Sasha and the caravan moved for an immeasurable period of time, ever eastward. Her life became a routine of rising, hitching up, and pulling Tun’s sled as the village-sized entourage followed, at the speed of reindeer, the great herds with which they traveled. They would trek through the shortening day and lengthening night when weather was fair, with few breaks for rest or water. When stopped, camps would be assembled hastily and modestly, with an eye toward preparedness to strike them and resume the march.
With hundreds of dogs in the group, they were invariably kept leashed to maintain order. This eliminated any possibilities for Sasha to search through the great camp for her loved ones. She kept their faces and voices in her mind’s eye through the monotonous journey. Those of Mother and Jiak, Bek and Nina, and of her lifelong friend Kotka. The latter’s absence weighed heavily on the little girl dog’s heart. She had lost track of him in the tumult of exodus, and he vanished during the most fearful and deadly time of their odyssey. She vowed she would see all of her loved ones again, inquired after them of every dog they passed. She counted their love daily as the thing for which she was the most grateful. Occasionally, during the long, dark, plodding night, heavy thoughts would enter in. Suppose she might never see any of them again? Suppose they are all dead already, from the soldiers or The Ice Queen, or perhaps simply from the heartbreak of being lost each from the other?
“No!” she would call out into the bitter darkness, “I will never give up. Not until the day I die.”, as she battled these demons across the stark plains of ice and snow. All of her working hours were spent walking, pulling the sled, and her brief rests were spent sleeping deeply, drugged with exhaustion. There was little by way of conversation among the teammates in the time spent together eating or bedding down. Each day brought the same dark nothingness of which to speak, and sleep soon overwhelmed each rapidly when they retired.
On an otherwise unremarkable passage through the endless night, beneath a pitch black sky studded with a million brilliant beacons, Sasha came to a sudden realization that shook her from her doldrums. Immediately she called out to Dak ahead of her on the tandem line, her voice cracking with drought and breathlessness.
“This is the night without day, isn’t it? I haven’t seen the sun in a long time.”
Dak turned his head in a slow, odd rotating motion, like an owl, swiveling at the neck. He looked her right in the eye but made no sign of acknowledgement or recognition. Indeed, his eyes looked as if he were asleep or wild with the lockjaw, and this startled Sasha. Dak turned his head back to face forward without any hint of reaction or response. Sasha felt confused and overwhelmed by the shock of the moment, and seemed to sense she was not thinking clearly. She could not seem to understand how to address the situation.
Before she could collect her thoughts, the still night air began to stir. A backward wind, reversing from the tailwind that had ushered the group along, sometimes with harsh insistence. This was a new wind, and unlike that which blew from the polar ice cap smelling of ice and snow. This wind was filled with an aroma of teeming life. It was an earthy-salty smell, rich with newfound variety, and all the dogs lifted their snouts at its arrival.
“The sea. I smell the sea.” Sasha heard Stone’s thoughts spoken aloud.
Her nostrils filled with the scents on the breeze which seemed warmer than the Arctic night they were leaving behind them. She recalled many tales told by Kotka and Stone, Spring and Lema, of their sojourns to the sea.
The stories seemed like fantasies and imagined things: animals that look like otters but are as big as three reindeer, called walruses; and some bigger than a dog, called seals. There were people of the seacoast who called themselves An’kalyn, and lived strange lives without yarangas, without reindeer herds or traplines. They paddled giant canoes they called baidarkas, big enough for six men, and hunted after the giant otters for meat and oil and bones. The sea itself was unique. It was like water, yet different. It was laden with salt and had a smell that was indescribably vibrant and rich. It was the largest lake one would ever see in a lifetime. So large, its edges stretched to the end of the Earth where they fall off into the sky.
The breeze and the recollections and the smell of the ocean awoke Sasha from the mind and body-numbing trot at which she’d been moving for longer than a moon phase. A hundred questions were rising within her at the prospect of seeing this incredible, mysterious, magical place she had only half-believed in. She wished it was summer, and daylight, so she could see all of these amazing things upon her arrival. Who knows how distant it may be? Perhaps there will be light.
“It’s been a while.” brother Anchu called out from behind her. “The darkness.”
His voice shattered the night, silent but for the sounds of the caravan walking across the top of the world. Sasha realized again how deep was the black of the space above them, how empty her entire world seemed out here, past the end of nowhere on the darkest and coldest night of her short life.
“This is the time into which I was born.” she spoke casually into the ether, as if sitting on the porch of the Dogs’ House at the Lodge, lingering over jukkola. “I see it now. Then will come the time when the sun returns, and I will be getting older.”
She gazed up at the starfield that pierced the black veil, the shining lights of all the spirits gone before. Their whispered calls entered Sasha’s mind; “We are all of us a pack.”
“And a pack is a forever love.” she called back to the frigid sky.
Dak turned at this and stopped, stock still in his traces. Sasha’s chest and harness slammed into his backside and she folded up behind him. Anchu was stepping over her with nowhere to go when his neck line pulled him down onto his sister. Tun awoke with a start from the mindless stupor of night travel, and jammed both feet on the claw brake as Stone, in a rotation behind Anchu, added to the pile at Dak’s feet.
Dak stood like a statue, unmoved by the calamity he had caused. He looked at Sasha. Rather, he seemed to look inside of her, as if her eyes were portals to another time, another world, another life. A smile came to him briefly as he muttered a single word: “Mother?”.
His gaze lost focus. His eyelids looked as if they were frozen open.
Then he fell to the ice.