The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf, and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
I: This First Parting
Christmas was not supposed to be spent here. Tubes and dials were not ornaments on a tree. The lights blinking were supposed to be hung under the eaves of a house, not on an array of medical devices, none of which I could name. The steady beep of a heart monitor did not replace the Christmas carols and gentle music. Oh, yes there was snow; plenty of it. And more, a lot more, was coming. The first storm -- merely a preview -- had nearly kept me from Faye's bedside when the news came. The second had already shut the state down, and it wasn't even snowing in Littleton yet.
I knew what I was here for. To sit there, holding my wife's hand, assuring her that I hadn't left candles or a fire going at home, that everything was in order, talking to her like she was just in here for a nasty fall. That she'd be getting better. But that was not the reason. She had gone in that morning feeling sick, from the chemotherapy we had both hoped, but then I started receiving the calls. There were three before the storm knocked out the phones, but it only took those three for me to see a trend. Faye was taking a turn for the worse.
I'm a dog person, and dogs know it. The biggest, scariest beast of a dog -- the kind people don't want to meet on a well-lit street much less a dark alley -- would be nothing more than an abnormally large puppy around me. The biggest danger I ever faced from almost every healthy dog was drowning in wet kisses. Small wonder I worked at the kennel through college. If there was trouble, it would be my phone ringing. I could get the homesick dogs to eat, the moody ones to stop snapping and play nice with the handlers and the other dogs, and everyone loved me for that.
The summer after my third year at college, I was given the special assignment to look after a pair of Northern Inuit dogs named Odin and Freyja. My boss told me that the owner, a young woman named Faye Eklund was planning on leaving the pair with us while she went on a trip to Russia. I arrived on the day she was seeing the two off, and we spoke for a bit about her trip. She had hoped with this trip to be putting together a team to start professionally racing sled dogs. It was her dream to make it to the Iditarod in Alaska, and by windfall came upon Odin and Freyja as abandoned puppies last year in an animal shelter.
"Odin's something of a hypochondriac. Be on the lookout for that; I fell for it the first time, and the little twerp milks it now," she told me as she prepared to leave. "Total momma's boy now. That's a warning: he's going to be livid when he realizes I'm away for the next few days. If all goes well, though, I hope to bring him some new friends to play with, so he'll probably forgive me." She looked up at me, and I found myself wondering if I had remembered to breathe. "They seemed to take well to you. I'm happy."
I smiled. "I'm happy you're happy."
I'm so poetic.
"It's spreading this time, with a vengeance," the doctor whispered as I walked in. "Several of her peritoneal organs -- sorry, medical term -- lower organs, like her kidneys and bladder are on the verge of failure. Renal failure itself wouldn't be an issue; we've got a dialysis machine ready. But she's fighting a war on more fronts than just that."
Removing my face mask, I responded with a stoic nod. Doctor Cory Lenard had been with us from the initial diagnosis, and he knew our attitude on it by now. He gave facts. He never dismissed hope, but he gave us the hard truth. I whispered back to him, "It's going to be the question she asks: what's still good in her?"
"Your warning comes too late," Doctor Lenard replied as we began walking down the hallway. "It's easy to talk to her about things, animal anatomy being similar enough in some ways to humans. I didn't tell her too much, just that her heart and lungs were doing okay. She seemed happy about that, but again. I didn't lie to her."
"She knows a good portion of her lower organs are dying." I glanced through the doorway into her room. "How with it is she?"
"We gave her painkillers, but that just seems to be keeping her eyelids at half-mast. Everything else is still awake as ever." He gestured me into the room.
"You got here, Fluffy," I heard her say. "I'm happy."
"I'm happy you're happy."
"I guess I called it," I heard Faye's voice say. Looking up at her from the floor of the pen, I smiled. "They really like you."
"Nothing new," my manager Mr. Falk said, kneeling down to retrieve the empty food and water bowls. "There's a little friendly envy from the rest of us here, myself included. Conor, go ahead and check the kids out, I'll clean the cage up." He glanced from me to Faye and added, "Don't rush."
I have a lot of fond memories of that job.
"Conor, what's the weather outside like?" Faye asked in a light murmur. She sounded relaxed enough, which gave me a little relief.
"Frightful," I replied, taking the obvious opening. I glanced at the television playing in the room, and saw a weather report on the screen. "Looks like it's going to get downright terrible."
The roads were already dead silent, with the governor and every meteorologist in New England telling people to stay inside. The first snowstorm was mild, and it would have been perfectly safe to send plows out were it not for the monstrous storm covering what looked like the entire east coast. Reporters were trying to come up with comparisons. It was a system of storms, quite like the March blizzard in 1993, dubbed the "Storm of the Century," and indeed it looked like they were dubbing it the "Storm of the 21st Century." I took a moment to lament the lack of creativity, and then turned back to Faye.
"You took the dogs, I'm guessing."
Doctor Lenard spoke up. "Kelly's seeing to them right now," he said. "Until that behemoth gets here, they're okay outside so she's moving them under your window and giving them some food and water. We'll take them into the garage when the storm starts to come in."
"They'll probably hate you for that," she murmured with a grin. "They see snow, and they just want to run."
"They take after their humans," I replied.
Somewhere in finalizing the paperwork for the pair, and all the small talk, I had managed to find an absurdly flimsy excuse to go out for coffee. That weekend, we were sitting at the cafe, conversing over our drinks and the topic turned to the obvious: the results of her special trip. She talked about her stay in the small Siberian village with the Russian family hoping to give an unexpected litter of six Siberian huskies a good home. The husband himself was an experienced musher, and shared Faye's goal of making it to the Iditarod. She sensed that he was obviously closer.
The six were not all that much younger than Odin and Freyja, and both dogs and human took to each other well during the short stay. It was quite an expensive investment to have them brought over, but as the owners were friends of the family, the transport was the only expense involved. She was obviously eager, to the point where I had to remind her that coffee was hot before she scalded her mouth with the fresh cup. She was going to begin this winter, she said, with some very easy four-mile races. Until then she was going to try to train them with a special sled with wheels on it and, oh, could I help out with it maybe?
The story played out in the most predictable fashion for the rest of the summer, and by the first snowfall and their first real event, any pretense that we weren't dating was long gone. The first race found me there at the finish line, bundled up to the extreme, including thermal underwear. Thick gloves over my hands, and a scarf wound tight about my face, my applause and cheers were equally muffled when she and the team slid across the finish line. She leapt off the skids the instant she came in, less thrilled at the fact that she was first than the fact that I was there. She smothered me with a hug, making a contented sound as she whispered, "So huggable..."
"Congratulations!" I said, deciding to remind her that she had more to celebrate than the huggability of her boyfriend.
"On the first time!" she said. "Oh, Conor they were amazing! You did great with them!"
"I know quite a bit about dogs," I admitted as she raised her arms, still wrapped tight about me, and pulled down my scarf. "But you're the expert when it comes to the sled. I just wish I could have been along for the ride."
"Me too," she replied, finally revealing my lips to give them a gentle kiss. Her own lips were warm, and I was sad to break contact and feel the winter air hit my face. She kept close to me, the tips of our noses touching, and grinning impishly. "But you've got a few too many 'layers' there, Fluffy. Poor little things would get all tuckered out."
"It was just so cold out here all alone," I said. "But don't worry; I'm feeling a lot warmer now."
"Oh that was so sappy," she said. "Let's set a ground rule: you only get one sappy comment like that a year."
"It's a deal. I think I can come up with better ones anyway."
The hospital was just as silent as the rest of the world seemed to be tonight. Snow drifted off the roof outside the window, fooling me several times into believing the blizzard was already upon us. But the radar still showed its front was just now past the border to Massachusetts. I looked outside and saw the dogs resting on an old blanket Kelly must have scrounged up. Ten pairs of eyes gazed up to the window, and I read the worry in them. They had all been like this for a while, sensing Faye's ordeal. She had told me several times how touched she was by their concern. I said they wanted her around to spoil them rotten forever.
Odin and Freyja were still the lead dogs, and though we tried to treat all ten as equals, they still managed to con us into special treatment once in a while. The pair Faye had chosen as swing dogs -- they backed up the lead and helped with turning and setting the pace -- were named Baldur and Skadi. Forming the center, giving the power to the team were two pair: Gudrun and Sigurd, and Urd and Verdandi. The two remaining brothers, Thor and Tyr took the wheel dog position, being the strongest. A year after her first race, a brother and sister pair again found at a shelter were added to the team dogs. Those two, Eir and Mimir were not any specific breed or crossbreed, but Faye's faith in them as sled dogs panned out when she started to run qualifying races for the Iditarod.
The team as a whole had been running now for ten years. Last year's Iditarod was the last time they were out in a true race, and the first time they were on that course with a different musher: me. As I looked down at the dogs, I closed my eyes and tried to imagine their feelings right now. Of all the people in the world, they had only two humans they truly loved, and truly tolerated. A team on the Iditarod and a few other races has to be no less than twelve dogs, and if anyone tried to introduce complete strangers to the team except for Faye or me... well to keep in the spirit of Norse mythology for which they were named, Ragnarok would occur. And now one of those humans, one of those odd two-legged, furless pack members was barely holding on to life. They were quiet tonight, though a low, sad whimper rose from one -- I could not tell who.
The quiet was unlike them, any time before. Not even when we had gone through other close calls. It told me they knew something, and it dropped my heart further into the deep void growing in my gut.