Cold Light Of Day
Sasha’s eyes opened. It seemed just a moment ago they had closed as she awaited the approaching dawn. Now she could see, through her tiny eye-sized portal to the outside world, the sun had risen above the storm, and it washed the dusty grey sky with a strange pink-orange radiance. She was eager to find her brother, and the rest of her pack, her family. Strife and danger always seem to elicit this response. A compelling need to seek out those we love and who love us. The trusted few. “We find that together we can face that which we could not face alone.” Mother had taught her.
Buried beneath a mountain of dogs, she began to worm her way up and out into the frigid Arctic world. She pressed against the bottom edge of the hide that formed their shelter but found it frozen fast to the ground. She pressed her snout along the surface until she found the place where two hides overlapped, and they parted. Bitter cold bit the end of her nose, and the brutal wind howled insatiably. She was alone in her movement. All the others seemed frozen solid. A mound of dogs were heaped against the hide tent and were covered with a dusting of snow like so much cordwood.
All around in every direction was a sense of vast emptiness. The sun’s light would brighten here or there, and wherever it did it revealed the same nothingness. Flat, windswept ice as far as one could see. It was a surreal scene, this one amassed pile of life a solitary island in a sea of frozen wasteland.
Sasha began to search for Anchu’s scent, or that of the other pack members. She sniffed at the ice and carefully stepped around the edges of two mounds of dogs. Umka was the first she found, curled at the outer edge of the first furball pile. He rose and looked to her, but said nothing as he came to stand by her side. She resumed the hunt, and now Umka joined her, their mission telepathically understood. Next they found Dak, who slowly crawled out of the pile to join his packmates, a noticeable limp in his step. He began right away to inquire as to which dogs Sasha and Umka had found, and how the two had fared in the night. The conversations attracted the attention of Stone, next to emerge from the huddled group. The oldest of the team, he moved slowly and stiffly, and his pains revealed themselves in his face and voice. He asked as Dak had, how many packmates had been accounted for, his speech raspy and weak. He curled again at the edge of the shelter, shivering a little.
The other three continued their quest until Alexei was found, still within the tiny tent. He immediately asked if the group had yet found Larik. He related how he’d seen Larik rise and walk out into the fierce storm, how he heard him speaking with someone, but had not seen him return from the black night. Now the group began to call his name as they continued to seek his scent. On hearing this, Omok scrambled his way out of the pile to address the others. They crowded close together to be heard above the relentless, cacophonous wind.
“Were you guys with Larik?” Omok asked.
“We’re his pack.” Sasha answered, and introduced herself and the other dogs.
“What do you mean ‘were with Larik’?” Dak barked hastily.
“He went out with the little guy and I haven’t seen them since.”
“Went out?” Sasha exclaimed.
“What?” Dak interjected, “When?”
“Went where?” Alexei was panicked by the news, “Which direction?”
Stone had slowly made his way to the percolating group.
“What’s all the excitement?” he asked.
“Larik’s gone!” Alexei responded, visibly shaken, “He left in the night.”
“The fool.” Stone replied as he shook his head. “Bound and determined to live in the wild, I guess. This is no place to set out on your own.” He shook his head again, looking at the ground, as if he knew already Larik’s fate.
“He went with someone else.” Alexei babbled with a certain numbness, as much from shock as the penetrating cold air, “Out into the storm.” He turned his head and looked outward onto the empty ice, and scanned his field of view as if he might miraculously find his brother standing a stone’s throw away. No such vision met his eyes, and he began to whimper.
“He’ll be okay.” Sasha soothed. “He’s one tough old brute.”
“Who could live out there in this?” Dak blurted out, somewhere between worry and anger. “Why would he do such a thing? Why now?” He turned from the group, seemingly fuming, and scanned the empty tundra as Alexei had.
“Shut up!” Alexei spun and pressed his face to Dak’s, “Shut up! He’s not dead!” A sudden quaking sob burst from him. “You’ve finally driven him away!” he continued through tears, an eruption of angry words. “Nothing he did was good enough for you. Every idea he had you had to kick to pieces. All his dreams and hopes of freedom and happiness, and you guys treated them like worthless scraps.” He turned his railing, crumpled face to each as he accused them of alienating his brother. “It wasn’t enough that he fought a bear for you. That he would rather have died to save Willow and Rika. It wasn’t enough that he invited you exclusively to join his wild dog pack. It was never enough. Nothing was ever good enough, was it? Now he’s gone!” Tears were freezing at the edges of Alexei’s eyes as he looked upon the remains of the pack. These who he loved and trusted, though now it seemed those bonds were to be tested.
To love someone and be indefatigably angry with them at the same time was a complex, vexing and painful dichotomy. The thought raced into Alexei’s mind to yell out ‘I hate you!’, but his heart arrested this before it reached his tongue. No matter his rage, he knew this could never be true. He howled with heartache, and fell to his belly on the ice. “You killed him!” he sobbed. “You killed him! You killed him!”
“He killed himself!” Dak responded in the heat of the moment.
“Stop now!” Sasha raised her voice, “Stop. You don’t know what you’re saying. This is our own Larik we’re talking about.”
“Why don’t we go look for him?” Umka added.
Stone interrupted with the calming voice of the elder, though it croaked a bit. “Hey, hey. Calm down. No one knows Larik to be dead. Let’s don’t get ahead of ourselves. He may even be right here under the dog pile for all we know. Anyway, we won’t help anything by turning on one another.”
Dak reined in his emotions, still hurt by Alexei’s accusations, but more so empathetic to his troubles. “I’m sorry Lexi.” He said, shifting his weight between paws, “We’ll find Larik.”
“Sure we will!” Umka encouraged.
With this, Alexei’s sobbing subsided, and the others stood close, nudged him from time to time, until he could again feel their love. The love of a pack. It is a forever love. Omok held close to the group, and lent his own thoughts, “They’ll be okay.”
Sasha looked up from Alexei, and counted the faces in the circle of hope that surrounded him. An exhilarating rush of true joy raced through her veins, and she vowed to add this moment, this feeling, to her account of good things for which she was grateful. She counted again. She looked behind her, and suddenly her head was spinning like an owl’s. She began to walk, then trot, all around the windbreak and the reindeer and the tent and two heaping piles of freezing dogs.
Her heart sank and pounded against her rib cage. She could barely speak, and kept moving even as she started feeling dizzy and lightheaded. It took will to call out, fearing the answer, the telling silence that might follow.
“Anchu!” she barked, “Anchu!”