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“The Space Between”

This one’s still under construction.  “The Space Between” is either a long short story or a novella (probably the latter), intended for an anthology titled THE MAD SCIENTIST’S GUIDE TO WORLD DOMINATION, edited by John Joseph Adams. (No pub date available yet.)   This one deals with Michael Murray–second son of Ian and Jenny, Young Ian’s next-elder brother–and with Joan McKimmie, Laoghaire’s second daughter and Marsali’s younger sister.   We last saw Joan embarked for France, under Michael’s protection, there to take up her vocation as a nun.

Copyright 2011 Diana Gabaldon

They did say that red hair was a sign of the Devil.  Joan eyed her escort’s fiery locks consideringly.  The wind on deck was fierce enough to make her eyes water, and it jerked bits of Michael Murray’s hair out of its binding so they did dance round his head like flames, a bit.  You might expect his face to be ugly as sin if he was one of the Devil’s, though, and it wasn’t.

Lucky for him, he looked like his mother in the face, she thought critically.   His younger brother Ian wasn’t so fortunate, and that without the heathen tattoos.  Michael’s was just a fairly pleasant face, for all it was blotched with windburn and the lingering marks of sorrow, and no wonder, him having just lost his father, and his wife dead in France no more than a month before that

But she wasn’t braving this gale in order to watch Michael Murray, even if he might burst into tears or  turn into Auld Horny on the spot.  She touched her crucifix for reassurance, just in case.  It was blessed by the priest and her mother’d carried it all the way to St. Ninian’s Spring and dipped it in the water there, to ask the saint’s protection.  And it was her mother she wanted to see, as long as ever she could.
She pulled her kerchief off and waved it, keeping a tight grip lest the wind make off with it.  Her mother was growing smaller on the quay, waving madly herself, Joey behind her with his arm round her waist to keep her from falling into the water.
Joan snorted a bit at sight of her new stepfather, but then thought better and touched the crucifix again, muttering a quick Act of Contrition in penance.  After all, it was she herself who’d made that marriage happen, and a good thing, too.  If not, she’d still be stuck to home at Balriggan, not on her way at last to be a Bride of Christ in France.
A nudge at her elbow made her glance aside, to see Michael offering her a handkerchief.  Well, so.  If her eyes were streaming–aye, and her nose–it was no wonder, the wind so fierce as it was.  She took the scrap of cloth with a curt nod of thanks, scrubbed briefly at her cheeks, and waved her kerchief harder.

None of his family had come to see Michael off, not even his twin sister, Janet.   But they were taken up with all there was to do in the wake of Old Ian Murray’s death, and no wonder.   No need to see Michael to the ship, either—Michael Murray was a wine merchant in Paris, and a wonderfully well-traveled gentleman.  She took some comfort from the knowledge that he knew what to do and where to go, and had said he would see her safely delivered to the convent of the Holy Ghost, because the thought of making her way through Paris alone and the streets full of people all speaking French—though she knew French quite well, of course, she’d been studying it all the winter, and Michael’s mother helping her…though perhaps she had better not tell the Reverend Mother about the sorts of French novels Jenny Murray had in her bookshelf, because…

Voulez-vous descendre, mademoiselle?”

“Eh?”  She glanced at him, to see him gesturing toward the hatchway that led downstairs.   She turned back, blinking—but the quay had vanished, and her mother with it.

“No,” she said.  “Not just yet.  I’ll just…”  She wanted to see the land so long as she could.  It would be her last sight of Scotland, ever, and the thought made her wame curl into a small, tight ball.    She waved a vague hand toward the hatchway.  “You go, though.  I’m all right by myself.”

He didn’t go, but came to stand beside her, gripping the rail.  She turned away from him a little, so he wouldn’t see her weep, but on the whole, she wasn’t sorry he’d stayed.

Neither of them spoke, and the land sank slowly, as though the sea swallowed it, and there was nothing round them now but the open sea, glassy gray and rippling under a scud of clouds.  The prospect made her dizzy, and she closed her eyes, swallowing.

Dear Lord Jesus, don’t let me be sick!

A small shuffling noise beside her made her open her eyes, to find Michael Murray regarding her with some concern.

“Are ye all right, Miss Joan?”  He smiled a little.  “Or should I call ye Sister?”

“No,” she said, taking a grip on her nerve and her stomach and drawing herself up.  “I’m no a nun yet, am I?”

He looked her up and down in the frank way Hieland men did, and smiled more broadly.

“Have ye ever seen a nun?” he asked.

“I have not,” she said, as starchily as she could.  “I havena seen God or the Blessed Virgin, either, but I believe in them, too.”

Much to her annoyance, he burst out laughing.  Seeing the annoyance, though, he stopped at once, though she could see the urge still trembling there behind his assumed gravity.

“I do beg your pardon, Miss MacKimmie,” he said.  “I wasna questioning the existence of nuns.  I’ve seen quite a number of the creatures with my own eyes.”  His lips were twitching, and she glared at him.

“Creatures, is it?”

“A figure of speech, nay more, I swear it!  Forgive me, sister—I ken not what I do!”  He held up a hand, cowering in mock terror.  The urge to laugh herself made her that much crosser, but she contented herself with a simple, “Mmphm” of disapproval.

Curiosity got the better of her, though, and after a few moments spent inspecting the foaming wake of the ship, she asked, not looking at him, “When ye saw the nuns, then—what were they doing?”

He’d got control of himself by now, and answered her seriously.

“Well, I see the Sisters of Notre-Dame who work among the poor all the time in the streets.  They always go out by twos, ken, and both nuns will be carrying great huge baskets, filled with food, I suppose—maybe medicines?  They’re covered, though—the baskets—so I canna say for sure what’s in them.  Perhaps they’re smuggling brandy and lace down to the docks–”  He dodged aside from her upraised hand, laughing.

“Oh, ye’ll be a rare nun, Sister Joan!   Terror daemonium, solatium miserorum…

She pressed her lips tight together, not to laugh.   Terror of demons, the cheek of him!

“Not Sister Joan,” she said.  “They’ll give me a new name, likely, when I take my vows.”

“Oh, aye?”  He wiped hair out of his eyes, interested.  “D’ye get to choose the name, yourself?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted.

“Well, though—what name would ye pick, if ye had the choosing?”

“Er…well….”   She hadn’t told anyone, but after all, what harm could it do?  She wouldn’t see Michael Murray again, once they reached Paris.  “Sister Gregory,” she blurted.

Rather to her relief, he didn’t laugh.

“Oh, that’s a good name,” he said.   “After Saint Gregory the Great, is it?”

“Well…aye.  Ye don’t think it’s presumptuous?” she asked, a little anxious.

“Oh, no!” he said, surprised.  “I mean, how many nuns are named Mary?   If it’s not presumptuous to be named after the Mother o’ God, how can it be presumptuous to call yourself after a mere pope?”  He smiled at that, so merrily that she smiled back.

“How many nuns are named Mary?” she asked, out of curiosity.  “It’s common, is it?”

“Oh, aye, ye said ye’d not seen a nun.”  He’d stopped making fun of her, though, and answered seriously.  “About half the nuns I’ve met seem to be called Sister Mary Something—ye ken, Sister Mary Polycarp, Sister Mary Joseph…like that.”

“And ye meet a great many nuns in the course o’ your business, do ye?”

His mouth twitched, but he answered seriously enough.

“Well, I do, really.  Not every day, I mean, but the sisters come round to my office quite often—or I go to them.    Fraser et Cie supplies wine to most o’ the monasteries and convents in Paris, and some will send a pair of nuns to place an order or to take away something special—otherwise, we deliver it, of course.   And even the orders who dinna take wine themselves—and most of the Parisian houses do, bein’ French, aye?—need sacramental wine for their chapels.   And the begging orders come round like clockwork to ask alms.”

“Really.”  She was fascinated; sufficiently so as to put aside her reluctance to look ignorant.  “I didna ken…I mean…so the different orders do quite different things, is that what ye’re saying?  What other kinds are there?”

He shot her a brief glance, but then turned back, narrowing his eyes against the wind as he thought.

“Well…there’s the sort of nun that prays all the time—contemplative, I think they’re called.  I see them in the Cathedral all hours of the day and night.  There’s more than one order of that sort, though; one kind wears gray habits and prays in the chapel of St. Joseph, and another wears black; ye see them mostly in the chapel of Our Lady of the Sea.”  He glanced at her, curious.  “Will it be that sort of nun that you’ll be?”

She shook her head, glad that the wind-chafing hid her blushes.

“No,” she said, with some regret.  “That’s maybe the holiest sort of nun, but I’ve spent a good bit o’ my life being contemplative on the moors, and I didna like it much. I think I havena got the right sort of soul to do it verra well, even in a chapel.”

“Aye,” he said, and wiped back flying strands of hair from his face.  “I ken the moors.  The wind gets into your head after a bit.”  He hesitated for a moment.  “When my uncle Jamie—your da, I mean—ye ken he hid in a cave after Culloden?”

“For seven years,” she said, a little impatient.  “Aye, everyone kens that story.  Why?”

He shrugged.

“Only thinking.  I was no but a wee bairn at the time, but I went now and then wi’ my mam, to take him food there.  He’d be glad to see us, but he wouldna talk much.  And it scared me to see his eyes.”

Joan felt a small shiver pass down her back, nothing to do with the stiff breeze.  She saw—suddenly saw, in her head—a thin, dirty man, the bones starting in his face, crouched in the dank, frozen shadows of the cave.

“Da?” she scoffed, to hide the shiver that crawled up her arms.  “How could anyone be scairt of him?  He’s a dear, kind man.”

Michael’s wide mouth twitched at the corners.

“I suppose it would depend whether ye’d ever seen him in a fight.  But—“

“Have you?” she interrupted, curious.  “Seen him in a fight?”

“I have, aye.  BUT—“ he said, not willing to be distracted, “I didna mean he scared me.  It was that I thought he was haunted.  By the voices in the wind.”

That dried up the spit in her mouth, and she worked her tongue a little,  hoping it didn’t show.  She needn’t have worried; he wasn’t looking at her.

“My own Da said it was because Jamie spent so much time alone, that the voices got into his head, and he couldna stop hearing them.  When he’d feel safe enough to come to the house, it would take hours sometimes, before he could start to hear us again—Mam wouldna let us talk to him until he’d had something to eat and was warmed through.”  He smiled, a little ruefully.  “She said he wasna human ‘til then—and looking back, I dinna think she meant that as a figure of speech.”

“Well,” she said, but stopped, not knowing how to go on.  She wished fervently that she’d known this earlier.  Her Da and his sister were coming on to France later, but she might not see him.  She could maybe have talked to Da, asked him just what the voices in his head were like—what they said.   Whether they were anything like the ones she heard.

[end section]