By ADAM PADGETT
Melvin came upon a man frozen and dead out in the interior, perhaps caught in a snowstorm he hadn’t anticipated. Melvin hooked his sled to a birch tree. His team of dogs sat and panted, tongues spilling out of their mouths in rosy lengths. Echo, the leader, barked, and so he stopped a moment to rub her ears. Amelia had named her for the pattern of gray and black echoing down the ridge of the dog’s spine and tail. He thought of his wife whenever he rubbed the animal’s ears, but she was gone from him, almost two years now.
As Melvin approached, fur on the frozen man’s parka fluttered in the wind, but the rest of him remained quite still, on all fours, as if in imitation of the animals that brought him all that way. Melvin pushed on the stranger’s shoulder and found little give. A coal-black dog lay in a ball beside the man, its body curled inward, nose beneath its tail. As it was small and shorthaired, Melvin figured it to be female. He crouched down and then reached to touch the animal’s scruff, and when he did, she lifted her head and looked him in the eye. An all-black malamute, save for the white diamond on her chest. Her tail did not wag. It lay atop the snow, and when he stopped petting, she returned her snout beneath her tail just as she’d had it before.
Melvin stood. He labored across the snow, toward the man’s sled. At that altitude, snow turned light and dry, and so his snowshoes kicked up the powder and divoted deep tracks behind him. The sled lay sideways with a busted runner. The dead man had pitched a tarpaulin shelter. Melvin expected to find a team of huskies huddled beneath, but there were none. Instead, two drawstring canvas bags lay under the tarpaulin, filled with letters and packages. He read their addresses. A fellow mail driver, probably headed north toward Koyukuk. But he did not recognize the man. Running his own route from Nulato to Holy Cross, Melvin picked up and shouldered the undelivered letters.
The dogless gangline lay splayed, vascular-like, into mangled necklines and tuglines. The team must have gnawed themselves free, leaving behind everything they knew. From the looks of it, the lead dog chose to stay with her driver, curled into a tight ball, refusing to part with the man even though he’d turned solid, the quality of birch. She would soon die there as well.
Dropping the bags of mail in his cargo bed, Melvin retrieved his rifle and opened the action. Empty. He’d forgotten to load the magazine tube. He pulled a round from the leather cheekpiece and pushed it through the loading gate. A tree cracked like a gunshot from the cold, echoing across the interior. Melvin surveyed the sunlit sky, with its washes of blues and pinks. Clean, like a drink of water.
The black malamute lay in her ball, a blemish on an otherwise colorless canvas. He petted her. She kept her nose buried. He removed one of his mittens and dug for a paw. Frostbitten. All four of them. She wheezed, and so Melvin lifted her lips to discover bloodied teeth. Scorched lung. Her driver must’ve been running them cold. Forty under at least. Maybe colder. Even if she survived the ride back, she wouldn’t have any paws left to walk with. Not one. He petted her again and told her how good she was.
Amelia loved the dogs. Yes, she did love them, didn’t she, among other things. Melvin could see it on her face when he brought the new ones home. She’d hold them and let their tongues lick at her chin. She taught them how to be good dogs, and when they grew, he taught them how to pull. Pieces of Amelia, Melvin often thought, danced around in their eyes, the goodness there. She named them. Insisted on it. Melvin hated coming up with names anyhow. She said she didn’t choose the names herself. Names belonged to those animals long before she took them up into her arms. She spoke for them only because the dogs couldn’t do it for themselves.
Melvin, on the other hand, decided which dogs to keep and which to sell. He had a sense for how a pup might mature. If they’d be obedient or a chore to break. If they’d make for a wheel dog or a swing, a team dog or a leader. He earned his dollars on freight contracts and breeding huskies. Soon, aviators would manage to pilot their flying machines across the tundra, freighting cargo larger than Melvin and his team could ever pull. But, for the time being, during the winter months, dogs still connected the smaller, more remote villages out in the Alaskan territory.
While he’d won a couple pups in mid-distance races, he never made real money racing. Amelia thought races too rough on the animals and didn’t like it when they competed. Afraid of injury, sliced or frostbitten paws. The dogs, he’d remind her, lived to pull. All they wanted was to pull, and for that reason they had to race, they had to pull. If they didn’t, they’d lie down, freeze over, and die. Impossible, she told him. If any pup froze, she’d pick it up and warm it back to life. She said this and wrapped her arms around him and, just then, Melvin understood exactly what she meant.
The two never married. Not really, anyway. No one willing to marry a Native man with a white woman. Her parents, missionaries from California, excoriated their union and abandoned her there in the territory. So the two built a life on the coastal town of Nome, raising and running huskies, considering themselves married enough. Melvin—who’d been brought up Koyukon Athabascan, a couple hundred miles away from Nome, near the Koyukuk and Yukon rivers—couldn’t imagine doing it without her. Not until she fell, anyway.
Yes, she did fall, didn’t she. The moment, the fall, seemed trapped in time, a bubble poised to pop that never did. It stayed, the fall. Unremarkable as it was. She’d only slipped and her head cracked against snow-slicked floorboards. Not in a sled accident or out adventuring against the mountains. She’d been cooking and then not. Conscious and then not. The doctor called it a traumatic brain injury. They went home, speaking and then not. She stuttered and slurred, struggling with words as though she’d simply misplaced them. She’d lost syntax and structure. She’d forgotten how to harness the dogs and make their dinner. She broke to tears one day, standing before bread and cheese and meat, unable to solve the riddle of how the pieces fit together. She’d lost the grammar of things.
She used a cane and then two. Dizziness twirled about her brain like tremendous and violent weather. She said the feeling was like a snowstorm, but the flakes would never quite settle to the ground, that the wind kept them always afloat. So she’d grip the handles of her canes as if anchors to keep the storm from carrying her clear away. Sometimes he thought it might. The doctor gave her sentences to practice saying aloud. She’d say them, stutter, get frustrated, and quit. She needed help going to the outhouse. Help standing. Help sitting. He wiped her and bathed her with a rag. She wept in her sleep once. Nights sang out, both somnolent and restless. The huskies, outside in the kennel, howled when it hurt the most.
In the beginning, after the fall, life consisted of tasks. Things to do, things to watch for. But when the tasks became routine, routine turned evanescent until there was only each other. Helplessness pooled in Amelia’s eyes, and they both recognized it at once but did not speak on the matter. He rose and cooked breakfast and washed their clothes. He fed the dogs and ran shorter freight contracts. At night, he held his wife so she could drift to sleep, and in the mornings, he stroked her hair, like he might a babe, so her head would not ache so much.
As a boy, Melvin’s father told him that they lived in a time of twilight, that an old way of life now subsisted on stories fathers told to their sons. The gold rush at the end of the previous century had brought an influx of missionaries and miners who settled the coasts and villages along the Yukon. It of course occurred to Melvin that, if not for the rush, he would not have found Amelia. However, for the indigenous generations who managed to live off the land for all that time, the change came upon them like the slow, imperceptible fade of a sun-choked sky.
The frozen man’s dog lay in the basket of Melvin’s sled, along with her driver’s undelivered mail. He decided against shooting her. Amelia wouldn’t have wanted him to. He argued with Amelia as if she were still there, a night’s discussion unfolding in a moment’s time. Melvin conceded: the dog could, after all, still stand a chance. But, for her to stand a good one, the team needed to mush like hell to Kaltag, about three hours away. The huskies pulled across the packed snow in tandem. Nine pulled. All bred, selected, as if for professional show. However, Melvin bred them not for appearance or purity of breed. Alaskans bred their huskies to go, to run, for the want to run, the need to run. Mutts all. Not a pure breed among them. Bred with more care than the most handsome show dog, and he had better animals for it.
After an hour of mushing, Melvin felt the urge to relieve himself, and so he called for the huskies to slow. “Whoa,” he said, and then pressed down on the brake until the sled dragged to a stop. He stomped the claw brake into the snow. Down in the basket, the black malamute lay, unable to sit upright. She looked uncomfortable. Some of the dogs sat, and others jumped as far as their harnesses would allow before tethering them back to the snow. They barked and yelped with the urgency of the moment, as if they understood the stakes. A thin opening of spruce marked the trail’s boundary. Melvin stepped off a ways and urinated. Brownie and Kaya took the same opportunity. Twenty below, and the chill felt sharp against his personals. Few animal tracks, aside from their own, spangled the snow. Maybe those of a moose or two, but nothing else. A bird flew from a branch, and small blades of hoarfrost fell.
A sound of crunching snow stole the huskies’ attention; their ears angled toward the noise. Not understanding the difference between a team of dogs and a pack of wolves, moose and caribou were known to charge at sled dogs. Blake and Comet, the two swings, growled. So Melvin finished his business and, shortly thereafter, pulled the claw brake, took the driving bow, and hollered for the dogs to mush.
When he taught Amelia to drive, they would stand together on the runners, Melvin behind with hands on her shoulders, instructing just by her ear. On the trails, they’d hold bare hands for as long as they could stand the cold. He remarked once on how pale her hand looked, laced with his brown one. She pulled him close, their lips almost together, and then emptied a handful of snow in the neck of his parka. He took her by the waist and returned the favor until the two ended their play in a kiss. She had compulsive and romantic qualities he had not known before. She dreamed of travel and extraordinary things. The newspapers told of Gladys Ingle and Lillian Boyer performing circus tricks on the tops of airplanes. Amelia, pointing to a picture of a woman dangling a thousand feet up, wondered out loud about how wonderful a life it must be: to dance at the edge of the world.
Following bouts of migraines, Amelia would untie her waves of red hair, letting them unfurl around her face like wings stretching in the wake of a long, fraught journey. With a cooled and pleasant carriage about her, reprieved from her affliction, he could recall those fanciful qualities, but only just.
A year after her fall, Melvin sent for a reverend to come and pray over her. The Reverend Paul Abernathy. A tall, thin man with long fingers like timothy grass. The man carried a gravitas in his dress and in the sag of his eyes. And while the man spoke with poetry in his tone and tenor, he seemed to speak a message of equal parts sorrow and hope. The good reverend prayed over Amelia much like a craftsman who’d spent a lifetime mastering his trade. The reverend spoke of Psalms and Proverbs and of healing and comfort. Melvin had torn an old cotton shirt into strips and wrapped the strips around Amelia’s head as a blindfold to keep the light from barbing her retinas. The scene looked of a faith healer and a blind woman at the end of her rope.
After weeks of praying, her speech did improve some. The distance still appeared blurry to her, and she commented on how she could no longer make out the needles of trees, their detail lost like standing too close to a painting. On good days, she’d lie under her blankets, blindfolded, nodding along to the preacher’s words. On bad ones, she’d curse Melvin for making too much noise. Tell him he got the dogs too worked up again and that their yipping hammered at her ears. She’d press pillows against the sides of her head and curse at him, telling him he needed to be more mindful of her condition. Later, she’d apologize, and he’d assure her that his love was unconditional.
The potbelly burned hot with chopped boughs of spruce. He made a habit of reading from the Bible after the reverend left. Not reading anything in particular or in any particular order. It reminded him of the vocational school of his boyhood, where missionaries taught Native and half-Native children to speak English. Where they learned math, geography, manners. Decorum. After baptism in the summer waters of the Yukon, the missionaries gave the children their Anglican names, and before long, Melvin could speak English as well as he could Koyukon. He was a quiet boy, and the missionaries treated him well enough, although the same could not be said for others—those paddled to bleeding for speaking their native language rather than their adopted one.
Melvin flipped through the Bible’s onionskin paper, unable to find anything of use, and closed its pages, which flopped to one side like a slab of blubber cut from the belly of a seal.
The team traversed a section of hoof-pocked snow, stumbling over hoofprints. Melvin worried about his dogs cutting or injuring wrists. He didn’t understand why people bothered with horses in the winter. Dogs were light and agile, built for the cold. Injured horses died. The snow swallowed them whole, erasing them from the world as if they never were. Regardless, the team pressed on, running clumsy over the icy pocks. In another five miles, they’d reach Kaltag.
The trail turned steep and difficult. Melvin pedaled from the runners and hollered at the dogs to mush, and they did. The team dug harder, deeper, each pulling with a tremendous gait. Snow kicked up behind them and fell in their wake. After fifteen minutes of this, they crested the hill, and soon headed downhill. Melvin pressed the brake, descending with a little friction. The trail narrowed through swaths of spruce, and Melvin called for Echo to slow and pressed the brake harder. The trail turned left and, as Echo turned with it, the sled drifted. It drifted farther and rotated to a right angle toward Brownie and Inca, the two wheels. Just when Melvin thought the sled might run them over, the right-side runners caught the snow, and the sled toppled and tumbled into a bedlam of ice and powder erupting from beneath. The sled took Melvin along with it, landing atop him, sending his neck and shoulder into the ground. He held on to the sled until the tumble finally ejected him from the runners, leaving him prostrated into the snow. He smelled frozen water. Much of which clung to his beard.
When the sled finally stilled, the necklines and tuglines had twisted badly. Brownie and Inca got tangled the worst, pinned to the snow with no way of freeing themselves. For a moment, Granite and Jet tried to keep running. Melvin rose, knees in the snow and ice. His neck ached. The dogs barked a high-pitched chorus, tails wagging as if to say they survived. Melvin rose, to his knees and then feet, and checked the cargo. The black malamute appeared fine. Wide-eyed and afraid, but otherwise she seemed okay. He petted her. The two wheels, on the other hand, remained tangled in their lines. Melvin made his way over to his dogs and tried to untangle them, but the gangline had been twisted to tight spirals. So he released the lines from their connector rings and the two dogs sprung up, freed from the tangle. The quickest way to sort out the rest of the gangline would be to release the whole team. He did worry about losing the huskies if they were to chase after a rabbit or squirrel. But he released them anyway and commanded them to sit and be good. The team listened, wagging their tails and barking, wispy ribbons of breath tumbling about their muzzles like spirits adrift.
Melvin brought home a new pup, a female, to Amelia. The first since her fall. The pup sat curled in his right arm. Her fur was gray and white, and her snout brown. Both ears remained flopped—no guarantee they’d straighten with maturity. A Newfoundland-malamute mix. He chose her because both her parents had been strong leaders, and Troy, a Siberian, was getting old, and in a year or two Melvin might have to retire him for worn, arthritic joints. He considered Mac, an intelligent swing, as a leader, but the St. Bernard-hound didn’t always listen and was often impatient. Too much alpha in him. Melvin had a sense about the new puppy. Sharper than her siblings and quicker to understand.
As he brought her the animal, Amelia’s countenance softened and, for a moment, she looked as if she hadn’t fallen those years before. She took the animal from him and petted her and laughed, and suddenly life looked of a memory. An older one. A happier one. She said her name was Echo because of the pup’s repeated coloration, like a succession of echoes returning to some origin. After she said this, Amelia vomited, and her lurch frightened the puppy into a scurry off the bed.
Melvin scooped his wife’s hair back and tied it into a bun. He fetched a pail for her and cleaned the mess. She heaved periodically for a half an hour or so. The day was shaping up to be a difficult one. She rested her arms and head onto the mouth of the pail like a pillow. Her eyelids purpled from the strain. He scooted behind her, and she leaned back into his chest.
He’d spent the last two years inside that cabin. They ate dried fish he’d caught the summer before, or oatmeal bought from a man named Teddy who owned a trading post near Fort Davis. He’d turned his full dedication toward caring for his wife, who had become something other than herself. Bereft of tenacity. Bereft of joy. He woke in the mornings with knots in his back, and the dreams he dreamt slipped his memory. He wished to have them back, but they were gone, and he would not be able to recall them.
The day he left Amelia was as unremarkable a day as any. As unremarkable as the routine of harnessing a team of dogs. As unremarkable as eight-month winters.
He assembled a team of twenty. He loaded the cargo with as much as he would need to start a life elsewhere. He had food and gear. Echo, as tiny as she was, lay in a pallet at the bottom of the basket, and he expected that she’d sleep the majority of the 215-mile trek to Nulato, out into the interior, the village where his grandfather taught him to set and clear a trapline. To hunt moose and manage teams of dogs.
He wrote two notes. One addressed to Amelia. He told her how sorry he was and that he did love her. Wrote that he had not felt happiness in some time and that he had to leave in a search to find it again. The other addressed to Reverend Abernathy. He asked the good reverend to continue to take care of his wife and to pray to God in his stead. To ask for forgiveness for leaving her the way he was, because he couldn’t ask God for such a favor himself. Melvin discovered that, perhaps, his love did have conditions after all.
In the winter, those who rode out into the interior commented on the quiet. On how impossibly silent the white frontier could be, as though it absorbed thought and sound and life. Or maybe it all escaped the atmosphere because it had nothing on Earth to keep hold of it. In that kind of quiet, you either found God or lost Him entire. So, when Melvin signed his final letter, Amelia’s visage wandered through the landscape of Melvin’s memory, layered with echoes of life and sound, into the white infinity of a cold and driftless interior.
The sound of small mammals perked the team’s ears, but they were good dogs and listened instead of giving chase. Melvin thought he could hear the steps of caribou, and so he hastened his work of untangling the lines. He grabbed the runner pointing skyward and pulled on it. Much of the cargo emptied as he righted the sled. Food and water, dry containers holding blankets and rations. He knelt in the snow and gathered the gangline in his lap and began to untwist the knot it had contorted itself into. He spoke to his team. He apologized. Told them the turn was too tight and he should have known better. He talked to Comet, who had brown cheeks and black ears and a white chin and belly, and asked him if he had any ideas for solving the tangles. Comet tilted his head as if he could almost understand his driver, as if genuine thought worked behind his black eyes. The animals do acquire some degree of language. Maybe, Melvin wondered, they thought with the words they learned. He wondered if they thought the word mush. If they thought the word go. Go, go, go. All any of them ever wanted was to go. Yet, with him they remained.
The caribou steps sounded closer now, and Melvin took a moment to survey the area and saw nothing but more spruce, standing like cotton-swathed spears. Melvin stilled, trying very hard to listen. Another patch of snow compressed. Air snorted through a deep muzzle. Then, several yards out, the brown beast materialized from gaps in the woods. A grizzly. The direction of its walk and objects of its interest clear and unmistakable.
His heart rattled beneath his parka, in his ribcage. It rattled hot. Melvin considered connecting the team back to the tangled gangline and mushing them anyway, but there was no time. Each dog stood on all fours. Fur rose, ridged, down their spines, growls emerging in deep archipelagos of sound. Melvin ordered the dogs to stay, unsure whether or not they would. He grabbed his rifle with only one round in the magazine, which he then chambered. The rest of the ammunition was lost in the tumble.
“Stay, goddammit!” he hollered. He shouldered the rifle and aimed for the bear’s chest and waited.
The grizzly emerged fully and stood but fifty feet from the huskies and breathed a dark breath, telling of what the creature was capable. The bear heaved into a run, and Melvin squeezed the trigger. The weapon clacked. At the sound of the clack, the team charged, and the animals collided in the in-between. The bear’s claws swung at Echo’s head and ended with the leader’s yelp. Rosy blood stained the snow with each blow from the bear’s massive arms. The dogs continued to growl and yelp and bite at the beast, who outweighed them many times over. Melvin hollered and waved his arms in broad motions as if calling for rescue. He threw containers of rations and two tin pots at the grizzly.
He watched Granite fall to the might of the bear. Blood purled from the dog’s neck and into the snow. Melvin hollered at the team. “Mush, goddammit!” he yelled. “Go!” But they did not. Well-trained dogs, such as these, listened to their driver and, once of age, rarely disobeyed an order on the gangline, unless it was a bad order, and now these huskies moved in unanimous disobedience of a bad order.
He searched for more ammo. His breathing picked up, and the cold burned his lips and lungs. He searched the flat snow. Much of it had not been disturbed by the sled accident. He noticed a cluster of divots. They looked as if three large drops of water had landed there, and on that discovery, brass shone at the bottoms. He grabbed for the cartridges and pushed each, one at a time, through the rifle’s loading gate. He fully expected to see every dog dead upon lifting his head. Once the bullets were loaded, he chambered a round and shouldered the rifle and fired. The bear sat unaffected. Blood from fallen dogs diffused in the snow in overlapping radii. The bear pulled up Jet’s ropy entrails with its jaw and chewed. Many of the organs just fell, childlike, against the bear’s matted fur. Melvin ejected the spent shell and fired again. The bear took another hit, but did not look up from its meal. The final round lifted the grizzly’s crown, like a scab, and toppled her.
Melvin found the leather cheekpiece in the snow with four additional rounds, loaded them, and emptied them into the bear’s head. The dogs lay, some whole, some in pieces. Blood froze in pink and red puddles and crumbled beneath Melvin’s snowshoes. He checked Brownie. When he lifted the dog’s head, it tumbled around in his palms like a grapefruit. Another, Kaya, lost her jaw. She had not survived either. He patted Azul atop his head; he had been named for the color of his eyes. Curtains of steam left the dogs’ opened cavities like ghosts departing.
He brushed faces with ungloved hands, searching for life. Echo still breathed, and her skin felt warm. White patches of fur tinted pink, and lacerations followed from the top of her skull to her shoulders, where he found her right front leg missing. He petted her, careful of the cavity where the leg had been pulled from the socket. She expired there as well. The bear appeared malnourished. Her teeth, broken and missing. Probably old and desperate for food.
He counted his team of nine, all perished. The black malamute lay in the basket, still alive. Just the two of them now. Melvin figured he had five miles until Kaltag. He wore a squirrel parka—the hood stitched from reindeer hide—and sealskin pants. Plenty of warmth, although the hike would be a long and slow one. A distance he could do in under an hour with a full team, but pushing the sled on his own would take several, with only a few of those hours reserved for daylight. Melvin reached down into the bed and fed the frostbitten malamute a chunk of tallow, unsure if she’d eat it, but she did. He looked back across the field of fallen animals. Petals of blood lay about as though the trees had shed them there.
Before he left, he sat with Echo a while longer. They should have run like he told them, he thought. Far nobler creatures, it turned out, than he. When Echo expired, so too had the last vestige of the life he’d had with Amelia. He reflected on this reality before kissing the fallen animal atop her head. After another minute or so, he collected his scattered and ejected chattels and returned them to the cargo bed. When done, he took hold of the driving bow and pushed.
The trail continued downhill and, if memory served, would continue like that for most of the way.
Night came. In the distance, the roadhouse flickered like a candle in the quiet. He pushed. His hands and feet grew stiff, and he had not felt them for two hours. Possible frostbite, hopefully not severe. When near enough, he pressed the claw brake into the ice and reached inside the basket and lifted the black malamute from under her front legs and held her close to his chest. He opened the door. A young innkeeper, about fifteen years old and Koyukon, sat behind the counter. Speaking in English, the boy showed him to the fireplace, where two white men sat, wearing reindeer parkas and holding their hands by ragged, orange light. He placed the black dog down, and once her ribs touched the spiral-woven rug, she curled into the same ball in which he’d found her. The young innkeeper brought Melvin a cup of coffee and a piece of bread. He removed his wolverine-head mittens to stiff, waxen fingers. It would be a week before feeling returned. But they worked well enough. He accepted his meal and then sat. The men asked what the matter was, and Melvin explained the dead mailman and the bear attack. They nodded as if they understood and, perhaps, had their own trail-hardened stories they’d save for another time.
“What’d you shoot it with?” asked one of the travelers.
“Forty-five seventy. Shot about seven.” Melvin said.
“Oughtta do it.”
The men talked for a while longer and asked Melvin if he had a family. He told them his parents and sister died of tuberculosis when he was a teenager but made no mention of a wife. The men offered their condolences and left the fire and turned in for the evening.
Melvin and the malamute stayed the night as well. She slept by the fire and did not move until Melvin woke from his bunk and checked her paws, which had thawed and were still wet. He pressed a towel carefully to her legs, and the fur tufted. With his full team lost, the southward run from Nulato to Holy Cross was no longer possible. Melvin would have to turn back toward Nulato and find another driver to run the contract.
When the new morning came fully upon them, Melvin offered to pay a traveler, a part-Iñupiaq man by the name of Ray with a team of eighteen stout malamutes, to pull his sled back home to Nulato, which would be most of a day’s trip, considering the extra weight. Ray accepted, and his team pulled both sleds, slow but strong. Standing on his own runners, Melvin occasionally reached down into the cargo and petted the black dog. For the first time in a long while, Melvin took in the topography, the white hills and granite cliffs. It began to snow, and the cold stung his nose. A bit warmer than yesterday, but still plenty below zero.
Thirty miles later, Ray had pulled Melvin and the black malamute the full way. The four dogs Melvin had left behind in the kennel jumped, and their chains caught them in the air and brought them back down. They yelped and howled as the tandem sleds skidded to a halt. Melvin thanked Ray and offered him more money, but he wouldn’t accept. Ray agreed to deliver the dead man’s mail the rest of the way to Koyukuk. He wished Melvin well and then began his mush northward.
Melvin brought the black dog and his own canvas bags of undelivered mail inside. He fed the potbelly a few cuts of wood and started the fire with a splash of kerosene. He petted the malamute. She wagged her tail and brought it back to the floor and whined. He returned to the kennel and went about the duties of caring for the ones he had left behind. The dogs were young and not yet ready for long trips. Though that would have to change. He filled their bowls with hot water and meat. Shoveled pissicles off the sides of their houses, and when they finished eating, he allowed the dogs inside, something he normally didn’t do. He removed his snowshoes and mukluks and sat by the heat. The black dog lay on a pallet of hay covered with burlap. She hurt and remained very still, wagging her tail and then not. Licking her chops and then not. She would hurt for a while. Melvin knew that much. Whether she’d keep her paws, he did not know.
She ate only if hand-fed from a bowl of ground meat and hot water. After the water cooled enough, Melvin dipped his hand down to the mutton and brought pieces to her mouth, and she propped herself up on her fronts and lapped at the smatterings. He petted her, and fur rose from between his fingers and drifted about before settling somewhere to be cleaned later. And he did. He swept the floor of the cabin, mindful of the injured dog. He removed his sealskins, which had darkened at the knees as if they’d been dipped in oil, and when Melvin rubbed the stain, he pulled back a ruby thumbprint. He rubbed his fingers together, and the blood rolled into berry-colored larva and flaked away.
A heavy snow laded the property. The wind kicked up and beat against the boards and sounded as if catching a sail. The huskies howled. Melvin hushed them and told them he was there and that they were good dogs. During the storm, the black malamute propped herself up on an elbow and drank from the tin water bowl not far from her head and then curled back up. In a week’s time, she’d lose a paw. Just one. She’d keep the other three. Melvin would wonder if she’d ever be happy again, knowing she might never pull again, knowing she might never go again, at least not in the way she’d gone before. Would she still understand the word? Go. Would she forget its meaning altogether? He watched her. She lay, careful of her feet, and placed her chin on the burlap as if her bones were made of a delicate crystal that might break if damaged. But she was damaged, wasn’t she.
The snowstorm passed, and the trails staved by animals filled with new snow, long burying old indentations. He wondered if the storm in Amelia’s head had finally settled. Maybe she’d made it back to San Diego and was up there now, in the sky, like Lillian Boyer, undaunted by the height and shaky footing of a wind-battered wing. But then again, maybe not. Maybe she still lay there, like the mailman frozen on the trail, unable to break free of her circumstance.
Though Melvin certainly freed himself, didn’t he. Even now, he still rationalized in elaborate syllogisms, attempting to justify his reasons for leaving. Anything other than simply: Because it was easier. Unable to reconcile guilt with relief. He had chosen to live with her out there on the coast because she insisted on it. She liked the sounds and smells of the ocean. It was where she spent much of her childhood, and the coast had a familiarity she’d not find elsewhere. So, Melvin accommodated. Life was an accommodation, a negotiation, rather, between two visions of the same world. He thought of how Mount McKinley had been renamed for a politician who never even saw the peak. Athabascans had named that mountain long ago. Regardless, as a boy, Melvin did as the missionaries asked and called it by its new name.
He petted the black malamute. Told her that he needed to tend to the others and promised he’d be back soon enough. He petted her again so that she’d know he meant it. And he did mean it. He put on his snowshoes, and he and the other dogs set out, again, against the cold, pressing into the fresh layering of snow, atop all that had come before and to be covered by all that was sure to follow.
ADAM PADGETT’s fiction has appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Bellevue Literary Review, The South Carolina Review, Cold Mountain Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, and other fine journals. Bellevue recently nominated his work for a Pushcart Prize, and he has won the Rash Award for short fiction. Currently residing in Columbia, South Carolina, he is a Ph.D. candidate in composition and rhetoric at the University of South Carolina. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamPadgett1.