Rol was surprised to find the Homestead deserted. It seemed Tun had every expectation the little family still lived here, would be here to report the reason for their absence from the Summer Festival. Indeed, the evidence seemed a little strange; leftovers of a meal on the table, sewing abandoned mid-stitch. Yet one could not know the circumstances of their parting, and this concluded Rol’s assessment of his findings.
Hungry and tired, he proceeded to the sled bag to fetch something to eat. The dogs must be fed, too. He pulled from the bag some dried fish and jerky, and as he pulled out the leather pouch filled with rich, fatty solids for the dogs, he was delighted to see a flint in the bottom of the sack. He went directly to the wood stove in the cabin and got a fire going. He placed the frozen bucket of Chukchi chow atop it to thaw. He unhitched the team from the gang line and used their tug lines to hook each to a doghouse in the yard.
It was then he saw the black and white dog. Feral, wild, he acted more like wolf than dog. Head low, ears pointed forward then snapping back. Flanking his prey with an unbroken gaze. Standing in the dogs’ yard, Rol froze. He wondered that the other dogs weren’t barking, save Sasha, whose barks sounded friendly and unconcerned. The other dogs, some lying down, simply stared. The young man began slowly to walk backwards, always facing the wolf-dog, fearing an attack at any moment. The wolf-dog stopped his pacing, lifted his head a bit, and stared intensely at the musher. This caused Rol to cease his movement, his breathing becoming rapid, anticipating the assault.
Kotka read the signs of Rol’s behaviors. Clearly he was young, and scared. This was not a fearsome stranger, just a lad of his people. Slowly he walked forward to a place between Sasha and Dak. He lowered himself to the frozen ground, tucking his legs beneath him. For the first time in days he had hope for comfort, felt he was now surrounded by those he knew and loved and trusted. He couldn’t shake the insecurity, the mental remnants of the invasive upheaval that had transpired here. His trembling did not stop. On the contrary, now feeling safe and protected by his entourage, his fears rose to the surface to be released. His whole body quaked from the shock of it all, until he began to drift off to a badly needed sleep. His first restful sleep since his world was overturned and torn asunder. Before all that he knew and loved vanished before his eyes at the hands of unknown intruders.
Sasha was now more concerned than ever. Kotka was, to her, the biggest, strongest, bravest, toughest dog she had ever known. To have frightened him so, the mysterious events must have been terrifying. She slept uneasily, awaking at every sound of scurrying mammal or fluttering bird.
Kotka woke with a start, leaped immediately to his feet, his head low, ears pointing forward, prepared to fight the demons of his nightmares. He quickly realized it was a dream, looked all around himself to insure it was so. Dappled sunlight played at the ground beneath him, dancing about gaily as a light breeze stirred the mighty spruce trees. But for the whisper of the wind, the Homestead was quiet and peaceful. Yet a strange void remained. The sense of a presence of a family, a working household, a home, was missing.
“It’s been a long time since they left.” Kotka now spoke to Sasha as he looked down the trail leading into the Homestead. As if he was expecting something. Maybe the return of his family, or perhaps the soldiers. “I waited and waited.” his gaze remained fixed on the trail. The place from whence the odd and hostile strangers came. To destroy all he knew. The last place he had seen his people and his pack. From his secreted place in the forest, he watched them go. It was only his quick instinctive reactions that spared him the same fate.
He didn’t know what was happening, but his years of suffering at his first owner’s cruel hand ingrained within him a sensitivity, an awareness, a sixth sense to recognize a hand devoid of heart. As the gloved hand unclipped the lead from his doghouse, Kotka turned to the strangely clad invader, unleashed a slobbering bark that sent him reeling, falling on his backside in his effort to escape the beast. While calamity and commotion filled the yard, Kotka ran like the wind to the safety of the woods, his muscles quivering, his pulse pounding. Peeking between trees, he watched as the dogs were harnessed to the sleds. The strangers appeared to know nothing of the teams, hitched nonsensically, with lead dogs in the middle, strong wheel dogs way out front, dogs that shouldn’t even be harnessed pressed into service. Bek, Nina and Jiak boarded the huge sledge pulled by the giant Super Reindeer of the soldiers. Shouting and barking faded as the war party escaped with their spoils, and the Homestead fell silent. It was a whirlwind of activity that abruptly retreated up the trail that brought them here.
The sun made its rounds. Higher in the east, scraping below the horizon to the west. Several such trips were made around the sky as Kotka waited in the woods, silently, faithfully. Then a sound of barking dogs lifted his spirits. His family had returned! Now he need no longer consider laying here until he died, alone in the wilderness, waiting his pack’s return. But alas, it would be an unrecognizable musher and a skinny ornate sled that emerged from the trail. More strangers and tumult, he thought, until he saw Sister Sasha. It took a moment to reconcile these disparate elements together, the known and the unknown, the familiar and the foreign. A strange sled and driver, a team that seemed strangely familiar, then finally, a face from his own past.
Rol was pulled from his nap by panic, gasping for air. He didn’t remember falling asleep in the chair beside the wood stove, and now he woke riddled with fear to find the cabin filled with thick, acrid smoke. It burned his eyes and stung his nostrils, choked in his lungs. He leaped up and ran to the door, flung it open and nearly threw himself outside, coughing and heaving, grinding his hands into his eyes. The Chukchi chow on the stove had boiled over, the fatty liquids spilling onto the hot cast iron, dripping on the fire within. Sooty black smoke now rolled out of the cabin door. It rose in the air to the tops of the trees and began to settle in a thermal layer, filling the homestead with a grey fog.
He stood, staring at the billowing smoke, unable to will himself to move. His stomach turned as he watched the disaster unfolding in front of him. He could hardly believe this was happening. He had destroyed Bek’s home. How would he repay him? What disappointment will be shared by his friends and family? All the stresses of the last two days seemed now to gather over Rol like threatening storm clouds. Weighted and pressed on him. There was Tati’s illness, and Tun’s concerns for her as well as Bek’s family. There was the stressful, non-stop express to an unknown destination, and once here, only more questions and no real answers. And now this. He had burned the cabin down. The young man fell to his knees in front of the smoking building, and began to cry.
He was startled by a cold nose, and a dog’s snout, reaching beneath his doubled hands to lick his face. As he looked up to see Kotka, he was surprised, but knew now he was a people dog, not a wild half-breed. The only dog with free rein, he would not stand idly by while this young man was suffering. Rol hugged the unkempt old dog, who leaned into the embrace in return.
With the door open, most of the smoke cleared, and Rol was relieved to see, after a short time, that the fire was contained to the top of the wood stove, and the bucket of Chukchi chow. Using two pieces of firewood as handles, he carried the smoking pot outside, where it would continue to burn for another hour. The crisis terminated, the young man sat on the roof of a doghouse for a while, allowing the smoke to clear and his nerves to settle, and formulating a new plan of action. With another cook pot, he began again to prepare chow for the dogs. Things returned to a calmer state, the dogs were cared for, and the tasks of living and surviving were once again taken up.
Though it stank like burnt food, the cabin was warm, and Rol was exhausted. He had done all that was required of him, and now he sought rest, most of the dogs already sleeping. In spite of the minor fire, he felt proud of his accomplishments, having made it this far, fulfilling Tun’s request, and caring for the sled team. He laid on the small bed in the main room, which was Jiak’s, and in moments the spent lad was fast asleep.
Dogs and man alike would dream through their troubled slumber. Dreams of the mysterious and unknown. Of intruders and fires and vanishing households. Of strangers with strange scents and strange animals. In their dreams they would be banded together. Throughout each scene of intrusion and violence and loss, the pack remained intact. Huddled close, protecting one another, with their very lives if necessary. Deep in the half-dark night, Sasha would awaken to a sound. Barely discernible, just a breath in the sky. The soft breeze rustled in the treetops, and she heard Mother’s voice as if she called out from the heavens.
“We’re a pack. And a pack is a forever love.”
A soft smile came to her slowly, as now she began to see things differently, to understand the meanings of Mother’s teachings. Even if they never saw one another again, she realized, Mother’s love is carried within each of us.
“We are a pack!” Sasha called out. Several dogs stirred from their sleep, looked at her inquisitively. She imagined Mother’s voice returning her call. The last exchange they had before parting.
In the star-filled sky, the whispering winds called out across the frozen miles of the moraine, across the vast spruce forests, from the taiga to the end of the cliff. Thoughts of hope and love and family traced the paths of the Spirit Lights, and spread the word from Kamchatka to Uelen. Reminding all that, whether together or apart, the heart of the pack remains intact.
“A pack is a forever love.”