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--for the Diary Challenge


It's not much more than a lean-to. But it's a nice lean-to. At least Fraser says it's a nice lean-to. Ray, having minimal experience with lean-tos (one lean-to, two lean-two?), couldn't say whether it's nice or not. It's warm inside, though, and from the rocking chair next to the woodstove he can see most of Fraser's property through the double-panes of the window.

There's a corner of the barn with its bullet holes from automatic weapons, a message scrawled in violent braille across the planks. "It's a long story," Fraser said. "How long?" Ray asked, needing to see a man about a horse and wondering if he could wait. "Ninety minutes," Fraser answered. By the time Ray got back from the outhouse, Fraser was gone out to feed the dogs, and Ray forgot to ask him when he came back. Now, Ray sits in the rocking chair with his feet on the warm bricks by the stove and makes up the story for himself, one bullet-hole at a time.

Besides the barn, there's a stone fireplace with a cooking grill and an alcove for baking, an outhouse and a woodshed. That's it. A whole world, there, framed by the window, self-contained except for the double line of sled tracks snaking away from it, lavender-blue on white. The buildings are all greyed with time and seem just a bit askew, like they're leaning away from something. Probably the mountain looming there just outside Ray's line of sight. But the mountains, he's learned, don't give a flying fuck about little things like barns or woodsheds or people. The mountains look at the sky. And the sky looks... somewhere else.

Ray's getting used to feeling small. It's not the same thing as feeling insignificant. The exact difference is hard for him to get a grip on. Like everything that has to do with Fraser and Fraser's world, it's slippery. Ray spends a lot of time trying to grasp things, fumbling for them with fingerless mittens. Lots of things fall away and leave an impression of their shape and weight in the snow. He figures he can leave them there, find them in the spring, after the melt. Because he's getting used to letting things go. For everything there is a season, so the song goes. He figures there's plenty of stuff under the snow here, on Fraser's dad's land.

He breathes in and lets out a cough, phlegmy, opens the door to the stove and spits onto the coals. He doesn't feel like he's drowning inside himself anymore, but he remembers it. In the fever, he got all turned inside-out and the fluid in his lungs became Lake Superior and his body became a sinking boat, and he couldn't make it, a hundred yard swim to the next pocket of air, panic shrieking in his head like a transmission in the wrong gear. But Fraser breathed for him, somehow, words words words, talking all the night through, the day, the night, until Ray burst into a space of grey light between night and day and found him there beside the cot, a book on his knee, reading in a voice raspy and worn thin.

... the wineskin under his coat to keep it from freezing. The snow fell straight down, silently, and there was no sound at all but the hiss of the sleds and the panting of the dogs, and occasionally, Buck humming something tuneless.

When we arrived at the cabin, Benton was sound asleep under the furs on the sled, but when we stopped he stirred and climbed out. He walked across the snow in the most remarkable pattern of loops and digressions, through the door to Caroline. Her holler set the dogs wailing.

I came running. We discovered the wineskin was half empty and the boy was passed out like prospector after a celebrated strike, face-down beside his bowl of porridge at the table. Buck laughed so hard he almost soiled his snow-pants and Caroline chased him out of the cabin with the fireplace poker.

The boy woke up with a hell of a hangover. I imagine it will be a good long time before he gets a taste for spirits again.


"How come you don't keep a diary like your dad?" Ray asked. For first words since coming back from the dead, they maybe weren't so great, but at that moment that was the only question that mattered. In the lurid, flickering light of his memory, thirty years of Bob Fraser's history wavered on the rise and fall of Fraser's voice. Fraser worked through the journals backward, his remembered self getting younger and younger.

Fraser looked up, startled to hear a voice other than his own. He rubbed his thumb across his eyebrow and shrugged. "Dad worked in a vast wilderness," he answered.

"So do you."

In Chicago, Ray knew what insignificant felt like.

The scarf around his neck is sticky with mustard paste and eucalyptus and otter bladder and eye of newt, or whatever, and it smells like crap, but somehow it radiates heat into Ray's body and he doesn't mind it so much now that he's gotten used to it. Later, when he takes it off to scrub himself down over the basin, he'll feel weirdly naked without it--being naked has squat to do with feeling naked, he knows, since Fraser undressed him and put him under the blankets--and he'll wrap himself back up dutifully the way Fraser showed him. He'll do it carefully, a little like a ritual. There's more to this funky out-there medicine than eye of newt and moss roots, even if he can't say what that is. Fraser will be back, and Ray wants to show him that he gets it. His healthier body will be a statement of faith. Not in mustard paste, though, but in Fraser's hands.

By the door, Dief rolls over and groans. His feet scrabble at the planks, ruck up the knotted rug. Ray wonders if he's chasing junkies or arctic hare.

"I'll leave Dief with you," Fraser said. He already had his coat on but he hadn't opened the door. There was a sheen of sweat across his forehead, but he hesitated anyway. "I'll be back tomorrow nightfall." He stood beside the door, sweating in the heat of the stove, and didn't leave.

Outside, the team was yelping and lunging at the end of the rig, ready to go.

"Okay," Ray said from the rocking chair.

"Dief will--" Fraser's hand rose in its mitten and waved at things, stuff, events that might happen between now and tomorrow nightfall. "It'll be fine."

"Okay," Ray said.

"You need the medication."

"Okay," Ray said.

"Okay," Fraser said, and turned finally and opened the door to let in a sky so blue it made Ray's eyes tear up.

Ray watched him go, watched him leaning into the turn, "Gee!" slicing through the cold like a blade. The double track of the sled traced the curve of the basin and ended at the notch where the mountains came together like a sentence cut off by landscape.

"Okay," Ray said, and watched his breath hover in the still air. He went inside then and looked at the wood Fraser had carried in and stacked beside the stove. Way more than two days' worth.

The mountain leaned on his back.

Ray eats chicken soup out of a bowl with a Mountie on the bottom, upright on a black horse, standard blowing in the wind. As he scoops his way down to the prize, he wonders who gives a Mountie Mountie souvenirs.

He eats standing up in front of the window, tips the bowl up at his mouth and slurps the last of the soup loud enough to wake Dief, who jumps up and glares a little wildly around the room. Ray opens the door and he dashes out, chasing dream junkies. From here on the little porch, Ray can see the paths carved through the snow. From the lean-to to the outhouse, to the barn, to the wood pile, there's a triangle of footprints, habit and need. There's a blank space in the middle of it all, where even Dief hasn't stepped, a low, uneven mound that hints at fallen angles under the snow.

Ray stood knee deep in snow, wrapped up in his parka and his blanket, having come off the path to the outhouse. Fraser was on his way back from the woodshed, and stopped with his mouth open like he was going to warn him of a crevasse or a waterfall. Ray waved his mitten at the mound. "What was there?" he asked. Fraser started walking again, picking Ray up in his wake and towing him back onto the path. "Victoria," he said.

Later, when he's better, Ray will go out and sweep the snow away and find the blackened remains of the cabin. He'll ask who Victoria was, and Fraser will tell him in a halting voice, speaking into the dark. After that, Ray will think of Victoria as that person who left behind one hell of a nasty signature. While Fraser is still sleeping on his bedroll beside the cot, Ray will go out and heap the snow up again over the scar and walk backward into his own footsteps, erasing his path as he goes.

The kerosene lamp hisses and the room feels oddly hollow in its blue glow, like a snow globe only in reverse. He's resisted, but the night starts so early and he can't get anything on the radio except a guy droning on in something like Russian. The foreign voice sounds way too close and Ray turns the radio off. So that leaves just the sound of the lamp and the pop of wood in the stove and the leather-bound journals still piled on the floor beside the cot. There's two piles, read and unread. Ray picks up the top one on the unread pile and shuffles in his blanket back to his chair. He sips tea and thumbs through the pages until he finds what he's looking for.

On Fraser's birthday:

It's a boy.

That's it. The rest of the page is blank.

He stares at it for a long time, then gets up with a grunt and opens the drawer in the desk against the wall, rummages around until he finds four pens of different colours. He fishes a scrap of paper out of the kindling box and scribbles a few random words with each of the pens. Careful inspection with the paper held close to the lamp, and then, for comparison, to the orange light through the open stove door, helps him choose. He sits at the table and very carefully, lightly, adds an exclamation mark to the notation in Bob Fraser's diary. More rummaging and he comes up with a pencil with a stub of eraser on the end, and uses it to distress the paper a little, fading the brighter colour of the pen. He finishes up with a twist of his shirtsleeve soaked in his teacup and dabbed against the paper. Not for nothing, all those years making fake I.D.s in highschool.

He doesn't feel bad about defacing Fraser's history.

An hour later he's standing at the window again. Everything is blue under a full moon just like in those postcards in the rack at the airport. There's even a ribbon of green writhing close to the horizon and the occasional searchlight shaft of red or white. The northern lights should make noise, a hiss of colour lashing the sky, but they don't. Out in the snow, the woodshed is a rectangle of shadow and inside it the wood is stacked in a precise way to allow it to dry properly. In the barn, the cold air is sliced through with moonlight through bullet holes, and the rig for the spare sled is hanging neatly from hooks on the wall. Fraser's axe is gleaming on its own hook, and the dog bowls, clean and ready, sit in a row by the wall. In the lean-to, there's enough wood beside the stove for days and days, just in case, and the blankets on the cot are disheveled and trailing and tangled still, remembering Ray's tossing and turning, the sweat of his fever, Fraser's hands pulling them around him, keeping him warm. Bob Fraser's journals are stacked on either side of Fraser's chair, read and unread. In the notch where the mountains come together, Fraser shouts, "Haw!" and the dogs turn, one pair after the other, to sweep the sled toward Ray at the window.

On the mound in the middle of it all, something has left footprints. They trail off of the old cabin, cut across the snow, across the porch and disappear over the rise. There might be something up there watching as the sled skids to a halt in front of the barn and Fraser sets the team loose to crowd through the barn doors in front of him, looking for dinner.

"You okay?" Fraser will say breathily after he pulls off his mitten with his teeth and uses his free hand to to push back his hood. There will be ice crystals on his lashes.

"Yep."

"Feeling any better?"

"Yep."

He'll look past Ray into the room, at the chair and the cot and the journals stacked beside it. "No trouble?"

"Nope."

"What did you do while I was gone?"

Ray will grin and step aside to let him in, take his mittens so he can undo his coat. "Not much. Slept. Had soup. Read your diary."

THE END


Notes: Just under the wire, so no time for beta. Sorry. All errors are absolutely mine. The story about the wineskin is true. Ask my brother ;)

Feedback welcomed at troyswann@yahoo.ca.

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