Before they could grieve, they had to get warm.
Potter arranged crumpled newspaper and kindling in the woodstove, opened the damper, lit the match. Sweet-smelling smoke seeped out and fogged his head. It was a smell he usually enjoyed, but tonight he didn't even notice it. The fire accepted a few mouthfuls of the man's breath and came to life.
Miranda looked over his shoulder, coughed, turned away and carefully, reverently, stepped around that sacred place on the carpet where the dog had taken his last breath.
Warmth was a luxury their best friend would not have again. They had wrapped him gently in a blanket, as if they might disturb his sleep, padded him in guilt, and hoisted him into the back of the pickup, a frigid tomb until tomorrow when they dropped him off for the last time at the vet's office. The freeze before the inferno. Next time they held him he would be nothing but a can of ashes: light, easy to handle, almost nothing at all. In that diminished form he would stay with them forever.
Miranda couldn't picture it and didn’t want to try. She couldn't bear the thought of her baby going into the furnace. Unwanted images of fur, singed at the ends, heat moving inward, charring and blackening the vitality that once was, and what came after – it was too much. Instead, she made dinner and, later, finding no dog dish on the kitchen floor, threw the food untouched into the trash can. She broke a plate in the sink, not entirely accidentally. She punished the grout until it started losing its grit.
When Miranda began sobbing into the sink, Potter patted her shoulder, grabbed a bottle of vodka, clutched it to his heart, and went outside. Each icy swallow burned and did nothing to touch the pain in his heart. He didn't realize he had forgotten his coat or that his feet in slippers grew wet and numb. He was acutely aware that there was no leash in his hand, and wished he'd brought two bottles for balance. He shuffled along the usual walking route until it blurred, until he became too unsteady and feared he would step on the paw prints preserved in the snow.
When Potter went in he filled a tumbler and sat by the woodstove, swirling the ice as it melted. Several times, he started to call for his buddy to come to his side, to ease his pain.
When Miranda could sanitize no more, she joined Potter in front of the fire. Her hands were empty and raw.
They didn't notice when it started to snow. The next day when they went out to him, to the truck, his last tracks had disappeared.
"the ghost birds"
The ghost birds sing in the morning. They are not ghosts themselves; they give voice to ghosts. They are shepherds of the restless dead. Why do they transport the spirits of the dead? Why do wrens bubble over with song, why do robins lay blue eggs? Because they must. It is the work they have been hatched to do.
The birds' feathers shimmer with the white gossamer stuff that surrounds the newly-released souls they guide through the unmarked trail to the spirit world. Each successful transport makes the birds a little lighter. Here, in the world between worlds, the birds steer the softly-weeping, wide-eyed, just-dead around those who are stuck here for eternity, lamenting their lot. Some are souls who will not let themselves be saved. Some are too heavy with karmic debt for the birds to be of any use. These dangerous spirits howl. Accidental contact would coat the birds' feathers with a tarlike substance that would make flight impossible, that would trap the birds forever with the souls of the damned. It is a treacherous balancing act, the timeless battle of light versus dark.
The birds roost when the sun rises but, drained as they are, they cannot sleep. After a night of directing souls from earth to the afterlife, the birds have heard too much to keep it in. Now they must tell their stories, sing their songs, release the sorrow and torment. Now they will repeat the sounds of the wrongly deceased and the unhappy dead.
Until the ghost birds came to be, only ghosts sounded like ghosts. These clever birds have learned to imitate sounds no one else hears, much like a mockingbird will begin to mimic previously unknown sounds. The ghost birds weep and moan, shriek and bawl, carry on in a way that hastens the footsteps of a passing human. An observant person may hear a newborn baby screaming at the top of a tree for its missed chance at life, or the raspy last breath of an old man from a branch right overhead. Hidden within the glossy and thriving leaves of an oak comes the scream of a young woman, a stranger's knife in her back, lost forever between the worlds, confused and alone.
Mimicking their cries on earth cannot save any lost souls who are not meant to be saved. They are, after all, birds, not gods. But if they've failed to bring about closure in the afterworld, or if a certain spirit has touched them deeply, the birds do all they can here on earth: they give voice to the voiceless.
Then the ghost birds must rest. At dusk they will take to the wing and start again. Back to the spirit world, shuttling souls, guiding them on a path the birds know so well, picking up those spirits who have lost their way, until their wings grow too fatigued and they must leave some behind. Tomorrow, they will sing the songs of the making of ghosts.
Jill Kiesow has written for the Animal Protection Institute, where she worked on issues facing circus and companion animals. She wrote about spay/neuter as a guest author in the Sacramento News & Review and has an English Writing degree. Jill has worked at an animal shelter, been a foster provider for shelter animals, and volunteered with rescue groups. She is a longtime vegan and animal advocate.
Kiesow is an at-home mom in rural Wisconsin with her husband, toddler, adopted shelter dog, several rescued cats, garden, and fixer-upper farmhouse. The wee one and animals provide endless inspiration for stories.