Spirit of the Brown Bear

(Torar Angiyok Aklark)

 

 

 

 

Chapter 5

 

 

The shakedown had not been going well.  Some of the new systems that had been installed at the Institute had not stood the test of a deep dive and had to be replaced with a combination of old parts and the usable new parts.   As the submarine sat on the surface, repairs were being done around the clock.  The captain was relentless in his desire to have the Seaview up and running as soon as possible, even to working with the men on his off hours to get them done.  When not doing that, he was in the Flying Sub with Chief Sharkey, trying to get the small jet working. 

“Lee,” Chip said, after he had found the captain under one of the Flying sub’s consoles.  There was a muffled noise that the exec took as an affirmative.  He took a deep breath, knowing that his recommendations wouldn’t be taken well by Lee, the friend or Lee the commanding officer.  “Lee, you just finished two consecutive watches.  You need to get something to eat and get some sleep.”

There was a clatter and a muffled curse.  Crane only part way pulled out from under the console before he responded.  “I’m fine, Mr. Morton.”

That went well, thought Chip morosely.  “We found another bad part in the nav system.  I don’t know why these parts weren’t closely inspected before they were installed in the systems.” 

“Because Murphy shipped on with us,” Crane said without humor, finally pulling out from under the console. 

The dark circles under Lee’s eyes were more pronounced and Chip knew that exhaustion threatened to engulf his friend.  “Lee, I think for the safety of the boat and crew, we need to return to the Institute.”

 Crane glared at him and then took a deep breath to calm himself.  “We’ll continue to make repairs here and test them on the way to Anchorage, Chip.  If I have to, I’ll fly to the area of the admiral’s disappearance with a bush pilot when we get to Alaska and you can take the boat back to Santa Barbara.  I’d rather have the versatility of the Flying Sub, but I am going to look for the admiral, one way or the other.”

Morton sighed.  “All right, Lee, but you need to take a break and rest.”

Lee’s answer was to slide back under the console.  Sharkey, who had been a silent witness simply shrugged.  Chip quietly left.

Conley poked his head through the hatch of the Flying Sub a few minutes later.  “Skipper!”  

“Yes, Conley?”

“Message for you from the Institute, sir.”

“Have it piped through the Flying Sub’s communications,” Crane ordered.

“Lee?” Angie sounded dispirited. 

Who wasn’t, Lee thought.  “Yes, Angie.”

“You sound exhausted,” she said, apparently in an attempt to focus on something other than the admiral’s disappearance.  “Have you slept any?”

“What do you think, Angie?” he said in exasperation.  “What do you have?” he asked, hoping to forestall any further comments about his own health.

“There are reports from Alaska,” she said, her voice choking. 

Lee put down the tool he was using and put his full attention to what she was preparing to say.  Something hard and cold knotted deep inside.  “What is it?”

“The search and rescue team has found evidence of both the pilot and a passenger at the site of the wreckage.  The admiral’s wallet was found.  They will widen the search, but as of right now, they don’t hold out hope.”

“What’s keeping them from making a positive ID?”

Again Angie hesitated, then, “Nothing stays unscavenged up there, especially after a hard winter, Lee,” she replied, her voice filled with sorrowful repugnance.  “They said there were bone fragments everywhere.”  She paused.  “And there’s another storm, too.”

The horror of what she said enlarged the hard, cold knot.  “I want something more concrete than that, Angie.  Forensic scientists have a great deal at their disposal these days.”

“Lee,” she began.

“No, Angie, don’t even say it,” he snapped.  “If they can’t come up with better evidence than that, then I will continue to believe he’s still up there somewhere waiting to be rescued.”  If I could just get off the boat and do it!

“I’ll let you know of any further developments, Captain,” Angie told him.  She cut the communications, knowing that any further comments were futile.  She looked at her desk and saw the piles of condolence messages that had been pouring in the past day after the news media had picked up the story and quoted a Fairbanks police official as saying that the admiral was undoubtedly dead.  There had been no sense in telling Lee about the condolence messages from Admiral Emery and several other high-ranking colleagues of Admiral Nelson’s.   Lee would just say they had written him off and that they didn’t know the admiral that well. 

Angie knew the depth of the friendship the two men had developed.  That a subordinate and his commanding officer could have such a relationship as Lee’s and the admiral’s was astonishing.  Now she was afraid that Captain Crane was exhibiting far too much of that relationship.  He was acting more as a child grieving for a parent would.  With a sigh, she returned to the day-to-day activities that had thus far not taken her mind off the admiral’s disappearance.  She felt the weight of running the Institute heavy on her shoulders and she took a deep breath to keep from crying the grief that she felt deep inside.  

 

Chief Francis Sharkey gazed at his captain in horror and disbelief, but the skipper was already back under the console, returning to the work that Angie’s call had interrupted.  “Sir?” he asked tentatively, afraid of the skipper’s recent bursts of temper, as well as the smoldering emotions that seemed to hide just below the surface.

“Yeah?” came the distorted reply.

“Do you think….?”

“No!”  He pulled out of the panel and turned to face the COB.  “Chief, I will not believe the admiral is dead until they send more concrete proof or until I see his body.”

Sharkey sighed and started to say something. 

“Have I made myself clear?”

“Yes, sir,” Sharkey replied softly. 

Lee saw a variety of emotions pass across the CPO’s face, not the least of those being concern for him.  He saw it and realized that the chief was hurting as much as any of the rest of them were.  Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, he collected his thoughts and reined in his own emotions.   He had to, not only for himself, but for the good of the boat.  “Look, Chief, there is something deep inside that tells me that Admiral Harriman Nelson is not dead.  I can’t explain it.  I don’t want to try to explain it.  And I am certainly not going to deny its existence.    I simply know that it’s there and it won’t let me believe that he’s dead and his bones spread across some frozen tundra for wild animals to gnaw on.”   Lee sincerely hoped that this conviction was not just some hope-filled wish.  Somehow, though, he believed it wasn’t.  Not entirely, anyway.

Sharkey couldn’t say a thing for a moment.  This was a surprisingly admission from the skipper, but he didn’t doubt its veracity.  The captain had had hunches before and most of them were unerringly right.   “Then I do, too, sir,” he responded with conviction. 

Lee smiled softly.  “Thanks, Chief.  Let’s get busy so I can take her out and find the admiral.” 

“You’re really going to fly to Alaska, sir?”

“Just as soon as I can.”

“I would like to accompany you, Skipper,” Sharkey said emphatically. 

Lee got up and clapped the chief on the shoulder.   “I think someone should be here for the men, but I will consider it.   I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have with me at a time like this, Chief.” 

“Thank you, sir.” 

 

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The old woman continued to study Aklark carefully, even as the cold wind blew harder and harder.   “You know our language?” she asked.  She appeared to be at least ten or fifteen years his senior. 

Aklark smiled wryly.  “Only a little.”

“He learns quickly,” Utaq interjected. 

“The spirits have sent you,” an old man said suddenly. 

“Why would the spirits send a white man?” another man, this one younger, asked.  

“It is a white man’s world,” Utaq pointed out.  “Perhaps Aklark comes from the spirits to the white men as well as to us.”

Aklark looked at him sharply, having understood the gist of what had been said this time. His words seemed to break the ice, though, and suddenly Aklark was surrounded and plied with questions, most of which came too fast and were not understood.

Over the next fourteen days, while the weather stayed clear, the hunters went out on the ice.  Aklark always went with Utaq’s party, and despite his anxiety over his memory loss, he found the excursions fascinating.  After the first such excursion, he wished he had a notebook—anything to write on.  When he mentioned his desire to Utaq, his friend managed to find an old leather-bound journal and a fat, half-used pencil.  “Where did this come from?” Aklark asked, examining the smooth, age-browned cover.  There were only three written-on pages inside, but the notes were faded and in a language that he couldn’t read. 

Utaq shrugged.  “It was washed up in a waterproof pouch some years ago when I was a boy.  I just kept it, not sure if it was important or not.  Can you read the words?”

Aklark shook his head.  “No, but the empty pages will be most useful and perhaps someday I can remember or find someone who can read the notes.”  He was grateful.  “This means a great deal to me, Utaq.” 

“I am glad to find someone who can use it.”  Again Utaq wondered if he should tell his friend his name, but just like before, he dismissed the thought.  He could offer nothing else; give Aklark nothing that would tell him who Admiral Harriman Nelson really was.  All he knew was that he was a scientist his cousin thought highly enough of to ask him to see her people for a short while.  When they went to the outpost—that would be soon enough.   Somehow, though, the trip to the outpost kept getting put off.  There were either intermittent storms, or the people were busy exploiting their newly found luck.   Hunting parties went out every day that the weather was clear enough to allow them that privilege.

Now that he had a notebook, Aklark began taking measurements of the different animals that were killed with knotted sinew.  The women would good-naturedly wait while he studied each aspect of the dead animal, and then chuckle in amusement as he took down copious notes.   But while he enthusiastically recorded, watched and studied, he also helped in the actual hunts.   It bothered him not at all to wait for hours near the seals’ breathing holes.  He quickly learned to work in the umiaq, or skin-covered hunting boat with the other men, helping the boat captain in whatever job was required.  Whether hunting the belugas or walruses, he had unerring aim and was usually given the ayak, or harpoon whenever he went out with a crew.   Utaq noticed that the white man had gained much strength and stamina in the days since he had first tried to run behind the dog sled.  Whether Aklark ever regained his memory or not, living among the people had toughened him for whatever he had done in his previous life. 

The one thing that Utaq knew this white man possessed even before he had come among the people was his unerring sense of timing.  It served him well, either with the harpoon or with a rifle.  It was phenomenal; as though he was one with the animals they hunted, so that he always knew where they were and when they would appear or surface from under the water.  Utaq’s team never failed to bring home at least one large sea creature. 

Occasionally Utaq would see the intense blue eyes darken and he knew that Aklark was trying to remember something.  But the moments would pass quickly and the white man would again continue his study of the animals, weather or terrain, or concentrate on the hunt.  But it served to remind the Eskimo hunter of his promise to help Aklark return to his past life and Utaq realized that the white man’s days among his people were numbered.  It was then, too, that he wondered why his cousin hadn’t tried to contact him and he reminded himself that he needed to call Maria when he was in a position to do so.   If Aklark’s memory hadn’t returned by the time he called her, perhaps Maria could help him enlighten the white man of his past life.

Utaq’s guilt was assuaged also when he saw the happiness of the members of his village, their hope for the future and their attachment to this messenger from the spirits and Gods. 

He laughed when Aklark would study the carcass of a new kill, and be totally oblivious to the children who followed him like little puppies bouncing behind their mothers.   When he was aware of his audience, he would explain what he was doing in great detail and recruit one or two of the older children to help him measure with his ever-present sinew.  He drew pictures of the aurora borealis at night and the movements of the sun during the day.   When he wasn’t using it, Aklark very lovingly kept the old journal in a waterproof seal bladder casing, which he carried inside his parka.  

Returning from a particularly good hunt two weeks after his arrival at the hunting camp, Utaq asked his friend, “How do you know when and where the whales will resurface, Aklark?”

The white man shrugged.  “I can’t explain it.  I just know how far they will go with the breath they take.”  

“But the animals can take different directions in their journey underwater,” countered Utaq. 

Aklark frowned.  “I know, but their choices are limited by . . .”  Here he switched to English, unable to figure out the InupiaQ words.  “A variety of factors.”  He studied Utaq’s face.  “Like the lay of the ice for their next breath, the currents.”  Again he shrugged.  “I really don’t know for sure, Utaq, just that my choices seem right.”

“Indeed they are.”  Utaq clapped his friend on the shoulder.  “Are you sure you aren’t Eskimo inside?”

Aklark smiled ruefully.  “No, I am not,” he responded, his voice deepening in his change of mood.  “I don’t know what I am,” he added sadly.  He took a deep, shuddering breath and again gazed at his friend.  “Utaq, when are we going to the outpost?” 

“It will not be long, my friend.  The ice has been breaking up faster than it’s formed at night, so we will be moving soon.”

“Good.”  Aklark gazed out at the horizon and studied the sun, which had been staying out for longer each day.   Nakuuruq,” he repeated.

 

 

Chapter Six
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