Read The Outlander Online

Authors: Gil Adamson

Tags: #General Fiction, #FIC019000

The Outlander (3 page)

BOOK: The Outlander
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The children looked at each other in obvious mirth and exchanged the

“What time is it? Do your parents know you're here?”

“Yes,” they said together. “Everyone knows.”

“I can't say I believe that,” the widow said, noticing
the fine little nightdresses, the delicate slippers in the sand. Beloved and privileged
children, alone in the dark.

“We always come here,” said the other girl, squinting one eye
against the ascending smoke. “This is our place.” Plump cheeks and pursed
lips, a wintery look of assessment in her eyes, a ridiculous mime of adulthood.

“You should be at home, in bed,” said the widow.

“So should you!” laughed the first girl.

“And you oughtn't to smoke. It's unattractive, and you
might form the habit.”

“Or we'll end up like you, I suppose.”

“I don't smoke.”

“Sure you do!” one said, and they both shrieked with laughter.
This impudence caught the widow off guard. She felt like a child trying to best another
child and failing. The widow did indeed smoke, when she was alone and no one was likely
to see.

“We lie on the beach sometimes, if it's not raining,”
said the first child. “Feel the sand. It's still warm from the

All three now put their palms to the soft white sand, which radiated a
gorgeous heat. The widow stood again and looked down at the girls' little heads,
the small bare arms coming out of their nightdresses, hands passing the cigarette
between them.

“We lie, but we don't sleep.” The deep voice was almost
like a man's now.

“And what does that makes us?” the other girl sang out, as if
in a familiar chant.

“Tired, tired, always tired,” they said together.

“You girls wouldn't happen to have anything . . . any
food?” the widow faltered. “I only ask because

“No food.”

“Oh. I see.”

“Are you terribly hungry?” one asked, her smile distinctly not

A question began to form in the widow's mind, a muted warning, like
a drone from another room, getting louder. As if in answer, one of the children said,
“We came up just to see you.”

There was a long silence, the only sound the river's sluicing beyond
and the hiss of wind through dry bushes. When the widow spoke again, her voice was a
dilute and timorous whisper. “Up from where?”

They pointed together at the dark river. Their eyes like coals.

The widow's heart leaped and pounded painfully in her throat.
“Oh no,” she said.

She forced her eyes down, away from the vision, and as she did, tears
surged up. Defeated again by an imagined thing. And yet, she could not quite believe
this solid thing had come from within.

Nothing mattered but the fact of them, two children in white, their huge
eyes watching her. One moved a foot, and she could hear it on the sand. How alive the
illusions always were — there is art in madness, in its disastrous immediacy. Four
little slippers resting in the sand, one of the toes cocked slightly inward, the way any
child's foot might.

She turned sharply and made her way back up the embankment, grasping roots
and tufts of grass with trembling hands as she went, her eyes wide and terrified. For a
moment, the white nightdresses of the girls were there in the corner of her eye. And
then, just as surely, they were gone.

The widow remembered how, as a child, she had snuck out one night with a
young Scottish maid, carrying a pair of her late mother's shoes. The girl had
whispered, “You do it. It has to be you.” In the soft, wet summer earth,
they had dug a hole with their hands and the widow had dropped the shoes into the

“May her spirit never walk,” whispered the maid, and spat on
them. It never had. Of all the apparitions the widow had seen in her nineteen years, her
mother had never been among them.

Over the next many hours she trudged sadly along, following the moon that
rose and withered, finally melting into
nothing among the blown pink
clouds of morning. She did not have the slightest idea where she was. She was hungry.
Dogs barked in the distance. She heard the rapid chittering of swifts far above in the
damp air. Then a church carillon began to peal nearby.

The widow paused. So it was Sunday. She hadn't known the day of the
week for some time.

in the third row along the wide aisle of
the church, crammed in among other women and their volumes of skirts. To her left, a
tiny bird lady held a gloved hand before her nose because the widow smelled of ditches.
The occasional curious face turned to look at her. She was sweating and vaporous but
deeply content, shifting eagerly in her seat. She was the child of a former minister,
and so was comfortable in church, an admirer of trappings, but, to her
grandmother's annoyance, she'd been immune to the divine and had a
child's disinterest in any father but her own. She never prayed unless compelled
to, and when she did, she sensed no listening ear, no wise counsel whispering back. She
hadn't been in a church since she'd been married in one, because where she
and her husband had lived there hadn't been a church close by, nor a town, nor
even neighbours. But now, what surging happiness! She was well used to life in this
house, the privacy of it, the promise of remedy.

To her right, the serene Christ was revealed in murals along the wall. In
one, his Book was held up over the heads of many children and deer and their fauns, the
tiny pages marked with painted dots and squiggles not meant to be read. Behind this
group, the purple swell of impending storm clouds.
Suffer the children.
another, women knelt at Christ's
feet while monstrously
hunched humans staggered before the doors of the temple, where their wares lay broken
about the square.
The moneylenders.
Then there was Lazarus —luckless and
desolate, called to rise by a booming voice. The stone, like a conjuror's hand,
moved aside to reveal the horror: Life . . . again. Mary in blue, always in blue,
inclined for mourning. Peter, confronted, denies his Christ, a rooster beside him in
pedigreed plumage. Peter is always pictured with a rooster, but the widow had forgotten
why. Finally, the martyred Christ in agony on a grey day with high wind.
. Light suffuses the sky.

The widow sighed, enraptured. The little church was a cool, dim museum
infused with the comfort of stale incense. She sat back and ceased her ogling and
elbowing, and the bird lady beside her huffed with relief. The organ drew a breath and
barked once, and the faithful women jerked to attention. A fluttering of fans. A murmur
came from somewhere up front . . . no, not a murmur but a man's voice. An old
minister droning. How long had he been talking? The widow strained to hear.

“. . . And the first of these is charity.” The
minister's voice was barely audible from the pulpit, he himself so small as to be
almost invisible. The widow eventually spied the man, shrouded in his fine little wooden
tower. A lectern carved from the same dark wood that raised before him. A cloth canopy
stretched over his head —
In case it rains
, her father would joke. Even
before his withdrawal from the church, her father called himself Jack in the Pulpit, a
black-clad pistil hiding in God's green underbrush.

“. . . Second is faith. Last is charity.” This was greeted
with a peeved sigh or two from the assembly.

“He's forgotten hope,” chuckled a female voice to her

“It's the same sermon as
last week
, ” hissed
another in disbelief.


“He's getting old, is all. Who isn't?”


The service meandered along, eddying occasionally in a hymn, pausing for
the united shifting of the congregation to kneel and pray. The widow was happy to be
among these women, everyone wilting in their rarely washed Sunday clothes, seated among
the murals and statuettes and concrete flourishes. Though she was filthy and unslept,
she had the compensating poise of youth. Her skin was clear, her cheeks rosy. The dark
shadows under her eyes only made them seem deeper, clearer. She stood up with the rest
of the women to sing, holding her hymnal before her and gazing at the minister as he
waited impatiently for them to finish.

“Christ in you, the hope of glory. This is the gospel we

Every word was like a comforting dream to the widow, and she sang her
lungs out. She didn't look at her page, she didn't need to; she knew this
and most of the hymns and psalms and lessons and prayers by heart. Nevertheless, a hand
reached up and flipped pages for her.

“You're on the wrong one.” A raspy whisper from the old
lady. When the widow turned to thank her, there was a keen intelligence peering back, a
question lingering there.

At the end of the service, the organ remained silent until the minister
had fled behind his barricades. Then a lengthy bawl of mismatched chords that resolved
slowly, mingled,
and formed a sluggish processional. The more
sciatic participants struggled to their feet. The racket sufficient to drive guests from
the house.

People stood outside, chatting in loose federation on the church steps.
The widow moved among them like a spectre at the feast, and tongues fell silent. Even
the tiny, humpbacked minister gaped rudely and adjusted his pince-nez. Pigeons clapped
overhead like angels gleeful at such a sight: a pretty girl done up in rags, a
ridiculous creature in her black curtain-cloth and haggy hair, a child's dress-up
of a witch, hurrying down the stairs and out across the yard toward the dry dirt street.
Though she understood the effect she had produced, the widow stepped lightly, leavened
and rested.
Sins endure, yet we see the place of their atonement.

It was a windless, humid day, the sun rising as the widow walked. As carts
and carriages passed, she was obliged to leave the road and step over to where earth had
been scraped and piled to grade the thoroughfare. Grasses grew on the heaped soil like
hair on a bee-stung dog, and the widow struggled along from clot to tuft. She saw houses
far away by the river and shining between them the sparkle of the water. She saw hen
houses, wooden seats of swings roped to high tree limbs and hanging motionless, flat
stones laid out to form paths and walkways, rail fences, wells and pumps set in stone
rings upon uneven, sprouted lawns.

Presently, she came upon a clutch of little stores. Dry goods, apothecary,
photographer. Each establishment was closed and dark, its front stoop recently swept.
The widow stepped beneath an awning and puffed in the heat. Above her, bats clung like
seed pods to folds in the awning. And
then, in near silence, a tiny,
opulent carriage glided slowly past, its occupant hidden. The widow lingered in the
shade a while, her eyes closed, a smile on her lips.

When she started on again, she soon found the tiny carriage stopped at the
side of the road with two admirable horses waiting and the door swung open. The carriage
presented a bizarre, relic air — it was a filigreed old thing with brass handles
and cracking paint. And within this sarcophagus sat the bird lady from church, now
wearing a veil.

“Will you come with me,” the raspy voice said. It was not a
question. The old lady extended her gloved hand into the sunlight and gestured for the
widow to get in.

The widow stayed where she was.

“Jeffrey,” the voice said. “Compel her to come

Weight shifted above the carriage and a large man stepped down beside the
horses. He was screwing his cap into his back pocket. The widow stepped away from him,
which caused him to stop and raise his hands in acquiescence.

“Madam,” he said, pointing at the open door, “will you


“Oh, why not,” the voice came from within. “What else
have you got planned?”

The widow held her shawl out in front of her like a decoy, but finally she
let her arms drop to her sides and licked her dry lips.

“Get in,” came the voice.

“I have to be home soon.”

“Lie to me in here where it's cool, can't

She could run, but where would she go? And what was the point? She stood
uncertainly, until she saw Jeffrey's eyes
take on a different
expression, one she recognized.
Compel her to come here.
The widow hurried
forward and got in. The door slammed behind her.

And there was the bird lady again, even smaller than she had looked in
church. The little eminence sat on its hard bench and regarded the widow as
Jeffrey's bulk clambered aboard. Slowly, without a sound, the lacquered box swung
on its oiled springs and jollied out into the road again. The two women sat in silence.
A gentle breeze played about them.

“You do know,” said the old lady, “that you appeared to
those pious people back there to be mad?”

The widow looked at the woman's wasted cheeks and quilted lip. She
nodded her head. Indeed, she knew.

“What do you think? Are you mad?”


“Glad to hear it. I can't help a lunatic. I am Mrs.

“How do you do.”

The gnome chuckled at this preposterous attempt at civility. “Better
than you, apparently. You must know that you are in a fetid condition. You are very much
in need of a bath. All right, I have a bath. I also have food and any number of beds for
you to sleep in. You can pick and choose. I have two women who are just dying to change
sheets, and I never give them enough to do.”

“Thank you, that's very kind, but . . . you see, I . .
.” A likely excuse did not arrive.

BOOK: The Outlander
8.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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