BLESS THE BEASTS AND THE CHILDREN Perched atop a hill overlooking the Hudson, the nuns of St. Bernard’s convent had a panoramic view of the river. The building was a massive, imposing structure. Many years ago, the convent had once been a school for orphans or for children whose parents could no longer care for them. Before the social programs under the Roosevelt Administration became available, the school had been filled to capacity. Years before that, many of the children had been put on trains to travel to the mid-west where there were people willing to welcome them into their families, although sadly, too often as little more than indentured servants. At one time St. Bernard’s had been meant to be something of a haven, a place that supposedly existed to protect those who could not protect themselves. City Hall received phone calls from time to time from people who wanted directions to the convent, seeking some answers to a past they had probably spent a long time searching for. Once in a while you would see someone sitting on one of the old benches that faced the river staring out into the distance. There was no way of knowing whether this was the last stop on their journey for self discovery, or the first. I sometimes wondered if coming to look at this enormous grim building would give them the answers they needed. The nuns who lived there now only used a small portion of it, mostly as a home for retired sisters. Perhaps it was the history of the place, and the fact that it now was so silent and almost empty that made it seem ominous to me. I had never been further than the main lobby. Once before they had called to ask me if I could drop off medicine from a vet for a stray dog that roamed the property. For as long as I could remember, a mysterious white Shepherd had lived on the property. In fact, he was almost a legend of sorts because he never came to anyone and always seemed so independent. I thought that he probably had lived in those woods for most of his life. To him, it was home. You could ask anyone who lived near the convent if they knew about the white dog and they would often say that they had seen him there since what seemed forever. He never bothered anyone and nobody had ever really found a reason to bother him. It was windy and raining, the precursor to a full fledged hurricane that was heading in our direction. The state was under a Hurricane Warning and I knew from experience that animals tend to act strangely before a bad storm. Dogs that never left their yards would sometimes be found cowering under a car several blocks away. I was surprised that the convent had called in a complaint today, given the fact that the white dog wasn’t anywhere different than he usually was. As old as he was, I figured he had probably seen a few hurricanes in his life and this one was not likely to be the worst. Sergeant Murphy called me in before sending me over to the convent. He wanted to make sure I was prepared for the weather.“This is the smallest one I could find. Go ahead, put it on and let’s get a look at you.”Sergeant Murphy tossed the bright orange rain coat over to me. Orange wasn’t exactly my best color, especially not fluorescent, neon, glowing like nuclear waste, orange.“Can’t I just wear my regular jacket?” I asked. It seemed fairly waterproof and it had a hood. I didn’t see why I had to look like a traffic cone. It was just rain.“Oh no, no, no. This is hazardous weather. You have to be visible. You’re not going to a party you know. Go ahead and put it on.”Sergeant Murphy stood there smiling at me. I looked at him for a second longer, and he stopped smiling and widened his eyes. He looked very innocent like that, with his red hair and blue eyes. Still, he was getting too much enjoyment out of this. Knowing his penchant for practical jokes, I wondered if his enthusiasm about my safety had more to do with getting me to look ridiculous. I slipped it over my head. It was a lot heavier than it looked. The bottom of it fell almost to my toes.“This is the smallest you could find?”“Yes.” He said, and made a small sound like something between a snort and a choke. I looked at him without saying anything for a second, and he coughed a few times into his fist. “Bit of a cold.” He said. “It’s going around.” I could see he was trying to control himself. I turned to look at my reflection in the glass of the window that separated the dispatch room from the lobby.I looked like an orange tee-pee, except with a head poking out of the top. A small head at that.“Can you move around ok? You’re not going to trip on it?” He seemed sincere. In as much as Sergeant Murphy wanted to have fun at my expense, he also wanted to make sure that I would be safe. It was hard to be angry with him.I nodded my head. I was getting used to it.“OK then. Off to the convent with thee woman!” he laughed and turned back to his desk to grab the phone. I walked out to the lobby to leave.“Keep your radio on Lisa” he yelled to me as I left. I gave him a quick salute and he responded with the same. When I opened the glass door in the lobby, I could hear the wind beginning to howl.“Mother will be with you in a moment”, the receptionist said in such a low whisper I had to lean in closer to hear her. She looked as though she was very busy, although I could see an unfinished crossword puzzle on her desk. When she saw me looking, she quickly flipped open a ledger and slid it over the puzzle. “You can sit there”, she pointed at a solitary chair across the room. “It will only be a moment”. I walked over to the chair, dripping a trail of water with each step. Looking at it, I was trying to decide if I should sit on what looked to be real Mahogany in my wet clothes. Before I could decide, I heard a tapping noise. Turning around I saw a tall nun in a white and brown habit standing next to the receptionist’s window. I hadn’t heard her arrive, so I assumed that was why she knocked on the wall. It seemed like she had just appeared out of nowhere. She looked at me, gave me a quick nod, and then handed a note to the receptionist who read it carefully, and then motioned for me to come back to the desk from where only seconds ago I had been banished. “Mother would like you to pick up that stray dog that is trespassing on the grounds. He looks to have mange or some disease. We would like you to take him away. Today”. I looked up at the nun who had still not said a word to me. She was very tall and her face seemed like it was etched in concrete. “The white Shepherd, he lives here, doesn’t he?” I asked. The nun just shook her head no and then glared at the receptionist who looked back at the paper and read. “Some of our retired sisters have been feeding him for quite a while. They have been spoken to and will not be doing that anymore. It is in the dog’s best interest to be in a place where he will get proper care and food. The convent is not that place.” The receptionist folded the note and slid it toward me. I couldn’t believe that they thought that an old dog, more a wild animal than domesticated, would be able to find a home where he would get “proper care.” This dog had been part of St. Bernard’s for years. Now, all of a sudden, he was being banished from the convent. They certainly did seem to do a lot of banishing around here.“You realize that there is no other place that the dog can go to. He’s old; he’s almost like a wild animal. If I bring him to the shelter he will be euthanized immediately.” I waited for the receptionist to say something but she looked down at her desk and shuffled some papers. The tall nun just looked at me and lifted her arm and pointed in the direction of wooded area of the property. Why wouldn’t she speak to me? As intimidating as she was, I was starting to become irritated at being ordered around in this way. I couldn’t tell her I wouldn’t do it. It was my job and if an animal was in violation of a city code, than I had to enforce the law. “I’ll do what I can.” I said “But he doesn’t come to people so it’s going to be difficult.” I looked over at the window. The rain was starting to come down harder and the sky was getting darker. I had no choice but to try and take him now, before the weather became any worse. “Why can’t you tell me to do this yourself?” I asked the nun, knowing that she would probably consider me disrespectful. I didn’t care. She was sending this dog to a certain death, and she didn’t seem to care at all. The nun just continued to look at me, her face void of emotion. “Vows of silence. You know…” the receptionist said to me in a way that seemed to be less harsh than before. “There are certain times every day where they do not speak.” The nun turned abruptly and walked away, a rustling of material and a light scent of something I thought smelled like bleach in her wake. “Mother Superior is new to Saint Bernard’s. The receptionist whispered to me after looking down the hallway to see if she was gone. “She is very adamant about the dog. A few of our older sisters are very upset about this, but… obedience…you know.” I had the definite sense that there was only one person who thought that the convent was no place for a dog, even one who had lived here long before her arrival.I got into my car and pulled around to the back, driving up onto the grass. I thought that if I was able to catch the white dog, then it would be a good idea to have the trip into the car as short as possible. Any tire tracks resulting from the completion of my duties were just something the Mother Superior would have to deal with. I threw a leash around my neck, knowing subconsciously that he would never let me get close enough to use it. That was too optimistic. I would have to use the snare pole. I saw him at the bottom of the hill. When he looked at me I could see that he was at least as old as I thought, but there was something else that I noticed even more clearly. He was shaking. I saw that he was absolutely terrified and I thought that, maybe, he would start to run. Scanning the area, I noticed that someone, some time ago, had built a type of lean-to for him, obviously at a time before Mother Superior’s tenure. Maybe he would run so quickly and so far that he would run out of my jurisdiction and I would tell that nun that there was nothing I could do. I looked up at the convent and I saw her standing there out on the terrace watching me. The wind was whipping her habit around her head and the rain was coming down harder but she still stood there watching me, making sure that I would do my job. “Run” I whispered to him, as he stood there shaking. Why was he making this so easy? He couldn’t run that fast anyway, he was likely over 15 years old. I thought that maybe I could get him into the car and bring him to some woods over the city border into Ulster Valley. Somewhere near a place where someone could leave food for him. Maybe I could bring some and leave it for him every day. As much as I wanted to believe this, I knew it wouldn’t happen. He would come back here, to the place that he had lived for over a decade. If it wasn’t today, it would be tomorrow, or next week. I approached him and reached for my leash. It was gone, probably fallen off while I had slid down the muddy hill. Looking down at the mud that was splattered all over the front of my jacket, I found that I was actually glad that Sarge had made me wear this hideous raincoat. Reaching under my arm, I grasped the snare poll with two hands and twisted it to extend it as far as it could go. I didn’t know if it was from the cold rain, or my anxiety over the fate of this dog, but I could hardly reach him with the snare pole from shaking so hard. I was finally able to carefully loop the snare around his neck and under his front legs. Slowly, I pulled the wire tighter and started to try and pull him towards me. Instead of thrashing around, he just dug in deeper. I pulled and coaxed. “Come on, I won’t hurt you. It’ll be o.k.” I felt the lump in my throat get bigger. I was lying. It wasn’t going to be o.k. I pulled again and moved him an inch or so, only to slide a few inches forward every time I tried to back myself up the hill. I could hardly see with the rain pelting me in the face like hundreds of little needles. The rain was coming down sideways and my boots were slipping deeper into the mud when I heard the quick blast of a siren.My friend Keith, a police officer at the department, parked the patrol car and came scrambling down the steep hill, trying not to fall himself. “We’re worried about you; you weren’t answering your radio.” He was digging his heels into the side of the hill to avoid sliding into me.“Murphy’s stressing out about this. He was coming to get you himself but some wires came down up on Hilltop, so he’s up there redirecting traffic. It’s starting to be a real mess. Where’s your radio?”I let go of the snare pole with one hand and tried to reach into the opening on the rain coat to check my radio. I started digging around trying to find it. It wasn’t at my waist where it should be, but almost down near my knee. I started to slide and grabbed the snare again.“Never mind…forget it!” Keith looked down at the dog and then up towards the convent. “The Penguin’s still watching!” he said smiling. “She called headquarters, didn’t she?” I asked him between breaths. “Yeah, some secretary called and said that if the dog isn’t gone today, she’s calling the mayor.” Keith shrugged, and carefully edged his way over to me. He grabbed the middle of the snare pole. “Poor guy, he never bothered anybody. This dog’s been hanging around here since I was in high school.” Keith pulled harder and the white dog rolled over on his side and started to whimper. “Go open the back of the wagon and when I get him up there I’ll pull and you push and we can get him in the car.” I ran up the hill, my boots sliding down one step for each two I took. The hill was starting to resemble a small waterfall.We got him up the hill to the car, but the frightened dog began to whip his head back and forth, panting hard, trying to get out of the grasp of the snare. He was looking wildly at me and then at Keith. “On the count of three!” Keith yelled out to me over the wailing of the wind. With one final tug, the white Shepherd was in the back of the car, still panting and crying. “It’s ok…it’s o.k.” I whispered. I crawled into the back of the car and slipped the snare off, thinking that now he may calm down and no longer feel threatened. I could see now, close up, how old he really was. I grabbed a dog biscuit out of the box in the back of the car and put it down near his nose. He didn’t even seem to notice it. Going against all of my training, I put my hand out for him to sniff so maybe I could pet his head, try to calm him down and show him that I wasn’t going to hurt him. It only served to make him pant harder as he tried to move away. He wasn’t the kind of dog who was used to petting. Maybe at one time he had belonged to someone, but they probably mistreated him and this was why he ended up at St. Bernard’s where he could remain a safe distance away from humans. Keith looked over to the dog and said “You know, at the shelter you could tell them his story, maybe they can find a place for him outside where he can just live out his life.” Keith knew as well as I did, that with overcrowding in the shelter, the age of the dog, and the fact that he was never going to be able to be adopted as someone’s pet, that the white dog’s future didn’t look promising. For a moment it seemed to me that history was repeating itself, that St. Bernard’s was sending away another innocent life for “their best interests” when the reality was that the only result would not be a good one. “Maybe I can drive him out to Irvington, or there’s that lady up on Ridge Lane who has all that property…” Before I finished my sentence the white dog started to gasp, his eyes rolling back in his head. His panting slowed. Then it stopped. “Oh no”, Keith said softly, staring at the dog. The white dog was lying still now in the back of the car. He had probably never been near a car, let alone in one. I leaned into the back of the car and tried to shake him a bit, but he didn’t move. I put my ear down on his chest to see if his heart was beating. He was dead. He had been scared to death.I put my face in his fur and started to sob. “Hey, it’s ok, you didn’t cause this. He was old. This was just his time. Come on, come here.” Keith rubbed my shoulder. I looked up and saw that he had tears in his eyes too. “He should have died out there”, nodding my head towards the woods. “He died afraid. He died because of me.” Keith shook his head, “No, that’s not why. You know that.” The rain was pelting the hood of the car and the wind was starting to pick up more. I looked up at the convent and thought that I may have seen a face in the window, and then it was gone. “Go over there a minute.” Keith directed me to walk over to the other side of the car. He closed the back of the car and walked over to the driver’s side. “I’ll take care of this. Take the patrol car, go back to headquarters and have some coffee, the keys are in it.” He gently put his hand on my back and gave me a slight push. “Go.” Keith stood there with the rain pelting him in the face for a second before he opened the car door. He wiped his eyes with the back of his sleeve. I couldn’t tell if it was just the rain or something else. I knew Keith loved animals…this was just as hard on him as it was on me.“I’ll take good care of him. Go. Get out of the rain.” I felt weak and pathetic, standing there in rain, crying, but I knew I wasn’t going to try and stop him. I would go back to headquarters and have some coffee and complete the paperwork. I would go inside where it was warm and dry and look through the files to find any prior complaints from St. Bernard’s about the white dog and close them out. With the storm worsening, the Chief would probably pull all the motor units off the street unless there was an emergency. I would probably end up working some overtime. The phones would be ringing off the hook. There would probably be some more power outages with the way the storm was picking up. Such was the nature of this job. You were laughing one moment, and crying the next, interspersed with periods of panic or the mundane.There would be much to do, with no time to think about the life and death of a white dog. “Thanks Keith” I managed to choke out the words, trying to take a deep breath and control my emotions. He nodded at me and quickly turned away. I could see that he had on what could be referred to as his “game face”. Police Officers often have the responsibility of notifying families of the death of a loved one. They witness things on a daily basis that most people could never imagine. They have to make sure that their emotions are in check otherwise they wouldn’t be able to put on their uniform and do their job on their next shift. An outsider might say that many cops seemed cold and unfeeling, but it is the only way they can do what they do for a living. It was times like this, when it was simply an “animal call”, where I would sometimes see them react emotionally and let their guard down. Keith slid into the driver’s seat of my wagon and skidded up the muddy hill, the tires spinning, churning up chunks of wet grass and lots of mud. There was significant damage to the property. The convent would definitely have to call in someone to repair their landscaping, but even that no longer made me feel any better. St. Bernard’s never called to complain about the damage we did to their lawn. I had been expecting a memo from the Chief, but one never came. One morning when I arrived at work, the leash I had lost on the muddy hill was sitting on my desk with a note attached from the night dispatcher. “Left at front desk for Animal Control Officer. 1900 hours.” It was spring by the time I found the time to go back to see if there was still any damage. I parked over near some benches, not too close to the entrance. I didn’t want to chance running into that Mother Superior again. I looked over to the convent. With the sun shining through the trees, the building looked less intimidating than I remembered. I had to admit, the location was perfect. They honestly had the best view of the Hudson in the city“Do you see him?” Startled, I quickly turned to see a very frail elderly nun. She was so small and pale. I thought that she was probably the oldest person I had ever seen this close. Her skin seemed almost translucent, spidery blue veins so close to the surface. Her eyes, however, were bright and clear. “See who?” I asked, thinking perhaps she meant the security guard or the groundskeeper. “Snowball, our dog.” She whispered, smiling conspiratorially. “Mother had him taken away a while ago. I could not imagine not seeing him everyday, it brought me such sadness.” “I’m sorry”, I said. “I didn’t want to do it, but I had to…” The old nun put her finger up to stop me from talking and smiled. “He’s back.” She whispered. I started to say something, but stopped myself. It occurred to me in that moment that the important thing for me to do, was to listen. “I prayed and prayed, and Our Lord answered my prayers. He is so clean and runs fast again. He’s even allowed me to get close to him sometimes.” I stood there looking from her to where she was gazing, down the hill that ran down close to the river. The sunlight was bouncing off the water, almost sparkling. It was beautiful, but there was no white dog. “You won’t tell Mother, will you?” She asked, still smiling. “No. I won’t tell anyone.” I said softly, finding myself smiling back at her. “Bless you dear” she said and reached out for my hand, grasping it harder than I thought her capable of. She turned around and slowly made her way back to the building. I watched her walk away. I stood there for a few more minutes, even though I felt a little ridiculous, looking and hoping to see any sign of a white dog. Glancing over to where my car had torn up the landscaping nine months before, I saw that the area I had damaged was now a perfect blanket of grass. No one would ever believe that months before, it had been a totally different place. There was no evidence that anything had ever happened there. I thought of the elderly nun looking out over the hill, and the peaceful smile on her face as she told me about the return of the white dog. Looking up at the convent, it seemed much less gloomy than on that day in the driving rain. This place had been a shelter at one time, its’ intentions, regardless of how cruel they seemed now, were at that time, the only solution that could be found. Perhaps that was one of the reasons that the former children of the Orphan Trains returned to St. Bernard’s. To see it as it is now, and not how it was in their memory. A place where a tragedy had occurred in the middle of a dangerous storm now appeared to be a lovely grassy hill. It would be a lovely spot for a picnic or a place for someone to sit alone and gaze at the river. It was a perfect place for a wild white dog to choose to spend an eternity.