Little Siberia

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(HOST) When he was growing up, commentator Philip Baruth’s family raised Siberian Huskies at a kennel in Upstate New York. To this day, he can’t see a husky without remembering the best, and the worst, of those adolescent years.

(BARUTH) Back in the 1970s, my family raised Siberian Huskies – you know, the ones with the black masks, bank robbers with John Travolta eyes. Our operation in Upstate New York was called Little Siberia Kennels, and we usually had anywhere between twenty and thirty dogs on the property, depending on the birth rate.

We had the more exotic strains of Siberian too: Split-eyes with one blue and one brown eye; silver huskies, red huskies, even the occasional shaggy longhair.

So a couple of years ago, when my wife and I got a seven-week-old Husky, it felt like old times. But as the dog’s grown older, I find that occasionally, watching her hunt in the backyard, a memory from the Little Siberia days drifts unexpectedly to the surface.

When I was fourteen, a split-eye named Blue died in the middle of January. It was bitterly cold, a good foot of snow on the ground, but the dog died of natural causes, curled in her house. Blue and a big male named Apache had originally produced our entire bloodline. And now, at fifteen, she was gone.

Now, you have to know that my parents had split up about six months earlier, so there was only my mother to tell about the dog. Death isn’t uncommon when you raise a lot of any kind of animal, and we’d had dogs die before: from cars, from rat poison, three at once from kennel cough. Always before, my father and I – or my older brother and I – had moved the body and dug the grave together.

But this time I found myself alone in the woods after dinner, pulling the dog’s frozen body on a plastic tarp, dragging a shovel and a pick. And when I reached the spot I had in mind, I tried to dig a hole, believe me. But after half an hour of sweat, I’d managed to chip out only about a foot of icy turf.

Finally, I did something desperate: I hoisted the body into the split trunk of an old dead oak, and I filled the cavity with ice. Then I got some scrap lumber from the garage and I boarded up the opening and wrapped the trunk tightly with rope. It was the best I could do, at my age, without burdening my mother, without admitting that it was all beyond me. I would come back when the ground thawed, I told myself.

That winter was a tough one in my high school. I was the first of my friends to experience divorce, but not by much: by the time we were seniors, half of us would have gone through it. And we’d all seen the After-School specials; we all knew precisely how miserable we were supposed to feel.

So every day was like a very fast walk through a very dark room.

Eventually, everything turned out for the best: my parents each married someone wonderful, and their second relationships long ago outlasted their first. But, even so, that was one of the toughest days in my life, that sunny afternoon in early April 1976, riding the school bus home from the eighth-grade, talking about guitar lessons with my friend Doug, snow melting everywhere, when I suddenly remembered the grown-up job I’d left half finished months before.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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