New And Old

For a few days, Sasha, usually accompanied by Anchu, explored the new environs of the Lodge campus, outbuildings, and the surrounding area. The newfound freedom of living off-leash was intoxicating to her. Whenever she would awaken, regardless of when or where, she would walk, move, go anywhere, partly for exploration and partly to be sure it was really true: she was really free.

The full-size house where the dogs lived seemed like a palace. At the front and back were dog doors. Two flaps of leather hung from the top of the door frame, overlapping by a margin. Dogs could press their snout against the flaps and pass through, the door self-closing behind them. Inside, the entire dwelling was devoid of human furnishings, the floors covered with loose straw. Around the perimeter of the largest room and in a couple of corners, deeper mats of straw provided soft beds for the dogs. Anchu enjoyed entering the door at the front, trotting through the house, and exiting through the back door, to make a circle around and repeat.

There were dozens of foot paths in the surrounding woods, many made by Tun’s dogs. They zig-zagged and crisscrossed through the forest, providing all-day entertainment for one following the plethora of scents left behind by inhabitants and passers-by. It was easy to follow trails with abandon, ultimately finding one’s self far from home. The shrill whistle and Tun’s call of “ALL DOGS EAT! ALL DOGS EAT!”  could barely be heard at supper time.

After supper, Tun would sit on the porch of the dogs’ house and sing to his team. He sang old, traditional songs he’d learned from kin, and songs he’d made up.

Spirit Lights call to me,

I mustn’t go near.

Grandfather beckons you,

You must not listen.

For the Spirit Lights will 

Call you home if you

Look into their eyes too long.

Spirit Lights call to us,

And elders scold us

“Do not go near”.

Sometimes he would sing himself to sleep on the porch, always several dogs crowding around him or laying across his lap. On occasion, he would sleep there all night in this mild summer air, arising with the dogs. Sometimes he would finish singing and just sit for a long time, looking at the dogs, the trees, the clues in the sky foretelling weather. When ready to retire he’d call “Rocky! Dak!”, and the two dogs would hasten to him any time they were in earshot. They would follow him into the big Lodge house, to emerge with Tun when he awoke.

At a time which must have been morning, based on the sun’s position in the sky, Tun went to a pole barn, and within a few minutes pulled from it a dogsled. One Sasha had not seen, carefully stored and covered until needed. Its age was apparent in its looks. The wood had a deep amber tone, and the gut bindings had faded from creamy white to a dark, brownish-yellow. The back bow, especially the top, was worn smooth and blackened with many years of use. Tun moved his hands and eyes slowly, deliberately, down the side of the sled, examining every joint and member. He’d pause at something and tinker, make it tight, straighten it out. Sometimes he would get to a spot and simply touch it, his motion ceasing, his wide smile growing wider. What at first seemed a casual inspection revealed itself to be combined with reverie, as each item of interest recalled a place, a time, a person or dog that left its trace, indelible marks on Tun’s heart.

“THE SLED!” Sasha heard one of the Original Five bark from somewhere out of sight. From behind her, on the porch of the doghouse, Larik and Dak simultaneously repeated “The Sled! The Sled!” as they leaped to the ground and ran excitedly to the pole barn. They looked to Tun, made whimpers and whines of anticipation. They ran all the way around the sled, then turned and ran around it again in the opposite direction. The hubbub brought Umka and Alexei, as they, too, commenced their excitement dance. Sasha didn’t know what it was about, but knew it meant something to the Original Five. She ran over, as excited as she could make herself, to join in. Around Tun and the sled it was as if someone had called out to hitch a team or come to dinner, multiplied many times. The dancing, hopping, barking and running all indicated tremendous anticipation. The joy was infectious, and Sasha, soon joined by Stone and Anchu, began to be excited, too, though she had yet to find the reason.

As the sled dance continued, Sasha looked at the sled, now close enough to see in great detail. It was narrower than most sleds, and of a medium length. Much shorter than the cargo sled they’d hauled up the mountain, but not quite as small as the sprinter sled. All along the sled were adornments similar to those on the dog harnesses Tun had labored at in the lean-to. Joints were over-wrapped with leather, some red, some black, some green, and they formed a repeating pattern. Between these, hardly an inch of the framework was not adorned with etchings, carved into the wood and rubbed with ashes to make them show. There were geometric shapes and designs, likenesses of animals, tiny scenes showing hunters, dog sleds, dog teams, reindeer sleds, yarangas and fire pits. Sasha could not recognize the baidarka, the walrus-skin boat used by the Ankalyn, nor the curious animals they pulled from the water in the depiction.

There was not a space on the sled neglected by the artist’s hand. Carved bone ornaments and shells drilled with holes were tied with strips of sinew or leather. Long fringes hung all along the top rail, making the sled appear somewhat like a yak. Buttons and discs of silver and brass dotted the frame, in the center of each a bright, red gemstone. The entire sled was a captivating work of art, and unlike any Sasha had ever seen.

“What a beautiful sled.” she remarked to the other dogs, still prancing around, letting out an occasional yip of excitement.

“It’s the racing sled!” Umka answered, his voice brimming with eagerness and energy.

“Festival!” Larik barked out.

“Festival! Festival!” the rest of the Original Five repeated several times.

Sasha found Stone, coming around the back of the sled.

“What’s all the excitement?” she inquired.

“The racing sled! Races only!” he barked in short bursts, “And now, Day without Night! This means it’s time for summer festival!”

Sasha had never seen a dogsled race, and had little concept of what it entailed, but all the glee and energy showed by the team led her to believe it meant something grand and fun.

“We’re getting ready,” Stone finished before racing off to wrestle in the wet snow, “to head for Tunkan!”

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