“I don’t think I’ve ever been to Wilderness.” Umka said plaintively, “What’s so different about it?”
“I’ve never heard of it,” Anchu responded to the open forum, “Where is it?”
“The wilderness is not a place.” Larik began with an uncharacteristically positive and bright tenor. “Well, I mean it isn’t one single place like a village or Home. I mean The Lodge.” His face and voice took on the lively and engaging beam of the storyteller, the vendor, the preacher. “The wilderness is everywhere around us in every direction. Any place that has no humans. Woods to provide hunting grounds, meadows in which to sleep out under the stars. Rivers for drinking and ponds for swimming, and all ours any time we want it!”
“Any time we want!” Alexei parroted, “Whenever we want.”
“I myself would rather sleep in my own bed any day.” Dak shook his head as he spoke, “Any night, I mean. Especially when it’s brutally cold and the wind is blowing.”
Larik continued with his energetic air of persuasion. “We’ll make our beds in caves! Warm and sheltered. And, may I remind you, there are no more beds for us at home, I mean The Lodge, from what I hear.”
“No more beds.” Alexei confirmed Larik’s statement.
“Actually” Sasha chimed in, “I had the shed almost to myself. Just me and Kotka.” Only at this moment did she remember her oldest and dearest friend, expecting her to return to The Lodge with her team.
“We’ll need to go get him.” she finished.
“What?” countered Larik, “That old gimp?”
Sasha spun swiftly and put her nose up to Larik’s, the offense of the remark like a personal insult to her.
“I’ll thank you to keep a civil tongue!” she snarled, “I won’t have you disrespect him.”
Larik took two steps back from Sasha’s toothy growl, a bit stunned by her reaction. Anchu swiftly moved to his sister’s side. “That goes for me, too.” he said.
Larik was unperturbed by their emotional outbursts, and began to speak before being interrupted by Stone. “That was uncalled for.”
Larik dismissively stated “Aw, it’s just a phrase.”
Alexei had mirrored Anchu’s move, and stood at his brother’s shoulder, “Just a phrase.”
Dak stepped toward the pairs and barked authoritatively, “Alright, let’s get back on track.”
“Okay, okay.” Larik resumed, “I didn’t mean anything by it. I’m just asking what kind of pack has an old…” he searched for a word, “…encumbered dog that can’t run and hunt.?”
“The kind of pack that came back for you!” Sasha snapped.
Dak spoke again to divert attentions away from Sasha, and from Larik’s remark.
“I don’t know any wild dog packs, so I couldn’t say. How many wild dogs are there? How many have you seen?”
“I’ve never been allowed to live in the wilderness,” Larik answered defensively, “so how would I know?”
“I’ve seen plenty of wolves and wolf packs without living in the wilderness.” Dak responded.
“If there are no wild dogs,” Umka added, “perhaps it’s for good reason.”
Larik was getting irritated hearing questions and objections for every point he made. He couldn’t conceive why the other dogs were not as enthusiastic as he was about living wild and free.
“So maybe we’ll be the first wild dog pack ever.” Larik said with some frustration in his voice. Sensing his concept was not favored by the majority, he softened his tone.
“What are you guys afraid of? You’re telling me little rabbits and baby reindeer and tiny birds can all live well and free in the forest, but we can’t?”
It was an excellent point. One that made the group stop their picking apart the plan and consider its merits.
“But I’m not a deer or a rabbit or a bird.” Stone stated with an edge of annoyance in his voice, “I’m a domestic dog. Born in a human’s nest and hand-raised by people. Learned their rules and commands. And I’ve lived a great life of comfort and adventure. I’ve never needed to worry where my meals came from or where I’ll bed down. On top of that there are a lot of bonuses to life with people, including attention and petting, treats and a certain sense of security.”
“Where was the security when Willow and Rika were being ripped to shreds by the bear?” Larik’s voice grew louder and faster. An underlying fear disguised as anger drove his thoughts and emotions, including his dream of a life in the wilderness. Away from gang lines and polar bears. “I had to stand there and watch them stomped and I couldn’t even reach the the bear because I was lashed to that abominable sled.” Larik’s fear-driven anger continued to boil. His eyes fixed to a single point of focus as he relived the horror in his mind’s eye. Again. He pounced on his forepaws, and in a frenzied rush of words he laid bare his resentment of any compromise to his liberty.
“I can’t!” he shouted, still pouncing, each pounce accentuating a word. “I can’t go back to the harness, being tied to anything. I don’t want to be tied to anything. I don’t want to be restrained in place while I watch my friends killed or I get my nose ripped off. I can’t do it, understand?” his voice reached a crescendo, “I can’t!”
Somewhat stunned at his sudden outburst, the rest of the pack looked on in silence. Larik turned from the group and trotted to the treeline, speaking in a low voice, addressing himself, the sky, the trees, the wilderness, “I can’t. I won’t.” The rest of the group remained still, looking at the ground. Those that witnessed it remembered fully the details of the attack, and knew Larik was close to being the third dog killed before the bear was stopped.
Sasha inquired quietly of Dak, “Is that how he got that scar on his nose?”
“Yes it is.” he replied, shifting his gaze to Larik, who stood facing away from them. He realized how much more traumatic it was for Larik, inches from the bear yet unable to defend Willow, Rika, himself, or the rest of the team. It was a horrible experience for them all, but undoubtedly the worst for Larik. The other witnesses, Stone, Umka and Alexei, were spellbound by their own recollections of the event, and their own realizations that this terrifying encounter had left more scars on Larik than the one that could be seen. Scars deep in his heart and mind.
Anchu walked slowly to the place Larik stood and heard him repeating his mantra through tears, “I can’t. I won’t.”
“Gosh Larik,” Anchu spoke gently, “I didn’t know about all that. I’m sorry those things happened to you, and your team. Your pack.” He paused, and stood beside Larik in a brief moment of reverence. A moment mourning for those lost, and for Larik’s loss of peace of mind. His loss of an innocent and peaceful life that knew no such torment before that day. “Now I understand why you’re so determined to live wild and free.”
Larik looked up at Anchu, his face distorted in a grimace of anguish. “You weren’t there.” he said softly, between sniffles. “It was before your time so you don’t know. It was horrible… I’m sorry, it has nothing to do with you.” He turned and walked further from the group. Once out of sight, he threw himself to the ground, sobbing.
Back at the fish wheel, the group remained paralyzed in silence. Alexei moved a short distance away and laid down, pouting. The rest stared into the darkness, or at the snow beneath their feet, deep in agonized and conflicting thoughts.
In a voice barely audible to the rest, Umka whined, “I want to go home.”
“Well,” Stone concluded, “I guess we’re going to be the first wild dog pack ever.”