Caravan Draft Chapter Five

Chapter Five
Good Things

 

   “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.
“What?”
“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.

Caravan Draft Chapter One

Chapter One
Summit

Sasha could hear the pounding of her own heart in her ears as she hastened along the snow-covered frozen trail. Without conscious will, she had assumed the same demeanor and posture as the other dogs. Her tail was pulled down and close, and she hunched as she ran to reduce her profile, ears laid back on her head. She breathed heavily but held in her tongue. Her muscles trembled though she wasn’t cold, and her stomach seemed to be rolling and roiling inside her. These were the physical manifestations of fear, something of which she had learned a great deal in a very short time.

The party with whom she was fleeing stretched out in a single-file line, racing their way over the East Woods trail at a punishing, reckless pace. Ahead of them drove their beloved human companion and driver, Tun, an eight-dog substitute team pulling his overloaded cargo sled. Behind Tun rode their young friend Rol, driving Tun’s slim, ornate racing sled, it too heaped with belongings. Rol drove a single reindeer in harness, and slapped the reins across its flanks, compelling it to move faster. They stole looks over their shoulders, hunching and trembling like the dogs.

Surrounding Sasha was her pack, her dogsledding teammates, her family. Ahead was Dak, the skilled lead dog, and Stone, the oldest. Beside her, her own brother Anchu, and behind them energetic Alexei and his brother, strong wheel dog Larik. Umka, the seventh on the team, ran beside Kotka, Sasha’s mentor and longest-held friend, a slight limp betraying his healed broken leg. The entire entourage ran as fast as they could manage toward the summit of Tun’s mountain to escape their pursuers.

What had been one of the finest days in Sasha’s short life was subsequently overshadowed by harrowing and mysterious events. The Summer Festival at the tiny village of Tunkan brought Sasha and Anchu to their first dog sled race. An unexpected and exciting win was a sweet surprise, and the team reveled in their success.

Before a day passed, they were called upon to travel with Rol to Sasha and Anchu’s birthplace, the homestead of Bek, Nina and their son Jiak, to determine the reason for their absence from Festival. Sasha was eager to see Jiak, her first love and dogsledding driver, after two moons in her new home. She was equally eager, if not perhaps more so, to see Mother again, and relate to her all the exciting things that had passed since their parting. She would see Kotka, and all the dogs of her former team.

Upon arrival the home was found to be deserted, and every dog in the yard was gone except Kotka, who had fled to the woods. He described a frightening incursion by strangely-clad invaders, taking all the dogs and people with them. Bek had called them “soldiers”.

When they returned to Tunkan, the laughing village, host of the Summer Festival, they found it pillaged and torched. The fearsome intruders from the west were responsible for this, and none of it made the least sense to Sasha or her teammates.

Now Tun and Rol pressed eastward, fleeing their persecutors, last to leave in a long string of refugees. Chavchu reindeer herders drove their animals ahead of them, and more than a dozen dog sleds carried people, families and their belongings. A number of orphaned dogs followed with the group, similarly driven from the only homes they had ever known.

Both sleds were loaded to capacity with all that could be hurriedly made to fit. The air was crisp and cold, and the snow well-packed, yet Tun’s team struggled as the trail pitched uphill. He stepped off the runners and trotted behind the sled to reduce the load. Higher and higher they continued to climb until they emerged from the forest near the peak of the mountain. The next leg would be the most difficult, as the steep slope loomed before them.

“Whoa now.” Tun called to the team, ”All dogs down.”

Most of the dogs laid down in their traces, panting hard and welcoming the rest stop. Two dogs up front, who looked enough alike to be twins, stood staring ahead at the trail, awaiting the command to move again.

The imposing peak of the great mountain stood before them. Ancient etched and jagged granite, with strips and stripes of glacier, snow and ice. An intimidating incline without a trail or cover, the wind careened up its face and threw itself from its top to form billowing clouds of blowing snow in the sky.

Tun spoke to Rol and rifled hastily through his sled, extracting a gang line extension and a bag of harnesses. He called his loyal team to him; Dak and Stone, Alexei and Larik, Anchu and Sasha and Umka. One by one he placed their mushing harnesses on them, assisted by Rol, and commenced to connect tug lines to the long gang line, already equipped with eight strong Chukchi dogs. Despite calls, Larik did not report for duty, but Tun wasted no time returning to their climb. With fourteen dogs in tandem, the tiring troupe again attacked the ascent.

The early winter wind brought with it a haunting scent, climbing the slope and stampeding past the party. All the dogs seemed to detect it simultaneously as they lifted their noses to the air.

“The strangers!” Stone called to the pack, and they turned their heads to the timberline as it receded.

Fourteen dogs and a man were no match for the million-ton mountain which has stood for millennia. They slowed to a crawl, frequently coming to a complete halt. Tun would shove and heave, and more than once Rol needed to join him to move the long cargo sled foot by foot up the steep slope. Both men turned their eyes often to the backtrail.

At long last the crest of the summit drew near, as Tun continued to push the heavy sled, and every dog strained at the long gang line. One more step, one more step. Each inch of progress purchased with exhausted muscles and heaving breaths.

Dak, in the lead, was first over the top, right behind him Stone. Before Sasha reached the ridge, they disappeared over it, and so it went with each of the dogs in the long procession.

As Sasha crested the ridgeline, she was startled to discover they were on a bluff that towered hundreds of feet above the base. A narrow shelf ran perpendicularly, barely wide enough for a sled. The whistling wind inundated all with blinding clouds of blowing snow. Winds driven up the face of the cliff would collide with and part the curtain to reveal a vast, featureless plain below. As far as she could see, nothing but flat, frozen windswept tundra greeted her.

“Haw! Haw! Haw! Haw! Haw!” Tun’s powerful, booming voice could barely be heard above the Arctic din cascading over the mountaintop and shrouding everything in white. If not for Dak’s recollections of vague familiarity of this rarely-trod route, the sharp turn might well have resulted in disaster, and a blind helpless plunge into the rock-strewn abyss.

The group skirted along a narrow ledge, twenty feet below the driftcap, parallel to the cliff. The overwhelming blowing snow whited out everything beyond a few feet, making for a nerve-wracking transit, the precipice beside them a constant threat. It seemed one misstep could find them in mid-air at any moment, though the buffeting wind served to shove them back against the wall of granite. They continued along this seismic cut, guided only by Dak’s nose and their faith in his instincts. It crept its way down from the peak of the mountain, leading them eventually to the wide open tundra.

When finally they were on level ground again, they turned due eastward and struck out across the stark landscape. Sunset was drawing near, and here the wind raced across the open terrain without hindrance, and reached phenomenal speeds. Ice bits and even tiny shards of rock peppered the party like miniature gunfire, as they bore down directly into the Arctic headwind. They followed a freshly-laid trail, preceded by the others that had fled before them.

Their breakneck pace waned as the blistering wind blinded them and hammered them with brutal gusts. The sky grew darker and the numbing temperatures grew ever colder. The frantic pace of the hillclimb and the sprinting undertaken when they reached the plain began to ebb. Gallops slowed to trots. Trots slowed to walking.

Now as darkness fell, the gale increased in its fury, and cold was driven through dog’s coats and humans’ alike. Sasha pondered at these strange days.

“Why do the strangers persecute us?” she wondered. Surrounded by all those she knew and loved, led by their strong friend Tun, Sasha was less fearful now, yet apprehensive about the future. Mystery loomed before her, and she thought now of all those she had longed to see since the odyssey began. Her mother, her human family of the homestead on the moraine, all of her former teammates and other dogs from her first home. Dear Jiak.

In the howling wind Sasha swore she heard their voices calling out to her. From someplace deep in the darkness, perhaps high above the smothering storm, they sent their spirits to her.

“We are all of us a pack,” came their soothing thoughts, “and a pack is a forever love.”

The sounds faded into the roar of the polar barrage, and Sasha leaned into her harness, ignoring the pain in her paws.