“He doesn’t like me,” I said childishly.
“But I do,” Sara countered. “If I didn’t trust you more than anyone else, I wouldn’t put him in your care.”
I took her hand even though you weren’t supposed to touch those infected with the flu. The birds at the window had finished with their crumbs. They flew away all at once. The light changed and lengthened. I could hear the wind in the trees. I felt lucky to be there with Sara, to be the one she trusted.
The dog knew before I did. He made a sound that was nearly human, a sob it seemed to me. My sister dropped my hand. I heard something escape from her mouth, her soul perhaps, rushing upward. For one bright moment I thought she might return, but she was gone. I sat there for a while, then went to close the window. When I returned to the bedside, I reached to shut my sister’s eyes. Topsy leapt to bite me. There were two drops of blood on my wrist.
NO ONE WANTED to prepare the body, so in the end my sister wore the same white nightgown to her funeral she’d worn since falling ill. I brushed her hair, and Topsy watched me. I had smacked his nose after his bite, so he was a little more cautious around me, though he growled again. “Don’t you dare,” I told him. “You’re mine now.” He looked at me with his buggy eyes as though I were mad. We were in the same room, mourning my sister. That was all we had in common. It was she who bound us together.
Two laborers from the cemetery brought the coffin into our yard. The men were from Italy and could barely speak English. They came into the cottage, surprised to find only a ten-year-old girl and a little dog tending to the body. They took off their hats as a mark of respect, then carried my sister to the coffin, which rode atop a small wagon they pulled by hand. We followed the wagon, Topsy and I. I saw my sister Hannah through the window of the big house. Mrs. Kelly had insisted it was dangerous to attend the funeral, even though it would be held in the open air. Hannah put up her hand to wave to me, but I went on. The pastor, Johnson Jacob, came and said a prayer. He was a good man, and he waited with me while the laborers dug the grave. He told me that we could not begin to understand the mysteries of our faith, and I wondered why he assumed I had any faith at all. When he left, Topsy and I stayed on, until the earth was replaced. How was it that Sara could be gone? Of all that she might have asked for, how could her wish have been so small?
When it grew dark, I started for the path that led to the cemetery gates. They were beautiful gates, black wrought iron, crafted in France, ordered by a family who had lost their little girl, as if setting out those gates could keep her spirit from wandering. I called for the dog as I started for home, but Topsy stayed where he was. I clapped my hands. He didn’t even turn his head. The last of the season’s crickets were singing in the grass. Their sound was low and slow. Everything ended. Everything stopped. All at once I realized how alone I was in the graveyard. I felt again that I was only ten years old and that the world was far too much for me. I called and called, but Topsy wouldn’t come. The dark was widening and the wind took up. I ran on to the gate. When I looked back, the dog was lying in the grass, like an ugly old cricket.
MRS. KELLY MADE me bathe out in the yard with strong lye soap. I had to burn the clothes I’d worn. I watched as the black dress turned into smoke. When I went up to bed, Hannah slipped in next to me and wept. I comforted her and said Sara was in a better place, but we weren’t close after that. I kept to myself, especially after Billy came home. He’d found a new wife while he was in quarantine, a nurse from Boston named Annie. He was a young man and no one expected him to live the rest of his life alone, without a wife and children. They were married in the spring, and Hannah served as a flower girl. I picked the mallows to wind into a garland for her head, but when the day of the wedding came, I said I was ill and stayed away from the church. I went to the cemetery instead. I visited there each afternoon with a bowl of food and a jug of fresh water for Topsy. He had never come away from my sister’s grave. All winter he had stayed there, even though it had turned out to be an especially cold season, just as the bees nesting high in the trees had predicted. When snow fell he made a den. I brought him a blanket. There were several nights when I imagined he would freeze to death, but he always was there to greet me the next day. His coat grew thick and rough. His eyes were droopy. He never wagged his tail when he saw me, but he knew me and rose to greet me when I approached.
Now that it was spring, he sprawled out on the grass. It was blackfly season. I set a mesh over a tree branch to form a gauzy tent. I sat there protected from fly bites, but Topsy never came inside, no matter how I might urge him to join me in the tent.