Mom gently shook me. “Honey, your father is home.”
“What? Oh! Yay!” I cried, already out of bed. “Dad, how did your hunting trip go? Was Fern good?”
“Fabulous!” my tall father said. “She treed this one!” He held up a large silver coon. “You trained her well.”
“Thanks, Dad.” I looked up at him. “But where is Fern now?”
“She ran off. Probably chasing after a deer. You know that nose of hers. She’ll come back, she always does,” Mom said, laying a cool hand on my shoulder.
“Are you sure?” I asked her.
“Ninety-nine-point-nine,” Mom said. “Now go back to bed. It’s six o’clock in the morning.”
“Aw, Mom.” I hurried away. “Wake me up if she comes back.”
I woke up at eight and clattered downstairs. In the living room, Mom and Dad were already sipping coffee. I glanced at their quiet faces.
“Mom?” I asked. “Dad? Did Fern come back yet?” Dad nodded. “Well, is she OK?’’
“Shyla, Fern was attacked by something, we don’t know what,” Mom said softly.
“Well, is she going to be all right? When did she come home? Why didn’t you wake me up?” I didn’t know what to think.
“She came home about an hour ago. We didn’t think we should wake you.”
I noticed they didn’t answer my first question. “Well, is she…”
“She’s alive, but, well, it could go either way,” Mom said. I looked at her, horrified. My dear sweet Fern, named after the girl in Charlotte’s Web, just two years old. She couldn’t die. I wouldn’t let her.
Slowly, as if I were dreaming, I walked outdoors and over to Fern’s doghouse. Sure enough, a small figure lay prostrate on the floor of her tiny house.
“Hey Ferny, girl,” I said. My little redbone’s tail thumped so softly I could hardly hear it. I kept my voice as calm as I could. “You’re going to get better, you hear? You’re a tough li’l girl and, if I know you, you’ll pull through. Get some rest now, OK?” Feeling better, I walked away.
Inside, I poured myself a bowl of cereal and sat down at our homemade table to eat it.
“Shyla,” came a sleepy voice from behind me. My brother, Michael, was awake.
“Yeah,” I muttered.
“I heard you guys talking,” Michael said sheepishly.
“Then you’re a nasty little snoop,” I said. I felt bad about Fern and didn’t want to talk to a barely seven-year-old about it. “I’m not kidding. You weren’t supposed to listen.”
“That’s too bad,” Michael said stubbornly. “How’s Ferny?”
“Better than ever.” I dumped my bowl in the sink.
“That’s not true. You know that’s not true.” Michael stood sleepy-eyed in the middle of the room, but I wasn’t about to fight with him.
“Goodbye, Michael.” I walked away.
Mom was fixing a bowl of venison that we had canned last winter. She handed it to me with a spoon. “Feed this to Fern.”
“Will this make her better?” I asked doubtfully, stirring the tender chunks of meat.
“Hopefully, yes,” Mom said. She ladled some warm broth over the meat.
“She needs the energy, and the protein.”
“OK,” I said, almost smiling. “Are we going to take her to the vet?”
“No, honey, vets cost too much. Your dad’s been out of work, there’s no extra.”
“I’d pay,” I whined as I walked away, knowing full well I didn’t have enough. Outside, I walked to Fern’s house and knelt beside her. Thump-thump. A knot rose in my throat. I swallowed and gently fed the warm meat to Ferny.
“See, little girl, that’s not so bad. Looks so good I could eat it myself.” I stroked her head. After two spoonfuls, Fern refused to eat. I ran back to the house.
“Mom, she ate a couple of spoonfuls. Is that good?”
“Well, I’d have liked her to eat a little more,” Mom sighed, “but I suppose whatever she eats is good.”
“Well, I think she’ll get better.” I crossed my arms stubbornly.
“I certainly hope so.” Mom smiled affectionately at me.
Looking down, I realized I was still wearing my pajamas. I ran to my room and changed into a green T-shirt with a white butterfly on it, and a pink skort. Then I ran outside barefooted. Fern hadn’t moved an inch and, except for her thumping tail, she looked dead.
Suddenly, tears filled my eyes. This was too hard. I loved her so much and she was dying and I couldn’t do anything! I ran away into the woods. I could hear the thumping of her tail as I ran off.
“Sssshhhhyyyyllllaaaa!” Michael called. “Hhhellppp! Commme quicckk.”
Fearing the worst, I ran back to Fern’s house again. There I found my sweet dog collapsed on the grass with Michael standing helpless beside her. “Sh-sh-shshyla,” he sobbed. “She got up, and she’s bleeding everywhere.”
“Calm, Michael.” Mom appeared next to us. “Shyla, honey, go get my laundry basket and that old yellow baby blanket of yours.”
I ran back to the house and grabbed the materials. I handed them to Mom and she put the blanket into the basket and set them next to Fern. “We probably shouldn’t lift her. I think she’ll get in it.” Mom laid a hand on Michael and my shoulders.
And she did. Dad came over and carried her into the house as gently as he could and then he set her down in my room and left. I read Charlotte’s Web to her and she looked up every time I said Fern. And I sang to her, songs that had words that weren’t words, tunes that weren’t tunes that rose and fell but stayed soft. Then I lay down on my bed and closed my eyes and fell into a dark world where no light or dreams ever enter.
When I woke up, Fern had peed on my floor. I cleaned it up silently and coaxed her outside. “ ’s OK,” I told her.
Back in my room, I tried to write in my diary but my mind was numb.
When I went to let Fern back in, she was gone. I felt so helpless that I burst into tears.
“Shyla, it’s only natural for an animal to want to be alone when it dies.” My mother had tear streaks on her face.
“I know, but I’ll look anyway.’’ I ran off. “Fern!” I called. “Fer-” my voice cracked “-ny!”
That night Lily, my best friend, called. I told her everything. When I finished, there was silence at the other end of the phone. Finally, I heard a sob.
“She was sssooo yyyooouuunnnggg,” Lily bawled.
“I knooww,” I managed to say. We cried into the phone for five more minutes and then hung up. I felt better and went to bed.
We found her two days later. She was lying among the sweet ferns, under a little tree. Her tiny body was covered in maggots. My father cried when he told me, “The last thing she heard was you calling ‘Ferny.’ ”
A few weeks later, a tall pink flower that we had never seen before sprouted up right where Fern had died. It was oddly beautiful, making the little hollow a perfect resting place for the queen of all hunting dogs.