The Animal Lover

It was late and a frost had settled, crisp and brittle, over a thin trail running between the Rhine and the sagging, weary town. Hond sniffed the air and the cold stung but he was sure he smelled the warm, metallic tang of food. At this hour no butcher would be plying his trade so he suspected a darker tradesman had left the meat cooling in the winter air. He followed his nose through the filth along the river bank and the water flowed, black and sluggish, no faster than he walked. The river reeked of sewage and threatened to drown the smell of blood that cut a ribbon through the air and led Hond on a desperate hunt for sustenance. He was close now and began to run in the hopes that he might be the first to the meal. The competition would be fierce and he wasn’t sure he could survive another fight, a collision of fangs and boney hides, over meager scraps of garbage.

The smell grew stronger as he neared an alley, a jagged crack between rotten wooden buildings, and he slowed, listening for the whuffs and snarls of the street’s feral survivors and was delighted at the silence. Encouraged he bounded around the corner and he drew up short, stumbling over the top of a stringy grey cat and rolling into the ass end of old mutt whose hide was scarred and pocked with disease. Cursing the ice Hond slipped and scrambled to his feet anticipating the pull and rip of the mutt’s fangs. When he found his footing and whirled about, the sick, old hound was calmly staring at him.

With a sigh of relief Hond took the moments that followed to look down the alley and he realized he was at the end of a long line of animals, mostly dogs and cats, that had queued up at the body of a human sprawled in the trash. He had never seen anything like it - dozens of starving animals sitting or laying politely in an orderly line. They resembled the orderly throngs of humans Hond had seen coming and going at the churches around the town. The line split into two as it neared the human and there was an animal lapping at either of the human’s outstretched hands. The smell of blood was thick in the air. Hond’s tongue lolled, dry and loose, and his belly growled but a sense of calm settled over him. Against his better judgement, he took a position behind the cat and waited his turn in line.

One after another the animals knelt beside the human and, as the line grew shorter, Hond saw they were lapping at wounds on his wrists that wept a stream of fresh, warm blood. The flow was constant and the frost around the human had melted to a red-brown slush. No human should survive this trauma yet the man’s eyes were open and he was speaking to animals who were wary but too hungry to care as they fed on his blood.

The town was sprawling, it’s population swelling over the years as the river brought traffic, people and goods yet Hond recognized him as one of the poor men dressed in rags who lingered around the town’s largest church. He was caked with grime but unlike the other beggars, thieves, and penitents he didn’t smell of disease. Hond marveled that this wreck of a man survived starvation and the bitter elements free of sickness. He was like the church - an old, stone building that maintained its dignity of the despite the effects of gravity and neglect taking their toll. He was a monument to something other than circumstances and Hond suspected nature had turned a blind eye to both the man and the church.

Hond realized it was his turn. The cat had slid around the prostate man and was half buried in shadow, lapping at the ragged wound in the man’s wrist. The skin was torn and the bones had been bent or splintered but the man showed no signs of pain. Their eyes met and for a moment Hond stood shivering, unable to move. The man held his gaze then raised his unclaimed hand off the ground and motioned to Hond. A weak, loving gesture.

“Come,” the man whispered, “I am Francis of Assisi, and you may drink of my blood. It was God’s gift to me and now I make it his gift to you.”

Hond stepped forward and the smell of blood was rich, full of vitality and promise. Overwhelmed, the dog began to drink.