Collarworld: A Squeaky Treasure at the Harvest

Indigo Acres, an agrarian realm in the afterlife waystation known as Collarworld, was more than just a place for farm-raised animals to wait in peace until they are once again reunited with their masters.  The ruling animal of Indigo Acres, a drafthorse named Cassius Marcellus, cultivated the fertile fields for vegetables and flowers and grains; he guided many of the farm animals to help raise these nutrients for other pets in other realms.  Each stalk and vine, each furrow and row, provided emotional nutrients for the pets of Collarworld.

Today was a harvest day, and baskets were filled to the lip with corn and carrots and rice and clover, treasures that volunteer pets would deliver to the various realms.  While delivering the food might seem an arduous chore, for many Collarworld residents it was akin to fulfilling a blessed sacrament – help others as your master once helped you.

Continue reading “Collarworld: A Squeaky Treasure at the Harvest”

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Collarworld: Soft Rains

Jackson, the Golden Retriever who crossed over from the Living World into the afterlife waystation of Collarworld, watched the sun set along the sparkling waters of the Shore of the Cedars.  This tranquil portion of Collarworld, a place where beloved pets wait in the afterlife for the glorious reunion with their masters, offered spiritual and emotional healing for all creatures who bathed and swam along the shore.

Over the years, Jackson treated the Shore of the Cedars as a personal connection between he and his mistress, who always took him to the beach on sunny days.  In Collarworld, Jackson took his love of the beach and his respect for his mistress, and turned it into the opportunity to guide animals toward their own personal rebirth and baptism.

Another beautiful day in Collarworld, Jackson mused.  It was a quiet day – only a few animals came to see Jackson and to experience the healing waters of the Shore of the Cedars.  A couple of horses from the Oval Pastures, an elephant from the Sawdust Meadows, three Dalmatians from the Precinct 3:16 realm.  A few splashes in the water, and the burdens they carried in the Living World were washed away.

Yes, Jackson smiled.  Another beautiful day in Collarworld.

For a moment, Jackson’s gaze remained transfixed on the sunshine and its reflection, as the two entities wold slowly meet at the horizon.  As soon as the sun sets over the horizon, the Golden Retriever mused, I’ll take a nap.  It’s been a long day.  A fun day, but a long day.

“May I speak with you, Lord Jackson?” came a voice.

Jackson looked behind him.  Standing there was a weary, grey German Shepherd.

Instantly Jackson stood up.

“Bismarck,” the Retriever exclaimed.  “What are you doing here?  Is there something wrong?  What’s going on?”

Jackson knew that Bismarck rarely left his self-imposed exile in the Silver Forest.  He also knew that the German Shepherd still blamed himself for personal actions in the Living World, where someone’s hurtful prank caused Bismarck to attack his own master … and eventually cost Bismarck his life.

“I need to speak with you, Lord Jackson,” Bismarck slowly barked.

“Is there trouble?”

“I understand that you have the power to heal the troubles of all animals in Collarworld.”

“Sort of,” replied the retriever.  “You have to be willing to accept your sins and ask for forgiveness.  And then you wade through the water, and the healing waters will cleanse you of your troubles and pains.”

“Yes,” Bismarck said.  “I remember this.  I remember that my charge Dismas had his sins cleansed through these blessed waters.”

“Yes he did,” Jackson replied, remembering the time when a violent mixbreed dog terrorized Collarworld, only to be led by the other animals to the Shore of the Cedars, where the waters washed away the mixbreed’s violent and abhorrent training that his masters inflicted upon him.  After the healing, Bismarck took the mixbreed, which he renamed Dismas, to be his student in the Silver Forest, until Dismas volunteered to be a companion for a distressed human who had entered the afterlife.

“I saw the evil that Dismas was before he was healed,” said the German Shepherd.  “And I saw his penitence and contrition afterward.”

“Yes.”

“I need to talk to you about this.”

“The healing?”

“The healing.  And this is with the strictest confidence.”

“Of course, Lord Bismarck.  Who did you bring with you that needs to be healed?”

“No one,” he barked.  “The healing is for me.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Do you know what happened to me in the Living World?”

“Somewhat,” Jackson replied.  “Vincent and others have told me that you were a professor’s dog?”

“I was,” Bismarck said.  “My master was a dedicated professor at a famous university.  I was his campus pet and companion.  Every night he read books by the greatest writers, and he would tell me stories about all of them – writers of fiction and of fact.”

Jackson nodded.

“Some of my master’s students thought they could play a practical joke on me, and they left something in my food bowl, and mixed it up with my regular food.  I ate what was inside, and my head felt strange.  Cloudy.  I couldn’t think.  And I thought someone was trying to attack my master, so I leaped up and bit the attacker on the arm as hard as I could.”

“What happened to the attacker?”

Bismarck bowed his head to the ground.  “There was no attacker.  Whatever those kids put in my dog dish, it caused me to see an attacker that wasn’t there.  And the next thing I knew, my master’s arm was bleeding.  Bleeding with punctures.”

“You didn’t – ”

“I did,” was the response.  “I did the worst thing a pet could do to his master.  I attacked the one human who loved me the most.  Then men came and put me in a cage.  A few days later, another man ruled that I was a danger, and said that I had to be put down.  And when I woke up …”

“You were here in Collarworld.”

“Another man walked toward me – he tried to touch me, he said he could heal my wounds.  I told him that my wounds were too deep to heal, and that I don’t belong near anyone – human or animal.  I asked for exile.”

“That’s why you’ve been in the Silver Forest all this time.”

“It’s very difficult to enter the Silver Forest.  Which is why, most times, I’m left alone.  A few animals have come in, but I’ve chased them away.  I didn’t want to be around anybody.  Ever.  There’s still parts of my mind that grow violent and angry, and I know it’s from what happened in the Living World – between what those students did and my response to it.”

“Bismarck, listen to me.  You are not that animal any more.  You have atoned for your crime many times over.  You took care and guided Dismas.  I heard you even rescued two cats that were about to fall off the overlook at Fred’s Chasm.”

“Did Vincent tell you that?  That tabbycat promised me he would swear to secrecy – ”

“Relax.  Vincent didn’t tell me.  He didn’t have to.  Lord Bismarck, you’ve gone through so much trauma in your life, you can’t even see the moments when you’ve achieved kindness and goodness.  What those students did to you was horrible.  But you didn’t ask them to do that.  You were not in control.”

“But if I hadn’t consumed that food – ”

“And how would you have known that there was danger in that food bowl?  Listen to me.  I’ll say it one more time.  Whatever happened in the Living World was not your fault.”

Bismarck continued to stare at the sandy ground.

Jackson walked over to the shoreline.  “Come with me, Lord Bismarck.  Walk up to the water.”

Bismarck slowly paced toward the splashing waves, his pawprints trailing in the wet sand.

“Before I ask you to step in the water, I must ask you a question.”

Bismarck nodded.

“Someone in this world must have said something to you that, for whatever reason, caused you to make this decision to come here.”

“Yes,” the German Shepherd whispered.

“Who was it?”

“I only know her as Cha-Cha, she’s a boxer that has visited me in the Silver Forest for the past few months.  She told me she and her brother were therapy dogs and protected a battered woman from her abusive spouse.”

“And when you met Cha-Cha…”

“She came to the Silver Forest.  And when she spoke with me, she didn’t treat me like a horrible monster.  She wasn’t afraid of me.  She didn’t ostracize me for what happened in the Living World.  To her I wasn’t the monster Bismarck who attacked his master while under the control of something not part of his choosing.  She talked with me.  She understood me.”

“And how do you know this?”

“Soft rains.”

“I don’t understand.”

Bismarck scratched at the sand.  “My master was a professor of literature.  He would read great novels and poems.  One day, he read a poem to me, a poem about soft rains.  He only read it once … but I remembered fragments of it to this day.  I mentioned the poem to Cha-Cha … and she said that she knew the poem as well.  And she was able to recite the parts I could not remember, and within a few days I remembered the entire poem.”

“That’s wonderful.”

I can recite it now.  If I recite it, it will remind me of the good times I had with my master.”

“I’d like to hear it.”

The waves of water rose forward, gently splashing against Bismarck’s toes.  The German Shepherd felt his paws tingle with the clear, warm water against his fur.

“There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools, singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,

Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.”

“That’s beautiful,” Jackson whispered.  “Very beautiful.”

“She is,” Bismarck barked.  “I mean … yes, the poem is very beautiful.  It’s not about the death of Man – my master told me that he knew it as the death of the evils of Man.”

“I know what you mean,” Jackson smiled.  “Please, my friend, step in the water.”

One paw.  Another.  And slowly, the German Shepherd walked into the warm water, as the waves began to splash around him.

“In the name of St. Francis of Assisi, the lord of all animals in our realm, may your sins be cleansed with the purified holy water of the Shore of the Cedars.  In his name we say, you shall be cleansed and you shall be healed.”

Bismarck ducked his head under the water for a few seconds.  He could feel the water cascading over his body and washing his soul.

“You are a good dog, Lord Bismarck.  You are loved and you are respected.  Do not ever let the bad things that others have forced upon you destroy your future.  You are better than this.  The only sin you committed was not of your own choosing.”

Bismarck’s head popped up from the water.  “This feels so good.  I’ve never experienced anything like this.”

“You are loved, friend dog.  And now it is time for you to forgive yourself.  There will come a day when you will understand, and all your pains will drift away … like soft rains.”

“There will come soft rains,” Bismarck whispered.

“You can join me on the shore now, Lord Bismarck.”

The German Shepherd slowly left the wave-splashed sands.

“Are you all right?”

“I think so,” Bismarck said.  He then looked at Jackson.  “Thank you, my friend.”

“You had the power to forgive yourself all this time,” Jackson barked.  “I’m glad someone helped you realize that it’s okay to heal.”

“I still have much healing to achieve,” Bismarck replied.  “I must go now.  Thank you … once again.”

And with that, the German Shepherd left the Shore of the Cedars, on his way back to the Silver Forest.

Jackson looked toward the horizon.  The sun was now touching its own reflection in the water.

Jackson smiled.  Today really WAS a good day in Collarworld.


NOTE: The poem “There Will Come Soft Rains” was written in 1920 by Sara Teasdale.

 

 

Collarworld: A Master’s Purpose

“Mourire!”

Three little hamsters – Cupcake, Truffle and Bacardi, the Royal Order of Ancient Carissima Hamsters – called in the Ashen Forest for the white-pawed black cat.

“Mourire!!”

Two eyes pierced from under a shaded tree branch.

“What do you little rodents want?”

“We have a message from St. Francis of Assisi,” chirped Truffle.

“He needs to see you right now,” added Bacardi.

“Right now means right now,” put in Cupcake.

“What does he need to see me for?  I don’t have a master in the Living World waiting for me,” the feral cat snarled.

“He needs to see you,” said Bacardi.

“Don’t ask questions.”

“Come with us.”

“Not interested,” the black cat hissed.  “If big old St. Francis needs to see me, he knows where the Ashen Forest is.  Nothing’s stopping him from visiting me.”

“You are right,” came a big, warm, booming voice.  “Nothing is stopping me from seeing you.  Come out now.”

Mourire poked his head out from under the tree branch.  And in that moment, he saw St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of all animals in Collarworld.

“Okay,” said Mourire.  “You see me.  What did I do this time and who snitched on me?”

“Come on out,” said the saint.  “We need to talk.”

Mourire expected St. Francis of Assisi to sit on a nearby rock during their conversation.  But the saint remained standing and steadfast.

“I have word that you’ve been harboring escapees from the Rainy Barn.  Is this true?”

Mourire said nothing.

“Several people have told me that you took in a Dalmatian puppy and a Siamese kitten some time ago, two animals who left their home in the Rainy Barn.”

A grunt from the black cat.

“This isn’t the first time, is it, Mourire?”

Stone-faced silence.

“You’ve been doing this for a while now.”

The black cat whipped his tail back and forth in an angry snap.

“You can be silent all you want.  I know you’ve done it.”

Mourire slowly walked toward the saint.  “So what if I did?”

“Answer the question.  Did you do this?”

“Maybe I did.  Again – what’s the big deal if I did?”

St. Francis of Assisi rubbed his chin softly.  “I’ve received many reports about you doing this in the past.  And that you took one of those escapees to compete in the Agility Games.  Is that true?”

“Oh come on, what’s the big deal about that?  Hickory had a great time and he even won an award – ”

At that moment, Mourire realized he had said too much.

“I see.”

“Come on, what’s the big crime?  Hickory and Beacon were in trouble.  I gave them shelter and caring.  I even protected them from those filthy Guild of the Bloodline purists.  And I don’t even have Beacon any more, she volunteered to be a companion to a human who crossed over some time ago.  What, would you rather have had them rot in that stinking Rainy Barn for the rest of eternity?”

“I know this isn’t the first time you’ve been responsible for something like this.”

Mourire’s fur on his back tingled.  “Right.  Stave and Torch.  They were feral cats, just like me.  And they crossed over to Collarworld and they were ostracized and shunned.  And I took them in and made them part of my family here in the Ashen Forest.  And they lived with me for many years, until Torch moved on to work at Indigo Acres with that old drafthorse Cassius Marcellus, and Stave somehow became a member of the Seven Angels.  Ha.  A feral cat becoming a member of the Seven Angels.  I bet that bothers you every single day.  Some stinky feral takes on the highest honor an animal in Collarworld can ever achieve.”

“Do you have anything else you want to say?” asked the saint.

“Just this,” growled Mourire.  “Hickory is my charge.  He needs me to protect him and to teach him and to show him that he does have a purpose in this realm.  He doesn’t need to live his life in misery and squalor with all the other overbirths if he doesn’t need to.  And if any of those filthy Guild of the Bloodline racists have a problem with that, they should come to me instead of running to you to do their dirty work.  Hickory belongs in the Ashen Forest with me.  Flat out.  Nobody’s taking him away.  Not the Guild, not you, not anybody.  I would take a flying leap off of Fred’s Chasm before I’d let anybody take Hickory away.”

The patron saint kneeled down in front of Mourire.  His big hand gently stroked the black cat’s neck.

“That’s exactly what I hoped you would say.”

“Huh?”

St. Francis continued to stroke Mourire’s neck, his soothing touch gently penetrating through the black cat’s stiff fur.  “Young cat, you truly have achieved a purpose that very few animals in Collarworld can claim.  You have sacrificed your own wishes and desires to take care of others.  The feral cats Torch and Stave are now in better times because of you.  And you provided empowerment and strength and love to two orphans who needed comfort and care.  My child, you truly have achieved great goals.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Many have told me of your kindness and self-sacrifice.  Lord Vincent of the Green Meadow couldn’t stop praising you when you helped him save Bate the terrier.  Lady Bonnie, before she reunited with her master, praised you for entering Hickory into the Agility Games.  And before he became a member of the Seven Angels, Stave told me about how he could never have reached that pinnacle had it not been for your guidance and teaching.  My sweet child, your kindness and bravery have provided more goodness in Collarworld than anybody could ever imagine.”

“But I – I’m – look, I’m just a feral cat.  Anybody could have done these deeds.”

“Yes,” St. Francis of Assisi replied, “anybody could have done those deeds.  You, my child, did them without hesitation or conflict.  You are truly a blessed leader and an honored master.  You saved lives in Collarworld.  And he who saves a single life … thus he has also saved the world entire.”

“Is that why you came here to the Ashen Forest?”

“Yes.  I wanted to thank you personally for your kind acts and bravery.  And I also wanted to let you know that no matter how you feel about things here in Collarworld, you are always welcome to visit the Meeting Place when new subjects cross over from the Living World, and you are always welcome to join us for other events.  And bring young Hickory with you, I’m sure he’d appreciate it.”

And as St. Francis of Assisi continued to pet Mourire, the black cat felt something that he previously had not experienced.

He started to purr.  A soft, rumbling purr that slowly resonated through his body like the wind through the leaves.

“I bless you, Lord Mourire, the true lord of the Ashen Forest.”

The patron saint then kissed Mourire on the forehead, and placed him on the ground.  He then picked up the three Carissima Hamsters and walked out of the Ashen Forest.

And for several minutes, Mourire felt a relaxation and peace that he had never previously known.

Lord Mourire of the Ashen Forest… the name echoed throughout his mind and soul.

“Pfft,” the black cat thought.  “I’m no lord.  I’m just an old black feral cat.”

And then he remembered.  He promised Hickory that he would take the Dalmatian puppy over to the Doghouse Estates so that the puppy could play with a blind dog named Charlie that afternoon.

So maybe I’m not a lord, Mourire mused.

But I’m doing the best I can for being an old black feral cat.

Collarworld: Three Against One

As each day brought a beautiful, radiant sunshine to the afterlife waystation known as Collarworld, the land where beloved pets wait until they are reunited with their masters and owners once more, Cha-Cha the boxer seemed to make new friends wherever she went.

The boxer, who with her brother Rascal were protective therapy dogs for a battered woman in the Living World, found herself visiting as many realms in Collarworld as she could.  She befriended the farm animals at Indigo Acres; she talked to the police and rescue dogs at Precinct 3:16; she shared stories of faith with Jackson the Golden Retriever and Messer the Newfoundland at the Shore of the Cedars; and she even watched a few races at the Oval Pastures, cheering on each horse whether they finished in first or in last place.

Vincent, the king orange tabbycat from the green meadow, watched as Cha-Cha became more and more a part of the Collarworld family.  Even on those days when Cha-Cha said she had to visit a troubled soul in the Silver Forest, Vincent knew that the “troubled soul’ Cha-Cha described was the tortured German Shepherd known as Bismarck.  At first he was worried about Bismarck’s rage and anger, but when Cha-Cha explained that she and Bismarck spent most of the day just talking and listening, Vincent’s fears eased.

“Are you going to visit him again today?” Vincent asked the boxer.

“I worry about him,” said Cha-Cha.  “He’s been feared and he’s been attacked.  He’s built that home for himself in the Silver Forest, and I don’t think he’s ever felt comfortable outside of his exile.”

“I just want you to be careful,” Vincent purred.

“I have been,” Cha-Cha replied.  “Sometimes all he wants to do is just talk.  About anything.  He once told me about his master, who was a famous college professor.  He talked about books that the professor taught to his students – books written by great men.”

“I’m sure he has many stories.  Have a safe trip.”

And with that, Cha-Cha began her journey from the green meadow to the Silver Forest.

The journey to Bismarck’s realm took several hours, and along the way Cha-Cha always made note of her surroundings and what they all entailed.  There were the Doghouse Condos, home to some of the happiest outdoor dogs she had ever seen.  And the Neon Stream, a freshwater home for thousands of tropical fish.  In the distance, along the horizon, she could see some of the birds rehearsing for the Flight of Faith, a series of beautiful precision team flying techniques.

The path was long and dusty.  Cha-Cha noticed some of the animals were also traveling the road, on their way to or from their home realms.  She smiled at several of them.  They smiled back.

Around the corner, Cha-Cha saw what looked like a small gathering.  She could make out three animals – a flop-eared pointer, a Doberman and a tiger-striped cat – and they were surrounding a fourth dog, a dog whose breed Cha-Cha could not identify.

As she got closer, however, she realized that the three pets surrounding the mixbreed dog weren’t playing games.

They were taunting and teasing and harassing the mixbreed.

“You’re not welcome here, mongrel,” the tiger-striped cat hissed.

“Filthy mutt,” snarled the Doberman.

“Why don’t you’all go someplace where freaks like you belong,” taunted the pointer, “you’re not a purebreed, you don’t belong here, you freak.”

Cha-Cha was several feet away – she could see the troublemakers, but they could not yet see her.  The mixbreed dog was on the ground, his paws covering his small face to protect himself from the abuse.

“Freak,” the pointer repeated.  “There’s no place for freaks in Collarworld.  Your parents should be ashamed for breeding you.”

Three against one.  And if somebody didn’t stop the three animals, they might continue their abuse on the mixbreed for days.

“Hey Snicker,” said the Doberman, “You want I should take this guy to Fred’s Chasm?”

“I dunno,” sneered the pointer, “you shouldn’t waste your jaws on this filth.  He just needs to know that Collarworld is for purebreeds.”

“Scuse me.”

With that, Cha-Cha walked up to – and past – the three combatants, and directly up to the fallen mixbreed.

“Hi.”

The tortured dog looked up.  A slight whimper.

“Hi.  My name’s Cha-Cha.  What’s your name, friend dog?”

“Terry,” he stammered.

“That’s a nice name,” Cha-Cha replied, keeping her gaze straight on Terry and making sure Terry focused his attention on her – and away from the glare of the other three troublemakers.

“You’all got a problem?”  Snicker the pointer barked.

Cha-Cha ignored him.  “I bet your master loves you very much.”

“He – he did,” Terry softly barked.  “He bought me from a humane shelter and he took care of me all my life.”

“That’s amazing,” Cha-Cha smiled.  One eye on the troublemakers.  They kept their distance, not knowing what to expect.  “Can I ask you something?”

Terry nodded slowly.

“I was on my way to meet a good friend of mine, but then I thought, there’s a place in Collarworld that I haven’t visited yet.  Do you know where that is?”

Terry looked at his tormentors.

“No, no, Terry, look at me, sweetheart.  Don’t pay attention to them.”

“Wh-where?”

“It’s a place called the Sawdust Oval.  It’s the home of some of the greatest circus animals from the Living World.  And tonight, guess who’s performing his jump through fire?”

Terry was now focused on Cha-Cha’s every word.  Perfect, the boxer thought.  She kept her body between the mixbreed and the trio.

“Who?”

“Why, the Great Ingemar, of course.  The most famous circus tiger in all the Living World.”

“The Great Ingemar’s here?” Terry barked.

“Yes,” smiled Cha-Cha.  “Let’s go visit him now.”

And then Cha-Cha turned to Snicker and his cohorts.

“You’re welcome to meet the Great Ingemar … if you like.”

Snicker swatted a pebble with his paw.  “You’all made a big mistake, boxer.  You shouldn’t interfere with the Guild of the Bloodline.”

“The Guild of the Bloodline … hmm… I’ll have to meet them some time.  Come on, Terry, let’s go meet the Great Ingemar.  If we hurry, we can get to the Sawdust Oval by nightfall and see his first show!”

Cha-Cha knew that Terry was scared and frightened.  So as long as she stayed with Terry and kept him safe – and away from the tormentors of show animals who christened themselves as the Guild of the Bloodline – she knew she could keep the peace.

At that moment, Snicker and his two compatriots started to walk away.  “This isn’t over, boxer.”

Cha-Cha walked away, Terry at her side.

“You’all hear me, boxer?”

Cha-Cha and Terry continued on their way.

“You made an enemy of the Guild of the Bloodline, boxer.  You interfered in our business.  That’s your first mistake.”

Snicker the pointer spit on the ground, as Cha-Cha and Terry were almost out of earshot.

“And it’s your last mistake.”

Collarworld: Cha-Cha’s Encounter

Collarworld has a thousand realms and neighborhoods and locations, each realm designed for pets to wait and play and frolic until they are once again reunited with their masters and caretakers in the afterlife.

And for months, it seemed as if Cha-Cha the boxer had searched each realm, looking for her brother Rascal, who had arrived in Collarworld many years before.  But despite visiting many of the realms in Collarworld – the farmland of Indigo Acres, the circus lands of the Sawdust Oval, the beautiful beaches of the Shore of the Cedars – she could find no clues to her missing brother.

Although Vincent the tabbycat and his friends also tried to find information on Rascal, their efforts were fruitless.  Nobody had knowledge of the boxer who saved Cha-Cha and her mistress from an armed gunman by giving his life to fight the shooter.

Eventually, Cha-Cha settled into a peaceful existence in Collarworld.  She chose the Green Meadow as her realm of peace, and when the pain in her aching left foreleg allowed her to, she played games of fetch and tag with Vincent and several of the other pets.  She even watched as Vincent climbed the great oak in the Green Meadow, knowing that once Vincent reached the third branch, he cold see dozens of Collarworld realms in a single gaze.  Maybe, perhaps, Cha-Cha thought, her brother Rascal was in one of those realms, still searching for her.

It was a cool, breezy day in Collarworld, and Cha-Cha decided to explore a realm of Collarworld that she had not previously seen.  She hiked most of the day through a forest of brilliant, silvery leaves.  Each leaf captured the sunlight and reflected a luminous grey shine upon the forest floor, and for Cha-Cha the illumination and brilliance gave her hope.  She had never visited this part of Collarworld before … and maybe if she followed a winding path in the forest… a step here, a step there… perhaps someone in the forest could help the boxer find her littermate.

Vincent must be worried about me, Cha-Cha thought.  He shouldn’t worry.  Silly old tabbycat.  I’ll be fine, she thought.

After hours of walking through the forest of silver leaves, Cha-Cha arrived at a clearing.  Beautiful green grass.  Several spreading trees for shade.  A glistening stream.  Peaceful.  Tranquil.  Cha-Cha smiled.  Every time she visited a realm in Collarworld, she thought the new realm was better than the last.  This one, however, was the most beautiful of all.

In the distance, resting under one of the shade trees, was another dog.  I wonder if this dog knows of Rascal, Cha-Cha thought.  She paced towards the resting canine.  She recognized the breed as a German Shepherd.

The dog was asleep.  Maybe I shouldn’t disturb him, Cha-Cha thought.  I’ll come back another time and … and …

The German Shepherd opened his eyes.  “Who are you?” he snarled.

“Hi, um, I didn’t man to wake you,” Cha-Cha barked.

“You woke me.  Who are you?”

“My name is Cha-Cha, and I’m looking for my brother, he’s a boxer just like me.”

“He’s not here,” the German Shepherd growled.  “And you shouldn’t be here either.  You need to go.  Now.”

“Why?  I mean, I’m sorry I woke you up, but – ”

“No,” the dog slowly roared.  “It is not safe for you to be here.  Please leave me alone.”

Cha-Cha walked around to face the German Shepherd.  “Who hurt you?” she asked.

“You need to go.”

“I’ll go … but I think you need a friend.”

“I don’t need anybody.  I’m fine where I am.”

As Cha-Cha walked toward the tree, the German Shepherd noticed something in the boxer’s gait.

“You’re limping.”

“It’s an old wound from the Living World,” Cha-Cha replied.

“You should have been healed from that wound when you arrived here.”

“I chose to leave it, until I can find my brother again it will always remind me to find him.”

“Did your master harm you?” he asked.

“Not quite,” Cha-Cha replied.  “I protected my mistress from an evil man who tried to kill her.  The man shot me in the side.  My brother fought the man, and the man shot my brother to death.  The evil man was later captured, but my brother died.  That was a few years ago.”

“But your mistress survived.  Thanks to you and your brother.”

“Yes,” said Cha-Cha.  “I stayed with her for many years after that, and then one day I woke up and I was here in Collarworld.  How long have you been here?”

The German Shepherd looked at the nearby stream.  “I’ve been here for many, many years.  Longer now than when I was in the Living World.”

“Why are you here by yourself?”

“In the Living World, I was the trusted pet of a college professor.  Some of his students did some horrible things to me – they put something in my dog food that tasted funny and clouded my mind, to the point where I attacked my master.  Ever since that moment, I’ve felt shame and disgust with myself, and I’ve chosen to live in exile here in Collarworld, and not let anybody near.”

“What will you do when your master crosses over and looks for you?”

The German Shepherd closed his weary eyes.  “He crossed over two years ago.  I still couldn’t face him, I still felt guilt and anger about what I had done.  I broke his trust.  Thankfully, another dog volunteered to be his reunion companion, and my master will never have to know my shame.”

“You did nothing wrong,” Cha-Cha barked.

“I hurt my master.  That’s the worst thing a pet can ever do.  It doesn’t matter if I did it from my free will or if it was a mistake.  I did it.  There is no forgiveness for that.”

Cha-Cha laid down next to the German Shepherd.  He tensed up, just for a second.

She licked the side of his face.  “I forgive you,” she barked.

“You can’t forgive me,” the German Shepherd moaned.  “Nobody can.”

“I just did.”

And for a moment in time, all was peaceful and calm in the clearing.

“You need to leave,” the German Shepherd barked.  “I appreciate your concern…”

“It’s not concern,” Cha-Cha replied.  “It’s caring.  You can’t blame what you did on yourself, when a human caused you to behave like that.  We are trained, and we are intelligent.  I know I’m going to find my brother Rascal, and I know that you’re going to find peace as well, friend dog.”

The German Shepherd looked at Cha-Cha.  “Rascal.”

“Yes, that’s my brother.  A boxer, just like me.”

“How long ago did this happen – the man who attacked you?”

“Twelve, thirteen years I think…”

The German Shepherd scratched some grass with his paw.  “I know what happened to him.  He was here in Collarworld, but only for a few days.”

“And where did he go?”

“Go find the one known as St. Francis of Assisi.  He is the patron saint of all animals in Collarworld, and he was the man who you first saw when you arrived here.  Ask him about the Order of the Seven Angels.  If I remember, the one you call Rascal was here just long enough to be asked to join the Seven Angels.  Every human in the Living World is watched over by seven angels from the day of birth to the day of death.  Only the most pure and noble of all creatures joins the Order.  That’s where Rascal is.  St. Francis can tell you more if you ask him.”

“Seven Angels?”

“Yes,” the German Shepherd barked.  “That’s where he is.  He’s helping to protect a human on Earth.”

“That’s how he died,” Cha-Cha yipped.  “He protected Miss Dottie and me on Earth.”

“Then truly he was a blessed choice for the Seven Angels.  But you need to go now… I can’t explain more, but you are not safe here.”

“Do you really want me to leave?”

The distant rustling of leaves, a whisper of breeze in the branches.

“You can come back another day,” the German Shepherd whispered, “when I’m better rested.”

“Okay,” Cha-Cha said, “Thank you.  And thank you for telling me about Rascal.”

“You’re welcome.  Now please let me rest.”

“Just one thing.”

“One thing.  No more.”

“Before I go… what’s your name, friend dog, so I can tell my friend Vincent back in the Green Meadow who helped me?”

“You know Vincent the cat in the Green Meadow?”

“I do.  He’s my friend.”

“You tell him that you met Bismarck in the Clearing of the Silver Forest.  And he’ll explain everything else.”

 

Collarworld: Protecting Miss Dollie

The Meeting Place was crowded on a sunny morning in Collarworld, the afterlife waystation for pets to wait until they are reunited with their masters.  And as Vincent the king orange tabbycat watched the new arrivals of dogs and cats and birds and other pets receive their welcoming blessings from St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of all animals in Collarworld, he thought about the experiences that the new arrivals brought with them from the living world.  He also knew that many of these new arrivals would be scared and confused, and it was his duty – as it was the duty of many of the veteran pets at the Meeting Place – to soothe and calm the new arrivals.

The final arrival of the day was an old boxer.  “Vincent,” called St. Francis of Assisi, “come welcome our new friend.”

The tabbycat walked up to the boxer.  “Welcome to Collarworld, friend dog.  My name is Vincent, and we’re happy that you’re here with us.  What is your name?”

“Am I … where is my … what is this place – ”

“I know.  It’s hard to understand.  But you’re no longer in the Living World, you’re here with us in a new place.”

The boxer looked around.  “All these animals … you are all … ”

“Yes we are,” the tabbycat explained.  “We’re just waiting here and someday we will meet our masters again.  And so will you.”

St. Francis of Assisi slowly placed his hands on the boxer’s ribs.  “You have been through many adventures, young one.  Let me heal you.”

The boxer looked up at the patron saint.  “If I am here … then my brother … my brother is here too?”

“You’re the only boxer I’ve seen so far today,” Vincent replied, as St. Francis slowly rubbed the boxer’s chest and neck.

“My brother … he must be here,” the boxer replied.

“Vincent,” the patron saint said, “Come look over here.”

The tabbycat walked over to the boxer’s left side.  It was there that Vincent saw something in the boxer’s front left shoulder.

The boxer’s left front flank had the remains of a bullet wound.

“My Lord,” the tabbycat whispered.  “What happened here?”

“I need to find my brother … please, if he’s here, you must help me find him.”

The tabbycat looked up at the patron saint.  The saint nodded.  Vincent then turned to the boxer.  “If your brother is here in Collarworld, I’ll help you find him.  Are you able to walk?”

“Yes,” the boxer replied.  “You’ve seen my wound.  That was a long time ago.  I can still walk.  It hurts sometimes, but I manage.”

“You will be fine here,” Vincent replied.  “Come join me.  I live in the green meadow just over the horizon.  I have many friends who would love to meet you and become your friends as well.”

The boxer nodded.  “As long as you help me find my brother … I will be your friend.”

==

As the tabbycat and the boxer walked the long, dusty path to the green meadow, Vincent explained to his new friend about the realms of Collarworld – the locations for farm animals and circus animals and racing animals; the places for service pets and rescue pets and the like.

“And how long have you been here?” the boxer asked.

“A very long time,” Vincent replied.

“And you haven’t seen my brother?”

“I’m sorry.  I don’t recall recently seeing a boxer.  You’re the first one in a long time.”

The two continued their journey.

“You know, friend dog, you haven’t told me your name.”

“I’m sorry.  My mistress called me Cha-Cha.”

“That’s a good name for a dog.”

“She named my brother Rascal.”

“Tell me about your brother and your owner.  There’s still a long way for us to travel, and I’d like to know more about you, friend dog.”

Cha-Cha looked at Vincent.  “Can we rest a bit first?  My shoulder … it aches …”

“Sure,” Vincent said.  “This tree will give us some nice shelter.”

And as the two walked over to the oak tree, Cha-Cha the boxer told Vincent an amazing story of her life in the living world.

“We were a litter of five.  We all played together on a farm, and my brother Rascal and I had so much fun together as puppies.”

“I bet you did.”

“Then one day, our mother called us over, and said that we would be going to a human owner.  We were so excited, just the thought of Rascal and I staying together and helping a human.  And our mother said to us, ‘Rascal and Cha-Cha, this is very important.  You must protect Miss Dollie.'”

“Miss Dollie?”

“That was our mistress.  See, boxers are very smart dogs, and we know when there’s trouble.  And even though the first time we met Miss Dollie, she picked us up and kissed and hugged us, we could tell that she was very scared.”

Vincent listened as Cha-Cha continued her story.

“Rascal and I could tell that Miss Dollie was afraid of something.  Miss Dollie wouldn’t tell us, but we knew that she was afraid.  So the two of us made a pact.  We would always stay with Miss Dollie and protect her from whatever it was that made her fearful.  Rascal would always sleep at the foot of her bed, while I slept at the entrance to her bedroom door.  We would look out the window at anyone that walked past our house, just to make sure they were friendly.  And we both agreed to always make Miss Dollie proud.  We never barked at night, we always finished our food, and we never made a mess inside the house.  We loved Miss Dollie, and every time she held us, we could tell that we were helping her relax.”

“I know many therapy dogs in Collarworld,” Vincent said.  “They’ve told me of their bond with their masters.  It’s a wonderful feeling.  You have a great gift.”

“You’ve seen my wound,” said Cha-Cha.

Vincent nodded.

“It was a cold night, the coldest night I can remember.  I remember that Miss Dollie was watching television, and the phone rang.  She answered it, and all of a sudden Rascal and I could see that Miss Dollie’s face was went from happy to – to – to terrified.  And she hung up the phone, picked it back up and called for the police.”

“Do you know who called?”

“Not at first,” Cha-Cha answered.  “But Rascal and I both looked at each other and we said, ‘We have to protect Miss Dollie.'”

“So what happened?”

“Maybe about ten minutes after that phone call, we were sitting by Miss Dollie’s feet.  And then someone started pounding on the door.  It was a man, and all I heard him say was, ‘I found you, bitch, open the god damned door, you bitch, or I’ll break it down and kill you, you bitch!!'”

Vincent looked at Cha-Cha in shock.

“He was a man from Miss Dollie’s past.  And he was mad.  And he kept pounding on the door.  Rascal started barking at him.  And I started barking at him.  And then the door broke open.”

“What did you do?”

“We both jumped up and attacked the man.  He was going to hurt Miss Dollie.  We couldn’t let him hurt Miss Dollie.  We barked and we bit and we growled and snarled at him, while Miss Dollie ran for the bedroom.  We had to stop this man.  He was going to hurt Miss Dollie.”

“You said she called the police.”

“Yes.  Maybe about two minutes after the man broke in, I could see flashing lights through the house curtains.  The police were here.  And then the man pulled a … out of his pocket … a small gun … and he … he … ”

“That’s where the bullet went into your shoulder?”

“He shot me first.  I couldn’t move.  And then Rascal jumped on the man and bit his hand.  Bit him hard enough to make him drop the gun.  Rascal struggled with the man, but the man grabbed the gun with his other hand … and … ”

Cha-Cha looked at the ground.  The words were in her mouth, but they wouldn’t come out.

“I’m sorry,” Vincent mewed.  “I’m so sorry, Cha-Cha.”

“He killed Rascal.  One bullet right at his head.  And I couldn’t move.  He started to head for Miss Dollie’s bedroom, where Miss Dollie ran to hide.  And just a few seconds later … the police burst in.  The man tried to shoot the police.  The police fired back.  The man was killed.”

Vincent looked at the boxer.  “And Miss Dollie …”

“She was safe.  We protected her.  We kept the man from hurting her until the police arrived.  She told the police that the man was someone she had been running from for years.  And that she was fearful for her life because of him.  And she begged them to save Rascal and me.  I was rushed to the animal hospital, and they saved my life.  But Rascal … he was …”

“Rascal was brave.  So were you.”

“It’s been a long time.  That was many years ago.  And I stayed with Miss Dollie every day since.  I gave her comfort and peace.  And then, one day … I went to sleep in Miss Dollie’s lap … and now I’m here.”

“Yes,” Vincent said.  “You are here.  And now I understand.  If Rascal’s here, I’ll help you find him.  I will, and so will all my friends.”

“Thank you,” the boxer barked.  “I need to see him again.”

“We can start looking tomorrow.  But right now, I want you to relax and get your strength back.  The green meadow where I live is very peaceful.  After a rest, you and I will search for Rascal together.”

The boxer leaned over and licked Vincent’s face.  “Thank you, friend cat.”

And in those moments, Vincent thought about who in Collarworld might know of a boxer named Rascal.

Somewhere in Collarworld, Cha-Cha’s brother waits.

Maybe there’s another glorious reunion in store, Vincent thought.

And how great it would be if he could help Cha-Cha with that reunion.

Collarworld: The Volunteers of Conscience

“Lord Vincent!”

The tabbycat rose from a quiet nap.  One eye open, then the other.

“Hey,” Vincent softly mewed.  “How’s it going, Paris?”

The greyhound smiled.  “I just heard the news, my master is coming over the Rainbow Bridge today, we’re going to be reunited!  I’m so excited, I’ve waited for years, I missed him so much!”

“That’s fantastic,” Vincent purred.

And then the tabbycat looked to the sky, hoping to see the red sunbeams that told all animals of a new reunion in Collarworld, the afterlife waystation where pets wait for their masters.

The sunbeams were not red.

They were inky black.

“Paris…”

“Yes, Lord Vincent?” the greyhound barked.

“How fast were you in the living world?”

“Before my master rescued me, I was the fastest greyhound in all of Florida.  I won many races, although I never caught that darned metal rabbit.”

“I need you to take me to the Meeting Place.  I’ll ride on your back if you’ll let me.  But I need you to get there as quickly as possible.”

“Climb on,” Paris replied.  “But you’d better hold on tightly.  I’m that quick.”

As the king orange tabbycat climbed aboard Paris’ back, Vincent could see other animals sprinting and galloping and running as fast as they could to the Meeting Place.  And although Paris was focusing on seeing her master once again, Vincent knew that the black sunbeams in the sky were for a more ominous and somber reason.

===

The Meeting Place was filled with nearly every animal in Collarworld.  Circus animals came from the Sawdust Oval.  Racing horses and greyhounds arrived from the Oval Pastures.  Farm animals traveled from Indigo Acres to reach the Meeting Place, as did police and fire dogs from Precinct 3:16, healing and empathetic animals from the Shore of the Cedars, and more and more.

It was at the Meeting Place that Vincent saw Messer, a Newfoundland dog who had recently joined with other animals at the Shore of the Cedars.  “How are things going, Messer?”

“They’re going great,” the Newfoundland barked.  “Lord Jackson has shown us the healing waters at the Shore of the Cedars, and we’ve helped other animals bathe in them and cleanse their sins and heal their wounds.”

“That’s amazing,” the tabbycat replied.  “I’m glad you’ve been able to find a place for your rescue talents.”

“I did,” Messer smiled.  “Yesterday, a little rabbit swam too far out in the water, and I rescued him.”

“Messer to the rescue?” asked Vincent.

“You know that’s me.”

“Shh,” Vincent interrupted.  “St. Francis is speaking.”

And at that moment, St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of all animals in Collarworld, stood at the center of the Meeting Place.  “Blessed friends,” he said in a voice that was both warm and comforting, “I have called all of you together for this very special moment.  There has been a horrible tragedy in the living world.  A man went into a place that was reserved for peace and joy and happiness … and he committed the ultimate transgression.  By his hand, he ended the lives of others.  By his hand, he caused pain and sorrow and anguish.  And now I ask a great request of all of you.  Please think carefully, and answer with your heart.”

All the animals in Collarworld listened intently.  Many of them knew the request that St. Francis of Assisi would ask.  And many of those animals knew their decision must be made out of love and support, and not out of obligation or indifference.

“Blessed friends,” St. Francis continued.  “Fifty souls are arriving.  And if there are volunteers who will help comfort these souls, who will walk with them and keep them safe… all I ask is that you do so.  I know that many of you are waiting for your own masters and mistresses, and I would not ask you to cease that personal vigil.  Are there any volunteers who will step forward for these souls?”

Within an instant, many animals stepped forward and volunteered to be companions for the new souls.

“I will volunteer,” barked a burly German shepherd named Gauge, whose wagging tail was the rock-steady timekeeper in Collarworld’s Agility Games.  “I will help those in need.”

“I will volunteer,” mewed a grey shorthaired cat named Timmie.  “My master in the living world taught me to love others.  I will show the same.”

“I will volunteer,” chirped Bounce, a small chincilla.  “Gotta show some love for others, mate!”

“I will volunteer,” brayed a white-brown llama named Stella.  “In the living world, my mistress taught all the animals on our farm that love and acceptance is universal.  We are all God’s creations, and we are all loved.  I will share that with my new master.”

A swoop of wings flew over Vincent’s head, as an eagle landed on St. Francis of Assisi’s outstretched arm.  A caw and a screech from the eagle.

“Is that – ” asked Messer.

“Yep,” Vincent smiled, recognizing the former college football team mascot.  “It’s Minuteman VII.”

“Yes, Minuteman VII,” smiled St. Francis to the eagle.  “One of the souls did go to your university.  You will show him familiarity and comfort.  Bless you for volunteering.”

Other animals walked over to the patron saint.  Dogs.  Cats.  Rabbits.  Ferrets.   One by one, the volunteers were blessed by St. Francis of Assisi, who placed his hand on each animal’s body, one by one.

“We need a few more volunteers,” St. Francis asked.  “Would someone step forward?”

“I will volunteer.”

Vincent and Messer looked behind them, following the sound of the requesting voice.  It was a tiny kitten, a Siamese breed.  And next to the kitten was the black cat of the Ashen Forest, the feral named Mourire.

“Step forward, little Beacon,” requested the patron saint.

The Siamese walked through the crowd of animals, and joined the volunteers.

“Why do you want to volunteer, little one?” asked St. Francis of Assisi.

“I didn’t have a master in the Living World,” mewed Beacon the Siamese kitten.  “I was abandoned because I was different.  When I arrived in Collarworld, I was left in the Rainy Barn with all the other unwanted pets.  But a great leader cared for me and helped me and protected me.  His name is Lord Mourire.”

Lord Mourire?” Vincent asked, smiling at the feral cat.

“I told her not to call me ‘Lord,'” Mourire snarled.  “She never listens.  I’m no Lord.”

“But she’s volunteering to do this.”

“I know,” Mourire replied.  “Hey, Vincent… I said some things to you a while back after Stave and Torch left me… and … well ….”

Vincent swished his tail back and forth.  “We’re square.  You’ve done a great job taking care of Hickory and Beacon.  I’m proud of you.”

“Yeah, but I – ”

“Take a breath and see what your charge is doing right now,” said Vincent.  “You’ve raised her from the Rainy Barn to being a volunteer of conscience.  You deserve that title that she gave you.”

“Yeah, but I – ”

“We’re square, Mourire.  That’s all that matters.”

“Thank you, all of you,” the patron saint called out.  “We now have enough volunteers.  And may I ask the greyhound that was once known as Paris After Summer to step forward, please?”

The greyhound sniffed the ground as she walked over to St. Francis.  The saint touched Paris’ shoulder, his warm fingers glistening against her short furry body.

“Paris,” St. Francis said calmly, “Your master is here as well.  I wish there was an easier way to tell you what happened … but he was at that place and he was happy and joyful… with all the other souls … ”

“Is he here, my Lord?”

St. Francis nodded.

“How is he doing?”

“He is very scared and confused.”

“Please, let me see him.  Let me be with him,” the greyhound barked.

St. Francis patted the greyhound’s shoulder.  “Walk with the others across this bridge.  You will see him at the other side.”

“I’ll get there first,” Paris yipped.  “He’ll know it’s me, I’m the fastest racing dog in Florida.”

“Yes you are, my child,” St. Francis smiled.

And one by one, the volunteers of conscience walked across an ornately carved wooden bridge.  One by one, as each animal crossed the bridge, they faded into the foggy distance, their last moments in Collarworld punctuated by cheers and barks and mews and caws and brays as they approached their new masters and mistresses.

“So this is what a reunion ceremony looks like,” said Mourire the feral.

“It’s more joyous than this,” Vincent replied, “under the circumstances, of course.”

St. Francis stood.  “Blessed friends of Collarworld,” he called.  “I must ask for one more volunteer.  And this is the most difficult request I can make.  But I ask all of you to please listen.”

Silence in the Meeting Place.  Not a bark or a mew.

“The man who caused this tragedy.  He hurt so many people, that he was eventually killed before he could inflict more horror.  If he was not stopped… I must say that the final moments of his life were governed by hate and ignorance and ugliness.  If any of you feel that even after all that he has caused, that he deserves a volunteer of conscience, please speak now.  There is no shame in staying silent, if that is your choice.”

With that, St. Francis looked over the rows of animals in the Meeting Place.  He could see the discomfort and pain in their faces.

“I understand,” said the patron saint.  “If there are no more volunteers, then – ”

“I will volunteer.”

“Who said that?” asked Messer.

“I know that voice,” replied Mourire.

“You mean it’s – ” Vincent looked around.  He thought he recognized the voice as well.

Slowly walking through the crowd of pets and beasts was a mixbreed fighting dog, its white, piercing eyes staring toward the ground.  “I will volunteer,” the dog slowly barked.

And immediately Vincent and Mourire recognized the mixbreed.

“I will volunteer,” the mixbreed said.  “I will be this man’s volunteer of conscience.”

“That’s the Demon,” Vincent whispered.

“No, no, he changed his name,” Mourire put in.

“Changed his name?”

“Yeah, don’t you follow all the news in Collarworld, or do you just keep tabs on your own meadow and ignore the rest of the world?”

Vincent smiled.  “Yeah, that’s the Mourire I know.”

St. Francis of Assisi knelt down and rubbed the mixbreed’s shoulders and head.  “You are Dismas, and you came from the Silver Forest.”

“Yes,” the dog softly barked.

“And why have you asked to be a volunteer of conscience for this man?”

“Please let me explain,” said the fighting dog once known as the Demon.  “I did some terrible things in the Living World.  I hurt other dogs.  I killed other dogs.  I caused death and pain.  And when I arrived in Collarworld, I continued to cause pain and hurt.  And in my darkest moments, in my most angry and hurtful instances, someone in Collarworld taught me that I was wrong.  And he taught me to find a correct path.  And although I can never undo the hurt and pain that I caused others… and nothing I could do now will ever fix the past… I must find a way to heal in the future.  My teacher, Lord Bismarck, the ruler of the Silver Forest, taught me that forgiveness does not mean absolution or forgetting.  What I am doing today is not a prize, nor is it an honor.  It is a duty.  I will be there to show this man that his violence was wrong, that his decisions were horrible, that what he did was disgusting and reprehensible and unacceptable and vulgar.”

St. Francis stroked the mixbreed dog’s ears.  “You are doing this of your own free will, young Dismas?”

“I must,” Dismas said.  “I must show him that I did horrible things in the Living World as well.  Things for which I am now ashamed and sorrowful.  They are things that I can never, ever undo, they are decisions that were made out of anger and violence.  I do not deserve forgiveness.  And if this man knows that his choices for the rest of time are to walk in the shadows of shame and in the pits of fire and dread … then I shall do the same.  This too is my penance.  This too is my walk of sin.  I must do this.  And I must do this today.”

The patron saint kissed Dismas’ forehead.  “Go across the bridge, young one.  Perhaps you, of all the animals in Collarworld, can help this tortured soul see the results of his horrible actions.  Help this man, young Dismas.  Help him as others have helped you.”

“I will, my Lord,” Dismas slowly barked.  “I will be the one that he seeks.”

And with that, the mixbreed dog slowly walked across the bridge.  He did not look back.

And as the rest of the animals traveled back to their respective realms, Vincent, Messer and Mourire stayed behind.

They thought about the animals that left the realms of Collarworld on this tragic day.  All those who stood and offered to be a volunteer of conscience for souls who left the Living World too soon.

“I need to go back to the Shore of the Cedars,” Messer said.  “Lord Jackson needs me.”

“Go,” Vincent whispered.  “Go and heal.”

“Vincent, I have to go too,” mewed Mourire.

“Take care of that pup you’re raising,” Vincent replied.  “I expect to see him score well in the next Agility Games.”

As the sun slowly set in the horizon, Vincent walked over to St. Francis of Assisi, and rubbed his furry body on the patron saint’s ankle.  St. Francis picked Vincent up and stroked the tabbycat’s ears.

“My Lord,” Vincent asked, “Why do people do horrible things in the Living World to other people?  Why did those people have to die?  What was the reason?”

The patron saint slowly petted Vincent’s neck, his fingers softly trembling against the tabbycat’s soft fur.

And in that moment, Vincent looked up at St. Francis’ face, only to see a tear slowly cascading down the saint’s cheek.

It was at that instant that Vincent knew that there were no answers.  None that would offer satisfaction or comfort.

And Vincent knew, as St. Francis comforted and petted the tabbycat, that even the strongest, most confident entities in the world can also know the pain of senseless, disgusting, destructive violence of man against man.