Buddy told Father Simpson the whole story in one breath… “We want you to resurrect him.”
E aster meant new shoes, patent leather shining white or black, and crinoline dresses that stuck out like bells, or clip-on ties that pinched the neck when the top shirt button was closed like a claustrophobic noose. We posed for a photo on the front porch, the three of us like steps and stairs: Buddy at ten, Eliza at seven, and me—Caroline, Caro for short—at nine. For any kid, Easter could never compare to Christmas, no matter how much candy you got. But there was something special about Easter that we figured out one year, something that made more sense than all the Sunday school lessons combined. It was the year that Ranger, our eight-year-old mutt that was the color of mud and smelled like swamp breath, got hit by a car.
Easter was late that year, coming at the end of April when everything was green and the creeks ran high. In the late 1960s when we were kids, weekends meant being outside. Every Saturday since early March, after breakfast and chores, we’d head out to the nearest field, Buddy leading the way and me right behind to show him he wasn’t the boss, and Eliza trailing and getting distracted by every little thing. We’d meet up with the other kids in the neighborhood for a game of tag or Red Rover, or “one, two, three statue.” If someone remembered a ball and bat, we’d play softball, four on each side, which meant basemen had to double as fielders. Eliza couldn’t hit or field, so we’d have to find something for her to do. Normally they just stuck her with me as if we were one player. I wanted to be good, to catch a pop-up fly ball like Buddy, but the sun always got in my eyes or the ball stung my open palm since we didn’t have enough gloves and I dropped it.
“Geez, Caro, you can’t catch anything!” Buddy would complain, throwing his baseball cap on the ground for emphasis.
“How can I with her next to me?” I’d shout back, jerking my thumb in Eliza’s direction. It wasn’t the truth of course; my little sister had nothing to do with my lack of baseball prowess, but she was a handy excuse.
When we’d get tired of playing, we’d start to wander and explore—sometimes in the middle of a game, when the outfield would be on the move toward the trees. Depending upon how good the batter was, there would either be one more hit or the game would end abruptly. We’d look for fallen trees to walk along like grounded tightropes, trying not to slip on the mossy sides, or forts to make out of the tangled masses of unearthed roots.
More than a few times, we’d hear a bark and the jingle of tags against a collar, and there’d be Ranger, who spent most of his time tied outside with a good long lead. He slept on a dog bed on the back porch, and moved inside to the mud room when it got cold. Sometimes we let him into the kitchen, but our mother was never keen on having Ranger on her clean floor. That woman spent our entire childhood mopping the linoleum until you’d think she would have worn it out.
How Ranger got loose, we never quite figured out, but most likely it was my fault when I didn’t tie his lead tightly enough to his collar after taking him for a morning walk. Dad insisted that Ranger get walked every day, and Buddy and I took turns. Looking back, Ranger never got lose on Buddy’s walking days, only mine. I guess my slip knot lived up to its name.
There would be Ranger, panting happily having spent the better part of an hour chasing rabbits and squirrels until he picked up our scent and found us. Of course, any creature with ears could have found eight noisy kids in the woods, but Ranger was a tracker. He was supposed to be a hunting dog, but Dad had given it up when his knees started bothering him.
Everybody liked Ranger, except Eliza, who cried when he jumped on her. “Put your stupid hands down and he won’t jump,” Buddy would yell at her. Eliza never got it that holding her hands above her head or shielding her face with them made Ranger think she had something for him. Ranger wasn’t the smartest dog and had never been trained. Half the time he didn’t come when we called, so getting him home with no leash wasn’t easy. We’d try a length of grapevine, but Ranger could snap that as look at it. Once we found a piece of old rope, which did the trick, but usually we just chased him home, which became a new game for him and us.
It was Good Friday afternoon, late in April, when Ranger got loose again and found us down at Miller’s Creek, where were searched for frog eggs to put in jars. There were only four of us: Buddy, Eliza and me, and a kid name Danny, who lived down the road. The others were Catholic and had to stay in on Good Friday. We were Protestants, but not the strict kind, so when our mother told us to read our Bible verses, we’d promise to do it later and usually get away with it. I always wished we had done it that day, maybe sat out in the backyard and read them to Ranger. But the day was unseasonably warm and the sun was shining, so we went to the creek and waded in water that was still so cold it made our feet blue.
We didn’t hear Ranger this time, only the squeal of tires as a car braked hard, and then a thump. Buddy swore, the first time I ever heard him, and scrambled up the bank to the roadside. There was Ranger, lying on the shoulder, hurt and bleeding and probably dead. The car and driver, of course, were long gone.
“Why didn’t you tie him up good?” Buddy shouted at me. “Can’t you do nothing right?”
Eliza started to bawl, and I yelled at her, just to make myself feel better. Only Danny had the good sense to touch Ranger, to see if there was any response. There was none.
Buddy scooped the dog up in his arms and started back toward home. “Wait!” I shouted after him. “It’s Good Friday. Maybe we should pray for a miracle!” We stood in a circle around Buddy and asked God to bring Ranger back. Danny didn’t say anything, but bowed his head like it was the solemnest occasion. Eliza’s sobs had dulled to sniffles.
“We gotta get him to a church!” Buddy announced and took off running toward home, with Ranger’s limp body weighing him down. After about a tenth of a mile, he slowed to a walk again. Mrs. Van Neder, who lived out past Danny, saw us and stopped. “What’s wrong with your dog?” she asked through a rolled-down passenger window.
“Got hit by a car,” Buddy told her. “We’re taking him to church.”
Mrs. Van Neder shook her head and told us to get in the car: three of us with Ranger in the back and Danny up front. She took us as far as our house and said our dad should probably do the rest.
Our mother was mopping, like always, when we tracked in with mud on our shoes and Ranger in Buddy’s arms. She dropped the mop and covered her face with her hands. The details spilled out like pennies from the coin jar we kept in the kitchen, rattling all over at once. Buddy told her we needed to get Ranger to church. “He’s dead,” she told us gently. “We’ve got to give him a good burial.”
Buddy yelled at her in a way that should have gotten him grounded for twenty years, except for the tears in his eyes and his absolute conviction that Ranger needed to be blessed and everything would be fine. “D’you forget? It’s Good Friday.”
Mother changed her shoes and found her purse, and drove us into town. Our church was closed and locked up; not even the organist was there rehearsing. First Baptist on the corner looked about the same as we drove past. Mother headed straight to St. Lucy’s on the other side of town. Everybody knew Father Simpson, who was old and gray-haired, and rode in the back of a convertible in the Fourth of July Parade behind the Knights of Columbus. He didn’t throw candy; instead, he blessed the crowd with a little cross-shaped wave. We always thought that bubble gum would have made him more popular.
The church was open and the pews were dotted with little old ladies who had lace things on their heads, fingering beads as they said their prayers. Mother walked up to the first woman she saw and whispered something about Father Simpson. Buddy probably should not have followed her so closely with Ranger, because the old lady yelped aloud when she saw the dog.
Then Father Simpson appeared on the altar, and Mother marched us up the aisle. “Father, we’re not Catholic,” she began.
“Our dog got hit and we want you to pray for him so he’ll come back,” Buddy announced, thrusting the dog toward the priest.
“Come.” Father Simpson headed toward the sacristy and we followed, our eyes everywhere, and then out a little hallway in the back toward a meeting room. The priest sat down in a wooden chair and fluttered his fingers to beckon Buddy to come over. “Tell me what happened, son,” he began.
Buddy told him the whole story in one breath: playing in the creek, Ranger getting loose and coming down the road to find us, the screech of the car brakes, and then finding the dog on the shoulder. “We want you to resurrect him.”
The old priest reached out and ran his hand through Ranger’s fur, which I thought was some kind of life-giving blessing, but it ended with a pat. “You know the story of Lazarus?” Father Simpson asked. Buddy said yes and I said no, and Danny and Eliza said nothing. “He was Jesus’ best friend, and the brother of Mary and Martha. Lazarus got sick and died, but Jesus wasn’t there to heal him. Everyone cried and cried when Jesus got there, but it was too late. Lazarus was in the tomb already. But our Lord prayed and there was a miracle, and Lazarus came back from the dead.”
“Do that with Ranger!” I yelled out, not wanting Buddy to have a say in everything. “Say the Lazarus prayer.”
Father Simpson looked at me with sad eyes. “Only Jesus can do that. I’m just his servant.”
“So, I guess we shouldn’t have bothered you!” I snapped.
“Caroline Marie…” my mother scolded.
Father Simpson held up his hand. “It’s okay. I understand.” He turned to me. “You loved Ranger like Jesus loved Lazarus. Take your broken heart to Jesus and he’ll make you feel better.”
It sounded like a brush off to me, but Mother dabbed her eyes and smiled at the priest. “Thank you, Father. You’re very kind. I know this was silly, but the children had their hearts set on seeing someone…”
“Nothing silly about it. I had a dog when I was a kid—big golden lab named Topper. Lived to be 12 and then I had to put him down.” Father Simpson got up slowly. “Let’s say a prayer for Ranger, hmm?” He raised his hand in the air and blessed the dog, thanked God for the life He had given to Ranger and prayed that we’d find peace and comfort. “Wherever good dogs go, Ranger, I hope that you rest in peace.”
“Do dogs go to heaven?” Buddy asked.
“I’d certainly like to think so. I wouldn’t mind seeing Topper again.”
We went home and dug a hole in the backyard by the lilac bushes and buried Ranger. Mother offered to drive Danny home, but he shook his head and said he’d rather walk. She led us inside, not scolding us for once about the dirt we tracked in, and gave us a pile of jelly beans to split among the three of us. I felt so bad for not tying Ranger’s rope more tightly I gave Buddy all the red ones.
On Saturday morning, we checked outside to see if God had dug up Ranger the way he had Lazarus, but the ground was still patted down. Easter Sunday we got dressed up in our good clothes and went to church, riding in the back seat behind Dad, who dangled a cigarette out the open window as he drove, and Mother, who wore a new dress she’d made herself and last year’s hat. As the breeze filled the car, a little dust rose up from the floor, swirling like a cyclone; in it, was a clump of Ranger’s fur. I caught it between my fingers and squeezed it into my palm, all the way to church.
The choir sang loud like someone had a gun to their heads, and the organist pumped the keyboard with his elbows flapping. “Christ, our Lord is risen today… Hallelujah! Sinners wipe your tears away…. Hallelujah!”
I opened my hand and looked at the bit of Ranger fluff. I knew that God was too busy for some old dog, not when there were old people dying and babies getting sick. Still, I wished we could have sung hallelujah for Ranger. After church, we opened our Easter baskets, ate too much chocolate, and then sat down to a ham dinner. Mother let us change our clothes and go play, but we didn’t have much ambition to go very far.
On Monday, we were back to school, and the word got around to our friends about Ranger. By lunchtime, all the other kids knew I’d been the one who didn’t tie the rope right, but Buddy threatened to punch anybody who made me feel bad about it. At the end-of-the-day announcements, the principal called the three of us to the office. I ran into Buddy in the corridor. “Must be Ranger. He had to come back. Maybe God wanted to wait until after Easter.”
Buddy made a face and told me not to be stupid.
Mrs. Rawley, the first grade teacher, stood outside the principal’s office with Eliza. Inside the office, Father Simpson sat on a wooden chair beside the secretary’s desk, where the troublemakers always waited for their parents. It seemed funny to see a priest there, in the “electric chair” as we called it.
“Children, Father Simpson came to see you,” the secretary said, stating the obvious. “He didn’t know your last name, but when he described you and remembered that you two of you were Buddy and Caroline Marie, we knew who to call.”
“Hi,” Buddy said, stuffing his hands in his back pockets. “Ranger didn’t come back.”
“No, I don’t suppose he did,” the priest said.
“We went to church yesterday. We’re Methodists,” I added, just in case he had a form for us to bring home to become Catholic or something.
“That’s good. It was a glorious Easter day.” Father Simpson thanked the secretary and waved to the principal, then led us outside. “I have something for you.”
We knew from the parade not to expect bubble gum. As we walked behind him to his car, I figured it was some of those holy cards that the Catholic kids got for First Communion.
In the back seat of Father Simpson’s black Ford sedan was cardboard box. Inside was a puppy. “Somebody I know had to find a home for this little fellow, and I thought you might just be the ones. What do you say?”
The puppy was mostly brown with black and white markings. He was a mutt, with a little beagle in him from the coloring and who knows what else. Father Simpson gave the dog to Buddy first and I reached over and petted him, feeling the warmth of a wiggling body.
“What are you going to name him?” the priest asked.
I was already thinking of Snoopy or maybe Scooter when Buddy blurted out the name that would stick for the next fourteen years of that dog’s life. “Lazarus,” he said, looking up at the priest. Father Simpson nodded and cleared his throat. “A fine name.”
We called him Laz most of the time, taught him to fetch and play ball. He wasn’t an outside dog like Ranger had been. Laz had a dog bed in a corner of the kitchen and an old rug in the living room. Mother doubled her mopping and vacuumed every day, but never scolded Laz.
As for me, I never looked at Lazarus without seeing Ranger, even though two dogs couldn’t have been more different. Laz clung to us like a shadow, unlike Ranger who was always a roamer. But I had no doubt that Ranger had sent Laz to us, a gift from beyond, a reminder that even in death there is life.
This story first appeared in the 2012 edition of FaithHopeandFiction.
Photo credit: Patricia Crisafulli