Around The Fire

“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.”

Finish Line

Ilja was quite surprised, his senses momentarily bewildered at being overtaken by Tati’s team. An odds-on favorite to win, the only other competitor likely capable of beating Ilja’s team was Bek’s. Jiak had piloted his team to several victories over Ilja’s, and it seemed the two men almost took turns winning over the course of this past season.

Tati looked closely at Ilja’s dogs as she passed them with her own. They didn’t look particularly weary, and their eyes shined with the thrill of running and racing. She hunched low to reduce wind drag and urged the team onward, though it seemed they couldn’t possibly move faster. Over her shoulder, Tatiana could see Ilja’s head jerk upright. He renewed his grip on the handle and reset his feet on the runners as if demonstrating his conviction to correct this unexpected and unacceptable encroachment. As he called out, the dogs eagerly responded, and one could see the entire team redouble their efforts, their quarry in their sights.

There were several heaves of the glacial base that ran perpendicular to the course, like a long, stretched-out set of ice stairs, sized for a giant, the cracked edge a foot above the step below. Dogs would jump one after the other in a line, giving a flowing effect, like water over a fall. The sled would glide off the stair, its whooshing sound of the rails through the soft snow suddenly silencing, a breath held,  then in a second beginning again as they struck down on the firm snow-covered glacier.

Tatiana used her knees as hinges, her leg muscles as springs, anticipating each jump of the ice stairs. She’d feel the sled drop away below her, and, pulling upwards on the back bow, would apply just enough pressure to keep her feet from coming off the runners. As the sled returned to Earth, she would bend her knees and gently lower her weight onto the sled. Behind her, Ilja, so large he carried just one handicap stone, could not navigate the jumps as gracefully and delicately as Tati. His weight fell full force with the sled as it banged down each step, jarring his knees, elbows, back and neck. This was not without effect on the sled, as its momentum slowed incrementally from the dogs’ speed. Lines would tighten, the weights jerking on the team. Step by step, Tatiana opened the gap between her sled and Ilja’s.

Tunkan once again came into view. People could be seen gathered at the west end of the village, the end of the race course. Now could be seen another team ahead of Tati’s, and it cruised into the settlement greeted by cheers and hand clapping. Several people ran to the sled, shook the driver’s hand and congratulated him. Many folks were still looking up the hill. Supporters, friends and family members strained their eyes, each searching for their own party.

“Isn’t that Ilja?” comments rose.

“But who is ahead of him?”

“Wasn’t Akej after Ilja? Who’s that?”

“Is that Tun’s team? It is! There’s Dak!”

The major upset in the race and the record-setting pace of Tun’s team drew the attention of the crowd. Now, any who knew her were calling out Tati’s name, encouraging her onward. Tati saw the finish approaching, and looked over her shoulder to see Ilja and his team slamming down the last ice step, still a considerable distance behind her. She laughed out loud, a kind of giggle erupting from deep within her belly, the thrill and excitement overwhelming her.

Within the village, Tun was amazed as any at the early arrival of Tati and the team. This was not the first win for Tun. In these recent years with young, energetic and light Tatiana as a driver, the team had scored several victories. This, however, was quite an upset, quite the turn of events, as the Summer Festival drew the stiffest of competition. Akej and Ilja were two of the top competitors in the area, and elsewhere in the race were two more teams that frequently took wins and second-place finishes. If Bek was here with Jiak, they would rank among these successful racers.

The cheers of the crowd reached a crescendo as Tun’s team crossed the finish line. Tati drove the team further a bit, leading them to an area away from the throngs of race watchers. Here, a watering trough had been filled for the benefit of exhausted teams and drivers finishing the race. Each team had their own special fans, and Tun’s was no exception. Typically, a half-dozen people would have followed Tatiana, helping cool and water the dogs, fetching a drink for the driver, reveling in all that is the racing spirit, congratulating musher and team. On this occasion, more than a dozen people, some unknown to Tati, approached the finely decorated sled and team, petting dogs and patting backs.

Their conversation was an energized buzz, marveling at the incredible time the team had made, the upset of it, and the victorious finish. Sasha and her team were exhausted yet still excited and exhilarated by their first race experience together. Certainly it was Anchu that was the subject of many exchanges between humans and dogs alike. His eagerness and high level of racing spirit, his indefatigable stamina, and of course, his amazing speed.

The attention was a bit overwhelming, and despite his elation at the race results and his own newly discovered talent for speed and endurance, Anchu eschewed the praise. For the first time in his life he felt truly a part of something meaningful, and this meant more to him than winning. He looked with love and great admiration at the other dogs, and addressed them

“It takes a whole team to win a race.”

Proud For Tun!

The solid frozen foot of the glacier was topped with a thin layer of wet snow, and it angled downward slightly, making the last leg of the race almost a downhill run.

“Let’s Go! Go! Go!” Anchu barked, eagerly pressing muscles to action, his stamina and energy unwavering. Immediately behind him, Alexei was not to be outdone by such an inexperienced youngster, and he, too, pushed himself to maximum speed.

Sasha’s line slacked with the acceleration of the dogs behind her. Even Larik, at the wheel position, was meeting the pace of Anchu and Alexei. Now she clenched her paws and dug her claws into the solid ice beneath the snow, and worked her legs as hard and fast as she could. She felt the line gently tension behind her, as Umka, ahead, sensed the increasing speed as well, and picked up his pace.

Dak looked over his shoulder at the team and saw they were all gleefully striding flat-out, challenging one another to go faster still. While the pitch of the terrain lent its advantage equally to all the teams, the gap between Tati’s and the one ahead could be seen to be closing.

Anchu was still pulling a little faster than the rest of the team, Sasha’s line slacking behind her occasionally. “Dig!Dig!Dig!” he barked as all the dogs were dumbstruck to see he could move even faster. Still, he hardly seemed strained or winded, his breath and step coming easily and naturally.

The other dogs were astounded by his energy and agility. Each pressed their muscles to the extreme, sailing across the slick glacier at a speed that was nothing short of phenomenal. Within just a few minutes, they closed on the team ahead, and trailed them now by only ten meters.

Seeing this, the driver, Akej, commanded his dogs to full speed. His team now noticed the competitor gaining, and this inspired them to increase their efforts. Incrementally, Tati’s team gained on the second-place leader. Now they were alongside, and could see they’d outpaced a veteran musher, and his strong and well-trained nine dog team.

Then, as if Akej had conceded and slowed, Sasha and the sled passed them, and began to pull away. Akej was in disbelief at the speed of Tati’s team, and his mouth fell open, speechless.

Tatiana’s team was running flat-out, except for Anchu. He kept a constant tension on his tugline, yet was not in the least winded, nor going as fast as he wanted to. If not for this team and dogsled anchoring him, he would have streaked across the glacier at twice this speed. He’d never known such enthusiasm and exhilaration. He’d always been quiet Brother Anchu. Middle of the pack. A little smaller than most, perhaps. A bit less likely to win at wrestling in the yard. Not likely to be first to smell an intruder or bark an alarm. Last in line when it came to tearing up a carcass and sharing with the pack.

But now, he had found something he loved, and it was running. He found something that he was especially good at. Something that made other dogs look to him with some admiration, perhaps even envy. From the moment Tun had placed the racing harness on him, he felt a change. His was not the last or the least of the harnesses. And now he, quiet Brother Anchu, was far from the least or last on this team of dogs. This was not only the thrill of running and racing, but the thrill of being the best.

“Come on! Go! Go!” he called out to his teammates, his smile a mile wide, tongue flapping about.

“Where did we get this guy?” Larik barked out, catching Anchu’s racing fever, and driving harder to faster and faster gaits. Likewise, each member of the group was thrilled tremendously to be on such a fast and winning team. Just one musher still ran ahead of them. In all, they’d passed six dog teams over the length of the course, one of which never saw them, overtaken sight unseen during the switchback shortcut maneuver.

Tati realized she was smiling with such effort her cheeks began to hurt. She’d been on a number of sleds and ran her share of races, but never experienced a team this fast. They were rapidly gaining on the race leader, and likely setting a new record time for the course.

Sasha regarded the team they’d just passed. There was no hint of Jiak scent anywhere on Akej’s sled. The scent trail of the leading team also revealed no Jiak. Now she wondered if she’d just imagined it. Wishful thinking, perhaps. Within that moment, another face and name appeared at the forefront of her thoughts. It was Tun. Suddenly she was stricken with a little guilt. She didn’t mean to place Jiak on a pedestal. She couldn’t help but to love and miss him.

Still, she was here with Tun. Part of Tun’s team now. A part of his life, and he a part of hers. She thought of his smiling face and gentle hands. She thought of the comfort and freedom he provided his dogs, remembered her thrill and surprise when he produced the ornate, personalized racing harness, even for the new and untested recruits. She had nearly derailed the team during a race with her selfish insistence on seeing Jiak. But it was Tun that had brought her here. Tun that made all of this possible. The exquisite sled, the team’s matching harnesses, Tati for a driver, the trip to Tunkan and the Summer Festival.

As much as she loved Jiak, and he would always be precious to her, she realized how much she was now part of something bigger than herself. Tun and her new team were now her family. She didn’t feel she owed Tun her loyalty, as much as she felt deeply indebted to him.

“Proud For Tun!” She barked out between gasps of the mild air.

The rest of the team, still running flat-out, could hardly gather enough breath to return the rallying cry.

“Proud for..” some barked in one breath, followed by “…Tun!” in the next. Some could only manage “Tun!”

Anchu, looking like he was trotting at a relaxed pace, sang out all of Dak’s greeting to Tunkan.

“Here we come!

Second to none!

Ready to race!

Proud for Tun!”

And with that, this phenomenal team running top speed accelerated further, and overtook the next musher, becoming the race leader.