At night, our grandfather walked along the canal. He liked to watch the local heron, standing statue still in the shallow waters waiting for a fish or baby turtle to cross their path. When our grandmother was still alive, she urged him to keep moving down the canal towpath to their destination: dinner and the movies or—usually—the movies without dinner.
Popcorn was their main course. Our grandmother passed two months after the doctor told them both they were eating too much of it.
"Don't bother the heron," she would say when she noticed her husband slowing. "He wants to eat and so do I."
"I'm not," he would say. "We understand each other." Then he'd stare into the heron's black eyes, standing as still as the bird. Our grandmother sat on a stone bench while he did this, taking in the fragrant air and listening to the crickets’ chirp in the tall grass by the abandoned restaurant on the other side of the water.
Most of all, our grandfather enjoyed interacting with random dogs.
"Don't bother the dog," our grandmother said when she saw one in the distance growing closer. Sniffing things. Dragging a tired human behind it.
"I'm not," our grandfather said when the dog stood in front of them, its tail rapping at its person's leg. Our grandfather knelt to eye level with the dog, so they could tussle together. "We understand one another." Our grandmother would shake her head but eventually crack a smile and pet the dog with her husband.
As if by intuition, our grandfather knew the name of every dog before ever reading its tags with his aged eyes. This one was Jones.
They had a dog when we were young. We loved her but can barely remember how happy she made us, much less what she looked like. Some of us think her name was Olive with pointed ears. Some of us think his name was Oscar, with a happy face.
Our grandmother passed before a movie one night. Heart failure while they walked down the hill from their home towards the theater.
Nothing could be done.
The EMTs made her comfortable while she died on Silverwood Street.
Our grandfather sat on the curb with a neighbor’s dog named Lando, staring into the forested dead end of the street. They understood one another. Before Lando licked his face to break his stare, our grandfather thought he spotted his wife of fifty-three years sinking into the trees with a pack of friendly dogs surrounding her. The image edged out of his mind as grief crawled inside.
He missed the movie.
During the nights after, our grandfather still walked along the canal with the intention of going to see a film. It wasn't the same without his wife, but he could stand and watch the heron for as long as he wanted, now. He could pet his neighbor's dogs for as long as they tolerated him. He could sit on the bench where his wife sat, breathing in the air and memories for as long as they would last in his delicate skull.
A year after our grandmother passed, he was strolling by the green water on a Tuesday night. He couldn't find the heron, but the remains of a baby turtle lined the trunk of a fallen tree in the liquid dark. It rained that week, so the canal was bloated and full. Its surface reflected the stars in such a way that they appeared purple with nebulas strung between them.
Up the towpath, several dogs without any humans happily trotted towards our grandfather. They all understood one another. A collie named Juniper, a corgi named Porker, a hound dog named Gordon. More followed. A dalmatian named Mark, a great dane called Diane, a shiba inu known also as Diane. Even more. A pittie named Otto, a husky called Nanook of the North, a retriever known as Paul, a shaking chihuahua named Francis in a little sweater.
"What a pack," our grandfather said, kneeling in the gravel to welcome the dogs, all ranging in age from puppies to adults to seniors. The puppies tripped on their paws. "Silly!" our grandfather said to them. "You haven't grown into your mitts just yet."
The pack trotted; they galloped; they ran to our grandfather as if he had just arrived home. They licked his face and pawed at him to play. He tussled with all of them, joyously laughing into the empty night. A chill ran ripped through the air as more dogs piled on top of our grandfather. Through the rare gaps between them, he saw another pup moving at a deliberate pace towards him. The other dogs settled in a semi-circle, panting in unison.
She was golden hued, with pointed ears and a happy face. She moved close enough for him to see. She had the outline of a skull painted over her face, but it was her.
"Scavenger!" our grandfather said. A voice resonated in his head. Scavenger’s voice. The exact one we made up for her when we were much younger and actually visited our grandfather.
“I missed you.”
I missed you.
The dogs piled on our grandfather again. They grabbed hold of his collar and khakis with their teeth; they began dragging him away from the theater—away from the canal. Our grandfather struggled at first, screaming for help on the empty trail. No one heard. He wrestled against jaws in the dirt and gravel, clutching at trees, grass and park fixtures to stay where he was until he realized it didn’t matter where he was going. The dogs dragged him up the trail’s concrete steps, ascending above them and away into the night, their yips and barks and pants fading like the light in the bad streetlamp by the bench where our grandmother used to sit.
Scavenger followed the pack, her happy eyes swallowing the world around them. Beside her, our grandfather caught vision of a young woman he once knew for almost sixty years wearing skull paint on her face and scratching their old dog’s ears.
As our grandfather watched the canal grow distant, moving through the membrane of our two spheres, he saw the heron picking at the bones of a fish on a log. They stared at each other, until the heron lost sight of the man.