Wednesday, July 31, 2013
There is a wolf in me... fangs pointed for tearing gashes... a red tongue for raw meat... and the hot lapping of blood — I keep the wolf because the wilderness gave it to me and the wilderness will not let it go.
from WILDERNESS by Carl Sandburg
His mother saw him staring and turned her eyes away.
He could see she was afraid. Afraid of his hunger. Afraid of the wrath of the silver-bearded Father.
The night wind howled over the sod roof, moaned at the icy window. Three days had passed, and still the old man had not returned. They feared, again, he would come back with nothing. The traps had been covered in snow. They had no bait left — they had eaten everything.
On the table the sacred candle burned brightly. The candle could only be burned when the Book was being read. This was a Law of the Father. The Law could not be broken.
The eight-year-old boy read the Book aloud:
"What are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them, visit them every morning, test them every moment?"
The boy paused, gazed at the candle's dancing flame. The Father had said the words of the Book would fill his empty belly. If he did not learn them, he would not eat.
In his mind he repeated the words he had read. What are human beings...
He looked down at his mother. She sat on the caribou rug, on the dirt floor, in the light of the flickering flame. Her dark skin glowed warmly, her hair hung black as night.
How could her belly grow so large when they had no food to eat?
The Father had taken her from an Inupiat village, on an island in the Arctic sea. She had long ago learned the language of the Book, but when the Father was out on the hunt, she would speak to herself in a tongue the boy did not understand. When he questioned her, she would point to the scar on her face, the scar from the Father's knife.
The boy was not allowed to know her words. The Book would tell him everything. The Book was all he would need.
He turned a page and read another passage.
"A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble, comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last. Do you fix your eyes on such a one? Do you bring me into judgment with you?"
He paused again, gazed absently at the flame, his lips moving in silence. Still the hunger gnawed.
He looked again at his mother. She was stringing tiny blue snail shells on stiff threads of sinew. The shells would adorn the sackcloth doll that rested on her lap, a family heirloom whose ivory head had lost its amber eyes.
She noticed the boy staring. Again she looked away.
His hunger had turned on itself, clawing in his belly like a ravening wolf. He fed the wolf the words of the Book.
"Why is light given to one in misery, and life to the bitter in soul, who longs for death but it does not come, and digs for it more than for hidden treasures, who rejoice exceedingly and are glad when they find the grave?"
The boy stopped reading. He closed the Book. His pulse pounded, his hands trembled. The wolf would not be sated.
He stared until his mother finally looked at him.
For a long moment she peered into his eyes. Then she rose to her feet, holding her swollen belly, and went to the window. Out in the cold night, wind-blown ghosts of snow whirled over moonlit tundra.
Surely he would not return tonight.
She walked to the table, leaned over and blew out the candle. The sod house fell into darkness.
The boy waited anxiously.
His mother's hands were always warm. Even in the cold she wore no gloves. She held his face tenderly, then took his trembling hand and led him through the darkness of the room.
Faint gray moonlight fell across the bearskin bed. His mother lay on her side and pulled him down to her, speaking the strange, forbidden words.
She opened her dress, lifted out a pale, pendulous breast. His hands groped hungrily. He pressed his wet mouth to the dark aureole, his strong teeth seizing the nipple. The boy sucked ravenously. Soon, warm gorging milk flowed forth, bathing his tongue, filling his mouth, seeping out over his chin. He sucked the breast and lapped the milk, and held her body tight.
Minutes swiftly passed, the boy's hunger unrelenting. At last he pulled away, panting, his open mouth dripping spittle. Slowly, his languid eyes opened.
He froze, gaping into the morbid light of the moon.
"What is it, Job?" his mother asked. She turned to the icy window.
Outside, in the darkness, the Father stood staring, his starving eyes glaring like a wolf.
Sunlight flared off the glistening snow, blinding her path to the turn. For a flashing moment, fourteen-year-old Kris Carlson couldn't see the flag. She cut too late, displacing snow instead of arcing the curve, and for a few frightening seconds lost her balance, nearly spilling over the icy curl. She recovered quickly into the flat, her new stiffer skis gaining speed and stability for the run into the next turn. With luck, she'd pick up the lost seconds in the final sprint. She'd have to. Six points behind the fifteen-year-old downhill leader, Claudia Lund, she couldn't afford another mistake.
The next turn, even tighter than the last, glittered with surface ice, sheered to a sheen. Kris leaned deep into the arc, adjusting her radius in the middle of the turn with a subtle twist of her ankles. Her shoulder banged the flagpole as she cleared the twist, hopping into a quick series of steep moguls, her knees bobbing like a set of springs.
Final turn. She knew this one, she'd skied it in her mind a hundred times. She heard her father's voice: "Load the tail, skid the shovel." There was a fine line between going all out and not making any mistakes. It was a line she'd have to cross. She banked full speed into the long turn, loading up her tail, building critical power for the final sprint.
Kris shot out of the turn at record speed. The crowd roared — she had it locked. Soaring into the final run, she hugged her knees and schussed for the finish.
A grin grew across her face. Her dad would be at the bottom. He was always there, waiting for her.
She wanted nothing more than to make him smile.
* * *
The old moose trickled a bright red trail of blood in the snow. Hunks of flesh had been torn from its body, its matted fur glistened with sweat. It lumbered into the narrow ravine, tottering, weaving, out of breath, stopping at last at the frozen bank of the surging Sawtooth River.
Ice floes churned and heaved in the current with a roar like muffled thunder. The moose drew a kind of power from the sound, the vibrations rising up through the animal's trembling limbs. The surge of strength suffused its body, steeling the beast for battle. The regal moose raised its crown and turned to face the wolves.
Loping lightly over the shelf ice at the shore, the five silver, silken hunters quickly circled their prey. They snarled, salivating, growling guttural and wild. The moose whirled, stumbling, its labored breath trailing dragon clouds of fog. They had circled before, and the bull had escaped. Now they were closing in for the kill.
The dark-eyed lead wolf lunged, tearing a gash in the great beast's rump. Another seized its leg, its razor fangs cutting deep. The moose groaned and scooped its towering head, impaling the animal in its tangled rack. The wolf yelped, staggered back. The moose charged, stomping, its pounding hooves crushing the cowering wolf's ribs.
The pack backed off. The wolf was dead. The moose trotted off up the frozen shore.
Snow fell softly in the windless ravine. Ahead, high above the rumbling Sawtooth, a black wooden bridge spanned the gorge. The moose clambered up the craggy slope as the wolves resumed their hunt.
* * *
Kris was traveling with her father and her seven-year-old brother, Paul, in her father's red Chevy pick-up, coming down through the mountains from Garrison Pass. Her new skis rattled in the bed of the truck. Kris had kept on her lilac snowsuit, zippered to the neck; her black hair hung straight to her shoulders, her bright blue eyes were smiling. She had won the Women's Junior Downhill race, first place in the girls' twelve-to-fifteen year age bracket, setting a personal best on the half-mile course down the north slope of Dome Mountain. The ski resort, on the edge of the Alaska Range, fifty miles from their home in Healy, always held the first downhill races of the Spring season. Kris was already looking forward to the next. She had her eye on the Alaska Alpine Championships.
"Dad? Do you think Mom will come to the Winterhaven trials?"
Her father studied the oncoming road through the falling veil of snow. "She won't want to miss it, Sweety. Not after we show her what you won today."
Paul sat between them, twisting the trophy in his small hands, trying to unscrew the tiny gold skier from the mount.
"Pauly!" cried Kris, pulling the trophy away from him.
"It's a boy, it's not a girl," he said.
Kris examined the figure. "You can't tell," she said.
"I can tell," said Paul.
Kris ruffled his hair with her hand. He grabbed her wrist, pretended to bite it, growling. Kris tickled him.
"No no no!" he shouted, squealing with laughter.
Kris turned back to the road, a smile on her face. A black bridge appeared through the falling snow.
"The 'woo' bridge!" Kris exclaimed.
"'Woo' bridge!" echoed Pauly.
The truck rolled onto the bridge, and a resonant "woo" sound rose up from the tires. All three passengers grinned, staring into the white wall of snow as the deep bellow of the bridge filled their ears.
Then the blood drained from their faces.
The colossal moose came charging out of the whiteness directly toward them. Kris's father instinctively slammed the brakes and pulled the wheel. The truck careened across the bridge, just missing the bloody, frothing bull, sliding past it through a madhouse of leaping wolves. He hammered the brake, but the ice had them. They continued to slide, smashing through the guardrail and out over the gorge.
Kris screamed, a high shrill scream of unblinking terror, as they dropped through the air toward the river of ice.
The truck pierced the tumbling floes with a bone-crunching jolt. Kris's head bounced against the dash, her body flung wildly as the seatbelt grabbed. She glimpsed her father's bloody, vacant face as the truck plunged headlong into the frigid water. They plummeted swiftly, sinking in the current, the cab raging with the inflowing torrent.
Paul screamed and gurgled as the water engulfed him. Her father tossed about, limp and unconscious. Kris tore at her seatbelt. The water rose quickly to her chest, neck, chin, mouth —
She was underwater, the truck tumbling in the current. The snowsuit miraculously kept her from freezing. Feeling blindly, she found the buckle, unlatched her seatbelt. Pauly clawed at her side. She opened her eyes to see him, and the frozen water clamped her eyeballs with icy talons. She saw her brother thrashing in the glacial murk. She reached for him, fought to undo his seatbelt. Her eyes went gelid, seared with the cold. She undid the belt, then turned, grabbed for the door handle. The door was jammed. She yanked on the lever, it wouldn't budge. The window crank, too, was stuck. The door had been crushed when they'd broken through the rail.
Kris's lungs burned. Her vision darkened.
Out of the dark came a glimmer of gold. She grabbed the trophy, slammed it against her window. Once. Twice. The third time the window shattered. She scrambled out quickly, shards of glass tearing her snowsuit, frozen fingers of water gripping her. She reached back through the window for Paul.
He was gone.
She peered into the murk, her eyes stinging, the icy water clawing her corneas. Groping wildly, she could not reach her brother.
Kris was out of breath.
She pushed away from the truck, pulled frantically for the surface, ramming hard into a ceiling of ice. Unable to see, she groped along, feeling for a gap. Her hands fell on the snaking roots of a tree trunk. She climbed the roots, an ice floe pounding at her back. At last she emerged from the teeth of the river, gasping, coughing, screaming for air. She crawled off the log onto the broad snow surface of a massive floe.
Pitch-black night had fallen in the middle of the day. Kris could not see — her eyeballs had been frozen into rocks by the cold. With a violent shiver, she collapsed, and the raging Sawtooth carried her away.
Two hours later, in the river town of White Circle, Kris Carlson's body was hauled from the ice.
They fear me. I have torn them in my wrath.
They have no hunger these men who hunt with dogs. They tear me from my mother's womb and drag me through the snow. They gape at me with their mouths. They strike me with their fists. They mass themselves against me. They seize me by the neck and dash me to pieces. They cast me into the mire, and I become like dust and ashes. My skin turns black and falls from me, and my bones burn with heat.
Let them hope for light but have none. They'll never see the eye of day, the eye of day is shut. I know there is no light. I know freedom comes with blood. I know the wolf. The wolf will not betray me.
I slash open their kidneys and show no mercy. I pour out their gall on the ground. I burst them again and again. I sew sackcloth upon my skin. I eat flesh like a wolf. My strength is in the ice. My strength is in my loins. My strength is in the muscles of my belly. I make my tail stiff like cedar; the sinews of my thighs are knit together. My bones are tubes of bronze, my limbs like bars of iron.
I am the firstborn of Death.
These men are full of fear. They will know my power. They will die, just like the rest.
All of those who fear the wolf will perish by my hands.
I will eat them. All of them.
* * *
In the clear, cold, aurorean night, across the frozen tundra, three Inuit dog sleds glided over the snow. The stampeding teams of Alaskan huskies pumped clouds of steam into the brisk night air, while two Inuit mushers ran, rode, and pushed the sleds behind them.
In the first sled, Shakshi, a large Yakuutek hunter with high Mongolian cheekbones, leathery, wind-burned skin, and an icy black moustache, locked his dark eyes on his wheel dog, Tiuna, whose silver tail hung low. Roluk, the huge Siberian lead dog at the head of the team, threw a glance back at the freeloader, yapping in complaint. Shakshi shouted a command, yanking his tugline. The dogs came to a halt.
The second and third sleds drew to a stop behind him. The musher of the second, Anokuk, a broad-faced Yakuutek with a rifle over his shoulder, turned his slitted eyes behind him. The third sled, with its full gangline of panting dogs, was riderless.
Lashed to the sled was a giant cage.
Shakshi dismounted. He walked up the line of his dogs, slowly, menacingly. When he came to Roluk he paused; like a priest giving benediction, he touched the lead dog's head with the back of his hand. The dog barked sharply, once. The musher continued slowly down the other side, past the swing dogs, the team dogs, the heavy pullers in the middle of the line. He paused at last beside Tiuna, staring down at her. The wheel dog whimpered, sullenly. She knew she had offended. Shakshi leaned over and smacked her — a wallop on her rump. Tiuna snapped back to life.
Shakshi returned to his sled, eyeing his comrade. Anokuk nodded back toward the third sled. A guttural groan like the sound of an animal emanated from the giant cage.
The two hunters approached warily, Anokuk un-slinging his rifle.
The cage, tightly lashed to the sled, was made of thick, interwoven saplings. Inside, barely visible in the feeble light of the moon, a massive form lay bound in hides and chains.
The creature stirred.
Shakshi nodded to Anokuk. The narrow-eyed hunter raised his rifle barrel, aimed through the bars, and fired.
The shot rang out across the tundra. The dogs grew silent. Shakshi and Anokuk glanced at one another — the groans had stopped.
The hunters drew close to the bars, peered into the darkness of the cage. A blood red tranquilizer dart had stuck through the pile of hides. The mammoth body lay still as a corpse.
Shakshi nodded to his comrade, and the two men returned to their sleds. The dogs jumped to their feet, barking with freshened vigor. Tiuna, of all of them, looked most ready to go. As he mounted the whalebone runners and reached for his tugline, Shakshi noticed something on his sled. A hide had blown loose. Beneath it, the lifeless eyes of a Yakuutek stared out at him. A chunk of the dead musher's cheek was missing, gouged from his face. Shakshi touched the wound with his gloved hand. Teeth marks scarred the torn flesh.
Shakshi covered the head, lashing the hide securely to the sled. Then he gave the command to his dogs and they bolted into the night.
Fairbanks International Airport had just come into view when the air traffic controller's voice came over the headset. "Charlie Five-five, this is Fairbanks Tower, do you read me, over?"
Josh Marino recognized Dean Stanton's voice, gravelly and low like the grumbling of a lion. "Roger, Fairbanks," Josh replied, "this is Charlie Five-five, requesting landing, over." He pictured the cotton-haired old man sitting in the tower, his crumpled brown-bag face and heavy-rimmed glasses, a cigarette dangling from his lips as he growled into the mike.
"Charlie Five-five, drop to twelve hundred and turn right zero-three-zero. You have Runway Three."
"Roger, Fairbanks," Josh answered. "When are you gonna quit smoking?" he wanted to add, but didn't. The old man will probably die with a cig in his mouth. "Descending to one thousand two hundred feet," Josh repeated. "Turning right zero-three-zero for the straight-in to Number Three, over."
The twenty-four-year-old pilot flew his company's single-engine Cessna back and forth from Anchorage to Fairbanks so often that hearing Dean Stanton's voice was like hearing the subway driver call out your stop. "Charlie Five-five, you're cleared for landing." Josh wore a khaki jacket, high leather boots, and a belt-sheathed jackknife. His tousled black hair stuck out in feral profusion from his red headband and his over-size earphones. He worked for a small electronics company down in Anchorage, but still kept his one-room apartment in Fairbanks, still considered the central Alaskan city his home. He was working toward his Masters in electrical engineering, and flew back to take classes at the University of Fairbanks on Saturday mornings twice a month. And he taught some classes at a local school, too, though that was more a labor of love than anything else.
Josh adjusted the flaps, grabbed the control yoke in his left hand and eased the throttles back with his right. The plane banked and angled down toward the broad stretch of runway ahead. The snow had been cleared and the black asphalt glistened. I could land this baby with my eyes closed, he thought, and for a moment, he actually tried it. One second the runway was fast approaching, the next second everything went dark. A shiver of fear shot through the pilot; his eyes popped open despite himself.
Must be how my students feel, he thought, and wondered if he could teach them how to land a light plane. This would be quite a feat even with their eyes wide open — considering the fact that his students were blind.
* * *
Dean Stanton watched the Cessna 207 Skywagon roll to a stop on Runway Three, then removed his glasses, rubbed his eyes, and crushed his cigarette out on the linoleum floor. Behind him stood David Adashek, the Fairbanks Chief of Police, a large, rock-chested man, bursting from his jacket and tie. Adashek was scratching his gray-haired head, staring down with a grimace at the collection of smashed butts scattered around Stanton's feet.
Stanton noticed him looking. "Cleaning crew'll get 'em. Albert and Ace — Spic'n'Span. They get 'em every night."
"Why don't you just find yourself an ashtray, Dean?"
Stanton lifted the headset off his ears, laid it around his neck. "FAA won't allow ashtrays." He pointed to a sign next to the door. NO SMOKING.
Adashek's eyebrows went up. He scanned the rest of the room. Three other controllers were at work in the tower; all of them were smoking. The place had a heavier haze in the air than the strip bar on Wolf Run Road. "I thought you boys had to follow the letter of the law in here."
Stanton lit up another one and blew out a lungful of smoke. "How long you been in Alaska, Chief?"
Adashek nodded wearily. The ‘80’s seemed like a lifetime ago. "Long enough to know I shouldn’t ask," he said.
He stepped up to the broad window, his eyes squinting into the arctic light. Josh Marino's tiny white Cessna was taxiing off the field. Beyond him, far off on the horizon, silver clouds were forming above the snowy peaks. Adashek stared at the mountains, and for a long moment, didn't speak.
"It's been two hours since they touched down," he said at last. "What do you suppose is going on out there?"
Stanton leaned back in his swivel chair, folded his hands behind his head. "Knowing Jake, he's probably trying to make a deal on some furs."
"Knowing the Yakuutek," said the Chief, "he better not be looking for any bargains."
The Yakuutek hunter pointed his rifle at Jake O'Donnell's head. Jake's eyeballs were wrenched to his temple, locked on the tip of the barrel. Not much more than a four-inch gap between the cold steel and the red-haired pilot's brains. This made using the brains an even more difficult task than usual.
"Say something, Donny! He's gonna kill me, for Chrissake!"
"Say what?" asked his copilot. Donny was facing the other Yakuutek, who was holding a gun to Donny's chest. "I been talkin'. Nobody's listenin'!"
"Tell 'em I ain't lyin' goddammit!
"He 'ain't lyin'! Goddammit."
The hunter pressed the barrel of his gun into Jake's ear. Jake shuddered. Then, slowly, he turned his head, looked up the barrel into the Inuit's eyes.
"I... I told you. I 'ain't got the goddamn money!"
The hunter didn't speak. He wiped his brown hand down his shaggy black moustache. Was this fella angry or just trying to make up his mind?
"Believe me, amigo. It's the truth, so help me God."
The barrel didn't move. The Inuit's eyes stared deeply into Jake's. Jake struggled to take in a breath. If the gun hadn't unnerved him, the man's stare certainly did.
Jake glanced at the big cage lying on the snow under the right wing of the Goony Bird, his aging twin-engine DC-3. Inside the cage, the mountain of a creature lay barely visible, asleep under its cocoon of chains and hides.
"Look," Jake said in a calmer voice, "you can keep the son-of-a-bitch. We'll send somebody back with the money."
"Yeah, that's right!" chimed in Donny. "Keep the fucker. We'll let the Sheriff collect him himself."
The two big hunters held steady.
Jake shot a nervous glance at Donny. "I don't think they want to keep him."
Donny looked at the cage. "Can't say I can blame 'em. Fucker don't look too friendly."
A voice crackled from the empty cockpit.
"Hey," Jake said, suddenly lighting up. "I bet that's the Chief now!"
Dean Stanton's voice continued sputtering from the radio. The hunters looked mildly curious... or suspicious — it was hard for Jake to tell.
"That's him, ain't it, Donny?"
"Yeah, that's Adashek all right. I can tell by the voice."
"He's the badge with your money," Jake said. "We can talk to him, he'll tell you all about it." Jake began slowly backing toward the door to the plane. The hunter followed him with the barrel of his gun.
"Come on," he said, leading him slowly back. "Right up here, we'll talk to the man himself, I swear to God."
Donny started moving with Jake, then stopped abruptly. His hunter had poked the barrel of his gun into Donny's considerable belly. Donny raised his hands in surrender. "Okay, okay... you're right, you're right. It's only the Chief of Police, no big deal, just a whole big pile of money waiting for you, waiting back there with your name on it and all you gotta do — " he suddenly gasped as the man again jabbed his gut with the rifle. Donny coughed, put his hand on the barrel, eased it gently back. "Okay, I'll shut up."
Jake was backing up through the doorway into the plane, the hunter following him with his gun. Stanton's voice was still crackling through static on the cockpit radio. "Whiskey Four-O — ... do you... over."
The hunter followed Jake through the cockpit door into the nose of the DC-3, his gun held to him like metal to a magnet.
"Nice and easy," Jake said, reaching for the radio mike. He slowly unhooked it and adjusted the frequency. Then he thumbed the button and spoke to Dean Stanton.
"Fairbanks Tower this is Whiskey Four-O-Three, over."
Jake watched the hunter's black eyes as the air traffic controller's voice came through in reply. "Whiskey Four-O-Three this is Fairbanks Tower. We read you loud and clear."
* * *
Dean Stanton handed his microphone to Chief Adashek.
"Are you all right, Jake? Did you find—"
Jake's static-broken voice interrupted him. "Just fine, Chief, except for the .22 your friend here's been pointing in my face for the past half hour. Apparently you and your Eskimo friends had a little miscommunication."
"I don't understand," the Chief said.
"Well neither do I!" Jake shouted. "Mr. Yackety-Yack here thought he was supposed to collect his reward money upon delivery of the prisoner."
The Chief glanced uncomfortably at Stanton. "It's not money he's looking for, Jake."
"There's a Yakuutek man in jail here for manslaughter. If we get the prisoner back here alive, their man will go free. That's the arrangement we made with the tribe."
"Manslaughter, huh. Gee, that's great, that's really great. Tell me, Chief, who'd the guy kill — a pilot?"
"If you just explain to him—"
"Goddammit, you explain it to him! He sure as hell ain't listening to me!"
Adashek glanced at Stanton, who shrugged his shoulders. The Chief raised the mike to his lips. "Shakshi, are you there? Can you hear me?"
Adashek waited, but heard no reply. "Is he there, Jake?"
"Yeah, he's here. He just don't talk much."
"Then listen to me, Shakshi, please. It's very important that you do not cause any further delay. We will release your friend when the prisoner arrives here alive. That was the deal. I urge you, he is extremely dangerous and must—"
A howl came over the radio, followed by a blast and a burst of static.
"Jake? Do you copy?"
There was no reply, just the steady crackle of static. The Chief looked frightened. "Whiskey Four-O-Three, do you copy, over."
Stanton took the mike back from him, played with the frequency. "Whiskey Four-O-Three this is Fairbanks Tower, do you read me, over."
Adashek and Stanton looked at one another.
Jake's face had gone white. He stared speechless at the radio. The hunter had slammed it with the butt of his gun, knocking it loose from the console.
Jake looked up at him. "That little yell o’ yours is the most you've said all day."
The Inuit, standing bent in the low doorway, wiped his long moustache again, glaring at Jake.
Jake looked past the hunter into the cargo hold. It was crammed full of bags, crates, packages, and mail. "Look, Shocky, or whatever-your-name-is, I don't know what happened out there to your friend, but you captured this goddamn lunatic and now me and my partner gotta take him to the Chief. So why don't we see if we can strike ourselves a little bargain here."
Jake moved gently past him into the cargo hold. He pulled a large box out of a sack and ripped it open. "It's coming on Christmas, Shocky. Why don't we celebrate a couple weeks early?" Inside the large box was another box wrapped with ribbons and gold paper. Jake tore it open and pulled out...
He held it up for the hunter, turning it in his hands. "Whaddya think, Shocky? Your wife, maybe? Tidy up the igloo real—"
The Inuit swung his rifle, batting the Dustbuster, crashing it against the wall. He anchored the gun on his shoulder and advanced toward Jake.
Jake crawled backward in terror, stumbling over the mounds of baggage and boxes. "Wait a minute!" he cried desperately. "I’m sure we can work somethin' out!"
The hunter aimed his gun.
Jake grabbed a stuffed duffel bag and hugged it to his chest. "Donny! Help! Somebody! Please!"
Shakshi noticed something and relaxed his hold on the rifle.
"What... what is it?" Jake stammered.
The Inuit was staring at the top of the duffel bag.
Jake looked at the opening. A small furry white tail was sticking out. "What...this? This here?" Jake clawed open the bag. The Yakuutek's face widened in amazement.
A litter of half a dozen snow-white fur balls spilled out onto Jake O’Donnell's lap. They couldn't have been more than a few weeks old.
The Yakuutek stared at them, his mouth agape. This proud hunter from the Arctic Circle had apparently never laid eyes on a cat.
Jake held one out in his trembling hands. "You like the kitty, Shocky? She’s one o’ Lily's litter. Lily is Frank Dieter’s cat. We were taking 'em back to the pound in Fairbanks."
The Yakuutek hunter set down his rifle. He took the tiny creature into his arms as if some great miracle of the Earth Mother had been handed him, a precious gift from the White Spirit of the North. A small smile crossed his face, a smile of awe that Jake thought he'd probably not forget for a long, long time.
"You all right in there, Jake?" he heard Donny shout.
"Yeah," he called back.
He watched the Inuit cradling the kitten. "What do you say, Shocky. Wanna trade the monster for the kitties?"
The snowman had no head.
Three children, bundled in parkas and scarves and boots and gloves, were on their knees rolling a ball of snow across the white-blanketed schoolyard. They stumbled over each other like puppies, the sound of their laughter echoing sharply off the high brick wall of the schoolhouse.
Kris could hear them from the parking lot. She was sitting in the car with her mother, Linda Carlson, a 42-year old widow whose raven-black hair had already begun to gray. Linda was talking to her, but Kris was no longer listening to her words. Carried away by the echoing shrieks of the children, she had drifted off to another time and place, far away in a distant corner of her memory, where her tiny brother Paul was searching for a carrot he'd dropped in the snow.
Gradually she became aware of her mother speaking her name.
"You see, honey, that's exactly what I'm talking about."
"What?" said Kris irritably, turning from the window. She wore a stylish pair of sunglasses that reminded Linda of pictures of her own mother from the 1950's.
"Now don't get defensive. You weren't listening, that's all."
"I was listening."
"You were a million miles away."
"No, I wasn't," Kris mumbled. In her mind she saw Paul gleefully holding up his carrot.
"I'm not going to argue," said her mother. "We've already decided about this."
"You decided about it."
"You had your say. I listened. I determined that you're just giving up. I won't let you do that."
"Mom, I'm eighteen years old. I can make my own decisions. I always have to do it your way."
"That's not true. You didn't want a dog. Did I force you to get a dog?"
"I don't like dogs," Kris said emphatically. "And they don't like me."
"Honey... the Burton's Shepherd didn't know you, that's all."
Kris rubbed her hand nervously. "I don't want to depend on an animal like that."
Linda looked at her daughter. She reached out, took one of her hands tenderly in her own. "It's okay to admit you're afraid of dogs. There's nothing wrong with being afraid." She continued to hold her daughter's hand, gently caressing it. "Don’t you think that might be what's happening here, too?"
Kris pulled away. "Spare me the psychotherapy, Mom."
"You loved the cross-country. What's so different about this?"
"What's wrong is that this is what you want. You couldn't care less about what I want. You're treating me like a child."
"Well, maybe if you didn't act like such a..." She stopped herself. "Someday you'll thank me, Krissy."
"Right, Mom. So original."
Linda sighed. She yanked on the door handle and climbed gruffly out of the car. Kris heard her walk to the trunk. She's probably forgotten something, Kris thought. She's always forgetting something. She didn't used to be like that...
"Kris, where's your bag?" She was rifling through the messy trunk.
"I put it out, Mom. Did you take it?"
"I thought I told you—. Oh. Here it is."
Linda slammed the trunk shut, walked around and opened Kris's door.
"Give me your hand."
For a long moment, Kris didn't budge. Then she suddenly remembered something, the reason she'd finally agreed to come here at all. She reached for her white cane, took her mother's hand, and climbed carefully out of the car.
"Mom?" she asked as her mother shut the door. "Do you see a Beetle in the lot?"
Her mother looked at her, puzzled. "A beetle?"
"Yeah, you know, the car, the old Volkswagen Bug."
"Oh, uh..." She scanned the parking lot. Next to the schoolyard, where the children were jamming a stick nose into the snowman's eyeless head, she spotted a rusty, mustard VW Bug.
"Yes, over there, there's a yellow one in the corner."
Kris's heart skipped a beat.
"Why?" her mother asked. "Whose is it?"
"Oh... nobody," said Kris. Her mother eyed her inquisitively as they headed into the school.
"I wish you'd sit down and relax." Andrea Parks had been watching Linda pace the floor since she'd come into her office.
"I'm fine," said Linda.
"You don't look fine. You look worried."
Linda stopped walking and turned to her friend. Andrea, as always, looked cool, casually elegant, and efficient. She wore a short white blazer, a fitted skirt, and a pale blue silk scarf beneath her short blonde hair. Sitting, legs crossed, on the edge of her desk, she looked like a woman in complete control of her life.
Linda had felt that way, once. She wanted to feel that way again.
"What?" asked Andrea. "What is it?"
Linda shook her head. After a moment she started to speak, but was interrupted by the ring of the telephone.
Andrea reached across her desk. "Director Parks. Oh, hi George." She raised her finger and nodded to Linda, indicating the call would be short.
Linda turned to the window that overlooked the training room. A fifty-foot-long simulated ski slope dominated the enormous room. Slick white carpet covered the slope, with a handrail along one edge and safety nets mounted under each side. Two blind children, not more than ten years old, were clinging to the railing halfway down the slope, their skis splayed out awkwardly beneath them.
At the bottom, loudly coaxing them on, stood a compact, muscular African-American woman with extremely short-cropped hair, wearing Spandex and bright red high-top basketball shoes. Linda had seen the woman before at the school. Andrea had said she was a veteran of Iraq. She was surrounded now by half a dozen children of various ages, all in skis, flopping about like penguins while waiting their turn on the hill. Linda could not find Kris among them, and wondered if she was still in the waiting room.
The Blind Learning Center was the only one of its kind in the entire state of Alaska. The school was widely renowned for the range of its programs and the quality of its well-trained staff. Many of the students' families had moved to Fairbanks from other parts of the state so their children could regularly attend.
Linda and her daughter lived in the town of Healy, at the northeast corner of Denali National Park. Fairbanks was only 70 miles away, an easy drive up Highway 3 along the frozen banks of the Nenana River. Linda had made the drive a thousand times. She was a part-time social worker carrying a case load at a community mental health clinic in the city. A year after Kris lost her sight in the accident, she'd begun taking her along on the commute, leaving her for cross-country lessons at the school while she went to work at her job in town. It had been good for Kris, she'd thought. It had helped her to forget.
"Well, at least you've stopped pacing."
Andrea was hanging up the phone. "Won't you please sit down?" she said.
Linda shrugged. She took a seat on a Wassily chair beneath a framed poster of a sand beach rimmed with palm trees.
"I want you to stop worrying," Andrea insisted. "Kris had a great time cross-country skiing with us."
"She did," said Andrea. "But lately she's been... I don't know — pulling back again. She won't take even the slightest risk. It's like she's lost all her self-confidence."
"You know that's not the least bit unusual at this stage. It takes years—"
"It's been four years since the accident, Andrea. She's stopped making any progress. She sits around moping, feeling sorry for herself. I can't seem to do anything right. I'm walking on eggshells."
Linda stood again and walked to the window. She watched the kids on their skis, tacking their way down the make-believe hill. "You didn't know her before," she said thoughtfully. "She was so... exuberant. So full of life. Just like her dad."
Andrea left her desk and walked over to stand by her friend. They'd known each other for three years now and the two women had grown close. "I'm sorry, Linda," she said. "I know how you feel. But it takes time. You know that better than anyone."
Copyright © 2012 by Michael Abbadon All rights reserved.