Benton hated this time of year, almost as much as he hated being called Benton, or his father, who was never there, and when he was seemed more interested in the next house’s dog team than him and his school reports and the bow and arrow he’d made playing with Innusiq. Certainly he hated it as much as he hated having lichen for supper, when all the other boys in the town, or at least in whatever town it was this month, had tinned peas.
Benton hated this time of year; he hated it when they came back from the book-buying expedition to Yellowknife. He wished desperately that they might stay longer than the inevitable handful of days. There was another thing he hated, having a vocabulary bigger than he was, which set him out from the other kids (he could hear his grandparents going “Children, Benton, not ‘kids’, you are not goats and that is a coarsening of your vocabulary, and a gross Americanisation, degrade your tongue and your mind and morals will come next…”), set him out either as a target or a pariah (you see his problem) to be shunned. Speaking better Inuit than English when it came to talking with kids, children, his own age; that didn’t help much. Except when they were up on the ice with Innusiq’s people, and he’d never wish that away. He hated the way he could not get across to the other children that the Inuit weren’t “natives” or “coloured” or “backwards”, but to use their own terminology “the coolest thing since cool began”, but he suspected that was actually his feet after he’d spent the morning wading around in the snow helping grandfather.
He hated this. The aftermath of the book buying expedition. He hated the pages of gummed labels neatly typed out on his grandmother’s typewriter, which he was forbidden to touch ever since he took the ribbon out to try and fix it. Each was neatly typed with “Fraser Travelling Library, Kindly Return Or A Fine Will Be Charged”. He hated them so very much. He was using “hated” too much, wasn’t he? He was degrading his vocabulary. Perhaps, he should use “detest” for the rest of the day to compensate.
He detested (His vocabulary’s fine, if you’d kindly mind your own beeswax) the very inevitable indeed task that was before him. He had to lick every single one of those labels and paste them into the new books. And the gum was disgusting; it tasted worse than lichen, it tasted horrible, horrid and repulsive. It was sharp and sickly, and lodged itself with the full power of its stick into the bumpy things on his tongue. And it was impossible to get rid of in its entirety. He’d tried brushing his teeth, until his fear that somebody might notice the quantity of toothpaste gone from the tube exceeded his revulsion. He had tried one of the charcoal biscuits bought for his grandfather’s periodic bouts of indigestion, and that only made his mouth black and the taste worse.
He’d asked for a saucer of water, to carry out this dread task with, only for his request to be refused and his entreaties to be unheard.
His grandmother had merely taken his assertion that his mouth would taste foul for the next week as childish hyperbole, as if he was ever childish, he never really had the chance, the opportunity, to learn childish, trapped in this transient world of literacy and inner fortitude. She had told him that some tasks were unpleasant, and only by knowing those, experiencing those, would a man ever recognise the pleasant tasks.
If so, why didn’t she do the licking? Then she could realise how pleasant he was, and maybe then she would feel like he wanted, like a half-remembered half-imagined sense of warmth, that he fancifully called “mother”.
“And here is bear spoor,” says Quinn his voice strangely raspy after licking the granite, as if the stone had transformed his tongue, or scoured it like a pan. Benton knows you can use river sand to clean pans when on the trail, just as he knows half a dozen ways to light a fire to scare away the darkness, and how to spell loquaciousness.
He does not believe that the taste of bear urine is something with which to stock his mental attic, unlike say the Sherlock Holmes novels he has been so avidly devouring, now his grandmother had finally relented, and relinquished her mental apron-strings, and let him loose among the adventures of an atheistic drug-addicted detective, “Yuk! I’m not licking that.”
“So don’t become a tracker, become a librarian and measure out your days in rubber stamps and due dates.” Benton wonders if Quinn can actually read, and he’s not just playing up, to glamorise his simple Inuit tracker persona. Benton wonders if he’s read Eliot, in particular J Alfred Prufock’s strange song of despondency and helpless despair. No not helpless, just refusing to help himself, that was Prufock. Like his grandparents, like his father, Benton believes that a man can always help himself out of any situation; to do otherwise (or not) is at the very least a serious flaw of character. His grandmother has a book on it somewhere, simply called “Self Help”.
It’s a song with which, nonetheless, Benton is strangely familiar. He feels trapped, no not trapped, he feels more like a distant observer, a man trapped in the upper circle while the play of life goes on below him, and he cannot quite see or hear well enough to make sense of it. And he wants out from there so badly or at least a pair of opera glasses, or maybe some essay notes, bound in wasp colours, something to help him understand the song of the mermaids, whose sweet and terrible beauty is a mystery to him.
So he does it, licks it. Even if this doesn’t prove to be the key to unlocking the unfathomable mystery of life, not life, more other people, at least it might meet with Quinn’s approval and maybe bring that other strange thing that Benton has been seeking so desperately. There is the taste of the rock itself, a slight grainy salt, a back beat perhaps against the melody of the spoor, except a melody is sweet and this is not, it is all ammonia and earth and musk.
“Now if you were a lady bear that would be driving you wild right now.” But he’s not a lady bear, not now, not ever. Unless, he goes out on some strange case and gets turned into one by a witch-doctor or something. That would be highly unlikely to say the least. He’s never even met a witch-doctor, though he’d like to believe that Dr Fergusson with his strange chemical potions might be one.
He just doesn’t see the point. He doesn’t want to hunt bears. He wants to catch a Caribou, he wants to become a man, but most of all he wants to understand. So he asks, “How is this useful?” He’s trying not sound petulant, though he’s often been informed that he does, and if not petulant, like some aging college professor trapped in an endless lecture. He doesn’t want to cause offence.
“What if you were trapped out in a storm and had come upon a cave like this? Would you not need to find out whether it had an occupant, before you became lunch?”
That made a surprising amount of sense, he was expecting some long and tiresome story, heavy on metaphor and low on pertinence, and fate, as if sensing his joyful disappointment, was happy to oblige.
“The Wolf uses his sense of taste, as does his brother The Dog. It was only Man, who did not learn to use this marvellous gift well, and because of that he will never be as great a hunter as they and his search for food shall be longer and more laborious. For once, when Man was going on a hunting trip in the lands beyond the trees…”
Inuit stories, again; sure Quinn was Inuit, but did he really have to tell some stupid story every five minutes? He was meant to be teaching him how to track, not how to hunt Caribou by boring them to death. Sure, it might save on ammunition, and you’d get bigger portions as you were bound to have killed some of the stupid hunting party in the process, but still, they were so freaking stupid.
He did not need the Beatrix Potter of the tundra here. He was too old for that kind of thing. He needed to learn to hunt. And then he’d become a man and hunt and be famous. And fight monsters and gangsters trying to open up the Klondike gold mine. And he’d never ever be that boring, he’d never go round telling stupid stories about how wolves lick things.
His world was snow. All there was, was the ever-falling snow, as it blanketed the land and blacked-out the sky with a grey-white curtain, a curtain that had been washed insufficiently or without resort to either bleach or borax. He knew, by now that his voice would never achieve elegance, or the sublime beauty that is poetry. However much he might be devoured by the mawkish desire to echo their sublime tone, he was hindered, fettered forever, by his ever present need to describe the world in its unvarnished entirety.
Consider the taste of the fingers in his mouth. While at once enchanted and enthralled with the sound of those golden, shining, perfect words upon her lips, he would be lying to say that they had become his anchor, in this world of blindness and cold. Perhaps this was what it felt like to be newborn, cold and blind and so very totally alone in the world. But it was not her voice, made husky with the chill, and with its constraint upon her chapped lips. In this scentless void, he could smell the small frozen droplets of blood trapped against the flakes of skin upon her lips, large as those chips of soap he remembered his grandmother washing with. Yet it was not that, which anchored him so to the world of the living, the cold and frightened and pained living, when it would be so easy to lay back and succumb to the peaceful realm of death. It is a realm without cold, without snow, without the hunger that gnawed at him, desperate for something, anything to keep the fire within him going; a world without feeling.
None of this was his snow anchor in this blizzard in the most unforgiving of places. No, it was taste. A poet would say that he fingers in his mouth tasted sweeter than honey and more delicate than rose petals. Or at least, any poet, within generic conventions, would have spoken thus. He was no poet. Whatever Andrew Marvel would have said on the matter, no poet would have spent an eternity describing those fingers, not without some possibility of recompense. They had the electric chemical taste of flesh made sweeter by the strangely sweet taste of her flaking nail varnish, slowly melting in his mouth, and reminding him of sweets eaten in hiding from the eagle-eyed auspices of his grandparents. He could taste sweat, salt and bitter, adding only to that electric impression, his mind becoming half clouded with the concept of his mouth becoming a battery, the shocks from which would short out his heart, a battery filled with half-forgotten images of electron diagrams and electrolysis. He could taste the grease trapped in the whorls of her skin, engine oil that had hid successfully from the cloth she wiped at her hands with, after she had tried unsuccessfully to restart her woefully inadequate car.
And even then, he told himself, it was only the taste that had kept him anchored in the noise and the fury of the storm, never her, and the intensity of the taste was such that he half-believed himself.
But he still didn’t understand.
“Fraser, I said, you really will put anything in that mouth of yours, won’t you?”
It was only then that he came to himself, it was Ray, his Ray, who had said that, lying there on the bed with a sweet and languorous abandon, his lean body beautifully displayed, as if he were an exhibit in a very exclusive art gallery. And he had been wool-gathering, trapped in a strange haze, and floating through the realm of memory. It was this that made sex forever bitter-sweet, he never asked Ray where he went in those stretched out minutes. Though clearly, from the curious little smile played across his features, it must be quite pleasant. Or perhaps not, because he always returned from his travels before he did, perhaps he was smiling at his return; or at him lying there, laid out in the careless disarray of those who had touched the sky, and reached out towards the infinite silver stars, only for them to reach back; or perhaps he never went at all, and instead stayed to enjoy the ebbing sensations.
He had been wool-gathering, now was the time to make up for lost time, with quick decisive action. That sounded like something his father might say, though he clearly would never have imagined such a context, and hopefully never shall know of, unless, of course, fate really wanted to throw a few spanners and other hardware items into the workings of his life.
So instead he turned himself towards Ray, with a surprising and uncompromising swiftness, to drink from those pale sweet lips, only to dance away when Ray leant in, to place a few consolatory licks on his neck. It tasted like sweat mixed with the bitter tang of aftershave and the smoke from O’Flannagan’s bar, where they had been shaking down the notorious Leprechaun impersonation scam. Ray tipped back his head and groaned, and tried desperately to push his throat towards his lips, only, once again, to find them absent.
His sigh of disappointment melted away, as Fraser trailed his tongue down that beatifically debauched body, tasting sweat and soap and his own home-made muscle liniment. And always was the electric taste of flesh, as if the skin was animated by some force greater and less transient that life itself.
And then he found hair, hair with that strange not quite anything taste, quite different from the dyed locks upon his lover’s head. And mixed with that strange void taste, that curious and interesting texture, was so many things, soap, and hands, and musk and love. He rested there for a moment, holding Ray down with a hand that caressed his belly so firmly, and absorbed the tastes and listened to the sound of Ray’s breath hitching in his throat, half in surprise and the other in anticipation. He looked so beautiful like this, beatific even.
He licked with swift, teasing strokes, avoiding what Ray so desperately wanted touched, licked, given any sensation at all, instead concentrating on the what hung below that holy of holies, tasting sweat trapped in furrows of skin, Ray gulping in air at every touch, as his head ducked lower and lower.
Until he could bear it no more and gave in to Ray’s desperate entreaties, or at least the strange sobbing noises he made, which he sincerely hoped where desperate entreaties and not some aborted attempt at “Fraser, if I was still wearing my pants, you would so be boring them off, come on, let’s get at ‘er!” since that would do somewhat less for his inner well-being. And he lifted that hand, now slick with sweat, off Ray’s impatient belly, and placed his lips to right there, where Ray wanted them so much, and swallowed gratefully.
It was not only Ray that wanted this so, if he were to tell the truth, he wanted it, he wanted to lose himself in the taste, obliterate the taste of Ray’s mouth, pizza, mozzarella and beer; obliterate the taste of all of Ray except this. Obliterate it, scratch it out, and replace it. Replace it with this, and keep this taste forever, if only he could taste deeply enough, musk mixed with arousal, tempered with soap and the taste of Ray’s hands. And as he sucked and licked and slid back and forth that taste became stronger, became his entire universe, almost. Became the taste of Ray, became the taste of love, became the taste of truth even.
And he moved with it, rejoiced in it, and realised that this taste was about to change, the arousal was becoming stronger and stronger, the pulse he could feel through everything, his tongue, his throat, his mouth, was becoming faster, changing rhythm, and he changed with it, sucking more deeply, more frantically and his mind becoming strangely still in anticipation.
Hot and salt and bitter. He would entertain the idea of getting Ray to stop drinking coffee, but he knew that such an attempt would prove just as pointless as his attempts to get his grandmother to abandon her gummed labels. Maybe he could just try and sneak more soft fruit, not citrus, he’s read that citrus was a distinctly bad idea, into Ray’s diet. At the very least, he’d earn the eternal gratitude of his “kinda sorta mom-in-law” to borrow a convenient Rayism. And then he lost that train of thought, indeed he lost thought altogether, because the heat between his legs suddenly jerked and released a strange coolness on to his skin.
And now, he had finally understood the world, had done so for some time, how was he to know that enlightenment would come in the form of a American cop with wild hair and even wilder manners? If he had, he’d have used his “magic Mountie tongue” to track him down a long time ago, even if his taste would have driven him wild.