An animal trainer
“Don’t eat that!”
By Amy K. Marshall
“That makes two of us!”
His expression hardened and it was easy to pick out the lines that had only lately thawed around his eyes. “I deal with dogs!” He thumped the lavender papers with the backs of his fingers; he shook them at me. “You’re not welcome!”
I never thought I was.
Welcome, that is.
My mother had written the missive on lavender paper: “It’s soothing,” she had said, briskly straightening the pages, creasing them, sliding them into the envelope. I watched her turn it over. “Søren Jaakoppi.” She had written his name on the front. “Lavender is soothing.”
I had said nothing.
It might as well have been a red flag in front of this bull of a man.
I had shown up on his doorstep, Mother’s lavender note in my hand. It sounds so easy to say: “Well, I just showed up on his doorstep.” Except…his doorstep was miles from anywhere, really. I didn’t have a car. No buses ran that remotely. I had taken a bush plane, and then walked.
“So, you’re Søren’s girl.”
The pilot’s name was Josh. I suppose his name still is Josh; nice smile, bright eyes. Had I been unfocused, I’d have thought him dreamy. But, the sound of my dad’s name had made his tourist-winning smile falter.
“Sure,” he had said, “I can give you directions to his place.” His hand was braced on the wing support of his plane and he turned to reach inside the cabin. I had assumed he was going for a pen. “Got a compass?”
He loaned me one.
Just in case.
“You know how to use one, right?”
I held it flat on my palm. The needle shifted lazily.
“Got bear spray?”
He loaned me some.
Just in case.
“Don’t think I’m thrilled about this, either!” I sounded tougher than I felt. I hoped. For good measure, I glared at the man who stood, blocking the entrance to the cabin.
“What the hell am I supposed to do with you?” he demanded.
Like I knew.
I stood my ground. I think I crossed my arms to make a point; of course, just what point, I can’t have imagined.
Getting to my old man’s place was no easy hike. There was a trail that led up out of what passed for a town in this part of Alaska, but it wasn’t much of a trail. Once I got out of the trees, though, the views opened up. I didn’t need a compass past that. The curl of smoke about two miles off could only have been his place. I hoisted my pack further up on my shoulder and put my head down. Keep walking. Just keep walking. You’ll figure it out when you get there.
It wasn’t like I could have sneaked up on the place, either.
The barking and baying started while I was still nearly a quarter of a mile away. I don’t know if the thirty dogs heard me or smelled me, or if they were just barking because barking in the yard is something sled dogs do.
Did I mention my dad is a musher?
I guess I should have said that my dad was a musher.
At twenty-one, he was one of the youngest and definitely one of the best when he had been on his game in 1985. Yukon Quest, Iditarod, Copper Basin 300, the Pedigree down in Wyoming, he’d done them all. He had a way with dogs, just like he said, a way with dogs that he didn’t have with people—mom and me included….
“Sucks that you have to go,” Matt offered. It was August in Iowa and the sun was bright in the cloudless sky. He reached down and took my hand. I smiled and fell into step with him.
“I’m trying to think of it like an adventure.”
He hesitated. Around us a breeze stirred the cornstalks that hid us. We had run off together into cornfields for as long as I could remember. We had met when I was six and Matt was eight. Two years didn’t make a difference to him or me. We had become fast friends. Matt’s mom had died when he was four. Mom and I were alone. I think we both thought getting our parents together would have been great, but they were too different. So, we concentrated on us.
“We could run off,” he said.
I brushed back a stalk. “Run off? Where would we run?”
“I’ll be eighteen next month,” he said. “We could run off together and just start living.”
“Start living?” I ventured.
His tone turned bitter. “Away from here.” His hand was warm around mine and he pulled me after him. “I dream of being away from here…”
“Can I come in or am I going to live on the porch?”
It never occurred to me that he would stop and consider that an option.
He didn’t answer me. His eyes narrowed suddenly. He was looking past me.
“Into the house!”
I stumbled as he wrenched me forward.
“Bolt the door!”
Before I realized what was happening, he had grabbed his gun and slammed the door.
“Hey!” I rounded on the door and yanked it open.
He had leapt from the porch, and, gun in hand, was racing toward the back of the dog yard. There was yelping and barking. A dog screamed. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. I had never heard anything like it—an almost human-sounding scream.
The gun’s report shattered the chaos.
The dogs quieted instantly. I felt myself stop breathing.
Two or three dogs whined plaintively, but beyond that, there was no sound.
Søren strode across the dog yard, the gun spent and hanging in the crook of his elbow, and in his arms, a bloodied animal. Its head lolled strangely. Its eyes were open.
“Out of my way, girl,” he growled and pushed past me.
Startled, I shifted and made room for them.
He swept into the room and gestured at his kitchen table. “Clear it!”
Shaking, I started to set aside papers and pens.
“Clear it!” he barked.
I jumped and swept my arms across the table—scattering everything.
He nodded. “Good girl.”
Looking back, he must have meant that as high praise.
“Is it dead?” I asked, my voice breathless.
“Dodge ball,” he said, turning from the broken, bleeding dog. He pulled open a cabinet and rummaged through it. He came up with a kit that he opened on the kitchen counter. “His name’s ‘Dodge ball,’ not ‘it.’” He glanced back at the dog before turning back to the kit. “Damn bear.”
Without another word, he tended to Dodge ball’s wounds.
Søren Jaakoppi, in the 1980’s, had been one of the greatest mushers in the world. That’s not my hyperbole. That’s the hyperbole of history. Mushing was hardly a blip on the competitive sports radar at that time, but had it been as popular then as it is in 2003, Jaapkoppi would have been a household name. Everyone knew my father. Everyone had respected my father.
Now, at 38 years of age, he is old and broken and mostly forgotten.
Even though mother had spirited us away to the wilds of Iowa, I managed to find out bits and pieces of the story. It happened during one of the most grueling stage races of the year–the Kuskulana 600. The incident trained a stark spotlight on a sport that many felt was cruel just by its existence. Staunch Swede that my father was, he had said nothing in the defense of his actions. It had happened on the trail. To this day, he does not speak about it.
Still, younger mushers recognize my father’s talent with dogs. They come to learn all he can teach them. They come to purchase dogs he’s trained.
I am amazed that he still wants dogs around.
I am more amazed that he still tolerates mushers around.
I tried to be quiet as I opened kitchen cabinets in search of tea or coffee. Dodge ball lay, bandaged and breathing easier, in a dog bed near the wood stove. The old man sat, his head back, his eyes closed, in a tattered easy chair. I watched his brow furrow and unfurrow with every breath the dog took.
The kettle atop the woodstove began to whistle lamely.
I hurried to pull it from the heat.
I never asked my father if he wanted tea.
It’s an Alaskan thing.
We all just assume.
I stood over him. The steam curled away from the cup.
“Milk, two sugars,” he said without opening his eyes.
I felt my smile twitch. “I remembered.”
He raised his head and opened his eyes. “Guess I won’t be shot of you.”
The next morning, I woke in the cabin’s loft to a smell that shredded the time we’ve been apart into nothingness. I swung my feet around and scrunched my toes to feel for slippers. I glance down the ladder and see him bustling around the kitchen. Dodge ball remained in the dog bed, but was looking better.
“You’re up.” He nodded brusquely. “Good. Get dressed. We’ve got chores.”
“But you made–” I started lamely.
He bristled. “They eat first, then we eat.”
That was my introduction to the dog yard.
There’s not much difference between barnyard work and dog yard work. You slop dogs like you slop pigs, you clean up more feces than you think can be possible to exist in the world, but the difference is, the dogs react differently to you. Chickens don’t care if you’re there or not. Horses will look condescendingly at you if that’s their mood. Dogs? They regarded me warily, but when the old man walked out into the yard, it was like a rock star had walked into their midst. They pulled and jumped and clamored for attention; they were desperate to catch his eye.
“We’ll have ‘em pull today.”
“There’s no snow,” I replied.
He chuckled. “They’ve eaten. Your turn.”
Say what you will about the old man, but he makes killer doughnuts. That was the sticky-sweet smell that pulled me from my sleep much earlier that morning. The doughnuts are really a type of fritter or dumpling. The recipe comes from his Far Mor and is completely unpronounceable to a non-Swede.
The tang of wild blueberry bursts against my tongue and I am five again. My mother is there in the cabin with us. My feet kick the air beneath my chair and my senses fill with the smell of warm sweet dough and blueberries and coffee. Søren always made the doughnuts, and when he did, it always had the feel of an offering to the family.
August turned to September and the trees that could manage change changed and dropped their leaves. The mountains ringing the cabin glowed bright gold streaked with bits of orange. The fireweed burst and was gone. The chance at the lingonberries came and went. We pulled salmon from the river and he showed me how to put it up for winter. The daylight began to slip away from us in earnest. Three weeks after the bear attack, Dodge ball finally returned to his place in the dog yard.
In the middle of the month, I woke to hear Søren deep in conversation with a young man at the kitchen table.
“Oh, hello,” he said quickly as he got to his feet.
“Hi,” I replied and looked to my father.
“My daughter,” Jaakoppi said dismissively.
“Oh,” the young man replied, “nice to meet you.”
“Michael here will be staying a few days and keeping an eye on the dog yard.” Soren rose and turned back to the kitchen counter. Silence rang through the cabin as he poured himself another cup of coffee.
“Here?” I felt suddenly vulnerable.
“We’re going to town.” It was more of an announcement than a statement.
“It happens,” Søren said, his lip twisted into a wry smile.
Town is Fairbanks, and “Going to Town” is something not to be taken lightly. There were lists and lists of lists. There were inventories and second guesses and checks. Town is a twice-a-year destination. Other than those two “shops,” everything the old man did was subsistence-based.
“We can’t be long,” he said, his eye darting to the top of Fireweed Mountain. “I gotta get back and get a moose in before the snow’s too deep.”
We flew out with Josh. Not so focused this time, I could appreciate his smile, his eyes, and his wit. Weeks earlier, I had returned his compass. He would not hear of taking the bear spray back.
“How’s Dodge ball?” he had asked.
Did everyone in the valley know everyone’s business?
“Healing,” I had replied.
He had nodded and pressed the bear spray back into my hands. “That’s good. You keep that. The bears are aggressive this year.”
During the flight, we had chatted over the headsets. Søren remained silent, his blue eyes trained down on the passing forest, the taiga, the mountains.
Alaska from the air is beautiful.
We crossed the twisted ribbons of rivers, up through Isabelle Pass and into Fairbanks.
“How long are you in for?” Josh asked as the engine ground to a halt after our landing.
“Just a couple of days,” I said.
Jaakoppi made a disapproving sound in the back of his throat.
“Well, enjoy it.”
I felt myself smile.
“Four dollars for a cup of coffee?” The disapproval in my father’s voice was palpable.
I averted my gaze and took another sip. “Thank you?” I hazarded as I lowered the paper cup.
The old man let himself smile as he turned back to the racks of harnesses against the wall.
“That’s him,” the young man’s voice in the pet supply store was a mere whisper. “That’s the guy.”
“Nah, it couldn’t be,” whispered back his companion.
The first young man, who couldn’t have been more than twenty-five, gestured to another young man. “Brett, look,” he started in a stage whisper, “that’s him, right?”
Brett looked past the old man and met my gaze.
Jaakoppi, oblivious to the stir he was creating, continued to peruse harnesses. His eye appraised each one, his fingers feeling at the webbing.
Brett smiled and walked boldly toward us. “Hi!”
I glanced at Søren before I returned the smile. “Hi.”
“Can I help you find something?” he offered.
“You work here?”
“He lives here,” the first young man replied readily as he jogged over to us. He shot me what he just have thought was a winning smile.
“My name’s Brett,” he said and put out his hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“Brett,” I said carefully as I took his hand.
“Are you a musher?”
I felt my father stiffen beside me. “No,” I replied.
I could hear disappointment in his voice.
“Are you?” I asked.
“Yeah,” replied his friend. “Brett’s a natural.”
That came from the old man.
“Are your Søren Jaakoppi?” Brett asked.
I felt my heartbeat quicken. I swear my hands started to sweat.
The old man turned an icy blue eye to Brett.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir,” he said and put out his hand.
“Time to go, girl.” My father’s voice was a growl. He released the harness.
“I meant no disrespect, sir,” Brett said quickly. He shot me a panicked glance. “I was just so happy to meet such a mushing legend.”
I shook my head unperceptively and hoped my wide eyes were enough to warn Brett back.
“I’m doing the Kuskulana 600 this year, sir,” Brett continued.
Stupid boy, he was completely unfazed!
I shot Brett an apologetic glance and turned to follow the old man.
“That was rude,” I admonished my father.
“He was rude,” Søren corrected me.
I shook his head. “He just wanted to talk mushing. You have Michael out at your place tending your dog yard. What’s the difference?”
Søren shook his head. “Michael is a known.”
“I’ve heard of Brett Andersen. He’s a known, too, you know.”
Søren chuckled. “A known, you know.”
My eyes darkened. “Don’t mock me.”
Jaakoppi’s smile vanished. “Don’t tell me my business, girl.”
And that was the end of that.
Three days in town did not make up for the eternity of winter that I knew stretched before us. Four days back at the cabin, and I was already restless. Søren was oblivious. He and Michael continued to work the dogs. I would sit out on the porch and watch the two of them hitch them up to the ATV. Søren would pop the machine into neutral and call out to the team. Off they would go. I stayed on the porch and Michael would watch until they disappeared down the path; then, he would return to work.
“Why are you here?” I asked one afternoon after Søren and the team were gone. I handed Michael a mug of tea, which he accepted. He smiled and slid his hands around the ceramic mug, warming his hands.
“I’m learning,” he replied, his gaze trained on the path by which the team would return, as he took a sip of tea. “Good tea,” he said as he spared a smile for me.
We sat in silence.
“I didn’t know Jaakoppi had a daughter,” he said finally.
I let slip a rueful chuckle. “Does he?”
Michael’s brow furrowed. “Well, you’re here. I just figured you were family.”
Michael nodded and stared down into his tea. “Must’ve been hard after the Kuskulana.”
“What do you mean?”
“Gee!” Søren’s shout reached us from beyond the trees.
I watched Michael scramble to his feet. He shot me an apologetic smile. “Gotta go.”
“You’re baking?” Søren’s voice was tinged with skepticism.
“Pie,” I replied.
“I like pie,” Michael offered as he turned from hanging up his coat.
I hadn’t noticed before how green his eyes were, how nice his smile was. Søren noticed that I noticed.
“We’ll have it with dinner,” Søren said.
“Get cleaned up,” I continued, turning back to the stove, “I’ve got that just about ready, too.”
“Why?” the old man asked after Michael had left to clean up for supper.
“I dunno,” I replied. “I guess I just felt like it.”
“Smells good,” he conceded.
I believe he meant it.
And then it happened. Sitting around that table, Michael and I talked. Søren kept mostly to himself, interjecting a remark only here and there.
“That was great!” Michael sighed as he pushed back from the table.
Søren nodded. “Don’t forget, she made pie.”
I rose and turned back to the kitchen counter to retrieve it.
“That looks amazing,” Michael said.
I believe he meant it.
“I had to do something while you two were out running the dogs, so I went after berries.” I sliced the pie and dished it up. “There. Now, tell me what you think.”
Michael’s fork was already in his mouth as Søren’s eyes narrowed at the slice on his plate.
“Don’t eat that!”
Michael fell back as Søren got to his feet and swung at the fork. “What the–” he gasped.
“Søren!” I snapped.
Jaakoppi would hear none of it. “Don’t eat it, girl!” he thundered. His eyes were wild.
“What’s the matter?” I managed.
“What?” Michael gasped.
“Quickly, girl! Ipecac!” Søren ordered.
Michael’s eyes shifted out of focus. “Blue…”
Søren wheeled around. “What?”
“Blue…,” Michael managed again. He slipped from the chair.
“Michael!” I kicked back my chair and raced for the First Aid Kit.
“Blue cinders waking,” Michael continued, his voice distant. “Hear? Over that tundra…”
My hands trembled through the kit. I shot a panicked glance back at Søren who had dragged Michael away from the table. He let Michael flop to the floor.
“His breathing’s going! Hurry up!”
“Take it!” I forced the bottle into my father’s hands.
“Hold still, son,” Søren’s voice softened.
“Blithe mists,” Michael muttered.
I spent nearly an hour cleaning up everything Michael vomited. I was happy to do it. It beat the alternative.
“He would have died,” I said quietly as I joined my father by Michael’s bedside.
The old man never did mince words.
A silence fell between us.
“What happened?” I ventured.
“The baneberry,” Søren began.
“No, Søren,” I interrupted. “Out there. What happened on Kuskulana?”
“I saw an owl,” he replied, his voice quiet.
“An owl?” I echoed.
Søren drew a shuddering breath. “Beyond that, nothing I want to talk about.”
I believe he meant it.
© 2013 Amy K. Marshall