Gray clouds hovered over the tops of the trees in the morning as if the bottom of heaven had dropped out, hanging low enough to touch the most optimistic of heads and mire them in the mundane. The top floor of the farmhouse was sunk so deep in the fog that it seemed to anyone who looked out of the window that they were at highest point of the ceiling in a room caught on fire. From fifty yards away the door of the house could be seen opening and two blurry figures stepped out of the house, the first holding the door open for the second, who held a third figure in his arms. The first figure�a head and a half taller than the second�picked a couple things up from the porch and slung them over his shoulder. The door swung shut, muted by the oppressive fog that hung in the air. The two figures began to walk along the path that wound from the farmhouse to the main road that eventually bled into town. A closer look revealed the two figures to be boys and the third figure in the arms of the second to be a dog, hanging limply as if tranquilized or something more permanent. Coming closer, conversation could be heard between the two figures.
�Why�d you want to build a casket for the damned thing, anyway?� came the question from the taller boy.
�Because, it has to get buried, doesn�t it?� the shorter asked in a higher pitch.
�Yeah. Otherwise it�ll rot. Just like any other meat.�
�Well, then why don�t it need a casket?�
�Because, it�s just like any other piece of meat.�
The two figures continued on in silence, the second trailing slightly behind the first, as if weighed down by hundreds of pounds of memory. The second boy looked down at the dog in his arms, as if trying to grasp some unfathomable notion. He chewed on his lip and said, �Travis, why do people get buried in caskets?�
�People. Why do they get buried in caskets and dogs don�t?�
�I don�t know.�
�Well, aren�t people animals?�
�Yeah. Kind of.�
�How are they kind of animals?�
�I don�t know.�
�Well, you said that dogs don�t get buried in caskets because they�re just like any other meat. And meat is animal. But you said that humans get buried in caskets, but they�re animals, too. So why do people get buried in caskets and dogs don�t?�
�No other animals get buried in caskets, Davey.�
�How the hell should I know?� Travis whipped around, letting the shovels slide off his shoulder.
�I don�t know�� Davey looked down once again at the dog cradled in his arms.
�Well, shit,� Travis turned and walked once more in the direction of the tree line where they planned to bury the dog. �I don�t know either.�
Davey followed in his older brother�s wake, but slower, wishing to hold on to the time he had left. Davey remembered finding the dog�Stranger�under the porch of the house the day before.
When he found Stranger, he ducked under the porch and crawled to him to wake him up with a quick blast of air to the ear like he normally did. But when he got there, he blew into the ear of the dog and nothing seemed to move, not even the hair touched by Davey�s breath inside the dog�s ear. Davey knew Stranger was dead, but he refused to move, as if by staying that way he could circumvent the true acceptance of the dog�s demise and perhaps even trick the universe into believing that the dog was only sleeping, not dead�anything but dead. Davey sat looking at the dog until he heard Travis calling for him from inside�and then eventually outside�the house. Davey heard Travis�s voice behind him, �Hey, bud. What the hell are you doing out here? Dinner�s on and the folks are missing you.�
Davey moved his shoulders a quarter turn to show Travis what had kept him so long outside. He heard Travis mutter, �Aw, shit,� and then come closer to sit next to Davey and the dog. Davey felt Travis� eyes on him, but he continued looking at Stranger. �Well,� Davey heard his brother say, �it was a good dog. Lived a long life, bud. There�s nothing we can do for it now.�
�Yeah,� Davey croaked.
Travis cuffed his arm feather-like and said, �Hey bud, how�s about you and me go out tomorrow and bury old Stranger along that tree line out there where you and the beast used to play all the damn day long until I�d have to come out and bring you in?�
Davey didn�t trust his voice at the moment, but liked his brother�s idea. He nodded his approval.
That night, Davey hoped that the morning would never come so that Stranger could always be above the ground and could always maybe be sleeping. The morning came and greeted the two boys. Travis shook Davey awake and told him to come on with that dog. And to dress warm.
Davey put on some long johns and jeans; tee shirt and long-sleeved shirt; sweatshirt and winter coat; then socks and his boots. When dressed, he followed Travis downstairs to the foyer of the house, next to the front door where they put on their stocking caps and made last-minute adjustments to their wardrobe. Davey looked up to the arching beam that separated the foyer from the living room where a gold crucifix hung profoundly. Davey stood looking at it until he felt a knock on the arm from Travis as a signal to get moving.
Outside, Davey picked Stranger up in his arms and found him still flexible, not yet stricken with rigor mortis. Davey waited while Travis grabbed the two shovels from the porch. Before they started walking, Davey glowered honestly over his shoulder through the wall at the very spot on which the crucifix hung. Then he set off behind his brother.
They reached the tree line, Davey trailing behind his brother, not concentrating on where they were heading. The first sound of metal hitting unmoving earth brought Davey back to earth�the present one, at least. �What are we doing here?� Davey asked, surprised.
Travis turned around, �What the hell are you talking about? We�re here to bury that dog.�
�No,� Davey said as if speaking through a haze, �why are we burying Stranger here?�
�Because you two used to play here all the time, remember?�
�I mean, I thought we were going to bury him over there,� Davey pointed to a plot of earth two hundred yards away, surrounded by a wrought-iron gate. Travis�s eyes followed Davey�s pointed finger, then narrowed.
�The family plot?�
�Well, yeah,� Davey�s gaze panned down to the dog. �I mean, he was family wasn�t he?�
�He was a part of the family. Like in a play, get it? It played a part. And that part was the dog. The family pet. Okay, bud?� At this, Travis attacked the tundra once again with the shovel and made some headway.
Davey said nothing, but kept looking from the dog to the plot to the developing grave and then back to the plot. Davey performed this litany of looks until the second shovel, tossed by Travis, struck his booted foot and brought him back to the present earth.
�Come on, bud. It takes two to dig a grave, you know,� Travis said and winked at his brother.
Bending slowly to his knees as if to avoid disrupting the dog�s sleep, Davey placed the dog on the ground like a precious piece of china. Then he grabbed the shovel and got to his feet to help Travis dig the grave. The work was tough with the frozen earth and Davey soon followed his brother�s lead in stripping away his winter coat to let his body breathe. After a couple hours, the two brothers found themselves only a foot and a half deep into the ground. Travis dropped his shovel to rest, but Davey kept going. The past couple hours had made Davey proud�the way in which he was digging his best friend�s resting place; the way salty droplets of himself as results of his exertion were going into the ground and would be with the dog forever�so much so that Davey began to feel the need to show Travis how much harder he was working than his older brother. Every now and then Davey would look up to see if Travis was watching him, frequently seeing Travis taking sips from the canteen he had brought. Looking down again, Davey found that he had gained another half of a foot while Travis rested. This look reminded Davey of the dog and caused him to look once more at the departed dog. While Davey looked at the sight of Stranger lying there, he felt as if he could actually see the dog shaking in need of a blanket or a warm master. Davey felt a searing anger burning inside his body as he looked at Stranger. He speared the ground anew with a fresh vigor he had drawn from the love he had given Stranger and Stranger had given him and was now lost forever, for love as well as life, is motion. And from where Davey stood digging, the love that Stranger had shown him looked as gone as the love of God.
�Hey, bud. You�d better slow down or you�ll be out by foot three.� Travis�s voice came from below Davey somewhere next to the grave.
Davey halted his digging and looked up from his work into Travis�s face. �Do dogs go to heaven?�
Travis picked his teeth for a minute and looked over the spread, as if making a crucial decision. �No. They don�t go to heaven, bud.�
�Because they don�t have souls. You can�t get into heaven without a soul.�
Davey looked down at Stranger, �Can murderers go to heaven?�
�Sure, if they repent well enough.�
�So, murdering people can go to heaven if they want it bad enough, but animals that never did nothing wrong go to hell?�
�I didn�t say they went to hell, bud. I just said they didn�t go to heaven.�
Davey felt confused and angered by his brother�s patient tone, �Well where else would they go?�
�Purgatory. I don�t know. Maybe they don�t go anywhere since they ain�t got a soul.�
Davey tried to imagine a world after death where no one went anywhere, but all he saw was darkness all around�darkness and loneliness. The thought of nothing after death shook his body with tremors. �That�s not fair.�
�No one said life was fair, bud.� Travis�s reply came from beneath Davey again. Davey could tell that he was smiling, but refused to look at his brother.
�Well, it should be,� the cogs whirred in Davey�s mind as he tried to think of something else to punctuate what he had just said, �God damn it.�
�Listen to Davey here, cussing with the rest of us.� Travis applauded from the ground.
�I�m serious, Travis.� Davey persisted. �It�s not God damned fair and it should be.�
Travis scraped the ground getting to his feet and came over to Davey. �Hey, bud. Just go ahead and sit on down over there next to Stranger while I dig for a little bit, okay?�
�I know you want to do good on this grave, bud. It�s okay. I�ll do good on it too.�
Davey looked up at Travis. He was smiling at Davey and gave him a nudge in the direction of the dog. �Go on. I�ll be done in a little bit.�
Davey sat down next to Stranger and started stroking his black and white spotted coat, attempting to project himself into the past where Stranger�s love for him still existed, but all he could see was the moment he had found Stranger�s death up until now. His thoughts now revolved endlessly around what Travis had said about being a person. Bit by bit, Davey began to remember a saying his father had said once about how you could always tell a person by their eyes. Propelled by this memory, Davey drew himself closer to the dog and reached over and pried the eyelids of the dog open. Stranger�s eyes were simply black pools that swallowed rather than reflected light. Davey could not even see himself in Stranger�s eyes, as if his self were removed completely by the loss of Stranger�s life. �What are you doin?� came Travis�s voice from behind him.
�Looking at Stranger�s eyes.�
�What the hell are you doin� that for?�
�To see if I could see his soul.�
�Dogs don�t have souls, dumbass. Didn�t I just tell you that?�
�Stranger�s eyes are black,� Davey breathed, �just black. Nothing else.�
�So the soul leaves the body right after death, doesn�t it?�
�So, even if Stranger had a soul, the only time we would ever see it would have been when he was alive!� Davey felt his excitement rising in spite of himself.
�What the hell are you talking about?� Travis demanded, coming closer.
�Remember when dad said that stuff about telling a person by their eyes? Well, it�s just like that! When Stranger was alive, his eyes were full of lights and shapes and life! How can you tell me that wasn�t his soul?�
�The Bible says that animals don�t have souls.�
�What if the bible was wrong?� Davey asked Travis.
�You better watch what you say, bud.� Travis�s voice hushed with significance.
Davey turned and looked at Travis, whose face had gone flush. �Well, what if it is wrong?� Davey persisted, rising to his feet. His heart struck in his chest like a drum roll. �Then Stranger would have a soul and he would be able to get to heaven.�
�The Bible is God�s word,� Travis took a step toward Davey. �And God�s word is God�s law. And you had better get that into your head, bud. Or this world is going to be a hell of a lot more difficult for you.� Travis�s words hung in the air between them. Neither of them spoke, but merely looked into each other�s eyes. The moment, whatever it was, passed and Travis turned and went back to digging.
Davey watched the cruel muscles of his brother�s back work as he worked the shovel into the earth. Davey knew what he wanted to say to Travis the moment he had stopped talking. The words assembled themselves on the very verge of his tongue, while every muscle in his body, every person he had ever heard, every fiber of his conditioned mind told him not to say what was on his mind. Davey drew himself upward and spoke the words he had come to learn, �Then God is wrong.�
Travis stiffened his back and for a brief instant, Davey readied himself to be set upon by his brother. However, Davey saw his brother simply shake his head censoriously and continue digging Stranger�s grave.
�And if God is wrong,� Davey continued, his tongue feeling freer with each word, each syllable, each consonant, �then God might not be real.�
At this, Travis turned and looked Davey in the eye. �That damned dog ain�t got a soul. He�s laying there right now in the dark and alone. Get used to that.�
�If a murderer can get into heaven,� Davey chose his words with precision, �and a dog who gave me all the love in the world can�t, then I don�t want to go to heaven and I don�t love God.� Davey watched Travis turn back to the grave once again, as if afraid of what he would hear next. �At least if I don�t go to heaven, Stranger won�t be alone in the darkness. I would rather be in a place where everything is equal rather than a place that ain�t fair.�
Davey got up from his seat next to the dog and helped dig the grave the rest of the way. At top speed with both of the brothers helping, the grave was deep enough by an hour before sunset. Travis was the first one out of the grave but left Davey to raise himself out of the grave. Davey rushed past Travis and picked Stranger up. Davey carried Stranger to the opening in the ground as if to give himself time enough to commit to memory all the features of the dog. Davey reached the grave and once again laid the dog to rest with the care of a tightrope walker. Grabbing a handful of dirt, Davey pitched a spray of earth down onto Stranger�s coat and gave Travis a nod saying to dump the dirt and complete the burial.
The two brothers stood side by side next to the mound of earth, looking down at Stranger�s resting place. After a few moment�s silence, Travis, as if he had been waiting for the exact time where Davey would be most vulnerable, said �God don�t give a shit about dogs� and turned, grabbing his coat, and leaving Davey next to Stranger�s grave.
Davey continued looking down at Stranger�s grave and smiled, �Then god doesn�t care about Life.� And he turned to follow his brother back to the house.
Davey took his time getting back to the house. The sun was at its lowest point before casting all into night when Davey got back. Davey opened the front door of the house and turned immediately to the left, walking up to the golden crucifix. He studied it for a moment, thinking of all the things it represented and all the things it somehow neglected. Davey turned his crooked head slightly as if regarding something he had seen a million times before in a brand new light, amazed he hadn�t seen past its fa�ade after all these years. Davey reached up to the golden crucifix, lifted it from its hook, and dropped it into the trash can right next to the door. The clank it made upon impact made Davey curious. He stooped over and reached into the can, pulling it back into the light cast by the light bulb illuminating the porch and streaking through the window. Much of the gold of the crucifix had been scraped away, revealing a metal that looked like a mixture of brown and purple, a deep bruise. The metal had been molded and soldered, cast in pits of fire and steam, created in a place of inferno to uplift the soul. Davey dropped the crucifix back into the trash and mounted the stairs to his room. He lolled on his bed and the image of the mutilated crucifix came to him once more and revealed itself to him. Davey marveled at the simplicity in this irony and began to laugh. His laughter echoed through the second part of the house and careened off the walls, down the stairs into the ground level of the house, and finally out into the night and the darkness, forever spanning beyond and transcending the limits of heaven and hell, God and Satan, right and wrong, human and not, light and darkness, for it was laughter born in freedom and in love.
BIO: Ry Downey is a twenty year-old lifelong resident of the Pacific Northwest. He currently attends university and spends as much time as he can writing, reading, and spending time with his girlfriend. Currently, he is working on his first novel, Any Port in the Storm. His favorite authors are William Faulkner and Ken Kesey.