It was a Sunday when my dog went missing.
I had woken up as usual with the tolling of the church bells to find that the spot where Rolly usually lay curled up was empty, with no sign of him anywhere. Getting out of bed, I went down to the kitchen to find mum and dad having a cup of tea before heading out to church.
"Where's Rolly?" I asked of mum, looking up at her as she stood warming the kettle in the fire.
She shrugged. "I don't know. I haven't seen him today. Isn't he in your room? That's where he always likes to sit in the mornings."
"No, he's not there," I wailed, looking around the kitchen, under tables and in cupboards. "Where could he have gone?"
Mum and dad exchanged a look. Dad was putting on his best coat and looked over to me. "He could be anywhere, darling. Maybe he just went for an early walk. He'll be back by the time we come back from church."
I was unhappy with not knowing were my little puppy had gone, but there was nothing I could do when mum then asked me to get ready for church.
As I headed up the stairs again, I turned back to them. "Can I have some breakfast first?"
"No!" came the chorus from both parents angrily. "You know you're not allowed to eat anything before the service. You can have a drink if you like, but no food. We fast on Sunday mornings to show our devotion to God," said Dad.
"No food until we eat lunch. We have chicken today. Your favourite."
It's true, I did love chicken for Sunday lunch, but my love only made it harder to think of waiting until after church to eat it. I was hungry now! Luckily I did not have long to wait for food because as soon as I entered my room I dove under the bed and felt around until my fingers fell upon the small tin box I kept there for 'emergencies'. Opening it swiftly, I grabbed the first piece of candied bread I saw and shoved it into my mouth, grimacing at the feeling of saliva quickly filling my mouth, but that pain quickly turned to relish as the flavour of the food entered my mouth.
It was good enough that I moaned in pleasure quietly while I chewed.
"Are you getting ready, Constance?" came a shout from down the stairs.
"Yefff!" I called, spitting crumbs out of my mouth as I did. Quickly I opened my closet and grabbed my Sunday best- a long velvet dress with lace cuffs. I threw it on and rushed down the stairs still tying laces and looking for my best shoes to wear.
"Honestly, Constance…" came a sigh from behind me while I was looking under the table.
"Your hair is a mess… Do you ever look in the mirror?"
"You say I'm not allowed into your room, mum."
She slapped the back of my head lightly. "You know full well that you are allowed to use the mirror, especially for Sunday mass." She then roughly pulled the comb through my hair, tugging and yanking my head from side to side.
"You should have had a bath last night. You're filthy! What will God think when you enter His house covered in dirt and grime?"
"That I've been enjoying His creations?" I ventured, giving up on looking for shoes while my head was being thrown back and forth, side to side, by the force of the comb. "Ow ow ow!"
"Keep your head still! There. Get your shoes."
Rubbing my head I glanced back at mum as she put away the comb and gathered the teacups into the sink. "If you want something to drink, get it now, Constance," she said.
I was not thirsty, so I kept up the search for my shoes. Finally I found them in a corner of the living room, behind the large armchair that dad likes to sit in. This spot was Rolly's favourite spot in the room; he enjoyed lying in the shadows looking out at the entire room.
I picked up the shoes gingerly and walked back into the kitchen. "Um, mum…?"
The moment she saw the tattered shoes her eyes bulged. "What happened?"
"I think Rolly was chewing on them," I said, looking carefully at the torn and chewed leather that had, at one time, been polished black leather with a shiny red ribbon on each.
"What the hell are those?" asked dad, coming back into the room from outside. He had probably been checking on the cows. "Are those shoes?"
"Constance's good shoes. The dog ate them," sighed mum.
Dad sighed as well and then clipped me round the ears. "You should have put them away last week like you were supposed to. Do you have any idea how expensive shoes are?"
"Go get your other shoes, instead," said mum as she put away the ruined pair. "Maybe the cobbler can fix them?"
Dad looked closely at them as I sat and pulled on my usual shoes: plain brown leather with thick soles. Not very pretty. "Maybe he can. Most of the leather is still good. And the soles are fine. Put them somewhere safe until he comes around again."
"He may be at church this week," suggested mum. "We can ask him if he is."
Dad grunted and put on his hat, straightened his jacket and looked around the kitchen. "Right," he said. "Are we ready to go?"
Mum pulled on a shawl and gave one to me as well as a hat. "We don't want you getting cold, Constance. Right, let's go."
Together, the three of us locked up the house and climbed into the small motor car that dad had parked just outside of the front door. He climbed into the front, behind the wheel with mum seated beside him. I knelt in the back between the two seats; I had to kneel because there was not enough room in the back for me to sit. Ours was a very small car.
The engine rumbling, we made our way down the track to the main road that went past our farm and, taking a right, headed off to town.
It's not a long ride to the church in the car, only ten minutes or so, but some people still use horses, like our neighbours. It takes them much longer to get into town with their slow horses. When our car was new, Dad once raced it against their horse-and-carriage from the bridge near our farms to the town square. It seemed as if the whole town showed up for the race that afternoon to see dad's motor car win the race by almost five whole minutes.
People still talk about that race, and the fact that a machine beat a horse.
The motor car putted its way along the rutted narrow dirt lane, bumping and jumping with the rocks and dips, sending me rolling first into mum's shoulder, then into dad's shoulder, and then back again. Careening along at what must have been lightening quick- at least thirty miles an hour- dad's rough hands moved the wheel this way and that along the twists and turns of the lane. Off to the right a small group of crows lifted off from the field on the other side of the hedgerow and scattering into the late autumn sky.
Soon we were rolling along the cobbled streets of the town, deep red-brick buildings on either side, the row houses blending in with the shops and pubs. The town was not a large town as towns went (from what I know), but it was a beehive of activity compared to the rural tranquility of the fields around the farm. We only went into the town occasionally, maybe once a week, for goods that we cannot make ourselves, such as electrical goods from the electrician, metal goods from the smithy, and luxury goods (although we hardly ever get those) from the general store. For special occasions we might come to get foodstuffs like fancy pie ingredients from the baker or special meats from the butcher. There were shops of all sorts and kinds, most of which we had no use for, being farmers. We grow and raise our own food, and make most of our own goods, like furniture from our own supplies and skills. No outsiders needed.
Dad turned onto the south road which led past the church which lay just outside of town. Immediately, as the houses thinned, the spire of the church was visible, towering above the trees and buildings, even though it was almost half a mile away. Dad always called this church a 'proper church'. It was a mammoth stone and glass building, complete with buttresses and pointed arches. Even a few statues above the doors of the main entrance. The spire was really more of a tower with a crenulated top and a small pointed roof rising just above it, giving the appearance of a building whose features had been decided upon at the very last minute. It was a very 'proper church', one which really put the rest of the village to shame. So much work must have gone into it that it must have taken years and years to build. All to service our little town.
We rumbled closer and closer until the great shadow of the mammoth building covered everything around us. Dad honked his horn at some friends, mum waved to some of the ladies waiting on some benches, and I waved frantically to the other children who ran alongside the car as it slowed beside some carriages.
I jumped out from behind the seats without waiting for dad and mum to get out- they were always so slow and I wanted to get some Very Important Playing done before the service began. Tag was the game of the day, with Tommy Bailey chasing the other children. These games on Sundays were never very fast since no one would run quickly; spoiling the Sunday Best was punishable by a thrashing from one's parents as well as a telling off from the vicar.
After only a few minutes of playing, I found myself standing still and listening for something without realizing it.
"What is the matter, Constance?" asked Anne, a short, curly-haired girl about my age, who stopped at my elbow, watching me intently. "Are you sick?"
I shook my head slowly.
"I thought I heard something," I said. "But I don't know what it was…"
But suddenly there it was. So faint that I almost missed it. So distant that only the sharpest of ears could have heard it. Once. Twice. Then again. The sound repeated far off. I was sure no one other than me had noticed it.
I followed the distant sound with my eyes and ears trying pinpoint where it was coming from. And then I had it.
I ran with all that the strength that I could, forgetting about falling down or dirtying my shoes. It was Rolly. I was certain of it and he was calling me to him. He wanted me to find him.
Hide and seek, his favorite game.
I ran down the small dirt road that led past the church and all of the gathered townspeople. I did my best to not stumble in the deeply rutted mud, but keeping my balance was hard. The road was still wet from the morning dew and animal droppings, especially horse muck.
I did not wish to fall into horse muck.
But I ran and I ran. Ignoring the worried calls from the other children in the churchyard until they no longer could be heard. The fields surrounding the village quickly surrounded me, so that all I could see were hedgerows, freshly shorn fields, hay bales, a couple of cows, and the distant spire of the church rising just on the horizon. Had I really run so far so quickly?
Rarely had I ever been so far from anyone else. Even on our own farm I knew where people would be and was surrounded by neighbors. I knew where mum and dad would be. I knew every inch of our land. But this part of the village was on the other side of our farm; I hardly ever played or visited anyone in this area. I slowed down and came to a halt at a crossroads. One dirt track crosses another, both identical and led in identical ways down hedge-rimmed fields.
Choices. Which way was Rolly?
I heard the barking again, from somewhere down the right track and I headed off in that direction.
Very soon, the barking led me off the track and into the fields surrounding the roads, and through the fields – whose they were I did not know – until I came to a most unusual sight. Rising from the low lying fields, where only the occasional tree would puncture the rolling views, came before me a forest.
This golden-and-flame forest began as soon as the fields ended, seeming to sprout directly from the edges, stretching as far as I could see in either direction, almost as if the two landscapes had been pushed together suddenly. One ended and the other immediately began. Where one was, the other wasn't.
In the darkened stillness of the underbrush, I heard the noise again, closer this time, but still far off. Where could Rolly be? Why would he be in such a place?
I traipsed into the dim forest, keeping my arms around me. I kept telling myself it was so as not to snag my coat on any branches, or to keep warm against the autumnal chill, but I think it was more to do with fear. I walked blindly through the forest, only hearing the sounds of my own footsteps as they crackled dead leaves and twigs and the occasional whisp of wind through the branches above, causing the red and gold leaves to rustle together for a second.
"Why are you walking through a dark, scary forest when you should be in Church with your family?" I asked myself.
"Because," I answered, "I have to find Rolly. He could be hurt or need something. There will always be next week to go to church."
"Are you even sure that this is Rolly who you are following? It could be some other dog. Or not even a dog at all – it could be your imagination, which you know has got you into trouble before."
"Of course it's Rolly. Why else would I hear a dog bark on the same day he goes missing?"
"This is a long way from home. Even for Rolly."
"I know. Which can only mean he's in trouble."
"But – look out!"
I stopped myself just before I placed my foot into a puddle of water, where the ground had suddenly stopped. Looking around, I noticed that it was more than just any puddle – this was a large puddle. Massive even.
No. Not a puddle. This is the canal that runs through the middle of the village. It must be. The sides were too straight to be natural, and a narrow path traced its way along the banks. The water did not move, but was too dark to see through. It only acted as a gloomy mirror for the trees above, which hung over the river as far as I could see, almost creating a tunnel for the water to course through. Some patches of sunlight streaked through the branches to land on the water, which made the light bounce onto the banks in that wavy, angelic way that water and light often behave when together.
I don't remember why the canal was built or who would have built it, but it was certainly made by human hands. Or… was it? Perhaps some sort of elves had created it to guide lost souls to Heaven? Was Rolly here because he was dead? Was I following him to Heaven?
"Gladly," I told myself. I nodded firmly in agreement. Yes, I could agree with myself on that point, certainly.
Walking along the banks of the fake-river, it seemed as if I was standing still. There were no noticeable differences between each step. One step forward, one step back. One step backward, one step forward. No difference. If I turned myself around and around so that I was dizzy, would I be able to notice which way I had come and which I was going?
But I did not do that. I just kept walking. And walking.
After what may have been hours, perhaps days – yes, surely days! – I came to a part of the path that had been covered by a collapse of dirt. The dirt had created a sort of mound on the path, with no way around it. Over was the only way. And it was dirty dirt.
Taking a handy tree branch in hand, I placed one foot on the mound only to have it sink in up to the ankle! I wobbled something horrible before regaining my balance, thankfully not falling into the canal or falling more into the dirt.
Looking carefully at the mound, I saw to my shock a half dozen small holes dug into the dirt, each no bigger than my rolled up fist. As I peeked into the darkness of the burrows, trying to see what manner of creature had buried itself into the mud that had so rudely captured my foot, a bright light began to glow in the depths of the holes.
Standing up and away from the burrows, I only just missed a stream of light that erupted from the mud, rushing into the air over the still water. A cloud of bright little insects had come out, I reasoned. Fireflies. Or some such thing.
The cloud swirled in the air before spreading out and moving, like a swarm of birds will do just after they take off from a tree – first in one direction then another. One of the little bugs flew close to me, perhaps curiously, and paused in front of my surprised eyes. It was not a firefly or any other bug that I knew of then or now; it was a tiny, beautiful, little person with wings as delicate as etched glass and eyes as brilliant as the sun.
My eyes stinging from looking at its brightness, the little creature seemed to wag its finger at me before rejoining the cloud of its siblings. As one, the group finally found a direction and made off down the canal in the direction which I was headed. I could only stand in awe at what I had just seen and it was several moments before I gingerly got my foot out of the hole it had stepped in and I stepped over the mound of dirt before returning to my quest to find Rolly and go back home.
The distant barking became louder and clearer as I walked along the mirror-like canal, the only breaks in the water were the occasional leaves that had fallen to lie, twirling, on the surface. Eventually I came to a stone bridge that spanned the canal.
This was not like the bridges in town. This bridge spoke of the ages, centuries that had passed since its building. This was a bridge to respect. The stonework was more than utilitarian, it was grand, but in an understated way. I could see at the sides of the bridge columns cut into the stones, holding up the top of the bridge. A meandering key wound its way along the lip of the bridge, which had long ago been conquered by ivy. The stones, which must have been beautiful so many years ago were now cracked and faded, with bits missing here and there, giving the impression of imminent collapse. But it had stood the ages; it would stand me.
The end of the bridge was up a sharp hill from the path, as if it was never meant to be used by the people who walked the paths. On hands and knees, I climbed the hill and looked along the bridge.
Lush grasses grew where there should have been more stone. Moss grew thick along the edges and along the handrail. A long dead log had fallen near the other end to partially block the path and definitely block the view. There was no path running along to bridge or even away from it; as soon as the bridge ended, nature began.
Of course, I did not take any of this in. What instead caught my attention was the small blond puppy sat in the middle of the grass, only his head and shoulders visible.
Rolly looked happy to see me. And I must have looked equally happy. He barked to me.
Getting up from my climb, I made to move to my dear puppy but he growled and barked again, this time not in a friendly way.
"What's the matter?" I asked him, slowly crouching and reaching out to him. He continued to growl before whimpering softly. Rolly got up and paced, making a move to come lick my fingers, as he always loved, but then thought otherwise and sat back down.
"You remember me, don't you?" Tears filled my eyes as I saw him in such confusion and trouble. "Why are you out here, Rolly? Why not come back home and you can curl up in your favourite corner and chew on all of the shoes you want. Doesn't that sound good?"
Rolly shook his head, floppy ears flapping, and he stayed seated.
"He's leaving," I told myself.
"No!" I cried. "He can't leave! I love him and he loves me."
"That's why he brought us here. To say goodbye."
"I don't want to say goodbye! He's my beautiful, wonderful, cuddly puppy!"
"We do not get to chose when our loved ones leave us. We can only love their memory."
"But, we had so many more days to be together." I sat heavily onto the soft ground and quickly rubbed at the freely falling tears as they streamed from my face to my Sunday dress. "Can't you stay just a while longer?"
Again Rolly shook his head and whimpered.
"Say goodbye," I told myself, sadly.
I could only sniff and clear my bleary eyes. Then: "I love you, Rolly. I'll always remember you."
Suddenly, the dog jumped up and rushed to me, happily licking my face of its tears and nuzzling me for the final time. Before I could wrap my arms around him, he jumped away and bounded over the bridge and disappeared beyond the fallen log.
Slowly, I walked along the silent canal until I left the forest and came back to fields, as the canal prepared to enter into the village. I hardly noticed the replacing of trees by buildings as I walked along in a sombre daze. The loss of Rolly was unbearable, and I felt a strange hollow in my chest that I hadn't known before. He had been my puppy. My beloved puppy. My beloved friend.
And now he was gone.
Somehow I found my way back to the main road that cuts through the village and headed off to the church, whose bells were ringing throughout the deep blue sky. I arrived at the church just as the service was ending and families were pouring out, done with their weekly filling of religion.
Mum and dad caught sight of me and took me by the arm, angrily.
"Where on earth have you been, young lady?" demanded mum. "How dare you skip church!"
She paused and dad held his tongue when they saw my face, which I'm sure was all grubby and wet from tears.
"What happened, darling?" asked dad, kneeling down to look me in the eye.
"Rolly," I mumbled. "He's…" I couldn't finish the words, only able to make a sob come out.
"You were looking for the dog this whole time?"
"I saw him!"
Even with tears in my eyes, I saw the glance between my parents. That glance that adults give each other when they doubt the word of their children.
"I saw him," I repeated, as if that somehow explained things. "He led me off into the forest and along the canal. Then he vanished."
"You went to the canal? From here?" asked dad, looking off into the distance, over the fields.
But they wouldn't understand. They immediately put me to bed and had the doctor look over me, fearing I was ill and seeing things. That suited me well enough, since staying in bed was all I wanted to do that day, and the next and the rest of my life. Years from that moment, someone would find my mummified body wrapped in blankets and thinking of my little dog.
It gave me time to think and digest what life would be like without Rolly. My heart ached with the loss, and crying just wouldn't help. I had formed an attachment with that pet that I had never made with any other animal, even though we lived on a farm. It wasn't even the type of bond formed between me and my parents. It was something special that was now gone forever.
And even though it never helped, I just lay there, curled in my bed, and kept crying.