Grailby Martha, soulcake[at]bellsouth.net
Jim didn't know anything was wrong until the moment Blair let the paddle slip out of his hands, and even then, his first emotion was only annoyance. "Christ, Sandburg," he snapped, turning the canoe around hard to go after the floating oar. "What's the matter with you?"
Blair turned and looked back at him. His wet hair hung around his face in clumps, and his hands were raised in a gesture of bemused apology. "Sorry, man."
Then Jim got a good look at his face, and more particularly, those dull blue eyes. Oh god. Sandburg. "What's the matter with you?" he asked again, but softly this time, because he already knew. He had belatedly picked up the rest of it, the slow, shallow heartbeat, the uncontrollable shivers, the dropping body temperature.
The question, Ellison, is what the hell is the matter with you? He'd been so busy taking in the sounds of the lake and the forest at sunset, the lapping of water against the canoe, the splash of leaping fish, the cry of the kingfisher and the loon, the roar of the wind in the treetops, and the almost palpable sense of spreading peace he had never even noticed that not two feet away from him Blair was slipping into hypothermia.
"Hey," Blair said, slow and thick as honey, "It's OK. I mean, I'm OK. Just a little sleepy is all. You know it gets cold out here on the water at sunset? You ever noticed that?"
"Yeah," Jim said quietly. "It gets cold when the sun goes down." He and Blair had both gotten soaked when the boat tumped over in a marsh of cattails, but it had been five in the afternoon then, with the late September sun still slanting hot across the sky. During the past two hours while Jim had allowed them to lazily paddle back across the lake to their campsite, the sun had dropped behind the hillside and a stiff breeze had come up. The rawest recruit would have known to be careful in circumstances like this, but apparently not the great James Ellison. "Blair, listen to me." Jim carefully laid his oar down and shrugged out of his jacket. It was wet too, but it was better than nothing. "I want you to put my coat on, OK?"
Blair looked puzzled. "Won't you get cold?"
"Hell no. In case you haven't noticed, I'm going to be doing all the work getting us back to camp, seeing as how you dropped the paddle."
"Oh yeah," Blair said wonderingly. He reached for the jacket, then guilt twisted his features. "Hey, I'm really, really sorry, man." He laid the jacket down on his knees without bothering to put it on, suddenly looking as though he were on the verge of tears.
"Dammit, Sandburg, we don't have time for this now." The treetops and hillside were just a dark silhouette against the red sky. The first stars were beginning to twinkle overhead, and the temperature was dropping with every passing minute. He had to get Blair off the water. "Either you put that coat on or you're swimming back to camp, you hear me?"
"Hey, chill tough guy, I hear you, I hear you already." Blair dutifully pulled the wet coat on. The sleeves hung a good four inches past the tips of his fingers. He pushed the sleeves up, but they immediately slid back down again. He laughed, waving his hands a little to make the long sleeves flap, and finally turned around again on the front bench of the canoe. Jim picked up his oar and turned them toward the shoreline. Fifteen, twenty minutes away from camp if he pushed it.
"Blair. You still with me?"
"Where would I be going?" There was a pause and then he said in a much quieter voice, "There's something's wrong, isn't there, Jim? I'm like really, really cold."
"You're a little hypothermic, but I'm going to get you back to our campsite and get you warmed up, and you're going to be all right."
"Hypothermia? Oh, man! Jim, I'm so sorry. How stupid can you get?" He started trying to turn around in the canoe again. "Jim, I didn't even realize."
"Sit still, dammit," Jim snarled.
Even in the twilight he could see the tears welling in those tremendous blue eyes. "I'm really sorry, Jim," he whispered in a broken voice. "I should have said something. I knew I was getting pretty cold."
"Shut up and turn around," Jim said, his tone much gentler this time. Blair turned around and hunched forward, his arms around his stomach, his head down. "On second thought, Sandburg, don't shut up. I want you to keep talking all right? Last thing we need is for you to drop off to sleep and fall out of the canoe."
"All right," Blair agreed.
The silence stretched out.
"What did I just tell you to do?"
"I - I don't know, man. I don't remember."
"Never mind. Tell me about the class you're teaching this quarter."
"Didn't you tell me you'd decided to change the syllabus around a little?"
"Yeah, I did." He perked up some. "I guess it's working out OK. So many introductions to anthro, they just skip all the unpleasant stuff about this field."
"Really?" Jim said, making damned sure he sounded interested.
"Yeah, it's true. But it finally dawned on me, you know, I think it's important the kids understand what a tragic profession anthropology really is. From Columbus right on down to Adolph Hitler, anthropology exists because human beings like to wipe each other out on the grand scale. My whole field is all about trying to figure out what people are like while they're still around to ask, and it's always been a losing battle."
"Kind of a bleak point of view," Jim said.
"It's so easy for students to think everything in their textbooks just comes down straight from heaven or someplace like it's the word of God. But knowledge -- hell, TRUTH -- if there really is such a thing, and some days I'm not at all sure -- well, it just doesn't work that way. It comes from ugliness and pain and cruelty and death." Blair broke off with a deep sigh. "Sorry, I don't mean to rant and rave at you. It's just that I'm awfully cold. Can't you do something?"
"I am, Sandburg," Jim muttered helplessly. "I'm trying to get us back to camp just as quick as I can."
"I know, Jim. Sorry."
"And how about doing me a favor and knocking it off with the apologies already? I'm getting tired of hearing you take the blame for everything that goes wrong in the Western Hemisphere."
"Right,. I forgot. That's your prerogative."
Blair snickered, then fell silent again.
"So what were you saying about truth?"
"Oh, well, I dunno. Just I think sometimes -- Hey, Jim, you know what I could really go for right now?"
"I don't know. What?"
"A big, hot bowl of those disgusting MSG-ridden Lipton instant noodles. With that fake alfredo sauce or whatever they try to get away with calling it. That just sounds really good to me right now. You packed some, right?"
"I thought it was going to be all health food this time around, remember? Taboule, hummus, some tahini for protein --"
"Aw, Jim, don't tease me, I can't stand it. You did pack some of those noodles, didn't you?" He sounded like he was about to start crying.
"Take it easy, Sandburg. Yeah, I snuck some of those instant noodles into my pack while your back was turned. We'll fix some as soon as we get you warmed up, OK?"
Blair sniffled. "Thanks, man. I owe you one."
Another silence. Blair's head dropped further forward. Jim was concentrating on paddling hard and fast, and even with Sandburg's weight at the front of the canoe they were fairly skimming across the surface of the lake. He was starting to get a little winded though, and beginning to feel the chill himself despite his exertions. "Sandburg."
"You were gonna tell me something about truth. I'd really like to hear it."
"I don't know. Like you said, it's kind of a downer. I probably shouldn't have brought it up." He started to turn around in the canoe again, acting like he was about to stand up.
"Siddown!" Jim roared at him.
Blair turned around fast, huddling miserably. "I'm sorry, Jim. I forgot again."
That was the way it went the rest of the way into shore, with Jim struggling to find things to talk about that would keep a groggy Sandburg awake, but not so enthralling he couldn't keep still. Talking about those Lipton noodles worked as well as anything. By the time the bow of the canoe scraped the rocks on the bottom, Jim was exhausted from more than the frantic pace he'd set making it into shore. He jumped from the canoe and helped Blair out, and the two of them splashed through the shallow water to the beach. Ominously, Blair wasn't shivering anymore, and Jim could feel the cold of his body through his wet clothes. "Go get in the tent," Jim said, giving him a little push in that direction. "Get out of those clothes. I'll be there in just a second."
Blair nodded in agreement and stumbled off while Jim pulled the canoe out of the water and upended it on the beach. Then he sprinted to the tent and crawled in, where he found Blair sitting befuddled on top of his sleeping bag, still fully dressed, struggling fruitlessly with his wet shoelaces.
"It's OK, Chief. I got it." He pushed Blair's hands away and worked the sodden shoes off his feet without bothering with the knotted laces. The water had stained his white socks the same color as his shoes. Jim peeled the socks down, turning them inside out, and found the tops of Blair's feet were the same color. He closed his hands over the ice-cold toes for a moment. "How we doing?"
"Well, we're pretty cold right now, to tell you the truth." That struck Blair as funny, and he chuckled to himself as Jim gently pushed him down until he was lying on his back.
"Just going to get you out of these wet clothes and into a sleeping bag to warm up, is that OK with you?"
Blair nodded and tried to undo his belt with his numb fingers, making even less progress than he had with the shoe laces.
"Here, I've got it." Jim pushed the belt back through the buckle himself, then unbuttoned Blair's jeans. Blair lay trustingly quiet, his hands at his sides, simply lifting his hips a little to allow Jim to tug his jeans and boxers down.
"Can you sit up a minute?"
Blair tried. He rolled over on his side and tried to raise himself up on one elbow. Jim helped him the rest of the way, then pulled his own jacket off Blair, then Blair's jacket, heavy with water. "Lift your arms." Blair did as he was told, and Jim peeled the soaking wet jersey up over his head. When Blair was quite naked, a pang of belated modesty seemed to strike him, and he drew his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around his shins. He still wasn't trembling, and Jim could feel cold radiating from his body. Jim turned away and quickly unzipped his own sleeping bag. "OK, buddy, crawl in."
Blair nodded, but otherwise didn't move a muscle.
"Like this. Come on." He put a hand on his shoulder and coaxed him down. With a groan, Blair let Jim tuck him into the sleeping bag. Then Jim quickly stripped off his own wet clothes, gathered them up with Sandburg's, and pitched them all outside the tent. "Still with me, Blair?"
Blair nodded a little, his wet hair looking very dark against the white lining of Jim's sleeping bag.
"You want to roll over? I think it'll work better this way." Blair just stared, groggy and uncomprehending. Jim put one hand on his shoulder and the other on his hip and gently rolled him onto his other side. Then he slid his own legs into the tapered bottom of the mummy bag, his knees knocking against Blair's thighs, wrapped one arm around Blair's chest and tried to zip the bag up behind him. This wasn't going to work. Blair's arms, crossed in front of his own chest, took up too much room. "Sorry, Chief," Jim muttered, extricating himself from the sleeping bag with difficulty. "You had it right the first time. Let's roll back the other way, OK?"
Blair wasn't answering anymore, but Jim thought he felt the first tremors beginning to shake him. He rolled him over again. Blair's eyes were open, and he seemed faintly amused by all the fuss. Jim grinned back. "All seems pretty silly to you, doesn't it, Sandburg?"
The grin seemed to grow a little broader. Jim worked his way into the sleeping bag again. It was a little more complicated initially. Blair groaned when Jim accidentally knocked his knee against Blair's shinbone. "Sorry. Here, put your arms around me, can you do that?" Blair obliged as best he could. Jim wrapped one arm around Blair's back and drew him closer. Blair's chest felt colder than ice.
There, like that he could just manage to get the sleeping bag zipped up behind him. He pushed his other arm under Blair's ribs and hugged him tight, willing his body heat to supply Blair's lack. Blair's wet hair was cold and uncomfortable as cradling an armful of seaweed, but pressed close like that, legs tangled together, arms around each other, Blair's heartbeat felt closer than his own. Jim was soon shivering himself, and it took him a little while to realize Blair had begun to shake in earnest too. Thank God. It was going to be all right after all.
"Jim?" The voice was only a whisper.
"I feel like hell."
"I know. It'll get better. Just keep thinking about those instant noodles."
"My arm's going to sleep, man."
No wonder. Jim's was too, pressed between the weight of Blair's body and the hard ground.
"Here, let's try it this way." Tightening his arms around Blair, Jim rolled over onto his back, carrying Blair with him so he ended up sprawled over Jim's chest, head buried in his shoulder, his arms tucked close to Jim's sides. "That better?" Blair nodded. "OK. Try to get some sleep. When you're warm we'll get up and make some dinner, all right?"
"All right." Blair was shivering convulsively. "Jim, I'm really sorry."
"My fault, not yours. I should have seen what was happening right away."
"No, Jim, here I am ruining everything. But it's like I was saying, it's just like the problem with truth! You can't get to it without screwing something up. It makes me crazy sometimes."
"Not sure I'm following you here," Jim said quietly, trying to still Blair's restlessness by putting one hand on the back of his head.
"Geez, man, I mean, here's truth! Here's the truth I've looked for almost all my adult life! The goddamn holy grail!"
Jim laughed, and Blair did too, but there was a tinge of sadness to it. "And then I think, man, what had to happen for me to find that truth. I mean, if your chopper hadn't gone down, if everyone else hadn't been killed so you were alone all those months -- well, your sentinel abilities might never have emerged. I might have spent the whole rest of my life looking for a sentinel and never found one. Never even have met you. And then I think, oh lord, all those men who died just so I could find my truth --"
Suddenly Blair was weeping. Hard, shuddering sobs wracked the body in Jim's arms. "Hey, hush, it's all right. It's all right," Jim said. "You didn't kill those men. You didn't ask for their deaths. It had nothing to do with you, you know that."
Blair's tears were running warm down Jim's chest. He knew it was just the disorientation of hypothermia that was making Blair talk this way, but it was wrenching to hear nevertheless. He stroked the cold wet head nestled under his chin soothingly, mumbled comforting words, not really knowing what he said, and eventually Blair seemed to calm down. Even his shivers seemed to grow less violent, and Jim hoped he was falling asleep. He could feel the toll the last few hours had taken on himself as well, and he closed his eyes. He was on the verge of sleep too, lulled by the growing warmth of the body pressed so tightly to his own, and the slow, steady thunder of Blair's heartbeat, when Blair suddenly murmured into Jim's chest, "Jesus. So this is the way I ended up. Naked in a sleeping bag with the holy grail."
* * *
Jim awoke to suffocating heat. He opened his eves wide, gasping, and his lungs filled with essence of Sandburg.
Both of them were drenched in sweat. Jim felt droplets rolling across his forehead, tricking down his ribs and the inside of his thighs. Sandburg's head felt warmer than a hot water bottle pressed hard in the hollow between his neck and shoulder. One of his arms was still tucked close to Jim's side, but he had somehow managed to twine the other around Jim's neck, and even in sleep he was holding on tight. His hair stank of lake water. One knee was pressed between Jim's legs, drawn up just little too close, and it occurred to Jim that he'd better hope like hell Sandburg didn't kick in his sleep. Blair's mouth was open against Jim's chest and every breath felt like a puff from a blast furnace. He felt Blair's sex against his thigh, tucked between them fragile as a bird. There was a rock under Jim's shoulder blade he had been too tired to notice when he fell asleep, but he was certainly noticing it now. He had a dull pain in the small of his back, and the beginnings of a cramp in one calf. He patted Blair's back. "Chief," he whispered. "Wake up."
Blair moaned, and the arm around Jim's neck tightened a little. That was another problem here. He was well on his way to developing a monstrous crick in his neck. "C'mon, Sandburg."
Blair muttered in his sleep. He brought up the hand that had been pressed to Jim's side and tucked it between his head and Jim's chest, then settled down again with a deeply contented sigh.
Jim tried one last time. "Wake up, Blair," he said in a normal tone of voice.
Blair flinched violently. His head came up, eyes open wide in the darkness. "Jim?" he whispered, his heartbeat suddenly racing out of control. "What's going on? What's wrong?"
"Hey, easy, easy," he whispered, tightening his arms around Blair for a moment. "It's just me. Everything's all right."
"Jim?" he asked again, calmer this time.
He put his hand on the back of Blair's head. "Everything's fine. Go back to sleep."
"Are you OK?"
"I'm OK. Don't worry about a thing." He pulled Blair's head down to rest against his chest again and began to stroke those damp, tangled locks, feeling Blair's heartbeat slowing down as he did so, his breaths beginning to even out. "We're both all right here."
Blair mumbled something indistinguishable, reassured, then said softly, "I'm pretty tired."
"I know. It's all right. Just go back to sleep."
"All right, Jim," he agreed drowsily. "S'long as you're OK."
Jim felt the grin spreading across his own face, despite the rock under his shoulder, the cramp in his calf and the suffocating heat of the sleeping bag. He spread his hand across the back of that damp head laid in such perfect trust over his heart, and before Blair fell asleep he whispered, "I think I'm the one who found the grail."
Blair didn't wake again that night. Jim dozed off once or twice, but he was too uncomfortable to get much in the way of sleep, and at dawn he was still lying awake with the hot burden of Blair's sleeping weight cradled in his arms. Geese were calling out over the lake, and directly overhead a jay fussed with noisy insistence, hopped to another branch, then began fussing again. Jim felt the brush of Blair's eyelashes against his chest when he finally opened his eyes. "Morning, Chief."
Blair drew a deep breath and raised his head a little. His eyes were still half closed, a drowsy smile on his face. He looked down at Jim, and suddenly his eyes opened wide. "Jim?" he squeaked.
"How you feeling?"
He tried to pull away, but the sleeping bag stopped him. Jim grabbed his arms and said, "Hold still. It's going to take a team effort to get out of here, OK?" Blair nodded, eyes round as saucers. Jim groped for the zipper, but apparently they had shifted some during the night and he couldn't find it at first. Blair held perfectly still, the expression on his face such a study in conflicting emotions Jim had to close his eyes for a moment to be sure he wouldn't burst out laughing. That was the last thing Sandburg needed this morning.
"Blair, the zipper's under my back. I can't reach it, but you can if we roll over. I think that'll probably work better than trying to crawl out without unzipping the bag, don't you think?"
"Sure," he whispered, his voice trembling a bit. "Whatever you say."
"Sandburg, it's OK. You were hypothermic last night. This was the quickest way to warm you up."
"I know," he said. "I remember. Jim, I am so sorry about this, man. I am so sorry."
"You've got nothing to apologize for. Got it?" When Blair finally gave a hesitant nod, the stiff ends of his hair prickling against Jim's neck, Jim said, "We ready here?" Without waiting for Blair to respond he cautioned, "Just watch that knee, all right?" Blair quickly straightened his leg, blushing. "And over." Jim rolled them both over onto their sides. "See if you can get to the zipper now. It's right behind me, I think."
Blair groped around Jim's back. "I can't -- oh, here it is. Got it." He dragged the zipper down, and the cold air against Jim's back was so welcome he sighed in relief. Nevertheless, as Jim inched his way backward out of the sleeping bag away from the heat of Blair's body, the proximity of his heartbeat, and the mingling of their breaths, he was aware at the same time of a whisper cold sense of loss. When he was entirely free of the sleeping bag he sat up and turned around, suppressing a groan at the protest of his stiff muscles, then crawled to the other side of the tent and found a pair of underwear in his pack. Something made him turn back to Blair before he pulled them on. Blair was still in the sleeping bag, had it pulled up to his chin, in fact, and he was watching Jim intently.
"Chief?" Sandburg blushed then, slow and so hot Jim could feel the heat from halfway across the tent. "Jim --" he stammered. "I didn't mean --" He closed his eye, his face scarlet.
Jim sat still for a moment. He didn't put on his boxers. After a moment he crawled back to Blair's side, took one of the hands clutching the sleeping bag with such white knuckles, and waited.
After a long moment Blair finally opened his eyes and looked up at him. "Jim, I was just - I didn't mean --"
"I know you didn't." He raised Blair's hand to his chest and held it there. "You told me so last night. It's sloppy work getting to the truth sometimes. But give yourself credit, Sandburg. And me a little too, while you're at it. So it's a struggle getting there. But once you find it, you're not likely to confuse it with anything else, right?" Blair closed his eyes again, this time in relief. After a moment he nodded, and Jim released his hand and cuffed his face gently. "So how do Lipton Noodles sound for breakfast?"
* * *
The nightmares had started when Blair was very, very young, and they had always been the same. He would find himself standing in the backyard of a house Naomi had rented in Atlanta for a few months when Blair had been no more than three. A neat circle of lawn, a wooded hillside, the freeway on the other side. But in his dream the highway wasn't there. The hill simply rose on and on, and there was a narrow path beaten through the underbrush, winding this way and that in its ascent.
Blair was always driven to follow that path, even though he knew what was waiting for him at the end of it. Its form would change as he grew older, but the essentials were always the same. In his dreams, he always climbed the hill to meet it, even though terror squeezed his chest hard and his hands and feet would grow heavier than lead, and a mist of horror would cloud his vision.
When he had been very young, the waiting thing had looked like the black and white cartoon monsters he had seen watching TV with a playmate across the street. As he grew older the thing at the top of the path took its shape from the new experiences of his widening world. The wicked stepmother from Sleeping Beauty, the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz, Bela Lugosi in a Dracula cape, the bullies in sixth grade who used to ambush him regularly the year Naomi had first put him in a public school, the mother creature from Alien, the crocodile that had gotten too damn close at the head of the Amazon river -- David Lash.
The outward shape didn't matter, and never really fooled him. Its essence never changed, nor did his determination to meet it, not even when his terror was so overwhelming his screams brought Naomi running to his bedside. Regardless of whom she was living with at the time, after rousing him from the nightmare she always tucked herself into bed beside Blair and held him close, singing a lullaby -- usually "Alice's Restaurant," or sometimes, "Lord Won't You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz" -- until he drifted away again into blissfully dreamless rest.
He had still been a child when he finally realized that in ways he was already older than his mother. His dawning realization that she was more dependent on him than he would ever again be on her had eventually stifled his cries. Naomi believed the nightmares had stopped. The truth was that even his dreaming mind knew that as much as Naomi loved him, she couldn't save him from what waited at the top of the hill.
But against all expectation and belief, beyond anything he had ever hoped for, incredibly, impossibly, he had once again found safety. Once again there were arms that would encircle him and hold him close while his soul ascended that hillside. It wasn't a return to his childhood. It was something far more complete, far stronger. As a very young child, he had clung to Naomi because he believed she could save him from what awaited. As a man, he understood no one could stand between him and the vision of his own mortality that had appeared in his dreams for so many years. But he had found someone who would ascend the wooded path at his side. Someone who wouldn't be afraid. Someone who would be with him till the end.
Holy Grail. Blessed Protector. Jim.
Blair was thinking all this in that nebulous state between waking and sleep. Dreamy, comfortable, warm and content. Then he opened his eyes, raised his head a little, and found himself looking into the Holy Grail's face from a distance of about two inches. Jim's eyes were crinkled a bit in gentle amusement, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. Blair was lying on top of him, his thigh between Jim's legs, his arm wrapped around Jim's neck, the two of them naked as lovers.
Oh God. Blair jerked back but found himself immediately tethered by the sleeping bag. He could feel his face burning, but Jim was calm, unconcerned, and terribly, terribly gentle, reminding him what had happened last night, rolling them over, directing the exodus from the tight confines of the sleeping bag.
Calming down in response, Blair pressed closer as he groped for the zipper to free them, and found the contact was as soothing as it had been in his half-dreaming state. It was almost a disappointment when Jim inched backward out of the desperately close confines of the sleeping bag.
Blair pulled the sleeping bag tighter around himself and watched Jim as he crawled to the other side of the tent and began rummaging around in his backpack. In the dim light of dawn that filtered through the tent, Jim's pale strong back and legs almost seemed to glow, and there did not seem, after all, to be such a distance between the real and the ideal -- the grinning man with appalling morning breath who had held Blair in his arms all night as tenderly and unselfconsciously as Naomi might have -- and the Blessed Protector who, Blair suddenly realized, had finally ended the nightmares for good.
He was overwhelmed with such tenderness he couldn't have spoken if his life depended on it. He practically had to remind himself to breathe as he lay there drinking in the sight of his beloved friend as if it were all the nourishment he would ever need in this lifetime.
Then Jim turned around and saw him. A look of puzzlement flashed across his face. Oh no. Blair felt as though a fist of ice had slammed its way down his gullet. Oh no, no, no. Such perfect understanding, perfect trust, such perfect love - smashed away in a moment's inevitable misunderstanding. What else could Jim possibly think? Catching Blair staring like that. He could never hope to explain -- oh god, oh god, to have ruined everything --
He didn't realize he had closed his eyes until he felt Jim's hand take his own. Slowly, scarcely daring to believe it, he opened his eyes and looked up. Jim hadn't covered himself and he wasn't looking at Blair with disgust, or pity, or regret -- he was saying something, but somehow, though Blair couldn't make out the words through the pounding of his heart, he knew Jim was telling him it was all right. He did understand.
Blair closed his eyes again, this time in utter relief. Of course he understood. This was Jim, after all. This was truth. He felt Jim's hand on his face then, a joking question about breakfast, and Blair opened his eyes, beaming up at him.
Jim grinned back. "What am I gonna do with you, Chief?"
Walk with me up the hillside, Blair thought, but he didn't say it out loud. There was no need. Jim already knew.
Drop me a line?