Reba

I stopped in at Orville and Quilt Queen’s house, for coffee and homemade cookies. They glanced at each other. Something was wrong.

“You best sit,” Orville said. “Reba died last night, in the pole barn. I went out to feed her and Ruby Puppy, and Reba had crawled away from the heat lamp—to die, I guess. Her body was froze stiff. Ruby was pawing at her.”

The three of us sat at the kitchen table and wiped tears from our faces. Orville had dug a grave in the nearly frozen ground, carried our dear Reba and laid her in the hole, and buried her.

We did find some humor in the situation. Acres of voles, moles, snakes and mice could rest easy, as old Reba, who daily in spring and summer caught those creatures—tossing them into the air and swallowing them whole—was gone. But Ruby Puppy had completed her apprenticeship, so rodent safety was temporary at best.

All the best things in life are temporary: young love and lust, tomatoes, wine, starlit nights, wilderness, wild things, music. The millennial generation seems to me to be more obsessed with taking smart phone photos of beauty, rather than immersing themselves in beauty. Our best fiction is about characters breaking out of mundanity and diving head first into beauty, into sin, into flesh, into depravity, into all fruit and nectar of the world.

Quilt Queen said she wanted to go that way—freeze to death. Orville opined that fire was the way to go. Many of you know that I came within minutes of freezing to death, in 1985, as friends and I walked across the frozen Illinois River on a twelve-below-zero night, and the ice broke, and three of us plunged into the river. It took over an hour to pull me and the other guys out. I lost all feeling and sank into a deep sleep, my eyes freezing shut, a light glowing and pulling me to it, to my mother who was sitting on the ice in a summer dress and holding a wolf on a leash.

“Oh, to be a dog,” Quilt Queen said. “Reba didn’t know about death.”

I saw my father cry but two times: on his deathbed (he was terrified), and when our family dog, Candy died. I was only thirteen, and I watched this man of men sit on the basement floor and press the lifeless animal to his chest and sob, and I was fascinated.

Ruby Puppy and Reba are a hundred yards from my house. I have full run of the farm and permission to set the dogs loose and run with them. Reba has placed countless bodies of critters and songbirds on my shoes, for my approval. She has rolled in decayed bodies and dung of all types and then embraced me.

And now she is gone.

And now Ruby will run in the pasture at sunset, and she will follow her nose to the newly dug grave, and she will smell her loved one, and she will lie still and quiet. And one day she will be laid to rest in that field. And, so shall I lie. And, so shall you.

In a field of stardust, in Milky Way, riding the next wind or terrible storm to the stars and back again. And all around us are the story tellers, keeping the dark matter, which is memory: alive, fiery or frozen, still or leaping, drenched in tears, drowned in laughter.

Warm, so mother’s breast warm and perfect, is memory.

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