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Excerpt – “A Leaf on the Wind of All Hallows”

Copyright 2010 Diana Gabaldon

Marjorie MacKenzie—Dolly to her husband—opened the blackout curtains.  No more than an inch…well, two inches.  It wouldn’t matter; the inside of the little flat was dark as the inside of  a coal-scuttle.  London outside was equally dark; she knew the curtains were open only because she felt the cold glass of the window through the narrow crack.  She leaned close, breathing on the glass, and felt the moisture of her breath condense, cool near her face.  Couldn’t see the mist, but felt the squeak of her fingertip on the glass as she quickly drew a small heart there, the letter J inside.

It faded at once, of course, but that didn’t matter; the charm would be there when the light came in, invisible but there, standing between her husband and the sky.

When the light came, it would fall just so, across his pillow.  She’d see his sleeping face in the light: the jackstraw hair,  the fading bruise on his temple, the deep-set eyes, closed in innocence.  He looked so young, asleep.  Almost as young as he really was.  Only twenty-two; too young to have such lines in his face.  She touched the corner of her mouth, but couldn’t feel the crease the mirror showed her—her mouth was swollen, tender, and the ball of her thumb ran across her lower lip, lightly, to and fro.

What else, what else?   What more could she do for him?    He’d left her with something of himself.  Perhaps there would be another baby—something he gave her, but something she gave him, as well.  Another baby.  Another child  to raise alone?

“Even so,” she whispered, her mouth tightening, face raw from hours of stubbled kissing; neither of them had been able to wait for him to shave.  “Even so.”

At least he’d got to see Roger.   Hold his little boy—and have said little boy sick up milk all down the back of his shirt.  Jerry’d yelped in surprise, but hadn’t let her take Roger back; he’d held his son and petted him until the wee mannie fell asleep, only then laying him down in his basket and stripping off the stained shirt before coming to her.

It was cold in the room, and she hugged herself.  She was wearing nothing but Jerry’s string vest—he thought she looked erotic in it–”lewd,” he said, approving, his Highland accent making the word sound really dirty–and the thought made her smile.  The thin cotton clung to her breasts, true enough, and her nipples poked out something scandalous, if only from the chill.

She wanted to go crawl in next to him, longing for his warmth, longing to keep touching him for as long as they had.   He’d need to go at eight, to catch the train back; it would barely be light then.   Some puritanical impulse of denial kept her hovering there, though, cold and wakeful in the dark.  She felt as though if she denied herself, her desire, offered that denial as sacrifice, it would strengthen the magic, help to keep him safe and bring him back.   God knew what a minister would say to that bit of superstition, and her tingling mouth twisted in self-mockery.   And doubt.

Still, she sat in the dark, waiting for the cold blue light of the dawn that would take him.

Baby Roger put an end to her dithering, though; babies did.   He rustled in his basket, making the little waking-up grunts that presaged an outraged roar at the discovery of a wet nappy and an empty stomach, and she hurried across the tiny room to his basket, breasts swinging heavy, already letting down her milk.   She wanted  to keep him from waking Jerry, but stubbed her toe on the spindly chair, and sent it over with a bang.

There was an explosion of bedclothes as Jerry sprang up with a loud “FUCK!” that drowned her own muffled “damn!” and Roger topped them both with a shriek like an air-raid siren.   Like clockwork, old Mrs. Munns in the next flat thumped indignantly on the thin wall.

Jerry’s naked shape crossed the room in a bound.   He pounded furiously on the partition with his fist, making the wallboard quiver and boom like a drum.   He paused, fist still raised, waiting.   Roger had stopped screeching, impressed by the racket.

Dead silence from the other side of the wall, and Marjorie pressed her mouth against Roger’s round little head to muffle her giggling.   He smelled of baby-scent and fresh pee, and she cuddled him like a large hot-water bottle, his immediate warmth and need making her notions of watching over her men in the lonely cold seem silly.

Jerry gave a satisfied grunt and came across to her.

“Ha,” he said, and kissed her.

“What d’ye think you are?” she whispered, leaning into him.  “A gorilla?”

“Yeah,” he whispered back, taking her hand and pressing it against him.  “Want to see my banana?”