He died during the night, alone, curled in the dark near the woodpile where he had spent nearly all his life, and when the children found his body in the morning they wept. He had been so ill the day before that they had each visited him alone, in the evening, to say farewell, but in the morning when they found him dead they wept. The girl who owned him, if one creature can be said to own another, retreated to her room and closed the door. Of her two younger brothers one could not be consoled and the other ate his breakfast in silence.
When the time came for school the three children silently donned their jackets and gathered their books and walked up the hill to the bus. Their mother walked with them. When she returned to the house she dug a hole near the camellia tree and her husband laid the animal to rest and she covered him with moist soil and heavy stones. They paused then, the woman and the man, staring at the little cairn, thinking of the short lives of pets, of the tears of children, of the feeble explanations of death and of the soul and of spirit; and then they parted, she to her work and he to his, and so ended a bad morning for that family.
Yet the man kept thinking of the animal, whom he’d liked and often fed, the girl often forgetting to do so and growing annoyed when reminded, just as she grew annoyed when reminded to bathe the creature and change his bedding, grimy tasks she detested and delayed. But sometimes she would bathe the animal in the kitchen and he would explore the vast country of the towel and venture to its borders and sniff curiously at new smells, big smells, mysterious smells. Once the girl bathed the creature outside in the summer grass, and never was the animal so delighted, so inquisitive, so washed with bright air and new smells as that day; the only day the man had ever seen the animal squirm adamantly against returning to his place by the woodpile, the one place that was absolutely his, a place riven with the scent of cedar and pine and fir, and arranged in such a way that all children passing to and from the carnival of the basement paused by the woodpile to pay their respects to Rascal, who rose to their salty fingers like fish to flies.
But he died, curled there by the woodpile, and we buried him by the camellia tree, and nothing I say to my daughter assuages her conviction that Rascal is utterly gone, his energy dissolved, his inquisitive spirit only a memory.
“His energy travels on in ways we don’t understand,” I say.
“But you don’t know that,” she says. “You only believe it.”
“I believe it deep in my bones,” I say.
“I don’t,” she says, and she retreats to her room and closes the door.
I have faith in his unlost energy and she has none. This eats at me, for soon enough her grandparents will die, and a neighbor, and a teacher, and the sister of a kid on the bus, and a kid who used to be in her Sunday school class, and then eventually her father will die, before she does if he is lucky, for which odd blessing he prays daily.
Today her pet rat Rascal, tomorrow everything else she loves, and if she cannot believe that who Rascal is somehow outlives what he was, how will she live? Without that hope in the intricate holy necessary of life to death, how will she love?
Last year my wife went on a tree-pruning bender in our yard, reducing our trees to skinny naked skeletons of their former hairy exuberance. The camellia above Rascal was cut to the bone and we thought it was dead. But a few weeks ago out struggled green nubs that unfurled into gleaming mobs of leaves, and now the tree is thriving, albeit in different form.
So is Rascal — somehow.
But how can I teach that to my daughter?
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine and the author of Saints Passionate and Peculiar, published by Saint Mary’s Press.