There was a recurring vision she had of Frank, which had first visited her right after his death. She wouldn’t call it a dream, because it seldom came to her in sleep.
Rather, it fell upon her in fragments while carrying out the most mundane tasks, the way one quietly remembers things they forgot they could remember--something a classmate said in primary school, a quarter that leapt from a pocket and rolled down a storm drain in this one rainstorm, this one haircut or this one inconsequential moment with this one person this one time. Things that stick.
Except Claire’s recurring vision wasn’t quite a memory. Or at least, it hadn’t actually happened to her, but it felt as real as any other. She would be showering, refilling a spice jar, jotting down notes on the latest advancement in veterinary medicine, and there it was: Frank in a tailed red coat with gold buttons and navy trim, knelt along a riverbank next to a rifle. His long brown hair tied into a low ponytail, a white cloth tied around his neck. The forest behind him was cold and expansive, and a stream slithered at his feet. It was Frank, to be sure. But it also… wasn’t. Claire knew that it wasn’t. It couldn’t possibly be--not in her reality, not in her lifetime. And when, in her vision, she said to him in disbelief, Frank?, he eyed her from the ground up, deep, ugly lines settling into his dirtied expression, he said No, madam. I am not. And she was afraid.
She wrote it off as the impression of a dream that she had once but couldn’t explicitly recall. It was the only explanation.
It came to her the next morning, in the stables. She couldn’t say what brought the image to mind, but as she reached up to feed Bonnie an apple, Frank’s face swam to the forefront of her mind. No, madam. I am not.
Young Ian stood at her side, bouncing on his toes: “She loves you!” And Frank disappeared, cast to the side by this reality--her current reality, in the golden glow of the Fraser barn flanked by golden hay bales, the soft huffing of horses moving through her like the music of childhood.
Bonnie sucked up the apple like a vacuum cleaner, then pushed her nose into Claire’s hand, thanking her. Claire felt comfortable--like she was understood, somehow. Or at least appreciated.
In daylight streaming through overhead windows, the mare’s stomach seemed to have grown. It bulged heavy beneath her. “When is she due?” Claire asked. “It must be soon. Her—"
“Aye, soon,” Young Ian interrupted. He handed Claire a carrot for Bonnie and moved to refill the water troughs. “She’s due in March.”
“Yes, that’s what I thought.” Bonnie crunched the carrot, and Claire ran her hand along the mare’s neck, to the shoulder, the flank, up to the croup. She was soft and warm and radiating life in soft pulses. Claire’s other hand raised to her own stomach, feeling for the absence of life and disappointed when her search met her own expectations. It never went away, that.
She shook it off. “This history lesson you promised me—” she began.
“Aye.” Ian’s chest puffed as he assumed the stance of a small scholar, the fronts of his trousers soaked through with hose water, the hose still spitting water into a trough. “In the mid-1700s, Flemish stallions were bred to Scottish mares in Lanarkshire—what once was called Clydesdale because of the River Clyde--and the foals were massive—larger than the local stock that came before. They didna start keeping written pedigrees ‘til the early 1800s, but we do know that one of the stallions was a black one imported by a man from Lallybroch—”
Claire scarcely had time to be impressed by the child’s knowledge. The doors burst open, and a barking dog rode a gust of wind through the stables, beelining straight for Young Ian. Ian dropped his hose in surprise, and water began seeping into the planks underfoot. Bonnie and the other horses whinnied in distress, pressing back into the walls of the barn. In the doorway, a short, almost apelike silhouette stood with its back to morning sun. “Ian James Fitzgibbons Fraser Murray!” it bellowed.
Ian knelt to shush the dog, which was larger than him, and which Claire quickly classified as a breed near to wolf—a Northern Inuit, perhaps. The man in the doorway stepped forward, and Claire blinked, her eyes adjusting to the sudden change in brightness, and as he came into focus she realized this must be Murtagh Fitzgibbons.
He was exactly as she’d pictured him, with swinging arms and a pointed face that drooped with the weight of his beard. He was wrapped in a plaid coat, and his beady eyes sized her up from her broken ankle to the unkempt curls on her head; she felt that he knew exactly who she was within about five seconds, though the look on his face was so steely and impenetrable she couldn’t even think about saying the same.
“Ian,” Murtagh repeated, huffing. His analysis of Claire complete, he advanced toward Ian, and Claire suddenly felt invisible. “What in the devil are you doing here?”
Ian had collected himself—had gathered up the hose and frantically turned the knob ‘til it squeaked to stopping. “I come here every morning,” he said, bold, “to do my job. I should be asking you the same question. What are you doing here?”
Murtagh grabbed Ian by the collar and began pulling him toward the door. “Ye ken verra well what I’m doing here,” Murtagh spat. “Ye ken what your mother said about speakin’ to that one—” He nodded toward Claire.
Ian pushed at Murtagh’s arms. “Miss Claire is perfectly fine—”
“I dinna give a rat’s arse what you think Miss Claire is or isn’t. She told ye and that’s enough. And now I had to hike all the way up here to come and get ye. Let’s go.”
“Ma is just hormonal because of the pregnan—”
“What in God’s name do ye know about women’s hormones? Ye’re little more than a bairn, and obviously a pig-headed one at that. Jenny gave the orders, and unless ye want a thrashing--let’s go.”
Sensing that his protest was mute, Ian cast a glance at Claire and shrugged in apology. Claire blinked. Murtagh didn’t look at her. They disappeared into the morning sun.
“And then he said, Ye ken what your mother said about speaking to that one.” Claire finished scraping jam onto her bread. “And then he looked at me.” She pointed her butter knife at Jamie. “Rather pointedly.”
“Aye?” Jamie sat at the dining table with her for breakfast, but his plate was barren save for a few berries. He was preoccupied with his prehistoric laptop, which he’d been cursing at for the past twenty minutes, at odds with the internet connection that kept dropping unannounced. He rubbed his eyes behind round rimless reading glasses. “Well, I dinna ken what he could’ve meant.” He squinted at something on his computer screen, avoiding Claire’s gaze.
She took a bite of sourdough. “See, I really don’t believe that. Because,” held out her empty mug, “somebody had to tell him about me, yes? About how I came to be here? About my mysterious origins?”
Jamie rolled his eyes and poured coffee into her cup one-handed, still focused on his laptop screen. “Well, Young Ian himself could’ve.” He rested the coffee pot back on the table, atop the potholder, which was patterned with chickens.
One of Claire’s eyebrows quirked. “Okay, fair.” She sipped. “But I have a difficult time believing that, if Young Ian had told his mother or Murtagh about the suspicious English woman he found sleeping in her brother’s stables, his mother would’ve said nothing to you about it afterwards.”
Jamie slammed his laptop shut. “Damn computer,” he snapped, rubbing his eyes again. “I’m just trying to let this woman know that I’ll be at the farmer’s market in Asheville in April and she needs an answer by noon.”
“Well, good thing it’s only eight o’clock. Why did Murtagh say what he said, Jamie?”
The Scot sighed, then looked into the depths of his empty mug. He reached for the coffee pot, but Claire stopped him, picking up the pot one-handed and pouring its contents into Jamie’s cup for him. He looked at her curiously, then nodded. “Thank ye.”
He sipped. “Okay. I might have told Jenny and Murtagh about ye. And Ian, too.”
“And Jenny was less than pleased,” Jamie said. “Doesn’t trust ye. Thinks you’re suspicious--” Claire opened her mouth to protest, “—and with good reason, might I add.”
“I know you’re not dangerous, Sassenach. How could you be? Look at ye.” His eyes worked their way down her seated frame.
“I ken what you’re thinking. But you have to understand, from her point of view—and you said it yourself--a random English woman dropped out of the sky, half-crazed in the wilderness—”
“I’m just saying,” Jamie persisted, “this is what she believes. She’s a skeptical woman; it’s in her nature. You dropped out of the sky, half-crazed in the wilderness, took up shelter with me before passing out in the stables and then spending a whole morning with her son. And on top of it all, you’re English.”
“You’re the one who invited me to ‘take up shelter’ with you.”
“I’m just saying, Claire,” the use of her name caught her off-guard, and it sounded soft in his mouth despite the tension between them, “she doesn’t trust ye, because she doesn’t know who you are. And if she told Ian not to speak to ye, there’s little I can do about it.”
Claire huffed, took another bite of bread and tried not to look like she was pouting.
“Sassenach,” Jamie said, “stop pouting.”
“I’m not pouting.”
“You have a glass face. You’re pouting.” He smirked then and removed his glasses. “In any case, it doesna matter. We’re having dinner with them tomorrow, and she’ll come around.” He stood, towering above her. “Of course, you don’t have to come, but Jenny makes a mean roast, ken. Now, I’m going to reset the damned wifi router, I’m going to email this woman in Asheville, finish tending to the animals, and then I’ll be in the greenhouse…”
Jamie trailed on and on, losing himself in his verbalized to-do list, and Claire found herself watching him: the way he moved his hands as if he was telling a folktale, forgot his technology-induced frustration, smiled at the thought of mundane tasks that brought him comfort, warmed to the idea of the day. This was a man who found solace in his work—in his life, in his parcel of the mountainside and everything growing there.
“I’ll see you later,” he grinned.
Jenny met them in the driveway.
She was a fortified wall, arms crossed over her bulging, very pregnant stomach, brows drawn together above her raven eyes, her mouth flat and unreadable.
Still in Jamie’s truck, crutches across her lap, Claire took a breath. “Why am I nervous,” she whispered.
Jamie turned the key, killing the engine. He looked at Claire, looked at Jenny. “I’d be more concerned if you weren’t.” He opened the door and slid out of the car.
“Damn it, Claire Randall,” she murmured, bracing herself to hop the few meters up the driveway. “Damn it.”
It’s not that Claire was afraid of judgement. She knew who she was, and if other people took up an issue, she paid the issue its due mind and moved forward, and she rarely dwelled on the lingering judgement. And so if Jenny Fraser Murray refused to view Claire as anything but untrustworthy or dangerous or… well, logically there wasn’t much Claire could do about it besides be herself and tell the truth, and she knew it. But still, something about this particular meeting made her heart thrash in its cage, and she felt her milky white skin flush with anxiety. She wanted Jenny to like her—to tolerate her, at least. She couldn’t say why, but the desire was visceral. Perhaps it was to do with Ian. Claire adored the boy, and she felt as though he was a friend here, and he was her access to the mare whom she also adored, but Claire’s need to please Jenny felt more intrinsic than that, even.
Claire opened the door to the truck, and to her surprise, Jamie was waiting there for her. He held out his arms. “The truck sits high,” he explained. His cheeks went red. She nodded, and he scooped her out of the passenger seat, setting her down but wrapping an arm around her so she stayed upright while he reached for the crutches. His face was inches from hers. She could see every cinnamon eyelash.
“Thanks,” Claire blurted.
Jamie nodded. Cleared his throat. “Do ye need help getting to the—”
“She can do it just fine, Jamie.” Jenny’s voice from up the driveway.
Jamie stepped back, and silently Claire lamented the gap between them, but this only lasted a second.
The trudge up the lane was both the longest journey of Claire’s life and the shortest. With each step she felt the heat of Jenny’s gaze increase tenfold, and she felt like she was moving through water. By the time she stood two feet from Jenny she wanted to be back in the truck, curled up in the passenger seat next to Jamie doing his best Frankie Valli like he had on the brief ride over, and no amount of time could’ve prepared Claire for this kind of scrutiny.
Except, when she reached Jenny Fraser Murray, the woman did nothing but look at Claire from the ground up (Claire was quite tired of being sized up, truth be told), spin on her heels, snap “Come,” and whoosh away in a flurry of woolen skirting.
Claire looked at Jamie, eyebrows raised. Jamie shrugged. As he crossed in front of her, he leaned in and said, “Her strength is in her silence. That’s how she wreaks terror.” His eyes glittered with bemusement and he crossed the threshold into the house.
Describing the Fraser Murray home as ‘cozy’ would’ve been an understatement. The open floorplan was the embodiment of warmth—a homecoming in earth tones: rich brown paneling, russet red curtains, generations-old hickory flooring, stretches of deep green carpet. A fireplace crackled in the corner and, like Jamie’s, was practically buried beneath picture frames and knick-knacks whose places of origin Claire would likely never know. The home smelled of hearth and smoked sage, and the roast being cooked for dinner.
Ian Murray Sr. appeared rather quickly from a nearby hallway, a bit frazzled, his long hair falling from its ponytail. “Claire,” he said, holding out a hand. “It’s lovely to meet you. I already feel as though we’re one in the same.” He motioned down toward his right leg. A prosthetic began at the knee. He pointed at Claire’s broken ankle.
“Oh—I—” Claire stuttered, “Well, I wouldn’t—I wouldn’t say that—I—”
“Only joking, lass!” He laughed a bellowing, room-trembling laugh. “Obviously I’m much worse off than you.”
Jamie thumped Ian’s back. “You are the biggest arse, Ian.”
Ian grinned. “Good to have you, Claire.”
“Dinner is getting cold!” Jenny called from around the corner.
The dining room, a small alcove pressed into the wall, sat directly across from the kitchen, and Jenny was running back to the table with a casserole dish. The roast sat regal in the table’s center, surrounded by an array of breads, sweet potatoes, asparagus, and the prettiest little gravy boat.
Jenny had seated herself at the head of the table, and Ian took up her right side. Without a word, Jamie took Claire’s crutches and leaned them against the hutch behind her. Claire slid herself into a seat next to Ian. Jamie sat across from her, at Jenny’s left.
“The bairns are with Murtagh tonight, so they won’t be joining us.” Jenny said. “I hope you eat meat, Claire.”
“I’m mostly vegetarian,” Claire fessed. Jamie’s eyes grew wide with surmounting panic. He glanced at Jenny. “But I—I do make exceptions,” Claire fumbled. “When the meat is ethically, locally sourced. Why, just the other day, Jamie fed me some wonderful stewed hare—”
“Yes,” said Jenny, “It seems as though he’s done a lot for you, from what I’ve been told.”
“Yes,” Claire confirmed, cautious. “He has.”
“Willingly,” Jamie added.
“Oh, I ken you’re more than willing to aid a beautiful, helpless English lass who just stumbled into your home to sleep in your living room, and God knows what else.”
“Jenny.” Jamie’s voice was a warning. Ian cleared his throat and began piling food onto his plate.
“I’m only saying,” Jenny said, shooting daggers at Jamie. “And then she wanders out to your barn in the middle of the night like an insane person—”
“—and, a total stranger, says god knows what to my son—”
“—and her husband is mysteriously absent and for the most part unmentioned, but we know he exists—”
“Enough!” Jamie hit a hand against the table, and Jenny jumped. Ian looked like a scared rabbit, a bite of roast suspended in the air halfway between the plate and his mouth. A moment of silence fell upon them, and for that moment, Claire’s mind was devoid of thought—completely silent. She didn’t know what to think.
“My… my husband,” Claire began, and it all hit her—an entire movie that played out in her head in just three seconds:
A warm June evening, damp. The storm had just passed. Fireflies settling upon the front yard, and if she looked close enough, she could make constellations of their lights. Yes, a warm night, a silent night, stovetop pot boiling softly in the background, but tonight the pasta was just for her. Frank was absent this weekend, as he was for so many weekends, away on business or at different research conferences, sometimes in Wake Forest, sometimes in Greensboro. And then the phone, a nasty, piercing shriek of a ring, and she didn’t want to answer. But she did. The officer’s voice on the other end was foreign, strange, and as he spoke she couldn’t help but picture him as an executioner delivering his final blow: Frank Randall is dead. A gap of time, then, between the glass of wine falling from her hand to the floor and her arrival in town, where they were unwrapping Frank’s car from around a telephone pole, and his body had already been removed from the site, and uniformed people were saying things to her, but all she could hear was that ringing phone. That shrieking phone.
“My husband died,” Claire said. “In a car accident. Last June. We honeymooned together here in the mountains, when we first moved to America.”
Ian put down his fork. “Well, looks like I am no longer the biggest arse in the room.”
The rest of dinner took on a comparatively uneventful lull. They talked about dining room things—easy things. Crop cycles and animals and the weather, updates on Jenny’s many children, and Murtagh’s latest love interest, a woman in town named Jocasta for whom he trekked mountains every weekend just to spend a couple of nights together. Jenny and Claire stayed silent, mostly, the conversation almost painfully guided by Ian and Jamie alone.
Afterwards, Jenny offered to brew coffee to pair with dessert. “Claire,” she said, “would ye like to come?”
Taking the hint, Claire reached for her crutches and followed Jenny into the kitchen. She felt Jamie’s eyes boring into her spine as she retreated from the table.
Jenny kept her back to Claire, tending to the coffee pot. The kitchen looked a lot like Jamie’s, Claire mused, in its structured disarray, its dried herbs hiding from sunlight, silver kettles and cast-iron skillets lining cabinet shelves, cotton bags, wooden spoons. “I’m sorry,” Jenny said, her back still to Claire. The matriarch raised her head, looking up to the pots hanging from the ceiling. “I should not have been so… bristly.”
Claire snorted. “Bristly might be an understatement.”
“I know,” Jenny snapped. Then again, softer: “I know.” She turned then, pressing lower back to countertop as the coffee pot began to gurgle. “It wasna my place. But you have to understand—”
“I know,” Claire said. “I’m a stranger waltzing in—”
“Not just that.” Jenny pushed a strand of dark hair from her forehead, and her onyx eyes were sad, a bit. “Jamie… He might not have told ye. I doubt he told ye.”
“About his wife.”
The coffee pot spat, and the sound was ugly. “Oh. No. No, he didn’t.”
Jenny lowered her voice a bit, even though the men were loud enough in the other room so as to drown out the conversation. “He has a family back in Scotland—two daughters, and a wife. They’re in the midst of separating; it’s not a good relationship. Not a healthy relationship, not anymore, and they’ve long since stopped talking to one another. But it pains him, still, I know it, and you—you make me nervous. I’m nervous for him.”
Claire looked up at the overhead pots now, brain churning. This information unsettled her, and she felt as though her stomach was churning in time with the brew. Two daughters? A wife? Not that he owed her any information whatsoever, but she figured he would’ve told her. Said something—anything. But there was no trace of this woman in his words or in his eyes or in his house, and a small part of her felt betrayed. She tried to fend off that part, stave it off like she would a prey-hungry wolf. “I’m not here to disrupt your family,” she said. “Or Jamie’s family. I’m just healing this broken ankle, and then I’m on my way back to Durham. Promise.”
Jenny nodded, but her eyes were searching, looking for cracks in Claire’s words. Looking for cracks in Claire. “Well. That’s that, then.” She pulled the coffee carafe from the machine and pulled four mugs from the cabinet. “Go on back into the dining room, if ye like. I’ll be in; I’ve made a cheesecake for dessert. I hope you like cheesecake.”
Claire moved toward the door, but Jenny caught her one last time.
“Claire? I am sorry, again, about your husband, and about my—”
“It’s okay, Jenny. Really.”
On the short ride home, in Jamie’s truck, they sat in silence. There was no Frankie Valli impression. There was no music at all. Just Claire and Jamie, breathing the same air, breathing the same confessions.
She didn’t ask about Jamie’s wife, or his family. He didn’t ask about Frank.
As they pulled up to his house, Jamie didn’t move to get out of the car, and they sat there idling.
Finally, he said, “Sassenach. I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s not.” In the dim light of the dashboard, his eyes were sad—and guilty, she thought. “It’s not okay. This Frank… if ye loved him, he must ha’ been a good man.”
“Then I am, truly, sorry.”