Ben looked around, tried to see in the swirling grey fog, turning his head this way and that, trying to get a bead on the half-familiar droning sound. The fog swirled around his feet and then slowly began to clear a little, revealing Ray, sweet Ray, beside him.
Ray was wearing that oh-so-familiar white t-shirt and bowling shirt combination of his, the one that Ben thought made him look like a lascivious angel, especially when his jeans were undone just enough for his to see his cock, the belt slapping against those long legs, those dancer’s legs. It wasn’t this that struck him as peculiar though, despite there being some strange echo in his mind that said that Ray should be wrapped up in a parka, with the hood up and the fur around the dark frames of his glasses; no, what glinted in Ben’s mind, nagged and tore at it with some incomprehensible message, was his badge shining golden in the darkness, hanging there from the empty shoulder holder, hitching up the side of that brown shit, a hint of leather at once arousing and bemusing him.
And then he noticed he was wearing his dress reds, not number two order, but number one. He could feel the spurs catching on whatever was beneath his feet, from the feel it might be lichen, but it seemed to rough, and something was catching at the long laces of his boots. Ray didn’t seem to have any trouble moving in this fog at all.
Ray’s feet were bare. He realised this as he lifted them up high to step over some unseen object. Benton, of course, banged his shins on another. Ray was the one leading, not Benton, in this unknown country. Ray wasn’t wearing his glasses, when had he begun to see so well, to see better than he could in this damp grey morass?
The fog was thinning somewhat now, and he could see Ray better, and see a little into the distance. They were walking on heather, or perhaps briars, and yet there was not a scratch on Ray’s perfect feet. They were white, not like marble, but like alabaster. Far whiter than they should be, he’d made a habit of studying Ray’s feet, in those moments between damp trail socks and dry tent socks, his toes wiggling, struggling for sensation. The urge to lick them, taste them, had been irresistible, yet it was strangely absent now.
Shadows welled up in the mist, and at last he recognised the droning cadence as that of the pipes, a sound from his childhood, a sound from his grandfather’s scratchy forty-fives, the hiss and crackle not obscuring in the least the mournful wail that made the dogs bark and his grandmother hurry out into the kitchen, or better still, out into the snow.
At that moment, the piper broke from his dirge and began to play a tune that made his blood rise and his heart leap. This was dancing music, the sort that he had inadequately tried to convey to Ray back in Chicago and explain with clumsy words how it made him feel, of why it screamed of escape not home.
And the dancers stepped out of the mist.
Ray was already fidgeting, moving half-in-time to the beat, as the music rose in him. He was strangely drawn towards the dancers, thought Ben, as if the pipes were like siren song to him. Perhaps, that was what it was, to have the soul of a dancer, to be drawn to crowds, not to flee them, to seek out hands and legs and souls to mirror your own. And Ben lingered back, the music bringing back half-remembered steps, the sight of Ray there, dancing a random leaping dance across the heather, calling to his soul, captivating him with beauty.
Dancing towards the dancers, getting in time with the rhythm yet not knowing the steps. Ben yearned to join him, to show him the steps, the dance of his forefathers, the dance of his soul, at once formal and wild.
And as he stepped forward, revived from his stupor, to join Ray, a familiar voice rang out as the shadows parted, “Benton, son, we only need one more to make up this reel. You sit this one out and let the Yank try his luck, he looks like he has energy enough!” He’d never really heard his father laugh, but then he’d seen so little of his father and those times had been distinctly un-companionable. It was strange, but his father, unlike Ben, wasn’t wearing his reds but rather an old Inuit parka, half-remembered from more than a childhood ago, and yet the embroidery seemed as bright as day, much brighter than Ben remembered, nestled in his father’s arms after he came home for Christmas with Ben’s mother looking on.
It seemed strange that Ray said nothing, as he moved closer to the dancers and assumed his position in the reel, momentarily taking the hand of a dark-haired dark-eyed lady, strangely familiar and strangely erotic. It took Ben a moment to recognise her, he’d been so successful in pushing her out of his mind at late, her only memento being a bullet lodged in his spine.
He was about to say something, about to pull Ray back from this strange gathering, and found that he could not, as if all the strength had been sapped from him leaving only the faintest glimmer of burning will, as her voice rang out almost in harmony with the music, “Benton, don’t worry, you’ll dance with him soon enough. Nothing is as it was here, there’s no sin and no sorrow, only the dance.”
And his father’s partner, Irene, sweet Irene, her beauty not marred like it was when he saw her last, not marred by the bullet that stole her life and Ray’s heart with it, “Don’t worry, Benny, the next dance will be just the two of you, and we’ll take good care of him in the meantime.”
Fraser woke with a start, one moment flat on his back dreaming of ghostly dancers, the next bolt upright and breathing heavily. For a moment his vision clouded, and he didn’t know where he was. It took another moment to remember, Ray.
His sleeping bag was empty beside Fraser’s kicked down and into a ball by those graceful long legs.
Ray was not in it.
Fraser tried desperately to get out of his bag, but the panicked nature of his movements just made the nylon bunch and tangle around his legs.
Ray was gone.
He’d hurried, panicked, a strange almost unknown sensation, and at last broken free of the strictures around his feet and out into the night.
Ray was lying there in the snow, the frost already silvering that milk white skin where his t-shirt had ridden up and slowly freezing those dancing legs so that they would dance no more. For a moment Fraser thought of cabin sickness, or possibly that great disease of the salt sea, calenture, and that Ray had wandered out here thinking he were somewhere else, and only realising his mistake too late. And then Ben noticed the snow scuffed up around those once-graceful feet, now stiff and frozen, as if he had been dancing.
He’d rolled Ray over then; ostensibly to close those eyes one last time, to give his lover one last kiss goodnight. And he found them already closed and the most beatific of smiles on those wind-chapped lips.
He let the dogs loose, they weren’t far out from McPherson, they would make it into shelter, and if they didn’t there was soon going to be enough for them to eat here. He had cut through the reins methodically, he dressed to do that, and the dogs, knowing perhaps, had run off into the snow.
And he sat there, on the back of his heels, clutching his rifle, taking measured breaths.
He closed his eyes. Hoping terribly that Ray would need a dance partner, that Ray would teach him to dance, the way he once did that night with Stella, teach him to dance to his beat.
And he looked down to find Diefenbaker lying there in the powder snow at his feet.
And his thoughts turned to the bowie knife in his pocket, and he wondered if there was a place for dogs in heaven.