- onSeptember 26, 2017
- Vol.37 Autumn 2017
- byJeong You Jeong
Tr. Chi-Young Kim 2013496pp.
The Bering Sea had vanished. A stark white filled its place. The wind whipped the snow around and the icy fog walled him in. It was that vicious witch of the North Pole—the whiteout. Jae-hyeong squeezed his eyes shut.
This didn’t happen often, but then again, there was nothing extraordinary about it. Not the fact that he had fallen off the speeding sled while dozing on his feet. Or that he had hit his head on the ground and his eyes had flown open to find he was all alone in the wilderness. Or that he was left dazed at the thought of the dogs galloping on without him. That was what it was like on the Iditarod. This was just another thing that happened in the race as the sleds dashed through the snowy fields around the clock. The unfortunate part was that he couldn’t expect rescue during a whiteout.
Just seconds before he opened his eyes, he had been mushing Shicha, his team of dogs, along the Bering Sea toward Nome’s Front Street—the finish line of this race of endurance. He was thinking of Maya who was probably ahead of him on the support truck with his mentor Nukon.
Maya was the champion sled dog who had groomed him—the “Idiatrod Kid”—into a competitor. For many years, she had been the lead dog of his team as they roamed the snow-covered North American terrain. She was the mother and grandmother of the sixteen dogs that comprised Shicha, and his frail old partner who taught him how to communicate with a glance. When he made it into Nome, he was going to run to her, embrace her, look into her eyes, and whisper, “Maya, your children are back.”
Now, awake and retracing his dreams, he knew he wasn’t by the Bering Sea. The compass on his watch indicated that he was somewhere north of the Yukon River. That is, if his departure from Eagle Island at dawn hadn’t been a dream. He had to choose—sit and wait for Shicha to return, or wander into the white darkness looking for them. Either way, the prospect of a reunion was nil. Shicha wouldn’t return to him. They wouldn’t stop and wait for him to stumble upon them, either. After all, they had been trained to do only one thing: run.
Jae-hyeong brushed off his stiff, frozen legs and stood up. He noticed a rope tied to his belt. What was this? He must have startled awake at one point, and, instinctively anxious that he would fall off the sled, tied one end to his belt and the other to the handlebar. He tugged on the rope, pulling it taut. The sled was ahead of him somewhere in the white. The dogs had stopped. Otherwise he would have jolted awake as he was scraped along. His relief in learning that he wasn’t lost in the wilderness was so great that he should have danced over to the sled, but he didn’t move. His instinct stilled him. Why did they stop running?
He couldn’t see anything. He knew he shouldn’t move hastily. He rummaged in the pocket of his parka and found a pocketknife and half a chocolate bar. He touched the high-frequency whistle around his neck. Only dogs could detect its sound waves. Nukon, an Athabascan musher, had given it to him as a token of his mentorship. It would summon Hook, the current lead dog. If he was within range, they could have a secret conversation. Jae-hyeong shoved the whistle between his frozen lips and blew once, then two short bursts. Hook, what’s going on?
From somewhere in front of him came low, growling barks. A warning. Something unpleasant was ahead of them.
From much farther away, the thing introduced itself—wild howling vibrated the air, chilling Jae-hyeong’s blood. It wasn’t a dog. Eight distinct howls erupted from different locations in a wide half-circle around Jae-hyeong and his sled, indicating their presence. A pack of gray wolves. When the reverberation quieted, his dogs began to growl.
The assassins of the snowy fields had barred his team from crossing, demanding a toll. Jae-hyeong had fallen off the sled because Hook had come to an abrupt halt, silencing the agitated dogs and feeling out the wolves.
Jae-hyeong felt his heart drop. A sense of foreboding chilled him. He and his dogs faced skilled hunters ready to drive their bared fangs into their victims’ necks. They were as fast as his team, if not faster, and more persistent. Most importantly, they would be starving. Having raced for ten days straight, his team would be depleted. They’d never come across a pack of wolves in the middle of nowhere. What was he to do?
An amorphous bloodlust was creeping toward them through the white. Jae-hyeong thought he could see red eyes flashing through the icy fog. He tightened his grip on his pocketknife. His gut shrank and twisted. The team’s growling pitched higher then dipped lower, gradually getting louder. They weren’t accepting battle; their voices betrayed terror, tension, and anxiety. They were lowering their tails in the loudest way possible. The standoff was over; musher and team alike had collectively waved the white flag. There was only one thing left to do—to run away as hard as they could. Jae-hyeong grabbed the rope around his waist and began to move toward the sled. Hook barked three times, loudly and urgently.
It was too late. At Hook’s order, the team sprang forward into the snowstorm, barking. Jae-hyeong flew forward.
Nobody was listening. He couldn’t reach his whistle. He rolled and tumbled as he was pulled along. He tried to sprint. It was futile. The team ran to the right, drawing an arc, going back to where they’d come from. The wolves ran up from behind Jae-hyeong and charged the middle of the arc. Their roars and panting, and the sound of their paws kicking off the snow, sailed over his head. The dogs’ screams sliced the white air. Jae-hyeong was tugged along even more jerkily. They were no longer dogs; they were a fur-covered bullet with sixteen feet. They abruptly changed direction. Long bumps jutted up in front of Jae-hyeong: two boulders embedded in the ice. For the team they were trivial objects in the scenery, but for him, sliding along the outside of their path, they were unavoidable obstacles. He wrapped his arms around his head.
His side exploded in pain. He thought he heard his leg shatter. The rope linking him to the sled was wedged between the boulders, and his body was stuck under them like a bar across a door. From the other side of the rocks the wolves roared and the dogs screamed. The dogs’ leaps and shoves were transmitted to him through the rope, which tightened around his midsection, squeezing his chest and crushing his ribs. He managed to remember his pocketknife. It was still in his hand. Thankfully his arm wasn’t broken.
Jae-hyeong cut the rope. He fell backward. He rolled until his shoulder caught something. He hadn’t gone far. He wanted to put more distance between himself and the wolves but he couldn’t move. He couldn’t feel one leg and the other dangled below the knee. His ribs jabbed his lungs. He felt paralyzed by the growls of the wolves and tormented by the screams of his dogs. He lay back and shut his eyes, hoping the dogs would run far away, taking the wolves with them, sparing him his life.
He didn’t know if they really did move away or if it seemed that way because he hoped so desperately for it to happen. The shrieks grew fainter. Quiet returned. He stared at his own breath as it frosted over his face. Was he safe? A new enemy was opening its maw inside his broken body. The unforgiving molars of pain ripped through his chest and brutal fire licked his legs and shot up his spine. He bit down but couldn’t stop screaming. He couldn’t stay awake, either. The white darkness covering the world leapt back and the deep, dense black of his subconscious swept over him.
The first things he saw nineteen hours later were Maya’s brown eyes. Maya and Nukon had found him. She looked so happy, her eyes brimming over with trust and love. Her gaze was cautiously asking, “What did you do with my children?”