Six years later
The beaver continued to circle, like a planet orbiting its sun. Its head made a V-shaped wake as it swam, rippling the otherwise calm surface of the lake. Five, seven, nine, thirteen times round. The beaver followed almost exactly the same route each time, so that now that path was marked by a trail of bubbles, slowly drifting across the circle in the random currents of the lake’s surface. That path angled in towards the beaver’s hut, a mound of sticks held together with mud and vegetation not ten metres from where Mark sat. But it never quite got there, swerving away and out into the lake as it reached its closest point. From there the beaver would continue on its curving path, swimming once more towards shore and the presumed safety of its hut.
Mark, watching from his perch on the smooth granite rock of the shore, tried to exchange places with the animal, to beaver-ize his mind. A mind that was governed not by conscious thought, worries and plans, but by competing forces which, he conjectured, behaved more like gravity or electromagnetism. Force one: want to get back into my hut. Force two: there is something new on shore, something that might be dangerous. The intensity of each force was related directly to the distance from its source. Thus the fear-of-what-was-on-the-shore increased as the beaver came nearer, while the need-to-go-home increased as the beaver went away from the hut. Just these two forces alone could explain the beaver’s path, deflecting it into a smooth orbit that, he supposed, might continue indefinitely.
Or maybe not, but his theory was as good as any. Mark, not wanting to disturb the animal’s evening activities too much, got up and walked a short distance to the other side of the tiny peninsula he was camped on. Peering back through the trees, he could still see the beaver, now just starting its inward course from the farthest part of its arc. But as his former perch came into the animal’s field of view, the path deflected into a straight line towards the hut. The beaver swam to within a metre of the presumed underwater entrance, dove, and was gone.
What could be more private than a beaver’s hut? No windows, the entrance underwater. A dim, filtered light. Humid, stagnant air heavy with the musky scents of long occupancy. Perhaps a mate? Kits? What went on in that private domain? A beaver’s hut life was unfathomable.
Mark set down his PFD, which doubled as a sitting pad, on the rocks and sat down, gazing out across the small lake, really just a widening in the meandering Ghost River. He had arrived here in mid-afternoon, with plenty of time to spare. After lunching on the rocks above a small waterfall, he had cruised his canoe close to the shoreline, on the lookout for potential campsites. There were not many to be found on this river, and finding a spot flat enough even for his tiny solo tent in this rocky shield country was surprisingly difficult. With sites in such short supply, he had not been tempted to pass up this one, which was better than most he had seen. Situated on a small point jutting out into the lake, it had a rounded, almost polished granite shoreline, with a steep dropoff into the water. Great for swimming. On the side of the point, close to where the beaver had its hut, a tiny cove offered a place to pull up his canoe. He had seen the ring of rocks on the flat bedrock top of the site from the water, a sure sign that someone had stayed here before and lit a campfire. But, judging from the tufts of grass growing among the coals in the fire ring, it had not been used recently. Behind the fire ring, back among the ragged black spruce trees, were a couple of small open flat areas just large enough for a tiny tent or two.
Even with an early camp, it had not been an easy day. The river was of the characteristic “pool and drop” type seen so often on the rugged Canadian Shield. Short, rock-studded rapids and falls, none of which could be safely run in an open canoe, interspersed with slow-moving marshy sections and small lakes. Really, the river would be as easy to go up as down. The portages were usually easy to find, but some of the landings, perched as they were above a rapids that apparently had every desire to grab the canoe and pull it in, were treacherous, particularly for a solo paddler. And the portages were steep, interrupted by fallen trees and wet sections that sucked at his boots. Every one required two carries, one with the canoe, and one with his big pack and paddles. Three trips, over, back and over again.
He could feel it in his lower back and shoulders. Clustered knots of aching muscle, with rivulets of electric pain extending up his neck and down his thighs. Although he was not in terrible shape, canoe tripping was something that was hard to train for. It used muscles that he had forgotten he still had. A few days of this and it would become much easier, but unfortunately he didn’t have that long. He couldn’t remember it hurting like this a few years ago. Gettin’ old.
This was a short trip, the last night of only three. He had started at the little boat launch on Copper Lake at the end of the long rough gravel road, the headwaters of the Ghost. He was almost at the end of the river section of the trip. Tomorrow he would leave the river, doubling back through a chain of five small lakes to the starting point where Monica would pick him up.
It had been hard enough to get away even for this short time. Even at 18, Kevin couldn’t be left alone, so one of them had to be there all the time outside of school hours. Ann, his main respite worker, was a miracle, so good with Kevin. But she was only available a couple of evenings per week, and they couldn’t afford any more than that even if she was. Monica had her evening hockey and band practice nights. Weekends were out because neither of them wanted to be left on their own with Kevin for that long a period. For Mark, that was just soul-destroying, so he couldn’t justify inflicting that on Monica so he could go off on a canoe trip. That left just Wednesday to Friday, when, just conceivably, he could get away for a few days without causing too much pain and disruption.
Theirs was an unspoken but mutual agreement: they would parent Kevin as a team as much as possible. Mark hated being left alone with him for extended periods; the constant noise, the accidental and intentional destruction, the petty annoyances and the sheer unadulterated tedium of it all was hard for him to deal with. He could do it, but it was hard. With both of them there it was much easier; they could take turns dealing with him, even leave for a while if either one of them needed a break. And they could talk to each other, reducing the sense of isolation.
It was acceptable for either of them to travel for work, and both of them had done that over the years. They had to make a living. Both of them had stopped working full time jobs years ago, getting by on contract work that usually kept them close to home. Sometimes Mark would go off on surveys, or Monica would travel to teach a course somewhere, but these absences lasted only a few weeks. Going away for other reasons required negotiation and usually a trade. Mark could go on a canoe trip because Monica had gone away with the band for a few days last month. Both of them needed time away from Kevin, and probably from each other, just to stay sane.
Even with the aches and pains, he felt good. He was never bored when he was out on a trip. And not because he was busy all the time: he liked to keep the pace slow, leaving lots of time free. He always brought a book and his MP3 player, but he rarely used them. Small things filled up his time: going for a swim or a short paddle, doing a bit of fishing (almost never catching anything), or simple camp chores like cutting some firewood or putting up a clothesline. But a lot of the time, he found himself just sitting by the shoreline, taking in the view. There was always something going on: some ducks bobbing in the shallows, a loon diving for its next meal, a beaver swimming by. Sometimes just waves lapping on shore, or wind making patterns on the water. Sometimes he noticed these things, but much of the time they did not enter his conscious thought. The circling beaver was an exceptional event. Wildlife encounters beyond the peripheral were actually quite rare and usually fleeting. Sometimes he would return from a reverie, realizing he had been gazing out, not really thinking about much of anything, for an hour or more. It was so great to have nothing to do.
He had nothing much to do now. Tent was up, sleeping pad and bag out. Tarp set up, the outer edge just over the fire pit, in case of rain. Although that didn’t look likely; just a few puffy clouds bejewelled the azure sky. Dinner had been sausages fried over the fire while the potatoes cooked in the pot, covered by a jacket to keep the heat in. On a short trip like this, there was no need for dried provisions. Just a chocolate bar for dessert. Even though it was early evening, there were still a couple of hours of light left at this time of year. Plenty of time to pack everything away and hide it from the bears. Plenty of time for everything.
He felt good. Why not feel better? He pulled the little zip-loc bag out of his pocket and opened it to reveal rolling papers and a small pill bottle. He took out two papers, licked the shiny edge of one and stuck them long edge together to make a double paper, which he laid on his left palm. Opening the bottle, he sprinkled out a small heap of dried, ground cannabis on the paper.
He sucked at rolling joints. Just never caught the knack. They seemed to always end up with all the weed in the middle or at one end, or came apart while he tried to smoke them, or burned so fast he missed most of the smoke. He was also not very fond of sucking smoke into his lungs: it tended to make him cough and tasted like used socks. A vapourizer was the thing, and he had a couple at home, but was hesitant to bring them out here because they were heavy, easy to damage and there was no way to recharge the battery. He smoked very rarely, only when he was camping.
Spreading the weed out along the length of the paper, he rolled it between his two thumbs and index fingers. As usual some shake dropped out as he rolled, but anticipating this he had situated his hands over his map case on the rocks, onto which the flakes fell. He would retrieve them later; no use wasting good cannabis. The finished roll was fat in the middle and thin at both ends, rather than the classic cone shape he was trying for. Well, it would still do the job. He twisted both ends to seal in the weed, then licked one end to keep it from burning too fast.
He put the joint between his lips, got out his lighter and sucked in the flame. The twisted paper at the end caught fire, giving him a mouthful of acrid paper smoke. Suppressing the urge to cough, he exhaled the smoke. The joint had burned down to some actual weed now, glowing red at the tip. He drew on it again, this time getting a lungful of rich and fragrant smoke. He held it in for a few seconds, then exhaled an expanding stream of grey smoke.
His use of the drug had ramped up in the last few years, from being something for special occasions to using two or three times a week. Like everything else in life, this came with benefits and problems. He loved the feeling the drug gave him; a sense of relaxation unlike anything else he had ever experienced. The main thing about cannabis was the heightened sensation to all that was good in life. Music sounded better. He loved it in combination with the sauna. The whole thing was a sensory feast: the waves of humid heat, the sweet tingling of the brush on his skin, the shock as the ice-cold water poured over his head. And everything was much better when he was high.
Especially sex. It really put him in the mood. Fantasies came so easily. He knew that he was a better lover when he was stoned. It slowed things down, let him enjoy the moment rather than racing to the finish. Made him focus on Monica, her movements, and try to move with her to amplify her pleasure. He could always outlast her when he was stoned, she always came first, usually while he was tonguing her clit.
But best of all, it just felt so fucking good when he came. There was just a huge difference between an orgasm while stoned compared to one while straight. The pleasure was so much more intense and longer lasting. And the afterglow: after coming he just didn’t want to move, just wanted to bask in the pleasure that seemed to linger on and on. Nothing else came close: it was just the best thing to do while high.
The downside of course was that he was no longer very interested in fucking while not stoned. On a few occasions, Monica had surprised him by wanting sex on a night he wasn’t expecting it, and he had been unable to get hard. Even though she was very understanding, this was always humiliating for him, leading to lost sleep and sometimes to repeat occurrences. So he tried to anticipate her needs and desires, imbibing some cannabis whenever he thought there was some chance they might make love. He didn’t like being dependent in this way, but on balance the pleasures outweighed the pain.
He took another hit, drawing the smoke deeply and holding it in, counting down from ten. Without evidence, he figured this gave more time for the good stuff to be absorbed into his blood. Finally reaching zero, he blew out the smoke in a thick cloud. He could feel it now, the wave of relaxation spreading from his forehead to his toes. He felt the aches in his shoulders too, but in a good way, if that was possible. No longer was it a generalized ache; he could feel the individual pathways of pain, trace them to their source, deal with them.
His mind started to wander. Yes, being dependent on a drug for sex was not a great thing, but then again lots of people his age were, using Viagra or any of the other erectile dysfunction meds out there. At least cannabis made him willing, not just able, to fuck. And he had to admit that their fucking was better than it had ever been. Sure, like any guy he fantasized about other women, but the woman he had was pretty hot. Sure, he sometimes wanted to try things that Monica wasn’t interested in, but the things they did do worked, for both of them.
It wasn’t like when they were young. He no longer got hard at the slightest provocation, and she needed time and attention to get in touch with her desire. They usually started out with some massage. Coconut oil was the big discovery here; odourless, solid at room temperature, but easily liquefied on the skin, giving just the right amount of lubrication for massage. He would start by rubbing the oil on her back, ass and legs, squeezing it between his palm and her skin until liquefied and coated her. Then he would start in on the massage, beginning on her shoulders, working slowly downwards to her lower back. No hurry. Sometimes he would mount her, his semi-erect cock resting on her ass, as he kneaded her shoulders and upper back. His cock would rub against her ass, getting harder…
Then he would get off her and start rubbing her ass. Had to rub really hard here, a big muscle that required a lot of force. Using both hands on one cheek, pushing up from where her thigh met her buttocks, pushing hard with deep pressure. Then the other side. Then back.
She always liked this. She’d begin to moan softly.
Next came her thighs. He used a light touch here, just gentle stroking with her fingertips. He would kneel beside her, resting his now hard cock on her ass, slowly rocking it back and forth. His fingers would begin to play on her inner thighs, teasing, almost tickling. First one side, then the other. Then, seemingly by accident, his fingers would brush her vulva as he worked from one inner thigh to the other. He would do this more and more frequently, lingering there for a few seconds every time, gently stroking. Breathing heavily now, she would spread her legs a bit to give him better access. He would begin to concentrate on her vulva, stroking the outer lips, then working one finger between them to touch the inner.
It would be damp there, slippery. He would begin running his finger from the front of her pubis, over her clit, between the lips and onwards to the back of her vagina, penetrating it very shallowly. She would give a little thrust every time his finger brushed her clit. On his next stroke, he would linger there, and she would start to grind herself onto his finger, increasing the pressure. He would let her do this for a while, moving his fingers in time with her thrusts, but after a time he would pull his hand out from under her, making her gasp. She would look up at him, watching hungrily as he put his fingers in his mouth, sucking on them one by one, savouring her juices.
Suddenly he heard a hollow thunk, interrupting his reverie. It wasn’t like any of the sounds he was so accustomed to hearing out here; the lap of wavelets onto the rocks, the wind in the pines, the chattering of the birds and squirrels. This was different. It was also a sound he recognized, because he heard it hundreds of times during the day when he was paddling: a wooden paddle knocking against the side of a canoe.