By A. G. Moore
This selection is adapted from the book, “Masks: A Hudson Valley Childhood” , which is a combination of recollections, factual history and illustrations. The background for the events described in this piece:
Dogs kept coming our way. The situation reached critical mass at nine. We couldn’t feed these animals–we couldn’t even feed ourselves sometimes. So the dogs foraged for food around the community. Neighbors complained, and when that didn’t work, dead bodies started turning up on our property. The dogs always came home to die. They’d find a place nearby to hide and thrash through their final agonies alone.
Hortense had been born less than a year before. She was a small, black puppy. I think her coloration more than anything else led us to decide she was my dog, since jet black hair was my most distinctive feature. Each child in my family was assigned a puppy from Skippy’s litter. There were no privileges or responsibilities attached to the designation, except that it allowed us to say, “Rusty is Dolores’s” or “Tiger is Clinton’s.” This endowment was similar to gifting a star–no one would challenge the title, but neither did it confer any advantage.
Skippy was a medium-sized terrier and the only dog with whom my mother bonded. Although the dogs were not permitted to stay in the house, my mother made an exception for Skippy when she was expecting a litter. After the puppies were born, my mother set aside a place for the new family under a small cabinet in the kitchen.
Hortense was one of the last of our dogs to be poisoned. The poisoning had been going on for weeks. I’ve always wondered, was it all the neighbors who conspired to kill our pets or one particularly proactive individual who decided to depopulate our home?
Whoever had killed them, we needed to deal with the dead pets. Clinton did the burying, as he did all outside chores. The rest of us were mourners. Our job was to follow him to whatever spot he chose for internment, and to grieve.
Hortense presented a particular challenge. Not only was Clinton tired of digging, but Hortense was going to require a very large excavation because she had swelled considerably. To make things more difficult, the ground was frozen. Undaunted, Clinton led us into the woods. We went across the stream which served as the physical boundary of our property and headed straight up the mountain.
Though Clinton had Hortense in tow the weight of her did not slow his progress. He was such a skilled woodsman that even with a dead dog attached to a rope he was more agile at negotiating rotting logs and dense brush than I was.
Eventually we reached our destination. When we arrived at the place of burial, I recognized my surroundings but had no idea how we’d gotten there. I believed, whenever I went up into the woods with my brother, that if he somehow vanished, I’d never be able to find my way home again.
We stopped in front of a mud hole, a black viscous pit in the center of a clearing. I recalled then that a few times before we’d thrown rocks and small branches into the pit and these had disappeared. However, we’d never attempted anything as large as Hortense. Despite this lack of history, I trusted Clinton. He knew what he was doing.
Sure enough, when he threw Hortense into the mud, it accepted her. After a while, she disappeared, as everything else had. We left no marker at that place, no sign that Hortense ever lived. While it was true that my proprietorship of Hortense carried no responsibility and no privilege, it did, I believed, entail a certain allegiance. And that allegiance was not well served by my participation in her casual disposal. We had dispatched her remains as though she was refuse.
The scene by the side of the mud hole, with my dog slowly sinking below the earth, was one that stayed with me for many a year, even to the present.
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