The Age of Lead
Author's Notes: Many thanks to my wonderful betas, JS Cavalcante, Dessert First and Qe2, all of whom helped make this story a much more coherent and complete piece.
Story Notes: Written for bakaknight for the 2008 due South Seekrit Santa fic exchange.
The Age of Lead
We found the body in the fourth week of our journey. Or rather, we found a button. We discovered the body quite by accident.
Ray and I had been traveling for twenty-eight days through the harshest and most beautiful country imaginable. We'd guided our sleds through caverns of ice, where the faint sound of our own passage—little more than the schuss of our runners—echoed off shimmering walls of aqua blue marbled with turquoise. We heard the faint, crystalline sounds of ice falling upon ice, and it was so cold that when we drew breath, our lungs froze momentarily, the delicate bronchial tubes icing over before our bodies pushed warmer air back through.
I'd kept a careful eye on Ray throughout the early stages of our adventure. He seemed transfixed by the pale, empty landscape, by the white snow and the blue sky, and while he'd adapted well to the conditions and the physical challenges—enough so to warrant the purchase of a second sled, which he handled admirably—he still seemed in awe of the land through which we traveled. He would stay silent for hours, and then thrust his words out in a puff of cold steam, as though he needed to relieve some of the pressure building within him.
"This is the scariest place I've ever been, Fraser," he told me one bright morning. "I feel like anything could happen here."
"Anything can, Ray," I said.
Our conversation proved prophetic when, later that day, Ray whistled to get my attention. It was too windy to talk, and he'd brought his sled to a halt some thirty feet from my own. He waved in a direction slightly west of the route I'd plotted, and I shook my head at first, unwilling to veer off course. He frowned and pointed more insistently, jabbing his mittened hand toward the horizon.
Go that way, he seemed to be saying, and I understood his intent as clearly I had as the day his words echoed off the walls of a submersible a hundred feet below the surface of Lake Superior. Look, Fraser, just this once. I trust you. Every single time, every single time I got to trust you. Just once you need to trust me.
The irony was, of course, that I did trust him, completely and with my whole heart. It was myself I didn't trust. I'd loved Ray Kowalski for nearly two years, but I'd carried my feelings like a heavy stone, a burden that weighted me down and made me sarcastic and short-tempered. I had recognized my love as the danger it was: it would be a rock hurled through the window of our partnership. I knew that my feelings for Ray would smash us apart, break us profoundly in ways that my reticence and his anger had not yet managed to do. And so I'd said nothing, and forced myself to spend each day in the sweet agony of his presence.
I am, at my core, a coward.
Without a word from me, Ray shouted to his team and swung his sled in the direction that would lead us off the path I'd selected for us.
He'd already anchored his sled and was crouching by whatever had caught his attention before I'd reached his side. He really was skilled with the dogs, and I admired his adaptability anew, lost in yet another fantasy that considered Ray's graceful handling of his team, and how those same adept, long-fingered hands might feel upon my skin.
Reality descended once more when Ray jerked my attention back to the matter at hand.
"What the hell...?"
The object that had caught his eye lay half-buried in the early melt. The discovery inspired a triumphant chuckle from Ray as he held it up.
"Looks like some kind of coin," he observed, tilting the small, flat, round object to better catch the light. I carefully hid my admiration of his quick intelligence, just as I hid most of my reflexive reactions to him. I blushed whenever he sat too close to me around the fire at night, and my eyes lingered on his body too long sometimes in the morning. I'd been lucky so far: Ray did not yet seem to notice my interest, or understand what it meant. And that, I told myself sternly, was a blessing indeed.
I knelt down beside him and held out my hand. The object was made of brass, and was not, therefore, something indigenous to the western Arctic. Nor had it been manufactured within the last 50 years—the brass was tarnished with age and weathered with neglect. I squinted at it, noting the telltale holes for thread, the sharp edges worn smooth by generation after generation of snowmelt as it lay buried in the ice.
"It's a button," I concluded, and Ray stared at the little flat disc, mesmerized.
"What's it doing all the way out here?"
"I'm not entirely sure," I confessed, which seemed to please him. Ray always did take an unaccountable delight in my admissions of ignorance. He grinned at me, his smile bright enough to rival the sunlight that bounced off the snowhills and the little brass button that gleamed dully in my hand.
"Think it fell off someone's coat?"
"Yes," I nodded at him, "sometime in the last two hundred years, I'd say."
I rose to my feet and went to locate the shovel and snow-axe I'd lashed down with our other gear. At my nod, Ray took the axe and went back to the spot where he'd found the button. It was a wonder he'd seen some gleam of it in the first place, enough to awaken his keen intuition. There was little to distinguish the area from the featureless white landscape that surrounded us. If we hadn't knelt down in the snow, disturbing the powder with our handprints and the outline of our boots, we should never have found the spot again.
"Any ideas?" Ray asked, looking uncertainly at the square patch of snow that looked so much like every other patch of snow for the next thousand miles or so.
I surveyed the white landscape, noting that the nearby gully offered a good prospect for a campsite, and Ray's bright-eyed look of excitement. I, too, felt an odd tingle snake down my spine. And while Ray's proximity—he was crouched very near my elbow—was probably enough to warrant the sensation, I felt something decidedly different when I looked at the dull brass button.
"We dig," I said.
The work was easy at first: the lightly packed snow of the Arctic contains very little moisture, and so it was relatively easy to dig a few small exploratory holes near the place where the button had emerged from the frozen land.
We had dug five or six small holes, none more than sixty centimeters deep, when Ray's spade connected with something. We'd both grown so used to the scrape of our shovels against ice and snow that the dull "thunk" of Ray's shovel striking home stopped us cold. We looked at one another in shock, and Ray smiled crookedly at me.
"Now that sounds like dinner's done," he laughed. I suspect my answering smile was rather blank, and he hurried to explain.
"Y'know. Ding ding. Oven timer."
At my continued look of confusion he sighed and settled back on his haunches. "Never mind. Anyway, what'd I hit?"
I brushed the excess snow away with my mitt, and tried to ignore Ray's hot breath on the back of my neck as we both leaned closer to see what we'd found. A piece of wood, it turned out, and a rather thick chunk at that. The sharp edge of Ray's small shovel had scored the wood, chipping out a white dent in the weathered grain despite the ice that encased it. The piece was frozen solid: I tried to pry it loose but found I couldn't move it. Frowning, I dug around at the edges, and gathered that what I'd thought was only a chunk of wood was in fact something much larger.
"Help me move the snow," I said, and for ten minutes we dug, filling the stillness with the soft grunts of our labour. We didn't have to worry about hitting permafrost for another few meters, and so we only had to contend with moving snow and large chunks of ice.
Eventually we'd cleared the whole area, and the wooden object loomed before us. I heard Ray gasp, and I couldn't quite hold back my own startled intake of breath.
My heart was thumping dully in my chest, and I used my teeth to pull my mittens off my shaking hands and melt the thin layer of ice that had formed over the words carved deep into the simple wooden marker:
HERE LIES ALEXANDER MACKENZIE
b. June 29th 1829
d. on these accursed shores
November 1st 1845
A loyal servant gone home again.
Ray and I were silent, our minds reeling. I scanned the epitaph over and over, half-expecting the carefully carved words to change shape, for the dates to rearrange themselves and for this to be revealed as an ordinary grave, rather than the final resting place of a man who held tremendous significance to the quest Ray and I had embarked upon. But there was no reason a young lad from Inverness should have died in the western Arctic in 1845 unless...unless...
The murmured question brought me back to myself, and I stumbled backwards, landing hard on my rear end, only to stare in dumbfounded astonishment at the marker.
"Frase?" Ray said again, much more urgently this time. He clasped my shoulder and stared into my face. He looked as though he expected to find me catatonic. And I very nearly was: my mind was racing, assembling bits and pieces of information, jumbling together facts and old legends and trying to make sense of it all. My thoughts slid around in my frantic mind like an egg slipping through hot oil in a frying pan. No matter how I examined the evidence, I could draw but one conclusion.
I groped blindly for Ray's hand and held it, hearing but scarcely caring that his breathing had slowed and deepened. If my touch disturbed him, he'd have to bear it. My fingers shook within the layers of glove and mitten that separated us.
"What is it?" he whispered.
I licked my lips—my throat was desperately dry—and uttered the conclusion I could scarcely believe possible: "We've found one of Franklin's men."
Night descends quickly above the Arctic Circle, even in the spring when the days are long. We could dig no more without putting ourselves in danger: we needed to erect a shelter and stake the dogs, which were already growing irritable with hunger, and snapping at one another in their traces.
Ray took care of the two teams while I put up our tent, and in short order we had also set up the camp stove and seen to dinner, which consisted of reconstituted stew, tea, and as much dried fruit as we could stomach. Ray was being unaccountably quiet. Usually he kept up a lively chatter when we stopped for the evening, as if he wanted to make up for a long day of silence spent riding in our separate sleds, where the noise of the wind and the scrape of our runners made conversation impossible. However, tonight he seemed to sense that I needed some quiet time to think about the grave marker we'd unearthed. If I looked, I could see it in the gathering twilight, hunched low in the pit we'd dug.
When our dinner was ready, Ray took his customary seat beside me on one of our little campstools. His bowl of stew steamed merrily in the cold, but he didn't immediately begin to eat. Instead he glanced at me, and then at the burial site we'd uncovered.
"You really think it's one of Franklin's crew?"
"The date and the location certainly fit," I said, rubbing my eyes. I felt oddly tired. The physical exertions of the day had been mild, but the discovery had shaken me. Historians and archeologists had been searching for traces of the Franklin expedition for over a hundred years. The fate of the Erebus and the Terror was one of the central mysteries of Arctic exploration: everyone, it seemed, had searched for some clue as to what happened to Sir John Franklin's ill-fated voyage. In fact, more ships and lives had been lost in vain attempts to locate Franklin's final resting place than were lost in the initial expedition.
"Other gravesites of Franklin's crew have been found," I said to Ray, who was watching me warily, as though any moment he anticipated another retreat into introspective silence. "But those discoveries were limited to Beechy Island and Boothia Peninsula, both of which are much further northwest of here."
Ray nodded, his mouth drawn into a tight line. "And we're southeast. So if this dead guy really did work for Franklin, and this is his grave, that means that he died pretty early on, right?"
I felt a rush of admiration for Ray's gift for deductive reasoning. He had a first-rate mind, which was just one of his many charms. My face flushed a little, and I cleared my throat, determined to distract myself before I could begin yet another mental list of the rest of Ray's more appealing qualities. I was certain one look at my face would give me away, but Ray was staring into the fire, his brow furrowed in thought.
"He was pretty young, huh?"
"Yes," I said, softly. "Just sixteen. Little more than a boy."
My reply seemed to rouse him, and Ray shook himself out. "So what do we do now?"
There was but one answer I could give. "We document the site as thoroughly as we can, and then we try to check on the condition of the body."
Neither of us slept well that night. I could hear Ray tossing and turning on the other side of the tent. I wanted to say something to him, but the words stuck in my throat. It always felt more dangerous to talk at night, when the intimacy of darkness and warmth, coupled with Ray's nearness, created a powerful spell that always tempted me to confess my feelings.
My need for him always difficult to control, but at least during the day I had the hard work of our journey and the sight of Ray's friendly, open face—a face which bore no trace of any affection for me beyond simple friendship, I sternly reminded myself—to focus on. But at night it was so much harder. Ray slept within arm's reach, and the soft moans and snuffling snores and deep, contented sighs of his repose made me itch to pull him into my arms.
Lurid fantasies filled my nights: I imagined unzipping Ray's sleeping bag and fumbling through layers of clothing until I found hot, hard flesh. I dreamed of taking him into my mouth, and in my dreams he fisted his hands in my hair and thrust deeply, gliding slickly over my tongue, plunging deep and crying out in pleasure as he built to a climax that would leave us both shaken.
We were rough with one another in my dreams: we clawed at one another like animals, and marked each other with teeth and stinging kisses that left dark bruises in their wake. I wasn't sure why I dreamed of violence, of frantic desperation, of being used by Ray quickly and without mercy. Perhaps my subconscious realized that to dream of tenderness, of gentle kisses and long, slow nights of passion, would be my undoing.
I wasn't entirely sure that my subconscious was wrong, in that respect.
In the end I dozed for perhaps an hour or so, fighting the hot, swollen temptation of my own body until the grey light of early morning filtered into the tent. I rose and started coffee. Ray stumbled out a few minutes later, bleary-eyed and disheveled, and neither of us spoke. I wondered, looking over his bloodshot eyes and matted hair, if he was also troubled by his dreams. Something seemed to be weighing on him. But when he caught me watching, he only smiled ruefully and rubbed his hands together quickly, as though taken by a sudden chill.
"Guess I was too excited to sleep," he said with a shrug, and went to pack snow into our kettle, which would boil down to water for oatmeal and tea. As we waited for our breakfast, I tried to find some way to reassure him. I doubted very much that excitement had kept him from sleep last night: no doubt he'd been thinking about Alexander Mackenzie, and dwelling on all the ways there are to die in this country.
"Have I told you anything about the early Arctic explorers?" I asked Ray, who shook his head slowly. He looked apprehensive, and glanced again at the gravesite we'd uncovered.
I cleared my throat, drawing his attention back to me. "Henry Hudson came to Canada in 1610," I said. "He was one of the earliest European explorers to penetrate the continent. He looking for a sea route to Asia, and followed the river channels into the heart of North America. When his ship sailed into the large bay that now bears his name, he thought he'd found an ocean. Instead he and his ship were marooned for the winter. The crew mutinied against him, and tied Hudson and his young son to a raft. They were set adrift in the arctic waters. No one ever saw him again."
"That's...cheery, Fraser, thanks." Ray's tone was flip, but he was staring moodily at the fire.
I shook my head. I needed him to understand. "The Danish explorer Jens Munk was next. He made it a little farther than Henry Hudson—he too sailed into Hudson Bay, looking for a northwest passage to Asia. They didn't understand how vast this continent truly is. No one knew, at the time. Munk's ship reached the western shore of the bay before winter descended: the ship was caught in the frozen inland sea, and while they managed to find some food—his crew shot a polar bear—everyone soon sickened. The bear meat was diseased: they didn't know to thoroughly roast the meat. As you probably know, polar bears are usually contaminated with ringworm from eating infected seals." I paused for a moment so Ray could give a short, sarcastic nod.
"Yeah, of course I know that, Fraser," Ray muttered, jumping up to stir the oatmeal before it could burn. I smiled at him before continuing with my story.
"Malnutrition and blizzards claimed the lives of the crew, one by one, and soon there was only Jens Munk left."
I closed my eyes, thinking of the last entry found scrawled in Munk's journal: I feel like a lost and lonely bird.
My own entries about our expedition, and about Ray, were just as pitiable, if perhaps less poignant: I cannot endure this love.
"So all the white guys who come out here died. That what you're telling me?" Ray asked. "That...that does not help, Fraser."
"No, they didn't all die," I told him. He looked up at me, scowling, his bearded face and too-long hair making him look like younger, somehow. More vulnerable. "I've told you about Franklin."
"Yeah," Ray nodded. "Case in point. He died."
"And why did he die?"
Ray shrugged. "He wasn't prepared."
I nodded. "That's right. None of them were prepared for this place. Hudson had no idea what to expect. Munk thought he'd find a way out of the continent after a few weeks. And Franklin...Franklin was a fool."
"Yeah," Ray said. His pulse was rapid; I could see it beating in his neck. "And I know how that story ends. Fraser, next time I ask you to cheer me up, don't, okay?"
"I'm not quite done, Ray," I said testily, tearing my gaze away from his neck. The sun had risen, and we had enough light to begin our work. "But perhaps we ought to get started on the excavation. Franklin's story can wait."
Ray started at me for a moment, and something shifted in his face. "Okay," he said, and his voice had lost the hard edge of conflict. "Tell me later."
We returned to the gravesite armed with string and wooden stakes, a sketch pad, a camera, and our trusty shovels. I photographed the area carefully and then we used the stakes and string to plot out a grid pattern in the snow. I noted the location of the grave marker on the sketch pad, using the gridlines as a guide, and then we began to dig down carefully into the snow.
The temperature dropped steadily as we worked, causing the newly uncovered layers of snow and ice to freeze. Worse, we quickly hit permafrost, which required brute strength and a good deal of our precious fuel reserves to melt the frozen earth enough to dig through. It was hard going, but Ray and I were persistent, and soon we had cleared an area roughly the size of a conventional grave. I'd suspected the grave was a shallow one, but we still hadn't found a coffin or a canvas-wrapped body. It looked as though we would still need to dig a hole well over our heads before we were likely to find anything.
"How much deeper, you think?" Ray asked, as if reading my thoughts. I turned to him, taking in his grimly composed face. He'd never been particularly comfortable around corpses.
"Another three or four feet, I suspect," I said, trying to inject a note of cheerful optimism into my voice. "The men who buried him wouldn't have had enough energy to dig very deeply."
Ray glanced at me. "Why didn't they have the energy?"
"Well, they were dying," I explained. "The Franklin expedition set sail with all the modern amenities. Canned food, state-of-the-art scientific and navigational equipment. Champagne. China table settings, a library of a thousand books, and even a grand piano. Franklin and his men believed that they could conquer this country by the sheer weight of European civilization."
Ray seemed to consider this. "So what killed them?"
"Lead poisoning," I told him. "Franklin's expedition had been outfitted with three years' worth of canned food, but improper cut-rate soldering on the tins allowed lead to leak into the food." I frowned. "It was an ugly way to die. And they had no idea what was killing them."
I reflected that Alexander Mackenzie had been lucky, comparatively speaking. He'd died in November of 1845, well before the Erebus and the Terror had become moored in the ice and forced the crews ashore, where the more horrific aspects of the Franklin expedition—starvation, exposure to the elements, the slow death by lead poisoning, and finally cannibalism—had finished off what remained of the men.
"They died—they all died—because they refused to adapt. Now Samuel Hearne, on the other hand, is a good example of how to explore the Arctic properly. Unlike the others, Hearne attempted to cross the Arctic by foot."
That made Ray snort. "Yeah, so naturally you'd think he's a role model."
"Well," I said, wishing I were brave enough to set a comforting hand on his shoulder. I turned, instead, and began to dig. The earth itself—frozen hard and fighting each strike from my shovel—felt as stubborn and unyielding as the European explorers whose methods Samuel Hearne had distained.
"I think his decision to adapt to the climate by adopting Inuit methods of survival is admirable. It certainly shows a humility and a foresight that the other explorers lacked. They came to this country to conquer it. Samuel Hearne wanted to learn from it."
"So he could conquer it," Ray added, grunting a little as he shoveled. I had to concede his point.
"Perhaps. He spent more than two years on the ice and learned how to live off the land. He saw more of the Arctic than any European would for another two centuries. And he survived."
I deliberately left out the uglier parts of Hearne's story: the massacre of Inuit by Hearne's Chipewyan guides at the mouth of the Arctic Ocean, an event Hearne himself could never speak of without weeping. His capture by the French and the death of his Métis wife and Hearne's Chipewyan friends and guides, all of whom perished due to European diseases and starvation.
At the end of his life, Samuel Hearne stood alone. His life was a story of survival against terrible odds, and it offered an excellent lesson to Ray and me, who were attempting to retrace Franklin's footsteps: does one come to this land armed only with humility and honour, or does one come loaded down with the heavy weight of civilization, as Franklin did?
I had always preferred to move lightly over the land. As did Ray. He had followed me here with nothing but his own indomitable spirit, and without the weight of expectation or judgment. And he had remained with me, having broken all ties to his old life.
"So this Hearne guy—you think he did okay in this place?"
"Yes," I said. "Of all the explorers who came to this part of the world, I think Hearne offers the best example of how to do it properly. And he didn't attempt to do it alone, which is an important lesson. The others—Franklin, Munks, Hudson—they were all so alone. It is their names we remember, not the names of their friends or partners. Hearne had the help of his wife, and the Chipewyan chief, Matonabbee, who guided him across the continent and taught him how to survive."
Ray was quiet for a moment. "So, you're saying that he made it because he had friends out there with him, on the ice?"
"Yes, Ray," I said, removing one more shovel of permafrost from the burial site. "And because he listened to what they had to tell him."
He looked up at me. "I listen to you, right?"
"Better than anyone else ever has," I told him, and meant it.
We had to stop for water and a hot meal after another few hours' work, and to check on the dogs. The teams were bedded down contentedly in the snow, and Dief yipped at me in question as I put on the water for tea.
"Nothing yet," I announced, "but soon, I think." Dief wagged his tail, but showed no interest in actually approaching the grave. He curled himself instead around Glenda, the Malamute bitch who served as lead dog on Ray's team. She licked Dief's face and I smiled sardonically, glad that one of us, at least, was successful in matters of the heart. Dief's low growl of contentment (amplified for my benefit, no doubt) demonstrated that he shared my thoughts on the matter.
"You pay and you pay and you pay..." I muttered to myself, pouring the tea.
Ray sat down next to me on his customary stool and sipped at the hot drink, making a face but not bothering to voice his usual complaint at being made to drink something that tasted "like ass." He seemed preoccupied but roused himself when our meal of bannock, bacon, and beans was ready. After he'd gobbled down his lunch, he turned to me.
"Okay, so...is this going to be really gross?" he asked, his expression so earnest that I choked on my bannock.
"The body, you mean?"
He snorted. "Uh, yeah. The body. Am I going to be sick when I see it?"
I smiled. For a police detective who regularly solved violent crimes, Ray was remarkably squeamish when it came to autopsies.
"Alexander Mackenzie has been dead for a hundred and fifty-four years, Ray," I pointed out. "And he's been frozen solid the entire time. If you're worried about...odors, or any kind of bodily fluid, I suspect that you only need to be concerned should the body begin to thaw. And that's what we need to check—we need to ensure that the body is well-preserved, and that it will remain so until the archeological teams arrive."
"Check, huh?" Ray asked. He paled a little at the thought, and grimaced. "But what's he going to look like?"
"I don't know," I said thoughtfully, rubbing at my chin. "It depends on what he died of, obviously. If he were injured or contracted some kind of disfiguring illness, there might be some tissue damage. But he won't be skeletal. I suspect he'll look much the same as he did the day he died." At Ray's blank look, I hurried to clarify. "Mackenzie's body won't have been exposed to moisture, air or insects, and the frozen conditions should have prevented any post-mortem decay."
Ray closed his eyes and sucked in a deep, calming breath. I waited politely for him to compose himself. "Okay," he said, finally looking at me but not quite meeting my eyes. "Okay, I can do this."
It was slow going after lunch: the permafrost was extremely difficult to dig through, and we needed to expend more and more energy as the day grew colder. I stopped us every half-hour for hot drinks and food, concerned that the hard physical labour would leave us vulnerable to hypothermia if we didn't stop to take in sufficient calories and rest regularly.
The short Arctic day was nearly at an end when we finally found the coffin.
A thin layer of ice covered the final resting place of Alexander Mackenzie, and Ray, thinking quickly, hauled himself up out of the hole we'd dug and jogged to the camp, returning after only a few minutes with the steaming kettle. We poured hot water over the ice, watching as it melted and cracked to reveal the solid planking of a coffin top. The coffin itself wasn't very large—perhaps two feet by five. A short, small man, then. Or simply a young one.
Mackenzie's name and the date of his demise were carved into a metal plate affixed to the coffin, and one thing might be said of whomever had buried the man: they'd certainly gone to great lengths to preserve his identity.
I recognized Mackenzie's name, of course. Long before Ray had suggested hunting down Franklin's lost expedition I'd memorized the names of all the crew, the important dates of the expedition, the archeological conclusions and historical hypotheses drawn from the discovery of other Franklin-related sites. The graves of the Franklin men were scattered across the northwestern Arctic like a grim trail of breadcrumbs. Perhaps that was why the men who had buried Alexander Mackenzie had bothered with the marker and the metal plate: they'd left traces of their passage behind in the hope that someone would find them. Of course, no one had. The Franklin expedition had vanished from the face of the earth, leaving only a few grim markers behind.
I knew that Mackenzie had been a stoker on the ship, responsible for feeding the fires of the Erebus' powerful steam engines. There had been 130 members of the expedition, all told: cooks, crewmen, servants, carpenters, a small floating city who set out to conquer the Arctic on two of the best-equipped ships in Her Majesty's Royal Navy. Seven bodies had been recovered from the sites on Beechy Island and Boothia Peninsula; only two had been positively identified. Ray and I had found one more, but the fate of the remaining hundred and twenty-two souls was still unknown. It was as though they had simply vanished from the face of the earth.
"Should we take the top off?" Ray asked me. He was staring down at the coffin lid, his fingers twitching restlessly. I knew that Ray shared my eagerness (if not my enthusiasm) to uncover the face of the long-deceased Alexander Mackenzie. We were police officers, after all, and the fate of Franklin's crew was a mystery we itched to solve. That Mackenzie had died a hundred and fifty years ago as part of an ill-fated Arctic expedition was immaterial: we both wanted to know who he was and how he died, and to put a face to the name we'd now read on two separate inscriptions.
The sky had darkened, and I could smell snow on the wind. We didn't have much time, and I worried a bit: if the body had been allowed to thaw at any point, or if it had been exposed to thermal venting, there might be nothing left to find. Best we take a quick look to ensure the condition of the remains, then recover the grave and alert the proper authorities as quickly as possible.
My decision made, I nodded at him. We used the claw of a hammer to pry up the thick squarehead nails that had been used to seal the coffin a century ago, and then, with an ominous creak, we lifted the lid up.
Alexander Mackenzie was sleeping. That's all I could think in those first few moments: he looked like a young man taking a nap. His nose and lips were a deep blue-black, discoloured by frostbite. And his face was thin, emaciated by malnutrition or perhaps the illness that had killed him. Otherwise, he might as well have been sleeping. His eyes were closed, his face composed in sleep. He looked peaceful. And so terribly young.
"Jesus," Ray gasped. "His feet. Look at his feet!"
I looked, and instantly understood why Ray was so disturbed. Mackenzie's feet were naked, the long toes and delicate metatarsal bones covered with thin, very white skin. The two big toes and the ankles were bound together with string, presumably to keep the feet together when the body had been lowered into the coffin. The effect—pale, bare feet bone-white with cold, hobbled together by string—was almost obscene.
"They could have left his socks on him," Ray muttered.
"I suspect others needed them more."
We stared down at the body, and I grieved for Alexander Mackenzie, for his thin face and lonely grave and poor bare feet. For a boy who had died nearly a hundred and twenty years before I'd been born.
"Think he knew why he was dying?" Ray asked me quietly. I shook my head.
"No. They wouldn't have known about the lead poisoning."
Ray sighed. "It's a hell of a thing, isn't it, Frase? To die so far away from home."
I looked at his face, but Ray was still calm and composed. He kept staring at Mckenzie's toes, and I resisted the urge to pull off my scarf and wrap it around those pale, exposed feet.
Night was falling. The snow would start to fall soon, and we had to recover the grave. I nudged Ray's shoulder, and he helped me replace the coffin lid. We did not speak. A heavy weight of sorrow and silence had settled over us. Human speech, and even the white condensation of our breath, seemed profane in this sacred space.
When we climbed out of the hole we'd made, I looked to the sky and saw that it had darkened and filled with low, ominous clouds. "Ray, I think we ought to return to the tent," I said, speaking quickly. "I suspect it's going to storm."
We hurried back to the tents, and I noticed that Ray was limping a bit. He stamped his booted feet three or four times, apparently trying to restore circulation to his toes after being crouched beside Mackenzie's coffin for so long. I wanted to ask him if he was all right, but realized that the question would be an unwelcome one: Ray had seemed determined from the very first to prove his mettle on our adventure, and he resented it when I questioned his well-being.
"Stop nagging," he'd said to me on more than one occasion. "I'm fine. I'm a big boy, Fraser. If I don't feel good, or something's bothering me, I'll say so, okay? You don't gotta ask how I'm doing every five seconds." I'd deferred to his judgment, confining my worry to quick visual examinations. Even this was risky: all too often my well-meaning attempts to ensure his safety threatened to become lingering glances, as the sight of his scruffy face and toque-tousled hair had often proven quite distracting.
I really was quite hopelessly in love with the man.
I sighed, and hoped that he'd have the good sense to tell me if his toes truly felt numb. We retrieved a plastic tarp from the sled and spread it out over the excavation site, securing it to the ground with more wooden stakes. And then we went to prepare for the oncoming storm.
The wind was fierce that night, clawing at our tent like a wild animal. It was so cold that even the inside of the tent was icy, despite the portable stove and the heat generated by two bodies.
We'd moved our sleeping bags close together, huddling near one another for warmth, and Ray tried to sleep while I stayed up and recorded the day's events in my journal. The chattering of my companion's teeth, however, made such quiet reflection impossible.
"Ray?" I said softly. Exhaustion was fatal in this environment, and if Ray truly was asleep, I didn't want to wake him. He stirred at the sound of my voice, however, and inched toward me in the thick blue sleeping bag. He looked a bit like a grumpy caterpillar, scowling out at me from the confines of his blue nylon bag.
"What?" he snapped, and I sighed.
"It's cold. In case you haven't noticed."
"Yes, I'm aware that it's cold," I said dryly, "but your teeth are chattering. Can't you get warm?"
He rolled onto his back. "No," Ray sighed. "No, I can't get warm. And yes, I remembered to change my clothes and put on an extra pair of socks. Hasn't helped."
I remembered his limping progress from the grave to our tent, and the way he'd seemed to be having trouble walking as we made our preparations for the storm. "How are your feet?"
I felt his sharp-eyed glare but refused to look at him, and continued to scribble nonsense into my journal until his tension abated somewhat and he inchwormed another few centimeters closer. The subject of feet was a sore one, given what we'd seen of Alexander Mackenzie.
"They're really cold," he finally said. "Numb, actually. Can you do anything about it?"
"I'm sorry," I gaped, exaggerating the expression for humour's sake, hoping to take his mind off the memories of Mackenzie's pale, frozen feet bound with dirty string. "I think I must be confused. Are you actually asking for my help?"
"Yep," he said blithely, twisting around in his bag. "Better hope Hell's got a good Zamboni. What can you do about my feet?"
I frowned, wondering how bad the damage was. I unzipped the bottom half of Ray's sleeping bag. He hissed at the rush of cold air invading the hard-won pocket of warmth, but relaxed a little as I lifted one sock-clad foot and pressed gingerly on the toes.
"Not really," he admitted, checking my face. I pressed harder.
I was starting to worry. I grasped his ankle firmly and began to pull off the layers of his socks. Four pairs in all, and when I finally reached his feet, I found that his toes were white—not blue or black, thank God—but ice-cold to the touch.
"Can you move them?" I asked, and he obliged, trying to wiggle his toes. The effort proved futile and he slumped back, shuddering.
"In the early stages only," I assured him. "We'll be able to reverse it."
"That's good," he hissed as I slid his foot back into his bag and went to grab supplies. "I kinda like my toes."
I nodded at this statement, and found what I needed in the first-aid kit: a leather strap, ointment, and cloth with which to bind Ray's feet. I turned up the stove, frowning at the rather paltry amount of heat it was throwing off, and then sighed, resigned to the fact that the Coleman simply couldn't compete with the—minus-60-degree temperatures outside. After I'd seen to Ray's feet, I'd call Dief into the tent with us: the extra body heat would help.
"Give me your foot," I said to Ray, who slid his foot out into the frigid air with a hiss.
"Take this," I told him, handing him the leather strap. "As the circulation returns, you'll feel some discomfort. If it becomes very painful, bite down on that."
I took his foot and rested the heel on my knee, letting go to unzip my parka and unbutton my shirt. Ray looked at me curiously.
"Barring hot water, which we can't boil in the tent, this is the best I can do," I assured him, stroking the sole of his foot with what I hoped was encouragement. And then, gently, I took his foot and slipped it into my shirt, pressing it against my belly.
The effect of this simple treatment on Ray was electric. He gasped and tried to jerk away but I held him firmly in place, shaking my head. "Please, Ray, don't move," I said as I stroked his toes, covering them with my hands to help promote the heat conduction. A simple law of thermodynamics, I thought dully, trying to distract myself from the sensation of Ray's bare foot pressing low on my belly. The feel of his skin on mine aroused thoughts I shouldn't be harbouring at this moment—or any moment.
I hurried to strip the sock from Ray's other foot, giving it the same quick and hopefully professional-feeling treatment. Soon both of his feet were held securely to my bare stomach and covered with the warm flannel of my shirt. I don't think he noticed that I was blushing.
He arched his back a little and pressed into me more firmly, seeking the heat that was finally flooding back into his near-frozen toes. I rubbed at the tops of his feet gently, stroking in firm, regular patters. The hair on his toes and the tops of his feet was rough under my palm, and I enjoyed cataloguing the differences in texture. It was uncomfortable, at least initially, to hold his feet against my bare skin: they really were like blocks of ice, and while I retained more body heat than Ray, even I was not immune to the frigid conditions inside the tent. I shivered violently and then stilled, worried that Ray would feel it and insist we stop. And I really was warm enough. The unpleasantness of the situation faded as the laws of heat conduction took effect, and soon I could feel his feet begin to warm as blood flow was restored. I continued to massage the tops of his feet and Ray sighed contentedly, closing his eyes. The tension left his body and he sagged against me, trusting me to support the weight of his legs and keep hold of his feet.
"You think we're going to die out here, like Franklin and his guys?" he asked me suddenly, and I looked at him. Ray's pale face and a few tufts of blond hair were all that I could see, bundled as he was in the sleeping bag. He kept his eyes closed. "I keep thinking about all those explorers you told me about. You said that people don't survive this place unless they take some pretty extreme measures. Did you mean that we're going to die?"
My hands did not shake. "No," I told him. "That's not going to happen to us."
"Bet Franklin's crew thought so, too," Ray murmured, grunting a bit as I massaged one ice-cold pinkie toe. "Bet Alexander Mackenzie thought he was going to see Inverness again."
"Probably," I admitted, although I doubted it. Something in the expression on Mackenzie's slumbering face made me think that he knew he'd never return home. I recognized the look from one I'd seen in the mirror, back in Chicago: Mackenzie knew he was forever an exile.
"I think...I think he believed in what he was doing. Franklin's men were devoted to him, and to the dream of the Northwest Passage."
Two small lines appeared in the middle of Ray's forehead. "Anyone ever find it?"
"No." I adjusted my hold on Ray's heels and began to rub vigorously at the bottom of his foot, eliciting another soft sigh of contentment. "It doesn't exist. Although, if global warming continues at its current rate, atmospheric scientists predict that eventually the polar ice will melt enough to open a channel through the Arctic to the sea."
"Now that'd be ironic," he said, eyes still shut tightly. "We screw up the planet so bad we make the Passage, instead of finding it. How many people died, trying to find that thing?"
"Hundreds," I told him. "Perhaps a thousand. And that's only counting Europeans," I added, sparing a moment to consider how many Inuit and First Nations had lost their lives in unrecorded voyages of discovery and exploration in the northernmost reaches of the world.
Ray was silent a moment, perhaps contemplating the untold number of lives lost to Arctic storms and the hostile conditions. He fixed his eyes on the roof of our tent. "I can't stop thinking about Mackenzie. I mean, he was just a kid. Think someone held him, offered him some comfort near the end? Do you think...do you think anyone loved him?" Ray wouldn't look at me, and my heart thudded dully in my chest. I couldn't make any assumptions about why he was asking, and focused on returning warmth and life to his feet. "I don't know," I said, simply, and tried to think of something else I could say.
Ray also seemed eager to change the subject. "How bad did get, for Franklin's crew?" he asked me.
"Bad," I said. "On Beechy Island, where most of the graves were...the archeologists found knife marks on the bones of the dead."
I shook my head. "No. They'd died of the lead poisoning, and of starvation. The marks were made post-mortem. It was cannibalism."
I felt Ray's shudder run all through his body, and up into me. If I listened closely, I imagined I could hear the flap of the canvas we'd used to cover Alexander Mackenzie's grave.
"Fraser, can we stop talking about it?" he requested, turning wide, pale eyes on me. "I just...don't want to think about it, anymore." He flexed his toes again—a good sign—and I rubbed his ankle in acknowledgement. He wiggled his toes against my belly, sending a flutter of warmth curling up through my torso. I was, perhaps, enjoying the massage of his feet just as much as he was.
"Tell me a happy story."
He freed one arm from his sleeping bag to gesture broadly. "Y'know, happy. Nothing about lead poisoning, or knife marks, or dead kids buried in the ice. Tell me a good story about the Arctic."
I paused, reflecting that I didn't really know any good stories about this part of the world. Canada is, at its core, a nation founded on tragedy. Dispossession, physical suffering and fatal hubris runs through my blood and the blood of my forefathers in the same way manifest destiny and the romance of the frontier flows through the descendants of American pioneers. But perhaps an answer to Ray's request lay not in the stories of European explorers, but in the stories of the people who'd lived—and survived—in this land for thousands of generations.
I cleared my throat and felt Ray relax: he recognized the signs of my "Inuit storytelling mode," as he called it. I was grateful that he seemed to find it endearing, rather than annoying.
"There is one story, Ray," I said quietly. His feet were warm to the touch, now, but I was still holding them tightly to my belly, unwilling to let him go. "About the Lost Valley of the Nahanni River. The Inuit say that there is a hidden canyon there, where steam escapes the rocks and the water is so warm you can bathe in it. So warm, in fact, that the entire valley is green and fertile, and fruit can be grown. Grapes, and melons."
Ray sighed, lying down and stretching a little, relaxing into my touch. "Anyone ever find this valley?"
"No," I told him. "It's more of a legend, although the details do sound convincing. Thermal vents or hotsprings could cause the kind of conditions described in the story."
I was unprepared for Ray's shout of laughter. "Fraser! God. Why aren't we looking for that? Why'd we come out here looking for Franklin's skeleton, when we could have been searching for the hotsprings?" For a moment he looked so thoroughly put out that I couldn't help but laugh.
"Well, as I recall, you were the one who suggested we search for Franklin," I told him, and his eyes met mine, bright with humour, with warmth, and with...something else entirely.
"You dummy. I just wanted to be around you. Franklin was as good an excuse as any," he said gently, and my breath caught at the note in his voice.
Ray lay bare before me, bare as the warm toes curling into my belly. He was letting me see everything, and what was there made it difficult for me to speak. Luckily, Ray understood that I was mute, and wriggled out of his sleeping bag enough to hold his arms out to me. I stared down at him for a moment, and my hesitation was enough for his face to ice over and his arms to drop. Alarmed at the change, I dropped his feet and, in one slightly clumsy motion, landed on top of him, forcing the air out of his lungs in one startled grunt as my mouth closed over his.
The kiss was not, as first kisses go, particularly successful. Ray was struggling to breathe, I was still in a state of confused shock, and neither of us was aware enough to coordinate the movements of lips and teeth and tongues. Finally, Ray squirmed away from me, gasping, and put his hand on my chest. He seemed to need to regain his breath.
"God," he murmured, grinning at me. "I knew it! I knew you—"
"Then why in damnation didn't you say anything?!"
The tone of my voice, as well as the unaccustomed profanity, caught Ray by surprise, and he burst out laughing. It wasn't long before I felt my lips twitch, and soon both of us were rolling around in the tangle of Ray's sleeping bag, red-faced and laughing so hard that tears were streaming down our hot cheeks. No danger of frostbite now, nor death, nor despair, or being crushed by the weight of disappointment. We had each other, finally.
"Ray," I said, finally bringing myself under control. Ray hiccupped once, and then grew still. We were lying very close together, our noses nearly brushing, and it was a simple matter to lean forward and brush my mouth against his.
His lips were warm and dry, peeling in places from the wind. But his mouth was hot, and when his tongue tentatively touched mine, I groaned and deepened the kiss, exploring him as he explored me in turn.
And when Ray reached down to unbutton my pants, I reached for him in turn, exposing him to the air that had felt so cold only a short time ago. Now the tent was warm, warm as Ray's flesh in my hand, warm as his hand on me. We moved together, writhing in need and pleasure, directing each other by example. When he wanted a firmer hold, or a quicker pace, he showed me exactly what he desired, and I did the same. Soon we were both shaking, toes curling, backs arching, and he came with a flooding release in my hand just as I spent myself in his.
Afterwards, when we had cleaned up and I'd wrapped Ray's toes and replaced his socks, we burrowed together in a shared sleeping bag. Ray rested his head on my chest, and I wrapped my arms securely around him. A small frown of concentration tugged at the corners of his mouth, and I realized he was listening to my heartbeat.
"Shhh," he said, a wide yawn interrupting him mid-shush. "Just...quiet, okay? I just want to listen. 'S a good sound. Better than the wind."
I let him listen, and I think I must have fallen asleep. When I woke the storm had passed, and the tent was dark and quiet. Ray's body was a steady, welcome weight on my chest, and I felt a deep sense of joy and peace pass over me.
A loyal servant gone home again
As I lay in the darkness with Ray, I thought I understood what the inscription meant.
The violence of the storm we'd weathered had obliterated Alexander Mackenzie's gravesite. The tarp was long gone, as were the string and wooden stakes we'd used to mark the excavation. The grave we'd unearthed was once more filled with snow, and I concluded that it might take days or even weeks of searching to locate the small, unobtrusive marker buried in ice and permafrost.
Ray and I took a quick survey of the ruin of our labours, and then worked to set the camp aright. The sleds and dogs had all weathered the storm admirably, but the same couldn't be said for our old tin coffee pot, which we'd neglected to secure. It had been blown away in the night. We couldn't help glancing at one another and smiling ruefully at the loss.
"Guess ol' Alexander Mackenzie'll have to wait another couple of months for someone to dig him up," Ray said cheerfully, animated despite the lack of coffee. I blushed, thinking that perhaps the explanation for his good mood was obvious.
"It would seem so, Ray. And it's probably for the best," I allowed. "When we reach the next town I'll radio the authorities—they can send up a research team to excavate the site properly. Until then..." I looked at the unrelieved white landscape, which dipped and rolled smoothly but offered nothing in the way of landmarks. The exact site of Mackenzie's grave had been effectively erased. "Let's hope that the researchers won't mind doing a lot of hard digging."
Ray smiled at this, and sighed. "Do you wish we'd been able to take credit for finding him?" Ray asked me, touching my arm. I covered his hand with my own, and turned to face him. Something in his face made me gather him close for a hug, and he chuckled against my throat.
"No," I said, mildly surprised to find that that it was the truth. "I think perhaps it's best that we leave him for someone else to find."
"Yeah," Ray agreed, his voice muffled against my parka. "We found what we were looking for. Let the next explorer have him."
We set off, Ray and I, on sleds that skimmed weightlessly over the land.
End The Age of Lead by Nos4a2no9
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