But Mama,” I remembered saying, “She doesn’t want this.”
“Shush.” She said. She stood on my left. Father stood quietly to my right. “This is important.”
My father rested his calloused hand on my right shoulder and dug his thumb into the joint. I winced and looked up at him. “Quiet, boy.” He whispered, not looking down. “We know what’s best- not you.”
I nodded meekly and returned my attention to the ceremony. The priests, in their robes of grey and red, marched around the table my sister’s body lay upon, swinging censers of smoldering herbs that made my nose wrinkle with their odors. The body had to be made ready for her Transition, and it was not a short service to do so; prayers were said, portents were considered, and the purifications had to be strictly adhered to. Neighbors were crowded into our small home- just a few rooms attached to Father’s leatherworking store- watching the ceremony dutifully. It was not the first time I had seen it done, but it was the first time it was held for a member of the family I had been so close to. When the ceremony had been held for others in the village it was easy for me and my sister to skulk around the edges of the crowd, waiting for the time we could sneak off and play without it being noticed or much cared about. Not this time, though. I had to stand with my parents in the front row, being a member of the immediate family.
My sister, Kaina, and I were twins, or rather, had been twins. She was stung by a scorpion a few days ago and had gotten terribly sick. Kaina finally passed after a feverish struggle against the poisons, and my parents sent for the priests soon after. They arrived wrapped in their airs of wisdom and mystery, silently making our small home ready for the ceremonies of Transition. Their leader didn’t offer much in the way of comforting words. He had espoused the usual stuff about how she wasn’t really dead, she was just starting a new phase of her existence, and that mourning was an insult to the process of Transition. “Let those who believe in the falsehood of cessation mourn. Existence does not end with death, but continues on as another phase that this child will soon embark on. There is no true difference.” He proclaimed in properly reverent tones. Such are the creeds taught in the villages north of Mechitar.
It sounded rehearsed to me, and I knew it was a lie.
I was sad that she was gone. I thought of her life as over in spite of his words, and I missed her already, and I didn’t think it insulted her. She and I both knew there was a difference between the revered “stages of existence”. We never told mother and father, though- such things were frowned upon in our little village- but we knew. We knew it because of what happened with our dog.
Four years ago, when we turned ten, a neighbor’s dog had puppies and our father got one for our birthday. We loved that little dog from the start, but argued something awful over what to name it. We tried to get our mother to name it, but she said it was ours, and we had to do it. One evening she was serving supper when it nipped at her heels playfully and mother stumbled. It got caught under her feet and she spilled the tray with our meal across the table while trying not to step on the puppy. “The grits!” She exclaimed, looking at the mess. Father laughed and so did we, but my sister and I also exchanged a knowing look. Mother hated it, but we named the puppy Grits.
My sister and I took good care of him. We fed him, gave him baths, and played with him. Oh, how we played with that dog. Whenever we were finished with our chores or helping Father in his little leather goods shop we were playing with Grits. His favorite game with us was chasing after a lump of knotted leather scraps from the shop. We’d toss it away, and without fail he’d bring it back. One day I tossed it too hard and it landed in the street. We tried to stop him but Grits ran to get it and was hit by a merchant’s cart. He yelped once- a short, piercing sound of surprise and pain- and he was dead. Just like that. Happy and chasing a toy one moment and gone the next. Mother and Father heard our cries and came running out to the street, saw what had happened and took us inside immediately, arms around our shoulders and whispering words of comfort. Father left us with Mother and he went back out to gather up what was left of Grits. He didn’t bring him into the house, but took him to his shop for the time being.
The merchant hadn’t even stopped.
A few days after Grits was hit Father brought us another dog. It looked just like Grits, just thinner, but with the same spotted back and patch of brown over its left eye. It didn’t act the same, though. It just kind of stood there, staring at nothing in particular and would hardly come when called to. We tried to play with it by tossing it the leather knots, but it just watched it flop across the floor and slowly looked back to us, not seeming to understand what to do. We would leave food for it, but it never touched it. It never ran after us, instead it just sort of ambled along, never in a hurry- I never saw a dog that shuffled until Father had brought this one home.
We hadn’t named the new dog yet, and we only had it for a couple of days when Kaina pulled me out the house to tell me something in secret. It was night, and I remember it being chilly. “Kainer,” She said, her voice a whisper, “I think that new dog is Grits!”
“Really! I think Father took Grits to the priests at the temple!” Her voice was a frantic hiss.
“But only people can Transition. Dogs can’t. Can they?”
“I don’t know.”
“How do you know it’s Grits?”
She looked at the ground, thoughtful, her brow knitting. “Do you remember how Grits got hurt when you stepped on his back paw?”
“Yes.” I said, remembering how bad I felt when it happened.
“He lost his little toenail, right?”
“Yes.” I replied meekly.
“Well, look at this new dog’s back left paw. The same toenail is missing.”
I looked at her. She shrugged.
I remember going back inside and seeing the dog standing near the back door leading into the kitchen, staring at the wall, tongue hanging from its slack mouth. Kaina followed me in and watched from the door as I walked over and kneeled down beside it. I carefully stroked its back, feeling cool skin through its short, bristly fur. It didn’t acknowledge my touch, but just kept staring at the wall next to the door. My fingertips found a long, narrow ridge of skin that ran across its back. If Grits had lived, that’s where the cart wheel would have left a scar. I remember slowly drawing my hands back and folding them in my lap. I leaned in and whispered “Grits?” softly, my voice shaking.
The dog slowly turned its head and looked at me, its eyes focusing more than they ever had before. It tried to lick my face, but all it managed was a feeble shake of the head that allowed it to slap its tongue against my jaw.
I remember falling onto my backside and scurrying backwards on my hands and feet until I collided with my sister, who had come in to stand behind me. She pulled me up and we backed away from the dog, going around the table. It tried to follow us, whining as it shuffled. It was a pitiful sound, tired and wheezing. “Stay!” My sister said sharply. The dog stopped, staring at us.
Kaina and I looked at each other, then at the dog. “It is Grits.” I whispered.
“Yea.” She said.
The dog stayed where it stopped, but its stare became less focused, its jaw more slack. My sister and I sat down at the table, trying to deal with what we were facing.