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Mo gràdh ort, mo ghille (My Love On You, My Son)

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June, 1776

Jem Mackenzie sighed again and made the small wood wheels turn faster on the new car his dad had made him. It’s a vroom, Dad had said a few years ago, the first time he ever placed a toy car on his eagerly waiting hands. 

It took a long while after that, but his dad eventually explained what they were, how they worked and that, where he came from, real cars traveled on smooth, black roads all over the world, and much faster than horses. He told him how Mama used to have a blue one she adored. That day, with their heads so close together that long black hair mingled with red, they had talked in whispers, as if possessing a secret that no one else should know. Jem remembered feeling giddy, not only because that new vroom was an improved version of past incarnations lost forever to the woods of the Ridge, but because his dad had made a second car for himself and they had played together for hours, laughing and racing them on the wood floors that Mama had just swept.  

Jem was now by himself with that same car, sitting on the porch floor, the Big House shielding him from the light rain that had started to fall. With the heat of the season fast approaching summer levels, that sort of weak pour seemed to evaporate even before hitting the ground. On any other day he would gladly have been under it, tongue sticking out to savor the warm showers, but today he remained watching life go by from afar, with no will to play. Germain had left, gone to live with his parents in New Bern, and suddenly the days seemed longer than before with one less friend to keep him company.

The wheels kept spinning as his mama and grannie came into view, coming off the main road. Even from a distance, Jem was surprised at how tall they were, taller than many of the women he knew. They always towered above him, sometimes ready to kneel to his level and envelop him in a warm embrace, other times standing straight and looking down in reprimand. He often felt small in comparison to them, even to the rest of his family and the world itself. Inside, he knew it would not always be that way, but time was not passing fast enough for him to grow as tall as his dad and no longer having to feel small and helpless as he felt now.

He observed his mama carrying the small bundle in her arms, made of soft blankets and his sister, delicate and new. Maybe to Mama she really was the most precious, and as quiet and small as his sister was, she was already the center of all attention. He observed in silence how Grannie leaned towards the blankets and made a silly face followed by a wide smile. Jem did not understand what was supposed to be so fun about babies. In his view, they only cried, ate, and slept without even saying a word. Except Mandy did not cry so much, and every time he peered inside the cot, she was asleep in a way that was entirely too quiet. Sometimes the tips of her fingers turned a light shade of blue, so did her lips, and he was often tempted to shake her to see if she was still breathing. Maybe that was why his parents, and even Grannie and Grandda, seemed to surround her all the time.

With all eyes on the baby, and even though there was no shortage of happiness in the family for her arrival, Jem knew something was not right with Mandy the moment she was born. And yet, no one seemed to have spare time to tell him. In the weeks that went by after his sister’s birth, all faces around him had slowly changed to a picture of sadness, gaining permanent wrinkles between their eyes and tremors on their lips. Late at night, when everyone thought he was asleep, he heard the softness of Mama’s cries and Dad’s soothing her in a raspy voice, low in his throat, but filled with love as he held her in his arms. Jem saw his family become quiet as time went by, and with each new day, his mother held the baby just a little bit closer to her chest, as if Mandy was soon to evaporate like a cloud in the wind.

To a certain point he understood why. Soon after Mandy was born, Jem felt a warmness settle in his chest, unexpected and wholly new, dropping into him and spreading like a bead of Mama’s dyes in water, all the way up to his head. It made him wonder how he had lived without it for so long. When he had heard her cry for the first time he knew he was not alone, not really, and would never be again. Not knowing what it was, he at least knew it grew stronger and brighter whenever he was close to Mandy, pulling him towards her even when he did not want to be around. And along with that came the unsettling feeling that her wee heart was damaged, and struggling slowly.

Jem kept near his parents, and even though they still held him close and he adored his sister, he could neither shake the feeling that she was consuming all their attention, nor that uncomfortable poking of loneliness.

Alerted by the sound of steps in the distance, Jem turned to watch his dad walk down the path towards his mother and Grannie in large paces, looking eager to reach them as quickly as possible. He kissed Mama’s forehead first and she smiled immediately. Jem smiled as well without realizing, his small mouth spreading involuntarily as if he was an extension of his mother’s happiness in that moment. Then, his dad kissed her lips and even though it was a common occurrence, Jem felt he was intruding on a private moment by the way her lips lingered on his a little longer than usual in front of others. In the end, his dad leaned in and placed a last kiss on Mandy’s dark hair, which made her spread her arms towards him.      

Mandy already looked a lot more like Dad than he did, despite the blue eyes they both shared. As he passed a hand through his red hair, he wished there was something in him that was more like his dad, and maybe he would not have all these doubts in his mind.   

“There ye are.”

He was startled by the sound of his dad’s voice, a little too rough in his throat, and suddenly Jem was assaulted by the memory that it had not always been so. In the distance, his mama and grannie walked away, disappearing fast into the greens and browns of the tall trees, taking Mandy with them.

“Daddy?” It was only a small question, though there was a little tremble in his voice throughout, and it came out as he stared at the wood car, now motionless in his small hands.  

“Yes, a bhalaich?” His dad said while sitting down on the porch next to him.

Deep inside, there was a part of him that knew it would never be true, but as the circle around his sister became closer and closer, he felt more and more left out. “Are ye going to forget me now?”

“Why would ye think that?” He placed a large hand on Jem’s back, turning his small body towards him. “Jemmy?”

“Because of wee Mandy.”

Again, an uncomfortable feeling moved through him, like a million ants traveling all at once over the surface of his skin. It felt odd to say it out loud, and his cheeks burned red and hot in embarrassment.

He was a big brother now, his dad had said so, speaking in a serious tone just after Mandy was born. It was a concept he could not quite match with the feelings of protection towards her that were just as strong as the wish that she was never born. That way, Jem thought, he would still have his parents all to himself, in a quiet harmony between the three of them. With no tears, no fear.

His dad’s hand moved to one of his shoulders and rested there. “Jem, be assured that my heart is big enough for both you and Mandy. Ye dinna have to worry about that.”

Jem did not reply and, still filled with uncertainty, only stared into the clear green eyes of his dad.

“I know yer mam and I have been a little absent because yer sister is sick and we are very worried about her, but it doesna mean we are forgetting you or love you any less than before.”

Jem nodded quietly, allowing the words to sink in, and while they did help calm his anxiety, another thought came to his mind, uninvited. He averted his eyes, watching the trees move with the wind and feeling the earth become alive with the smell of flowers and wet pine trees. His face turned into a frown and his next words came out before he was able to stop them.

“Germain once said ye were not here when I was born, but ye’re here for her. Were you not worried about me?”

The words hung loose in the air between them until Jem heard a groan deep in his dad’s throat, despite the discomfort it caused. As Jem glanced beside him, he saw pain twist his dad’s face, one which he had not seen before.

“No, I was not, by no choice of mine, but I came for you. I will always come for you.” His dad urged him to look towards him again. “And ye were such a braw lad, big and strong since the day ye were born. I loved ye from the first time I held ye and that will never change. Ye’re my son, alright?”

“But I don’t even look like you, and she does!” Jem exclaimed, matter-of-fact, and a little too loud, startling the otherwise peaceful birds nearby into flight.

“Ye may have yer mam’s hair and eyes, but you and I are more alike than ye think,” his dad said with a little smile, his features entirely relaxed now.

“How?”

“We both like cars, for example,” he said, pointing to the wood car in Jem’s little hands.

“What else?” Jem’s eyes were open wide now with interest and he felt himself smile again, on the verge of excitement to know more.

“We can both run really fast, even faster than yer mam.” His dad leaned closer. “Especially when she’s mad at us, but dinna tell her I said that.”

Jem could only giggle in reply, the laughter rolled freely out of him as it had not happened in a long while. He felt a little more at ease with himself knowing that he was not forgotten and just as much part of his parents as his sister was. Slowly, and further encouraged by the sound of his dad’s own laughter, the doubts that had been on his mind were fading away.

“And we also have the same spot on our head!” Jem shouted with pride, while pointing a finger at his own head, entirely oblivious to the fact that his dad had been constantly aware of their shared mark ever since it was discovered.

He was immediately swept into a strong embrace, the familiar warmth of his dad seeping through him and resetting his heart to a steady beat. 

Jem heard him whisper in his ear, “Aye, we do, mo ghile. And I can never forget you.”