“And how many good things do you have?” Mother asked Sasha warmly, engaged in the rapt, attentive bathing of her sibling.
Brothers Anchu and Splotch had taken the bone she considered hers, despite her protests, and she now sought Mother’s intervention. Breathless from her frantic flight from the scene of the purloining, she repeated her testimony in anxious and clunky sentences, punctuated by frequent looks at the accused and the rapidly disappearing item in question.
“So I understand.” Mother answered, and repeated, “And how many good things do you have?”
“I don’t know. But my bone!”
Mother addressed her as a teacher would a student, a question to provoke thinking and a reasoned answer, “Don’t you have another bone somewhere?”
“But that was mine and they took it!” Sasha answered without looking to Mother, her eyes fixed on Splotch as he crunched down the last bit of evidence. He and Anchu trotted off between the dogs’ houses, looking for further opportunities this sunny late winter day.
Now, after six moons, Sasha and her litter mates were nearing full size. Alas, they were still very young, still learning to navigate in the context of a social world; elders, leaders, siblings, people, the cat. They had yet to witness babies, puppies, living beings newer than themselves. They had yet to encounter the Great Wide World, with rules of conduct and safety piled atop the rules of civility, and its own complex and fluid laws of territorial and property rights.
Sasha flopped to the ground, hopes extinguished, and heaved a huffy sigh.
“So,” Mother continued, “you say it belonged to you, and you are vexed that you don’t have it.” she restated the facts.
“And Splotch and Anch’ took it and that’s not fair!”
“Okay. So lastly we add injustice to your grievance. Or is it vengeance you desire?”
“No, no!” Sasha sat squarely and looked directly into Mother’s eyes. Despite the current squabble, Sasha’s heart was true, as were her siblings’. “They’re my brothers. I wouldn’t wish anything bad on them.”
Mother’s lips curled into the slightest smile at this, and she went on with her lesson. “So you think there was something the universe made just for you. Specifically and personally, like your teeth or your tail.”
Sasha felt she was in no mood for conversation. Certainly no mood for lessons. Her focus was on the fact that the bone was already gone. She felt a sense of loss. A sense there was something she could have had, and now can never regain. She answered Mother’s question without any thought about its meaning, or what the intent of the lesson might be. She drolled in a conciliatory tone of reluctant and indignant surrender. “I know the universe didn’t make the bone just for me.”
“Only your heart belongs to you, precious one,” Mother cooed, as she looked to her daughter with a warm, knowing smile, “and even that can be stolen from you.”
“What?!” Sasha leaped to her feet, wide-eyed, stricken with fear, “I’ll die!”
“No, no.” Mother calmed her, “That’s just a saying. It means we don’t really control who it is we love. Love happens on its own. It’s not something you can make up and decide for yourself.”
“How does that help me with the bone theft?”
“We don’t really own anything outside of our own bodies. Everything else is part of the world.”
“Then why is it called ‘mine’? What about my rag ball? It’s not mine?” Sasha whined, feeling like she was losing more things. Feeling like she was being compelled to let her siblings help themselves to things she’d become accustomed to, attached to. She whimpered, on the verge of tears.
“Now, now. We’ll call your ball ‘yours’, and you can keep it for yourself. Just because things are part of the world doesn’t mean they can’t be a part of our lives, and sources of joy or solace. But things pass into and out of our lives as easily as the wind.”
“My bone sure did.” Sasha replied. She watched Splotch and Anchu approach Kotka’s dish. He lunged toward them and blasted them with a deafening, growling bark. Both the youngsters yelped and spun, Anchu knocking down Splotch and running right over him in his haste to escape the huge Husky. Kotka turned to hide his face and chuckled. He caught Sasha’s eye and winked at her.
Sasha giggled out loud, the sound decidedly foreign in the roaring, freezing, endless Arctic night. The dogs in the pile closest to her did not respond, did not want to risk any movement that might allow in the frigid air. There totaled about thirty dogs huddled behind Tun’s windbreak, some inside the tiny hide shelter, the rest mounded on and around it.
She was just inside the tent, beside Rol. From where she lay, a tiny gap opened onto the world outside. As small as her own eye, it revealed glimpses of horizontally-passing snowflakes and ice shards. An ear or a tail would shift into or out of view as the dogs continually sought respite from the storm in the heaping pile of fur balls.
“And how many good things do you have?” Mother’s voice repeated the question, like an echo that had taken so long to course its way up the canyon and back. Remembering this lesson was where this started. Frozen and scared and in pain, in the depth of the black gale, Sasha had begun to enumerate her woes. Her desperate thirst, her persistent hunger, the pain in her paws, the fierce cold, the biting wind.
“Okay.” Mother summed up the lesson as she released the sibling from bath duty, and moved on directly to Sasha. She started with the ears and face. “You can look around you any time and count the good things you have. Family and friends. A good home. Your heart and mind. Your body. Even your breath and your life.” She finished with the ears and paused to look her daughter in the eye. “Or you’re free to go on worrying about something that doesn’t exist anymore and didn’t belong to you in the first place.”
Still moping, a short while later Sasha made her way to Kotka’s doghouse. She related the whole tale, from the felonious misdeeds of her brothers to Mother’s lesson.
“I don’t understand. How can I count good things when they are being taken from me?” she posited.
“I don’t really know much about this.” Kotka said rather solemnly. “I don’t even remember having a mother, or brothers, and I never really had anything. Excepting my breath and life as your mother said.” His eyes wandered across the homestead slowly, and his head cocked a little. “Well, until I got here. I’ve come to have family, and friends. Comforts and caring. I have caring. And peace. Now that I think of it…”
“If everything is part of the world and nothing belongs to me,” Sasha rambled, interrupting her friend, “I guess I’ll never have anything either.”
“Oh, I didn’t say I have nothing.”
“That’s what you just said!”
“No. I said I’d never had anything besides my breath and life.”
“But everybody has those things. It’s a given.”
“Not so fast, young lady.” Kotka shifted his weight off his bad leg, “What about Iluk?” he asked, referring to the dog that had died just weeks ago, from unknown and presumably natural causes.
“But he’s dead!”
“Exactly.” He sat, staring at Sasha.
“Okay, so I have my breath and life. There. Two things everyone else…I mean…every living being has. How does that help me?”
“Well, you wouldn’t be able to talk about it if you weren’t alive. There’s that.”
“Great. So I have being alive and agony.” she fumed.
“So how many were there?” Kotka asked.
“How many good things did you count?” he queried, turning to chase a bird from his dish.
“I don’t know.” Sasha pouted, “I didn’t count.”
“Well, isn’t that silly? You say you have only three things but haven’t counted?”
“What’s to count?” Frustrated and annoyed, she threw herself down. “All I have is a ball.”
“How about family?” Kotka countered, “You have siblings.”
“Oh yeah, and brothers who steal from me.”
Kotka was looking around the homestead again, enumerating all he saw from his perspective. “You have Bek and Nina. And Jiak.”
“Well, yeah, Jiak.” Sasha conceded briefly, “But I don’t own Jiak!”
He leaned closer and insisted. “But you have Jiak in your life.”
“Yes. That’s a good thing I guess.”
“And your bed. And supper. You never are cold or hungry.” The mentor continued, remembering times when this was not always so for him. He took notice of one precious thing after another that had been missing from his life before Bek brought him home that fateful day. It was easy to see the bounty from his perspective.
“Yes, that’s true too. I am grateful.”
“There, you have gratitude. And friends. How about me? Am I really nothing to you?”
“Oh, no! No!” Sasha ran to him and pressed her snout against his, “I treasure you most.”
“And you have your mother.” Kotka sounded a little sad as he said this. Taken from his own mother earlier than he should have been, watching Mother tend to her brood was the most magnificent and valued reward he had come to know at the homestead.
A tear welled in Sasha’s eye as she sat looking toward the yard.
“So you still feel you have nothing?” Kotka offered.
She was frozen still, her gaze fixed.
“I’m counting.” she replied.
Here in this shivering camp Sasha wondered where Splotch was now. And her other litter mates, Anchu being the only one still with her. She thought of her dear friend Kotka, whom she hadn’t seen since she’d joined the sled team on the mountain ascent. She poked her head up and out of the pile between one dog’s head and another’s butt, and called his name. She discovered immediately the futility of trying to out-roar the storm.
Then she realized that the objects in the tiny gap were becoming brighter. Day was dawning. At first light she would gather up her brother, and they would seek out Kotka. And Stone and Dak, Umka and Alexei and Larik.
She added these now to an account, an inventory of all the good things she was grateful to have.
An account which began, first and foremost, with her breath and life.