The henchmen closed on the herd with the stealth and silence of a deep black river running beneath a thick slab of ice. Reindeer Mary was away at St. Michael’s and her few Inupic herdsmen were all asleep. It was the middle of the longest night of the year.
It was a time of cut-throat business in the reindeer trade around Nome. The prices had fallen with the coming of the Depression in 1929 and suddenly there were far too many reindeer and too many herders. Now it had come down to just the big company at Nome, with its stockyards, butchering lines and sawdust walled cold storage barns and the open range Inupic herds run by Mary and her native herdsmen.
Over the three decade between the rush of gold seekers to Nome in 1901 and the onset of the Depression, Mary had single-handedly created a legendary enterprise around the grazing of reindeer and the trade in their sweet meat. For years, across the tundra and along the snowy beaches people marveled at the round, flat faced Inupic woman and her moving waves of antlers, hooves and warm breath.
The herds could move over the frozen ground in winter like a vapor glacier in fast motion, seeming to the eye like a low cloud with legs supporting, like a crown, a small tangled forest of rattling antlers. Nothing in the far North brought such marvel as a night when the reindeer were moving through the thin spruce onto the beach and overhead the aurora borealis waved across the sky above the Bering Sea.
There was the musical clicking of antlers tapping each other and the brittle branches of the willow trees that grew along the line were the tundra overlooks the sand of the beach. The steam rising off the animal’s bodies and the puffs of breath, like tiny cumulous clouds bursting out of their nostrils, closed in like a blanket wrapped around the herd. The hundreds of small animals created a great single ghost that floated through the trees toward the sea and gave a voice to the lights above and the reflection below. Tiny glimmers of light from the eyes of the reindeer pierced the steam cloud around them like beams of the brightest stars seen through the aurora. To sit silently watching the passing of the herd by the washing lights of the aurora was to listen to the ancient story of the north, told by the night sky in the language of the universe. It was to listen to the song and dance of pure wonderment.
Mary had never grown used to the lights or to the symphony of her deer moving under them. As a young, beautiful woman who loved to dance she found a lifelong pleasure in the raising and living with reindeer. Like one of the social creatures herself, she had taken the gift of a few reindeer from relatives who lived across the great Bering Sea in Asia, and nurtured their small number into a true and vigorous herd. During the goldrush, when miners thought of nothing but the hope of wealth and the monotony of digging through sand, Mary had fed thousands. When ice prevented cargo ships from bringing provisions and the trading posts were empty, Mary’s reindeer kept people from starving and fought off the black scars of scurvy. And in years when the weather was vicious and the game scarce, Mary’s reindeer kept whole villages from perishing by providing food and the rich warm hides and sinews used to make fine Arctic parkas called storm shirts.
The rich red meat of reindeer stayed in the minds of adventurers who had made their way to Alaska looking for a fortune. When they got home, they boasted grandly of the reindeer enterprise, and the payments in gold dust collected by the herders. As storytellers do, they exaggerated the prices paid for reindeer meat, the effort it takes to raise the animals in the north, and the potential market for meat sweetened by recollection and the spice of a good story.
As a result, there were many companies formed in the lower forty eight to purchase and raise reindeer and several well backed efforts started around Nome, the Seward Peninsula and other Alaskan towns. Mary even sold pairs of breeding reindeer to the newcomers in 1904 and 1905 and by the end of the new century’s first decade there were thousands of reindeer being raised around Mary’s homeland. For the most part, the new companies kept their herds on ranches in corrals and brought in feed on the same ships they used to get frozen and canned meat to markets outside. Mary continued to run her herd on the free range of the tundra, foraging for the white “reindeer” moss and following the rivers in summer and staying near the warm sea in winter.
There was never a sense of hard competition between Mary and the meat packing companies but as the expectations played themselves out in discouragement for most of the newcomers, she was seen as a contributor to their failure. After years and then decades, Mary found herself and her herd keeping their distance from the meat packers and their big outfits. By the early 1930’s there was just one commercial company named Lomen’s operating out of a fortress of heavy wooden buildings at Nome. Outside the cold storage barns, that looked like charnel houses, the company butchers would build bonfires of the antlers and it made Mary shutter to see how much the horns sticking out of the smoke looked like a moving, living herd wrapped in their blanket of breath. She could never watch.
On this moonless night, the henchmen pursued a cruel plan to ruin Reindeer Mary’s winter herd. The company men had kept low kerosene fires burning over a wide mucky bog not far from Mary’s herd. It was walled on each side by thickets of trees and scrub grown so close together that they would entangle the racks of any deer trying to penetrate them. In time the heat of the fires had melted the bog to a depth that would suck a reindeer in to its belly. It was their plan to use packs of wolf dogs to charge the herd toward the bog and once they were trapped , leave them to the freezing muck which would set like cement in just a few minutes. Once it was frozen enough to walk on, the wolf pack would finish off any of the survivors.
While one of the men held back with the pack of wolves, the others stole slowly toward the sleeping natives. Once they had crept as close as they could to the low campfire the nearest dark figure pulled a steel gray pistol from his coat. His first shot hit the big husky mix herd dog sleeping with the herders. At the sound of the gun and the piercing cry of the dog, the Inupic jumped to their feet in the everready stance wild range herders. The next few bullets whizzed by them and into the dark distance giving their instincts enough time to react. Each found a low impression in the tundra to fall into or a pack or bundle to hide behind. One of the herders knocked a pot of water over on the fire and as the next shot was fired the darkness swept in around the bewildered group. They had no rifle with them so the gunman had no trouble keeping them pinned down.
Once he heard the shots, the dog man set lose the wolf pack and began charging toward the herd with the rest of the henchmen. Already startled by the shots, the herd was in motion when the chaos of the wolf dogs and yelling men pushed the animals into a full run toward the bog. Madness and confusion followed with the henchmen losing track of the reindeer in the swirling fog of the herd’s cloud and the storm of snow they kicked up. At the same time the gunman found that the herdsmen had slipped away and vanished in the blackness of the Arctic night. In the distance, they could hear the wolf pack howling at their bloody work but somehow there on Reindeer Mary’s range land they lost their courage and the need to visit the mucky killing grounds at the bog. There was something wrong with the way the herdsmen had just disappeared and there was a strange warm odor in the air that somehow seemed to be a warning. Under rising light from someplace in the sky that peeled away their sinister mask of darkness, the henchmen withdrew from Mary’s range and retreated back to the company ranch.
There was no easy way to explain to Mary what had happened when she returned the next day. The herders simply sat in front of her small house with the dead herd dog at their feet, waiting for her. She seemed to know what had happened before they could tell their story, but they told it anyway and she listened thoughtfully, as if to relieve the herders of their dispair and regret. She managed a smile for the dejected group as they left and then went about the sad business of burying the faithful old herd dog.
Word spread fast of the raid on Reindeer Mary’s herd and nearly everyone in the villages and town wondered what she would do without her reindeer. For the next day she sat silently in her simple house where no one disturbed her. On the second day one of the oldest herders knocked on the door and she acknowledged his courtesy mutely and dismissed him. The next day several women from the village prepared milk and a plain meal for her and left it on her doorstep for breakfast. When they checked later in the day it was still there and people began to worry. The three herders who had been with the herd during the raid called on her that afternoon. She was gone. All the rest of the short day and into the dark night they searched for Reindeer Mary. By the light of an unusual night sky they discovered a extraordinary scene none of them ever forgot.
Mary sat on the woven basket she carried on her back when walking with the herd. She was on the broad beach between water and the willow trees at the high watermark. In the sky over her head a thin passing layer of clouds made the stars fade in and out like a striped screen was being pulled in front of them. She seemed as singular and lonely as the moon in the sky perched there in the vastness of the long broad coastline where the sea runs into the night sky. Slowly and silently at first, Mary began her song. While she sang she moved her arms in the distinctive, formal pantomime language of Inupic dancers. She was too old to stamp the ground in the sweeping steps of the reindeer dance but with great grace she swayed in her small seat sweeping her arms in the jagged, almost hypnotic gestures of her song. The words meant:
” On the path
where directions call from every side
the animal gives everything to nature’s song
fearless and accepting of whatever comes
it moves in pace with the enveloping unfamiliar and
together, the wilderness and the creature
dance deeper into each other”
Mary sang her beautiful song over and over in a rhythm that seemed to connect with the soft slapping of the waves and the unheard ticking of the stars. As the three looked on, the passing layers of clouds faded and vast curtains of colored light appeared across the sky to the north and west. It was a spellbinding sight underscored by the sound and movement from the beach.
As they watched from their standpoint at the distant top of the beach, the line of willow trees seemed to waver and move with the song as if being pulled by Mary’s dancing arms. Then, from the thin line of trees that ran for more than a mile into the distance, breath, then antlers, then reindeer appeared. By the moving light from the sky, the winter herd floated out from the tundra to the water’s edge. The pedators had been overwhelmed by mystery. As far as the three herders could see hundreds of reindeer soon stood along the shoreline surrounding the figure of Mary in a magical symetry. Under the storming colored glow of the northern lights Mary, in her dance, seemed center placed in the nave of a cosmic cathedral defined on each side by the rows of reindeer and willow trees, butressed by the trudra and the sea and illuminated by the rose windows of the aurora borealis. On the sand floor Mary, in her music and movement, was the choir and mass.
It was Christmas.