The days waiting for Jamie to return seemed to stretch on forever. I was starting to fear that he wouldn’t even come back before Uncle Lamb and I were forced to sail back to England.
Women in the village tended to do their bathing in the river during the evenings, while the men bathed in the mornings. It was a hot night, I hadn’t had anything better than a quick scrub in a hip bath in days, and a dip in the cool river sounded like just what the doctor ordered.
I walked down with the women, but broke off on my own, since I didn’t speak enough of their language to really get on with them, besides I was sort of wanting a little time to myself.
I found a secluded area of the river, sheltered by trees, to strip down and wade into the chilly water.
It had been some time since I’d last been able to fully submerge myself in water, and I leaned back, letting myself float, my face turned up into the pale light of the moon.
I thought about what waited for me in England. A grand house, fancy parties, endless suitors. For some girls it was a dream. For me, it felt like a sentence I needed to resign myself to. But Uncle Lamb had been very clear...once last excursion, and then we both settle down. I was no longer a girl, and I couldn’t get away with running about like a wild child forever. In fact even though I didn’t feel very old, at twenty-five I was well past my prime marrying years, as far as society in England was concerned.
I thought of Joe, and all he’d gone through to become a doctor. I knew that it wasn’t impossible for a woman to be a doctor, but it was very, very challenging. I wondered if I was even half as strong as Joe, to even consider such a thing.
I heard a rustle in the leaves, and then some childish giggling, and sighed. “Get out of here!” I snapped, covering my chest with my arms and peering into the dark to see whatever nosy little boys were spying.
Then there was more rustling, a snarl, and the squeals of small children as they went fleeing back to the village. I waded closer to the shore, curious and a little worried, only to see Jamie, scowling in the direction that the boys had gone.
“It’s you,” I sighed in relief. “Wait...just how long have you been watching me?!’
Jamie looked back at me with utmost innocence, then tilted his head curiously. When he started wading into the water, I ducked down. “Wait, stop!”
Jamie did, watching me worriedly, and I became aware of two things. One, Jamie was clearly aroused by whatever he’d managed to see, and two, Uncle Lamb was clearly wrong about Jamie not stopping when I asked him.
After a moment, Jamie continued on cautiously into the water, picking my bar of soap up on the way, but kept a respectable distance from me. I watched, chin-deep in the water, as he scrubbed himself clean of whatever grime he’d picked up in the few days he’d been gone. Once he was done, he turned to me with a grin, obviously seeking praise for bathing without being forced.
“Well done,” I said obligingly, relaxing. “Now do you mind? I’m not decent, here.”
“What dee-cent?” he asked.
I bit my lower lip to keep from laughing. “I don’t have clothes on, but you’re very aware of that, aren’t you?” I glanced down at where his waist was just covered with water. “I suppose I don’t blame you for being curious, but this is just a little too much for me, Jamie. Could you please go back to shore and wait for me?”
Nodding at once, Jamie waded back, but then he turned to watch me as I followed.
“No...turn around! Don’t look, not until I tell you.”
It was dark, so I couldn’t be sure, but I actually thought Jamie rolled his eyes as he gave me his back.
I scampered onto shore and hurriedly dried off before pulling on my chemise, eyeing Jamie the whole time to make sure he didn’t peek. Once I was more or less decent, I opened my mouth to tell him it was alright, but I paused, struck by the way the scars on his back seemed even more pronounced in the deep shadows of the night.
I approached him slowly, gently laying a hand on one of the longer scars. He flinched slightly, but didn’t pull away.
“How did these happen?” I asked, running a finger lightly down the mark.
Jamie craned his head around to look, and I wondered if he even knew they were there.
“Cat,” he said.
“A cat ? Wait…” I thought of my animal field guide, and what sort of big cats lived in the area. It was too far from the savanna to be a lion. “A jaguar?”
He shrugged one shoulder.
I took his arm to turn him around. “You’ve had a hell of a life, haven’t you?”
He shrugged again, looking a little uncomfortable with my questioning.
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to keep interrogating you. I just want to understand…”
I trailed off when I saw that his face was crumpling, and pulled him into my arms without hesitation.
He didn’t cry, but held onto me like a lifeline...so tightly it hurt, but I didn’t even consider telling him so. I cupped the back of his head, pressing his face to my shoulder, and he nuzzled me there like an affectionate cat.
“Oh, you dear, sweet man,” I whispered, stroking his hair. “Whatever am I going to do with you?”
After a long, quiet moment, I remembered that Jamie was still unclothed and still very...interested in the state of my undress, so I pulled away, stroking his bristly chin with my thumb.
“Come on, your clothes are in my hut. Let’s get you into them, hm?”
He nodded. “Yes, Sassenach.”
I paused another moment, hesitating, then stood up on tiptoe to kiss his cheek, glad when it made him grin.
“Thank you,” he said happily.
“You’re welcome. Now come on, Tarzan.”
I pulled Jamie by the arm back to my hut, passing a group of young women on their way to the river. They looked him up and down, giggling as they went, and he smiled at them in return.
Rolling my eyes I yanked him along.
“Better be careful,” I muttered to him. “I’ve seen the way a couple of those girls are with the men. I’m not sure that’s an education you’re ready for.”
Jamie looked at me cluelessly, but I didn’t offer a better explanation, unsettled by the unnecessary surge of anger I’d felt when those women ogled him.
Jamie’s attention was drawn anyway, by the steady drumbeat coming from somewhere further in the village.
“Sounds like someone is playing music,” I said, leading him inside. “Come on, we’ll get you dressed and we can go investigate.”
I didn’t miss the way Jamie wrinkled his nose. He hated the constrictive nature of clothes, and I had to say I couldn’t blame him. They could be rather stifling at times, especially as hot as it was.
I opened my trunk, first finding my own skirt and blouse, and Jamie scooted up next to me, taking the skirt and holding it up to himself.
I chuckled and snatched it away. “Sorry, I don’t think that would fit you.”
Unfazed, he found instead the rust-colored sari that one of the women had given me, and he rubbed the soft fabric between his fingers. Suddenly, I had an idea.
“Hand that here,” I said, taking the sari and wrapping it around his waist and tying it in a knot on the side. I didn’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before; it wasn’t very unlike how some of the men in the village dressed, but Uncle Lamb and I had just automatically put Jamie in the clothes of a white man. “There, how is that? Better than the trousers?”
I giggled at the way Jamie twisted his hips from side to side, testing his range of movement, but he seemed satisfied. The sounds of music outside was growing, and he was chomping at the bit to investigate so I hurried and pulled my other sari out of my trunk and tied it around my own waist, over my chemise.
“Alright!” I said, laughing at the way Jamie was already scooting toward the doorway, but was still waiting for me. “Let’s go!”
There was a fire going in the center of the village, and men and women were playing lively music with drums, kalimbas, shakers and more. The younger people were dancing around the fire, and I marveled at the way they moved their bodies to the beat with none of the structure of European dances, but with far more feeling .
Jamie was crouched at my side, watching with his mouth gaped open in delight.
“Claire!” Uncle Lamb exclaimed, joining us. He had small shaker in one hand, and a cup of something that smelled strongly alcoholic in the other. “Jamie, my boy! Why don’t you two join them?”
“Oh no,” I laughed. “I’d need a few of whatever you’re drinking before that.”
With a shrug, Lamb handed over his cup and returned to Badru.
I wasn’t sure what it was, but it was delicious , and indeed very strong. Jamie watched me with a tilt to his head.
“Here,” I said, handing him the cup. “Small sip, don’t try to gulp it.”
Jamie ignored my instruction and drained the cup, which caused him to cough and splutter.
“I tried to warn you,” I said, laughing.
Jamie narrowed his eyes at me, but wasn’t able to hold the expression long before he was smiling again, and rising to his full height to take my hand.
“No, Jamie,” I said when he tried to pull me toward the dancers. “I can’t do what they’re doing!”
“Me...either,” he said, yanking me forward.
Jamie grabbed both my hands and spun me around, clumsily copying what the others were doing. As they began to notice, they laughed, but I felt that it was the laughter of the simple joy that Jamie exuded, and not mocking.
Regardless I blushed, but didn’t fight him, because that boundless joy of his was contagious. We spun and laughed, and were handed more drinks until I was dizzy...but whether it was from the dancing or drink, I couldn’t be sure.
I finally pulled away from Jamie, trying to catch my breath, but I watched him as he continued to dance. The firelight cast a warm orange glow on his skin and his already fiery hair. I could barely take my eyes off of him as he moved, watching the other dancers, trying to copy them, but his own eyes still sought me out every few seconds, squinting in mirth as he grinned.
Finally tiring out, Jamie rejoined me, bumping me in the shoulder with his head.
“Having fun?” I asked him.
He nodded. “Yes.”
“What do you normally do for fun?” I wondered. “Out there, I mean.”
Jamie tilted his head in thought, then smiled. “Show Sassenach?”
My answering smile was slow, and I peeked over at where Uncle Lamb was probably three more cups in, and I didn’t see Mr. Randall at all.
“Yes,” I said, slapping my hand into his. “Show me.”
The night was dark and quiet, only scarcely lit by the crescent moon. Jamie led me much farther than he had that first night, but I felt no fear, trusting him to know the way, to be aware of danger, to protect me.
He scuffled ahead of me on all fours, and I marveled at how easily he could move that way, that a human body was even capable of developing that way.
There, far out in the jungle, the trees were bigger, older. Vines wound all around them and tangled together, so that the trees were joined, creating a sort of cathedral more beautiful than any I’d seen in England, or France.
Jamie made a sound to catch my attention, and I found him at the base of one of the trees, holding a hand out for me.
“Oh,” I said, feeling my eyes widen. “You want...to take me up there?”
Jamie smiled, and motioned for me again.
Gulping, and feeling my heart begin to race in anxiousness, I went to Jamie and took his hand, letting him maneuver me until I was clinging to his back.
He scaled the tree as easily as if he’d been born to it, and before I could even catch my breath, we were far above the ground, perched on a wide branch.
I released Jamie’s neck but he turned around to wrap his arms securely around me, keeping me feeling steady, and safe. My hands were pressed to his chest, and I let my fingers run over the copper colored hair there.
My heart started to race again, but I wasn’t so sure that it was the height anymore.
“Now what?” I asked him.
Jamie grinned, then reached up and grabbed hold of one of the vines, tugging firmly on it to test it.
I wrapped my arms around his neck again, expecting him to take me with him like he did before, but he shook his head and pulled back, then handed me the vine.
“What, you want me to...oh no, OHHH no…” I made to step away, but there was nowhere else to go. “Jamie, I can’t...I’m not…” I peered down over the edge of the limb, seeing how far down the ground was.
“I not let you fall,” Jamie said, softly.
I took a deep breath. “Screw your courage to the sticking place, Beauchamp,” I muttered to myself.
I took a tight hold of the vine and leaned out. Nothing but my absolute trust in Jamie would have allowed me to kick my feet off the limb the way I did. Somehow, in the scant week I’d known him, I’d developed more faith in this wild man than I had in anyone. And that was precisely what it was, simple and pure faith.
I felt myself fly through the air like a bird, nothing but the wind on my skin, billowing through my chemise and sari. I kept my eyes screwed tightly shut until I felt something near me, and opened them to find Jamie pushing me along before grabbing hold of my vine and joining me, wrapping around me the way the trees did, a cathedral created with just the two of us.
I looked up at his sweet, open face, feeling my breath stutter. His arm wound around my waist, preventing me from the possibility of falling.
But damn me, I was falling, and I didn’t know how to stop it.
I pulled myself up, close enough to that I could press my lips to his.
Jamie tightened his hold on me, pulled me closer.
“Thank you,” he said.