by Holly Day
The hand came down, and Dog stuck his big, wet, nose in it, savored the warm palm that always smelled like sea salt, even after all these days inland. Dog's paws hurt, and the memory of the cool, sorely-missed ocean spray only served to remind him of all the long days they had marched through this desert, the rocks he'd stumbled over and the sharp, dry stickers he'd pulled out of his callused paws with his teeth. It wasn't so bad at first, being in the company of these men — especially that man, Thaddeus, who always had scraps in his pouch for Dog — but those men had stopped following them two days ago, and now just Dog and Jesus climbed up the sharp, rocky side of the mountain.
"How're you doin', boy?" asked Jesus again. He looked back and grinned at His childhood companion. Dog promptly sat down on his haunches, determined that Jesus would interpret this as a sign to stop walking completely and make camp for the night. Dog wanted to stop and sleep now, and if Jesus didn't want to stop, Jesus would just have to go on ahead without him. His swollen, dry tongue lolled out the side of his mouth unbidden, and Dog's head fell to rest on his paws, equally unbidden.
The Hand came down and rested on Dog's head. Jesus sighed and looked up at the peak of the mountain, still pretty far away.
"The longer it takes to get there, the longer it'll take to get back to Thaddeus," coaxed Jesus. "I suppose I could carry you, or maybe just leave you here and come back?" He looked down at the pile of mottled fur and ribs stretched out against the gray slate and shook His head. "Or maybe we'll just take a little break here." He sat down beside Dog and patted the haggard fox-face of His mutt. "Maybe a big rat'll run by here, a big, juicy rat, and you can have some dinner too."
Dog nosed Jesus' leg and let his breath out in one big, loud sigh. Even if a rat did come by, he thought as he fell asleep, it'd have to come right up and climb into his mouth before he could actually eat it. Two straight days of following Jesus was enough for any dog, much less a dog as old as Dog.
Jesus closed his own eyes and listened to the labored breath of the animal beside him. He smiled, almost uncontrollably, as Dog's legs twitched rhythmically in his sleep — "Running after rabbits in his sleep, even now," marveled Jesus — and remembered a time when a tiny spotted puppy showed up on His parents' doorstep so many years ago. His hands worked automatic patterns in the tired dog's thin coat, felt the muscles firm and fill out beneath His fingers. The dog's breathing became more regular and relaxed.
"You know, it's almost cruel dragging that poor animal along," scolded John as Jesus and Dog arrived at the camp, four days later. "I can't believe Your mother lets You keep bringing the poor thing back to life."
"I've never brought him back to life," corrected Jesus. "He'd have to actually die before I could do that. I just fix him up every once in a while."
Dog looked and felt better than he had for months, even despite the arduous journey up the mountain. It seemed that every time he laid down to sleep anymore, he'd wake up the next day feeling like a puppy. He'd stopped trying to leave Jesus to find a place to die — instead, he now took it for granted that just about anything could be cured by a good night's sleep.
"So, did you learn anything new up there?" John asked Dog. He knelt down and scratched the animal behind the ears, searching for the matted, balding patch that had been there when they had begun their trip up the mountain. Of course it was gone, replaced by soft, new fur. He shook his head and stood up. "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus," he scolded. "Don't dogs deserve to die and go to Heaven, too?"
"Dog wants to stay here with me," answered Jesus defensively. "Don't you, Dog?"
Dog wagged his tail at the sound of his name. He trotted over to sit on the hard earth beside Jesus. "See?" said Jesus, patting the ancient dog's head. "He loves Me."
The apostles took turns tossing sticks far ahead of them as they headed down the mountain to the fishing village of Aristos. They laughed as Dog ran after each and every stick they threw, losing most of them, but sometimes returning triumphant.
"Say, Jesus," asked Judas, his cheeks a little red from exertion. "Think You could make me fifteen again?"
"Don't worry," answered Jesus. "If you have a heart attack, I'll heal you, no problem. You should eat better, though. You wouldn't be so worn out all the time if you weren't always eating crap."
"This, from a man who can turn rocks into sandwiches," muttered Judas under his breath.
"And water into wine," added Jesus. He slapped Judas on the back. "Cheer up, fat boy. We're almost there." He strode briskly past the group and whistled. "Come on, Dog!"
Dog bounded back from the rabbit he was chasing. He hadn't felt this good in years! The same could not be said for his Master — while Dog seemed to perpetually grow older and younger and older and younger, Jesus just got older and older. The quiet little boy who had first held Dog against His chest was so far gone He might as well have never been.
"That's a good puppy," smiled Jesus. He gently pushed Dog away. He brushed the muddy paw prints off His robe and scratched the top of Dog's head. Ahead of them, right on schedule, a small crowd of villagers were gathering. Dog growled low in his throat. The fur between his shoulder blades stiffened and stood upright.
"Easy, boy," murmured Jesus. He grabbed Dog by the scruff of the neck, just in case.
"Are You Jesus?" a man's voice called out from the crowd. The crowd separated, and a very stern-looking man pushed his way through the throng. "A messenger from the next town over said Jesus was coming this way."
"Yes, I'm Jesus," answered Jesus. "We're really only looking for a place to spend the night, and we'll be on our way. We really can't stay that long."
"We've got a lot of lepers and blind people that might have something to say about you leaving so quickly," answered the man. "And we've got a crazy guy here who says he's going to kill You on sight — maybe you can do something about him, too?"
"Good Lord, man!" exploded Thaddeus. "We're kind of on a schedule here —"
"Easy, brother." Jesus loosened His grip on the dog. "How many sick or dying people can there be, anyway? It's such a little village …"
"Your Mother's going to be pissed at me, You know," grumbled Thaddeus as the tents of the Nazarene bazaar finally came into sight. "I told Her we'd be back days ago."
"I'm sure She'll survive." Jesus wiped a trickle of sweat from His brow. Mary was always much harder on the apostles than She had ever been with Her own Son.
"She thinks we're a bad influence on You," added Judas. "I think She liked it better when You were hanging out with priests and the village intelligentsia. Oh, and don't think She won't notice that Dog's about five years younger. She won't be happy about that."
"Why do you say that?" snapped Jesus, long tired of the subject. "She loves Dog. Besides, he's My pet, and I can do what I want with him, okay? I'll bet if you could bring Spider back to life, you'd do it in a heartbeat."
"Maybe I'm just mad because You get to keep Your dog forever and ever, and I had to let mine die because I didn't have any other choice." A nasty edge had crawled into Judas' voice — he stared straight ahead and refused to look at Jesus.
"Boys, we're almost home," panted Peter from somewhere behind them. "We're minutes from spending time with our own families, minutes from getting to spend some time away from each other. You think you two can just be nice and shut up for that long?"
"I can be very nice." Jesus shot a truly glorious smile over His shoulder at the pudgy little redhead. "I am the Son of God, after all."
The party closed in on Nazareth in silence, all except Dog. The little animal barked excitedly as they passed familiar faces and buildings, jumping in tighter and tighter circles the closer they drew to home. Finally, Dog stopped altogether in front of a long, low house near the center of town and stood there, quivering with anticipation. He knew better than to actually enter the building without an invitation. Thin tendrils of blood-scented smoke brushed against Dog's nose. His stomach grumbled painfully. If he was good, he would get the bones of whatever was cooking inside. He could be a very good Dog.
"Mother?" called Jesus. He poked His head through the curtained doorway. "Mom, we're back!"
"Jesus?" A short, thin woman with long, dark hair rushed out of the house and threw Her arms around Jesus. "Oh, You're alive! It seems like You've been gone forever — that's not who I think it is, is it?" Mary stopped and stared at Dog. "That's not Dog, is it?"
"We really needed him to help us catch rabbits," Jesus said, sheepishly. Dog barked, short and sharp. He recognized the words "Dog" and "rabbit." He did not jump on or run past the short woman at the door. She was the one who gave him bones and occasionally petted him, but She would not do so if he broke rank or behaved like a bad dog. Her voice rang with disapproval, and he suspected, as always, that a good deal of it was directed at him.
"Jesus, there are a lot of good dogs out there that need homes," began Mary, and stopped at the look on Jesus' face. "I just hope You're not keeping Dog from something better than this just because You can't let him go," She finished, softly.
"What could be better than being My dog?" Jesus knelt down in the dusty street and threw His arms around Dog, burying His face in Dog's dusty coat like He did when He was small. Dog's tongue lolled uncontrollably out of his mouth in sheer joy, and he lapped at the air around Jesus' face. He was a smart enough dog to know he shouldn't lick his Master in front of Mary, who did not like dogs to lick people's faces.
Dog was happy. Every morning, there would be a pile of boiled-down bones and strips of skin and gristle in a pile by the front door just for him, and every afternoon and evening, an ancient and deliriously soft blanket lay in the shadow of the house meant only for him. The town of Nazareth was full of wonderful entertainment, full of wonderful, small children who would run, screaming and giggling, down the street when Dog barked at them, and wonderful older children who would come over and throw things for him to chase and bring him treats. Occasionally, a rat would streak across the alley toward Home, and Dog would bark loudly and forcefully until it turned and ran away. Whenever Mary saw Dog do this, She would give him a treat, some odd scrap of chewy leather from the table, or a meat-covered bone from the stew pot. Then She would say, "Good, Dog," and Dog would be so happy he'd jump up on Her, at which point, She'd say, "Bad Dog," and he'd settle down again. These were their only exchanges. They were the constant in Dog's day-to-day life.
Jesus would go off with His friends every morning, and come back every evening, right before the sun sank below the hills. In the few minutes left before the streets were plunged in darkness, He would throw sticks for Dog, just like the older children in the village did, just like He had always done for as long as He'd had Dog. When the two of them were playing together, everything between those games of Fetch meant nothing, not the goading of the neighborhood children, not the few bits of juicy meat he ripped off the bones Mary gave him as treats, not even the occasional game of deadly tag he played with the various rodents that disturbed his afternoon naps. At these moments, chasing after the sticks Jesus threw into the star-filled twilight — this was all Dog ever wanted know.
Then, of course, came the day when Jesus did not come home at the end of the day, and Mary was the one who knelt down on the cold stone next to the scruffy mutt. She put Her hand on his head and said, "I told Him to leave you with me this time." Her voice was soft and calm. "I told Him I'd take care of you, and I will."
Dog, of course, understood none of this. He spent the next few weeks jumping and barking excitedly every time someone pushed open the door of the hut. Jesus would step into the room at any moment, His pockets full of treats, His warm and friendly hands held out for Dog to sniff and lick. As kind and thoughtful as Mary and Joseph and their other children were to him, Dog grew more and more lackluster with each passing day.
"Poor old mutt," Mary would sigh. "He really should have let you go years ago. It's just not fair for you to be so dependent on Him, poor creature. Ah, well. He'll be back before you know it, and He can deal with you then, as He always has."
Weeks passed into months, and Jesus still didn't appear. Dog contented himself playing ball with a couple of the neighbor children who had taken pity on him, and depended more and more on Mary for affection. It would have appeared to the casual observer that Dog was Mary's pet, and that the scruffy little animal had completely forgotten about his Master.
Even Peter noticed this, on that day he came back alone, his thick hair wild and matted into ropes, feet bloody and blistered from running most of the way back from Galilee. "He's getting fat on all that junk you've been feeding him. It'd probably be kinder to leave the old mutt behind."
"No, no." Mary shook Her head firmly. "It'd be a far greater kindness to make him come along. Besides, he could use the exercise." She reached down and patted Dog on the head, Her eyes filled with barely-restrained tears. Dog lapped excitedly at Her fingertips and whined in confusion. Something was wrong.
"Well, we should leave tonight, if we're going to go at all," said Peter. "There's not a lot of time left. There may not be any time left at all, in fact," he added grimly.
"God will make time for me," said Mary grimly. "I've done more than enough for Him to earn the right to say goodbye to My Son properly. I've done more than enough."
Dog bounded out of the hut in front of Peter and Mary. Peter was his Master's friend, and if Peter was here, perhaps Jesus was somewhere nearby, too. Peter leaned heavily on his walking stick as he followed, and Mary fussed over him tremendously. They stopped often along the way, often solely to bathe and rest Peter's blistered feet. There were no shortcuts to Golgotha, and it was a very long walk.
"We're very close now," gasped Peter one morning. The sun rose slowly over the clay walls of a great city, and all around them could be seen the jagged shadows of crucifixes and small, square mausoleums.
Mary stopped. Her shoulders sagged as though some of the air had been let out of Her body.
"We don't have much time," said Peter. "They may have already crucified Him."
"I have all the time in the world," snapped Mary. "I could stand here until winter, and God would make sure that I would still get to say goodbye to My Boy. If I don't go down that hill, He won't have to die."
"Let's not test Your theory and just go down now, okay?" said Peter. He began down the hill himself, leaving Mary and Dog alone on the rise.
"I guess I have to do this." Mary leaned down and let Dog lap at Her fingertips. "You coming, old boy?"
Dog kept pace with his Master's Mother all the way down the hill, despite the urge to run circles around Her tired feet, or run after the rabbits and rats that fled across his path. Peter waited for the two of them at the bottom of the hill.
"It's just over there," he said. He panted heavily and leaned on his walking stick, exhausted. "We're almost there."
"Like I said, I could take the rest of My life to walk the rest of the way," grumbled Mary. She picked up Her pace anyway and left Peter far behind in a matter of minutes, Dog close behind.
They walked in silence for some time. Mary stared straight ahead as she walked, almost as if Dog wasn't even there. Dog whined unhappily at being shut out and ignored, and began to wonder if he shouldn't have stayed behind with Peter after all. He had just about made up his mind to go back and see if the man they had left behind might be a more welcome companion when a familiar voice stopped him cold in his tracks.
"Dog!" called the Voice faintly, as if from far away. Dog stood still and sniffed at the air. "Dog!" said the Voice again, and Dog knew it was the Boy calling him, could hear Him and smell Him, and close, too.
He ran and bumped and slid down the hill, following the Voice, until he was there. He was right at the base of the crucifix, his Master's bare, dirty feet within reach of his long, red tongue.
"You poor, fat old mutt," said Jesus weakly, craning His head so that He could meet Dog's eye. "What has Mother been feeding you? You look like a little pig down there, all round and mangy. I'll have to have a word with Her when She gets here." He coughed wetly and leaned back against the crucifix.
Dog jumped up against the crucifix, whimpering in confusion and excitement. He licked again and again at Jesus' feet and tried to reach one of His hands, then ran off to urinate against the base of another crucifix. When he returned, both Peter and Mary were together at the crucifix. Mary held Her Son's still-bleeding feet in her hands, cradled them in Her hands just like She did when He was a tiny baby. Peter was saying something to Jesus that Dog could not hear.
"Come on, Dog. Time to go home," said Mary as Dog drew close. Her voice was soft, quiet, full of something horrible and sad.
"Oh, let him stay," said Jesus weakly. "He can find his way back home."
"I suppose you're right," said Mary. She reluctantly let go of Jesus' feet and reached out to scratch the top of Dog's head. "I guess I'll see you when I see you then, old fool."
"I'll see you later, Mom," said Jesus. "Please try not to worry."
"Can't help Myself," She answered gruffly. She wiped Her eyes vigorously, turned and began walking in the direction from which She had just come. Dog watched Her go, not sure if he should follow Her. He couldn't just walk away from his Master, after coming so far to find Him.
"So," said Jesus. He laughed weakly from His post. "Feel like a game of fetch? Just kidding," He added as Dog looked at Him, excited at the familiar word. "I suppose this is it, old friend." He closed His eyes, His voice so soft it was barely audible. "I'm glad you're here to see it all end with Me, Dog."
Dog sank down at the foot of the crucifix, his head resting on his blistered paws, completely exhausted. The sky had turned a glorious pink with the sunrise, and great clouds of birds rose in waves to greet the new day. And even when the first thick drops of rain began to fall on Dog's head, he refused to move. He had come far enough on this journey, and in his life, that he couldn't see any reason to take one step more.
Copyright © 2016 by Holly Day