Animals talk at midnight, midnight on Christmas Eve. Or so I was told by Reverend Flanders of the First Presbyterian Church. It was one of the things he said that I truly believed.
But I refused to believe him when he said, “Animals don’t have souls.”
“You can’t bring your dog to church because animals don’t have souls,” is what he said.
“But my mother says that we are all animals.”
“But we are the chosen!”
“I don’t think so!”
“Are you questioning me?”
“I’m not going to Christmas service unless Smokey goes.”
“You’re treading on damnation.”
Reverend Flanders’s face got beet red when he got angry.
I made plans to listen to Pulaski’s farm animals on Christmas Eve. Pulaski had cows and pigs, a goat, chickens, and a giant workhorse named Sam. He used to have two ducks, but I shot one on my way to damnation.
Smokey, my soulless German shepherd, got the other in the pond just below the old man’s bedroom window. We had a good chase. Ma cooked mine for Thanksgiving dinner.
“I don’t want to know how you got it,” she said, “but you cannot return it looking like that. I suppose if you plucked it, and picked out all those little bullets, I’d be more or less obliged to cook it. It’s a sin to waste good food.”
“Should I use the big pot?”
“I suppose, the same one we always use.”
Then Ma gave me the same face she always did. A look of desperation and hopelessness with a slight hint of pride. She was a more complicated animal than Reverend Flanders.
Five minutes to Dead Man’s Hill, 10 along the ridgeline to the hidden cemetery, down the deer path to the break in the fence. I figured an hour, 27 minutes to get into the barn. I was as good at math as I was bad in Sunday school.
At 9 o’clock I went upstairs, pretending to go to sleep. The street lamp gave enough light to watch the seconds roar on my Mickey Mouse watch. At 10 I went down the rope and tapped on the window to signal Smokey to beg to be let out. But she just stood and wagged her tail to tell me Ma wasn’t home. She left the record player on again.
“O holy night! The stars are brightly shining.” The same song played over and over.
She left it on when she went out to party and it used to get me upset. This time I was glad she was gone. I went inside.
“Long lay the world in sin and error pining.”
I took a bottle out of her hiding place. Pulaski’s animals might want some spirits. Pulaski most certainly would.
“Till he appeared and the spirit felt its worth.”
The stars were truly bright and Smokey, silver in the light, trotted two feet behind me. The moon glittered on the crumbling slabs in the abandoned cemetery. Shadows of broken birch limbs passed over them like bony consoling hands. The deer path narrowed into white circles of bent vine. The song ran with me.
“Fall on your knees! O hear the angels voices.”
“O night. O holy night.”
Smokey wouldn’t go down the break in the potato patch. She was better than me at some things and I let her lead. She went for the road and followed the hedge line, then cut back in the shadow of the barn light. I couldn’t believe it was left on. She went down on her belly and started the slow broken stalk. I followed her ears and tail. She’s so good that I had faith in her every move. Then she went head flat and hair up! I heard the sound of voices.
I got excited and rushed to the barn door, thinking it was the animals, but there stood Pulaski and his brother in front of a new tractor, the biggest I had ever seen. The tractor was shiny green and his brother was the biggest man ever.
There was a time where nobody moved, then I put the bottle down carefully and backed off. Pulaski jumped into the tractor and the race was on. He might have got me if not for Smokey, who ran diversions right behind me with a chicken hanging from her jaws. I knew she was quicker than that new tractor, but after we split up I was some happy to find her waiting at the old cemetery.
She didn’t eat the bird till we got home, and Ma caught me climbing up the rope. She said I didn’t have to do that anymore. I said she didn’t have to leave the record player on, and we had a good talk.
She said, “Pulaski is gonna kill you one day soon.”
And I said, “I don’t think so.”
She laughed. It was good to see her laugh and she motioned me to help her with the tree.
I said, “Do you think animals have souls?”
And she said, “I suppose.”
Dave Krusa, of Montauk, is a commercial fisherman and writer who has previously published stories in The Star. After selling his offshore business, he settled back into the life of a bayman.