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Water of the Womb

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Ben's head was bent over the desk, pen gripped tightly, in the strange and unfamiliar way his grandmother insisted on. His grandmother would be furious if he ruined this page with tears, too, so he wiped his face on his shoulder and kept going. He tried to concentrate on forming the letters neatly, as she'd shown him, but he couldn't stop himself from hearing his grandparents' voices in the next room.

George spoke over the seemingly-endless scritch of sandpaper on wood, a sound Ben still hadn't gotten used to in the months since he'd been brought here, so different from his mother's background humming. "You don't have to be so hard on the boy, do you?"

His grandmother never yelled, but Ben flinched as he heard her voice, ruining the tail of the R (for rhizome). "And what would you know about it? I've done this before, and I'll raise him as I see fit."

The shh-shh paused, and Ben realized he was holding his breath, only exhaling as it started up again.

"As you say."

He wouldn't understand the sadness and anger he heard in his grandfather's voice, not for decades.

*****

Cadet Benton Fraser held two papers in his hands. When he'd been handed George's documents, this hadn't been what he'd expected. (In the end, his request for the posthumous records as a family member failed, and he'd had to file with a requisition form from work. The RCMP needed no explanation to see the dead's records, apparently, while a lifetime, age six to now, earned him nothing.)

In one hand:

Philip Laurence Garneau
Born: January 16th, 1916
To: Mr and Mrs John Garneau

And in the other:

Philip Laurence Garneau
Died: December 14th, 1918
Cause: Influenza

(There was a marriage certificate, too, though no divorce decree, and his query, later, for John Garneau turned up no death certificate, but also no official records since 1928 -- detained for public drunkenness, June 12, released June 13. Sometimes in the north, especially so long ago, people just… stopped existing.)

George would have been 19 when Philip was born, barely 21 when he died. Younger even than Benton was now. He tried to imagine being married, having a child, burying a child, walking away from a grave and a spouse and a settled life and social acceptance. He'd like to think he could do it, that he was strong enough to do it, but standing there, in his so-red uniform, in leather boots so new they squeaked and pinched when he walked, he couldn't lie to himself like that.

*****

"You're not like other grandfathers, are you?"

They were walking back to the cabin from town -- the third cabin this year, but at least this one's doors weren't so leaky, even if the floors did have more splinters. ("All the more reason to wear your slippers inside, Benton," Grandmother had admonished from the doorway, while George mmm'd and slathered the stinky salve on Ben's foot.)

George mmm'd again now. Ben tried to let the silence be enough, but after a few more steps, the words blurted themselves out again. "You're not, are you?"

"As you say."

Ben knew he was pushing, knew he wasn't being polite, but he'd been thinking about it since the town before last (Dawson, and he missed the creek in the backyard there, the small flowers that grew alongside), and he needed to say this to someone, and his grandmother was simply out of the question.

"It's only… your voice isn't deep like Father's, and you don't shave your face, and, and, I'm pretty sure most other grandfathers aren't women!"

George laughed then, low alto voice bubbling like the creek when Ben had piled it with rocks just so. "Well, you're not wrong."

They walked some more, silent as usual. Ben stumbled when George spoke. "Does that bother you?"

Ben's legs carried him along, scuffing the thin snow that lay over the road. Eventually, he answered, the only way he knew how. "No."

George's mmm was the last thing spoken for the rest of the walk.

*****

When Benton's grandmother died, his father came to Yellowknife the next weekend. ("Oh, I know they'll give out 'grief time' now, like it's candy, and just as unnecessary! Death's no reason to miss your post, Son, make note.") Corporal Robert Fraser helped his son sort out the funeral arrangements, the paperwork, all the heartwrenching mundanities the next of kin are required to carry out when someone dies, while George smoked outside and yelled at them occasionally to "leave Martha's stuff the fuck alone!"

"Ignore her, son. She's always been off her rocker, that one. Never knew what Mother saw in her."

Benton hadn't spoken much since he'd gotten the message -- George had left it at the trading post Benton and Quinn were scheduled to stop by on their trip (five words only: "Martha dead. Could use you.") -- but he felt the words coming back now, climbing his throat like bile.

"George isn't."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Grandfather is neither a woman nor off any kind of chair, rocking or otherwise, and Martha loved her -- him -- George, because George was there for her, there for Sunday dinners and Wednesday breakfasts, for chopping the wood and tending my wounds and reading to us both, and I'm glad grandmother had at least one person in her life who knew what love and family meant!"

The following year of silence and painfully awkward greetings was worth it, Benton would later think, if not for the shocked look on his father's face, then for the small smile George gave him as he stormed out of the house.

*****

"So what are you, then?"

"Mmm?"

"Mark says you're a lesbian, and you did go to that Rural Lesbian Association with Grandmother once, but Innusiq says you'd be a two-spirit if you weren't white, and June says you're really a man with the wrong body and we should respect that because of women's liberation, which doesn't sound quite right but I guess she'd know better than I would. But I thought maybe I should just ask you, and you did say I could come to you with any questions, no matter how big or small or strange-seeming. So, which is it?"

George put the hammer down, still holding the chicken wire in place, and held out a hand to Ben. Ben, confused, but trusting in George's familiar, lined, mud-streaked face, took it, and they shook. "I'm George Fraser. Nice to meet you. And you are?"

Ben stared at his grandfather, who hadn't let go of his hand yet, and started smiling, and they both started laughing, and shook hands some more while Ben said, "Benton Fraser. I'm Benton Fraser, and it's good to meet you, too, George Fraser."

George gave Ben a cup of black tea instead of hot cocoa when they got in from fixing the coop that afternoon, and Ben smiled and savored the bitter, rich drink, and thought, yeah, I could like this.

*****

Benton didn't, strictly speaking, graduate high school. But he finished his studies, sent the final exam packet off on prop plane, and received his diploma ten weeks later.

His father brought it with him on one of his sporadic visits. "I passed through town on my way here, no need to thank me." Martha and George had left for town for supplies that morning; George had winked at him and promised they'd bring home the post.

Benton looked at the dampened and wrinkled envelope, and said nothing.

"Well, Son!" Robert clapped and rubbed his hands together. "What needs doing today? Surely there's a job for two men that's been wanting done."

Benton blinked, and surveyed the cabin. There was some sawdust around George's chair, as always, and a pile of laundry he'd been folding when he heard the clomping up the stairs, but otherwise--

"I think we're fine, Dad."

"Nonsense! It's just you and two -- don't tell Mother I said this -- old women around here. Who's been keeping the roof up? Plumbing the well? Don't tell me you have enough firewood, there's never enough firewood!"

In fact, Benton had just that week put up a tenth cord of wood, and George had told him to "Lay off, go get laid or something, the forest can't handle an anxious teenager much longer." (He'd blushed furiously, and tried not to laugh when Martha smacked George on the head and started a lecture about morality and social decay. When George, head bowed, had winked at him, he'd had to escape outside before the laugh escaped -- but he left the ax at home.) He and Martha had treated the well last month, and in the spring George had only stopped hammering up on the roof when Benton begged for some quiet to finish his exams.

"I -- no, really, we're fine. Grandmother knows how to do most of the technical work, and Grandfather, well, the townfolk hire George when they need a carpenter, or most sorts of repairs. We're fine, really."

Robert's face scrunched up. "I don't know why you insist on calling her that, she's no grandparent of yours, much less a grandfather. It was harmless enough when you were younger, and Mother didn't seem to think it needed fixing, but I would've beaten that habit out of you right quick, if I'd been around."

But you weren't around, came the treacherous thought, and Ben pushed it down.

Robert must have seen something on his face, though, and he continued. "Now, don't go getting me wrong, Son, I have no problems with homosexuals. Your grandmother's tongue-lashing would never end, even if I did, and Lord knows I understand how lonely it can get up here--" and there was another thought to shove aside and never, ever contemplate, "--but men should be men! And women, sure, women should be sturdy, but not that sturdy! Dear Lord, that woman is sturdy enough to anchor your tent to in a storm!"

Surely that's a good thing, though?

Ben took a breath. "Dad, you know I -- that I'm --"

Robert turned to the table, busied himself re-sorting the things he'd pulled from his pack. "Sure, sure, some men are miswired that way, there's no shame in it, and you have the good sense not to advertise it." He laughed. "Hell, Son, you're going to be a Mountie! We can't be having the Musical Ride in a, what are they calling it, a pride march! No, no, you'll be man enough yet."

He reached out without looking and awkwardly patted Ben on the shoulder, before muttering about seeing to the dogs, and heading back outside. Ben stood in the cabin, the closest thing he had to a home, and felt completely alone.

*****

"Do a bear!"

Behind him, George's calloused hands rearranged themselves, and Ben laughed as the shadow they cast on his bedroom wall changed to a quite convincing bear, which yawned, looked around, and proceeded to try to eat his hair's shadow.

Ben laughed, trying to duck without squirming out of his small bed. "Grampa! Stop!"

George smiled, relented.

Ben turned around. "One more?"

"Mmm. Last one. And hush now, your grandmother says it's time for resting, to heal up that leg of yours."

"But I'm not tir-- sorry. I'll be good."

And he was -- he practically vibrated with willingness to stay still, to be quiet, and show how good he could be.

George chuckled, and moved once again into place between the lantern and wall, and Ben whipped his head back to face the shadows.

Raptly, Ben watched as a caterpillar crept along a branch, eating and getting fatter and fatter. It spun itself into a chrysalis, and, after absolutely forever during which Ben didn't breath once, slowly emerged as a butterfly, and flew off.

He still was staring at the wall as the lamp dimmed, and he felt a soft press against his hair, and his grandfather's voice whispered, "That'll be you, some day."

Ben heard the quiet scrape of the door closing, laid down, and tried to make his hands fly.

*****

When George died, there was no one.

Benton walked through an almost-empty apartment, touching books, half-finished carvings, pictures of himself, of Martha, of Martha, of Martha. One of the three of them together. He thought of an estate handled by bureaucrats instead of family, of an inadequate F on a birth certificate and a name he didn't recognize on a death certificate (how poorly paperwork represented the life of his George, on both ends), and he let the tears fall silently to the dusty floor.

*****

They're curled up in bed, Fraser's back against his chest. Ray plays with Fraser's hand, holds it up to measure against his own.

"Never thought I'd end up with a man. I mean. I knew I was, uh. Knew I liked guys, but I didn't know I could have this with a guy, you know?"

Fraser shifts uncomfortably, mmms, and Ray can practically hear him Not Saying something. He jumps in before Fraser can work himself into a full freak out.

"Hey, it's not like I'm having a, a gay panic over here or nothing, I mean, I've been bi forever, the queer thing's cool with me, it's just--"

He realizes Fraser's been saying his name for a while, and stops. "It's not that, Ray."

Fraser turns his hand around in Ray's, uses it to pull Ray's arm closer, and yeah, Ray can get down with that, snugs himself up tighter to Fraser's firm-soft body, and opens his ears as wide as he can.

"It's just... well, it's just that I've long felt like I take after my grandfather, George."

And they lay there, together, long into the night, as Ben explains.