Read The Outlander Online

Authors: Gil Adamson

Tags: #General Fiction, #FIC019000

The Outlander (28 page)

BOOK: The Outlander
10.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

“There's a woman present, you flathead.”

“. . . like a hanging man. It looked like somebody hanging there
from the tree. Every night this happens. So one day, he tells his buddies all about it,
but they don't believe him. They're smartarses, like this one here. So he
tells them, he says, ‘If I show you this terrifying, ghostly, abominable sight,
will you believe me?' They say yeah, and on top of that they'll buy him
drinks for a week, which
think they're not gonna do because it
can't be true. So the next night the guy is waiting.”

“Which guy?”

“Guy with the ghost. He's waiting there, and waiting, and
waiting. It's near midnight. Still no ghost. He starts to figure that if he
doesn't come up with a body hanging in his tree, he's not going to get any
drinks. Never mind looking like an idiot. So, like the bright fellow he is, he climbs on
up into his tree and hangs there himself.”

“He hangs himself?”

“No, he just . . . I don't know! He just hangs there somehow!
Anyway, soon enough, along come the boys. And they stop dead in their tracks. They turn
white. They start to shake.
‘Well,' says one, ‘he
told us the truth. There, by God, it is.' ‘Yeah,' said another,
‘but he said there was only one of them. I see
.' And sure as
shit, the guy turns his head around, and there's a body hanging right next to

There was general groaning.

“That's a true story.”

The Reverend handed his glass of rum to the widow. She took a sip and
coughed and took another sip. She had a sudden memory of telling the bird lady that she
didn't drink. She handed the glass back to the Reverend and wiped her lips.

After a long interval, McEchern roused himself in his chair, little feet
dangling. He leaned out and fixed the Reverend with a grin. “I saw a ghost
once,” he said.

“Did you, now?” said the Reverend.

“Why, yes, thank you for asking.”

“You'll tell us about it?”

“Well, I wasn't going to. But now that you all seem so
eager.” He smacked his lips and leaned back in his chair. “One night,”
he said solemnly, “I approached a farmhouse . . .”

“Oh no, please,” said the smartarse, “not this one

But McEchern continued unfazed. “I knocked upon the door. Rap, rap.
Door opens, and there before me is the farmer. ‘Hello,' says I. ‘It is
very late at night and I am far from home. Can you help a traveller who is lost?'
‘Well,' says the old farmer, ‘all I have is that old house yonder. You
can stay there as long as you want to. No one ever stays long, though — it's
haunted . . . '”

“Golly. You don't say.”

“Well, being as I am a stout and brave fellow, I go off to the house
and settle in. I build myself a nice fire. There is food in the kitchen and a bookshelf
by the door. I take down a book
and sit in a chair to read. After a
while, I hear a creaking on the second floor. Then, down the staircase, walking slowly,
comes a big angora cat.”

“A cat?”

“Biggest thing you ever saw, huge green eyes. It gives me a cunning
look, then it goes over to the fire, and, by God, it just steps right in. Starts
scratching the coals around. Now, I am surprised by this, as you can imagine. Never seen
a cat crawl around in a fire before. But I figure the world is full of strange things
and this is one of them. Just when I'm starting to get used to the idea, the cat
up and talks to me. Says, ‘I don't know what to do about attacking you.
Maybe I'll wait for Martin.' I can see your face, ma'am, but this is
the nickle-plated truth. Anyways, after a second, there's more noise upstairs, and
then down comes another angora cat. This one is even bigger than the first one. And it
has mean, red eyes. It, too, goes up to the fireplace. But instead of getting in, this
old boy backs up and pisses in it, only instead of piss, out comes a stream of

“Pissed in the what?”

. Sit up and listen.”

“Well, I'm trying to hold my book steady, but that's
proving to be a difficult task. This cat looks over at the first one and says,
‘Shall we commence on him now or wait till Martin gets here?' Well,
gentlemen, you can imagine the effect that had on me. I drop the book and I'm
standing there with my knees knocking and my hat rattling on top of my head like a pot
lid. I don't know whether to piss or play pinochle. But just then”—
the dwarf paused and fixed first one and then another of his listeners with a wide-eyed
stare —“from upstairs, I hear a loud shuffling sound. Something pretty big
is up there. And it's heading for the stairs. I mean,
this is one big old boy, and he's comin' for me. ‘Ladies,' says
I on my way out the door, ‘I gotta go! When Martin gets here, you just give him my

“Haw haw!” bellowed the smartarse. “That's a good
one, Mac. I thought you were gonna tell that old thing about the three holes in the barn
door again. I can't stand to hear that one.”

“Three holes?” prompted the Reverend.

There was an embarrassed shuffling among the revellers.

“Not with a lady present,” McEchern said flatly. “Nor
with you here either, Reverend.”

Suddenly, the lantern at his feet guttered and leaped, then winked out
altogether. Darkness settled over the men. Some looked up, waiting for the stars to
reveal themselves. Here or there burned the orange glow of a cigarette. Two pipes
floated side by side; the widow's was the more fragrant. Movements in the
underbrush, a thrum as a night bird blew past. On the widow's skin, the damp trace
of mountain air. She was almost asleep under her hat when a voice came.

“Bene,” growled the cat skinner, and everyone jumped.
“C'era una volta, una ragazza bella ce ha mangiato un'arachide
velenosa . . .” And thus he began a long, senseless story told in the dire tones
of a fairy tale, a narrative that drifted happily into the night, and no one interrupted
at all.

hunched hollow-eyed before a dim and
scrawny fire. Nothing stood above him but the bare peaks of the mountain range. He
waited like a guard in his panopticon, watching the wilderness. Below lay the forests.
He was
used to turning his back to the hills, watching the downhill
slope. But there was nowhere to turn his back to any more, for it was all below him

Where the moon fell, it was bright, and where it did not, there was
nothing, blackness, a liquid wash of empty space. Alone in the bitter cold, he gazed
into the fire's antic dream. His altitude was so high now that flame and man alike
struggled to breathe. The very meat on his bones was cold, his breath no longer
vaporous; only his urine emerged hot from his body, steaming lavishly.

The Ridgerunner had watched day fade quickly into a wash of stars, a
bristling darkness. It had always been his habit to remain awake at night, to travel in
the dark, letting nocturnal animals alert him to the presence of rangers, grizzlies, or
anything else he'd rather avoid. He often slept during the warm midday hours. But
at this height, sunlight carried no warmth, and so there would be no sleep. The forest
had thinned out. Rock jutted through the topsoil like bone through decaying hide. Dwarf
evergreens clung to the fissured rock with grey limbs and exposed roots and stunted pine
cones the colours of a spent match. He began scrambling, using his hands, standing for
long moments assessing the vertiginous plain above, carving his own switchbacks. Resting
against trees as he climbed, he panted short and shallow. For the first time in his
life, his scant belongings had become a burden to him, the damp tent rarely unravelled
now, the cooking pot unused for lack of game. There were no deer, no rabbits, no mice,
few bugs. As the air had thinned, food had become scarce, the trees had shrivelled, and
he himself moved ever more slowly — the very engine of life was on the verge of

He began to starve. It was clear why he was starving, and the remedy was
obvious: to descend. But he went up, pressing into solitude, a hermit in flight. On
distant slopes, the cotton boles of mountain sheep stood watching his slow progress,
arrested by the strange sight of a man. Cold sun lay on every lifeless surface;
sometimes there was pale lichen, sometimes nothing at all, just clean rock and empty
air, a hawk floating over the void. He came upon entire fields of virgin snow,
prehistoric and immaculate, blinding to the eye, crusted with a glassine layer so
ancient and dense the Ridgerunner could only shuffle-skate over it, and when he stamped
his boot, it would not give way. Soon the only evergreen life consisted of strange low
shrubs that spread over the rocks like vast lilies, their twisted roots running in
venous forks away to scorched points. He no longer camped, but merely stopped, paced,
built a fire to watch it burn. He refolded things, packed and repacked, held small
objects in his hand, doubting their utility. Checked his empty pockets.

And now, here he was, hunched before a fire, starving. Where the moon
fell, it was bright. He put his hand out and gazed at the thing, pale and insubstantial.
This hand on her breast, a gorgeous terror echoing between their two bodies, her face
coming down to meet his, her dark hair in curtains to his left and right.

He had simply abandoned her, the way a man flees a small, unchecked fire
in his house, knowing that it will grow, leap from curtain to ceiling, consume every
supporting beam. Thirteen years alone in the woods, no change except the seasons
wagging. And then there she was on the ground, demented, half-starved. Change came
roaring in. Her warm
body in his tent like a salacious dream, her
beautiful voice, that unnerving gaze.

The hermit had run to the top of the world, or nearly there. Above him lay
only blizzard and rock. Fissures obscured by the thinnest membrane of ice, shelves of
wind-blown snow cantilevered over caverns of air. Nothing lived here. Except William
Moreland, his flame sputtering.


of late summer reached with forgiving
fingers into the cold mountains. For a week the nights were cool, the days soft and
warm, and the breaches between them seemed to go on uninterrupted — not twilight
exactly but a bright, aimless drifting for several hours. Foxes came blinking into it,
furtive as cats, night creatures exposed by lingering light, their blackened snouts
raised to test the air. In the mornings, the widow rose early. She made the Reverend his
breakfast; pork, dried-apple bread, coffee. Most times pork was available, but at other
times there was deer and, in dire times, bear. There was jerky about, but she had none.
She bought cornmeal when McEchern stocked it, and molasses, chicory, dried beans hung
together on a string. Soap was rarely available, so she made her own, as her husband had
taught her, stirring the vile mess for hours as it thickened. She had instructed the
Reverend on how to make a hopper for the ashes, where the corrosive lye would drip out,
and as he built the object she hung over him in endless fretting and criticism.

how to build a simple box, Mrs. Boulton,” he
said. He always chose her formal name, as if she had no other.

“Is that so?” She tilted her head in obvious mirth and pointed
at the house they lived in together, with its listing walls and the windows bunged in at
angles and collecting rot in their downhill seams. It was his pride, and his

“What?” he protested, fighting a smile.

John had not built their hopper himself, but had had one of his boys do it
— Mary had never known which one. The object had simply arrived, solid, leakproof,
a wonder of cabinetry, twice lined with heavy canvas so it dripped slow and clear. The
lye had eaten through it within a year. All hoppers disintegrate, she knew; there is no

Now, three cakes of soap lay drying on the dining table, their funk
palpable. Mary pressed a cautious finger into one mushroom-coloured block and it
resisted her coldly.

And there it was — her own hand.

A pale scar across one knuckle, from what accident she could not recall.
The skin dry, swollen, the knuckles as bulbed as a boxer's and stained with
calluses. She brought her hand up closer to her face and inspected it. Her thumb was the
worst: the nail looked like a white, lifeless thing driven into the flesh so hard it
must remain there. She took in the signs of ruin. All the scrubbing, the lye, the rough
axe handles, sewing needles, dirt, glass, the sweating nub of a thimble, metal slivers
from tin bathtubs, wood slivers from everything she touched, shards of broken dishes
clawed up by hand, blunted knives slipping, the many boots polished, the innumerable
woollen long johns wrung till her hands ached, and the gaping black mouths of ovens. All
these had left their mark. What would her hands have looked like in
another life, one in which she had not married John, but instead had stayed with
her father?

Life written on the body. And yet, no mark was left where William Moreland
had brought this very hand to his mouth and kissed it. His lips running along her wrist.
His, among all these wounds, was invisible. Mary put her hands behind her back and went
to stand by the open door.

She wasn't sure what her face looked like any more. She had not once
looked at herself in William Moreland's shaving mirror. It had hung from a tree
for all those days, and the sun had been reflected in it so that a bright spot wandered
the camp. He had used the mirror to shave, or just to inspect himself, stroking his
moustache with uncommon pride. But she herself had never glanced into it.

The mirrors in her father's house had long been covered. For two
years after the death of his wife, he'd draped them in black cloth, hung a black
wreath on the door, wore a mourning ring on his finger with black enamelling that
initials infinitely round its polished curve. For two years, any
correspondence from the house was written on cream paper with a thick black border round
its edges, formal and traditional, grandiose in its grief. Mary's grandmother
wrote voluminously to merchants and the lawyer and her own cronies, all on this morbid
paper, but her father wrote nothing. He spoke little, but stormed from room to room,
glaring at the trappings of his defeat. He threw out the sickbed with his own hands,
destroyed his wife's vanity stick by stick, staved in the mirror with his heel,
and then sat holding her hairbrush in his hand, weeping to see the few strands it held,
while Mary's grandmother stood in the doorway white-faced. He got drunk and
remained drunk. It was a ferocious
self-erasure, and with it came a
sudden hush in the house. He had lately been a quiet man, but he was now completely
silent. His silence was terrible and angry, and he wore it like an engulfing flame.

BOOK: The Outlander
10.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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