Breadcrumb #518

RAINY HORVATH

It was just a tiny island somewhere in the South Pacific, insignificant enough not to appear on maps and small enough to never have interested the explorers. Sugar-white sand heaped itself along the jagged coastline that framed an azure sea. Nature had graced this lovely atoll with three kinds of swaying palm trees and nearly every type of tropical flower, bird, lizard and fruit. Save the most desperate pirates who occasionally floundered through the surf during a full moon night dragging heavy chests of silver to bury in one of the caves that dotted windward side of the island, except for them no human footprint had ever marred this paradise cove.

But circumstances have a way of changing, and one dark night in late October a Spanish galleon bound for the new world lost sight of the North Star and, blown off course by fog and a fierce windstorm, ran aground on the hidden lava reefs that ringed the cove. The ship went down quickly, all hands 90 hands were lost screaming and thrashing about in an angry sea, calling out to gods that did not hear them. Their precious cargo of Indigo, Saffron, teas and spices sank straight to the bottom. All was lost save one thing -- a string of nine young donkeys being taken their native homeland in Bratislava, Austria to their new owners in America. These prize donkeys had been trained for the circus by a family of Romanian Gypsies famous for animal training. They brought a handsome price, payable on their delivery in Florida to the Greatest Show on Earth.

Now, these donkeys were yearlings, still just colts. Weaned early and trained rigorously to the tune of a sharp whip, each donkey in the string was selected for form, intelligence and temperament. But now, nervous from the unfamiliar sounds and smells, they stood looking anything but majestic. Heads down, shaking legs braced against the rolling of the ship, their eyes rolled white and they tossed their shaggy heads pulling as hard as they could against the leather restraints that tied them to the large metal reeve ring that tied them to the main beam. Beating against the boards with their hooves was useless until the listing ship began to break apart. As it listed left the great mizzen mast snapped ripping the ship’s floorboard open and snapping the reeve ring that held the donkey’s tie leads. The braying donkeys brought their sharp little hooves down on the leather straps again and again until they broke free. metal hook again and again until it shattered, and they were free. 

Terrified, the animals used their muscular legs to kick through the side of the ship and one by one, nine little gray donkeys plunged into a vast and churning ocean. Swimming frantically away from the wreckage, the tide helped pull them in to shore. As lightening crashed around them and the terrible sound of screaming men filled the air, the donkeys dragged themselves out of the surf and collapsed on the sugar soft sand. There they fell into an exhausted sleep until the morning sun woke them.

One by one the bedraggled animals woke, tentatively nuzzling each other and sniffing the air for reassurance. One by one, they found their feet and with no humans or ships in sight, they turned their attention to the palm trees on the edge of the forest. Scenting no danger, they stepped into its cool glade of green and feasted on tender Sugar Cane and Cacao leaves, Dewberries and tender Papaya fallen from the trees. Thirsty now, the glade beckoned them deeper and they followed the pink muzzles down to clear lagoon where they splashed and frolicked in the cold spring water bubbling up from through the lava in the side of the old volcano. 

Blissful days turned into weeks. Rotted through by saltwater and sun the last of their old leather halters fell away and they rubbed their heads against the trunks of young palm trees. Being young spirited donkeys that had, after all, been trained in the circus arts by a band of clever Gypsies, they grew bored with their idle time. The youngest donkey kicked a fallen coconut onto the sand and instantly the rolling motion of the orb reverted them all to their training. A spontaneous game of Coconut Polo broke out that lasted for hours. Inspired by this, other donkeys retrieved a barrel that drifted on shore from the shipwreck and began a game of the Barrel Toss. A few female donkeys broke away to perform high-stepping routines while marching in circles around the giant Tortoises that roamed the island. 

The youngest donkey kicked a fallen coconut onto the sand and instantly the rolling motion of the orb reverted them all to their training.

Weeks turned into months and months into peaceful years. The donkeys grew sleek and strong, and one day reached their adolescents. The large dark one emerged as the leader, but this small herd loved one another and there was no competition among them. One day, however, a new challenge arose. The unmistakable scent females in estrus wafted through the steamy lagoon. At first the male donkeys did not know what to make of this, but after a time they got the idea and drifted away from the grazing grounds in search of female affection. Bleats and cries of donkeys mating now filled the cornflower sky, and sometimes the sharp cries of clashes between males when one or another put his ears back and fought. A year later the island welcomed a bounteous crop of new-born donkey foals. Chasing their tails and bucking through the ferns, the herd’s numbers increased exponentially. Each generation passed on the tricks and circus secrets to the young ones, which embellished the routines with tricks of their own.  

One night, when the original nine donkeys were old jacks huddled in their grass beds, another storm blew up. Seas raged and churned green, lightening flashed, palm trees bowed down to touch the ground until they snapped, just as the old donkeys had told the young ones it had been when they came to this place. Out in the surf a Chinese junk bound for Germany was floundering in the tempest. On board sat 26,000 pounds of heavy scientific equipment and a load of rare golden monkeys unfortunate enough to have been captured outside Sichuan, China and destined for a medical research laboratory somewhere in Argentina. 

Terrified by the storm, the little golden monkeys clung to their cage bars and screamed out their horror, but fortune smiled on them when a doomed but merciful cabin boy unlocked their cages as his last act saying, “Damned this storm and damned this ship, the sea may get me but it won’t get you,” just before a giant wave of water rushed in, drowning him with the key still in his hand but freeing the monkeys. Monkeys are not by nature strong swimmers, but they were so afraid that they leapt onto broken boards floating by and dog paddled for the shore, dragging themselves through the pounding surf with their powerful monkey arms. Fate deposited them all on the same beach where the donkeys slept. 

In the morning, twelve golden monkeys awoke dripping and shivering surrounded by a circle of curious pink donkey muzzles sniffing at them and nervously pawing the sand. Monkeys and donkeys are not natural enemies. In fact, under natural circumstances they would probably just ignore each other and go about their day. But these were not normal circumstances, and these were not just any golden monkeys. Selected for high intelligence and the beautiful gold of their fur they had been locked together for so long that they had developed the uncanny ability to communicate with each other and with other species. 

And as unlikely as it seems, over time the monkeys taught the donkeys to communicate. Using a series of stomps and shrieks, neighs and gestures they began to exchange ideas. The donkeys taught the monkeys their games, and the monkeys taught the donkeys to climb trees. As far as anyone knows they are still there today, living in harmony with the island and themselves, swimming around the lagoon and playing Coconut Soccer. Of course, this is only a tale I heard from an old pirate I met named Bilge. He swears it is all true, and if you bring him a nautical map, he says he’ll chart you a course that will take you straight to the island. He saw this with his own disbelieving eyes, he says, when he and his fellow pirates went back to Paradise Cove to retrieve their silver by the light of a full moon night. But then, you know how pirates are.

• • •

Breadcrumb #512

JENNA KNORR

“Whose is this?”

The shouting broke the silence that had been hanging over the MacArthur household on that Saturday morning in June. Everyone else was still asleep, but Julia was up, and she was furious. She stormed from room to room, slamming doors and cupboards in her wake, ensuring that everyone in the house would know that she was pissed.

    “Whose is this?” she screamed again. “Huh? Are none of you pathetic cowards awake yet, or are you hiding from me?”

    She banged on her parents’ bedroom door with her left hand. Her right was wrapped around the stubby barrel of a handgun that she had found moments before in a shoebox in the basement.

     Julia wasn’t sleeping much. A nasty battle with depression and suicidal tendencies ensured that she was constantly tired, but also perpetually unable to sleep; one of the many cruel paradoxes that sometimes comes with being mentally ill. Instead, she spent most nights digging: digging around the internet for British TV shows she hadn’t watched yet, digging around the house for treasures left behind by the other occupants during the day, and sometimes literally digging in the backyard, in the depression garden that her therapist suggested she start. Some new-agey sounding bullshit about the transformative effects of having a hobby. Julia argued that watching TV was a hobby. Her therapist argued that watching TV was a crutch.

     Julia was right in the middle of loudly accusing her brother of gun ownership through his closed bedroom door when the baby started crying. A groan emanated from Julia’s parents’ room.

Some new-agey sounding bullshit about the transformative effects of having a hobby.

    “Why, Julia,” her mom said plainly as she emerged, eyes bloodshot and still wearing the t-shirt and sweatpants she had worn the day before. “Why is now the time that we need to have this conversation?”

    “Because I’m awake, and now you’re awake, and there’s a gun in our house. For some reason. Even though my therapist made you all promise. No weapons. Remember? Remember the no weapons promise?” Julia was right on her mother’s heels as she crossed the hallway to the nursery.

    “Okay, Julia. Okay. Fine. Just let me take care of Grace, alright? Though really I should make you do it. You’re the one who woke her up.”

    Julia’s mother bent down into the crib, yawning as she raised the crying baby, resting her on her hip. She froze. The previously fractured image of Julia, angry and wielding a gun, had finally come together in her mind like a jigsaw puzzle.

    “Julia, that thing’s not loaded, right?”

    “What? God, no. I’m not a crazy person. Well, not that kind of crazy person. I looked up how to empty the clip online but there were no bullets in there anyway, and the safety is definitely on. I checked three times to make sure I had done it right.”

    “Even so,” Julia’s mother said, cradling Grace protectively. “I don’t like you walking around the house with that thing. And certainly not here, in the nursery. Go set it down on the kitchen table and we’ll talk, alright? I’ll get dad and your brother up.”

    Julia went out to the dining room and flicked the light on over the table. There was a small Lazy Susan in the middle for condiments. Julia sat the gun on it instead and pushed gently, hypnotized by the sight of it spinning around slowly. Julia turned at the sound of her brother walking in, scratching his crotch through baggy pajama pants.

    “You finally gonna shoot us up?” he asked, taking his usual seat at the table.

    “Cut the shit, Nicholas,” Julia said.

    “Oh, what, using my full name? Am I in trouble?”

    “Course you’re in trouble. You brought a fucking gun into the house even though I personally watched you promise my therapist that you would never bring weapons under this roof as long as I live here. Remember that?”

    “Oh, I remember,” he replied, yawning. “Thing is, that’s not my gun.”

    “I don’t understand.”

    “Yeah. Never seen that before in my life. Besides, I wouldn’t want you to get ahold of it, you fucking lunatic.”

    “Not funny, Nick.”

    “Is it loaded?” he asked, motioning to the gun.

    “Of course not,” Julia replied. “I’m depressed. Not stupid.”

Julia stared once again at the gun, reaching out to give the Lazy Susan another weak push. Grace was still crying somewhere in the house, and Julia was trying to tune out the sound when her father’s heavy footsteps came down the stairs and rounded the corner into the dining room. Julia watched his eyes go straight for the gun.

“Good God Julia, what is it this time?” He ducked into the kitchen and re-emerged a second later with a banana which he was already peeling.

“I could ask you the same thing, traitor,” Julia said.

“Hey, relax Jules,” he said, biting into the banana and sitting down. “Clearly you’re going through something with this gun thing. We’re here to help. It’s not loaded, right?”

“No, it’s not fucking loaded!” Julia said impatiently. “Why is everyone asking me that today?”

“I think probably because we want to know if we’re about to get shot,” Nick said.

“No one is getting shot today or any day,” Julia said.

  Nick sat at the table as their dad joined him and slowly ate his way through the banana. Grace was still crying and Julia could hear her mother trying to console her.

    “So, what’s with the gun, Jules?” her dad asked curiously.

    “I dunno. Besides, this isn’t my interrogation. I came here to ask you that. What’s with the gun, dad?”

    “No clue.”

    “You mean it’s not yours?”

    “Nah.”

    If it didn’t belong to anyone in the room, and it certainly couldn’t belong to Grace, and they didn’t have any other siblings…

    Julia’s mother appeared in the doorway, holding Grace and bouncing her against her hip.

     “Sorry guys,” she said, standing behind her usual chair. “Every time I tried to put her back down she’d just start crying again, so I brought her with me.”

     Julia, Nick, and their dad were all staring at her.

    “Mom…” Nick began, but Julia cut him off.

    “Mom, is this your fucking gun?” Julia asked, jabbing her finger at the gun on the table.

    Mom said nothing. She sighed deeply, and began pacing from one end of the dining room to the other.

    “Mom, is this your gun?” Julia asked again, arms crossed.

    “It’s, uh. Yeah. Yeah Julia, it’s my gun.”

    “Can I ask why you have a fucking gun in this house, mom? This house which has a strict weapons ban put in place by my goddamn therapist to keep me alive? Can I ask you that, mom?”

    Mom sighed impatiently, still rocking Grace on her hip. Grace babbled happily, her cheerful baby talk acting as the moment’s jarring and unpleasant backing track.

    “I bought that years ago, Julia. Many years ago, when you were Grace’s age. We were living in our old house, the one down on Staples, you remember the one? That neighbourhood was awful. Robberies up and down the street, cars being broken into every night, your father even got mugged a few times walking the dog at night, you remember that, honey?”

     Dad nodded.

     “Anyway, I never felt safe there, and with a new baby in the house - you - and another one on the way - Nicholas - I had to do something, anything, to feel like I had control. So, I bought a gun. It was for safety, Julia. Your safety. Our safety. I need you to understand that. Do you understand?”

    “Why does everyone always think that more guns will make us safe?” Julia exclaimed, reaching out and grabbing the gun from the Lazy Susan. Everyone else recoiled and mom turned her back on the room, putting herself between Grace and the weapon.

    “Goddamnit Julia, put that thing down!” dad yelled, throwing his hands in the air over his head, Nick doing the same.

    “Why do you still have it, mom? Why is this still here? You talked to my therapist, you know why this is important to me. Why did you keep it?” Julia was crying now, waving the gun wildly through the air.

    Mom was crying now, too, which made Grace’s screaming start up again.

    “I don’t know, Julia.”

    “Yes you do, mom. Tell me.”

    “I don’t know!”

    “Tell me!

    “Because I wanted to kill myself, Julia! You’re not the only one who’s fucked up in this family!”

    Julia was stunned, so stunned that her tears and sobs came to a halt. Grace was still screaming, and mom was crying even harder now, too. Dad reached over and took the baby before leaving the room. Nick slipped out with him and they both went back upstairs.

    Julia sat the gun back down in the centre of the table and crossed the room to where her mother was standing, sobbing. Julia wrapped her arms around her mother; her mother was a few inches shorter than her, so Julia tucked her head down into the crook of her neck and held her until the crying stopped. Neither of them said anything for a long time. Julia could feel her mother’s tears soaking through her pajama shirt.

    “Why didn’t you tell me, mom?” Julia asked, breaking the silence.

    “I had to be strong for you, Julia, and for Nick. I thought about telling you once before, awhile ago, before you were diagnosed. But around then was when your father and I started talking about having another kid while we still could, and it just… It wasn’t the right time.”

“You don’t have to hide it, mom. Lots of people, all kinds of people, are going through stuff like this all the time. Did you ever talk to anyone about it? A therapist, or anyone?”

“No, never.”

“Well, as someone who’s been there - I guess, someone who is there - trust me: you gotta talk to someone, mom, okay? For dad, and for me and Nick, and for Grace. And especially for you. Okay?”

Mom smiled.

“Okay.”

“Okay,” Julia said. “Thankfully for you, I know a therapist.”

The next time Julia went to therapy, her mom went along too and made an appointment for herself. Julia and her mom talked about what to do with the gun, which Nick had locked away in a safe in his room for the time being. The therapist suggested that they contact the RCMP and have it decommissioned, which they did. When the officer handling their account asked what they would like to have done with the gun, Julia’s mother asked if they could keep it. When they got home, they took the gun into the backyard, wrapped it up in the old shoebox that Julia had found it in, the same box that it had lived in for many years, and they buried it deep, six feet deep, in Julia’s depression garden. On the ground up above, they marked its place with a wide, smooth rock upon which Julia had painted an epitaph.

This is a monument to the strength of my mother. I’d rather bury this than her.

• • •

Breadcrumb #511

SUSAN CLARKSON MOORHEAD

I heard my mother's voice. Whatever she was saying sounded important but I could not figure out the words. I couldn't see her either, the light coming and going the way it does in our house during a bad storm. I smelled the wool of Dad's jacket, the good way his shoulders smell when I hug him. My mother's voice joined the other noise, muffled in the background, and I tried to follow her. In front of my eyes were slow moving shapes like clouds in an overcast sky, gray and white, thinning out as I pushed towards the sound of my mother. It sounded like crying and I tried to call out her name, but I had no voice. I saw a car far below me driving on the icy blacktop of a parking lot and I flailed my arms frantically until I realized I wasn't falling any farther than where I was. Where I was, somewhere between the car and the clouds, I couldn't understand. Below me was my Mom's old green Subaru. Dad was driving. I saw his face through the windshield looking crushed and old. I saw my mother next to him bent over crying. I saw my big sister Karen's face at the window as they pulled out of the parking lot I was floating above. She was crying like Mom. The red blinker of my Dad's car flashed a left turn, snow on the roof of his car glinting like spilled diamonds beneath the shine of streetlights just coming on. Gray clouds feathered the edges of a sky the color of iron. There was a thin layer of new snow on the ground but I was not cold.  I was so scared.

Dad was driving. I saw his face through the windshield looking crushed and old.

   A white van passed Mom's car and I remembered. The feel of the road beneath my feet, how careful I was not to step on the yellow slashes of the crosswalk, bad luck, like stepping on a sidewalk crack. You could get eaten by bears or break your mother's back, some horror if you failed to pay attention, but I couldn't remember which it was.  I was leaning towards bears, the picture in my head more Goldilocks picture book than savaging threats. I imagined a family of three cute bears, the Papa, the Mama, and the Baby Bear outside a cute white cottage with blue shutters. Window boxes full of red petunias. I smiled at my own silliness. I knew I was too old for these kind of thoughts but as long as the kids in school didn't know I still felt more fairy tale than cutting edge, I'd be okay. I heard a sound, something outside of my thoughts, outside of myself. I heard something coming like how a leaf must sense the approaching wind. My hair static, my skin meeting the push of air, and I looked up.

   The immediateness of it, a block of white and silver, and a face blurred behind the windshield just kissed with the first snowflakes. There was a noise like thunder, a wet like rain, and the wind stopped.

  Thickness, strands of pulled cotton, slow and sleepy like waking on a summer morning until I saw myself below on a long bed. I was not moving, my hands were half open, my fingers curled like flower petals just before they feel the sun. I was crooked and swollen, bruised and broken. I was wearing one sneaker only. There was dirt in my hair.

  A nurse stood beside me, not much older than my big sister, dipping a sponge into a plastic bowl of water. She touched the sponge to my face and sound returned, buzzing of electric lights, the wall clock's slight tick, the sound of water wrung from the sponge, a voice on an intercom calling a doctor to the ER, the squeak of the nurse's white sneakers on the checkered floor as she turned to the sink and put fresh water in the bowl.

   Her fingertips persuaded my eyelids to close over my staring eyes. She washed my eyelids and brows, my scraped cheeks, my bruised forehead, cleaned the blood from my mouth.

   A tired looking woman, older than my mother, leaned in the doorway and shook her head. "You don't need to do that, you know, you're off shift. Now that the family said their goodbyes, the next crew will bring her downstairs." I saw her glance towards an enormous gray duffle bag resting on the floor.

   The young nurse gave a half smile. "I know. I want to do this. Don't worry, I clocked off shift twenty minutes ago. I'm on my own time."

   The other woman shrugged. "Up to you. A tip, sweetie - it's better not to get involved." She watched as the young nurse ran the sponge over my hair and smoothed it back. "Newbies," she muttered as she stepped away.

   The nurse removed the purple shirt I had just gotten two weeks ago on my birthday. She cut my favorite jeans off with scissors. I watched her wash me down. I could not feel the water on my skin but I saw her hands careful and gentle as she washed the dirt and the blood off what had been me. As I watched her I began to understand I that I would no longer be returning to the home of my body.

   I didn't know what I was going to be if not myself. I wanted to cry or even scream but I had no voice so I listened to the song she hummed. She brushed dirt from my hair. I was already starting to change into something else, something I am still learning, when she called in people to help lift me into the bag.

   After they left the room, she pulled up the zipper until it reached the crest of my chin. She kissed her fingertips and touched them to my forehead. "Goodbye, sweet girl," she said.

   I watched her drive out of the parking lot, the red blinker of her car flashing a left turn beneath a sky the color of iron. Already I was something else, going somewhere else. I watched the lights of her car down the road until I couldn't see her anymore. I was not cold and I was not afraid.

• • •

Breadcrumb #507

GABRIELLA EVERGREEN

Maude spent most of her time in the produce section, close to the fresh greens that were misted periodically, so that customers wouldn’t be startled when they felt a sudden cold draft as they passed through her. This was also her favorite place to observe the passage of time through the change of seasonal vegetables. She watched sun-sweetened berries and meaty heirloom tomatoes give way to barrels full of winter squash and still-dusty root vegetables; she loved the excitement on shopper’s faces as they saw the end of a long winter heralded by piles of bright rhubarb and woody asparagus spears.

Maude found that time passed differently now. When she wasn’t thinking about it, the hours seemed to pass quickly, especially at night. She didn’t mind floating up and down the empty aisles, humming a little tune to herself as she watched the overnight stockers refill displays. Aisle 11, the frozen section, was her favorite at night. There was something peaceful about the mechanical hum and the foggy glow of the condensation building up behind the glass doors.

But time slowed down to what seemed to be its normal speed when she was really paying attention to something.

Like that time she saw a man scolding his son in aisle 3, canned food and pasta. The little boy, who was probably about 4, had opened a box of macaroni and spilled it across the floor. The boy’s father had crouched down and put his face too close to his son’s and snarled in low tones. The little boy had already started crying when the pasta spilled, and this made him cry harder.

Maude hated seeing parents being cruel to their children. Not many things made her as angry. She still felt things as strongly as before, but not everything was the same. As she watched the man berate his small son, her rage boiled up inside of her. It was the kind of anger that would have made her shake and clench her fists. Instead, what happened was that a stack of canned kidney beans behind the man suddenly toppled off the shelf and struck him in the back of the head. The man stumbled over, stunned. He wasn’t hurt badly, but he did stop his tirade towards his son. Maude watched them until she was sure the man had calmed down and followed them to the exit.

That was about the most excitement she’d see in any given week. A grocery store wasn’t exactly a prime spot for haunting; she’d heard of other spirits taking up residence in museums, funeral homes, theaters, and old penitentiaries (the last one was rather played out, in her opinion). But Maude wasn’t much for spooks and scares. And while the grocery store might not be the most thrilling place in the world, it was familiar to her. And it was where she saw them.

But Maude wasn’t much for spooks and scares.

Like clockwork, they’d come in every Sunday. They’d pick up a week’s worth of groceries - milk and cereal, bread and cold cuts for sandwiches, and maybe one or two sweets that the boy picked out. When he was younger, he’d ride in the front of the shopping cart, dangling his legs through the bars. As he got older, he’d totter through the aisles, helping his mother by grabbing anything within his 2-foot high reach.

About once every couple of months, they would come in to shop for Sunday sauce. This was what Maude looked forward to most. She had taught her daughter the recipe as soon as she was old enough to stand on a chair over the big, enameled cast iron pot and stir the bubbling sauce. Their house would be filled with the smell of caramelized onion and garlic, slow-simmered tomatoes, and fresh basil and oregano that was tossed in right at the end. Sometimes they’d add whatever scraps of leftover meat there were from weeknight meals - a pork chop, some short ribs, a few sausages. In the summer, when Maude’s garden was in abundance, they’d make big batches of it to store in mason jars and freeze for the winter.

When her daughter grew up and went away to college, Maude would look forward to the weekends she’d return home, lugging a bloated bag of laundry with her. Most of her time home would be spent catching up with townie friends or holed up in her old bedroom writing papers, but they’d find time to be together in the kitchen, sometimes early in the morning over coffee and fried eggs or late at night after Maude had put the dinner dishes away. But some of the most meaningful moments happened when they were cooking that sauce together - there was something about the steady staccato of chopping onions and tomatoes that set the right mood for vulnerable conversations, when her daughter would open up about heartbreak and new relationships, fears and hopes for her future. It was one of these times while they were waiting for the sauce to cook that she first told Maude about meeting the boy’s father, and later it was in the same kitchen when the two of them told Maude that she’d be a grandmother.

Maude remembered all of these moments with incorporeal tears in her eyes as she watched her daughter pick up a plum tomato and show her son how to squeeze it to check for ripeness. She imagined the memories they’d make together over the steaming Dutch oven, laughing as they’d steal tastes from the wooden spoon that was worn around the edges and permanently stained pink. She thought about how, even though she hadn’t been able to meet him, her grandson would come to know her as he wore the faded, frayed mint green apron (that would be way too large for him) and placed his small hands in the same pockets where her weary ones once rested.  He’d hear stories about how she always liked to listen to Oscar D’Leon while she cooked and would dance with her daughter standing on her feet. Maybe when he got older, he’d be told that his sense of humor or the way his brows furrowed together when he was reading was just like her.

Some might wonder why Maude didn’t return to their house, so that she could experience all these moments firsthand; she had considered this herself. But she knew that nothing good would come from holding on too tightly to what could not be. Their home was no place for a ghost - she was better off here, in the grocery store, where no one stayed for very long and she could catch glimpses of their life without intruding too much. She’d wait for them to come in every week, until maybe one day they decided the produce selection was better at a different store, or moved away. And then maybe she’d move on as well, to find out what the rest of the afterlife had to offer. But until then, she had the monotonous beeping of the checkout aisle, and the rotation of fresh vegetables, and the ebb and flow of the grocery’s patrons who were all biding their time in one way or another.

• • •

Breadcrumb #505

NICK PERILLI

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.

Then he’d stare into the heron’s black eyes, standing as still as the bird.

"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.

It's time.

“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.

They understood.

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.

• • •