Sometimes a story has to be told if for no other reason than to unburden the heart.
OCTOBER 1929—UELEN, CHUKOTKA, NORTHEASTERN SIBERIA
He strained to catch a glimpse of them through the morning mist. Tariem wiped his runny nose on his sleeve. A truck engine rumbled from the outskirts of the village; the soldiers must have discovered that he’d escaped. Earlier he pried off a few loose boards from the temporary stockade and slipped out.
It was snowing lightly, the clouds low hanging and billowy. Snowflakes gathered in lacy patterns along the folds of his sealskin sleeves, like the mountain ridges where he’d soon be headed. It might have been a peaceful morning if not for the smoke from burning houses, the Red Army’s truck or that his wife was gone. Today all remaining Chukchi along the Bering seacoast were to be evicted. Evacuation orders had been tacked up in Russian on family yarangas for weeks, though no one could read.
Tariem fumbled as he attached the gangline to the remaining sled. The engine sounds stabbed his stomach like spoiled whale meat.
The remaining team of dogs watched in silence as he readied the loaded sled. It was his wife Jeaantaa’s team. The dogs looked wary, especially Kinin. The lead dog’s blue stare pierced the mist. From a puppy he’d been Jeaantaa’s leader, and leaders often ran for no one else.
Tariem lashed the frozen salmon tighter onto the heavy sled. The gut line dug deeply into his palm as he leveraged his weight, securing it to the sled’s driftwood stanchion. He prayed it wouldn’t snap. Losing food on the tundra was death.
He looked to Kinin. The Guardian had bear-thick fur, as blue-black as the Siberian night. Above each crystalline eye a white fur circle grew. These markings proffered guidance from the Old Ones, whose spirits swirled in colorful trails across the sky. Tariem hoped for Kinin to get him out of the village, to the Cave of Many Points, and from there find the twelve-hundred-mile trail to their reindeer-breeding cousins.
The dogs’ whiskers were frosted into snow beards. Though they ordinarily would be yelping with excitement as a sled was being readied, the events of the past few days made them hushed and suspicious. Gaps in the yard stood like missing teeth—only twenty dogs left where there had been eighty.
“Kinin,” he called. The dog lowered his head and didn’t move. Tariem slowly approached, trying to be calm, though the army truck was getting louder. Harness in one hand and a piece of seal meat as an offering to Kinin in the other. Just like Jeaantaa questioned his judgment, Kinin also had doubts.
“They’re coming, Kinin,” he explained. Palms up, he laid the meat down. Dogs couldn’t be forced to run. They’d just lie down. You could beat them, cut off their tails in anger; they still wouldn’t get up.
Tariem glanced at the family yaranga out of habit. “Ku, ku”—he’d not had time to burn their birch and walrus-skin house to free the House Spirit. Now the Spirit would follow, even harm them.
Tariem and the dog turned in the direction of the truck. Kinin’s eyes softened. His one ear twitched; then his body relaxed. “Thank you,” Tariem whispered. Kinin slipped his head and front legs into the harness and then surged, dragging Tariem to the front of the gangline as he toggled him in lead. Kinin pulled the line taut and then watched as the remaining nineteen dogs were quickly attached.
Tariem stepped onto the sled runners and pulled the wooden stake.
Kinin charged. The Guardians lunged in unison. Tariem fell back from the momentum, grabbing on to the handle to steady himself.
The truck rounded the bend, barreling down the shoreline coming closer to the yaranga. Two soldiers stood in the rear. They pointed, yelling in broken Chukchi for him to stop.
“Ke, ke, ke, Kinin,” Tariem urged, but the smell of fear was enough. Kinin raced to beat the truck, to get past the last yaranga and out to the snowpack. If they didn’t start shooting he’d have the advantage. The sled runners would glide, leaving the truck’s wheels to break through, spinning and whining like a frustrated reindeer scratching off spring’s growth of itchy antler velvet.
Tariem spotted a child’s empty kliak molded in the shape of a foot. Dread spread through his lungs. Blood dotted the snow.
“Ke, ke,” he repeated.
Kinin’s paws flicked snow as he jettisoned the team forward. All twenty spines undulated with speed, their breath syncopated with pounding feet.
Charred Chukchi yarangas blared by, burning in fragrant streams, their smoldering birch poles like red eyes. Tariem braced his knees against the stanchions for balance anticipating the first steep mogul. The runners hit and the sled was airborne. He used his weight to counterbalance, but the sled flipped on its side. Dogs darted back looks as it dragged.
“Ke, ke-e-e-e,” he hollered. The truck gained. Tariem grasped the sled handle, worn smooth from Jeaantaa’s touch.
Soldiers jeered from behind as he struggled to right the sled.
“Ke, ke, Kinin,” he shouted. A gut lash snapped. Bundles of frozen salmon rolled out along with the heavy anorak that Jeaantaa had made for him. The team accelerated on the brief downslope. As he yanked the handle, the sled flipped upright.
Spires of the Siberian tree line were immediately visible to the west, close enough to make out individual branches. If only his will could catapult them. A painful spasm gathered in his throat. He lowered his chin to his sleeve, crouching to make a smaller target, his fingers numb and stinging with cold. Mittens would have to wait until deep within the forest. The gangly-limbed Russians must be cold. He was shorter, more compact.
“Ready.” A command came from behind.
He glanced back. A young soldier unslung his rifle. Tariem turned forward, watching only Kinin and the trail before them. He held his breath, as if doing so could block bullets.
A shot chipped and sprang one of two strands of walrus-gut ganglines. The team surged, startled. “Forest Keeper,” Tariem cried out to Jeaantaa’s guardian spirit. He eyed the straining gangline. “Breathe your life here.”
With a crack, truck wheels broke through the ice behind him. Curses echoed off the surrounding hills, in first broken Chukchi, then Russian. Soon nothing but the rhythmic breath of the dogs as Kinin entered the stillness of the trees.
* * *
Tynga was limping.
“Whoa.” Tariem kicked in the wooden stake. His legs were rubbery; he staggered like a drunken man over to the dog. Her back paw was up. Tariem bent over, and when he touched her leg Tynga yelped and pulled away. Her blood warmed his fingers as he touched them to his lips. She looked up adoringly. Her eyes crinkled as her ears lay flat, tail wagging and thumping against his thigh. In the dim forest light he checked her shoulders, abdomen and back. “Easy,” he said. They’d run two of twelve hundred miles. He could leave her here, or sacrifice her.
Tears burned his eyes. Why Tynga? She was the only one to single him out. From a puppy she claimed him, following him everywhere. It was as annoying as it was touching, but he’d gradually come to accept this love. Crouching down, he looked at Tynga. She bunched her shoulders and licked his face. This was Bakki’s daughter, the color of early orange sunlight, with lichen-colored eyes.
Pride had deafened him to Jeaantaa’s warnings. A day earlier he struck her and then stared dumbfounded as blood dotted her nostrils. Though he was furious at how she’d broken the laws of the Lygoravetlat, or the original ones, he ached for her. She’d never been freely his and now even less so. He hated that he was so powerless to despise her. “A man should never love more than a woman,” years ago the elders warned. “She’s bewitched you.”
The day before, Jeaantaa left with a man named Ramsay who’d come with an Inuit guide from Alaska. Tears cramped Tariem’s throat as he thought of his sons. He imagined them waiting for her at the Cave, not wanting to leave for the longer journey inland in case she’d show.
He dreaded the two-day journey. The burden of not-knowing would drag beside him, like the anxious soul of a dead relative. He’d trudge long past the Valley of Flowers, down the frozen River of the Dead, hoping all the way to the Cave that he was wrong. Praying to Aquarvanguit for the moment when the boys would reach the Cave with Cheyuga and spot their mother’s beautiful face. There she’d be with a fire already started, a bubbling pot of marrow and seal stew. And from there, together they’d begin the monthlong journey inland to their reindeer cousins.
But even if she changed her mind and left for the Cave, Bakki, her fourteen-year-old dog, couldn’t run that far. She had him in lead and not Kinin when she left. And while Bakki wouldn’t make it to the Cave, the dog could make it across the frozen Bering Sea to Rochlit.
Tynga licked mucus from his nose as he squatted. Tariem lifted the dog, stumbling as he carried her back to the sled, her tail thumping. He laid her down onto the sled and raised his knife, arching his back to gain force for a quick kill. Tynga lay quiet and trusting, lifting her leg to expose her belly as she did for only him.
A convulsive sob stopped him. “No more blood,” Jeaantaa had pleaded yesterday. The knife dropped, he buried his face in Tynga’s fur, gasping in spastic heaves. The dog’s musky warmth was a momentary comfort. He picked up the knife and began sawing off a length from the bottom of his anorak. He scooped a handful of snow, packed Tynga’s flesh wound and tightened the bandage around her leg.
“Lay still,” he scolded. “We have a long way.” The dog’s tail thumped against the load as she settled in on top of the sled, her eyes fixed on him.
Copyright © 2012 by Andrea Thalasinos