In search of a pastor for the Presbyterian church plant my parents and their friends had staked out in the Baptist territory of Travelers Rest, South Carolina, the family and I road tripped to Atlanta, searching for the sort of soul that could bring in more souls with his forty five minutes of presbytery-sanctioned, sure-to-be-spell-binding sermonizing every Sunday.
While my parents went to scout out the service, I was sent to Sunday School. The Atlanta brethren, it turns out, were going big for eschatology.
Seeing as how our family dog, Ruffy, had just been run over by a pick-up truck, this news came at unfortunate timing. I had spent the last ten days in a state of high mourning, inconsolable, prostrate, and getting in touch with the wisdom of Ecclesiastes.
(For some reason, I thought the most appropriate place for a state of high grief was my parents’ bed, underneath their Serenity Prayer crochet.)
Now I was doubly devastated. Not only was Ruffy dead, she was not in heaven but rather stuck inside the blue tarp buried beyond the swing set. Jesus, I'd been told, had no truck with dogs.
I knew my biblical stuff though. The lion would lay down with the lamb at the End of Days, would she not? So Ruffy would be there too, rolling in the high grass.
I told the Sunday School teacher he must be mistaken, that Ruffy would be there for sure, but he said No,
And so I was left to my own devices, to reason out a saving theology as I could.
Seven or so years down the road, my mom found a puppy on the side of Chinquapin Road, abandoned in the usual way around those parts, which involved a pick-up truck ride along a long, far-out road that put the scent of home well behind you.
As a True Lover of anything with a beating heart, she couldn’t help but bring her home, the complications of biking down a steep grade with an abandoned, possibly disease-ridden puppy be damned.
And my dad, shoveling like Sisyphus in a yard already chock full of the results of doggy digestion, couldn’t help but be exasperated by the thought of another contributor to the mess and the mayhem that was 461 River Road with all its children and chickens and horses and dogs and occasional cats waylaying any attempt at order and cleanliness and other such dreams near and dear to his heart.
3 months later:
Whiskey became chief farm dog for Whiskey Creek Farm, a farm I started on my family’s land after finishing high school, so named for the moonshiners that operated in the fields and creek and whiskey stills still secreted in the valley. Throughout that summer, Whiskey and I talked over tomatoes, and in short order, we became friends. Companions. Co-philosophers. I didn’t completely forget my injunction against dogs, but I eased up a bit on the reigns.
At the end of the season when the tomatoes tapered off and the September figs started coming in, I went away to college, thinking nothing of the Grim Reaper.
Meanwhile, Whiskey responded to her adoption and the way she grew on the family until the whole lot of us couldn’t help but whooping “Whiskeeeey!” whenever we saw her by growing in kind.
Away in the far reaches of the North at college, I got a call from my mom with news. Not the usual shooting the familial breeze about this aunt or that cousin or this sibling but rather about my best friend from high school—jaw-dropping poet, hilarious cartoonist, lover and loather of life all at once.
The Reaper had defeated me on both counts—in its reality and the inevitability of its pain.
Life and death were too much with me. I dropped out of college, spent a stint of time climbing in and out of dorm windows that had an uncanny way of slamming down mid-clamber, sleeping in a friend’s staircase foyer and doing something far worse than crying for a world wrought from iron-clad senselessness and deep blue pain, which is not crying at all.
Eventually, I wound my way back home.
Even there, I could not talk to the people I loved to the very bones, could not tell them about the nights and sometimes days spent suspended between the living and the dead, running my fingers along the seams of the two worlds and sometimes picking at the stitching.
But I could tell Whiskey.
I had an inkling that maybe dogs did have souls after all.
But how could I be sure?
After T died and I came home, I gave up on my rule against dogs entirely. I loved Whiskey like hell until I was able to love the people I loved like hell again, except better this time, weighted there as it was with sorrow, illuminated as it was with a new kind of light, shot through with darkness.
Several years and somehow many lives down the road across this big piece of a country, my brother and I discuss news from back home in our San Francisco kitchen and sometimes remember the questions that badgered us from times before.
South Carolina is always full of important news items.
As for that old question about animal souls, I decided, if anybody’s waiting for anybody in the hereafter, it’s Ladybird waiting for her soul-mate, Joy.
And I’d be willing to bet the Bible Ruffy’s with her, rolling in the high grass.
And Whiskey and me? We're still down here, soul searching.