A grasshopper landed on the canvas above with an audible thump. I eyed it narrowly, but it didn’t seem disposed to come inside, thank goodness. Perhaps I should have accepted Mrs. Bryan’s offer to find me a bed in the house, along with a few other officers’ wives who had accompanied their husbands. Jamie had insisted upon sleeping in the field with his men, though, and I had gone with him, preferring a bed involving Jamie and bugs to one with neither.
I glanced sideways, careful not to move in case he was still asleep. He wasn’t. He was lying quite still, though, utterly relaxed, save for his right hand. He had this raised, and appeared to be examining it closely, turning it to and fro and slowly curling and uncurling his fingers—as well as he could. The fourth finger had a fused joint, and was permanently stiff; the middle finger was slightly twisted, a deep white scar spiraling round the middle joint.
His hand was callused and battered by work, and the tiny stigma of a nail-wound still showed, pale-pink, in the middle of his palm. The skin of his hand was deeply bronzed and weathered, freckled with sun-blots and scattered with bleached gold hairs. I thought it remarkably beautiful.
“Happy birthday,” I said, softly. “Taking stock?”
He let the hand fall on his chest, and turned his head to look at me, smiling.
“Aye, something of the sort. Though I suppose I’ve a few hours left. I was born at half-six; I willna have lived a full half-century until suppertime.”
I laughed and rolled onto my side, kicking the blanket off. The air was still delightfully cool, but it wouldn’t last long.
“Do you expect to disintegrate much further before supper?” I asked, teasing.
“Oh, I dinna suppose anything is likely to fall off by then,” he said, consideringly. “As to the workings… aye, well…” He arched his back, stretching, and sank back with a gratified groan as my hand settled on him.
“It all seems to be in perfect working order,” I assured him. I gave a brief, experimental tug, making him yelp slightly. “Not loose at all.”
“Good,” he said, folding his hand firmly over mine to prevent further unauthorized experiments. “How did ye ken what I was doing? Taking stock, as ye say.”
I let him keep hold of the hand, but shifted to set my chin in the center of his chest, where a small depression seemed made for the purpose.
“I always do that, when I have a birthday—though I generally do it the night before. More looking back, I think, reflecting a bit on the year that’s just gone. But I do check things over; I think perhaps everyone does. Just to see if you’re the same person as the day before.”
“I’m reasonably certain that I am,” he assured me. “Ye dinna see any marked changes, do ye?”
I lifted my chin from its resting place and looked him over carefully. It was in fact rather hard to look at him objectively; I was both so used to his features and so fond of them that I tended to notice tiny, dear things about him—the freckle on his earlobe, the lower incisor pushing eagerly forward, just slightly out of line with its fellows—and to respond to the slightest change of his expression—but not really to look at him as an integrated whole.
He bore my examination tranquilly, eyelids half-lowered against the growing light. His hair had come loose while he slept and feathered over his shoulders, its ruddy waves framing a face strongly marked by both humor and passion—but which possessed a paradoxical and most remarkable capacity for stillness.
“No,” I said at last, and set my chin down again with a contented sigh. “It’s still you.”
He gave a small grunt of amusement, but lay still. I could hear one of the cooks stumbling round nearby, cursing as he tripped over a wagon-tongue. The camp was still in the process of assembling; a few of the companies—those with a high proportion of ex-soldiers among their officers and men—were tidy and organized. A good many were not, and tipsy tents and strewn equipment sprawled across the meadow in a quasi-military hodgepodge.
[omitted stuff about what’s going on with the expedition]
Jamie’s free hand rested on my back, his thumb idly stroking the edge of my shoulder blade. With his usual capacity for mental discipline, he appeared to have dismissed the uncertainty of the military prospects completely from his mind, and was thinking of something else entirely.
“Do ye ever think—” he began, and then broke off.
“Think what?” I bent and kissed his chest, arching my back to encourage him to rub it, which he did.
“Well… I’m no so sure I can explain, but it’s struck me that now I have lived longer than my father did—which is not something I expected to happen,” he added, with faint wryness. “It’s only… well, it seems odd, is all. I only wondered, did ye ever think of that, yourself—having lost your mother young, I mean?”
“Yes.” My face was buried in his chest, my voice muffled in the folds of his shirt. “I used to—when I was younger. Like going on a journey without a map.”
His hand on my back paused for a moment.
“Aye, that’s it.” He sounded a little surprised. “I kent more or less what it would be like to be a man of thirty, or of forty—but now what?” His chest moved briefly, with a small noise that might have been a mixture of amusement and puzzlement.
“You invent yourself,” I said softly, to the shadows inside the hair that had fallen over my face. “You look at other women—or men; you try on their lives for size. You take what you can use, and you look inside yourself for what you can’t find elsewhere. And always… always… you wonder if you’re doing it right.”
His hand was warm and heavy on my back. He felt the tears that ran unexpectedly from the corners of my eyes to dampen his shirt, and his other hand came up to touch my head and smooth my hair.
“Aye, that’s it,” he said again, very softly.
The camp was beginning to stir outside, with clangings and thumps, and the hoarse sound of sleep-rough voices. Overhead, the grasshopper began to chirp, the sound like someone scratching a nail on a copper pot.
“This is a morning my father never saw,” Jamie said, still so softly that I heard it as much through the walls of his chest, as with my ears. “The world and each day in it is a gift, mo chride— no matter what tomorrow may be.”
I sighed deeply and turned my head, to rest my cheek against his chest. He reached over gently and wiped my nose with a fold of his shirt.
“And as for taking stock,” he added practically, “I’ve all my teeth, none of my parts are missing, and my cock still stands up by itself in the morning. It could be worse.”
This excerpt from THE FIERY CROSS is Copyright © by Diana Gabaldon, all rights reserved. It was also posted on my official Facebook page on January 11, 2019.
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