The Way He Should Go

by Dira Sudis

Two days after his sixth birthday, Benton Fraser disobeyed the rule that forbade him to use the porcelain mugs his mother kept on the top shelf in the kitchen. He used a chair to reach the shelf, and carried the mug he'd gotten down over to the table, where he'd already set the kettle. He poured cocoa into the mug, using a folded towel to handle the kettle. He carefully set the kettle back down, and then picked up the mug. A little of the hot cocoa splashed onto his hand, startling him, and he yelped and dropped the mug with a crash, cocoa splashing hot against his shins.

His mother rushed in from the bedroom, and stopped short at the sight of him. "Benton," she said, sounding tired, and Ben winced. He'd wanted not to bother her for his cocoa, and the china mugs were the only ones clean. His mom went to the door and pulled on her boots before she came over to him, lifting him away from the mess of broken china and spilled cocoa. She carried him over to the door and set him down there. "Did you burn yourself?"

Ben shook his head, and his mom glanced back at the mess on the floor, then down at him. She sighed. "I've told you not to use those mugs, Benton. Now do you see why?"

He nodded, but in truth he knew he'd just have to be more careful next time. If he just hadn't dropped the mug, it would have been all right. He should have held on. He looked down at the little red mark on the back of his hand as his mother looked down at him.

Finally, she said, "Go and change your pants and socks, then. Leave them on the clothes-rack, and I'll wash them when I'm done with this."

Ben nodded and went into the bedroom. He got his clean pants and socks out of his drawer, and then sat down by the fireplace to change. Even by the fire, it was chilly, so he changed quickly. When he was dressed again, Ben gathered up his dirty clothes and hung them over the clothes rack. He could hear his mother in the other room, cleaning up the mess he'd made.

The wash water was in a bucket by the fire. Ben looked at his clothes, drying on the rack. He knew the stains would be harder to get out if they set, and it would take his mom a while to clean up the other mess he'd made.

Ben could help with this, at least. He got his things back down from the clothes rack--carefully, without dropping anything or knocking anything over--and took them to the wash bucket. He tested the warmth of the water by holding his hand over it, and then carefully pushed in his pants and socks, soaking them thoroughly. He rubbed the cocoa-stained spots together, but the chocolate wouldn't come out. He'd need soap.

Ben shook his hands off over the bucket, and crept out to the other room. His mom was kneeling on the floor, sweeping bits of grit and dust and broken china into a pan, and Ben tiptoed over to the counter by the stove and picked up the pot of soap, holding it carefully in his wet hands.

As he stepped back from the counter, his mom turned around, pan in hand. Ben froze.

"Benton!"

He bit his lip. I wanted to help, he thought, but his mom was already setting down the pan. She took the soap from him with one hand, and lifted him up by his middle with the other, carrying him under her arm into the other room. Her arm was tight and hard around Ben's stomach, and his arms and legs hung down, swinging loose. His hands dripped on the floor as his mom walked, and the arms of his sweater were wet nearly to the elbow.

Ben was flipped around and upright as his mom sat him down, hard, on the bed. He held very still, keeping his wet arms out, as his mom went to the drawer and got out his other clean shirt. He saw her look to the clothes rack as she turned, and then to the bucket, and now Ben noticed the puddle of water on the floor around it. She went still, and her shoulders went down, like when Daddy finally went out of sight down the road and she stopped waving.

"Ben," she said, in a quiet, tired voice, "Ben, you--that was all the wash water, and it's all dirty now. I told you to leave it for me."

Ben drew his arms in to his chest, hunching his shoulders, but his mom didn't look at him for another minute or two. Finally she turned around, and said, "Arms up," and he raised his hands so she could pull his wet sweater off him and put the other on. When she had tugged it into place, she helped Ben down, swatting him on the bottom as he went. "Go get your outside things on," she said, "We'll have to go cut snow for water, now."

Ben nodded. His mom must have had to use water to clean up the cocoa--plus the water wasted in the cocoa--plus the wash water.

He bundled up carefully: hat, muffler, snow pants, boots, parka, mittens. His mom got all dressed beside him, except for her gloves, and then checked him over. She tucked the tops of his mittens up under the sleeves of his parka, and made sure his muffler and hat overlapped so that only his eyes peeked out, and tugged on the tops of his boots. Ben shifted his weight from one foot to the other. His boots pinched at his toes, and didn't come up as high as they should, anymore, but he didn't say anything. His mom sighed, let go of his boots, and stood up, turning away toward the table to light the lantern there before she put on her gloves.

Ben followed her to the door, and took hold of the strap sewn into the back of her parka without being told. He remembered when he was little, he'd had to reach up to hold on, but now he only had to hold his arm straight out.

His mom led him out into the dark. Ben shut his eyes against the cold, and tightened his grip, pressing his face against his mom's parka as she turned to shut the cabin door behind them. Then they were walking again, and Ben had to stretch his arm and walk a step behind, following in his mom's footsteps through the snow, his eyes squeezed nearly shut against the wind and cold, the wind howling around his head so that he couldn't even hear the crunch of their feet on the path. He could only see a little of the lantern-glow, reflected on the snow to either side of them in jumping flashes of light and shadow.

It wasn't until the shed door opened in front of him, breathing out heat and the smell of the dogs, that Ben realized they'd gotten to the end of the rope line from the house. His mom led him inside and hung up the lantern on a hook, and as she pulled the door shut, Ben could finally hear the dogs barking. The team calmed down when they realized it was just them, and Ben stood quietly beside his mom, watching the dogs. They'd been here for two weeks now, since Daddy had come home to switch teams. Ben only saw them sometimes, when he came along to help with feeding.

His mom tossed a striped blanket down inside the dogs' pen, and they all moved to make room, just like they did for Daddy. Ben looked from the blanket to his mom, and she just lifted him over the side of the pen and set him down on the blanket. "Stay here," she said, "I'll come back for you when I've done getting the water."

Ben nodded, and sat down on the blanket, and his mom leaned into the pen, grabbing the lead dog, who Daddy called Leader, by his scruff. "Look after Ben," she said, firmly, looking the dog right in the eyes as she pointed at Ben. "Guard."

The dog whined and thumped his tail, and when she let him go, he settled himself down right at the edge of the blanket, as close to Ben as he could get. Ben curled up with his arms around his knees. His mom lit another lantern, turned it down low, and then took the hatchet from the hook and headed back out into the wind and snow and dark, leaving Ben with the dogs.

If he listened carefully, he could still hear the wind whistling and crying outside, over the nearer, smaller sounds of the dogs breathing and moving around. It was warm in the shed, but not so warm that he could take off his outside things. Ben kept still a long time, only itching his nose through his muffler.

He went on waiting and waiting and waiting. Usually his mom cut snow for water while it was light out, and he stayed outside with her, in the lee of the house. He didn't think it usually took this long. He thought about his mom, out there in the dark and wind all by herself, chopping up the snowpack. The wind was loud now. If she called to him, he wouldn't be able to hear her.

Ben tried to keep still, but he was listening to the wind. He scooted up next to the wall and leaned his head against it, squeezing his eyes shut as he focused on trying to hear. The wind made a whistling sound close by, around the edges and chinks of the cabin, and a roar, further off, and in between, a sound like crying, like calling.

Ben jumped up, and the dog got to its feet, watching him. When Ben swung himself up onto the side of the pen, the lead dog stepped onto the blanket, closing his teeth around Ben's ankle. Ben tried to shake him off, but the dog growled, setting his feet. The wind was crying--his mother was out there--and Ben looked the dog straight in the eyes, and shouted "No!" as he smacked him across the nose.

The dog let him go, and Ben swung himself down, going quickly to the door. It took him a moment to unlatch it, clumsy with his mittens on, and then he had to struggle to pull it shut behind him. Before he could manage it, the dog had followed him out. "No!" Ben said again, but the wind took the word away, and the dog stayed beside him until Ben wrestled the door shut.

It was only when he got it closed that he realized he'd left the lantern inside.

He looked toward the cabin, trying to spot light through the shutters or his mother's lantern, but the wind made it hard to keep his eyes open. They filled with tears, and Ben blinked and ducked his head, huddling against the door. The dog was barking wildly beside him; sometimes it was all Ben could hear, and then the wind would shift a little and it sounded like he was halfway down the field.

Ben reached out and set one hand on the dog's back, though he couldn't get a good grip with his mitten on. He couldn't reach the rope line, but the path would lead him back to the cabin. His mother would be near the cabin.

Ben pushed away from the door, stepping into the rut beaten into the snowpack by his mother's feet, walking back and forth to the shed. The dog fell behind him, barking right in Ben's ear. The wind was wilder than ever, and Ben wasn't used to walking in it without his mother to lead him. A gust of wind rushed up, knocking Ben flat, and he lay still in the rutted path, nearly out of the wind, trying to catch his breath. The dog jumped up and stood over him, still barking, and then suddenly the dog was gone, and he was snatched up and thrown over his mother's shoulder like a sack of meal. Even through his parka, her hands were hard, and her shoulder dug into his belly.

The house was dizzyingly bright and warm. Ben's eyes filled with tears all over again, and he coughed in the fire-smell of the air. His mom flipped him off her shoulder, down hard onto his feet, and Ben's tight boots made him stumble and fall down again, right onto his bottom.

His mom dropped to her knees in front of him, her face red with cold and her eyes as watery as his, and she shook off her gloves and pulled off his hat and muffler, grabbing his chin in one cold rough hand. "Benton Robert Fraser," she said, her voice hoarse, as though she'd been calling to him, and angrier than he'd ever heard. "You disobeyed me, willfully. I told you to wait for me and you--"

He'd heard crying, and it had been such a long time. "I thought--" She squeezed harder, pressing his cheeks against his teeth, and Ben stopped short.

"You disobeyed me, Benton, and you could have been killed out there, do you understand me? You could have died. Do you understand that? Do you?"

Ben swallowed, and nodded the best he could.

"You were lucky, and we can't count on luck, Ben. If I hadn't come looking for you just then--if Leader hadn't done exactly as he was told--"

Ben winced. His mother closed her eyes and took her hand from his face, rocking back on her heels and tucking her hands under her arms. He was still wearing his parka and mittens, but he felt cold when she let go.

"I know you want to help," she said, with her face turned down to the floor, her voice tight and quiet like when she talked to Daddy while he was supposed to be asleep. "I know you're six now and you think you're ready to do things. But I'm your mother, and I always will be, and you must do as you're told, Ben. You must always do exactly as you're told. If you don't, you'll get hurt, or someone else will. We can't afford mistakes. When I tell you to do something, you must do exactly that. Do you understand me?"

He nodded. His face hurt, and his cheeks were wet where the water from his eyes had dripped down. He could see the wet shine on his mom's face, the whole cabin bright and clear and sharp-edged around them. "I won't forget, Mom. I promise."