The Follower


My mother and father and my sister, Inga, had taken baby Lars and gone to make their good-bye visits before I remembered my promise to my friend, Pedor. We were leaving the next morning on our spring migration to our grazing pastures near the Arctic Ocean. I had been left to guard our reindeer against wolves. I could still remember Pedor’s words: “You are my best friend, Anders. I will miss you during the months you will be gone. I wish your father would build a house and stay here in Keinook all year. Why don’t you tell him that you don’t like to live in a tent?”

I had to laugh at Pedor. Maybe in two more years, when he gets to be almost thirteen, he will understand some things better, as I do. Maybe by then he will realize that living in a tent isn’t so bad. When we want to move, it is only a matter of a short time to have it folded up and packed on the sledge, ready to go. Maybe he will realize that there is not enough forage here in Keinook for all the reindeer to eat and that if my father did not take his own and most of the other reindeer to the grazing lands, they would get thin and might die.

I tried, but I couldn’t seem to make Pedor understand about this. All he was interested in was for me to promise that I would not go without coming to tell him good-bye. I decided to hurry and be back before my parents returned. I would keep my promise. Besides, it had been weeks since we’d seen any wolves near the village. Surely they would not come during the short time I’d be gone. But I was wrong.

Pedor clung to me and did not want me to leave. It was just as I was leaving his house that I heard the cry, “Wolves! Wolves!”

I ran all the way back to our tent, but my father had reached there before me. At first I didn’t say anything. Neither did my father. He just looked at me and then back again at the three reindeer that had been killed.

One of them was Little Runner, Inga’s pet. Mother went on into the tent with Lars, and my sister did not dry her eyes until she heard Father say, “I know you are sad, Inga, but listen to me. You shall have another deer to take the place of Little Runner. The very first fawn that is born when we reach the grazing lands will belong to you.”

Inga wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her coat. Father looked out over the herd for a moment.

“I’m sorry, Father,” I said. “I was only gone for a little while.”

He looked again at the three deer lying on the ground before the tent. “It was long enough,” he said, still not looking at me.

I wanted him to understand. “I just went to tell Pedor good-bye,” I explained. “I promised him and I forgot until there was no time left.”

Even as I said it I knew it was not a good excuse. I could have gone the day before or the day before that. Besides, had I not, in a way, made a promise to stay with the deer? While my father did not say so, I knew he felt that I had failed to keep a trust. And right at that moment I made a promise to myself that someway, somehow, I would restore what I had lost.

“Now I have to train other deer to take the place of these,” said my father. “I have other deer that can pull the sledge, but to get another follower, that is indeed a problem.”

Most Laplanders have at least one deer, even our baby, Lars. Father had chosen a little white one and given it to him on the very day he was born. My own reindeer had not been given to me quite so early in my life. Father waited until I was old enough to make my own choice. The one I chose was tall and brown with four white feet. Father said I had a good eye for choosing. I thought I had the most beautiful reindeer of the herd. Although that was over a year ago, I still hadn’t found a name good enough for him.

Last fall when we were returning from migration, Father mentioned this. “Anders,” he said, “do you not think it is time that your reindeer is given a name? Are we to go on calling him No Name?”

I thought about what Father had said all that day. And I tried every day to think of a name that would be just right for him. But my reindeer was still called No Name.

We started the migration early the next morning, just as we had planned. The herd followed the lead sledge that Mother rode in with Lars. Inga held onto a long strap of reindeer leather and came behind on her skis. My father and old Isak, who always went with us, came behind the herd in their sledge and I followed, as Inga did, on skis.

Once again our seida (sleds, family, deer, and all) was on the trail. Interestingly, I felt both happiness and sorrow. I was sad that I had not stayed on guard and that we had lost three of our best reindeer, including the follower, but I felt happy that once more we had started on the migration.

I looked for No Name and saw him through the morning darkness just ahead of the deer, pulling my father’s sledge. He had hung back to be by me, but Father had insisted that my deer travel with the rest of the herd.

“He’ll always be a drag,” Father said, “if we let him stay at the back like this. Make him get up there where he belongs.”

I had hoped No Name would push himself to the lead but he did not. Suppose, just suppose, I reasoned, that No Name could become our next follower!

It may seem odd to a visitor or a stranger to hear us call the lead reindeer the follower. But the follower must be a deer that is not afraid to try a new trail first. Then when the others see him start out, they follow behind. The follower is especially helpful when there is a stream to be crossed. Oh, how I wished that No Name could be our next follower!

It was cold as we traveled but not like winter cold. It did not creep through my reindeer-skin coat and pants and bite into my bones as it did in the middle of the winter. My skallers (boots), also made of reindeer leather, kept my feet warm and dry. They were lined with sennegrass that grows on the edge of the fjord (arm of the sea).

When we reached the water, we followed along its course for a time instead of crossing right away as we had done before. I asked old Isak why. “We have no follower this trip,” he explained. “We have to wait for a deer to become brave enough to lead the others across.”

I knew what I must do. That night while the others were making camp, I called to No Name and took him with me out of sight down to the water. At first I tried to get him to go into the water without me, but it was no use. I didn’t want to fill my boots with water, so I pulled them off and stepped into the icy current. If I could just lead him, No Name would go wherever I asked. But he had to learn to go into the water by himself.

The next night I tried again, but still I could not urge No Name into the water unless I pulled or pushed him in. During the day as we traveled, I thought about it, wondering how I could teach him to be the follower. I thought about my father too. He was indeed a follower, a follower of all that was right and honorable. If one of the deer became lame, he would find the reason. He never went to sleep at night until he was sure the deer were safely bedded down. And always he was thinking about my mother and Lars, catching a fish for their dinner, giving them the best part of the reindeer meat, or bringing my mother a wild flower he had found along the way.

One night No Name finally did it! He went right into the water at my urging, even in a place where he was forced to swim. Then he turned and came back at my command. When Father said that we must cross the next morning because we were getting too far from the trail to the grazing pastures, both No Name and I were ready.

I knew the sledges made good rafts for crossing the water, but the deer must cross first. I waited until my father said we were ready.

“It would be easy if we had our old follower,” he said. “We will simply have to drive the herd up to the bank and force some of them into the water.”

By this time I had moved No Name to the head of the herd, and as I spoke to him, he stepped at once into the water and began to swim. The others hesitated only a moment and then moved into the water behind him. I looked at Father. He stood there, holding the big pole he had cut to guide the raft, his face drawn into a big smile.

“You did it, Anders!” he cried. “You did it! You have found a name for your reindeer!”

“A name?” I asked. “What name?”

“Follower!” said Father. “That is all the name he will ever need now. Just Follower! He will lead the deer all summer to the best grazing lands!”

I smiled, too, at my mother and Lars and then at my father. No Name was a follower, my father was a follower, and someday, if I kept on trying, maybe I would be a follower too.

[illustration] Illustrated by Ed Holmes