Read The Outlander Online

Authors: Gil Adamson

Tags: #General Fiction, #FIC019000

The Outlander (4 page)

BOOK: The Outlander
2.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

“But what? Go on. What is it? You'd rather run about like an
animal? You're wallowing in grief?”

“I'm sorry. It's just that I have to be home

“Absurd. You have no home, no husband. Anyone can see that.
You're foolish even to pretend.”

The widow forced a miserable, polite smile and wished herself back in
church. Today hope had been with her for a brief time, but this woman snuffed it out
with a knobby thumb.

“If you think I don't know what you feel like, you're
wrong. I know exactly the state you're in. It feels like the end, no matter what
kind of marriage you had. I loved my husband well enough. Widowhood is not a choice;
life forces it upon you. It is a burden to be alone, and a worse burden to be old and

“Please let me out.”

This seemed to dumbfound the old woman. She sat in her dim corner,
scowling, and then leaned back against the unyielding upholstery and cast her eyes about
as if scouring the air for a way to deal with this rare, wild girl. “I've
been rough with you. I can see that. But I really would like to help you. It is my
Christian duty, I believe, to help you.” She was suddenly looking tired and

The widow watched as fatigue and uncertainty took over. This is what
awaits everyone, the widow thought: the body like a caved-in greenhouse, this struggle
to do anything simple, to talk or plan or worry, the shallow, panting breath of anxiety
and a worn heart.

“What I would offer you is this: a place to sleep, some meals and
exercise, a chance to get well. I believe that you are mistrustful, so I won't
frighten you by telling anyone that you are living with me. You can do whatever you like
to occupy yourself. Feed the chickens. Polish windows. There's not much to do
around the place. It's falling apart, and I don't
Do whatever you like. Don't agree to anything; I'll let you see the place
first. Who knows, you may bolt the second that door opens. I can't stop
you.” With this, the gnome looked down sadly for a time. She sighed weakly, the
scrawny chest rising and falling. She said nothing more, and the carriage rolled on in
the hot day. Soon, the papery eyelids closed and the hands composed themselves. The
widow watched the frail old woman grow slack and unguarded with real sleep. It was a
wonder how fast nature induced the thin lips to part and the hands to fall wide in a
kind of supplication.

Outside, the day began to bake. The widow gazed upon the slow scrolling of
lawns, parched trees, and the bluish heap of foothills that came nearer with each mile.
She gazed at those foothills and imagined the mountains beyond as a kind of heaven,
devoid of people, silent, a place to stop and think.

The widow put her face in her hands. Was it goodness the old lady shrouded
with such bitter words? A fond person afraid to appear so? Christian charity ladled out
upon the ground? The widow did not know where she was being taken. Perhaps to be kept as
a kind of pet. Perhaps something worse. But she wasn't afraid for her own safety.
Far from it. In this equation, she was the unexpected, the sudden dark. This Samaritan
had no idea what kind of criminal sat across from her as she slept, but slept on.

from his unlighted store with sleeves
rolled up and began cranking the bent metal pole that unfurled his awning. As usual,
with the first few cranks, several bats dropped from it and swooped away across the
scorched street to a nearby stand of trees.

“Goddamn little bastards,” he said. And then he noticed the
two men standing to his left. They stood together with rifles across their backs,
looking down at a small girl. The grocer couldn't see the men's faces
exactly, but the little slow girl stood there with her silly smile, fascinated by the
men's red hair. Her tongue stuck out.

“Help you, gentlemen?” The grocer adopted his usual business

First one man turned, then the other.

Unlike the idiot child, the grocer could not muster a smile. In fact, he
took a stagger-step back, for these men had the keen, predatory look of hyenas, and they
were enormous.

“We're looking for a woman,” said one.

“Our sister-in-law,” said the other in exactly the same


door open. The old lady and the widow
stepped from the rocking coach and climbed some wide stone steps into a darkened hall
where two maids stood by with sour faces and hands crossed apron-wise. Full of
“Madam” and “Right away,” they hurried about, collecting the old
woman's shawl and bringing her house shoes. One maid was small and mousy and never
met anyone's eye. This was Emily. The other was tall and wide-shouldered and had
the bearing of a man. She was Zenta. Emily went off down the hall, shuffling her feet.
The hall windows had been darkened by heavy curtains. The widow stood in the cool gloom
and they listened to Mrs. Cawthra-Elliot discuss her case while the widow's eyes
adjusted and objects rose up out of nothingness. A ticking clock upon the hall table. A
chair with petit point backing that featured a unicorn kneeling in a garden. A Persian
runner carpet at her feet. A convex mirror above the hall table in which the old lady
and her maids appeared in remote tableau, small and hunched together as if

“What's her name?” Zenta was saying.

“Goodness, I don't know,” said the old woman. She turned
to the widow. “What is your name?”

The widow was about to say “Mary Boulton” but realized in time
that she must not use her real name. “Mrs. Tower,” she said.

The old lady's intelligent eyes scoured her again, just as in
church, and again wintry suspicion crept into them. “Are you lying to


“She's lying,” announced Zenta.

“What is your first name, then?”

The widow's head was pounding. There was no answer; nothing came to

“I told you!” said Zenta, triumphant.

The widow went to the chair by the stairs and sat on its edge. She put her
head down. “I'm sorry,” she said. “I'm hungry, and I feel
a bit faint.” This statement caused a great excitement in the women. Together they
hurried down the hall crying, “Emily!”

The widow could hear the old woman's peeved voice from the kitchen,
then Zenta's rough reply. A small pot bonged. A cupboard door slammed shut. The
widow saw the front door, still open, where the day burned upon the stone landing. On
the stoop was a rough grass mat crusted with dried mud. She sat upright again and her
eyes darted toward the sounds coming from the kitchen. She did not know where she was,
or how far from the road she might be. She stood up, light-headed, swaying beside the
hall table. On its surface lay a pair of gloves, a shoehorn, some envelopes. An
enamelled Chinese bowl held keys and coins. On her way to the door the widow clawed up a
handful of coins. She pulled out a little velvet pouch she kept hung about her neck on a
sash under her clothes, and into this she dropped the coins,
adding theft to her list of crimes.

She rushed to the threshold but stopped and went no further, for there on
the gravel drive was the coach, and next to the horses was Jeffrey. Crows high up in the
trees made craggy calls. If not for this man standing in the way of her flight, those
crows would have seen another black thing moving into the trees.

Jeffrey stood with his back to her, idly polishing some brass harness
ornament, and he spoke to the mare, a poor-looking blue roan, as gently and reasonably
as if it were a woman he loved. His hand swept in pacifying strokes over the
mare's shoulder, and traces lay loose upon its speckled grey hide. The
widow's heart pounded. She felt a braid of intention unravelling within her.
Ghostly plans of flight, so recently formed, unformed themselves. A wandering puff of
cooking smells came to her, and her stomach answered with a terrible pang. She could
hear women's voices somewhere in the unknown house. Were they coming back to get
her? Surely they would not leave her alone for long. Someone heavy-footed was coming
down the hall.

Still, the widow was unable to take her eyes from the brightness of the
day, from freedom. Someone called out, “Mrs. Tower!” At that sound, both
horse and man looked around to where she stood in half darkness, their eyes moving like
twin shotgun barrels. The widow let her knees go out from under her and fell unresisting
to the floor.

carried up the stairs by Jeffrey, the women
behind him shouting orders as he went. She had not fainted,
nor was
she unconscious: twice he knocked her ankles on door frames and twice she tucked her
feet in. The women sat her on the bed and shooed the man out before setting about a
feminine reclamation of this wreck. They stripped the outlandish funeral costume from
her body. Among its folds they discovered a pocket containing the widow's small
Bible, very expensive and of fine paper, which Zenta thumped onto the bedside table
without comment. The old woman flipped a few translucent pages and stopped. She stared
at the minute marginalia therein — inscrutable symbols and signs drawn by an
inexpert hand.

“How queer,” she murmured and put it aside.

The widow sipped some clear broth from a double-handled soup bowl, and
then they made her eat a little buttered toast off a napkin. As soon as the widow lifted
the slice of toast, Zenta retrieved the napkin, inspected it for butter stains, then
popped it in the pocket of her apron. The widow recognized the motive. Linen napkins
might go a month without washing if you were careful. They were laid across your lap
only to catch disastrous spills on skirts and pants, which were far worse trouble to
clean. Seeing Zenta's hard hands, the widow had a sudden vision of yellowed
squares of cloth laid out upon the grass to bleach in the sun.

Finally, she was taken to a bath and washed by Zenta, who scrubbed her as
if she were a child, lifting limbs and pulling hair and swivelling her about for a
better grip as the widow's buttocks squalled against the glazed metal tub. Water
sloshed and a wooden brush bobbed upon the waves. She could not remember the last time
someone had washed her. And Zenta was strong. It caused in the widow a fleeting sense of
the physical submissions of her own childhood, the helplessness
it. Then later, the sudden onslaught of her husband's hands and face and body. The
way he might seize her in the midst of his urgency and roll her over to get at her from
behind, like she were a doll or some other invulnerable thing.

“That weren't a real spell you had. I know that much.”
Zenta scrubbed at her shoulder blades, the back of her neck. “And you're not
the first one she's brought home.”

“The first what?” the widow asked but was yanked by the upper
arm to twist and face her keeper.

“Don't be smart. I despise a smartarse. You remember where you
are, missy.”

“Yes, ma'am.”

“Hand me that brush.” The widow handed the wooden brush over
her shoulder and submitted to a brutal currying of her hair, her scalp pulled taut and
her eyebrows raised. She was obliged to hold on to the edge of the tub with both

“She takes it too far, I say. Bringing home all manner of rubbish so
Emily and I have to deal with them. Charity is one thing. Letting 'em steal the
silverware's another. Pissing in the coal room. Making off with my Sunday roast in
their jackets. And guess who doesn't like it when there in't any
dinner?” Zenta's hands were like hooves pounding a flinty road, her breath
stormy on the widow's cheek. “And now it's you, little miss sly-boots.
I'll tell you one thing: if you hurt that old woman's feelings or abuse her
kindness, it'll be a damnation on you. I'm not like her, you know. I
don't believe you're mad. I don't think there's anything wrong
with you a'tall.”

“I'm not mad,” the widow said.

“I don't wonder you're weak, though,” the woman
said. “You've had a baby. I can tell by the look of you.” She gestured
at the widow's sore and laden breasts. They had been used,
then abruptly unused, and the widow had had no clue how to remedy the disaster.

Zenta's eyes shone unkindly, she was pleased with her cleverness.
“How long ago? I'd guess two months. Where is he now?”

There was no answer, which indeed was the answer. No lie could touch the
question. The widow's mind shut off the image that had grown up before her,
ghastly and sudden. She met Zenta's eye, a ragged, hot attention forming where
before there had been nothing. Zenta saw it and her face fell.

“Oh no. You didn't . . .” Her voice became soft and
peculiar. “Did you lose it?”

The widow's long hair dripped, strewn in weedy patterns across her
back. “Yes.”

“Did it live long?” Zenta asked with a strange eagerness. How
precious news of suffering is, how collectible.

The widow looked down to where her toes were splayed out against the tub
and saw for the first time that several nails were dark with blood. One middle toe was
badly cut. She did not know what had caused this. She felt no pain there, nor anywhere
else in her body. Did he live long? How far away from here? How long ago?

She brought the heel of her hand to her mouth and bit down hard, waiting
to feel the yank of pain. The hand was not numb, in fact she knew she had broken the
skin, but the throb that came afterward was distant, a fretful voice floating on the
air. Both women gazed at the ring of marks left there on her palm, a pink stain forming

Zenta's scrub cloth hung frozen in the air. “You can get up
now,” she said, wholly unnerved. “Get up.”

BOOK: The Outlander
2.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

One Crazy Ride by Stone, Emily
Silhouette in Scarlet by Peters, Elizabeth
Bear Claw Bodyguard by Jessica Andersen
Blood Feather by Don Bendell
Wives and Champions by Tina Martin
For the Love of Her Dragon by Julia Mills, Lisa Miller, Linda Boulanger
The Bird Sisters by Rebecca Rasmussen
The Last Killiney by J. Jay Kamp
Jo's Journey by Nikki Tate