Spirit of the Brown Bear

(Torar Angiyok Aklark)

 

 

 

 

Chapter 4

 

 

“Aklark, do you remember nothing before the bear attacked you?” Utaq asked.

As Utaq studied the pot of soup, Aklark furrowed his brow in intense thought.  If by will alone, he could bring back memories, it would have already have been done.  He shook his head.  “Only screaming and the smell of burning fuel.”

“The screaming was the other man with you and the burning was your plane.”

Aklark suddenly had a thought.  He wondered why it hadn’t come before.  He jerked off the borrowed parka, grimacing in pain as he did so, and dug in the pockets of his own parka—only to find them torn to shreds as was much of the parka itself.  He checked his pants pockets and then he remembered he had turned them inside out trying to find something to burn.  Did he even have identification?  Was it now sitting in the snow by the rubble of the burned plane?  “I have to go back,” he declared. 

“Not now.”

“You don’t understand!  My identity is back there!”

“Death is back there if you go now.  The storm is upon us and will be for at least two days.”  He gazed at the man as he put his head in his hands.  Apparently the cold was temporarily forgotten.  “Aklark, when this storm is over the wilderness patrols will be out.  They will comb the area.  You come with me to the hunts.  Perhaps we will see one of them.  If not, afterward I will be taking hides to the post.  They will have news there.  You can make inquiries.  In the meantime, perhaps memories will begin to return. 

The man now called Aklark heard the howling wind and felt the fingers of cold biting at him.  He shivered and gave in to Utaq’s reasoning. 

“Let me look at your wounds and clean them before they get infected,” the hunter said. 

Aklark had been uncomfortable where the bear had cut his chest with its claws, but he hadn’t complained.  Now, as Utaq gently examined and then cleaned the wounds, he was grateful for the man’s attention.  The torn flesh burned as the medications were applied, but he felt a great deal better afterward. 

Aklark slept restlessly as the storm continued to batter their makeshift shelter.  He dreamed intermittently, but couldn’t remember the dreams.  The only thing that lingered was the sea.  When he awoke, waves lapped against the fringes of his mind. At first, when he would wake up, he would see Utaq gazing at him.   There came a time when he awoke and found Utaq laying next to him, snoring softly.  Apparently he trusted him now. 

An undetermined time later, Aklark woke to find Utaq grinning at him.  “The meal you helped provide is ready now, my friend,” the Eskimo declared. 

“How long have we been asleep?”

Utaq shrugged.  “About half a day.” 

“You don’t have a watch?”

Laughing, Utaq simply said.  “I don’t need a watch.  I know the time by the stars or the sun—or it is something that doesn’t really matter.  As now.”  He peered carefully at his new companion.  “You don’t have a watch?   Most white men do.”

Aklark shook his head.  “I already looked.  I know I once wore one but it’s gone now.”

“Probably when the bear attacked you.”

“I suppose.”

“Have your dreams told you anything?”

Aklark shook his head again.  “I don’t remember my dreams.  The only thing I can remember is waves.  The sea.”

“What color are they?” Utaq asked. 

“Color?  What difference does that make?”

“The sea here is almost always gray and most of the year there is ice.  So gray and white.  Occasionally blue.”

“Blue with foam sluicing over something—like glass, I suppose.” 

“Interesting,” Utaq mused.

“Does that mean anything to you?”

“Perhaps.  The oceans further south are more blue; but the rest?” Utaq shook his head.  “I don’t know.”  Then he realized that he did know.  If this man was tied to the water then he had to be the man his cousin had sent him to meet—Admiral Harriman Nelson.  Utaq almost told him, but hesitated.  What could telling him his real name accomplish?  Especially if he was wrong.  The man before him had taken on the power of the land and the bear he had killed.  He had then brought luck to Utaq’s hunting, and presumably would bring fortune to his people.  He could tell this man nothing more than the two words of his name and the one word of his title.  No, Utaq decided, he would wait until Aklark began to remember on his own.  He would wait and see what the spirits of the land decided.

With that decision made, Utaq noticed Aklark studying him carefully.  “No,” he repeated, “I do not understand the other part of your dream.”

Aklark continued to study him for another minute and then he nodded. 

Does he know? Utaq asked himself.  The man, for all of his lost memory, had a gaze that penetrated almost to the very center of his soul.  And yet it wasn’t the gaze of someone trying to control him or exert his own power.  It was different.  Curiosity?  His cousin, Maria had said that this Nelson was a scientist.  Not that Utaq had a great deal of respect for the profession.  The few he had met in his younger days had not been pleasant for the most part.  Either they were puppy dog eager and innocent, wanting to change the world, or they were arrogant and all knowing, trying to tell the people how they should live even though they had lived successfully here for hundreds of years.  Utaq wondered what kind of scientist this one was when he knew himself.

“The wind has almost died down,” Aklark noted. 

“For now,” Utaq replied.  “Time to go feed the dogs.”

“Would you like some help?”

“Yes, help me cut up the pieces of meat.”

When they went out, Aklark noticed that the landscape had changed.  Snow had drifted against one side of their shelter and against the stands of trees.  The ground was almost scoured in other areas.

The dogs were yapping and jumping eagerly, their chains adding to the cacophonous din of the twilight day.  

“Spring, right?” Aklark asked Utaq after they had cut the half frozen meat into fist sized chunks. 

“Yes, but how can you tell?”

“The distance of the sun from the horizon for one thing.  Had to be fall or spring, but I figured spring because of the plant growth on the trees.”  The explanation was simply that—an explanation.  There was no smugness or superiority. 

Utaq smiled.  “Very observant, my friend.  It is the time of the spring thaw in the forests and the last of the hunts on the pack ice.”

“Is that where your village is now?”

“Yes.”

“And we’ll be able to make contact with someone who might know me?”  The voice was almost plaintive. 

“We should, in time,” Utaq told the white man.

“I guess I will have to be satisfied with that.” 

“Yes, considering that you do not know this wilderness, I suppose so,” Utaq replied.  “It looks like the snow is coming again.  Let’s go in and eat our meal now.”   The wind began to howl as they settled to their dinners. 

During most of the next day Aklark continued to sleep off and on, dreaming of people and places that he couldn’t remember for more than a few seconds after he woke.  When they weren’t sleeping, they listened to the wind howling and Utaq would tell legends and tales of his people. 

During one of the tales, the Eskimo lit a cigarette and Aklark looked at it longingly, but didn’t want to infringe on the man’s hospitality more than he already had.   Utaq seemed to understand much, however and handed him a cigarette.  Aklark lit it on the camp stove, as had Utaq and together they smoked in companionable silence.   

A little more than a day later, the storm finally blew itself out and the two men emerged from the shelter, Aklark in his companion’s extra parka.  The ruined one would go back to the village where the women would try their hand at salvaging it.  

The dogs shook snow off their backs and stood in anticipation, straining against their chains.   “Is it over?” Aklark asked. 

“Yes.  It is time to leave,” Utaq said. 

With the Eskimo’s instructions, the white man helped load up the sledge with all the supplies and the frozen meat.  It was heaped so high that Aklark wondered how the dogs would be able to pull it.  The size of the load didn’t seem to concern the animals though.  He watched them prance in eager anticipation as Utaq clipped their harnesses to the traces.  They barked as though Utaq had already ordered them to go.  Finally everything was in place.

“You will soon warm up now, Aklark,” Utah said with a laugh.  Gih!” he shouted and the dogs shot forward.  The sled ran easily on the new snow and the Eskimo and white man trotted behind.  After awhile, though, Aklark was panting heavily, his breath coming in painful, frozen gasps, the wounds on his chest pulling and smarting.  “Utaq,” he finally called out as he lagged behind the sledge and its owner. 

The Eskimo stopped the dogs with a command.  Then he gazed at the beleaguered man.  “Apparently, you did not do things in your other life that included anything strenuous,” he said evenly.

Aklark glared at his new friend.  “I’m older than you are,” he growled. 

Utaq laughed.  “Very well.  Since you are my elder, stand at the back of the sled on the runners.”

“Won’t that be too heavy for the dogs?”

“They are strong and once they build up speed, it will all be the same.  We will be running on smoother ground soon,” Utaq explained. 

Aklark was too tired to argue, so he stood on the back runners and hung on.  Utaq shouted to the dogs and they strained and dug into the snow and began pulling the sled.  Soon they were flying along as fast as they had before.  Utaq ran easily behind. 

They continued even after the sun, which had traveled only halfway overhead, had sunk back beneath the horizon.  They left the forest behind and traveled under the ribbons of light in the sky.  Aklark watched the magical lights, all the while picturing different pulsating lights in a deep, black velvet setting.  But where?  Where had he seen such wonders?  Who was he? How had he come to be here with the name of a bear?  What did Utaq know about him?  Somehow, Aklark felt that his companion knew something.  Was it something about his past?   Still, he trusted Utaq, so he didn’t think the Eskimo meant him any harm.  To the contrary, the younger man had seemed to have an almost reverent attitude when he had given him his name.

He could come up with nothing, so he just had to shrug it off for now.  During one of the short rest stops, while Utaq was checking the dogs’ feet, Aklark watched with interest.  “Do you have to put shoes on your dogs feet every time you take them out?”

“No, only when we make long journeys, or when the ground is particularly rugged—with a lot of ice.  It keeps the ice crystals from forming between their toes and crippling them, or tearing up the pads of their feet.  Like your own shoes, which were unsuitable for walking in this terrain.” 

Aklark remembered when Utaq had pulled out his extra mukluks and had him try them on.  Luckily they had been an almost perfect fit.  Indeed, he and Utaq were almost the same build, height and weight.   Aklark wondered at the time why they would be more suitable than the hiking boots he had on.  Somehow, he would have thought that leather would be more slippery than the soles of the treaded boots.  But that had not been the case, he noted now.   “What is your word for that?” he asked pointing and then remembered the term for it—the aurora borealis.

Aksarnerk,” Utaq replied, after glancing to where the white man was pointing.  It was a question that was repeated often over the next several days of their journey.  Aklark slowly built a vocabulary of Eskimo words on which he added other words to make rudimentary sentences.  By the time they had reached the temporary camp of his village out on the pack ice, he and Aklark were carrying on conversations in a curious mixture of InupiaQ and English. 

Aklark had also increased his stamina so that he was running behind the sled for longer and longer periods of time.  It was just as well, as Utaq had shot another caribou, a very large male, and added it to the larder on the sledge.  The dogs gamely pulled the increased load, but the lead dog, Kayok, would gaze reproachfully at him when Aklark had to take a rest riding on the back runners. 

Before the dogs raced into camp, the rest of the camp’s entire contingent of sled dogs, including new puppies, had greeted them.  The howling and barking reached a cacophony that almost hurt the ears.  Shouting and laughter also greeted them as the two men and the team dashed into the village.  The laughter died, though, when it was determined that Utaq’s companion was a Gus'k'ikwáan. 

Aklark felt the uncompromisingly hostile gazes of about two-dozen people and had absolutely no idea what to do about it.  He felt that silence was the better course right now.  This was Utaq’s territory. 

“Utaq, why did you bring this Gus'k'ikwáan to our camp when by agreement we decided to have nothing to do with the white men?” an older woman asked reprovingly.

Aklark knew that the angry comment had been addressed to Utaq and was about him, and that they were not happy with his presence, but he didn’t understand all the words. 

“Mother, this one came to me during a storm, wrapped in the skin of the brown bear, which he had killed.” 

Some of the hostility changed to awe as the dark eyes swung in Aklark’s direction again. 

“His former life and name are lost to him now.  He is Aklark, and the moment he came I began having luck with the hunting,” Utaq continued, pointing to the mound of meat on the sledge. 

Aklark understood almost all of Utaq’s speech and was uncomfortable. 

“He truly doesn’t know his white man’s name?” the older woman asked.

“No,” Aklark answered in InupiaQ before Utaq could respond.  He continued in their tongue, “Utaq has shown me kindness.”  He was sure he had butchered the language, but the old woman and most of the rest were now gazing at him with new eyes.  There seemed to be a measure of respect.  

 

 

 

Chapter Five
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