because you weren’t there.”
“How was I to know what to do?” he yells, his own grief-rage pouring out. “I was 23, just a kid!”
“And I was your wife. You know, that person whose side you promise to stand by? But you weren’t standing by me, Jamie. You were in a bloody prison cell.”
“I did it for you. For her! We had no money, and I thought—”
“Which part did you do for us? The prison part? The not being at the funeral part? The let’s-just-make-another-child-and-things-will-be-better part?”
“Jesus, Mary, and Bride. I’m trying to explain myself so that you can understand, if you’ll only give me the chance.”
Claire takes a staggering step forwards, drives her index finger into his chest. She cranes her neck to look at him, unafraid. “No, I want you to understand first. I want you to understand what it was like, standing there, surrounded by “Beloved Mothers” and “Devoted Fathers.” All these people who’d lived long enough for that kind of stuff.”
She whirls away again, caught up in memory.
“And the priest, the damn priest! Jamie, he couldn’t even say your name right. Faith Eraser. Like some sick joke. I didn’t know who I hated more. Him, for not being able to pronounce it right. Or you, for having that stupid name.” She pauses, catches her breath so that her words don’t break when they hit the air. “In the end, I remembered: it was you who I hated more. Because at least the priest was there.”
“You’re the one who left. You’re the one who didn’t even try.”
“I tried. I—”
“Nay, give me just one second, because I think you’ve got it in yer head that ye somehow own this grief. The grief of—” He swallows. “Of Faith. But ye don’t. Ye werena there when I finally took the crib down, or when I brought all the wee clothes to the charity shop because I couldna look at them. I pretended—Christ—I pretended they were my niece’s because I couldna allow myself to think I had a daughter. That I was ever a father.”
“You were a father. You still are.”
“Aye, I ken that now,” he says. “It was too painful, though, at the time. To think of what I had, to remember what I’d lost. And then there were the phone calls, all the questions: Where’s Claire? Is she all right? When is she coming back? The worst of it all, really, because I didna ken the answers. Wasna sure you’d ever come back.”
Claire looks down, but he can see the beads on her lashes, the thin stream flowing down her neck, inside her collar.
“Why did ye leave? How could ye leave?”
“I don’t know,” she whispers. “Back then I thought I did. You couldn’t look at the crib or the clothes? Well I couldn’t’ look at myself, or you, without seeing her. Remembering everything: how she felt, what she smelled like. What it was like to hold my entire heart in my arms, just for a moment, and then watch it break.”
(She wants to tell him about the butterfly ears and about the sheets—Please, please just to remember—but is afraid of them, even now.)
“The day I came home, she was everywhere—on the walls, in the little flower mobile—and you weren’t. And then when you were, I would look at you and there’d be a split second, just a blink of time, where I’d forget. Because how could she be dead if she was still there, in the bones of your face?” Claire is sobbing now. Streaks of mascara under her eyes and snot from her nose. (Grief: such an ugly, ugly thing.) Jamie steps forward, waiting for her to shrink away, but she doesn’t. Welcomes his arms. “The moment after that—where I remembered again—was more painful than anything else. Y-y’know?”
“I understand, Sassenach. I do.”
“I’m sorry,” she says softly. “I—I don’t think I should have left. Jamie, I really shouldn’t have left.”
“I’m sorry too. And I wish you hadn’t.”
“God, we fucked everything up, didn’t we? Made a real fucking mess.”
“Aye, perhaps we didna do—or say—the right things. But it’s nothing we canna fix.”
Claire’s laugh is mirthful when she says, “Fix? How can we ever be the same?”
(Jamie was asked a similar question, years before, in a cabin up in the Grampians. He had doubted it too, then, thinking of nothing more irreparable than a speechless husband, a fleeing wife, and a baby who never cried. But that was long ago and before this night, where he is hugging Claire and feeling a ring beneath her blouse.)
“We can’t, Sassenach—but I dinna want to be the same. I dinna want to make the same mistakes.” His head bows, an oath. “I willna make the same mistakes.”
“You’re really willing—”
“And even though—“
“Will you stop bloody cutting me off?”
Jamie’s silence. Claire’s pointed look.
“Oh sorry. Wasna sure if ye were going for a dramatic extended pause or no’.”
Jamie grins, and it pulls at the corners of Claire’s mouth.
“You’ll forgive me?” she asks, then. Shy. “And trust me enough to know that I won’t run off? Because that’s what I do, Jamie. I disappear.”
“And I get too quiet, and I dinna say the right things—or anything—when I should. Too prideful, too ashamed.”
“But you do, eventually. Say the right thing. The perfect thing.”
“And you come back, Sassenach. Eventually.” Jamie tweaks her chin, brings his forehead to hers. “Can ye no’ see it? You are my courage, and I am your conscience. We canna be whole if yer no’ here to bring the words out of me. If I am no’ here to bring ye home.”
Claire rubs a sleeve across her eyes.
“Bloody writer,” she chokes, and he kisses her. (A second passes where they are 21 and 22 again, two young things dashing through the streets of Edinburgh. All this life ahead of them.) When Claire tries to break apart, he keeps her to him as if wanting, somehow, to fall into her.
“Are you going to write me into your bed tonight?” she asks, breathless.
“Is that a proposition?”
“Merely the question of a curious reader.”
“I thought I might drive ye home first and see where the story takes me. Dinna like working from an outline.”
“All right. Spontaneity’s nice. I like a good plot twist.”
“Are ye ready, then?”
Claire reaches for his hand, and he gives it to her. Jamie squeezes, she squeezes back. She leads him toward the car. He follows, holding the keys and her heart.
“I’m ready,” she says. “Take me home, Jamie.”
(At her doorstep, Jamie will give Claire a Christmas gift: a vase wrapped in old hopes, tied up with a sweater ribbon. Because of this, she will say, “Want to come in?” and will allow him to shuck his shoes on the rug, kiss her in the moon-drenched foyer. It will be immediate—the dissolution of their separate mouths and the resurgence of a familiar knowledge—once Jamie’s shirt parts and Claire’s skirt drops. Blue stripes and liquid gold on the floor.
She will let Jamie lay her down—gentle, so gentle—in front of the fireplace. And Jamie will bend—reverent, so reverent—and lick the pale tributaries of her inner thighs, inching towards the most tender part of her. “Please,” she’ll say, and he will make her say it again.
There are old lines. Ones they will know, remember as a soft curve or a particular bulge of muscle. Theirs to re-meet, reclaim and own.
There are also new lines. They will cut their teeth on them, tasting each other’s now-bonier spines or the looser skin of their upper arms. Jamie’s hands will still be larger—so much larger—than hers, and he will grasp the soft side of her knees, spread, and sink. “God,” Claire will think he says, and then wonder if he’d ever prayed in an empty church. Found some kind of grace in religion, as she had done, during those lonely, intermittent years.
Claire will kiss Jamie’s jawline, remembering that he likes it. Jamie will nip Claire’s neck because he knows it makes her shiver. And they will both be happy when they see that they’ve remembered correctly, that he does, yes, still like it when she kisses his jawline and that she does, yes, still prickle with goosebumps when he nips her neck. Please. God.
Jamie will begin to move faster, pushing Claire up and up until stars fall into her open mouth, then pour out again onto his shoulder. The bite marks there will glisten.
Not long after, Jamie will follow, the fullest kind of breaking. And this time—oh, oh, oh this time—she will hear his whisper. Not “God” at all, but:
And maybe, she will think, her cheek finding his steadying beat. Maybe this is what God is. The sound of your name in a lover’s mouth. Your face inside his heart.)
A small detour into Claire's childhood; Jamie and Claire's second wedding.
Claire has few memories of her mother, and those that exist are only half-formed. Hardly memories at all.
Small blips of sight and sound and smell. Directionless aches in the night, skin raised to gooseflesh by a living darkness. Sometimes there is a vision of two fine-boned hands, their fingers playing the air with passionate arcs and flutters. At others, there are emeralds winking from pale lobes, and a whisper of bergamot on the stretch of neck below. Baby, a voice says, so clear but distant, it’s only for one night. We’ll be back before you—
Among these, however, there is one that is complete. It is something Claire parades at dinner parties, a piece of trivia that reduces her childhood to the first five years of her life. No funerals, no suitcases. No grief hollowing her little, avian bones. Only: Easy.
In this memory, Julia Beauchamp wears a sweater dress and Kork-Ease boots. Her heels are impractical for a stroll through the park, though that is what they are doing—strolling—as they have done every Friday since Claire could walk. It is just the two of them, mother and child, while her father toils in a dark mechanic’s shop, slicked with sweat and sleeved in black grease.
He will return so deflated that evening—“Like my own bloody oxygen pumped the tires.”—that Julia will kiss the moons under his eyes, will regret not capturing the sun. And so the following week, when Claire remembers her father’s tired face, she will produce a drained Dasani and hold it skywards. Autumn seeping inside the bottle and then inside her pocket; the bright November gliding down Henry’s throat over a meatloaf dinner. (He will indulge his daughter, drinking and drinking until the December day where he cannot; where Claire must pour the bottle over a mound of dirt.)
But while Henry tinkers with cars so, too, does Claire’s mother do her own work. Observing, absorbing, and storing the day away—right here, on this park path.
That is how Claire’s one full memory begins: their joined hands swinging, and their eyes taking. Dried leaves; flannelled backs bent over canoe oars. So vivid in her mind, even now.
But when Julia says, “Baby, how about we play our game?” young Claire breaks the hold and sighs.
At this point, it has been two weeks since the death of her four-year old self, a feat for which she feels a tremendous pride. With the simple opening of her palm, she can now present her age—Five! Can you imagine?—without ever bending her thumb. Her parents often overlook this development in Claire’s life, still seeing her as the girl with four wiggling fingers, as the walnut nestled in Julia’s stomach. Baby, Baby, Baby.
Claire waves at her mother, as if to say, Five, Five, Five.
“Silly me,” Julia cries. “What I meant to say was: Claire Elizabeth. An honest mistake.”
The correction is enough to earn Claire’s forgiveness. She huffs a petulant “All right,” though she has been waiting for this all week, the moment when her mother’s words begin to change. Their game, with its stories she only sometimes understands, is the key to a world she is slowly (but surely) approaching.
Claire looks around and searches for their first target.
“Him!” she says, pointing to a man grieving his damaged kite. It lies in the arms of an oak, speared but bloodless, and the protruding branch reminds Claire of summertime splinters. Those little knives of wood, which always wheedle beneath her toes when she dances across the porch, barefoot. (Julia is an expert at removing such splinters. No tweezers needed, just, All better?—and it is. Her fine-boned hands giving Claire’s feet their rhythm again.)
“My. He’s a bit of an odd duck, isn’t he?” her mother says, studying the old man. She tilts her head to the side, as if the angle will reveal the source of his almost-tears, his slumped posture, the very soul within. “Robert! That’s his name. Robert—Owner of Toy Shops.”
Claire giggles with excitement. This has always been her mother’s trick: the divining of lives from the smallest of glimpses. Julia has been known to call it Magic, though Claire has grown more skeptical since the dawn of October 20th. (Magic is, after all, a baby’s word.)
“He’s a recent widower. Do you see how he wears a ring but keeps watching the couple over there?”
Claire does see, and she drafts a mental note for school the next day: Tell Mrs. Heath that Mum is smarter than that scraggly bugger, Albert Whats-His-Face.
“No children either. He and his wife…his wife…” And just as Claire remembers, Einstein! Julia says, “His wife, Susan. Dear, dead Susan. Both turned off by the whole business of childrearing. Susan’s mother up and left when she was only three.”
“And joined the circus?”
“Yes. I daresay she joined the circus.”
“Poor Robert, Owner of Toy Shops,” Claire laments. “Poor Dear, Dead Susan.”
“Mhmm, such a shame. Poor Dear, Dead Susan didn’t stand a chance against those wretched measles.” (At this, Claire’s fifth year gives her a sudden rush of gratitude. For Dr. Rawlings, who once stuck her with a vaccination needle. For her mother, who covered the red dot with a Pooh plaster. All better.)
“But why is he flying a kite, Mum?”
This is a crucial part of their game: Claire probes with further questions, thereby allowing a detailed history to form. No room for doubt when everything is fully realized—just the growing surety that maybe, maybe their guesses are correct.
“I’d wager he’s quite lonely now, and for the first time in his life, he’s regretting they never had children.” Julia’s voice is so confident, that Claire nearly forgets it’s all a game. Almost believes in the name and the wife and the unborn children her mother has given this sad, old stranger. “Flying the kite is a way to…conjure them into existence. A big What if? Rather maudlin if you ask me.”
Claire cannot make sense of these fancy, foreign terms—conjure? maudlin?—or why anyone would fly a kite for their nonexistent kids. Still, Claire nods, Of course, of course, and plans to comb the ‘c’ and ‘m’s of her father’s dictionary. (If Henry were here, he would temper his wife’s candor with a more age-appropriate fantasy; shake his head. Even to her own husband, her mother has always been slightly incomprehensible.)
“Baby,” Julia says, suddenly serious. “Claire. Don’t you dare live to regret a thing. Promise me that if something scares you, you’ll do it.
“I’m not scared of anything,” Claire announces (except spiders and cavities; except Father Christmas burning in the chimney and the night noises coming from her parents’ bedroom). “When Willie Burke stole Jacob’s sausage roll last week, I gave him a wedgie. And he’s two years older than me!”
“A wedgie? God, you are fearless.”
Whenever Julia laughs, as she is now, it is the sound of a goose deep in his cups. Oddly enough, Claire prefers it to the less embarrassing, less recognizable titters of other mums. Should Claire ever lose her mother, finding her would be a cinch. She’d just listen for that boisterous, snorting honk, and—presto!—there she’d be. Boisterously snorting and honking.
“You know, munchkin, you’re my favorite. I’d be terribly sad if I didn’t have you.”
“I think I’d be sadder. Papa never cuts the crusts off my sandwiches.” Claire turns once more to the old man. Her brows, just two brown lines of the softest down, knit together. “Will I ever be as sad as Robert, Owner of Toy Shops?”
“Not if I can help it,” Julia says, smiling. “You’re stuck with me.”
“For your whole life?”
“My whole life. I’ll never stop squishing those precious cheeks of yours.”
“Mum! That would hurt my face.”
They go on walking, leaving Robert and the shade of Dear, Dead Susan behind. Claire’s hand has returned to her mother’s, a granting of all past and future forgivenesses, if only to catch some of that maybe-Magic. Discover if it truly exists.
“Your turn,” Julia says, and she chooses a young boy picking flowers. “How about that lad over there? With the Chinese plumbago?”
Claire keeps her mouth shut, though ideas immediately spring to mind. He is a prince picking a posy for his princess, a wizard whose dragon follows a strict vegetarian diet. She keeps these conjectures to herself, wanting to prove that she is big—no baby! no walnut!—and has adultness growing inside her, like the flowers.
The boy reminds Claire of her runty friend, and so she announces, “His name is Jacob.”
“And what’s Jacob picking the flowers for?”
“They’re for his mum to paint,” Claire says. “She’s a…a famous artist, and she’s the only one who can get the plumbago blue just right.” (Too late, she realizes she has mispronounced plumbago, plumbagel. Feels one of those treasured links to adulthood disappear, alongside the missing ‘o.’) “She eats plenty of Vitamin A, so her eyes see what other people’s can’t.”
Julia smirks as the wind lifts her honey curls, then sets them back on her shoulders. So gentle, like the wind was made just for her, to offer its autumn-crisped affection. (Cinderellas and Rapunzels may not be real, Claire thinks—but mothers certainly are. Beautiful, ethereal, capable of a maybe-Magic. The closest thing.)
“That’s very kind of him,” Julia says. She squeezes Claire’s slippery five-year old hand, and the game goes on:
Under the sycamore lies a former ballerina, who once danced for Queen Elizabeth. Not far from her—“Near the tennis court, see?”—is an American scientist. He has made a profound discovery, something that cooks inside a glass beaker and over a flame. A cure for cancer? The bubonic plague? Who knows, but it’s Brilliant. (Boobonic plague? Claire frets, pitying her mother’s chest.)
And then there is that couple—the same one Robert had watched with such depravity—once Claire and Julia circle back to the gates. The man is dubbed Hal, the woman Minnie. Hal is given a talent for poetry and weather-predictive ankles. Minnie, a mastery of crossword puzzles and a penchant for box-color hair dye (How else to explain that lucent shade of blue-gray?). The pair met, per Claire’s request, in Morocco.
“Like in that movie you and Papa always watch!”
“Casablanca? Darling, that’s perfect!” her mother exclaims, then adds, “Eloped in 1908. A love 65 years in the making.”
This last statement makes Claire pause. 65 years, she realizes—despite her complicated relationship with double-digits—is a span of time much vaster than her own life. She can hardly imagine surviving that long, yet she suspects that her mother, with her maybe-Magic, will do just that. Live forever, slightly incomprehensible and laughing like a drunken goose. (Unfortunately, Julia’s so-called Magic will not prevent the crash that cracks her open. The middle of winter, and the geese a hundred steps ahead; already long gone.)
“65 years? Mum, that’s ages.”
“It is,” her mother replies. “But if you asked them, I’d reckon they’d wish for 1,000 more.”
It’s Julia who takes the final turn, and so Claire shows her a girl by the lake. She is staring out towards the opposite bank, where a boy slices the cold, calm water. Each time he reaches the shallows, he stands, smiles at her until she looks at her lap. His reddened nose and his shaking arms have won something: the girl’s restless fidgets, the teeth biting into the cushion of her lower lip.
There is a peculiar light on her face, though the clouds have stolen the sun and tucked it behind their cumulus bodies. The light suggests something great, Claire thinks. A holy, incandescent secret. It is what gave Minnie’s bouffant its faint blue halo, and here it is now, spreading all over this girl, right up to her ears.
Julia gives her only a brief glance—not even a tilt of her head—before she seems to understand.
“Easy,” she says, and she nuzzles Claire’s scalp. Bergamot and the maybe-Magic filling the kiss. “She’s found her soulmate.”
(On a day in August, Claire wears another white gown, carries another bouquet, and walks down another aisle ensconced by well-wishers. She feels a sense of fear as she comes before her husband, who she is marrying for the second time after nearly two decades. It is, she understands, the fear of a future regret: of doing this again, of not doing this again. And it is this fear that dares her to welcome the weight of the thistle ring, marry this beautiful man at the foot of the altar. Watching her, watching her—so much in his eyes. You break my heart wi’ loving you.
Claire recites her vows, teary with joy, but loud enough to be heard from the gallery. She pictures her younger self and her mother up there, observing, absorbing and storing away the sight of her. The not-walnut, the woman-grown now saying, “I do,” to 65 years. More.
And just as Jamie leans in for their kiss, young Claire notices how her older self is shining from the inside out. That same holy secret, all over her. And Julia, leaning down to Claire’s little skull, says, Easy.
And when Claire and Jamie turn to the crowd, Claire looks to the gallery. Holds her head like that, tilted upwards, as Jamie whisks her down the steps, towards a shower of rice.
Do you see? Claire is saying to her younger self, wanting her to know that there is grief but, Baby, there is Magic in the world.
Do you see? she is saying to Julia, wanting her mother to know for certain—at least this once—that she is right.)
December 24, 2008
Everything is made a miracle by the fact of their togetherness. The banalities—something spiritual.
The way Jamie does their laundry. How his diligence for clean, crisp folds never extends to removing the drier sheets, tangled amongst the clothes. Claire is forever finding them in the armpits of her sweaters, or in the rolled cuffs of her jeans when she dresses in the morning. A waft of detergent—and of her husband—as a white sheet drifts down, brushing her calf like a beloved’s hand. (Familiar; intimate.)
And the way Claire knows terms like methylprednisolone, but cannot win a single game of Scrabble. Rainy days spent brooding over the board, Jamie trying to coax Triple Word scores from her Z’s and Q’s and X’s. “I reckon it’d be quixotic to think the weather will clear for a picnic?” he asks (hints), peeking at her tiles.
More miracles, then: the way her eyes light up. The kisses she will give him for this small act of kindness. Quixotic written by her lapping tongue, and poppies left to bloom on his neck. (They will make the neighbors blush.)
Their home, too, is another miracle, with its wainscoting and butter-leather and Persian rugs. No longer must they suffer the grimy box of their mid-20’s, or the lonely echoes of their own respective homes. Boston and Scotland have been shed like old skins, or if not shed, then at least peeled to the thinnest films.
Instead there is this house and Jamie’s footsteps in the study, and the pour of Claire’s nightly glass of milk. North Carolina lies just beyond the windows, a wild glory whose trees lean close, listening. (Even the universe has grown green-bright with envy, wants to be a part of Jamie and Claire’s love.)
And just last week, they installed heated floors and called a plumber to insulate the pipes. So now: socks peeled off with glee, breakfasts of mouths that taste like sleep and last night’s Colgate. The coffee is brewed too long and the pancakes are left on the griddle, and they burn (and burn and burn).
But even so, there is one miracle that has not come. Their hope for it—the fervency, the sheer constancy of the thing—is shadowed by a fear similar to Claire’s wedding-day stomach. Lying side by side in bed, they worry:
What if it never happens? What if it does?
“We’re so old,” Claire jokes one afternoon, a few weeks into 40. She is walking the tight-rope of Jamie’s spine, trying to usher his stiffness to the surface and away. She remembers her splintered, little-girl feet—dancing in 1973—as she tip-toes up and down, up and down her husband’s back.
Though this ground is more uneven than her childhood porch, she prefers it. No sneaky shards to puncture her once-tender skin. Jamie’s deltoids are here and his trapezius there—a special comfort in her favorite pearl of his vertebrae. She hunts for it, feels its safe rub against her sole, and holds back a sigh. (Suddenly, this seems like the most precious gift, and she wishes, more than ever, that she could offer her own back to two tiny, wobbling feet.)
“Aye, we’re fossils.”
“You could dig us up and brush the dust off,” Claire says, and so Jamie reaches back, swipes his index finger along her shin and licks it. “What would you do if you found my bones? You’re just walking along one day, kilt swinging, and you trip right over my fibula?”
“I’d build a home out of you,” Jamie says immediately. “I’d sleep on yer pelvis.”
“Awfully uncomfortable, pelvises. You’d have more back problems than you do now.”
“But that’s what yer fibulas are for, see. I’d save them for a cane and fuse them together. I think it’d be nice, always having you to lean on.” Jamie groans when she tuns around; Claire’s heels digging in and scooping out his pain. “But that’s assuming you die before I do, Sassenach. Maybe I’ll be the one who starts to go first.”
“I bloody well hope not. That’d be unbearable.”
“But no’ impossible. Me, wearing diapers at age 70…D’ye think you could ye wipe my arse, and still love me afterwards?”
“Darling, I can’t imagine a higher honor than wiping your ‘arse.'”
She is smiling—but only just—as she steps down to lay herself across his body, to shield the life of him.
“And what about you? Will you still love me when I’m blind? I’ll have to get glasses—those big, alien things that make people look like startled bugs or arctic explorers. Like Murdina wears.”
“You’d look verra cute as a spectacled, startled bug, Sassenach.”
“But not an arctic explorer?”
“I’d prefer you as a wee crawlie inside my shirt.”
Claire snorts (a vestige of her mother there, in that unchecked happiness), then adds, “And my memory! Sheesh. A few years, and that’ll be shot straight to hell. Might even forget your name one day. Jack Fraser? Jay Fraser? ‘Ringo Starr, is that you?’ It’ll all be very embarrassing, so please just play along and pretend it’s endearing.”
“Dinna be silly,” Jamie says. “There’s no forgetting me or you.”
(A shame his body is so stiff. More feeling in his back, and he would sense the creep of a premonitory chill. See a far-off but certain future where he must pause, think slowly, in order to make a wife out of the woman next to him. A stranger to him, suddenly, until she reintroduces herself. Jamie, it’s me, it’s me.)
“I suppose you’re right,” she says. “We’re rather stuck with each other, aren’t we?”
Jamie hears the unspoken longing in her words, and he feels it too, somewhere deep in his chest. Let it be this way forever. (Together, beyond death, inside a pair of slanted amber eyes.)
“I meant my vows when I said them, Sassenach. ‘In diapers and dementia…’”
“Oh, is that how it goes?”
“Aye, the Catholics have always said it so.”
“Have I told you that I’m so glad to be stuck with you again? You. Ringo. My two-times-over husband.”
Jamie laughs, rolling over beneath her so that they’re side by side, face to face. Elbows propping heads; Claire’s right leg, straddling. She moves closer, extending her hips—oh, to live there in that cocoon of bone!—and the last of Jamie’s tension loosens, his body freed.
“So nice ye had to do it twice?”
“Better than nice,” she whispers. “Perfect.”
(No matter what, he will always remember this. How two is so much greater than one.)
But while Jamie and Claire joke about their ages, they both know that time is running out. Their baby, they realize, would be a different miracle from all the others—would eclipse even those babies born from more youthful, hospitable insides. And though they have not sat down and spoken plainly as they once did (I want to have a baby), their needing rings throughout the house, spells itself out on the Scrabble board. A baby. Let’s have a baby.
There is an added sense of responsibility to their lovemaking now, which is no less passionate but simply filled with extra care. As if the baby teeters on some fragile precipice, and needs only their encouragement to find its will to live.
Claire has taken multiple tests, all negative, over the past several months. Each time she throws a stick into the waste bin, she feels their chances slipping through her fingers, joining the pile of Q-Tips, wrappers, and tissues soaked in her frustration. She wads up toilet paper shrouds and covers the oval screens, pretending there was no test, no probability lost with the pronouncement of that one thin line.
This time is different though; Claire knows it. It is after Christmas Eve mass, 11:30PM, and she is pacing in the bathroom. Claire has been waiting all day for her courage, to be able to lock the door, hold a seventh stick, and see if her instincts have any kicking, doughy legs. She retrieves the pink box from the cupboard and sits on the toilet. Holds her breath until black sparks are in her eyes.
Tonight, she thinks, is a night for miracles.
December 24th, 2010
The first time Jamie and Claire held their daughter, they knew she would be their last. Not because the delivery was difficult, which it was, or because they opposed larger families, which they didn’t, but because they couldn’t imagine needing anything more than this seven-pound bundle of themselves. Who could contend with the spot on the top of her skull, the feeling of its putty-like softness beneath their fingertips? Or what about the sprout of lash, red-gold wings taking flight from the left side of her left eye? No. There was no room for a second child, or a third—barely enough to contain Brianna herself. (It was true, they soon realized, that it was possible to feel too much. That the physical ache of loving was not a lie fabricated by romance novelists.)
What shocked them more than their immediate certainty were these minute details, these things that were singularly, extraordinarily her. Despite their initial impressions, Brianna was not just a combination of Jamie and Claire’s genes (an uneven distribution; she favored her father), but was a tiny self with her own hungers and thirsts, all expressed through Neanderthal grunts or spectacularly vibrant shits. It was a foreign language Jamie and Claire were forced to learn quickly, interpreting their successes and failures in the perceived tone of her gurgles. The correct translations were scribbled down for future reference, for posterity. (For the simple pleasure of recording something they knew to be finite.)
But Jamie and Claire’s awe has taken other forms in the 15 months since Bree was born. They’ve become the sort of people whose voices rise in the presence of the small, as if their love—so much grander than everything else—has filled them like two helium balloons.
Toys of all shapes, sizes, and noises colonize the spaces left untouched by their adulthood chaos. A plush rabbit maintains a stony vigil over Jamie’s desk, where, after a year of writing more blurbs than books, he is finally working on his third novel. Fatherhood has come like a strike of lightning, an electricity that has set fire to his mind. Nowadays, he cannot put thought to paper fast enough. (Unlike its predecessors, A Rare Woman will receive middling praise, though a flaying review from Jack Randall, a Times critic, will cripple Jamie for weeks.)
Right now it is December, and Jamie’s family—Jenny, her husband, and their two children—is visiting for the holidays. They have offered to watch Bree for the evening, and so a Presidential Suite has been rented, Cinemax has been briefly considered, and Scotch has been spilt on Claire’s negligee. It is the first time they’ve been away from their daughter, and what had once seemed an occasion for exotic luxury—No baby! Hours of sleep!—has become a pity-party fueled by separation anxiety and booze. They have spoken of nothing, except Bree.
“Girl Guides,” Claire blurts suddenly, voice slurred and a passionate fist raised.
“I think it’s Girl Scouts here, Sassenach.”
“Girl Scouts, then. She should know how to build a fire! Make things with her hands, like—like building a stove from a Folgers tin!”
“Is that what they teach them?” Jamie asks. “To make household appliances from cheap coffee?”
“I think so. I mean, they should. What else is Folgers coffee good for?”
“What d’ye think about track and field? For endurance. Both mental and physical.”
“You can’t be serious,” Claire laughs. “Track and field? Have you considered the tiny shorts? The spandex shirt? Boys overcompensating for the fact they couldn’t make the soccer team?”
Jamie’s brow furrows at the thought: testosterone-pumped intentions; young bucks chasing a different sort of finish line.
“Well, when ye put it that way…Perhaps she’s better suited for the chess team.”
They go on like this, sketching the blueprint for a life that will rarely follow the lines they’ve drawn. They do not plan for the extra doors or windows, the secret rooms in which a girl can lock herself away. (Bree will hate running. Hate chess even more. And due to a squabble with one of the Cubs, she will not make it past Brownie graduation.)
Eventual talk of university brings Jamie and Claire nearly to tears—and then to closer to each other, their bodies a temporary security against the future’s unstoppable approach. They fool around for a bit, though their hearts aren’t in it, already too exhausted by visions of Bree in a cap and gown. They order room service and sniffle over a bucket of oysters.
Motherhood has also given Claire a case of maternal hypochondria, an affliction made worse by the nature of her profession. For example: she is suddenly terrified of germs. She has always known they were there, of course—little microbes squirming over every surface—but it’s the sheer amount of them that hasn’t dawned on her until now. Does Jamie realize there are more germs than humans? That they’re outnumbered? That there could be five diseases, right there, on the spoon he is choo-chooing into their daughter’s mouth?
And there are other dangers as well: the sharpness of the kitchen table’s edge, like a shark’s tooth. How a shoe left lying in the middle of the floor is not only an affront to tidiness but could, to Bree’s imbalanced feet, mean something fatal. Claire has bought so many baby gates that their home resembles an animal pen, the three of them treading around their safe, contained quarters, protected against the risk of possible slaughter.
An essay titled “How My Mother Destroyed My Life” keeps Claire tossing and turning for weeks. Could she be the biggest threat of all? She, who is so flawed, so capable of inflicting pain on this precious, impressionable human? (This human who deserves so much more than Claire’s best?)
“Do you think I’m doing this right?” she often asks, whether it’s changing a diaper or preparing a bath. Like the germs, this is familiar territory—as a teenager, she’d had a steady stream of babysitting gigs—but the stakes have risen now that she isn’t changing or bathing a stranger’s child. Now, an error could cost her something. Now, she has everything to lose. (Claire’s fear will only grow as the years go on, and new dangers present themselves: boys, television after 9PM, a left hand holding a phone while the right holds a steering wheel. Fear is, after all, the product of our greatest loves.)
Jamie is patient throughout it all, understanding that this is who she is—Claire, the little killing girl—and that the severity of it will pass. And so when Claire zips Bree’s skin into a Gymboree coat, he lets Claire wail, “Who puts zippers on baby’s clothing, for fuck’s sake?” And when he wakes to find her watching the baby monitor, he says, “Nothing bad will happen, so long as I’m here”—though if fatherhood has taught him anything, it’s that he’s as powerless as the rest of them.
To his credit, Jamie shows none of the apprehension Claire feels. If Claire were a more selfish person—the person she often thinks she is, but is not—she might find this grating, or worse, infuriating. Instead, she only marvels at the way he puts Bree down for a nap, or how he anticipates sudden outbursts of dirty-diapered, snotty-nosed anguish. It’s only in Claire’s darkest moments that she allows herself to wonder if she’s the lesser parent, the weaker link dragged by obligation until someone notices she has always been dispensable.
Late on Christmas Eve, they are sitting by the fire, with the extended Fraser clan already in their rooms. Bree is asleep in the teacup of Claire’s clavicle, whistling a snore through the nose Jamie gave her.
“What is it?” Claire frets, noticing his expression. The fact that she whispers it, so as not to wake their daughter, makes Jamie’s heart crack. “Oh God, have I forgotten something?”
“Nothing,” he says, leaning back into his chair. “Just thinking is all.”
It is in moments like these that he cannot understand why Claire doubts herself, how she can be so blind to the way their daughter melts into her skin, grateful by the purest instinct. And it is in moments like these that he has never loved Claire so much. The spit-up crusting her shirt, her brown curls harried. Still the girl he met 21 years before, but something fuller, something more clearly defined.
“That you’re beautiful. That I love you.”
“Oh,” she says, and the fact that she blushes, when she’d done such unmentionable things to him during Bree’s afternoon nap, deepens the fracture in his heart.
“Stay there, Sassenach. Dinna move.”
Claire does not know that Jamie second guesses himself as a father. That when he volunteers to soothe Bree’s late-night tantrums, he does it for the sake of his own confession, which he offers to the cradled child. Jamie confesses to himself, and to the world, apologizing for the ugliness that will inevitably find its way to her—despite the plastic gates and the reassuring shapes of her mother’s body. (She sees his shame but does not judge it. Accepts it blindly for the fact of its existence, as she accepts everything she is given.)
He tells Bree all the things he feels she needs to know: that there is good, and there is bad, that it is sometimes hard to distinguish between the two. That presidents have been shot, planes have flown into buildings, and that there are people with only a single grain of rice for dinner. Unimaginable unfairness in this place he has brought her into—and he is sorry; he is so sorry.
“Granted, I dinna mean to frighten ye, a nighean,” he says, tracing the curve of her cheek. “Only to tell you as it is. But it’s no’ all bad.”
And so he tells her other things: about laughter, about the sea. About mountains, a horse named Sorcha, fresh snow. About presents opened on Christmas morning, forbidden fistfuls of Cap’n Crunch. He tells her about light-up sneakers, pizza, peanut butter (improved by chocolate), fuzzy socks, books, thunderstorms, bouncy castles, sparklers, a dog’s tail-wagging hello, buying your first car, having your first beer, having your first kiss, meeting the love of your life.
Meeting her mother. Loving her mother. Her mother.
And this brings him to the girl who came before, the one who did not breathe, but whom he swears he can feel—sometimes, when looks at Bree, as he is looking at her now (“Like she’s still here, somehow.”) He describes Claire’s holiday sweater: the fit of it in 1989; the stretch of it over her pregnant belly in ‘91. How they had painted the studio with roller brushes, making great swathes of color on the tepid-white walls. Names there, written in shades of—
“Marigold,” he whispers, because he still cannot say “Faith" without faltering. “Everything—even the wee bedspread—was marigold.”
He keeps saying it, marigold, because it is all he knows of this other girl: a name shining brightly in the color of the dead. He wonders if it’s foolish to feel this way after two decades; all this grief for someone he never truly met. (Now, it’s the possibilities he mourns; the conversations, like these, that never were.)
Bree quiets after a time, and so Jamie sets her in the crib. He listens to that snore—the gentleness of it, the innocence—and adjusts the baby monitor for Claire’s 4AM anxiety.
“Tha gaol agam ort,” he says to the daughter before him.
“Tha gaol agam ort,” he says again, to the daughter above him.
(When Jamie returns to his room, he will sit on the edge of the bed and ask, “D’ye think she understands? Or that she’ll remember?”
And Claire, behind him, will know that he is not referring to the moments preserved in his books, but to the finer, more intimate details of their years together. She will recognize this fear, bringing his shoulders to his ears—how new life can cast mortality into a starker, more terrifying light.
“I’m not sure,” she will whisper. “Maybe.”
“I just want someone to remember, aye? After we’re gone. But what if no one does?”
“She will,” Claire will reply, reaching out. “We’ll make sure of it.” And having found him in the darkness, she will slowly bring him towards her. “It’s late, Jamie. Lay your head?”
And Jamie, surrendering to the pull of Claire’s hand, will allow her to draw him into the bowl of her lap. He will rest there, unaware that he need not worry, that his daughter’s first word—spoken just a few days later—will be a garbled “mary-goold.” A shred of remembrance, granted.
But for now he is simply calmed by the pulse of his wife, which burns beneath him, and within him, throughout the cold December night. A warm-blooded memory he prays will never fade.)
Life goes on—quickly, greedily, and with a hunger that brings them to their knees. How to satiate it? How to stop it? They start journals (Claire), write more books (Jamie), do everything they can snag the veil with immortalized moments. If a memory is made concrete, they think—in writing or in a photograph—then perhaps time will have to move around it? Be forced to decelerate? (Time doesn’t care. About them, about anyone. The universal enemy.)
Claire is promoted to Chief of Staff, improves at Scrabble, develops a lump in her breast they believe to be cancer (it isn’t). Jamie learns how to sail without puking, gets a teaching job at Chapel Hill. He is less motivated by the idea of tenure—stability, money—than by the opportunity to stoke creative sparks in others just like him. In the fourth row sits a girl whose essays are colored by the loss of her mother, the grief of it found even in the gray eraser clouds. The boy behind her writes poems of spun sugar, overly romantic but endearing in their sincerity. Jamie remembers them whenever he looks in the mirror.
Jamie grows a beard specifically to impress his students. All of his professors concealed their weakening chins in thickets of hair, so why not him? The new aesthetic receives a positive response: Claire loves its tickle between her legs, his classes seem to find him wiser and mind less when his memory suddenly fails. (A common occurrence as of late, damn it all.) But when Jamie shaves for the summer, he feels strangely guilty—Bree’s expression, a scowl of disappointment in the reclaimed smoothness of his face. (The source of her sadness is revealed a few days later: she’d believed her father was Santa Claus.)
Jamie and Claire watch their bodies sag, widen. They watch their cholesterol, their caloric intake. There is the month-long agony of a shared paleo diet, an experiment which, come July, they decide is the dumbest thing they’ve ever done.
“No carbs!” Jamie crows in disbelief.
“No alcohol!” Claire hoots.
“Did I tell ye I cheated one day?”
“Jamie, you didn’t!”
“Aye, I ate Bree’s leftover macaroni,” he says. “Gobbled it right up, didna even use a fork.”
“Bloody traitor,” Claire says, and they laugh and laugh. Clink hearty glasses of wine as a toast to the old-age blessing of letting go and getting fat. (Jamie will repay Claire under the full moon, to redeem himself.)
For a while, it seems everyone they know gets divorced: a beloved colleague, a woman in Claire’s book club. When they hear the news, they praise their own luck, secretively locking hands before offering their sympathies. Such announcements inspire extra enthusiasm for the “Married” boxes on government forms. And saying things like, “My wife, Claire” or, “Have you met Jamie, my husband?” gives them a heart-swelling high.
It’s only after the Abernathy’s separation that worry niggles its way between them. They watch each other carefully, sousing out possible itches: a desire to flee to a foreign country, a lust for someone whose faults are more expertly hidden. (No marriage, even Jamie and Claire’s, is without its itches. The difference here is that they never want to scratch them.) Jamie is careful about putting the toilet seat down, and he allots himself just an hour of self-pity for every negative book review. Claire does not organize his messy office, respects the calculated disorganization of his shelves though the clutter makes her skin crawl. She keeps the AC off every night that summer, just so she can feel Jamie’s heat next to hers. A way of ensuring that he is still there, sweating himself into their sheets, which will remain unwashed for several days.
Their biggest fight is in September of 2014. One of Jamie’s students begins to show more interest in her professor than in her studies. There are bold advances, firm rejections, a vengeful letter that describes their trysts in explicit detail (strangely, Claire finds the Dear Mrs. Fraser and Xoxo Malva to be the cruelest things of all). All lies, of course, but still Jamie and Claire fight. Feelings of betrayal stew overnight, and Jamie is exiled from their bed like a misbehaving dog, Claire watching from the doorway as Jamie whimpers to the couch. Two days of silence pass—the dean notified, apologies made, and tears shed—before he finally barges into the bathroom, uninvited.
“Are ye going to leave me?” he asks Claire, very quiet for someone who nearly ripped the door from its hinges.
“Jamie, now is not a good time.”
“Because I’m peeing.”
“So ye canna pee in front of me now?”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.”
But Jamie stays there, waiting, fetches toilet paper when Claire’s hand lights on the used-up cardboard roll. She flushes and stands.
“So?” he asks. “Are ye?”
“Don’t be an idiot,” she says.
They throw themselves into parenthood. Bree learns her ABCs, then her multiplication tables, then how to weep so that the dinosaur coloring book secures a spot in their shopping cart. Some innocence is lost after a public mounting: two petting zoo goats, vigorous thrusts, shameless bleats of ovine ecstasy. On the way home, “Where do babies come from?” is asked loudly from the backseat, though Jamie and Claire’s discomfort speaks louder from the front.
“From…from love,” Jamie stutters. “It’s something very special,” Claire adds—though a child is neither the guaranteed result, nor always the aim. They glance at each other, wondering if their daughter’s newfound awareness will require more discretion in the night. (There’s an element of danger to sex now, and the sneaky, moan-suppressing game of it reminds them of being young again.)
When they revisit the subject a few years later, they add such parental wisdom as: Trust is key; you must trust the person you consider doing It with. (Boy or girl, it doesn’t matter, they will love her anyways, does she know that?)
Actually, there needs to be trust and there needs to be protection. A rubber. A condom? Has Bree ever heard of a condom? (Yes.) What? How? Why is she aware of condoms if she is only eleven years old?
She is twelve years old, she is fourteen, she is sixteen going on thirty. Jamie and Claire spend hours looking for an elusive Pause button, the world moving at the same rapid-fire pace. 2015 becomes 2019, then 2022 in the blink of an eye.
They watch Bree join the volleyball team, break her wrist, break her heart. They watch her pinch whiteheads, lust after jocks and platinum hair dye, suck in her stomach before full-length mirrors. They watch her as she descends the staircase in a pair of towering heels, a vision of silk and emerald and such astounding loveliness that they cannot fathom how their bodies made her.
This is the night of Bree’s senior prom, the winds of change in the air. It is ten hours before she will lose her virginity—a three-minute fumble inside a Toyota—to the boy now standing on the porch. (There will be trust and a condom and the first delirious onslaught of love.) The boy, named Roger, looks utterly stunned as Bree pins his boutonniere to his lapel, as if she has driven the needle straight through his tux, directly into his heart.
The couple is herded to stand beneath the sycamore, and to say, “Cheese!” (“Or gouda,” Jamie jokes, having settled quite comfortably into the routine of bad Dad humor.) Jamie cannot get a picture that isn’t blurry, and so it is Claire, with her steady surgeon’s hands, who manages the perfect shot. This is the photo that will hang on the fridge door, while the other—the one taken mid-parental transition—will make the family album. Roger laughing, Bree rolling her eyes at her father’s incompetence. It is a photo that will make Claire misty whenever she sees it. Even ten years later, when she glues their wedding photo beside it.
Still—life goes on. Birthdays, high school graduation, anniversaries. Bree gets into Harvard, Claire becomes addicted to RuPaul’s Drag Race, Jamie chops off his finger while julienning vegetables. Their Cocker Spaniel, Adso, lunges at the pinkish nub, mistaking it for a discarded bit of hot dog. (Thankfully, Claire rescues the finger, and it is transported in a baggy of ice—along with its owner—to the ER.)
Bree spends freshman winter term in Spain and calls home speaking the language, which only Jamie understands. They make it a joke to mislead Claire with outlandish stories, until she eventually catches on:
“Brianna got a tattoo of Roger’s face in Barcelona,” Jamie translates. “Full color, and at a verra reasonable price.”
“I know for a fact that the word ‘tattoo’ has not been used in this conversation,” Claire replies. “I’ve been watching Rosetta Stone, just FYI.”
“Weel, you’ll just have to see the proof of it, then.”
Doubt flickers across Claire’s face.
“You’re not serious, are you?”
“Yes, he’s lying, Mama,” Bree chimes over the speakerphone, and they both start laughing.
“You two are the worst.”
“But you’re the best, Sassenach,”
“Damn right,” she mutters.
November 2028. The year, somehow, is almost over. In one week Bree will come home for Thanksgiving, wearing a Harvard sweatshirt and a promise ring from Roger. Roger himself will tag along, and in the manner of all nervous boyfriends, he will stutter through Jamie’s questions, be all-too-grateful for the distraction of clearing plates.
Claire, away on a 3-week conference, will be back as well. She will serve the turkey with a glint in her eye, daring someone to note how the side dishes seem suspiciously store-bought. The table will only offer enthusiastic praise, lubricating the dry turkey with the chemical-laden gravy and feeding Adso the scraps they couldn’t get down themselves.
Until then, Jamie has the house to himself. He has not been alone like this since the early 2000′s, and his mind becomes unsettlingly untethered by the solitude. He goes hunting, fishing, hiking. He leaves the front door wide open, pours Adso too much food. He forgets his tackle box in the woods and doesn’t realize it’s missing until the sun has sunk. Tomorrow, he thinks.
He attempts to write his story for The New Yorker, but he can’t seem to parse his thoughts into sentences. They buzz around his head like aimless bees, and he almost wishes for a sting, a pricking back to his eloquent senses. (Where is that damn outline he made a month ago?)
Like a teenager, he goes to his bedroom at 3PM, intending to jack off his loneliness. He tries to summon an image of Claire from the last time they fucked (18 days ago!), but there’s nothing clear enough to get him hard. Just a pale throat, the vaguest suggestion of a flower. He resits his phone—he’s called three times in the past six hours—and watches a football game instead.
The days go on. Adso watches him, alert, as if he’s waiting for the final unraveling. Jamie starts five books, returns them to shelves before he finishes. He prepares extravagant meals, stores the bulk of them in tupperware. He eats, he drinks, he sleeps.
Then, in the middle of the night—a smell. It sits on him, pressing down like an angry fist. He sits up. A searing pain that keeps his eyes closed. A sudden constriction of his lungs. An alarm going off and a dog’s yip, the roar of them traveling through a fog, a—smoke?
There is smoke. Jamie falls out of bed and runs, blindly, but there is only heat where the door should be. He feels heavy; he feels light. He feels as if he is rising high above the house and that he is falling down, far down, beneath it. He plans an escape, but there is no synergy between his mind and his movements. He pauses.
Claire. Where is Claire? If he could just open his eyes, if could just breathe properly, then he would call for her, and—
He is on the floor now. When did he get here? How did he get here? The carpet is soft under his cheek, a pillow to go with the blanket that suffocates him. Perhaps he’ll simply sleep and wait for the nightmare—for that is surely what this is—to end. A dream, only a dream.
But he can’t just lie still! There was someone else, right? That name from a few minutes (hours?) ago is on the very tip of his tongue. He wants to yell it into the screen of smoke, but a surge of memory tells him to conserve his breath. Whoever it is, isn’t here. Whoever it is, wouldn’t hear. (How frustrating it is to feel such desperation for an unknown.)
It’s so hot now, unbearably hot. It reminds him of something. Stories. A boy who sucked the spirit right out of his mother, entered the world in a stolen blaze of fire. Another woman whose hands licked him up and down, the most exquisite burning.
There are sirens. There are shouts. Bright beams flash through the black cloud around him. He raises an arm to admire their light on his skin, deceptively playful in their colorful dance and silent song. Pretty, Jamie thinks, and because the familiarity is a comfort, he lets it take him under.
And just like that, in a wash of red and blue—life stops.
Claire was 36 when she saw New York City for the first time. A weekend trip—the city’s dreamers dumped into the dependable wombs of their parents’ basements; the Wall Street scions into the greens of gated Connecticut. Two days that are only distinguishable by the fact that her decisions—to walk in the rain without an umbrella, to buy a Chinatown souvenir—were not shadowed by Frank’s judgment.
For the first time since Frank’s death, Claire was on a trip, alone. She had one suitcase, and a hotel bed to herself. For the first time, she could adjust the thermostat without complaint—set herself to freezing or to boiling, and damn what anyone else had to say about it. She could use every closet hanger, order room service without Frank’s worried appraisal of the menu prices. The dissatisfied cluckover a third, offensive digit.
“I’d like the fettuccine please. With a side of fries. Oh, and a bottle of Chianti. Yes. Yes, the whole bottle.”
It was a freedom that felt fresh when she took a shower (the complimentary shampoo and conditioner, all hers), and which rotted—just slightly—at the sight of the two unused towels. She unfolded them, set one under the faucet, swept a streak of foundation across the other. Better.
Her second and last night there, and it was dark. She drew the curtains, heard the chains clinking as the vertical blinds swayed to reveal the—
No. Not the city she was expecting, but a sudden fog. Thick and impenetrable, even the gleam of the Empire’s spire was hidden behind its cloud. Windows were blurred, merely shapes of half-hearted light inside an apocalyptic limbo. All this blank space where there’d once been buildings, standing cheek by jowl like J-train passengers.
It was, in that moment, an unsettling sight. How could the world vanish without a trace, and she none the wiser? She’d been slurping a bowl of fettuccine just an hour before—when had New York left her behind? When had it disappeared?
Twenty-five years later—Jamie’s diagnosis no longer new, but still a sting—she thinks of this night: the missing city, taken by a thief under a cloak of darkness. It is how she pictures her husband’s brain, the only way she can understand its fickle progressions and regressions: The life erased by a fog she cannot see through, but which dissipates and then reconvenes without any discernible pattern. Claire is there, back in New York City—not noticing her diminishment within it (in the only mind that matters).
She is too blind, too oblivious as the world fades, building by building. Too busy eating a bowl of fettuccine to realize everything she knows is going, going—gone.
They refer to the incident as “the big house fire.” It is an event chronicled between whispering neighbors, fellow parishioners, in the butcher shop on Healy Lane. The story has become a rusted scythe, worn down by every tongue that has remolded it—still slightly sharp, though, under the right circumstances.
And while “the big house fire” does, in just four words, describe what happened—Claire and Jamie’s woodland castle reduced to rubble—it is not the most accurate version of the story.
If they were to tell it, in full and with absolute transparency, they would mention Claire’s flight home. How she’d been tucking into a packet of Oreos when the phone rang, There’s been an accident, and had run out of the hotel without her luggage and her shoes. (She will remember her scraped big toe bleeding into the taxi carpet, until the day she dies.)
The Frasers would also recall how she’d shut the plane’s window shade—how she’d refused to look at the school of shrinking cars. Their ongoing movement, she’d thought then, had suggested a galling lack of compassion.
They would also talk about Bree, just sitting down to a dinner with Roger. Scallops, bought fresh from the market, and Italian wine to celebrate the semester. Their plates, once piled high, had disappeared in their absence, Bree’s roommates picking at the food abandoned for a North Carolina hospital. There’s been an accident.
And if the Frasers were truly brave enough, they would mention the diagnosis: Jamie, aged 60 and patient #123. The candle, which he cannot remember lighting, and Adso, whom he often does not remember owning, knocking over Red Apple Wreath in the night. (A sheet of ice had slid off the roof, startling the dog. Funny, how such innocence can beget such tragedy.)
It was Claire's friend, Denzell Hunter, who had been there first, tending to the burns that had branded Jamie’s back. And it was Denny who broke the news to Claire, the pair of them sipping spiked coffee in his office. The chair, with its one rickety leg, had barely held her when he’d said, We think this is a sign. (The heavy, leaden core of her had grown heavier still.)
“How long before it all goes?” she’d asked some time later, and even though Denny had made to answer, she’d gone on. As if, in the face of something so incomprehensible, clarification could stop the monster infecting Jamie’s brain. “How long before he won’t remember anything?”
“I don’t know, Claire,” Denny had said. A hand on her shoulder, on her knee. More weight to carry, dragging her to the floor. “It’s impossible to say. A couple years, maybe?”
The sound she’d made, then. If someone were to describe it, they might use such words as:
(It was all of these things, at once, and more.)
“Can I see him?”
Claire had paused before entering Jamie’s room, half-expecting the expression of confusion, Who are you?, she’d feared all afternoon. She watched him from the doorway, searching for the evidence she had not seen and which had become its own sort of beast in her mind: Guilt.
But what she saw, instead, was this: Jamie’s same eyes, Jamie’s same mouth. His same voice, saying her name. The same, the same, all still the same.
She whispered, face crumpling, “You’re here.”
And the image of them, then: her forehead pressed into his same chest; his same hand on her shaking shoulders as he says, in his same voice, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”
If someone were to paint it, they would use the starkest, most sterile white. The brightest blue for Jamie’s eyes, somehow made brighter by his tears. A tiny speck of red—blood on Claire’s sleeve, from washing the cuts on her feet.
If someone were to name it, they would have difficulty calling it anything but what it clearly, inevitably, dishearteningly was:
Beginning of the End.
Jamie is sent home a week later. His thighs, patched like a quilt of skin—raw, untouched, raw, untouched—from the grafts taken for his back. All of him, raw as a newborn, and so at odds with the eroding mind inside his head.
Claire’s eyes swim as they drive away from the hospital, and do not spill until she turns onto a certain gravel road. Pure instinct taking them through the trees, past the fallen oak where, on an autumn night, she had finally told him what she’d always meant to. (“I was born for you.”)
Realization dawns in a flood of ghostly sound: footsteps in the study, the languid pour of milk. Flesh slapping flesh, as Jamie takes her over the kitchen island. All of it, a story given to the past tense, now existing in the dust motes floating between the trees. (There was nothing waiting for them at the end of that gravel road. A breath of snow and ashes—only a piece of blue porcelain left unscathed.)
It is then that Claire begins to weep.
“Don’t you bloody do that to me ever again, do you hear me?” she hiccups, the car rolling to a stop. “Don’t scare me like that ever again.”
(He does not say he won’t.)
“I thought I’d lost you, Jamie,” she whispers quietly. “And if I’d lost you, I—”
“You didn’t,” he replies, looking at her. And when she shudders, he feels like saying it again. “You didn’t lose me, mo chridhe. Promise.”
Claire’s hand reaches for his, and so he brings it to his lips, kisses the knuckles, then the ring he’s wrapped there not once, but twice (a thousand times). I’m here. And Jamie does not wince as he leans over to kiss her tears, just as he had not said that she wouldn’t, eventually, lose him. That she couldn’t, eventually, live without him.
(She would. She could. Eventually.)
At some point, they start ignoring time.
Claire, whose career so closely monitors the rhythms of human life, stops wearing a watch at home. The digital clock, which rests on a bedside table, is turned away like a spurned guest. A 45-degree angle now arrowing through the black, its numbers an indecipherable mist of light on the wall.
And for his part, Jamie skirts the church on his morning walks. The chimes, echoing from the stone bell tower, are a reminder of something there will never be enough of.
They recognize this for what it is: denial, out of fear. They are afraid of what they’ll see when they wear the watch, pass the church, if they allow the digital clock to stand guard over their dreams: the digits changing, the minutes out-pacing their steps. And they are afraid—perhaps even more so—of what they will not see: an immobile hand, a blank screen. Time stopped, time run out.
If this is truly denial, they tell themselves, then so be it.
It’s the small things that go first. The plot of a favorite film distorts, then takes the shapes of plots from other, less favored films. The frozen aisle moves with every grocery shop, its location found not by memory, but by the increasing chill in the air—goosebumps down skin, the body shaken. And a childhood pet, though long dead, lives and dies in the span of a single day. The joy and grief of it all, so fresh, that Jamie reaches for a shovel, upends the earth to bury a ghost. (Adso sits at his feet, though it’s a different loss he mourns.)
Eventually, the disease consumes other things. Dates: Is Geordie’s birthday on the 20th or the 21st? Directions: Is their new house on Jefferson Street or on Bond? The inertia of Jamie’s life slows with the disappearance of such landmarks, everyday values made so identical that he does not know where to put his faith, his love.
On an afternoon in July, Jamie volunteers to pick up one of Claire’s prescriptions. It is 2PM when he arrives at the pharmacy, approaches the counter with a tied and twisted tongue. Something about the pharmacist—so self-assured in his pristine lab coat—unnerves him into forgetfulness.
“A Dhia. One second,” Jamie says, fumbling through his pockets. He pulls out the receipt he’s put there and reads the reminder note on its blank side. (He cannot attribute the uniformly written letters or the passionately-crossed ts. His, or someone else’s?)
“Fraser,” he finally says. “I’m picking up a prescription for Claire Fraser.”
This is the first time Jamie has forgotten her—she, who is his world, and who is also half of himself. Suddenly, he is desperate to hide his embarrassment, for an enclosed space in which he can trap his wife’s name to prevent it from flying away. The white paper bag, passed to him and labelled just for her, feels wrong in his hands, now dirtied by the betrayal he has just committed.
Jamie does not return the way he came, but drives. By sunset, he does not know where he is, or how he has come to be along this stretch of foreign homes. Here, there is only the lingering sense of his shame—the very thing that has propelled him forwards, keeping his foot pressed adamantly to the gas pedal.
In a moment of panic, he wonders if one of these homes is his. If that driveway, curtained by the beds of purple petunias, should look familiar. But no, this land is flat—and he has the image of a hill, there should be a hill, he lives on a hill, he is sure of it. (He is, in fact, approximately two miles away from that hill.)
Jamie pulls over and shuts his eyes. Says, Focus. Says, Breathe. These are the recommended mantras, but while they have soothed him before, they are failing him now. The path to the phantom hill does not emerge from his mind, revealing itself, but remains at the end of a dark and winding tunnel. No focusing, no breathing to coax it out of hiding.
To call for someone would be to acknowledge the child he is slowly becoming, and by this fact alone, the action becomes unthinkable. Reprehensible. Instead, he repeats Claire’s name to the silver dollar in the sky because that, at least, has returned to him and stayed.
As if summoned, she appears out of the darkness: her blue Ford now behind him, and she behind its wheel. And this—this car, he knows. Remembers well. The scratch on its left side, from a fallen pine bough. The car seat for a grandchild whose photographs are attached to the visor: a mouth covered in icing, a head grazing a penciled notch on a doorframe.
She approaches, slow-footed, and leans through his open window. It is her smell that reaches him first. Then her voice. Then her face—now floating in front of his—dissipates the remains of his confusion. Finally, Jamie breathes.
“Hi,” she whispers, smiling weakly.
“Hi,” he whispers back.
There is, he notices, so much tenderness in her—despite the circumstances, despite him. Him: a grown man who cannot remember his own address, but who can see, so clearly, the Coke stain on the Ford’s floor mat. And her—a grown woman wearing only her robe and slippers, but out in the middle of the night, to look for him.
“Now I may be mistaken,” she says, “but I believe you’re supposed to inform the seeker when you intend to hide. Otherwise that’s an unfair advantage.”
“I’m just trying to keep ye on yer toes, Sassenach,” he says softly, looking at his lap. (The phrase “remotely interesting” appears from nowhere, but—why?)
“Thank you for finding me,” he says instead, and Claire puts her hand on his arm. “You didn’t have to.”
“Well, I did consider letting your other wife come get you. Oddly enough, I can’t seem to reach her. Must be cavorting with one of my other five husbands.”
They both stifle their laughs, chastised by the quiet and the precariousness of their situation; all that it implies. When Jamie sees Claire’s crooked incisor after she lowers her hand, Jamie feels overwhelmed. By his love, by his gratitude. By his luck that she has found him again and again and again.
“So,” she says, gesturing towards her car, “Finder’s keepers?”
When the Ford pulls ahead, Jamie follows. He keeps his eyes on the silhouette in the driver’s seat—the messy curls, the hand that adjusts the rearview mirror (to see him better)—as his wife, Claire Fraser, leads him home.
Claire familiarizes herself with the facts. They are as follows:
In 1901, a man named Karl Deter admitted his wife to a mental institution. Throughout the previous decade, he told the doctors, her condition had worsened, and he feared he could no longer provide adequate care. The woman’s name was Auguste Deter, and she would die five years later at the age of 56. Auguste’s symptoms— memory loss, mood swings, delusions, and insomnia—would become the hallmarks of a then-unknown disease. It would be discovered by her doctor, Alois Alzheimer, shortly after her death.
During her examinations, Dr. Alzheimer would test Deter’s recall. When prompted to repeat his questions—and her subsequent answers—hours later, Ms. Deiter could rarely remember their conversation. One day, upon forgetting her own name, she had simply stated: “Ich hab mich verloren.” I have lost myself.
In the United States, an estimated 5.5 million people currently live with Auguste’s disease. Of these, only 200,000 are, as she was, diagnosed before they turn 65—the age bracket which delineates the standard cases from the “early onset.” Though advancements have been made in the past century, Alzheimer’s is still incurable. The fatality rate is discouragingly high.
When Claire thinks of Auguste and these statistics, it is hard not to feel betrayed. To not demand, fist raised, for remorse or an admission of error.
And when Jamie loses his professorship, or searches fruitlessly for the misplaced items of his imagination, it is hard to believe that this is where their story has gone. That he, her husband, should be among the 5-percenters and she, his wife, must stand idly by.
And when Jamie—driven by a rage he cannot place—smashes a plate against the counter, it is hard to not to want a piece of that nameless fury. To not take some of it for herself and direct it at their fate, the unluckiest of the unlucky, when there is nothing left.
And it is hard, of course, not to feel hateful when he stumbles over her name.
But then, of course—she loves him.
(Oh, how she loves him.)
While Claire sleeps, Jamie goes to his desk and falls into his chair, eager. This chair, a ratty and thrifted thing, has outlived all the other ratty and thrifted things they had purchased after the big house fire. Its cushioned back, as textured and as worn as his own, never hurts his scars when he leans into it, gazing out the window to the Blue Ridge mountains.
He is here to write and to remember.
But the sentences, which had roused him with such insistence, do not come now that he is waiting, ready for them. They have withdrawn in the advent of his intention, sunken in the murky bog of his disease. Slow, so very slow, to resurface.
While Jamie sleeps, Claire goes to the balcony. A notebook in her lap, a pen that fills the pages. She works her hand into an aching cramp, and it throbs, throughout it all, like a heartbeat.
This has become her usual routine: Jamie wakes, goes to his desk, returns frustrated, then sleeps. Claire listens for his slowed and measured breaths, then rises. That notebook, that pen. That heart, needing more room than her chest can ever give it, forcing itself into her wrist, into her hand.
Not everything on these pages is hers to claim—eggs fried on steaming asphalt, a baby fist pressed to a horse’s mane—but she claims them anyways. An imposition, she knows, Jamie would not mind. And so she takes his stubborn sentences, feeling the pull of her responsibility, and gives them life. Knowing, without having to ask, what needs to be said.
Claire dreads coming home tonight. Her footfalls are made heavier. The wind, more oppressive. Her awful certainty, like a stone in a pocket underwater.
This night, their anniversary.
It is not the date itself, or Jamie, that she dreads returning to. Even the absence of him, that slow but increasing degeneration, is not what keeps her inside the car, so reluctant to climb the hill.
Rather: it is the absence of herself, in him. Her disappearance somehow made complete in the hours she’s been away, at work.
What if, she thinks, Jamie has forgotten? What if she walks into the house and he looks up from his chair, bewildered? As if to say, “Who are you?” As if to say, “Do you belong here?” As if she had not been the one to discover that chair among the third-hand junk—that very chair from which he is looking up, so bewildered?
These thoughts are always on her mind, but they are more pressing now. The 27 years of their second marriage demand remembrance, enraged at the possibility of her nonexistence. More so than ever, she could not bear his forgetting—no, not on this night. Their anniversary.
As Claire walks towards the house, she sees her. Before the porch—a girl, face shadowed by twilight and raised to the sky. By the looks of her dress and unscuffed Mary Janes, she has come here with a purpose, but that purpose has been abandoned for the fireflies around her head. Her small hands reach out to cup the air, willing the constellating lights into the valley of her palms. Two golden flickers descend, then are sheltered. She moves closer, peeking at the light between the black crack of her thumbs, which she widens and narrows, widens and narrows. Awe, and a command: Stay, stay.
“Mandy,” Claire finally calls out, and her granddaughter looks up. That original purpose slides across her face, though her hands—curved in a prayer-like steeple—still hold the light. (She is five years old and beautiful.)
“What have you got there, baby?”
Mandy whispers, “Firebugs.”
Her eyes are those of a mother looking at her child. Like Claire’s own, right now, as she looks at her granddaughter. All this wonder in the evidence of something good.
“You’re not s’posed to go inside,” Mandy says eventually, not lifting her gaze. “I’m s’posed to tell you that. Grampa isn’t ready just yet, but Mom will say when it’s okay.”
“That right? And what exactly is he doing in there?”
Mandy giggles, “Secret.” And quiet again, she says, “Do you wanna hold them?”
“I’d love to hold them.”
“You have to be very, very gentle.”
“You can’t squash them.”
“You can’t let them go until I say so.”
“Okay,” Mandy says. “Okay, okay. Ready?”
And when the bugs have been safely transferred into her care, Mandy hovering at her waist, Claire feels: Wings like timid kisses against her skin. The cloud of her dread, receding slowly. The promise of—what, exactly? (Hope, she thinks.)
“Is that grandma out there with you, Amanda?” Bree calls from the porch. “You two can come in now!”
Mandy ignores her mother, asking, “Do you think they’re married?” then, “They seem to be very, very married to me.” And because her desire is so plain in her eyes, fixed wholly on these things she has come to love and is so unwilling to lose—stay, stay—Claire keeps her hands closed.
“I think you might be right,” she replies, and they remain there, silent on the path, the bulbs illuminating each other’s faces and the night.
(Hope: Even in the oncoming darkness, there are these lights—worth cupping in the palm of one’s hand.)
He is waiting for her in the doorway, smiling.
He has not forgotten.
They move together, swaying and colliding and fumbling. Jamie’s steps are too clumsy, Claire’s overcorrections too extreme—their own bodily melody, so out of sync with the music. They laugh more than they dance, holding each other up as they shuffle around the room.
“Yer terrible at this, Sassenach.”
“You’re the one with two left feet.”
“Two left feet, my arse! Ye canna take a step without missing my toes.”
“Such wonderful toes. How’s a woman to resist?”
Having fulfilled their duties as supervisor and watchman, Bree and Mandy have returned home to Roger. In their wake is an assortment of dirtied dishes (the meals prepared by Jamie), low-burning candles (purchased and lit by Bree), and scattered confetti on the floor (courtesy of Mandy’s decorative genius). James Taylor sings quietly from speakers which, like the rest of the living room furniture, have been pushed into the corner to avoid unwanted damages. On the mantle, a new blue vase sits flanked by a 25th anniversary card—though the five has been crossed out and replaced by an effusive, bright red seven. Apparently, Jamie had told Claire, “the fools at Hallmark dinna celebrate 27th anniversaries.” That’s why, Claire had told Jamie, she “used her artistic gifts to make something homemade.” (Her masterpiece: Two stick figures holding one heart.)
There’s something in the way she moves
Or looks my way, or calls my name
“Did you know,” Jamie says now, still swaying, “that this is the song I listened to after our first night? I put on ‘James Taylor’ after you left, and I couldna stop thinking about you in that hideous sweater wi’ the—penguins, was it? And the wee sparklies?”
“Is that what you’re thinking of right now? Me wearing an ugly jumper in 1989?”
“Aye, but can ye blame me? It’s a hard thing for a man to forget. Verra impressionable. Perhaps offensive.”
“As I recall yours had a Father Christmas with some vomit—”
“It was beer. And maybe a bit of fondue cheese.”
“As I was saying: vomit in his cloth beard. I’ve had nightmares ever since, and they’re all on your conscience.”
“Well, that was my intention, Sassenach. I wanted you thinking of me while you were in bed.”
Claire laughs, kissing the bottom of his chin before he rests it atop her skull.
“I stand by that jumper,” she grumbles into his shoulder. “A bloody good find.”
And I feel fine anytime she’s around me now
She’s around me now
Almost all the time
They continue dancing until she asks, “So what else are you thinking about?” and Jamie sighs.
“A few things,” he says. “One, that I’d like to see ye in that jumper again. Two, that I’d also like to see you in nothing at all.”
“Sadly, the jumper met its tragic end in the big house fire. May it rest peace.”
“Aye, gone too soon.”
“But the second thing—well. I think that could be arranged.”
Jamie smirks, tucking an errant curl behind her ear.
“Mostly though, Sassenach, I’m thinking that I’m thankful.”
“For you. For the fact that there are things I dinna remember, and others that will be lost, too…But that one, the moment I first saw you—I dinna think that will ever go away.”
Every now and then the things I lean on lose their meaning
And I find myself careening
In places where I should not let me go
Jamie begins to sing along, off-pitch but endearing all the same. Claire hums with him, pressed close.
She has the power to go where no else can find me
Halfway through the third refrain, the lyrics—once confident—tumble out of his mouth, muddled. He has forgotten some of the initial sound of her: Claire, drinking coffee on that morning-after. Three Sweet n’ Lows ripped open in one swift tear. I only use two and a half—do you want the rest? And then Claire beside him a week later. The winter-bleached Royal Mile and the squelch of her boots as they passed through Carfax Close. Stay with me tonight?
In the silence, Claire feels something come apart inside her, and so she holds Jamie tighter to staunch whatever is draining away. (Hope, she thinks.) She finishes the lyrics that he cannot.
If I’m well you can tell she’s been with me now
She’s been with me now quite a long, long time
Yes and I feel fine
(Before he takes her to bed, she will ask him: “What if we went back?”)
He finds the notebook five days before they leave for Scotland. One sentence, and already he understands. Claire has placed him here without his knowing, while he sleeps. Joy, anger, sorrow, relief—all of him and all of her, mingling in the space between two lines.
Over 50 pages filled by now, but there are things he feels he ought to add, like: A hand clasping a bare throat, snow all around, and—singing. An invitation directed at his lips, Do you want to come in?, and gold pooled on the floor. Ghosts, too, watching from a church balcony; the acknowledging tilt of his wife’s chin.
With these thoughts in his mind, Jamie takes up his pen, inserts his own truths and imaginings in the spaces Claire has left behind. He tucks each one inside a pair of parentheses, like secrets shared between two people.
(Like gifts wrapped up in so much history.)
Thank you to everyone who has supported this story and left comments! I appreciate it so much :) I hope you've enjoyed it as much as I have!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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.
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