Rol was in pain, exhausted and plagued by fears. He had no idea where his parents and sister were, caught in the upheaval wrought by the uniformed invaders. He held his eyes closed and huddled close to the dogs. Still, he felt secure and cared for with Tun, whom he had known all his life. A very close friend to his father. One of those men referred to as Uncle, though bloodlines do not define the relationship so.
Often we find the bonds of heartstrings ignore such empirical identification. Indeed, it is our threads of heartstrings that strengthen and embroider the fabric of our lives, build them up and embellish them in so many ways, regardless of their origin. A truth found in every pack.
Comfort and rest were denied the men crammed in the tiny hide shelter in the wailing, brutal, sub-freezing night, buried under a mound of dogs seeking the same, elusive relief. Rol painted a dreamscape for himself. Perhaps distraction would tempt his weary mind to sleep. Perhaps partly to will away the stabbing pain in his feet, the constant chill across his shoulders. The dread feeling he has no respite from the cold, save one.
The image began to form in his mind. It was home. Great herds of reindeer milled about on the hill beyond. The sun was shining, and crystal waters made tinkling sounds as the ancient glacier slowly melted with the season. He was in the hot yaranga of early summer. His father Evgenii sat bare chested beside his mother, telling a tale of his childhood, of herding with his own father. Mother was feverishly conditioning hides to make a new mackinaw for his sister. She would work the skin vigorously, then shake it out, crumple it up, and begin again scraping with a mussel shell. The younger sibling, now sporting most of a mouthful of second teeth, lay curled in a ball between three dogs coiled similarly, and napped in the quiet afternoon.
Rol could smell the smoke of the fire, and tea, freshly brewed and ready to serve. He sat cross-legged and poured the steaming beverage into three cups. In spite of the milder weather and the heat of the dwelling, the hot tea was still satisfying. As they drank, his father continued speaking, telling him the best place to go for fish tomorrow, and plans to rebuild their fish wheel on the creek, destroyed by an early ice-up on the waterway last fall.
Mother sipped at her tea. She paused to stare at Rol, which brought a smile to both.
“You’re getting so big, Alban.” she called him by her pet name for him. “You look identical to your father when we first met. He must have been about your age.”
“Younger!” his father insisted, “Your mother is a baby-stealer!”
The three laughed heartily, causing his sister to rise from her sleep.
All three dogs picked up their heads simultaneously. They looked toward the door of the yaranga, and sniffed at the air. Badna, the oldest dog, pressed his snout against the leather flap door, and squeezed his way outside. He let out a single “Woof!”.
A moment later, they began to hear a bell ringing from a reindeer team. Friends or neighbors or perhaps new acquaintances, approaching Evgenii’s camp. Visitors at this time of year often brought the bounty of their winters to trade for reindeer to replenish their supply. Pelts and hides, antlers and bones, meats and fish to be made into jukkola and jerky. Sometimes a kindly giant would bring treats for children, gifts for parents.
The ringing of the bell drew nearer and repeated with the steady rhythm of a walking team. It competed with the bellowing wind until it cut through the darkness, and Rol suddenly realized the tones rang out from the real world. He listened intently to the sound as it kept its steady canter and grew louder. He reached his frozen hands to his hood. He had to check to see if he was hallucinating. The bitter cold felt real. The stinging pain in his toes felt real. Still the bell rang out, drawing nearer with each surreal moment.
Rol stood abruptly, throwing off like a madman the hide that had shielded him from the black night and the Arctic gale. Both feet were numb, and failed him immediately. He stumbled and fell onto a heap of dogs and Tun, all of whom sprang up with indignant surprise. Without apology, Rol scrambled hastily over the pile, disregarding placement of hands and knees, digging frantically over the annoyed dogs. He crawled as one pursued by wolves around the edge of the windbreak. He was sure he was awake and alive now. Nightmares and death itself could never be this painful, nor could a simple clarion be a hope as bright as the sun.
Rol tried to call out to Tun, but found his lips frozen together. He pressed his tongue against them and pulled at his mandible with one hand until they separated, tearing away a few layers of skin.
“Ell!” croaked forth frigid air driven by his frozen lungs through numb lips, barely at the level of speech. His lips would not obey the command to nest together and form a “b”.
“A gell!” he groaned, heaving at his diaphragm to be heard above the deafening wind. He raked at his hood with two mitted paws, trying to throw it back so he could hear, so he could stare off into the pelting snow and be pummeled with ice pellets. He forgot the drawstring pulled tight at his throat, and swatted at the hood as if a swarm of bees had attacked him.
The hurricane-force breath of the Ice Queen took no pity, made no notice of this tiny mammal clinging to its life by threads. She exhaled a gust for fun, enough to rock a lazy ship drifting at sea. Enough to blow down those mighty spruces and ancient hemlocks and weakening willows whose time has come. The wind struck the boy square on, filled his hood like a sail, threw all of his weight onto his frozen toes and he tumbled backward and sideward onto the ice. His arms and legs made helpless repeated motions, trying to rise, as depleted muscles and frozen joints were unable to respond, unable to comprehend their own state of inability.
Tun leaped for Rol, his heart pounding. Shock and heartache added to the freezing wind and pelting snow, his hands shaking.
“Gell! A gell!” Rol repeated, lifting his arm in the direction of the sound, immediately ahead of them on the trail.
Tun’s stomach sank, as he thought he was watching the death throes of his dear charge. His only concern was to bring the boy back from the hypothermia and dehydration. The former could be done with dogs and body heat. The latter remained a challenge at this temperature, so far below freezing that water turned solid instantly. Even the salty tears that now froze to Tun’s eyelashes.
He tried to lift Rol, but the younger resisted his efforts. Stood, as it were, on his knees and gestured toward the trail.
“Deer gell. Trail. Here.” Rol barked out.
Tun next heard the clanging, and spun to face the wind and sound, momentarily perplexed. The thought crossed his mind to grab the rifle from the scabbard. In these strange days, nerves were on edge. He quickly reasoned that the soldiers would not, probably could not, traverse this desolate, featureless tundra in the black Arctic night.
Rasping breaths could barely repeat the words, but Rol continued, “Gell! Gell!” With this, he collapsed onto Tun.
Tun cradled the boy in his arms and leaned in close so he could be heard.
“Yes,” he said almost at a whisper, into the hood of the parka, hugging the lad, “I hear it.”