By Kerri Cull Third-place winner of the Cuffer Prize 2013
He left early that morning to go sledding. The snow was fresh but packed. The seamless Labrador sky Easter egg blue against the broken landscape.
The dogs were his rescue from Rachel, his wife of 40 years. They got married in 1925 when Harry was 21 and she was only 14. Surprisingly they only had seven kids, and one didn’t look anything like Harry. Rumour has it Rachel spent some time with Ed, the guy down the street, once when Harry was away hunting.
That morning he woke up and carried wood into the sitting room. The woodstove would be blazing in an hour but right now he could see his breath as he posed his face just right against the navy blue blanket that was thrown against the back of the couch. Puffs of breath escaping his mouth like steam from a train.
Harry stoked the fire to get it going then leaned on his knee to gain balance before getting up. The kitchen floor was cold under foot, and the butter was rock hard on the counter. He cut a block off and plopped it onto a plate that was chipped on one side. Set it on the stove to soften. By the time he cut his bread, the knife slid through the butter smoothly.
The dogs started barking as soon as he opened the door to the outside. His nose felt the cold first and it felt like it was made of tissue paper. He scrunched up his face to loosen the compression.
He had half of those dogs for four years and the others were two years old. They were all pure-bred huskies. The oldest, the mother, was gorgeous, with thick black and white fur. Her blue eyes like marbles.
Harry got Alaska from a man in Hopedale. His dogs, unspayed, had too many pups and he was going to put them down. In need of some runners he thought she’d be the perfect dog to train and cultivate, the first runner he’d train from scratch.
She was the perfect leader. Harry taught her to avoid lakes and she knew when to veer right or left before Harry could shape the words “Gee” or “Haw.” She understood her musher, it seemed, from day one. As if her hand-picked nature gave her a brash confidence.
That morning while they were feeding on scraps of caribou meat and rabbit, Harry pushed his supplies into a knapsack: snare wire, water, buttered bread, aluminum can, matches, axe, hunting knife, molasses, cheese, tea bags, flask and handkerchiefs.
He was going to check his snares this morning and try to do some hunting in the afternoon. The snares proved fruitful. They all had rabbits and he calculated this would suffice as a few days’ worth of meat for his family if mixed into stew. He reset the snares in the same areas, little rabbit prints circling on all sides.
As the noon hour approached, Harry set up to make a fire and have a lunch. The aluminum can black from months of use over an outdoor fire. The dogs waited patiently around the fire, haphazardly set like remnants of an airplane crash. Their fur around their mouths turning white from the marriage of breath and cold, noses burnt and pink at the point where heat escapes.
The other dogs knew Alaska was the leader. She got the first take on the food, and Harry made sure all the other dogs were trained to cower to her.
It was the first time she ever growled at Harry. The only time she ever showed her fangs in protest.
After lunch, Harry got aboard and they went off down an embankment to explore the land below, the wheel dogs trying to keep up. Harry yelled “Gee” as they neared a small pond. It was frozen but the snow had drifted high in front of it. He knew the dogs would get stuck. They would have to go around.
As they turned, Alaska swivelled her head to the right and growled. Her eyes just meeting his. Her head quickly twisting to the side as if working out a demon. Harry knew what happened. She had taken the turn so quickly the wheel dogs pulled her to the left and she almost lost balance, but it was him she had growled at.
You could not be in the wilderness with a pack of dogs and have one of them turn on you, even if just for a second. He knew she would have to be killed. It was the way it was always done.
After slowing at the other side of the lake, Harry stood in silence for a few minutes watching the white forest around him. Once Alaska was unhooked from the rest of the pack, he brought her to a nearby clearing. Stood over her as she tiredly looked around at the land. He looked upon her with love while he drew his axe and quickly let it drop down on her neck.
As he made his way to the mountain’s edge with her body, he caught the eyes of another dog. He thought he saw glimpses of sadness, the recognition that something was wrong.
Kerri Cull is the founder of The Book Fridge blog and has authored a book of poetry called “Soak” (Breakwater 2012).
After receiving a master of arts degree in English from Memorial University in 2004, she used her education in print media,
publishing, broadcasting, teaching and writing. She is working on a short-fiction collection and a bachelor’s in education.
She lives in Gander.
Next week: Randy Drover’s “In Camera”