“So the color of the sun in the sky has special meaning?” Messer the Newfoundland asked Vincent the tabbycat.
“Not the sun,” purred Vincent, “but its rays. When the sun passes through the clouds, it produces beautiful sunbeams, and that’s the colors in the sunbeams that you need to see.”
“Okay, so which color means what?”
“Most times you’ll see a blue sunbeam. That means we should all gather at the Meeting Place and greet the new arrivals. And a red sunbeam through the clouds means that a master has arrived and will be reunited with one of us.”
“Are those the only colors? Blue and red?”
“No,” mewed Vincent, as he patted the petals on a dandelion in the meadow. “Green sunbeams mean that St. Francis of Assisi – you met him, he’s the patron saint of all animals in Collarworld – he wants to meet with us. That’s often to let us know that one of our friends is in trouble or in need.”
“Like he needs a rescue? I can do that,” barked the Newfoundland. “Messer to the rescue – ”
“Hold on, tiger,” Vincent interrupted.
“Wait, there’s a tiger? I must rescue people from the tiger. Messer to the rescue – ”
“No, there’s no tigers around…” Vincent smiled. “Although we should go to the Sawdust Ovals and you can meet the Great Ingemar, the most famous tiger of all circus lore.”
“Does he need rescuing?”
“Maybe someday,” the tabbycat winked. “But not today.”
“Okay, blue sunbeams, green sunbeams, red sunbeams. Are there any others?”
“Two others. And these are very important sunbeams. They require all animals from Collarworld to gather at the Meeting Place, no matter what. A black sunbeam means that there was a great tragedy in the living world – many people crossing over, and Collarworld volunteers are needed as companions.”
“Has that happened before?”
“It has.” Vincent swatted at the dandelion, and its wispy petals floated in the air.
“What if the sunbeam is silver?” Messer asked.
“A silver sunbeam means that a child only lived on earth for a few moments. Just long enough to create a soul. It’s an extremely sad moment, and that soul arrives here terribly confused and sad. It’s at that moment that we in Collarworld are asked to volunteer – to give up the chance to see our masters once again, to willingly act as companions for those in the most dire of need.”
Messer looked up. “Is that a silver sunbeam?”
Vincent stared at the sky. Piercing through the clouds was a grey-white beam of light.
“Come on, Messer. We need to get to the Meeting Place.”
“Someone needs rescuing, don’t they?”
“Yes, Messer, they do.”
“I’m on the spot. Messer to the rescue!!”
And with that, the Newfoundland scampered down the dusty path to the clearing known as the Meeting Place, leaving Vincent behind.
“That dog has more energy than I’ve ever seen in a canine,” the tabbycat purred to himself.
“Fellow animals of Collarworld,” St. Francis of Assisi commanded, “Thank you for coming to the Meeting Place this day. Today is a very sad day in our realm, as I must ask one of you to volunteer as a companion for a tiny soul.”
The dogs and cats, birds and fish, rodents and reptiles stared at the patron saint, listening carefully to his holy words. Tears from a family in the living world, tears of a young boy who only lived long enough to cry three times… then his tender heart beat its last.
“I ask all of you to consider where you are,” the saint intoned. “I ask for one volunteer, one animal willing to give up his or her position to guide this young soul along a new journey. There is no shame in refusing to do this – I know all of you are waiting for your masters and mistresses, and you have every right to wait for your loved ones. But if there is one among you who is willing to volunteer… let that animal step forward.”
Vincent looked around. He saw several animals looking around as well, hoping to see who would be the first to volunteer. Nobody took the step.
“Isn’t there someone here without a master?” Messer asked.
“Not many,” Vincent replied. “It’s a difficult choice. If you commit to this, you would never see your master or mistress again. You would be obligated to remain the companion of this infant soul for all of time.”
“I miss my master,” Messer barked. “I don’t want to leave him behind.”
“You won’t,” Vincent purred. “Stay here. Don’t move.”
“No one else is moving.”
“Animals of Collarworld, is there no one who will step forward?” the patron saint asked.
Vincent looked around one more time. In the back of his mind, the tabbycat remembered the master and family who took him in from the cold, rainy barn. He remembered the warm house and tunafish and soft laps and thousands of memories. And here was this little soul… barely a day in the living world, and now here he is, too young to even ask for a companion in the afterlife.
One more glance. Okay. This young soul deserves a companion just as much as anyone does. And if nobody else will step forward…
Vincent slowly lifted his front paw to volunteer.
“We have a volunteer,” the patron saint called. “A young feline has agreed to guide this new young soul.”
I’m not that young, Vincent thought – and then he saw a brown, furry Maine Coon cat walking toward St. Francis of Assisi.
“Who is that?” Messer asked Vincent.
At first, Vincent didn’t recognize the volunteer. And then he remembered…
That Maine Coon cat was Stave, Mourire’s trusted enforcer in the stray trio of feral cats. The feral cats never knew the kindness of human touch in the living world; and their existence in Collarworld served only to tease and torment anyone who dared enter their home realm, the Ashen Forest.
St. Francis of Assisi picked up the cat and stroked its fur. With each stroke of the saint’s hand, Stave’s fur began to glow and twinkle.
“This is a joyous occasion,” the saint then called to the flock. “This cat has stepped forward to guide this newborn soul through to eternal happiness.”
“I don’t understand,” Vincent mewed. “He’s a feral cat. Ferals have been avoiding humans for ages.”
“So why did he volunteer?” Messer asked.
“Lord Vincent,” the patron saint called. “Please step forward. Our friend has something he wants to say to you before he leaves.”
Vincent timidly walked toward the saint and Stave.
“What are you doing?” Vincent asked the Maine Coon cat. “If Mourire or Torch find out you’re here, they’ll – ”
“Shh,” Stave hissed. “They don’t know I’m here. And they never need to know.”
“You don’t have to do this,” Vincent purred. “I was willing to volunteer.”
“You have a master and a family,” Stave replied. “So does everybody here in this world. Well… my family was Mourire and Torch. Ferals without masters. And then that – that – that demon dog came around that attacked us and … well, it was hard for me to say thank you for what you and Bate and Jackson and Ingemar and everybody else did. You stopped something evil that could have destroyed all of Collarworld. Not just our home in the Ashen Forest, but everywhere in this realm. Every animal in Collarworld owes you a debt of gratitude, Lord Vincent. A debt that can never be fully repaid.”
Vincent took a breath. This was the first time any of the ferals ever used the honorarium “Lord” in the tabbycat’s presence. “Stave, are you sure this is what you want to do?”
“It’s what must be done,” said Stave. “I’ve gone this long without a master. Without a friend. Without a human. Now… maybe I can show this little soul what it means to be a fighter, to never give up, to stand on your own and move forward. And who knows? Maybe this little soul could join the Order of the Seven Angels someday, as long as I train him well. It’s not like a feral would ever be a member of the Order of the Seven Angels…”
Vincent walked over to Stave and patted the Maine Coon cat on the shoulder. “You would be the first, if that ever happened. You have already shown that you are worthy of the Order, Stave. Take care of this young soul. Guide him to new heights and to new achievements.”
“Thank you, Lord Vincent,” Stave said. “And when you see Mourire… tell him that I didn’t leave the ferals because of him or because of Torch or because of anything bad that they did. Tell him I came to Collarworld as a scared kitten with no family… and now I leave with the strength and courage of my feral brothers.”
With that, Stave walked over and rested at St. Francis of Assisi’s feet. The patron saint picked up the cat and stroked its fur some more.
“Are you okay?” Messer asked Vincent as the Newfoundland and the tabbycat returned to the meadow.
“I’m fine,” Vincent purred quietly.
“You don’t sound fine.”
“I just need a nap,” the tabbycat replied.
“Who was that cat?” Messer asked.
“That was a cat named Stave. He was a very brave and selfless cat. And he will teach that new soul the wonders of bravery and brotherhood.”
“Won’t his master miss him?”
Vincent whipped his tail back and forth. “Honestly, Messer… I think his family in Collarworld will miss Stave more.”