It's a "sad story," or so the woman who experienced it warned me, as I'm warning you. But, in a way, it's also a story of hope. One that is reminiscent of Stand By Me, the coming-of-age film where four 12-year-old boys discover the body of another kid beside a river. Except this story is about a group of younger eight- and nine-year-old girls whose own right of passage seems to have happened long before last weekend, when they found a different kind of body by a different river.
-- -- --
The longest Winnipeg winter in living memory seemed to finally be over Saturday when, enticed by the spring-like weather, Louise Thiessen ventured out for a walk in St. John's Park.
Which is where the middle-aged woman was startled to see a nine-year-old girl standing alone by the edge of the swollen and racing Red River.
"I called out to her that she was in danger and to step away," Louise would tell me later, "and she said she'd found a puppy in a box floating by the river."
The little girl was using a stick to keep the box from being swept away.
Louise ran to her side and pulled the box to shore.
The puppy, Louise quickly determined, was dead.
"It had been strangled with a shoelace."
The little girl told Louise she had seen two women in the bushes wearing hoodies place the box in the river and when it stayed close to the river's edge, the curious lone little girl had fished it closer. As it turned out, though, the little girl wasn't alone.
Suddenly, there were six girls gathered around Louise, all about the same age, all aboriginal.
"And I had to tell them all the pup was dead."
The girls didn't want to believe it.
"They kept asking, 'Are you sure the puppy isn't just sleeping?' "
Louise knew they couldn't just leave it there, so they all began walking back to her house.
"Me carrying the box and them chattering away like kids do at that age, saying how much they love animals, and about their pets, and how some of them had come to sad ends."
They all told Louise they wanted to work at the humane society when they grow up, looking after puppies like the one in the box they had hoped was just sleeping.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the girls began talking about another little victim of a cruel death.
Louise was distressed they knew so much so young. And how they talked so matter-of-factly and in such graphic detail about the cruelty inflicted on Phoenix by the people who were supposed to love and care for her.
"I guess that's what they see," Louise reflected. "That's a sad thing in itself, that they have come to expect this sort of thing."
The saddest part, Louise said, is these children may grow up to be messed up, and we just shake our heads.
"These kids think most adults are mean. I just think we need to show them kindness instead of coldness."
So it was that Louise and the girls ended up standing in front of her home, where they placed evergreen branches over the puppy's cardboard coffin and set it near the curb for Animal Services to pick up.
"We talked about heaven, and I told them that I believe animals go to heaven because they're innocent and God loves them even more than we do."
The girls agreed and gave him a name.
"Because they decided he's happy in heaven even though people were cruel to him down here."
Louise told them their hearts were so sweet and more caring than many adults, and that they could come visit her anytime. She wept as she spoke. The girls didn't. None of the children had cried, from the time they found Happy Golden beside the river until the time they left him beside the road.
I asked Louise about that.
You cried, but the children didn't?
"I think it was more for them," she said, "than the puppy."
-- -- --
It wasn't just a group of children coming upon a body that made me think of Stand By Me.
It was the fact that, in their own way, the six little girls stood by the innocent puppy at the end of its short sad life, the way they stand by each other. But mostly the story of the little girls and the puppy in the box reminded me of how many more adult role models like Louise Thiessen these children need in their lives.
To stand by them.