“Did you bring it?”
“I have it here,” said Mourire, the feral cat of the Ashen Forest. On the ground, in front of Mourire, was a jeweled collar.
“You don’t have to do this.”
“For all you’ve done to protect me these years?” Mourire chided. “We should have given this to you long ago.”
“This has the jewel that your charge Hickory won at the Agility Games.”
“He asked that you take it,” said the feral cat. “He wouldn’t have been able to compete at the Agility Games had you not stopped the Guild of the Bloodline from hassling us. As far as he’s concerned, you earned this more than he.”
Bismarck sniffed at the collar. “You and he deserve all the protection in the world. Thank you so much for helping me acquire this gift.”
“You’re really going to do it?” asked Mourire.
“She’s the one. If anyone else has ever shown me love and joy in this realm, it’s been Cha-Cha.”
“When do you see her?”
“Tomorrow,” Bismarck barked. “She promised to visit me for Christmas.”
“That will be a great gift. But I gotta get back to the Ashen Forest. Take care of Hickory, you know. Dalmatian puppies are kinda rambunctious.”
As the feral cat turned to leave, Bismarck barked, “Merry Christmas, Mourire.”
“Same to you, boss,” the cat mewed.
She promised him he would visit. And Bismarck, the self-exiled German shepherd, waited in the Silver Forest for Cha-Cha the boxer to visit him today.
Over the many months that Bismarck and Cha-Cha spent time together – the afternoons staring at the clouds, the mornings enjoying the floral scents, the evenings trying to count the stars in the sky – Bismarck felt, for the first time since his arrival at the afterlife waystation known as Collarworld, at peace.
Today would be special. Bismarck wanted Cha-Cha to visit today, of all days. It was the special day of Christmas, the morning where in the living world masters and owners and pets celebrated together. And Bismarck wanted to celebrate the holidays for the first time in the many years of his Collarworld exile.
Cha-Cha said she would visit today.
The sun rose. A red sunbeam shone in the horizon. The sign that pets who had waited in Collarworld would now reunite with their masters. The joyous reunion from the Living World to the next adventures.
Bismarck looked down at a small patch of buttercups. A beautiful warm December day in Collarworld.
Maybe it was too good to last, the German shepherd thought. Who would want an old, mangy dog who once attacked his master. A dog with so much shame that he wouldn’t even greet his master in reuniting at the Meeting Place.
Maybe Cha-Cha knew the truth about Bismarck. The German Shepherd grumbled. Maybe she knew what everybody else knew. That for all that mattered, Bismarck still needed to be as far away from everybody as possible. Of all the animals … he thought Cha-Cha would care about him.
And now that more and more pets figured out the pathways through the Silver Forest … his exile no longer seemed as solitary as before.
Maybe he needed to find another home. A home far away from all animals in Collarworld.
Little squeaks. Tiny pips. In the ground beneath his feet.
“Hey there, Bizzy-biz!”
“Greetings, Lord Bismarck.”
Around Bismarck’s little paws were Bacardi, Truffle and Cupcake – the Royal Order of Ancient Carissima Hamsters, the heralds to St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of all animals in Collarworld.
“What do you want?” Bismarck snarled. “Go away. I don’t want to see anybody.”
“We need you, Lord Bismarck.”
“Yeah, Bizzy-biz. You gotta come with us.”
“Right now, we need you right now.”
“Why? To rescued a kitten from falling off Fred’s Chasm? To protect a puppy from attacks by the Guild of the Bloodline? To stop a fighting dog from fighting and teaching him penance? I did all that. And more. And it never mattered. Never.”
The hamsters scooted around Bismarck’s front paws, egging and needling the weary German Shepherd.
“You don’t understand.”
“Bizzy-biz, you need to come with us.”
“Yes. Come to the Meeting Place right now.”
Bismarck turned around, facing away from the piping rodents.
“I don’t want to. I’m tired. Go away. Please.”
“But Lord Bismarck, we – ”
“I SAID, GO AWAY!!” Bismarck snarled, with a ferocity that seemed to shake the very ground.
Two of the hamsters, Bacardi and Truffle, ran back to the woods. Cupcake remained.
“You too,” Bismarck growled. “I don’t want to play any more.”
“Lord Bismarck, if you don’t come to the Meeting Place now …”
“What, I won’t see someone leave? Someone else reunited with their masters? You want to rub my nose in my shame again? I’m done. One more time. Leave. I mean it.”
Cupcake slowly backed towards the treeline.
“Is he coming?” a voice mewed from the treeline.
“No,” Cupcake squeaked. “He won’t leave.”
“All right, go back to the Meeting Place. Stall. Buy time. Sing and dance. Do whatever you can. It’s up to me.”
And with that, Vincent the tabbycat walked out of the forest and towards the sulking dog.
“Lord Bismarck. We need you. Please come to the Meeting Place.”
“No. I’m done. Please go away.”
Bismarck walked away from Vincent, and paced toward a shaded oak tree. Vincent followed.
“What’s the matter?”
“Of all the days I wanted Cha-Cha to visit me … you have no idea. You have no idea what I planned or why I planned it.”
Vincent looked over to the tree trunk. Resting against a root was a small, leather collar. Upon the collar was a silver jewel, a dazzling diamond.
“Where did you get that?”
“You know what this is, don’t you?” Bismarck asked.
“I do,” Vincent replied. “Were you going to give this to Cha-Cha?”
“She saw something in me,” Bismarck barked. “Something I hadn’t thought existed in me. We talked, we shared our feelings, we felt comfortable with each other.”
“And … ”
“I did something I never thought could happen. I made peace with all that happened to me in the past.”
Vincent rocked his tail slowly back and forth, as he inched closer to the jeweled collar. “Bismarck,” he mewed, “you’ve atoned for anything that happened in the Living World. You’ve atoned a thousand times over. And whatever did happen there, that was caused by humans who hurt you and you had no control over that.”
“I should have been stronger.”
“Stronger than what? There are evil humans and there are great humans. And every day I’ve known you in Collarworld, you’ve shown that your deeds are much more than you believe. Do I have to remind you? You saved Butterscotch from falling off Fred’s Chasm. You rescued Bate from a terrible attack from a vicious fighting dog – and then you helped rehabilitate and redeem that fighting dog to become a protector rather than a killer.”
“It doesn’t matter. I thought those good deeds would make me a better dog.”
Vincent moved closer to the jeweled collar. Three paces away from it. “You don’t need good deeds to prove to anybody who you are. You have always been a good dog. You have just burdened yourself with so much shame and guilt and self-hatred that you can’t see the goodness inside you.”
“There is no goodness inside me.”
Two paces away from the collar. “Cha-Cha knows there is goodness inside you.”
“No,” Bismarck growled. “I’m tired of being hurt. I’m tired of being blamed for things I could never control. What happened to me in the Living World. How I turned my back on my master when he came to Collarworld looking for me. And now … the one true soul in Collarworld that understood me and cared about me … I’ll never see her again.”
One pace away from the collar. “Yes you will.”
“On the one day I really, truly, wanted to share this collar with her. You don’t know how much I did to get this. I had to go visit Indigo Acres and talk to the drafthorse to get the leather for the collar. Then I had to go to the organizers of the Agility Games and see if they had any charms or bangles that could be added to the collar. I looked around and around to find every single glittery piece I could. And after I was able to get the collar assembled … ”
Bismarck looked at the tree trunk. The collar was gone.
He turned back to see Vincent – the collar tightly in the tabbycat’s mouth – scampering back to the tree line.
“Vincent! Come back here with that!”
Vincent sprinted as fast as he could. Not even a glimpse behind him. He knew Bismarck would give chase.
He just hoped that his plan would work.
Faster. Faster. He was almost at the Meeting Place. Just a few more feet. Keep running. Swift and fast. Of all the times Vincent believed in his speed, this was the time where it counted.
He could have jumped to the trees, to get away from the chasing Bismarck. But no. He needed Bismarck to follow him closely. If he got too far away, Bismarck might give up. Too close, and Bismarck could catch him and hurt him.
“Give that back!” Bismarck barked and growled. “Right now, Vincent, give it back!”
A few more feet. Past a stream. Past a bend in the dirt road. Ten feet. Five feet. And …
He made it. Vincent and the collar arrived at the Meeting Place.
“You made it, Vinny-vin!” Bacardi squeaked.
“Just in time,” Truffle piped.
Vincent spit out the collar. “Quick,” he shouted, “get that collar to St. Francis of Assisi. Right now.”
The hamsters dragged the jeweled throatpiece through the crowd of dogs, cats, horses, cows, chickens, assembled pets of Collarworld.
And as Bismarck raced into the Meeting Place – in full view of all the animals in Collarworld – he saw St. Francis of Assisi standing next to Cha-Cha the boxer – who was resting next to an elderly woman.
It was at that moment that Bismarck realized – the reason Cha-Cha didn’t visit him in the Silver Forest that day was because Cha-Cha’s mistress had arrived from the Living World. The glorious reunion between pet and master would be for Cha-Cha.
Bismarck turned and started to leave the Meeting Place.
“What are you doing?” Vincent shouted. “We need you here.”
“No,” Bismarck barked. “I can’t let her see me like this. I can’t let her see my shame. Not on the day of reunion.”
“Would you stop feeling sorry for yourself?”
“It’s not too late,” Vincent mewed. “Cha-Cha’s not ashamed of you. She never was. She always told me how much you mean to her. That’s why she wanted you to be here. Today, of all days. She wanted me to get you to come here. This is as important to her as you could ever imagine.”
“But the collar. The jewels – that’s for – ”
“I know what that’s for. But wait and listen. Open your ears and listen.”
“Your holiness,” the woman said to St. Francis of Assisi, “I had two dogs. This one – ” she pointed to Cha-Cha – “and another boxer. His name was Rascal.”
“Oh yes, Rascal,” smiled the patron saint. “I have some news about Rascal. He was here for many years, and then one day he was chosen by the Heavenly Hosts to be a member of a very special group. He was chosen to watch over a young person in crisis, as a member of the Order of the Seven Angels.”
“Yes. Every soul on Earth is cared for by seven celestial beings. And on occasion, some animals are blessed with this honor and join the group. And that is where your Rascal went. I am sorry that he is not here, but please understand that he continues to this day to watch over those in need.”
“Oh,” the woman said. “But I’m so glad to see my little miss Cha-Cha…”
Cha-Cha looked over to St. Francis of Assisi and whimpered softly.
“Yes, child,” the patron saint calmly whispered. “Miss, there is something I must tell you. Among all the animals in Collarworld, there is but one here who has been both a protector and a savior to those in need in this paradise. And though he may choose to hide himself away and feel that his gifts are not worthy, I say to you that he will make a wonderful companion to both you and to your pet. He will not replace Rascal – no one ever could – but I truly say that he will be as loyal and as friendly and as wonderful a companion as you would ever want.”
“Well,” the woman smiled. “I’ve always felt the comfort of two protective dogs in my life. May I see this animal?”
St. Francis of Assisi clapped his hands. “Lord Bismarck of the Silver Forest, please come forward.”
“That’s you, Bismarck,” Vincent nodded.
The German Shepherd nervously paced toward the center of the Meeting Place. Animals moved from one side to the next, offering Bismarck a clear path.
As Bismarck approached, St. Francis of Assisi took the jeweled collar from the Royal Order of Ancient Carissima Hamsters, and gently placed the collar around Cha-Cha’s throat. It fit perfectly and snugly.
“Even in his most secluded moments,” St. Francis of Assisi spoke, “Lord Bismarck of the Silver Forest always looked for the best in others. He learned that from his master, a great university professor.”
“And where is his master?” the woman asked. “Shouldn’t he be waiting for his master?”
“Such was the self-sacrifice for Bismarck,” the patron saint replied, “that he actually allowed another animal – a pet without a master – to enjoy the wonderment of bonding with a caring human. He stepped aside so that another could benefit.”
“What a blessed dog,” the woman smiled. “What is your name, friend dog?”
“We know him as Bismarck,” St. Francis replied, as Cha-Cha nuzzled Bismarck’s neck in joy.
“Bismarck. What a noble name. I would love to have him join Cha-Cha and me.”
St. Francis of Assisi looked at Cha-Cha, who was wagging her tail frantically. And a quick glance at Bismarck. For the first time in an eternity, he saw what appeared to be a happy tail-wag from the German Shepherd.
With that, the patron saint turned to the assembled pets. “Today is an especially blessed day,” he intoned. “For today, in the Meeting Place, we now have a true reunion of pet and master – as well as a joining of two pets who truly love each other. God bless all three of you.”
Cheers. Barks. Meows. Chirps. Brays. Whinnies. Caws.
“Can we give them a second to say goodbye to their friends?” St. Francis asked the woman. “I promise they’ll be back.”
“Of course,” the woman said, petting Cha-Cha and Bismarck on their heads.
Cha-Cha and Bismarck received nuzzles and sniffs from the other pets in the Meeting Place. And then they came up to Vincent, the tabbycat of the Green Meadow.
“Thank you, Vincent,” Cha-Cha cried, nuzzling the tabbycat. “I don’t know how you did it. I couldn’t leave here without Bismarck. You truly are a saint.”
“Thanks,” Vincent said. “All I did was get you two together. That’s the most important thing.”
And then, Bismarck walked up to Vincent.
“Vincent … I don’t – I don’t know what to say.”
“Lord Bismarck,” Vincent replied, “The debt I owe you is now paid in full. You rescued me when I tried to save Butterscotch from falling over Fred’s Chasm. You rescued Bate when he was being terrorized by the Demon. You rescued Hickory and Beacon and Mourire when they were attacked by the Guild of the Bloodline. You’ve been there every step of the way. Every animal in Collarworld wants you to be happy. Every animal in Collarworld wants you to forgive yourself. Now’s your chance. It’s us who thank you for all that you’ve done.”
Vincent then bowed his head. “God bless and keep you, Lord Bismarck of the Silver Forest. And take care of Cha-Cha and your new mistress.”
“I will,” Bismarck barked. “I’ll never forget you, Vincent. Never. And I can’t even begin to say how thankful I am for what you’ve done.”
“You take care of Cha-Cha,” the tabbycat purred, “and that’s all the thanks I need.”
Bismarck and Cha-Cha both paced back to St. Francis of Assisi and the woman. And within minutes, the woman and her two pets walked back towards the horizon. They walked on the journey to new adventures and new worlds.
And in a moment … as they passed across the horizon … they were gone.
Vincent walked back to the Green Meadow. As he climbed up one of the trees – stopping at the second branch to watch the sunset – he thought about Cha-Cha and Bismarck. The boxer who shared compassion – and the German Shepherd who shared protection.
“Merry Christmas to both of you,” Vincent smiled to himself, as the sun slowly set.