by Sandra Moore
"Bury my ashes in the garden, my love," croaked out Henry Tailor between bouts of coughing and wheezing. Sarah clasped his hand and nodded, not trusting her words. Much later, after the lung cancer spread its blackness wide enough to eclipse the light in Henry's eyes, newly-widowed Sarah Tailor wrapped her hands tightly around the urn containing Henry's ashes and stood in their garden. A brisk wind blew her skirt around her knees and the plants swayed-plants she and Henry spent time planting and nurturing, coaxing the little things to life. And somewhere in her mind, she could picture the future that they could've had: years of quietude in their sun-soaked garden, maybe with the child they always wanted running around. Years that cancer took away.
"It's too windy," she said at last, to absolutely nobody in the garden. "He wanted his ashes in the garden; the wind will sweep it away."
The next day, it rained. "It's too wet," she said. "I don't want to bury my husband when the skies are so gray."
Her excuse for the sunny days were that they were simply much too happy to be appropriate for such a sad burial. When it was cloudy, she declared that since Henry hated cloudy weather, it would tarnish his memory. Winter was just an absolute insult to him, as the plants he cherished so much were shriveled and naked, sloughed with snow. He hadn't liked seeing them in that state when he was alive; she doubted he'd appreciate the irony of them being as dead as him. Her thirty-sixth birthday came and passed and she sat in her empty, lonely house and glanced at the urn, waiting patiently on the mantelpiece, a mockery of her failure.
"Oh, Henry," she said, and buried her face in her hands.
Her mother fretted and visited frequently, each time to a steadily dustier and darker home. At first, her words were kind, but as the months passed, worry sharpened her words.
"You can't do this to yourself," she said, new lines on her face that were borne from watching her daughter waste away. "It's been six months, Sarah. Six months! Do you think Henry would've wanted you to--to pine away like this, never seeing the light, sitting around and staring at his ashes?"
Sarah gave a mournful sigh and said nothing.
Henry wouldn't have wanted it. Henry would've possibly been patient for all of three minutes before dragging her out and about to cheer her up. He was all smiles, Henry, even to his last moments conscious. Bald from chemotherapy, gaunt and tired, he smiled for her, to appease her worries.
She remembered when he first asked her out, a scrawny red-haired boy with a broad grin but jittery nerves, eyes darting around her face to read her response. Their friends called them a strange couple: Sarah's grim outlook on life versus Henry's optimism. But none of them were never privy to the quieter moments, like when Sarah read mordant poetry to an enraptured Henry or when Henry made Sarah laugh so hard that tears came to her eyes. It was hard to make her laugh, but Henry managed to every day, watching her with a silly, happy look on his face as she dissolved into undignified giggles.
She hadn't laughed since he died.
One morning, she was roused from her dreamlike state by a scratch at the back door. A raccoon, she figured, perhaps a rat, and resumed her wishful thinking of her lost future. The scratching started up again, a persistent scritch scritch scritch.
"Can't a women grieve in peace?" muttered Sarah, wrapping her black cardigan closely around her body and standing up to shuftle towards the door. When she threw it open, squinting in the brilliant sunlight, there before her was a large dog.
Sarah stared, agape.
It was a very dirty dog, paws covered in mud. Ugly too, its coat riddled with flea-bites and the coat itself a mottled gray. Its eyes, a dark brown, were alight with curiosity and its ragged tail swept from side to side. A half-chewed flower lolled out of its mouth.
"Huh," said Sarah, baffled.
The dog dropped the flower and trotted forward, bumping into her skirt and leaving muddy smudges behind. Sarah, frozen, watched it stroll casually into her house like it belonged there, paws tracking dirt all over her dusty wooden floor.
When it made as if to jump onto her furniture, she snapped out of her trance. "NO!" she shouted, and it looked at her with big brown eyes. Her anger deflated quickly and she said weakly, "You're all dirty. At least take a bath, would you?"
The dog woofed, as if in confirmation, and proceeded to head directly towards the bathroom where it plopped down into the bathtub. Sarah stared, mouth agape as it gave her an almost-impatient look, as if to say, Well what are you waiting/or?
"I'm dreaming," muttered Sarah, giving herself a hard pinch. The dog was still there, waiting, and, not quite knowing what else to do, Sarah gave the supposedly sentient dog a bath.
The amount of mud that sloughed off the dog was astonishing, the water turning murky brown and silt collecting at the base of the bathtub. But the dog-who turned out to be a boy- was happy. He snapped at soap bubbles and wagged his tail so hard that water splashed over the edge of the bath and soaked Sarah's skirt, much to her annoyance. Under all that mud, his matted fur was a lovely golden-brown, albeit scraggly and growing crooked around flea bites. Every few seconds, the dog would wriggle around and lick her face.
When the water finally ran clear, Sarah helped the dog out and tried to towel him off, only to be assaulted by a spray of water as the dog shook himself. "Oh, you beast," she said, but could not muster up enough anger to make it sound like a reprimand. The dog looked up at her trustingly, tongue lolling out of his mouth, and she sighed and dried off the rest of him.
She could see his ribs through his coat, and her stomach ached in sympathy. "You must be hungry," she said. "We don't have any food, but I'm sure you won't mind a little human food, hungry as you must be. Leftover pork, perhaps?"
The dog said nothing, merely pushed his muzzle into her hands to beg for a petting. Sarah acquiesced, scratching around his ears until she found a spot that made his eyes close and his tail thump against the floor.
He followed Sarah when she went to the kitchen and rummaged through the refrigerator for some leftover pork. When she put the meat onto a dish, he ate it down with a great amount of slobber and enthusiasm while Sarah watched him, bemused. The bowl of water she placed down was as eagerly received.
When he had cleaned the dish of every last scrap of meat, he promptly turned around and started walking out of the kitchen. Sarah followed him to the living room and saw him rise up on his hind legs until he was eye-level to the mantlepiece and staring at the urn.
She had just a moment to marvel at the serious way he was gazing at the urn before horror kicked in.
"Don't touch that!" she shouted, rushing forward, and the dog dropped back down to his
forelimbs, staring up at her with big eyes. She took the urn from the mantlepiece and clutched it
to her chest. Sun-warmed, it almost felt alive, and she clutched it all the tighter. The dog stared
up at her, clearly confused.
"It-it's my husband," she said, voice small and pitiful. "Don't touch it."
The dog looked at her for a long moment and then shoved his body against her legs. His weight caused Sarah to stagger back a few steps. "What are you doing?" she asked, confused, and the dog kept pushing at her, even biting at her skirt and tugging her along. Sarah kept one hand on the urn and one hand on the skirt, trying to tug it away from the dog.
He wasn't hurting her, but he was being very insistent, and it was with growing confusion that Sarah allowed herself to be pulled along in such a manner until they reached the door. The hem of her skirt still in his mouth, the dog scratched at the door and Sarah opened it, only to be tugged out into her garden.
The sun momentarily dazzled her eyes, and when she blinked away the light, her breath caught in her throat.
She'd neglected it, she saw, and the flowers were overgrown with weeds, some even dying. But most were in the height of their bloom, the fragrance filling the air. The fruit trees were blossoming, the roses budding, and she remembered--oh, how she remembered how she and Henry had dinner outside during this time of year. The table was still there, a lonely wooden structure as neglected as the garden. The bird feeder was still clustered with birds; it had been Henry's idea, as he wanted to encourage more birds into their backyard. Butterflies and bees swarmed the air.
Spring was Henry's favorite season, she knew, and her eyes welled up with tears.
"Oh, Henry," she said, quiet. "I'm so sorry."
It was then at last that she scattered Henry's ashes, heart breaking with every sweep of the powder-gray dust. Under the watchful gaze of the dog, Henry's ashes settled into the garden, an imperceptible layer of gray over the dirt and the leaves, and it was like the world released a collective sigh as the last of Henry was shaken out of the urn. Her heart hurt, but at the same time, it was cathartic: the burden of six months lifting off her shoulders and leaving her strangely light.
When all was done and the urn itself buried deep in the dirt, Sarah turned to the dog. "It's done now," she said, and then, almost timidly, "Will you be staying?"
As was expected, the dog did not reply, instead cocking his head.
It's not much," said Sarah, "and it'll be just you and me for a while."
The dog shuffled to her side and pressed against her legs, a silent beg for attention. He licked her fingers when her hand drifted close enough, his tail a happy blur.
"I guess you're staying, then," said Sarah, and if her voice was choked and her eyes wet, there was nobody but the dog to notice. She sunk to her knees to embrace the dog, fingers curling in his still-damp fur, and he enthusiastically licked her face. She laughed, startled, and turned away, but he followed, paws trampling all over her now-ruined dress and making small yipping noises.
She imagined that somewhere, anywhere, Henry was smiling.