The boy ignores the loud voices outside the cabin, and chooses a colored pencil carefully, selecting just the right shade of red, drawing with it equally carefully, trying to copy the flower in the gardening book as closely as possible for his six-year-old fingers. He's pleased with the result. It even looks like a rose. Mostly. He's never seen one so he's not entirely sure. Not this kind of rose anyway. He's seen the wild kind with their five petals and star-shaped yellow centers; which bloom, then fade, and swell to create the rounded rosehip berries to be collected for winter teas. But the fat, ruffled, domesticated rose doesn't grow anywhere he's yet lived, so he's had to rely on books for that.I sit up; heart pounding, drenched in sweat despite the cool temperature of the room and the fact that my blankets are lying on the floor beside the cot rather than on it as they should be. Diefenbaker lifts his head and whines a question. Ignoring him, I scrub my hands over my face, shuddering. How many times do I have to have this dream? How many times do I have to wake like this, terrified, trembling, aching? Why do I keep dreaming this, the same, over and over?
He chooses a new pencil, blue, because it's a nice contrast to the red, and prints his 'To' and 'From' neatly above and below the flower, then puts away the pencils and gets down from his chair, carrying his picture with him as he goes to find its intended recipient. He wonders, finally, why the grown-ups outside the cabin are being so loud. He hasn't been paying attention because he's been concentrating on his drawing, but now he realizes that both his parents sound . . . upset. His father is angry. The other man sounds angry too. His mother sounds. . . he doesn't know what to call it, he's never heard that sound in her voice before. It scares him. He puts his hand on the door latch and pushes down, opening the door just as a deafening sound roars out.
He drops his picture and puts his hands over his ears. When he opens his eyes from his involuntary flinch, he looks outside and sees . . . . a man, a familiar man, he's been here before. He's carrying a shotgun, running fast toward a dogsled not far away. His father is kneeling in the snow. In the . . . red . . . snow? His mother is lying on the snow beside his father, in the same red snow, and there's red snow melted all over her parka, staining her favorite blue scarf. Her sweet, homely features are distorted in pain, her breath is a bubbling whimper, and a thin runnel of colored water trails from her mouth. She looks past his father to where he stands on the step. Her blue eyes are full of tears and she lifts a hand, fingers outstretched toward him. He takes a step forward.
The scene shifts. He sits at a table, no longer in a cabin, though; no longer a child, but a man in borrowed finery. He looks into a gleaming metal tray, sees a familiar, beloved face reflected in the tray's surface from the skylight. Instead of the reassurance he expects to feel, he feels fear. He wants to shout, to warn Ray not to do it, that he could be hurt, but he can't, he has to play the scene as written. A moment later there is shouting, and gunfire, and glass shards raining all around him as Ray comes feet-first through the skylight and drops into the middle of chaos. He tries to make his way to Ray's side, to get him out of harm's way, but he's too late, Ray is on his feet, and suddenly a rose blooms, red, on his chest, and he staggers, looking at Ben, pain in his eyes, red on his mouth. He lifts a hand, long fingers outstretched toward him. . . .
The boy sits at a table, drawing a rose, with colored pencils. Behind him his mother is singing her favorite song as she works in the kitchen. The smell of chocolate in the air betrays what sort of cake she's baking, and the boy's mouth waters with anticipation. he finishes his drawing, and turns to her, holding it out. She smiles, and puts out her hand for it. Only when he looks down, it's not her hand any more. Instead of small and delicate, it's a larger hand, a man's hand, with long, narrow, elegant fingers. And his own hand is not a child's now, but a also a man's hand-- strong, and capable. The drawing is no longer a drawing, either, it's a rose, a real one, blood-red and lush. His fingers tighten on the stem in surprise, and the thorns bite, stinging. His partner looks at him in concern and takes the rose from his hand, then slowly leans forward to . . . .I startle awake yet again, breathless yet again, heart racing, but this time not from fear. The touch of a dream-lover's kiss lingers on my mouth as I hear the door to my office close. I sit up instantly. Ray is gone. My spare blanket has been neatly folded and placed on the desk. I untangle myself from my own blanket and get out of the cot, but by then he's gone, the front door closing behind him as well, and I can't very well dash outside to call him back wearing nothing but sweat-pants. It would be extremely unseemly. Besides, I have no good reason to do so.
Des yeux qui font baisser les miensI have to smile a little at how ridiculous I was last night, not wanting to keep singing with Ray present. He doesn't speak French, and even if he did know the language, I was merely singing my mother's favorite song. He would never have known that I find the lyrics far too apt. I do wish to belong to him, though. A vain wish, as most of mine have proven over the years. But his eyes do at times seem to kiss mine, and laughter does lose itself on his mouth, and I feel my heart-beat far too acutely in his presence. I start the next verse, thinking of the rose in my dream, of the way the thorns pierced my fingers, and suddenly I'm seeing bloody snow and an outstretched hand, and a shudder runs through me, horror silencing me like a gag. No. No. Stop it. Stop thinking about it.
Un rir' qui se perd sur sa bouche
Voila le portrait sans retouche
De l'homme auquel j'appartiens
His mother, lying on bloody snow, her breath coming in short, pained gasps, his father's voice, crying out in desperation, hands red to the wrists as he tries to stop the bleeding. The sound of dogs barking, growing more distant. His gaze is drawn again to the red snow, and when he looks up again he's in an alley, a familiar one, the one where they found the nerve-gas canisters. A few feet away Ray is standing in a pool of blood. No, not blood. Red, like blood, but the wind stirs the surface, lifting bits of it like crimson confetti, and he realizes the pool is made up of old roses, curling, wilting. Behind him he hears the screech of tires, the rushing roar of a flamethrower. He crouches, for a moment he thinks 'this is it, the end,' but the tongue of fire bypasses him to lick at the dying flowers and . . . Ray. The flowers catch fire like last season's grass and in a moment there's nothing left there but ashes. Ray is gone. He turns, trying to find Ray. People don't just vanish in a fire, he must be here, he was here a moment ago, he didn't pass by him, and there is only one exit to the alley, and that's behind him. Yet Ray is gone, as if he too were consumed by the flames. He doesn't understand. He calls his name, hoping he'll respond . . . ."Ray!"
I wonder why the grown-ups outside the cabin are being so loud. I haven't been paying attention because I've been concentrating on the drawing I'm making for mom, but now I realize that my dad sounds . . . upset, and angry. That doesn't happen very much, and it makes me feel scared. The other man sounds angry too. Mom sounds. . . she sounds angry, too, and afraid. Very afraid. That scares me even more than the anger in Dad's voice. I put my hand on the door latch and push down, opening the door, stepping out onto the porch.It's all I can do to not to collapse as my nightmare rewrites itself into reality. Oh God. I knew this. I saw this. I remember this. It's not a dream, it's real, it's a memory. Some part of me has known this all along. Why didn't I remember? My grandparents, my father, how could they let me forget? Why wouldn't they have told me, at least once I was old enough to understand what I'd seen. What else have I forgotten? What other lies have I told myself? Muldoon is speaking again, and I force myself to hear him. No more hiding, no more forgetting.
A deafening sound roars out and movement catches my eye. Mom, falling. My father's friend, Mr. Muldoon, running toward a dogsled, a shotgun in his hands. Dad drops to his knees beside Mom and he's crying, he's screaming. "Caroline, no, oh dear God, Caroline, no!" The snow is red all around her, there's blood all over her parka, her face is twisted in pain, her breath makes a bubbling sound as she struggles to breathe through the liquid filling her lungs, blood trails from her mouth in widening streams. She looks past Dad, sees me, and she looks so . . . so sad. Her eyes are full of tears and she lifts a hand, fingers outstretched toward me, her mouth moving. "Love you, Ben. . . ."
If it came about you diedExcept he's not, and I never told him, never told him how I felt, because I was too afraid to say it. Too cowardly. And it's come to be such an empty word, used too often to denote desire and not devotion. It no longer holds all the meaning I need it to. But now I can never tell him, even that little. Words, just words, no solace there.
it might be said I loved you:
Love is an absolute as death is,
and neither bears false witness to the other--
But you remain alive.
No, I do not love youMore words, no refuge. No more. Never. Free. I should have kept him safe. My separate madness his undoing. My need for him killed him. I wonder if I can die here too? Just wait beside him, until it comes for me too. At least then we could be together. I rock, keening, until a stirring beside me draws my eye, and I watch him push himself up, one mittened hand reaching to touch his face as he groans. For a moment I don't understand, then I realize what's happening. It's not surprising I suppose, that he would haunt me. I'm used to being haunted. I'll welcome this one. I don't want to lose his companionship, even if I have to bear the guilt seeing him so will bring.
hate the word,
that private tyranny inside a public sound,
your freedom's yours and not my own:
but hold my separate madness like a sword,
and plunge it in your body all night long.
If death shall strip our bones of all but bones,Ray stares at me for a long, long moment after I finish. Finally he speaks. "That's, um, real pretty, but could you maybe help me up? That tree branch really did a number on my skull here. And I bit my tongue, I think. Hurts to talk."
then here's the flesh and flesh that's drunken-sweet
as wine cups in deceptive lunar light:
reach up your hand and turn the moonlight off,
and maybe it was never there at all,
so never promise anything to me:
but reach across the darkness with your hand,
reach across the distance of tonight,
and touch the moving moment once again
before you fall asleep. 3
Dogs barking excitedly, maybe startled by the shotgun blast, on their feet and ready to run as the man kicks the snowhook free and steps onto the footboards. He's running a double lead team, and the left swing dog is a dark charcoal color, almost black. "Hike!" he yells, his voice harsh and hoarse, but I can barely hear him over my father's sobbing, which is suddenly closer. I turn to look back at my parents, still trying to comprehend, and am gathered tightly in my father's arms, held with my face against the cold, slick fur of his parka."Fraser! Jesus, Fraser! Ben! Snap out of it! Come on!"
"Benton, Lord God, no. No, don't look. Don't look son. Come on, let's go inside now. It's too cold for you to be out here without your coat and boots."
I resist, trying to pull away, to look around his solid bulk. "But Mom, she'll get cold . . . ."
He makes a strange, deep, broken sound, then sucks in a breath and pats my hair. "It's all right, son, she won't be cold. I promise you, don't worry. Let's go inside. I need to radio in. I need to call . . . someone. . . I don't . . . ah, Buck. Mother and Dad. Yes, that's it."
"Are you sure she won't get cold?"
He wipes his eyes on his sleeve. "I'm sure, son. I'll take her a blanket, all right?"
I nod slowly, and let him lead me back into the house. My hair feels funny where he patted it, and I reach up to touch it, finding it starting to freeze together in clumps, but wet close to my scalp, where it's warmest. I lower my hand and look at my red fingertips, puzzled. Dad gasps, and grabs my hand and . . .
1. Dialogue from the due South episode "Call of the Wild" written by Paul Gross and R.B. Carney. There are several places in the story where small segments of dialogue are taken directly from this episode.
2. Al Purdy, "Song of the Impermanent Husband." Canadian Poety, vol. 2, © 1982, General Publishing Co., Ltd.
3. Al Purdy, "Necropsy of Love." Canadian Poety, vol. 2, ©1982, General Publishing Co., Ltd.
4. The Iridium satellite telephone system is, from what I can tell, pretty much the only type of communication system which works reliably above the Arctic Circle. (I realize that the system incepted about a year too late for this story, but... um... it's an AU. Yeah! That's the ticket!) For more info: http://www.spaceflightnow.com/news/n0103/29iridium/
5. Icefields, Thomas Wharton, © 1995. Winner 1996 Commonwealth Book Award For Best First Book -- Regional. Winner, 1995 Alberta Book Award. Oddly enough, there's a scene right near the beginning where the protagonist falls into a crevasse in . . . you guessed it. . . an icefield, and has to be rescued. (Gee, I wonder what a certain executive producer/writer was reading back in 1996?)
6. sm'algyax-- the dialect of Penutian which is spoken in the Tsimshian First Nations. Not standardly capitalized, although this usage is currently in flux and you will sometimes find it capitalized now. The language is the main language of the Tsimshian, the Gitksan, and the Nisga'a tribes, but each tribe has its own distinct dialect. The Tsimshian language is an essential aspect for the revival of the Tsimshian's culture, and is actively being taught in some schools. http://www.kitsumkalum.bc.ca/language.html
7. Porcupine: symbolizes innocence, wonder, curiosity, cautiousness, faith, trust, open-mindedness, laughter, protection of boundaries, being bold in actions and words, defense when threatened, non-interference-- allowing others their path. (Oddly, I chose all of the animal symbols for the story before I looked up their meanings. Note that the animal symbol meanings are somewhat genericized, not specific to the Tsimshian.)
8. Raven: symbolizes magic, wisdom, intelligence, eloquence, mischief, trickery, shapeshifting, astral travel, change, rebirth, renewal, recovery, healing (recovering lost pieces of the soul), childishness, temper.
9. Hummingbird: symbolizes healing, endurance, joy, happiness, and love.
10. Raccoon: symbolizes understanding the nature of masks, disguise, dexterity, seeking guidance, confidence, questioning without fear, curiosity, adaptability, loyalty, intelligence, determination, survival.