When Rol stopped the sled, Anchu’s senses awoke. Hitherto, endless eyes-closed plodding into blackness had become hypnotic. One step after another, then another. Any change from the monotony was noticeable, and none more so than halting the sled.
He began to sense the troubles in the party. Tun approached with the reindeer-driven racing sled, while suddenly Rol was driving the dog team. Tun could barely move, walked with a frozen stiffness, and could not bend down. Then Anchu saw Rol collapse and fall to the ice in a heap. The night grew ever colder, and the team moved ever slower with each step, into the barrage of wind-driven snow and ice. Finally, Tun unhitched the team and pitched a tiny shelter in the midst of the frozen plain.
Dogs were whimpering, limping as they nearly crawled their way to the makeshift windbreak. Tongues and lips grew pale as the dogs’ thirst went unquenched, and brutal air constricted capillaries at the surface of the skin to conserve body heat.
When Rol remained unconscious and Tun curled beside him shivering, Anchu suddenly recognized the imminent danger. Thoughts flooded his senses with the clarity born of life and death circumstances. When an old dog knows his time has come, he would curl up the way Rol and Tun had, to close the circle, to face the end of the trail.
“We need a runner.” he thought. Someone to forge on to the caravan ahead, to fetch help for Tun’s beleaguered party. “I’m the fastest.” he concluded his thought, and began to rise through the dogs piled atop him. He breached the flap that held the vicious wind at bay, several dogs stirring at the disruption. He sneaked his way out into the howling, sub-freezing night. The wind blew so hard it pushed him, caused him to stumble and misstep. He turned to take a long look at the group before leaving them behind, then turned seaward, smelling for the scent of the trail.
“What are you doing?” A voice called to him from the edge of the dog pile. It was Larik, who now took several steps into the raging blackness to stand beside Anchu.
“I’m going for help.” Anchu shouted, to be heard above the wailing storm, “To catch up to the rest and bring people to help us.”
“It’s deadly out there, little brother.” Larik spoke, his face nearly pressed to Anchu’s. “And we have no idea how far away they are. If you just start walking you could freeze to death and die without a pack to keep you warm.”
“If I stay here, we’ll freeze to death and die anyway.”
They both stood, facing away from the wind, and held a long gaze into one another’s eyes. There was an inescapable truth to both their statements. The choices seemed to be winnowed to two: stay here and die for certain, or strike out into the featureless black, an act which held their only hope, yet did not guarantee survival.
“I’ll go.” Larik said, as he faced seaward, staring into the darkness.
“I’m the fastest.” Anchu replied.
“But I’m rested.” Larik continued. “You’ve been hitched to the team and pulling the sled since the afternoon.”
“So have you.” Anchu answered, as he, too, now faced seaward, and took an extra step to be further from the shelter than Larik.
“I wasn’t on the team,” Larik shouted as he took two steps to be more seaward than the youngster, “I was at the rear. I’m fit and rested.”
“But I’m the fastest!” Anchu insisted.
“I don’t think you understand what you’re talking about. What is this, your first winter? Your second? You have no idea what awaits you out on the tundra. I’ve been there. I’m older.”
“But I’m faster.” Anchu repeated. “Watch.”
With that, he burst into his fastest sprint, and disappeared immediately.
“No! No! Wait! What will your sister do if you never come back? Come on! You have family…”
Only the growling wind answered Larik’s calls.
“Anchu!” he barked as loudly as he could, walking toward the place he’d last seen the young dog. “Anchu!”
The unrelenting wind and cold berated Larik, compelled him back to the relief of the shelter. He stood, blasted by ice shards, struggling to open his eyes to look for Anchu.
“Sure! Go kill yourself!” he shouted into the void, “Make your sister cry!” He listened for a response. “That should make him think.” He waited for Anchu to come back out of the nothingness, to defer to his elder teammate.
A strange feeling overcame Larik. A new and unfamiliar sense. His stomach turned, though not from hunger, and despite the onslaught of the storm he could not tear himself away from his watchful stance. It would be normal for Larik to leave someone to their own devices, to seek comfort for himself. To write off such a foolhardy plan and the fool who created it. But his mind kept a vision of Anchu, alone and far from his pack, as he lay freezing on the tundra ice.
“Anchu!” he called again into the dark, and felt a lump climb into his throat. “Anchu!”
Larik thought of the innocent young dog and his beautiful sister. How could a world take such youth and beauty when here he remained, healthy and strong? This embittered and cantankerous old dog, who so recently craved escape from all of this. The world of man, the pressures, duties and responsibilities of a pack member. The inescapable heartbreak, the price to be paid for letting someone into your life.
“Anchu!” he called again, with frightened desperation in his voice. The new and strange feeling gripped Larik. He could not will himself to return to the safety and comfort of the windbreak. He could not take his mind from the fact that Anchu was in peril, and his stomach flipped again thinking of it.
“I can’t go after him.” He thought to himself. “Only a fool follows a fool, I say.” He tried to remind himself how often he’d thought he’d be content living as one alone. “Besides, then we’d just have two dead bodies out on the ice instead of one.”
He then realized that, instead of pacing back and forth while his thoughts raced, he’d paced in a straight line; seaward.
“Well, I probably don’t want him to get too far.” He quickened his pace to a trot, ignoring the blinding spray of ice and shale against his face. “When I get hold of him…” he growled.
He broke into a brisk gallop.
Larik’s fragile heart shielded itself as best it could from pains. Keeping to one’s self was the simplest course. If something got too close, Heart would paint the scene with a disguise of selfish emotions.
Scene One was Ridicule, and had played out. The fool followed the fool off stage.
Scene Two, Selfish Logic, had also crossed the footlights.
“Return to the shelter!” said one character.
“Two bodies instead of one? Posh!” said another.
Scene Three, Annoyance, sang its coloratura to the tunes of sarcasm.
“What good is youth and beauty, wasted on the young and foolhardy?”
“There are old dogs, and there are bold dogs. But there are no old bold dogs.” Said the hardscrabble veteran of a decade on the Arctic Tundra.
Scene Four, Anger, was unfolding.
“This is just what we need. As if we don’t have troubles enough.”
“Why must he run so fast?”
Larik’s gait broke into the fastest sprint he could muster. The strong and hearty wheel dog, liberated from sled work for days now, dashed off stage as the curtain fell.
Scene Five opens. The stage is dark. The orchestra fills the air with the sound of Nature’s fury, gusting crescendos.
A tiny spot slowly fades up, centered in the air mid-stage. Fading in is an image of Larik. Time is slowed, and we watch the sleek animal stretch eager forelegs to their fullest. Rear feet plant, haunches tighten, we see the rippling muscles of this graceful and powerful being, as every ounce of energy and passion propel his flight, headlong into the roaring darkness.
The image and the light fade into blackness. We hear the clickety-clack of claws on ice.
“Anchu!” the call stretches and reverberates, competing with the shouting wind, it echoes off the distant mountains and fills the air. We hear the slightest quiver in the voice. “Here I am! Anchu!”
The voice repeats as it, the clickety-clack, and the orchestral wind fade, bringing down the curtain on Act One.