Yesterday, we said good-bye to our dear little Wicca. Every dog that we love is extraordinary to our hearts and Wicca was no exception. She was a wise and scrappy street survivor, a graduate of the Pinellas County Humane Society and she had the magic. Blessed with a Budda nature, she was joyful and kind. This upbeat, funny old soul was the love of our lives for all of her nineteen and a half years. She was also the boss of us.
Putting grief and loss in perspective is different for all of us. We all have to move through it at our own pace and in our own way. Runners run, carpenters pound nails and writers write. Recently, I submitted a story to a short fiction contest. This morning the story seems to have new meaning and re-reading it gave me a bit of perspective and a smile. I’d like to share it with you as we begin a new day with gratitude for the moment that Wicca entered our lives and every day that we had with her after that.
by Barbara Wentzell Jaquith
My grandfather Aiden was generally considered strange. Not by me because I loved him, but by everyone else who knew him. Granny loved him too even though I think she was real hard on him. She did not much like it when he filled our heads with Irish stuff, and she let him know when to shut up with the old stories.
At the foot of his bed, he kept a fiddle and bow in a beat-up steamer trunk and a big bible that he didn’t take out as often as the fiddle. There was a handwritten list of relatives from Dublin on a yellow piece of paper folded in the bible, two striped cotton shirts, one yellow silk neckerchief with blue flowers and a waistcoat. A smelly old pair of work shoes and a brown hat had some sort of meaning to him. Tucked in the brim of the hat was a faded picture of a black and white border collie in a crouched position, eyeing a small flock of ragged sheep. On the back of the photo it said Da and Trusty 1890 in shaky cursive handwriting. One time he pulled the hat and shoes out and showed me hiding pockets where he brought money over on the boat when he came to America. He kept all these treasures in that trunk, but his stories were kept safe in his head.
Granny got especially mad when Grampy Aiden mentioned fairies. She said Irish people stick out enough without him calling any extra attention to us. When he told stories, she would tell him to shut it and slam kitchen cupboard doors. So, he mostly shut it around her.
But some things just have to come out of a person or they fester. That’s how it was with the stories. Grampy used them as a healing ointment. Whenever we skinned a knee, Granny pulled out the stinging mecuricome and swabbed it on while we howled. But Grampy’s cure was better received. He had a way of speaking when he was story-telling that was like a balm. He spoke his stories with a soothing lilt that turned our minds in a direction. He knew the hard part of healing is figuring how to let go of the pain and move on.
I was a real little boy when my parents got dead in the crash and Grampy’s farm collie was my crying pillow. His soft brown fur sopped up tears real well and he lay down beside me as a buffer from Granny’s own grief and rage. We called him Ben. At the time, I didn’t know about the fairies. We were out in the garden the day that Grampy told me about them. I think he conjured a story for me because Ben had just got sick and died too and I was feeling real empty.
My Grandfather Aiden’s hands are so big that he takes a second helping of soil when he digs spring carrots in the garden. He takes the time to loosen the roots with a trowel before he yanks them up by their green lacy tops. Then he knocks them hard against his overalls to get the dirt off. He’s big, but his hands are always easy when he passes me one. They are still warm from the sun and crunchy from the winter’s underground rest.
The day Grampy told me about the fairies, he didn’t look up from the row. He just started talking right out of nowhere. “Do you know about fairies, son?”
“I know Granny says there aren’t any.”
“Granny hasn’t seen them because Granny doesn’t believe, so they stay shy and hard to see around her. It doesn’t mean they aren’t there. They are travelers and only go where they feel welcome and useful. When I light the cook stove in Granny’s kitchen and a puff of smoke escapes, that’s fairy smoke signals. You just have to be still and understand that they are there so you are not alone. Fairies are there to help you.”
“Are they here right now?”
You will now there are fairies about when the breeze blows on your face. When the sun casts a play of light through the leaves, that’s a sure sign of fairies. See the dandelion seeds blowing over there in the field? Those are fairy letting us know that they are near.”
I like the stories even if my grandmother doesn’t like him talking to us about that sort of thing. Maybe she’s got a point when she says that talk about banshees and fairies and second sight is not suitable for little kids. But how would I learn that it’s not just us alone in this garden and in this world if Grampy didn’t teach me that kind of Irish stuff? Because of him, I know that you don’t swat an insect buzzing around your head until you’re sure it’s an insect. Bugs and fairies look pretty much alike until you can get up close, and it’s hard to get close to a fairy.
“ I want to see a fairy for real.”
“You have to spot them when they pause to take notice of something.”
“There is one thing that will cause fairies to pause and take notice every time. Fairies know when a new puppy gets born.”
“How do you know this?”
“Big men know about small things.”
“Will I ever see one?”
“Maybe, but until you do, it’s a mystery and you just need to believe. Let’s go sit in the shade under the tree and I’ll tell you a story about dogs and fairies. Not a word to your grandmother. This is a story for you and me.”
Grampy set the trowel point down in the dirt, brushed off his pants and headed over to the shady spot. Easing down onto the grass and settling into a comfortable position with a wince, he took up a story about fairies and dogs.
“You’re most likely to see a fairy around dogs because fairies hitch a ride on the dogs back whenever their wings need a rest. You can’t always see them, but you know they are along for a ride when the dog sits down and lifts a hind leg to scratch. You think its fleas, but that’s not it. When a dog scratches, it’s because there’s a fairy rider on his neck and it tickles where she is holding on.”
“Ben used to scratch a lot but I never saw no fairies.”
“That’s because you didn’t know about them then. But they were always there. Remember when he would stop and just look sideways like something invisible was buzzing around his head? That was his fairy talking to him. Or, when he chased his tail? His fairy was playing with him. The fairy riders chose a puppy that they like and then they stay with that dog all of his life.”
“When did Ben get his rider?”
“When a new puppy takes its first breath, a fairy hears its tiny cry and she hurries to welcome the new life. This is how it begins. When the puppy is ten days old, its eyes open on the world for the first time. The fairy gets all tearful when her puppy looks into its mother’s eyes for the first time. She watches and cheers when it loses its first tooth. When the puppy is a month old, he stands up to play with his brothers and sisters. They wobble about, fall right down and roll over on their backs. Fairies riders giggle when puppies learn to play. It’s like riding a clumsy elephant that keeps falling and getting up again.”
Grampy pulled up a long blade of wild wheat. He ran his fingers down it, shucking off the golden seeds at the top and letting them fall. He tied the pliant reed in a neat bow while we just sat quietly for a minute before he took up the story again.
“One day, a new family comes to take the puppy home with them. The fairy has to watch over things very carefully at the time when her puppy leaves its mother. When the puppy finds just the right human, the fairies clap their hands and laugh right out loud.”
“Grampy, you know Gramma is going to be mad that you are telling me Irish stuff.”
“Well, she would if she found out, but she’s not going to is she?”
“Nope, she’s not. Tell me more.”
Grampy shifted his weight and went on. “The riders go along on all their dog’s adventures. They work in the field, protect homes and heal broken human hearts. People don’t even know they are there, sleeping in the ruff of an old collie. Remember how Ben’s coat used to glisten in the sun? That sparkle was his fairy’s wings. Through all of Ben’s life, his fairy rider was right there with him holding on for dear life even when he ran around in the meadow or went swimming in the creek. And then one day, Ben’s fairy noticed he was slowing down. His step wasn’t quite as spry. His legs were stiff and getting up off the ground was hard.
“Like you, Grampy?”
“Yes, son, just like me.”
“Ben got slow Grampy. One day he just laid there and he couldn’t get up at all.”
“Yes, he did. And when that happened to Ben, his fairy was there. Just as he was falling asleep, she climbed up close to Ben’s soft ear and whispered something. If you were very close by and very quiet yourself, you might have heard it, son.”
“What did she whisper?”
“Well, when it’s time for a dog to leave us, the riders all say the same thing. It’s a gift they whisper like a prayer to old dogs.”
Ben’s fairy said, “Good and gentle creature, you have been my companion through rising suns and falling moons. You have kept me warm in the field and safe on the mountain when you brought in the sheep. It has been an honor to be your rider and guardian, but I sense now that you are tired and can carry me no more in this life. I know that you must go. I bid you quiet passage and thank you for allowing me to be your companion for all this time and especially at the time of your leave-taking. Now, do not stay for me, but go in peace as you must.”
“And that’s how he left?”
“That’s how he left.”
“Where is Ben’s fairy now?”
Grampy Aiden looked right at me then and he seemed to be smiling deep into the well of my sadness. “Even though Ben had to go, his fairy still had work to do, so she wiped off a tear, turned and flew away. You see, she had just heard a new puppy’s cry in the distance and she had to be off to meet him. Her job was to pick out a new puppy and be his new rider.”
My grandfather, slowly got to his feet and bent over to rub his knees for a moment. “Now, go get washed up, son. We need to visit the farm next door. They have some new collie pups and one’s meant to be yours.
“Oh, Grampy, thank you! How will I know which one is meant to be mine?”
“Big men know about small things.”