“There they go.” Alexei referred to the string of people that flowed through Tun’s camp after the race, congratulating him and Tati. “First they all try to beat each other in the race, and now they’re all hugging. I don’t get it.”
“Is there anything people won’t take credit for?” Larik interjected. “After all, we did all the running.”
“That’s not entirely accurate,” added Dak, “Tati runs as fast as you!”. Larik was not amused by this, but the rest of the team snickered at the remark.
“Well, we are Tun’s team. We wouldn’t be here without him, or have a sled or a driver.” Sasha felt compelled to defend Tun.
“I could run a lot faster if I wasn’t dragging this dogsled, you know.” Larik replied.
“I think they just want to know what it feels like to be us.” Anchu added, looking at the people gathered around the camp. “They only have two legs, like birds, but they can’t fly. Their wings or forelegs or whatever you call them are deformed. No pads, no feathers. It must be a little frustrating. With us, they can feel what it’s like to run down a trail, to have the wind whistle past your ears.” He laid down and placed his snout on his forepaws, contemplatively shifting his gaze from one musher to another.
“I’ve never thought of that.” Stone now joined the conversation, “People envying dogs.”
“Why wouldn’t they?” Alexei continued. “Someone makes our meals for us, someone makes our beds. We don’t need to do anything but pull a sled, which is really just walking and running anyway.”
“Maybe that’s why they keep so many dogs around.” Anchu added, “Maybe they know they’re inferior.”
“Inferior?” Umka interjected, shocked, even insulted on behalf of humans. “They get us food and houses and boots for the ice. We would have none of these things without Tun.”
“And we’d be free as the wolves to do as we please.” Added Larik, cleaning the mud from his legs.
“Yes,” Stone added, “free to starve and die in the wilderness.”
“If you were a wolf you wouldn’t be afraid of the wilderness.” Larik countered.
“True. I guess you’re right about that.” Stone conceded, his eyes wandering to the top of the glacier and the mountain beyond, imagining what it might be like to be out there on his own.
“Do wolves really live all by themselves?” Anchu asked his more worldly teammates. “Where do they sleep? How do they eat?”
“They sleep wherever they please!” Larik replied, “They eat when they feel like eating.”
“But where do they get the chow?”
“Come on! You know animals in the wild hunt for other animals or eat trees and things like that. They don’t need people.”
“Sounds like a lonely life.” Umka chimed in, unable to imagine a world without people. He really loved people, all people. The way some people love all dogs. “No one to pet you or talk to you or make you a fancy harness.”
“You don’t need a harness if you’re free and wild.” Larik’s tone became contentious with no one following on his line of thought. “They talk to each other. They pet each other.”
“I think people are confused.” Alexei continued, still staring at each person that passed. “I’m not sure they understand what kind of animals they are. You really must pity them.”
“Right about that.” Umka added. “I feel sorry for them. They’re lousy at building nests. They’re all way too big and far from warm. They need to get their fur from other animals. How sad is that? The only fur they have is on the top of their head. They have very delicate feet. Notice they can never go anywhere without boots.”
“That’s why they need us so much.” Dak stated flatly. “They need us to keep them warm, to pull them where they need to go on their sleds. To protect them from real wild animals that would kill and eat them.”
At the west end of the village, the crowd could again be heard cheering and congratulating another team crossing the finish line.
“And there they go again!” Alexei mused. “It’s like it doesn’t matter if you won.”
Dak, more caught up in the lives of humans and their world responded. “It matters to me!”
Tati approached the team with Akej at her side. They were involved in intense conversations as they walked.
“Here he is!” Tati stopped in front of Dak and gestured, “The fastest lead dog of the day!” She reached out with both hands behind his ears and fluffed them, and bent down to kiss him on the top of his head.
Dak wagged. “But it was Anchu who…” he began to say, but unable to understand, Tati and Akej continued.
“Yes, you’re excited to be the star, eh boy?” Akej addressed the dog, and petted his head to express his admiration.
“It takes a whole team.” Dak barked out, looking to Anchu with a nod.
Oblivious to the dogs’ comments, the people continued their conversations. Tun greeted Tatiana with open arms, a long hug, and gentle pats on the back.
“Fine job young lady!” Tun’s eyes sparkled, “That was an amazing finish.”
“That was the greatest ride I’ve had in a long, long time.” Tati replied, pulling her mackinaw over her head, bits of sticks falling from her hair.
Two children ran up to Akej, one grabbing each hand. He bade Tun and Tati “Good race” and farewell, as he was hauled away to the next excited group of Festival attendees.
“Sasha acted up a little, not sure what that was about. Smelled a wolverine maybe.” She pulled more sticks and debris from her hair. “Then Anchu!” she continued, removing her muddy pants and pulling on a dry pair, “Anchu was faster than the rest of the team. That dog can sure run! He really set our pace.”
Her mukluks were soaked through, and she laid them on the hot stones of the fire ring to dry, walking barefoot in the muddy camp. She continued to relate the events of the race to Tun; falling on the hill climb, cutting her forehead; getting snagged in the bog; the team’s racing spirit, the thrill of passing Akej and Ilja. A cheer could be heard at the finish line, not far off, as another team completed the course.
Tun poured hot water on a wash cloth, wrung it out, and began gently to wash the dried blood from the girl’s face and neck. She paused her tale long enough to purse her lips and close her eyes, turning her face upwards, a child trained to anticipate the grownups’ propensity for such preening. He listened intently to her account, watching her eyes widen and shine at the glorious parts, watching her brow furrow as she described the team’s struggles. As Tati continued to talk excitedly, her lips lost their color and began to look bluish. A rosey flush showed on her cheeks, but the rest of her face grew pale. Without realizing it, she began to shiver and hunch toward the fire.
“You need boots.” Tun interrupted the narrative. “Put this parka on, you’re chilled to the bone.”
Her shivers turned to pronounced shakes as she reached for the parka, holding her elbows close to her sides. Tun took the parka back from her and helped her to don it. He pulled the hood up over her head and drew it close under her chin. He then took a pair of sealskin mittens from the tent, and pulled them over her feet. Next, he steeped a cup of hot tea, then stood behind the girl, vigorously rubbing her upper arms. Tun threw several pieces of wood on the fire and stirred it. The man who always was smiling and gay bore a solemn countenance. He worried about Tati, that she might be taking ill. One at a time he removed her mittens and rubbed her hands to warm them. He borrowed a fur and a blanket, and made a bed beside the fire.
“Lie down, child, and warm yourself by the fire.”
Tatiana, still chilled and shivering, was also exhausted from the rigors of the race. Within a few minutes, she was fast asleep. Tun placed his giant hand on her forehead to check for fever. He tucked the blanket in around her, and again pulled her hood close. The big man lowered himself to the ground and sat by Tati’s head, placing his great arm across the sleeping girl.
Few things could make Tun fret. Tatiana was one of them. Now, in the quiet camp, he also worried about his dear friend Bek and his family. It was most unusual for them to miss Summer Festival. He knew Tati would be looking forward to seeing Jiak, as was he. He would make a fine son-in-law, Tun thought.
As he caught himself thinking this, a lump climbed into his throat. He stared at the sleeping girl’s face, deep in thought. Thoughts of long ago, unavoidable, undeniable. He smiled as tears filled his eyes, imagining what might have been. Tun lowered his face to his hands, and, for just a minute, allowed himself to cry, quietly.
Dak was instantly beside him, cocked his head, whimpered, placed his paw on Tun’s.
“Yes, thank you.” Tun smiled as his eyes met with the dog’s. “Oh, Dak.” he said, putting his arms around the Husky, hugging him as his tears subsided.
“My Anka-Ny would have been this age by now.”