A loose tent flap is snapping rhythmically in the wind. I open my eyes. Some time during the night, the wind has shifted so that the tent is no longer properly aligned. It must be almost time to rise, anyway. I glance to my left in the gloom of the tent and see Ray sleeping the sleep of the exhausted, only his nose sticking out from under his hat, the puffy down sleeping bag drawn tight around his face. Let him sleep a while longer, I think, and steel myself to the shock of cold air as I unzip my sleeping bag.
I am careful not to wake him as I crawl out of the tent to begin the tasks of the day. The cold wind bites my exposed cheeks and tears prick my eyes. In the crisp snapping cold of the north, Chicago seems like a dream, like something not half so real as this. And yet Chicago has changed me in ways I find hard to put my finger on.
Dawn is only a faint glow of rose in the east, and the stars are still visible in their familiar patterns in the sky. It will be a fine day, though perhaps a trifle windy. With the calm satisfaction of routine, I light our small ethanol stove to melt snow for Ray's coffee and our oatmeal. Diefenbaker pokes his head up from his nest in the snow and whines a question.
"Yes, Dief, I'll get it."
I start preparing breakfast for Dief and the dogs. Frankly, I'd worried about Dief's endurance and his tolerance of the cold, fearing that the south had made him soft, but he seems to be bearing up well, as am I. I suppose it is, as they say, like riding a bicycle.
Ray's head suddenly pokes out of the tent, looking sleepy. He's still in his sleeping bag, looking more than a little like a giant caterpillar. My lips twitch. "I have coffee for you, Ray."
"Thanks, Frase. And yeah, I will get out of the sleeping bag, I promise."
I raise my eyebrows. "I didn't say anything."
"You didn't have to."
Fortified by the coffee, Ray soon comes out, and we eat our oatmeal with raisins and generous dollops of butter. Ray is bundled in a down jacket, thick and ungainly. I hardly ever see his hair up here. I miss it. And his skin: I can see only his reddened cheeks and nose, and his chapped lips (I make a mental note to give him more fat to rub on his lips). It is strange how the absence of a thing charges it with meaning, so that the memory of his bare hands and forearms back in Chicago fascinates me endlessly.
Not that I was unmoved by them then.
"Okay. Gimme a job here. What should I do?"
I startle a little at his voice, feeling vaguely ashamed even though my thoughts were relatively innocent. "Well. If you pack our sleeping bags and take down the tent, I'll get the dogs hitched up. Remember you have to push the tent poles out rather than pulling on them, because--"
I stop suddenly when I notice Ray silently mouthing my words back at me. Oh. Yes, of course, he knows the procedure by now.
"I'm sorry," I say. I shouldn't treat him as less than competent. It irritates him, and it isn't true. Ray has been adapting remarkably quickly, and is making every effort to pull his weight.
He winks at me tolerantly and disappears into the tent.
By the time we have packed up and are ready to leave, the sun is up and the snow comes alive around us in a brilliant blaze of white. I feel the familiar joy of the trail coming over me. This pleasure never fades for me--setting out in the early morning, carrying with me everything that I need, leaving nothing behind but the depression where the tent stood. I must be smiling, because Ray turns toward me and says:
"Hey. This what it takes to make you happy, huh?"
"I...yes. This makes me happy." And you, Ray. You make me happy, I think but do not say. I am a damnable coward.
I let Ray start on the skis so that he can warm up. The wide belt around his waist is harnessed to Aputik, a dependable husky who is well used to skijoring. Ray found skiing hard from the beginning, but I really saw no other way--to have Ray ride on the sled after the initial period of adjustment would mean that we could take that much less food and equipment. When he was learning to ski in the first few days after we picked up our extra supplies, Ray was constantly frustrated, lashing out verbally more than once when he fell. More often, though, he clenched his teeth, got to his feet, and tried again.
Aputik is dancing around Ray impatiently now, and I watch them start, Ray flailing his arms a little awkwardly, and then gaining his balance. I look away, knowing Ray doesn't like me to watch him skiing.
"Mush!" The team leaps forward, eager for the trail. Diefenbaker insisted on being lead dog--he has his pride, and would not hear of being second, or, indeed, of running alongside. He seems more alert and focused than he was in the city, and I find myself frequently relying on him to choose the best trail. He still begs food shamelessly from Ray in the evenings, though.
There is a new layer of powdery snow, which fell a few nights ago to cover the older, more compact snow underneath. It's kinder to the dog's paws, and makes for a smoother ride. I have missed this so much, the physical work of the trail and the feeling of purpose, as if this is what I was meant to do, this trekking across the face of the land.
I ponder Ray's words. Indeed, I have rarely been happier. To have, if only for a while, both Ray and my homeland, that is more than I could have hoped for. I am fully aware, though, that this is only a temporary respite, a short space of time which will soon be over. You cannot have both, the sled runners seem to whisper as they glide across the snow.
No, I cannot. But for now, I am happy.
I glance over at Ray, and decide it's time to switch off. "Whoa!" I yell at the dogs, and stomp down hard on the brake when they fail to stop. They are always eager to run this early in the day. Ray looks over at me, hits a small bump in the snow and goes down in a tangle of limbs, skis and poles.
"Fuck. Fuck," I hear him muttering under his breath. Well-trained, Aputik has stopped and is sitting patiently in the snow.
"Want to take over on the sled?" I offer, taking care not to appear amused.
"Sure," he says, and we switch places.
"Whatever you do, don't let go of the handlebar or you'll be left behind."
"Hey, I know that by now, Fraser."
We're off again, and I lag a little behind, watching Ray. He really is quite talented at mushing, and I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. It is, I muse, a little bit like dancing, in the sense that you must be responsive to the team as you would be to a dance partner, shifting your weight continually to keep your balance. Or perhaps it's his competence with driving a car that gives him this ease. Once he gets over his awkwardness on the skis, I'm sure he will be as graceful there as well. I look forward to it.
Deliberately, I look away from Ray, and let Aputik stretch out. My arms and legs move in the economical, unconscious fashion I learned as a child, skis sliding forward rhythmically, and poles leaving round holes in the snow. I watch the land, and eventually decide that the fine weather should hold out. Smooth hummocks of snow beside our trail probably cover low shrubs of some Salix species, and I see the unevenly sized prints of a snowshoe hare crossing our path. Reading the land is like hearing again a language familiar from childhood, after spending years in a foreign country.
We stop for lunch and dig out a trench in the hardened snow underneath, making a bench to sit on, so that we are out of the wind, but receive the full benefit of the noon sun. Ray is still exhilarated from mushing, and he talks animatedly, telling me how his father taught him to drive when he was a teenager. I nod, and watch him surreptitiously. Behind his sunglasses, I can see squint lines laced with dried salt in the skin beside his eyes. I want to lick them, so much that my mouth waters and I have to swallow and turn away.
I tell him a story in return, of how my father, on one of his visits home, showed me how to ski behind a sled dog. I was young, and I frequently fell down when the dog became too enthusiastic.
We finish our food and lapse into a comfortable silence. I close my eyes against the sun and see red light through my eyelids. The space between what I want and what I can say seems unbridgeable. Ray sighs beside me and slumps lower on the bench, and I glance at him with one flicker of my eyes.
"Fraser? What's this place like in the summer?"
"Well..." I pause, searching for words. "It's like..."
"Don't see you lost for words often, Fraser." Ray grins, then winces and runs his tongue over a crack in his lips. I pull the jar of fat from a pocket, hand it to him, and watch him apply it while I gather my thoughts.
"It's beautiful, in a subtle way. I have never been to the tropics, but from the pictures I have seen, nature there is obvious, even garish to my eyes. A hibiscus flower is inches wide, and bright red. Here, beauty is more discreet. A sedge is beautiful to me, because you have to look closely at it to know it. The beauty lies in the details."
"Hmm. You know, the details aren't the first thing I saw up here. My first impression was more, wow, this place is huge." He frowns. "What's a sedge?"
"The sedges are a genus of vascular plants, called Carex in Latin, which look similar to grasses."
"Okay, okay, forget I asked. Freak." He looks at me with a small smile, which takes the edge off the habitual insult, and which takes my breath. We fall silent again. I study his face, the stubble on his cheeks, which is getting long, and the lashes on his now down-turned eyes. Yes, beauty is in the details.
I cannot read him, though, not like the land.
We pack the stove and our food, and get ready to leave. I want to ask him if he's cold, but I'm afraid that he would take offense at this. It's a difficult balance, making sure of his wellbeing while not injuring his prickly pride. I'm still frowning when Ray's elbow pokes me in the ribs.
"Hey, speak up. What's on your mind?"
"I...was wondering if you were cold."
"And you were trying to figure out how to ask me, right? You know, you are the expert here, and I accept that, 'cause I'm not stupid. So just go ahead and tell me when there are things I need to know. But you gotta trust me to tell you if I'm not feeling good, and also, do not repeat things I already know. If you do I'll throw snowballs at you, and you better believe I can hit you."
"Understood, Ray." Then I grin. "But I would like to see you hit me with a snowball."
"Oh yeah?" His eyes narrow with the challenge, and then he leans down and scoops up a handful of snow. He makes a frustrated sound, and straightens up with his mittens full of loose powdery snow.
"Oh crap, it won't pack."
"That's true, Ray. Unless the temperature is close to the freezing point, snow crystals do not adhere to each other. Making snowballs requires a specific level of liquid water content in the snow. Of course, when I was young, we would stuff it down each other's necks instead."
He nods, seemingly interested in my explanation, then gestures towards the sled. "Okay, let's get going."
I turn my back to him and only realize my foolish mistake when he grabs the hood of my parka and his hand shoves cold snow inside my scarf. I turn my head to see Ray grinning like a maniac, and of course, that leaves me with no recourse but to grapple with him and throw him down. A wave of heat washes through me as we wrestle, my body rolling over his in the snow. Sublimate, I tell myself, and I concentrate on winning the wrestling match, finally pinning Ray down with his arms on either side of his head.
"Do you give up?"
"Yeah, I do." He seems to be somewhat short of breath.
"But it was still worth it," he says, looking smug, as we dust off the snow. He throws a couple of punches in the air, as if for punctuation. "I can't believe you turned your back on me like that."
During the afternoon we climb uphill towards a low pass, walking alongside the sled to lighten the load for the dogs, and pausing frequently, so as not to become overheated and perspire too much. For some days, we have been traveling in a U-shaped valley formed by some long-ago glacier, but as we reach the highest point of the pass, the land spreads out before us like the palm of a hand, stretching vast and wide to the horizon. I feel myself open up inside, as if the land holds a key to my heart. The wind whistles past us, over dark exposed rocks where Rhizocarpon lichen clings to life, yellow-green and startling.
"Wow," Ray says in a low voice beside me. "And I thought it was big before."
Night falls early, and in the last light of the sun we set up camp, perhaps a hundred meters below the level of the pass and somewhat sheltered from the constant wind. We eat our pemmican while the shadows around us deepen into blue: the sky, the snow, all is one vast world of blue. Ray looks at me and his eyes are the pale blue of a husky dog's.
"Is that the north star?" He points towards the faint traces of the sunset.
"No, that's the planet Venus. It has an orbit that's closer to the sun than the Earth's orbit, that's why you always see it close to the sun, at sunrise or sunset. It's sometimes called the evening star."
"Huh. So where's the North Star?"
"If you'll lean back..." I lie down on my back in the snow and wait until he does the same. "Do you know the Big Dipper?"
"Yeah, I think so... okay, there it is."
"Now look at the outermost two stars in the cup of the Dipper, and follow them upwards. They point towards the North Star."
"Wait, that one? I thought it was supposed to be bright."
"Well, that's a common misconception. The only thing that's special about it is that the Earth's axis happens to point towards it."
"Huh." We lie next to each other in the snow for a while. There is no aurora borealis tonight, but the wealth of stars more than makes up for it. Ray shivers beside me.
"Brrr. Time for bed, I think. And this time I'm going to take a leak before I'm all wrapped up and comfy in my sleeping bag."
We brush our teeth and prepare for bed. Diefenbaker and the dogs have already disappeared, having dug their own nests deep in the snow and out of the wind. When the nights are long here, the snow grants compensation by reflecting the available light. It is never pitch black, and I can clearly see Ray as he dusts the snow off and crawls into the tent on all fours.
"Fuck. Why is everything damp? And in what country is it considered civilized to bring your boots with you into bed?" Ray mutters, and then raises his voice. "And Fraser, don't you dare think this means I don't want to be here! Bitching is a basic human right."
"If you say so, Ray. Can I come in now?"
"Sure, I'm ready."
When I crawl into the tent, Ray is wrapped up like a mummy. As I peel off my outer layers, change into dry long johns, and get into my own sleeping bag, he wiggles around a bit, then says: "Mmm. Thick sleeping bags are my new favorite thing. You know, I'm kind of not sleepy, though. Tired, but jittery."
"I can see that. Well, I could tell you an Inuit story if you'd like. Or sing you a lullaby."
I'm betting he'll say no. But to my surprise, he smiles a little. "A lullaby. Sure, okay."
I search my memory, then sit up in the sleeping bag. My head is bent, but still brushes the low ceiling of the inner tent fabric, dislodging ice crystals deposited from our breath. I clear my throat, and sing.
"I left my baby lying here,
Lying here, lying here
I left my baby lying here,
To go and gather blackberries
I found the track of the swan on the lake
Swan on the lake, swan on the lake
I found the track of the swan on the lake
But not the track of baby, O!
I found the trail of the mountain mist
Mountain mist, mountain mist
I found the trail of the mountain mist
But ne'er a trace of baby, O!"
My voice is a little hoarse at first in the cold air, but then grows more confident with the rise and fall of the familiar melody. Ray's eyes are closed, and he is smiling a little. "Mmm. That's a sad song, Fraser, but nice. I like your voice."
My face grows hot at the compliment. "Thank you. My mother used to sing this song."
Ray's breathing soon slows, and he relaxes into sleep. I stay awake, watching him, for some time, and my heart fills with impossible tenderness towards this man. I want to lean over and touch my lips to his, but I will not. One does not kiss another without permission. And, were I to bring myself to ask permission, I don't know how Ray would react. I'd like to think that he would not take offense, but on the other hand, I know that I don't understand American masculine culture well. What's more, we are alone together in the wilderness, and Ray is dependent on me for his survival. In this situation, it would not be honorable for me to proposition him. I carefully don't think of all the times in Chicago when I could have asked him and didn't.
I consciously slow my own breathing and bring stillness to my body. In time, sleep comes to me.
In the morning, the sky is overcast, but the wind has lessened. The world seems leached of color; the land and the sky shift in shades of white and gray. Diefenbaker's lolling tongue is a startling red as he reminds me to give him breakfast.
"Fraser?" Ray's voice breaks the silence like another splash of color in the land.
"Could you show me how you navigate? How do you find your way?"
"Of course, I'd be glad to." I unfold the maps and spread them on the snow before us.
"See, in this terrain, it's easy to find your way, since there are many landmarks. In most cases, we don't even need a compass." I point out the valley we left yesterday, and the flatter terrain ahead of us. Ray nods.
"Even on this flatter ground, where we're going now, there are enough low hills and valleys that we can easily see where we are. By contrast, out on the flat tundra of the Canadian Shield, there are few natural landmarks, and the Inuit use inukšuit as directional markers. Remember, we saw an inukšuk on a case?"
"Oh, yeah." Ray is nodding again. "But what about if there's, like, a whiteout?
"Yes, that can be a problem. In that case, we either have to steer by compass alone, which can be risky, or stay in camp."
I show him how to use our known position on the map in order to obtain a direction on the compass by which to steer, and how to compensate for the aberration caused by the difference between magnetic and geographic north.
Over the next few days, Ray applies himself well to learning the skills of survival in the wild. I teach him to read the weather and to calculate amounts of food for the dogs and ourselves, and fuel for the stove. He has always been rather competitive (as am I, if I'm to be honest), and the shift of balance in our partnership must be hard for him to take, even though there is a good reason for it.
On the second day after crossing the pass, we stop at a small community where I've arranged beforehand to pick up a load of food and fuel. The wooden house of the general store looms above us. It seems an impossibly large and sturdy structure after our days in a tent, and it feels strange to speak to someone other than Ray and Diefenbaker.
"No pizzeria, I'm afraid," I tell Ray. Diefenbaker whines sadly beside me.
Ray grins. "Hey, that's all right. I feel like I'm so hungry all the time that I can eat anything now. You know, this morning I even licked a lump of butter directly off a spoon."
Yes, I remember that.
"If you want to, we could perhaps arrange to stay in a cabin here overnight. What do you think?"
Ray's chin comes up. Oh dear. He's taking that as a challenge, and I didn't mean it that way. "Nah. We'll just have to get used to the tent again, so why bother?"
I shrug. "As you like."
That afternoon, the wind rises again, and I point out to Ray the warning signs of a storm on the way. We stop early, finding a relatively sheltered location for our camp, and quickly dig down through the snow to bury the long horizontal snow pegs that anchor the tent, stomping down the snow hard around them, and using the skis as additional anchors. By the time we have finished, and taken care of Dief and the dogs, the wind is whipping snow along the ground. Ray raises his voice to be heard over the wind.
"So what now? We gonna be safe?"
"Yes. We just wait it out, in the tent. We can always go back for more supplies after the storm if it lasts for a long time."
Snug in our sleeping bags, we listen to the noise of the storm around us, like a great beast buffeting the tent, frustrated by our bubble of safety. Ray frowns. "You sure the tent'll hold up?"
"Quite sure. It sounds much worse than it actually is."
We lie in silence for a while, then Ray takes a deep breath, and then looks at me deliberately. "Fraser. I'm cold."
"Try moving your feet around, to improve the circulation. That will--"
Ray is shaking his head. "No, no. This is where you say 'Ray, come over to my sleeping bag and I'll warm you up.'"
I stare at him, finding no words. Ray reaches out and touches my face, not accidentally, or casually, but with clear intent, stroking his fingers along my stubbled jawline.
"That is, if you want to." He looks away.
"Yes," I whisper, barely audible above the constant noise of the wind.
"Yes?" He looks almost shocked.
"Yes, I want to." There is a flurry of unzipping, then zipping together, and Ray's hands are on me, awkwardly peeling off my thermal underwear. I do the same for him, with shaking hands. He radiates warmth, and I can't resist saying: "Ray, you aren't cold in the slightest."
He snorts. "Haven't you ever heard a pick-up line before, Fraser?"
Ray draws me close and brushes my lips lightly with his, and I close my eyes. The feeling of his naked skin against me seems unreal, as if this bubble in the storm is exempt from the laws of ordinary space and time. But then his hips move against mine, and I feel him hard and hot against my erection. I twitch helplessly, and Ray makes a small sound of pleasure. I draw a shuddering breath, and suddenly we are rolling over each other, wrestling as we were earlier in the snow. The strength in him arouses me, his arms and legs bumping into and tangling with mine, and we slide against each other with rising urgency.
But it's too much, too fast. I want to see him, touch him, taste him. I don't want it to be over. I shove Ray over on his back and pin his hands on either side of him. Ray's eyes widen, and he goes suddenly limp.
"God, Fraser, when you did that in the snow, it turned me on so fucking much." His chest rises and falls rapidly, and I can see the latent strength in the stretched-out muscles of his arms and chest.
I lower my head and put my mouth on him, at the juncture between his neck and his shoulder, and suck, then bite gently, tasting him. Salty. Delicious. I move on to his nipples, tightened against the cold air seeping in, and lightly put my tongue against one. Small. Hard. I take it in my mouth and suck on it. Distantly, I hear Ray gasp. I am aware, somewhere, of my own arousal, but it seems unimportant in the face of this wealth of details, the overwhelming impressions of my senses, as if Ray's body is an oasis of summer in the midst of the sensory deprivation of winter. In the warm cocoon of the sleeping bag, I explore him, rubbing my nose in the soft hair on his belly, licking the smooth skin on the inside of his upper arm, worrying at his earlobe with my teeth. He smells of sweat, strongly male, and I greedily draw in the scent.
I become aware that Ray is panting and desperately repeating my name. "You have to...you...please...you trying to drive me crazy?"
"No, Ray." I grin with pure delight at seeing him undone like this, at the knowledge that I am the one who has done this to him. Then I move downwards, and take his erection in my mouth. Ray cries out and bucks up hard underneath me, but then his yes, yes, yes turns suddenly into no, no, no and his hand grabs my hair and yanks me up.
"I'm...I haven't had a bath in days, Fraser, that must be gross. You don't have to do that." He looks mortified.
"Ray, if I can lick toxic waste, I can lick you. Besides, I want to."
To prove it, I lower my head again and deliberately lick along the whole length of him. He twitches and I hear his indrawn breath, but he seems all out of protests. It's certainly true that he is unwashed, but I don't mind. In fact, I am suddenly ravenous for this, and I suck him with single-minded concentration, exploring him with my tongue. I go down as deep as I can, recoil a little, and the analytical part of my mind notes: Hmm, involuntary gag reflex. There must be a way to suppress that. Perhaps with more practice.
Ray is close, now, his hands aimlessly tugging at my shoulder. His breathing is ragged. I time the movements of my mouth to the shallow thrusts of his hips, and then, when he moans and grabs my hair, I hold his hips down and take him in as deep as I can. He cries out and shudders all over as he comes, and the bitter taste of his semen fills my mouth. I swallow it, almost choking, and I keep him in my mouth until he calls my name and tugs me off.
Ray stares at me, flushed and beautiful. "Wow. Just, give me a second to come down, here."
He's still breathing hard, the air puffing out in white clouds. Then he reaches for me, and his mouth comes down on mine. And this new thing, our open mouths together, is a whole new world to explore, and I lose myself in it and moan into his mouth as my own arousal suddenly rises like floodwaters. Ray breaks the kiss, and I draw in a breath to protest, but then his hand wraps around me and it comes out as a whimper. Ray's smile becomes positively wicked.
The world narrows to the confident movement of his hand on me, and my small involuntary noises of pleasure. I feel fingers in my mouth, and I suck them hard. They're suddenly gone, and I pant, my mouth open. Ray nudges my legs apart and then his finger... his finger is... and his hand is... Pleasure fills me to the brim and I convulse uncontrollably, then go limp, my whole body twitching with aftershocks.
Ray gathers me up in his arms, and our breathing mingles as we lie together, silent. Belatedly, I worry about getting the sleeping bags wet, and I reach out for my handkerchief to wipe us off. Then I put a cap on for warmth, and draw another cap down over Ray's tousled hair, and he smiles sleepily and tugs me down beside him. I tighten the opening of the sleeping bags and settle down. Wordlessly, Ray arranges my body to his satisfaction until we fit together perfectly: his head on my arm, his back curled into my front, my other arm in the hollow of his waist, my leg between his. I struggle to stay awake, to savor this moment, but a sweet lassitude spreads throughout my limbs, and sleep draws me under.
When I wake, I'm momentarily disoriented. Loud wind outside. The smell of Ray inside. The heavy welcome weight of Ray against me. He's still asleep, and I lie as still as I can. My skin soaks up the feeling of him, as if I am starved for touch. I probably am, but I never realized that until now. He moves, and I feel him half-hard against my hip, moving against me in his sleep and drooling slightly on my shoulder.
In a heartbeat, I feel myself grow hard as well, and greedy for more, although I don't know yet whether this new thing between us will bear, or if it could break like newly formed lake ice in autumn. I slide my hands along Ray's back, the skin warm and a little bit sweaty, and he mumbles something sleepy and incomprehensible. I nudge my face against his, and let my tongue swipe across his lips. He twitches, as if it tickles, and I slide my lips more firmly against his.
"Oh, um," Ray's eyes flutter open a little bit, then close again. "I think I have morning breath."
"I don't care, Ray," I whisper in his ear, then I pull him closer and tilt his head for a better angle. He does have morning breath, but his mouth is also soft and wet, and I find it irresistible. I slide my hand down to grasp his erection, and Ray huffs out a breath and mumbles against my lips.
"Nice way to wake up, Frase. That's...that's so good..."
I stroke him slowly, worried that the lack of foreskin will make it difficult to do this right, but Ray is leaking on my hand, easing my movements. Even half-asleep still, Ray reacts to everything I do, with little hitches of his breath when I move my thumb in a particular way, biting his lip and then panting, and I find myself helplessly responding to him, so hard now that I feel I could come from one touch. I stroke Ray faster. He is talking incoherently, eyes closed.
"Yeah, that's it, so good, do it harder, please..."
I continue, watching Ray as his breath quickens until he suddenly freezes, gasping and coming in my hand, warm semen covering my belly. He relaxes against me, snuggling against my shoulder, then slides his hand slowly along the side of my body. I shiver, feeling like a tightly strung harp string. Ray lazily licks my neck.
"Mmm. What do you want, Frase?"
"Please. Touch me. I won't last long."
My voice is hoarse. Ray grins, then swipes his hand through the wetness on my belly, and then, blissfully, he's stroking me. His warm grip is firm and perfect. I open my mouth, but nothing comes out, and then I am shaking helplessly in his arms, in Ray's arms, and his other hand is gentling me, softly caressing my shoulders and back.
I close my eyes, feeling limp and content. Ray shivers suddenly at the cold air coming in where the zipper on the sleeping bags has opened a bit, then mutters: "Need coffee. Hungry," and then he glances at me. "'M sorry. Didn't mean to sound grumpy."
"That's quite all right, Ray."
We dress in all our layers. Our shared body heat kept us warm in the sleeping bags, but once we are out of them, we shiver in the frigid air of the tent. The sound of the wind is a constant, background whine that rises and falls. Now that we are dressed, it feels unreal to think that a few minutes ago we were naked together, but the sense of euphoric well-being that still sings through my whole body is incontrovertible proof. I imagine the oxytocin running through my bloodstream. Ray's voice in my head says gleefully: you so needed to get laid, Fraser.
"Do we need to go outside to cook?" Ray looks resigned.
"No, we can use the stove inside the vestibule, if we're careful."
I pour alcohol into the aluminum stove and light it, and soon our oatmeal is steaming in a pot. We are both ravenous, and the hot food and drink is very welcome. I am awkward and silent, unsure of what to say. I glance at Ray. He sees me looking, and squares his shoulders.
"Okay, let's do this," he mutters. "Fraser, we need to talk."
I nod. He swallows. "Not gonna make this easy, are you. Okay. I can do this talking thing, I mean, I was married for years, and maybe I didn't do such a great job of it, but I can learn from my mistakes. I...think I want to stay with you. I see the way you are up here, the way your face looked up on the pass, the way you move, you're just... you belong here. And I want to see you here in the summer, see what it's like."
Ray, you are the summer, I think, then realize I've said it out loud. He looks bewildered, but goes on.
"I mean, if you spent years in Chicago, I can at least try to make it here. Because God knows I don't want to go back without you. I can't promise I'll make it, maybe my lungs will waste away from lack of car exhaust or something, but I promise I'll try. If you want me."
He meets my eyes then, and his face is so wide open that my heart constricts in my chest.
"Yes," I say, which is of course utterly inadequate. I reach out and clumsily take his mittened hand in my own. "Yes."
He studies my face, and seems to find what he is looking for.
"Okay. But you've gotta practice this talking thing, all right?"
I nod, and then manage to say: "I...would have stayed in Chicago for you."
"Oh." Ray looks stunned. "We can work it out later, okay?"
As we leave the tent to care for the dogs, the force of the wind pushes against me like a giant hand, and I lean into it. Visibility is down to a few meters in the driving snow, and I dig through the snowdrift beside the tent to reach the sled. Diefenbaker is displeased with the storm, and hungry.
He sniffs me once, and then informs me with condescension that it is not time for mating yet, and who would want to have pups that are born when it is still winter? I respond with the asperity that he sometimes seems to evoke in me.
"Well, Diefenbaker, I rather doubt that there will be any pups forthcoming from this union."
Ray overhears this and, predictably, snickers. I turn to him, eyebrows raised.
"Unless, that is, you have ovaries that you haven't told me about?"
Ray chokes and doubles over with laughter. Inanely, I giggle at my own joke. Then we are embracing, swaying in the wind, faces buried in each other's parka hoods, helplessly laughing. Diefenbaker looks disgusted at this display, and tells me that I should have some sense of dignity.
The storm does not let up, and we spend the remainder of the day in the tent. I can't seem to stop touching Ray. My body, once freed from its constraints, is insatiable, and we pass the time by making love, drowsing, and eating.
The next morning, I wake to the absence of sound. Ray and I are curled like dogs close together in our warm nest. The storm has passed, and when I emerge from the tent, the world is white and still, the tent and the sled more than half snowed over. Unbroken expanses of snow stretch before us, like a blank canvas waiting for the first stroke of a brush. I draw a breath in through my nose. I smell the clean scent of snow, and the cold bites my nostrils.
I am eager for the trail again. I turn to Ray. He is looking at me, and for once I do not wonder how to read him. Ray's expression is one of fierce approval. I meet his eyes for a long moment, and then, together, we begin the tasks of the day.