A Question of Faith

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
In a village in England, a blacksmith ponders the unanswerable question. Do animals have souls? Do they go to heaven? He never expected to care, until he took on a dog that he didn't really want.

Submitted: February 09, 2014

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Submitted: February 09, 2014

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A QUESTION OF FAITH

 

He was in a deep sleep when the barking woke him. No, not barking… A single warning bark, then silence, then the bark again… He struggled to wake but stopped short of full consciousness. He knew he was dreaming. Again. The dog had been gone nigh on eight months.

~~~~~

 

The smith was hardly a sentimental man. He lived alone and rarely felt lonely. He was skilled at his work, and that gave him the fulfilment he needed. He shod everything, from the huge placid shires of the farmers, to the brisk eager hunters of the local gentry; from gentle elderly cobs, to children’s shaggy ponies. He had a natural rapport with horses, largely preferring them to people. He wasn’t unfriendly, but he kept his own company, and the villagers respected that and left him in peace.

 

He got the dog from a gypsy.

 

"Horse needs shoes," the lean hawk-nosed man said without preamble. "I’ve no coin to pay you, smith."

 

He allowed himself a smile. They never did have, but he wasn’t averse to bartering. He lifted one hoof of the quiet piebald cob. The shoe was shiny and thin as a leaf.

 

"I expect we can agree on something," he said, turning to the forge and pumping the bellows to generate more heat.

 

"Would you be wanting a dog, smith? Good dog. Rabbiter."

 

"No, I don’t want a dog. What else have you got?"

 

They had little to offer that day, but he went on shoeing anyway. He wasn’t given to offering charity, but neither was he greedy. Those who could pay well, did. The rest… well, the job got done. This nondescript horse was no less deserving of comfortable feet than the squire’s expensive hunter, and probably did considerably more work with them. He watched it munching from a nosebag, unconcerned as it was by the ringing hammer blows from the anvil.

 

The gypsy’s small daughter scrambled down from the caravan’s rear step. A grubby but pretty child, she tugged at her father’s sleeve. "Will he have the puppy, Pa?"

 

"Hush, child. It’s not decided."

 

"Oh, make him have it, Pa! Don’t kill it. Please…"

 

The smith, eavesdropping, puzzled over the girl’s distress. Presumably the unseen pup had something wrong with it. He turned to fit another shoe, and looked at the little girl. "Tell me about this puppy, lass."

 

"It’s beautiful. It’s Jade’s puppy. Jade’s my Pa’s dog, she’s got six puppies, but…" She glanced anxiously at her father.

 

"Jade’s the best rabbiter I’ve ever bred," the gypsy said. "Reckon her pups will take after her."

 

"So why offer me one?"

 

"It’s a white one,” he admitted reluctantly. "White as milk.”

 

"No use on a moonlit night, eh?” The smith smiled, whacking the nails into the hoof.

 

"Not natural, white dogs,” the gypsy said cagily. "Unlucky… To us, not to you," he added quickly.

 

The smith considered. Perhaps it was the best he could do this day. Anyway, he didn’t like the thought of the little creature ending its short life in the next river, just because of the colour of its fur.

 

It was a bitch, creamy-white from nose to tail, bar some faint grey shading on one flank. She was not, as he had expected, albino. Nor did she seem to be deaf, as was sometimes the way with white animals. She had pale blue eyes, and he called her Ice.

 

The puppy was very young, a fragile bundle of bones and fur in his big calloused hand. The smith begged a bottle from the village midwife, and fed the puppy milk, then weaned her with scraps of his own food. Rather to his surprise, she thrived. She was small for a lurcher, mostly whippet, he thought, but she was strong, lithe, and immensely fast, quickly clearing the smithy of its resident population of mice. Having named her for her blue eyes, he wondered if the colour would change, but it didn’t. She had a cheerful and uncomplaining disposition, never whining or pestering for attention. Her vocabulary in adulthood consisted for the most part of an excited ‘wuff’ – her greeting to him – and her single warning bark, loud and sharp, which could signal anything from an approaching stranger to a kettle boiling over.

 

He was surprised at the ease with which she breached his emotional defences. There was nothing he wouldn’t do to please her, and, he reflected, it was as well she wasn’t a demanding animal. Nevertheless, for the first time in years, he began to look forward to finishing work, and seeing the last horse of the day out of the yard. Then he left the heat of the smithy and walked with Ice to the lakeside, where he threw sticks for her, and watched her flushing rabbits and pheasants from the undergrowth. As she grew more canny, her speed and strong jaws regularly supplemented his table.

 

The years passed. Knowledge of the smith’s skill spread and he prospered. He had as much work as he needed and more. One or two farmers paraded marriageable daughters in front of him, but he had no inclination to change his way of life.

 

He returned from the lake one summer’s evening to find his back door ajar. Ice, trotting beside him, began a low rumbling growl, her hackles raised.

 

“Hush,” he murmured, easing silently inside.

 

There were sounds from his living quarters, upstairs. He armed himself with a piece of iron and called out a challenge. There were two of them, masked with scarves round their faces. They peered at him from the top of the stairs.

 

He eased the bar meaningfully into both hands, and said quietly, “Get out of my house.”

 

“There be two of us, smith.”

 

“So there be.” He saw that one held the leather bag that contained most of his worldly wealth, and the other wielded a heavy club, but he wasn’t unduly worried. He was a big man, and his trade had made his back and arms as strong as oak. He stood calmly, barring the door.

 

They had no option but to descend and the ensuing scuffle was brief. A blow on the arm with the iron bar quickly made the robber drop his booty, while Ice distracted the other by sinking her teeth into his leg, then his backside, leaving him hopping and yelling with pain, while flailing ineffectually with the club. The first man fled, and the smith, after a few moments, took pity on the other.

 

“All right, Ice. Good girl. Leave…” The dog let go immediately. “Now get out, before I call a constable.”

 

“I’m going. Bloody dog’s crippled me.” And the robber aimed one last blow at Ice.

 

“No!” But the smith’s cry was futile. It was a sickening thud, the crack of bone muffled within flesh and fur.

 

He knelt by her twitching body. She was alive, just, but her skull was smashed, and blood trickled from her nose and mouth, staining the pale fur. He stroked her muzzle, gently, and felt her rough tongue on his fingers, one last time, as she died.

 

He sat in the dark, all that night, caressing the velvet fur on the small stiffening corpse. At first light, he took a spade and dug a grave near the lakeside. He washed the blood from her, and laid her gently in the earth, murmuring, “We’ll meet again, my sweet… Rest now…” He tugged a large rock over the grave – he wouldn’t have foxes disturbing her – and chiselled her name, ICE, into its surface. Then he picked wild flowers and scattered them round the rock. It took most of the day, and he sat by the lake until the sun set, while the fire in the forge grew cold, and his customers cursed his absence.

 

The villagers did not understand. They were pragmatic folk and a dog was, well, just a dog. A useful companion, a good worker… and there were always other dogs… But for the smith, the light had gone out of his life. He worked harder than ever, the fierce heat of the forge and the rhythmic clanging of the anvil keeping melancholy at bay. If he got tired enough, he slept, sometimes. And always, at dusk, he walked to the lakeside, sat beside her, and longed for the day he would see her again.

 

He truly believed he would, yet he worried. His idea of the hereafter was a hazy memory from Sunday School. When the parson made a cursory visit, he tried to ask what he needed to know. But the smith had never had much time for the church, and the parson, sour and impatient for one of his calling, now had little comfort for the smith.

 

“You’re soft, man. Dogs don’t have souls. They don’t go to heaven. Best you just get another.”

 

He couldn’t accept it. Whatever heaven was, it was supposed to be a happy place, and he couldn’t imagine that without animals. He dusted off the old family bible, and opened it, but he was a slow reader, and the tiny print and archaic language defeated him.

 

It was a hard winter that year. The lake margins froze and there were no more wild flowers, though still he sat beside her, careless of the seeping cold, and told her he’d see her again. Meanwhile he dreamt about her.

~~~~~

The loud warning bark rang out again, and the smith forced his eyes open. The room was dark, but the smell of smoke was strong. He got up, opened the door, and recoiled at the rush of heat and choking smoke. Below, there was the angry glow and crackle of fire. Grabbing some clothes, coughing and near-blinded, he felt for the stairs and started down. There were flames now, rising halfway to where he stood…

~~~~~

 

He was standing by the lakeside. It looked different. There were no houses in sight. Behind him, no smithy, no village. It was daylight, and mild as spring. He had no idea how he’d got there. He remembered the fire, and starting down the stairs… He assumed he must have been stunned, and wandered, out of his senses. Yet there were no burns on his body or clothes, not even a smell of fire.

He took a few steps. There was no pain, no injuries. The grass felt soft, the lakeside beach sandy, the water cold. He bent and scooped a handful to moisten his face.

 

It was silent, but for birdsong. As he stared about, trying to get his bearings, he heard a distant rustle in the bracken, and looked towards the sound. Perhaps someone else was about, someone to tell him where he was. Some way away, along the shoreline, he saw a bright small creature emerge from the undergrowth. A dog, surely… A white dog.

 

He knew it couldn’t be her, but the loping stride was so familiar it brought tears to his eyes. The dog galloped towards him and gave an excited ‘wuff’ in greeting.

 

“Ice?”

 

He dropped to his knees and opened his arms to her.

~~~~~

 

It took the villagers all night, with a human chain passing buckets, as well as the pump from the nearby town, to extinguish the flames. The smithy was gutted, a heap of charred and smoking timbers. No one had seen the smith, so they picked painstakingly through the debris, in dread of what they would find. They located his remains, burnt but identifiable, close to the anvil.

 

END


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