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Authors: Gil Adamson

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The Outlander (7 page)

BOOK: The Outlander
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With her decayed broom the widow laboured gamely. After suffering the
chores her husband had taught her to do, and her grandmother's marmish tutoring,
she could be obedient as a dog. The skin of her hands tellingly rough and her back
strong, the widow wore the ratted broom down to a nub, contented in her work.

At dinner, she sat again in the kitchen, sipping leftover soup and picking
at a sliver in her palm. The murmur of the old woman's voice could be heard
through the thick doors, then a grunt from Zenta, who was waiting at table. Emily bent
over the washbasin and tested the water with her thumb, casting a wary glance from time
to time in the widow's direction. A kettle of water was heating on the stove, a
merry bong issuing as the old bowed metal expanded.

“Did . . . did you . . . ?” Emily's voice was timid and
ghostly, a fretful whisper.

The widow might have thought she hadn't spoken, except the
girl's pale eyes were staring.

“Hmm?”

“I meant to say . . . did you ever go to school?”
“No,” the widow said firmly, “no school.”

“But, miss, you can read!”

“My grandmother taught me,” she said, digging again at the
splinter. “She taught me everything.”

“Oh, I see,” came the sad reply. “Just a grandmother.
Well, I always wisht I could go to school. I prayed I could. I don't care what
they say about it being bad for you.”

The widow's own grandmother had believed that education was damaging
— too much blood to a woman's brain would cause reproductive malfunction. To
prove her point, she had invoked the spectre of university women who were
childless. “Why don't they have children?”
she'd said. “Because they
can't
.” And since no one in
the family, including her grandmother, had ever met a woman with a degree, the lesson
went unchallenged, filed along with other dubious claims: ghosts cause spontaneous
combustion in people (the spirit world giving wrongdoers their just desserts); spilled
salt is thrown over the left shoulder directly into the devil's eye; a
phrenologist can identify a criminal in childhood, before he causes any damage, so he
can be sent immediately to reform school; the monkfish is so named because it looks just
like a little monk, complete with cowl. Thinking about it now, the widow couldn't
see how a girl like Emily would be harmed by reading. In fact, for her, the agony lay in
half-measures, in knowing how little she herself knew.

“If I could only go to school and be with other girls my age.
Sometimes I even dream I am at school, and everyone knows me. There's the reading,
of course. You could read all the books in Madam's library, if you wanted to. But
it's the friendship, the society of it. I think it's just grand, and, and
important, and . . .” The girl sputtered to a stop, frozen in embarrassment at
having spoken so much. She turned quickly back to work, as if she hadn't spoken at
all, then slipped a roasting pan into the water and began a vigorous scraping. Hollow
grinding issued from under the water's surface as the girl vainly went at the
glazed mess.

“What in the world are you doing?” said the widow. “Let
it soak.”

Stung, Emily stepped away from the basin. Two red streaks appeared on her
cheeks. She stood with her back against the counter, hands braced behind her, shoulders
hunched; it was the posture of a child trying to appear casual.
In
the resulting quiet, the widow sipped her soup and assessed this odd girl. She
couldn't be more than fifteen, knowing nothing of life, and never allowed out in
the world; a young woman mostly unchanged from the original child. Gradually, watching
the girl's increasing discomfort, the widow deduced what the problem was: Zenta
didn't believe in soaking. Zenta's way, which was the only way, was to scrub
like mad while the water was at its hottest; never waste hot water. Zenta's hope
was to scrub the skin off the world. The widow, on the other hand, had told Emily to
stop, and for some reason, the foolish girl had obeyed. So, they were at an impasse.
Sometime soon, Zenta's feet would thump across the floor and she would swing
through the doors into the kitchen. And then what hell would rain down on Emily? The
widow felt a deep pang of pity, maternal and therefore perilous.

“Well,” the widow said brightly, “this splinter is a
pest. Perhaps I should soak it a little in water.” And with that she stepped off
her stool and went to the washbasin and began scrubbing. Brownish matter churned up in
the water as drippings and spatters peeled off the pan like poker chips and rolled under
her brush. She went at the corners with her fingernails. From the edge of her vision she
could see the girl, frozen in disbelief.

When Zenta strode through the door, the widow heard the woman's
booming voice: “Emily, why aren't you . . .” And then, seeing the
widow at her task, in a quieter, more approving tone, “
Clever
girl.”

THE WIDOW STOOD
at the end of her bed, then fell
sprawling across it. After the whooping of the bedsprings subsided, there was no sound
at all, though both windows were open.
No breeze carried the scents
of night into her room. No dogs barking. A candle stood as if petrified on the bedside
table. The old woman and her servants were asleep, and the widow had been at her nightly
predations, wandering the empty rooms of the house, opening drawers and cupboards
cautiously, silently, so contents would give warning before they shifted, a gentle
half-sound before the sound came. Everything she touched was a sound first, or, if she
was careful, no sound at all. The old house seemed to sleep as well, like some huge
living thing. During the day it creaked and groaned in the way of old things. Now, in
darkness, it stood on its foundations in absolute stillness. The widow lay on her bed,
wakeful, ears ringing with silence. In her hand lay a wedding ring, not her own, filched
from the cluttered back reaches of one of the old woman's desk drawers.

She had been lying with the ring in her hand for she knew not how long,
the small warm hoop of gold resting in her palm, a thin almost sharp thing, light as a
lock of hair after all the years of wear, ultimately discarded.

She looked at her own ring finger, which was bare. No indentation, no mark
saying a ring had ever been there. She hadn't been married long enough for it to
show.

And yet here she lay, clutching another woman's ring. Well, it was
gold, and it would not be missed, not immediately. How long since the old woman had worn
it last? What reasons had lined up against it so that the bird lady had wrung it from
her finger and hidden it in a drawer? The widow had found it among bits of string and
ruined pencils.
I loved my husband well enough.
Perhaps it wore on her, the
perpetual grip of it. A needling reminder: This is what you used to be — what are
you now? Or maybe it began to take
on a peculiar weight that belied
its actual mass, the solemnity and burden that comes at the end of things, just as joy
and callowness come at the beginning. Do all widows remove the ring, eventually? Do they
do it quickly, from self-protection, like a mountain climber struggling to cut the rope
on a fallen companion before the weight also pulls him down?

Somewhere in the house a door thumped closed. She felt rather than heard
it, a thud that came through the mattress. She waited. Another less sensible thud.
Silence. Then, a sound she actually heard of footsteps on the stairs, quiet and furtive,
but stepping quickly, two stairs at a time. By now she had rolled over on her back and
was frozen in a crablike posture, half sitting up, motionless so she could better hear.
The boots — yes they were boots, she could hear the heels — came along the
hallway quickly, a determined march.

And then Jeffrey entered her room. He came right in, seized the door
handle behind him, and backed the door closed till it clicked. The widow sprang off the
bed and braced herself in the corner like a cat. The gold ring dropped unheard to the
rug and rolled under the bed.

“I want you out of here,” he hissed.

The candle next to her slowly stopped wavering. In its light her eyes were
gold streaks. She knew what had happened, knew they had found her, could tell by the
black outrage on his face.

“Was it them?” she whispered.

“Listen, you! Make your goodbyes tomorrow. She'll give you
food and such, and then out you go. If you linger here, I'll let them have
you.”

The widow shook her head. “I don't know where to go,”
she said.

“I don't care.” He glared at her for a long moment.
“Take your problems somewhere else.”

She nodded meekly.

“And don't you breathe a word to her what you did. Not a word.
It'll break her heart. Unlike you, that old woman never hurt a living soul in her
life.” He backed out and shut the door on her.

THE WIDOW WAS
alone in the barn. It was night, but she
had not dared to light a lantern. She would not wait for morning. It wasn't safe.
So she had brought with her a heap of pilfered items that lay now on the ground as she
entered the uneasy mare's stall and tried to gain control of it. A fur coat was
ground by a hoof into urine-blackened straw.

The other horse, a small gelded bay, would not even let the widow come
near, but the roan was older and calmer and the widow was able to slip in and stand near
the mare's neck and let it quail and veer and shoulder the walls of the narrow
stall. Its head was reared up, round nostrils puffing at her face. She rubbed harshly at
her scalp and pressed this hand to the mare's face and snout, not knowing why she
did it, just figuring that all animals must learn one another's scent. She draped
a halter around its neck. She slipped a thumb into the mare's mouth, along the
gums, back where there were no teeth, and pressed down till the mouth opened and she
could slip the bit in. The rest she pulled over the stiff ears and held the jerking head
down and buckled the throat strap. As a girl, someone else had always done this for her,
little Mary the master's daughter, a candy-eating child astride a hobby horse. She
was surprised she remembered how, and she stood back and wondered at it. Would this be
the first of
many small retrievals, illuminations of a vast personal
darkness, like the amnesiac wondering, “Can I play the piano?” and then
playing?

From over the stall door she took a blanket and English saddle and laid
these over the horse's back. The girth strap swung there, just out of reach.
Fearful of bending her head down near unfamiliar hooves, she caught the girth strap with
the toe of her boot, Zenta's boot, and brought it up and cinched it tight. She
stood and looked at her handiwork. But then the mare exhaled, and the girth strap hung
loose. If the widow were to try to mount now, the saddle would slither round and hang
from the horse's belly. When she went to take up the slack, she found the horse
had held its breath again and the strap was tight. This was a conundrum. Having been
tricked, she wondered how to proceed. After several experiments, she remembered that
repeated upward thumps with a knee into the mare's belly would cause it to puff,
and the strap could be cinched tight. Finally, the widow mounted and stood the horse in
its stall, speaking gently to it. In answer it nodded and jerked the reins, oddly
passive now that it was saddled. She backed herself and the horse out of the stall and
took a stroll through the barn, bending to avoid beams. At last, she brought the mare to
the open barn door. Horse and human looked out at the night.

The house stood at some distance from the barn. A path of pale stones
wound an ornamental route between the two buildings. A farm for aristocracy. She'd
seen many just like it. Conservatory, library, drawing room, barn. A vegetable garden
perhaps, where the lady of the house grows lettuce and carrots. She knew the
architecture and the kind of lives lived in inherited houses like these. And she
believed misfortune
was the likely end of this house, of every great
house. The children die or move away or refuse to have children themselves, someone
marries unwisely, someone becomes sick, someone goes mad, the young wife is barren, the
old man gambles unchecked, there are no more parties, the staff dwindles, ivy overgrows
the windows and birds nest everywhere, rooms are closed off. When Mrs. Cawthra-Elliot
eventually died, her staff would empty the house, keep what they wished, and close the
doors.

The widow dismounted, tied the halter to one of the oversized barn-door
hinges, and went searching for anything useful. A set of leather saddlebags lay in the
corner of a tack room. They were old and frowsed with white rot that brushed away like
salt. In another smaller room she found nothing but a broken horse-drawn sleigh, a
child's carved wood sword, and a scorched fire screen with an urn painted on it.
In the two days she had been here, she had seen no sign of children, grown or otherwise.
She had found the deceased husband, or at least a massive formal portrait of him in his
military uniform. He had sharp features but an oddly gentle eye gazing out upon what
little was left of his life. Beneath the painting the old woman had set up a table on
which she had gathered her departed husband's possessions, masculine flotsam, laid
out as a shrine. A shrine relegated to the corner of an unused room.
I loved my
husband well enough.

On her first nightly exploration of the house, the widow had found this
room and had filched a tiny lapel pin in the shape of a star. She found it pretty. She
had put it on her shift and looked at herself in the glass. There had been a little tin
containing a notebook and a pencil. She had taken several items that seemed useful to
her, including the notebook and
pencil, and also a short, lethal
bayonet knife that came with its own sheath. Thinking of poultry, and her future needs,
she now went in search of a pot.

BOOK: The Outlander
4.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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