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.
“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.