Breath And Life
Long before the humans heard the ringing reindeer bell of Dorik’s team, the racing wind brought the scents to the dogs assembled in Tun’s desperate camp. Speeding past was a rich blend of smells; reindeer, people, leather, smoke and traces of food aromas. Mixed in were familiar signatures, dogs that belonged to this pack.
“Larik!” Alexei was first to respond, and began straightaway to sprint into the headwind to meet the approaching party.
Sasha smelled her brother. She cleared her nostrils of embedded scents and sniffed the air again in short, rapid whiffs. It was true. It was Anchu. Still reeling from the shock that he had ventured out into the deadly storm, a feeling haunted her that she could not yet be certain what might come next. Either her brother will have returned with an excuse, an explanation; or kind-hearted neighbors were returning his corpse to his driver.
The clanging bell now could be heard, and seemed quite near, but the wind-driven snow still obliterated any view of the yet-unseen travelers. Now the click-clack of the reindeers’ hooves could be heard, and the scraping, creaking, rattling noises that accompanied a wood-railed sled as it made its way over the solid ice. Then, Alexei could be heard to yip with excitement. The balance of the team, waiting breathlessly, felt some instant relief knowing Larik had been found. This raised Sasha’s hopes, but did not fully allay her fears.
The first visible thing to emerge from the blinding snow was Anchu, sprinting top speed even after all of his ordeals, and now with a tailwind. He streaked into camp and skidded to a stop. Despite the bone-chilling cold and rampaging wind, an ice-crusted smile stretched across his face, and beneath crystal-flocked eyebrows, his eyes gleamed with energy and enthusiasm.
Sasha instantly felt angry with Anchu. Seeing that he was clearly alive and well, her worries and fears were dismissed, and they vanished behind the curtain of her present emotions. Her brain lined up a dozen things to say to him; “Why would you do such a thing? Larik is much bigger, you shouldn’t have gone with him. You could have died out there! How do you think I would have felt if you died? I almost died from fright!” She was choosing which would be first.
“Sis!” Anchu yelled as soon as he laid eyes on her. He spoke in a fiery, staccato barrage of exclamations. “We’re back! I can’t believe we made it so fast, but this wind! Wow! It really helped on the backtrail.” He was wagging fast and sort of wiggling all over, ebullient, even glowing with excitement. He continued with another flurry of sentences.
“I was starting to get scared! I thought I was going to die! Wow! It is really freezing out there! Then I ran into a guard and almost got into a fight. But I didn’t know Larik followed me, and boy you should’ve seen them run when he showed up!”
Seeing his face, hearing his voice, watching the light in his eyes as he told his tales brought Sasha back from her state of anger. She realized just how much she loved him, and how much he has been and continues to be an integral piece of her life. She remembered her fears and heartache when she thought only moments ago that he might never return. Such a sickening feeling it was to think about life without Anchu. Now she was overwhelmed with the joy of having him back, snatched from the jaws of death, and she was immensely grateful. She ran to him and kissed his face, lavishing her affections on him, interrupting his effervescent narrative.
“I’m so glad to have you back.” She said. “I don’t know what I would have done…”
“And we brought help for the people.” Her brother continued, oblivious to any worries or concerns he may have caused the rest. Oblivious to the import and intent of his sister’s words. “Did you know Larik killed a bear and fought off six dogs at Umkat? Everybody knows Larik. ‘Larik The Bear Killer’ they call him. He’s the best!”
Just then, ‘The Bear Killer’ emerged from the oppressive storm, ambling at a casual trot and talking to a small fan club that trailed him.
“Larik!” Anchu ran off to greet him. They high-pawed one another like old sled-school buddies.
The other five members of the team looked on in astonishment. To be jovial and well accompanied, and enthusiastically friendly with Anchu, or anyone else, was entirely out of character for Larik. The sullen reprobate, unsociable Larik. Larik the rebel. Larik the loner. But Larik ‘The Bear Killer?’ What strange transformation must have taken place deep in the dark night, in the midst of the williwaw, out on the frozen black tundra?
These two, at the least, were laid in the lap of the Ice Queen, for her to do with them as she would. Yet instead of clutching them to her frozen bosom, and keeping them forever for herself, she returned them.
“Don’t you boys do such a thing again.” She would scold them, and the wailing winds now rose in camp, to remind them all of how truly fortunate they had been.
Dorik could hardly believe his eyes. When Keru, his youngest daughter, insisted the dog that woke them wanted help to follow him, he had some doubts. She was of keen insight with all living things, however, and he trusted her instincts in such matters more than he did his own. Indeed, it appeared the dog that materialized out of a deadly blizzard was calling them. Stepping west and stopping, calling again and returning. Larik was still wearing his racing harness, which he’d been in since quitting the team at Tunkan. The trademark color pattern was recognized to be Tun’s.
Now the dim morning light revealed to Dorik an eerie sight fading forth from the snowstorm as he neared the makeshift shelter. At first there was no movement at all, and an alarming feeling struck Dorik in the gut. Then a dog flashed up out of the snow and ran to those alongside the sledge. As the shelter came to be viewed more clearly, a few more dogs rose, and looked to identify and greet the newcomers. This brought hope that the conditions may have been survivable.
From the firepit of the yaranga, Keru had loaded burning dung coals in a cast iron kettle which was then slung from the bottom of the sledge. A rectangular litter covered the top, providing a small cabin. She now moved the coals to the inside of the litter, stoked the fire, and placed a bucket of chipped ice on it to melt.
Dorik proceeded hastily to the windbreak, and found the tiny tent. The hides were rendered solid and inflexible, and were frozen down to the ice. He pulled at the place where the two skins overlapped, and they noisily separated, making crunching sounds, bits of ice falling from them. It was dark inside, and the day itself was dull. It took a moment of staring into the space before Dorik’s eyes could sense and discern the shapes within. Two dogs stirred and scampered out, and what appeared to be several more remained coiled and crowded into the lair. Then a large mass covered with a thin layer of snow began to move. It startled Dorik at first, his nerves tense with anticipation of what he might discover. Sitting upright with a groan, the shape was clearly a man.
“Good morning, Dorik.” Called out a voice, or rather, a sound similar to that of dragging a large rock across hard ice.
“Is that Tun?” Dorik replied.
“Yes!” rasped the frozen giant, “It is Tun. How are you?”
“I’m well. Might I ask the same of you?”
“I’m glad to see you, old friend.” Tun’s throat tightened for a second. He paused to regain his voice. “I’m as best as can be under the circumstances, but my young friend Rol here is not holding up so well. Do you think you could assist me getting him up?” the grating voice faded in and out.
“Keru and I will help you both. Here, let me give you a hand.”
“Thank you, no, Dorik. Please, I must raise myself from this bed. Something I hadn’t expected to do.”
Keru joined Dorik, and they assisted Rol to his feet, then into the litter. Tun was next, gritting his teeth and wincing at the sharp pains in his back. The two laid beside the fire in a state of euphoria, partly induced by exposure, and partly so by this unexpected and miraculous salvation. They had each kept a brave face for one another, while lying down for what they thought would be their final sleep. And now – saved! Had they not been numb with cold and dumb with hypothermia, they would no doubt have danced and sung of their joy and happiness, their love of life, their elation at their return to it. Warmth, relief, rescue. Water. Safety. Caring friends. In a matter of moments, both were sleeping deeply, nearly comatose with exhaustion.
Keru and Dorik set about caring for the animals; their reindeer and Rol’s, and all the dogs. Huddling the three sleds together, and Dorik’s carrying the litter, much better shelter from the wind could be had, and all the animals crowded into this corral of sorts. All were given water in a long, slow process of melting ice one pail at a time. While it melted, a hatchet was used to chip the next bucketful from the rock hard tundra. The dogs and reindeer would go without feeding. The rescue team did not anticipate a congregation of thirty dogs would be encountered, and had aboard enough food for seven or so. It could be cut thinner and stretched to fifteen, but would provide little more than a teasing morsel, or fuel for argument, if split thirty ways.
Neither would the reindeer eat. Some sedge grass was brought expecting two hungry reindeer. Supply was good, but the wind was bad, and grass would be blown away the moment it left one’s hands. For now, the group would hunker down. The day would be spent chipping away at the endless ice, distributing life-saving water in sparing doses. Circle and repeat.
In the span of the next several hours, the frigid breath of the Ice Queen ebbed from its blustering blow, down to a steady wind. Dogs began to rise from their piles and move about, stretch, account for one another. Sasha was riding a joyful high; her brother returned, Larik too; rescue from their perilous situation; the storm waning and hope rising.
“Your brother is amazing.” Omok said, as Sasha suddenly noticed he was standing beside her.
“What?” Her brain was slow, almost reluctant, to shift from the wash of ecstasy in which she was now bathed, the beauty of life itself.
“Your breath and life.” she said.
“Pardon me? What did you say?” Omok asked.
“Oh. Nothing.” Sasha returned to the present. “Yes. Yes he is.”