Whenever it was, they both came back to here as they heard a dog barking excitedly in the distance. It came from a direction Hugo had never noticed before. How could he not have seen it? A thicket of the most beautiful trees of all types, just made for peeing on. A sunbeam – amid all this sun! – bathing the whole of it in a shimmery, yellow-orange.
“Hugo, get ready for something cool,” Zippy said as he shook off the remnants of his chase with Kevin.
“What? What’s going on? And those trees over there – I’ve never seen them before.”
“You wouldn’t have. The Grove only appears on these occasions. This is what I was telling you about.”
As Zippy said this, from The Grove in the distance a dog came running fast, back legs meeting front as all four worked to speed him along. As he drew closer, Hugo saw a thick, shiny coat. An eager look of anticipation in his eyes. He sped on past.
“Where’s he off to in such a hurry,” Hugo asked, intrigued and confused.
“Watch. It’s about to happen.”
Hugo’s eyes followed the speeding dog, then shifted ahead to where he was going. There, just there where his eyes landed, was a man. He looked kind of old but it was hard to say for certain. He was deeply tanned, with thick and frequent fault-line creases crisscrossing his face. His clothes were dirty, and had been for a long time. Shoulders were hunched forward, eyes cast downward. As the racing dog approached, his barking grew louder, catching the man’s attention. He looked up. The dog bounded toward him. Just as he reached jumping distance, he leapt into the startled man’s arms. The man held onto him tight – hugging him close to himself. The dog nuzzled his sun-leathered face, then started licking him furiously.
The man’s shoulders pulled back. His face transformed into a brightness he probably hadn’t felt in years. Clothes sparkled with newness. He looked up. Both sets of eyes locked on each other, the dog licking the man’s face as he laughed for the first time in a very long time. There was no glow, nor radiation of light, not a flash. Just a gentle transformation, of two lonely souls into a bond for eternity.
A transfixed Hugo gazed at the scene in awe. Never in his life – here or back there – had he witnessed something like this. By now he’d seen lots of reunions of people and their dogs but this, this was a whole different thing.
“That’s not like the others,” he said, too bewildered to think of anything else to say.
Zippy knew how Hugo felt. When he first experienced this event, he didn’t quite know what to make of it either.
“The Grove, that place where you saw the dog running from, it’s a special place where only certain dogs get to go. When they arrive, they’re in pretty bad shape. Some are missing fur, some have had broken bones that didn’t heal right. Some look beaten up. Their ears are pressed back and none of them remember how to hold their heads up. You and I, we had our person back there, someone who loved us so much that we’re waiting on them to rejoin us. These dogs didn’t. They didn’t have anyone. They died alone, behind an old building, under a tree shielded from the hot sun, or too hungry to take another step. Or maybe there was no more room in the shelter so the lucky ones were helped on their way by nice people there.
“The Grove is their special place to heal, to feel normal again, to enjoy sunshine meant only for them. Grass to roll in that is much greener, thicker and softer than even here. Rawhides more fun to chew on than anything we can imagine. When they arrive, The Grove appears, a path leading to it opens, and the dog walks up and enters it. We don’t see them again until a day like today.”
Hugo couldn’t imagine a place any better than where he and Zippy were right now but he believed him. Something didn’t make sense though. If they didn’t have people back there, if they died all alone, who was that dog greeting?
Zippy knew what he was thinking, and continued. “Back there, there are dogs who die with no one who loves them. They don’t have people, or a bed to sleep on, or any shelter when it’s not sunny like it is here. Back there, there are people like that too. When that person arrives, a dog in The Grove knows this is the person they’ve been waiting on. They feel it the instant the person arrives, and come running. They didn’t know each other back there but they get to spend forever together here.”
As Zippy finished, they looked towards the man and the dog. The dog stopped licking the man’s face, jumped down to stand by his side, tail wagging furiously, then looked up at him. The man leaned down and scratched the dog’s ears. Just then, the familiar blue-orange hue of an early-morning sunrise appeared a little way’s off.
The man, smiling from ear to ear, whispered into the dog’s ear. “Ready boy?” The dog’s entire backside wagged, unable to contain the force within the tail alone. “OK, let’s go!” And with that, they began walking down the path together. As the blue grew brighter and the orange simmered away, the walk picked up to a run. Thick, waving grass with seed heads catching the last flashes of the fading orange in the sky filled in behind them. As they disappeared into the blue, sounds of laughter and barking lingered for a while longer, growing fainter, until it was erased by the whisper of the waving grass.
All the dogs were silent in reverence, thinking of their own good fortune back there, nourished by the good fortune to witness this special reunion here.
Hugo, lost in thought, walked away from an understanding Zippy. He didn’t know dogs – or people – like that existed back there. He couldn’t imagine such loneliness with so many people loving him. Or how people could be so lonely with so many others loving his people. Then he understood what this place was about. The warm sun, the thick grass, the rawhides – they weren’t the point. Neither was waiting (although waiting with so much to do wasn’t so bad). The reunion, whatever kind it is, even with someone you didn’t know back there, is the point. The reunion is when the forever part begins.