Jackie Torrence story: Old Dog and new life

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 24, 2011

By Jackie Torrence
For the Salisbury Post
Once upon a time and far away, Benjamin Wilson sat in his old green chair with his feet propped up toward the fire. It had been such a cold day and Ben had worked outside. He needed some rest, and he needed the warmth of the fire.
But the only sound in the house on the edge of the woods was the occasional crack of the fire and the shift of the burning wood and, once in a while, the wind howling around the house. His candle threw long shadows on the walls.
And Ben listened, knowing there should be another sound in the house. A human sound. A woman’s voice. But that voice no longer spoke.
That voice had been the voice of Katie, Ben’s wife. She could be heard singing and laughing and talking, but that happy sound had not been heard in the house for almost two years now. Katie’s voice had been silenced when she fell from a ladder in the apple tree. When he found her, her neck was broken. Katie was dead.
After the funeral, Ben was not the same.
He closed himself into his own world of grief, as though he never wanted to come out again. When he walked anywhere, he seemed to be in a fog. He stayed at home all the time. He hardly ever went to town anymore. He found no peace looking in the store windows that he and Katie had loved to walk by and look into.
He even seemed to hate speaking to people who had known him and Katie, those people who tipped their hats and bowed their heads and spoke.
“Good day, Miss Katie,” they’d say. “Good day, Mr. Ben. Y’all look well and happy.”
And they were indeed happy, as happy as two people could ever be.
But sitting in his old green chair that night, Ben thought to himself, “It’s all gone now.” All he had was this old fireplace and the candle that flicked its light onto the wall.
Ben looked up toward the left wall where the calendar hung. The big blue letters spelled out “December.”
He looked closer at the numbers. Thirteen days before Christmas, he thought. His memory once again fell to Katie. This was a special time for Katie. It was a wonderful time. The preparation for Christmas had always kept both of them busy. The house always smelled like cinnamon, cider, fresh candle wax and sweet, lemony candy.
Katie baked for church bazaars, children’s parties and missionary teas. Ben kept the wood cut, and it was his job to get the Christmas tree and the cedar runners for the stairway.
But all that was gone now, and the house was quiet. The only aroma in the house was that of the fire and smoke in the fireplace. The memory of Katie was beginning to fade, and Ben tried to push the memory of Christmas away.
He sat thoughtless now, gazing again into the fire, listening to the sounds of the wind and the approaching new winter storm. He stood and walked toward the front door.
As he opened the door, a great gust of icy wind blew past him. He stepped onto the front porch and looked toward the sky. It was dark. No stars. No moon. Just thick, snow-filled clouds.
He stood there for a long time. Suddenly, he heard a sound. Was it a wounded animal?
Hawooooooooooooo …
Turning his head in the wind, he located the pitiful cry. He realized that it was coming from the trees beyond the woodpile. Then he lifted the lantern that hung near the door and lit it.
He walked slowly through the yard toward the woodpile. Cautiously he pushed the underbrush away so he could see where that mournful sound was coming from.
There in the dim light of the lantern was a dog, not just any old dog, but a great, huge St. Bernard. His brown eyes looked up at Ben, begging for help. And that sad sound came again — from the dog.
“Well, fellow,” said Ben, “what in the world is wrong? Are you hurt? Show old Ben where you’re hurting.”
Then he turned and started to the house and went in. The great dog followed, and at the warm fireplace, he examined the dog from head to paws.
But he couldn’t find any open wounds or broken bones. Still, every once in a while, the great dog would let out that sad sound and look at Ben with those sad, unhappy eyes.
Ben put more wood on the fire and gave the great dog what was left of his dinner of pork chops and gravy and rice — and a bowl of water.
“Well, my friend,” said Ben, “you were just hungry. And thirsty, too, by the looks of it. Where in the world did you come from?”
When the big dog had finished his meal, he curled up in front of the fireplace and went to sleep.
And the days went by.
Ben and the big, sad dog became companions. Every day when Ben came home from his work, he brought Great Dog, as he called him, a gift. Two days before Christmas, Ben came in and said, “Look at this, Mr. Dog. I’ve got us a Christmas tree. Maybe that will make you happy.”
But Great Dog just looked up at Ben with those big, brown, sad eyes.
Ben popped corn and strung it around the tree. He found berries in the woods and strung them over the tree. He pulled cotton from the cotton bolls left in the fields and put them on the tree.
“Look at that, Great Dog. That ought to make you happy.”
But the big dog just looked at him with sad eyes.
And then Ben thought of something.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “I’ve got something that even a big, sad old dog would like.”
He walked over to the camel-backed trunk that sat in the corner. From it he took a box wrapped with yellow and gold ribbon labeled “Christmas Ornaments.”
These were the ones that Katie had made over the years. He put them all on the tree and the big dog watched. The room began to change. A bright light seemed to be coming from the Christmas tree. He smiled as he placed the last bulb on the tree.
“Katie would be proud of us, Great Dog,” he said. “Just downright proud.”
And there were tears in Ben’s eyes.
The Great Dog seemed to sense that this was special. He stood up and started to bark and jump and circle around Ben.
Outside the house, carolers had gathered. They stood at Ben’s fence, and they started to sing.
God rest ye merry gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
Remember Christ, Our Savior,
Was born on Christmas day.
Ben and Great Dog walked out and greeted the carolers.
No one had seen Ben for a long time, let alone with a smile on his face. When carolers moved on to another neighbor, the preacher stayed and spoke and shook Ben’s hand and rubbed Great Dog.
“God bless you, my friend Ben,” he said. “How in the world did you catch the phantom? The children in the community have tried for years to catch that dog. He belongs to nobody. He just wanders from place to place for food. Seems like he’s found a friend in you.”
Ben laughed out loud.
“Yep,” he said, “he needed a friend, and so did I. Christmas is for friends, you know.”
And the Great Dog barked, so loud he seemed to be repeating wholeheartedly Ben’s words.
“Christmas is for friends, you know.”
And that’s the end of that.