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Authors: Gil Adamson

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The Outlander (24 page)

BOOK: The Outlander
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She lay back down and sighed. She felt hot and kicked the covers off. Then
the cold air chilled her and she rolled over irritably, sweeping the covers up to her
chin. She scrubbed her feet against the linen sheets. They needed laundering again
— damn them. Damn the laundry and the stove too. Her mind ran off on a series of
grievances, which were halted suddenly by the sound of the Reverend's voice.

“What are you doing?”

“Nothing.”

“You're flopping around and grumping.”

“I can't sleep.”

“Well, you're keeping me from sleeping.”

“Sorry.” Mary heard him shift his position on the dry straw
mattress and scrub his knuckles against his jaw the way he often did.

The Reverend yawned and said, “Would it help you if I told you a
story? Do you think I might bore you to sleep if I tried?”

She snorted. “I think so. What story?”

He was silent for a long time, too long, and finally she said,
“Bonny?”

“What?”

“What story did you want to tell me?”

“How about the story of my life?”

“Oh!” Mary said, amazed. “I'd love to hear
it.” She snuggled down and pulled the covers to her chin and waited. And after an
interval he did tell her.

His childhood home had been a family estate, cold and too large and filled
with mismatched paintings and foreign
objets d'art
, an unwanted
inheritance. When money was needed, his father sold a painting. It was that simple. But
the house itself was unsaleable and a burden. His own room when he was a boy had been
lined with shelves that ran twenty feet up to the filigreed ceiling. Every shelf was
empty except for a dozen or so mechanical toys bought for him by cousins and aunts. They
were all placed far too high for any child to reach — they were decorative.

His mother did not live with them, though she would arrive from time to
time with many trunks. She was greeted as a guest, and when she left, the house was
unchanged. The
maids disapproved of her fashions, and when the boy
sat with these girls in their rooms after dinner, they aped his mother's hairstyle
and manners in the mirror, and he laughed.

When the boy was twelve, his father decided it was time for his son to see
the world. Japan, Indonesia, India, Egypt. Unaccustomed to proximity to his own father,
he now had plenty of it. On steamships, in the lobbies of foreign hotels, in carriages,
waiting in train stations, sitting on the steps of temples while his father smoked. In
Cairo, he even sat in his father's arms atop a camel as they drifted along the
reeking streets, the camel's roaring setting the boy rigid with fear, while
hawkers and touts ran alongside reaching up with their wares — a brass bell,
talismans of shell and horn, clay statuettes of unknown deities and demons. One
round-faced and smiling man proffered various mummified human body parts cadged from
pyramids and crypts. A linen-wrapped hand, a foot, a jawbone; all snapped away from
their source like kindling, leaving jaw sockets empty, the dry pipes of bones whistling.
His father admired the hand most of all, and bought it. When they unwrapped it in the
hotel room, the boy recoiled. It looked so plausible — fingernails perfect and
desiccated, the colour of coffee. Wrinkles along each knuckle, a palm whose lines were
almost readable. It was hard and weightless. His father slipped it up his own sleeve,
gesticulating with it:
Be a good boy, Angus, or else
. And then he held it
lightly in his own moist palm and said, “This cost less than a glass of
beer.”

In Japan, Angus had stood in any number of ornamental gardens with his
hands in his pockets, waiting for his father to finish with the girls, watching
whiskered fish slumber in the cold winter water. He remembered monkey forests,
waterfalls, walled compounds with wide latticed doors through
which could be seen laundry hanging.

His father fancied himself a storyteller, though Angus saw him as a liar.
Kindly but venal. He insisted he'd seen an eagle unable to fly away because its
shadow was bogged down in mud, and that he himself had kicked the shadow free. It was
the kind of lie even a small boy sees through. But his father would affect a wide-eyed
amazement and tell these same whoppers to strangers, especially women, who, to the
boy's disgust, always found it charming.

It was on this trip that his father took up the habit of opium smoking. On
the steamship home, he rarely came to dinner, but lay constantly in his rooms, dreaming
with open eyes. Angus was reduced to making his pipe for him, for he could not manage it
himself after the first one, and he would rage feebly from the bed till the boy obeyed.
Back at home, his father ran through his enormous stash, and though he harried every
Chinese person he could find, he could procure no more. He became distant and
melancholy. Before too long, he booked a passage to Indochina, and his son was sent away
to officer's college and told to do well by the family name.

The school had the ridiculous name of Aspiration Academy, and this was
where Angus met Arthur Elwell. There were no classes on history, strategy, or even
mathematics. There was no library. All the boys' books were confiscated at the
beginning of the year and returned, dog-eared, at the end. All any officer-in-training
needed, apparently, was a day of endless athletics punctuated by chapel. They were
taught to run, ride, shoot, and box, and it was in this latter sport that Angus
excelled. Small students were often matched with large ones — for hadn't it
happened so with David and Goliath?
With no taste for pain, Angus
Bonnycastle quickly learned the art of ducking. He also learned to follow his
opponent's eyes. He discovered the soft spots under the ribs; if he hit hard
enough, the defending gloves would slide away from the face to expose the tip of the
chin. Within a year he had worked his way to top boy and was a minor celebrity. Weaker
boys flocked to him, the way one finds a tree in a hailstorm.

And that's when the headmaster challenged him. It was a howling
error on this man's part, and everybody knew it. If he beat the boy, he would look
like an ass. But he
had
to beat him, or where was the natural order? The match
was long and miserable, and it was very close, but it ended with the headmaster in his
trunks on the floor. That night, Angus was called to the headmaster's rooms and
flogged until he bled. Several days later, a rematch was declared.

“I remember very well the announcement at the end of chapel. One of
the teachers made it, and he was grinning. He said God would defend the righteous man.
‘His hand will come down and stay the devil.' I thought about that for a
while. And I decided he was right.”

That night, a few other boys, Arthur among them, snuck into Angus's
room and urged him to knock the old fart's block off. And in the morning, he
did.

Of course, he was flogged again. It went on to a third match with the same
result, the headmaster limping down the hall with a baboon's purple and furious
face, and the boy lying in his bloodstained sheets at night, thanking God.

“Bonny,” the widow said in a low voice, “what was wrong
with that man?”

“The real question, Mary, is why didn't I just lose?” He
chuckled a little, and in his voice she heard unrepentant pride.
“In any case, the semester was over soon after that. The old bastard actually
shook my hand goodbye. I packed my bags and went home an officer. You didn't know
I was an officer, did you?”

“No.”

They lay in silence for a long time, the air so still and cool the widow
closed her eyes.

“Funny how life goes,” the Reverend said and yawned. A raccoon
keened outside the window to its mate, then went grunting away round the side of the
house.

“What happened then?” she said sleepily. But he said nothing.
“How did you become a minister?”

She waited. And soon she heard his sleeping breath.

THAT NIGHT
, the widow actually slept. She lay dreaming
in her bed, her mouth open like a child's. And in this dream her father stood to
his waist in rushing water, fishing rod held high above his head. The sun was sharp on
the corded water, dancing like pennies on a blanket. She saw his thick black shirt, the
stiff collar glinting like metal, and his gaze was fixed on the river. He took a step
deeper into the cold water, gave the rod a gentle tug, another tug. The unseen fish
fought ferociously, the line of its life leading to his hand.

Look at him, Mary!
he shouted.
Look at him!

She couldn't see it at first, then suddenly there it was: the long
refracted shadow raging sidelong, fighting the thing that held it fast. Her father let
out some slack, and the thread chased away along the surface, ravelling free, a harmless
cobweb. She tried to call out but she could not, her voice was frozen in her throat. He
braced in the riverbed and gave the rod one quick, savage yank. The singing line cut the
river's
nap with a ripping sound, and slowly the burdened
line went slack in dying increments. She sank to her knees and wept,
Lost, all is
lost
. Small drops came up in the wind, the sound of many women singing. The
water began to rain upward, slowly, like a woman's hair rising in the wind. A
glitter on the air. The widow lay rigid on her bed with fists at her side, and tears
crept back to her temples, but she kept dreaming. Her father stood in the rising water,
the rod in his raised hand like a sword.

SIXTEEN

THE WIDOW STOOD
by the stove and, keeping as far away
from the scorching metal side as she could, reached with a long spoon into the pot of
rags she was stirring. Each patch of cloth had been folded into a rectangle that could
be pinned to a belt and worn between her legs. She had placed them in boiling water
along with a good handful of precious salt — for purity. She did not need the pads
yet. What her grandmother called her glad tidings had not yet returned, though it had
been . . . she tried to calculate how long. Nine months, then the baby lived for ten
days, then spring came, then . . . but how long had she been running? How long had she
been here, with the Reverend?

She had scrounged upstairs through the trunk under the Reverend's
bed and the various boxes against the wall, finally finding a small drawstring bag full
of bits of cotton cloth, some cut at angles into diamond shapes, some torn into strips,
with various patterns and colours, intended certainly for some future quilt. She had
sorted out the largest pieces, ones that could be folded into the right shape, and laid
them across her knee. She scrutinized the tiny floral pattern of one swatch, the pink
daisies, the wandering green vine. On another, an implausible golden urn, badly drawn,
and
twisted braid — what a monstrous dress this would make.
Where had this textile come from? What had this woman been planning?

The widow held this cloth in her hand, an artifact from some other
woman's life, some other woman's secret trove of useful things. A mother? A
sister? All the Reverend had said was, “That's another story.” Mary
put the textile to her nose and inhaled, but got nothing more personal than the sharp
scent of wood, forests, rain. Whoever this woman was, she was gone. Just as the widow
kept her little Bible, perhaps he kept these things not for themselves but to remember
someone, to carry her with him.

She had put the rest of the cloth pieces away, careful to fold and replace
everything the way it had been, even wrapping the drawstring round the bag and tucking
the end under as she had found it.

When the rags were done, she started water for a bath. She poured two more
buckets of icy mountain water into the pan and watched as tiny bubbles formed at the
metal walls. A thin, resonant hiss issued from it and she blew across the water's
surface to see the wisps of steam dance away. She ran her fingers through her ropy hair
in anticipation. When the water was boiling, she took the pan by its handles and,
bracing her feet well, poured it into the bath. Then she set up chairs about the bath
and hung blankets between and over them to create a small bathing tent, with one open
flap where she could add buckets of water as they boiled.

She ventured outside in her undergarments and big black boots to a patch
of wintergreen that grew near the house, gathered a handful of the small dark green
leaves, brought
them to her face, and breathed in the sharp, almost
medicinal scent. Then she went inside, crushing and rolling them between her hands, and
dropped the fragrant leaves into the bath. Her grandmother had always counselled that
wintergreen chased away consumption and brain ailments. Her father's opinion of
this was predictable, of course: “Your grandmother gets a lot of bunk from
advertisements in the newspaper. If they sell sheep dung to cure rickets, she thinks it
cures rickets. Otherwise, why would they sell it? That's the curse of a generous
heart.”

In the months after the worst of his despair, her father would lie
sleeping in the small ceramic tub, his head lolling back over the edge and a sheet laid
over everything up to his chest so that the young maids wouldn't be scandalized
when they warmed his water. They went away with the buckets, shaking their heads. It was
the kind of shameful thing one expected of the dissolute and wealthy. Her grandmother
accused him of flirting with contagion, for bathing too often would make anyone sick.
She followed a speedy regimen involving a cloth and a bowl of water, morning and night,
and she applied powders and slept in a hairnet.

These memories came back to the widow now with a pitiless candour. She
suspected that her grandmother's best efforts — with both son and
granddaughter — had fallen far short of the mark. Even as her son fell apart at
the seams, all the old woman could do was scold. Inadequate in her skills, antique in
her attitudes, besotted by the opinions of others, other women especially, she had
turned to endless scolding and censure of her only son, and was blind to the unhappy
child who stood before her. Not her child, but someone else's;
not her duty, but she would do it anyway, after a fashion. Mary had been sent off
with the first man who would have her. Her father fretting on the train platform, as if
he suspected where it all would lead.

BOOK: The Outlander
9.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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