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The Jane Baillie Saga

Little girl feigning sleep eavesdrops on parents

This prologue will move in chapters a period of 27 years in the life of this 3b year old girl, and will move through Scotland to New York.

Scotland, the Caithness coast, specifically the fishing village of Clyth. It is the evening of January 26th, 1876. A dark chill evening. No breeze, but grassed slopes that tilt to the cliff edge, wear a veil of frost. A shadowed sea heaves, gently slapping at the rocky shore. Waiting.

A single roomed fishing hamlet, no different from several scattered along the cliff tops, shelters a girl, three years old, her one-year old brother, and their parents. The girl lies on her straw filled palette in one corner of the room. At the foot of her bed is the smaller palette of her baby brother, his breath snorting from his troubled chest as he sleeps. The girl should be sleeping too. Her parents believe she is, but she is peering, secretively fascinated from behind the warmth of her covering blanket.

A single oil lamp on the rough wooden table, two flickering candles set in wall recesses, and a large log fire at the other end of the room, provide pale shadow-flecked light. The girl guiltily views her Da’s naked back as her Ma gently soaps and washes him down with a cloth. He is standing in the small bath in front of the fire. The girl and her brother can sit in that bath, but Da has to stand. The girl knows she shouldn’t be seeing his bottom, and she holds the blanket high, so her eyes are all but covered. The washing is a ritual that occurs at least three times each week, but the girl more often sleeps through it.

Her Ma moves around to soap at the front of her Da, her movement is encumbered by her rounded belly that carries, the girl has been told, another brother for her. Low chuckle come from both of them now as Ma begins her soaping, and the girl, despite her guilt, is aware of a pleasing warmth inside her which she cannot define. It is comfort. The security that comes from their mutual devotion, their happiness, their reliance on each other.

Her Da has come home late evening from the fishing. All smiling. It has been a good calm day, and the haddock have been netted in large numbers. So good to see the smile on his swarthy face, as he spoke of the catch. Too often, when the fish didn’t run, that face could be dark with lines of worry cutting his brow,

The girl watches her Ma begin towelling gently at the dripping skin of the sturdy body. Words are exchanged but the girl can’t make them out. She has been awake at this stage before and sometimes her parents have doused the lights and come straight to their own bed, a real bed, with legs. The girl had been unable to understand their haste on those occasions, because, for some reason, they found sleep difficult, and they heaved and struggled to get comfortable. But this night, her Da donned thick shirt and britches, and they sit by the fire facing each other.

Her baby brother snorts and gives a little cough. Briefly Ma glances in their direction and the girl dips below the blanket. But when they talk again she risks another peep out to see her Da nodding towards the wheezing noises. She hears him mutter, “Poor wee mite. We could ha’ been blessed with another strong ‘un.” Leaning forward, he placed. a hand on her Ma’s belly, “This laddie’s set to be a strong ‘un. Can sense it.” His large hand smooths over her Ma’s bump, and his head nods firmly, “And he’ll carry my name, so he will.”

Ma’s head nods, “Robert,” she says, a warmth in her tone. “Aye.”

The girl sees her Da lean forward to rest his head gently on the mound, and she wonders if he is listening to her unborn brother as he says, “ And the morn we’ll take more haddock, ‘til the herring run again. Weather’s set fair. William’s givin’ a call at first light. Keep us all in God’s hands.”

Uncle William, her Da’s brother, has whiskers that tickle. She likes it when he calls, because he is funny and makes her giggle.

Ma places a gentle hand on her Da’s head, where it rests against her, and the girl, comfortable in the closeness of the pair, pulls the blanket over her head and allows sleep to take her. She is Jane Sutherland, and within days she will become aware of the boy who will, when childhood has passed, become her husband. But, after this night, she will never see her father again.



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