On a Wednesday evening, I arrive home to find a potted bromeliad lying sideways on the living room rug. I bought the plant a year ago, at the zoo, on a sunny spring day when the air was still cool and I had to wrap the shoots and the roots in slippery plastic bags and carry the package awkwardly to where I had parked my car. The dirt in the pot is hard; not much of it has scattered. It has been unclear to me during the dark, dry months of winter whether or not the plant was alive. Now, six inches of palm leaves have been abbreviated all around, leaving short, raggedy blades that will no longer communicate with the sun or make food. I hear the thump of Santiago springing off the bed and landing on the floor. He comes down the staircase, feet prancing agilely on old, narrow steps. He greets me with hips that samba in anticipation of a walk. One of us has killed the plant.
Santiago is a grazer. In the summer, the world is his pantry. He trots at a clip, hardly dipping his head to bite off the grass that bends at the side of the trail, inviting consumption. I discourage this, for grass does not change composition in his gut, coming out in the same, long strands in which it went in, wreaking havoc on his elimination. But to snack while chasing scent is his canine bliss. He eats goldenrod in every season, nosing it out from its tenderest, green appearance over the soil in spring to its tall, toughened stalks that survive the fall frosts, their tiny yellow flowers gone pale as ghosts in the fields.
That night, my throat feels like it has been stung by bees. I’ve been surrounded by people with rumbling, wet coughs. I go to sleep early, and in a dream, I run with wolves. There are a dozen of them, the color of river rocks. We trot untiringly among desert scrub and across sandy buttes that stand, square and lonely, against an infinite white sky. It is not clear to me whether I have two feet or four. The air is warm and dry and untroubled. All of my needs are met.
I work a day at the office. My head fills with fluid that begins to pound like waves breaking against a sea wall. My ears itch low in a hollow that can’t be reached. My lungs flutter weakly and deflate, aching. I am hot. Friday, I stay home. I am in bed, late morning, when Santiago opens his eyes and stands upon the mattress. We have been sleeping. The sun is bright through the bedroom windows. The dog bows, stretching his back, and waves his rump. He yawns. He moves toward me, feints, moves away. He looks at me with shining eyes. He barks.
Every day, we have need of feeling the scratch of earth beneath our feet.
I choose a route that is flat, that is likely to be free of ice, that is sheltered from the wind, a route that will accommodate my fatigue. We drive to a suburban lake surrounded by trees, with a trail just over three miles long. The sky is a blue so shot through with light that to be under its canopy is to be showered with hope. Spectacular cattails surround the frozen water. They are no longer smooth and brown but golden, and ragged and fluffy with use, plucked at by insects for food, by birds to line their nests. This borderland of sentries will thrive and spread in the scores of years that the lake will take to fill in, to continue dying in the way of watery things and become a marsh.
Santiago and I walk. We see few creatures. Winter is disappointing in this way; for, it was in this park hardly three months ago that we encountered on one day both a pheasant–bejeweled and regal and rustling in the woods–and a possum–so slow-moving and pink and bewildered by Santi’s woofing that I abjured the animal’s reputation for fierceness. Now there is only crusty snow and the stoic reach of trees. The trail curves and the scene changes. Beyond a swath of maples and poplars hugged by buckthorn, are fresh stumps near a stream where mallards have gathered. They quack quietly. Sawdust litters the path, and a flatbed truck is parked beside it. It is jarring: this disruption of the soil, the nakedness where trees once stood, the hulking frame of metal and rubber, a human footprint that seems misplaced.
And then I see the trail: fresh mulch has been laid across the path beside the stream. It is fragrant–woody and fecal and dusty and sweet. I inhale it, the smell reminding me of my grandparents’ farm. The pulp is soft beneath our feet as we pass the ducks who flap at the air and fly to the opposite bank, the silver water rippling and glinting in the sunlight. The cold air is a purgative to my lungs. I cough up sadness, discouragement. And there, in the unsettled soil still white with morning frost, a week before February’s finish, I see my first robin of spring.
It is a wonderful weekend. I rest, and on Saturday Santiago and I go to the dam. The air is warmer now. Upstream, chunks of white ice have crashed and stacked upon themselves in the freeze and thaw but are still. Downstream, the water is black and moving from shore to shore. We walk on ski trails gone to mush in the woods beside the river. I watch eagles gliding high in the sky over muddy beaches, and Santi sniffs at layers of scent uncovered in the melting snow. We wade through puddles that trickle over the asphalt path. Before he gets back into the car, I towel him off. He smells of dog sweat and brine.
And he starts to vomit. The bromeliad comes up: more than forty-eight hours later, in the same form that it went down. It is cold again, and Santiago vomits for days, sometimes openly–begging in the hours just after midnight to be released to the yard–and sometimes surreptitiously, so that I leave for the office and the house smells sour when I return and I wander the rooms, looking for the mustard stain of bile and scrubbing carpets. Santiago and the plant and I have entered a new life together, the consequence of our individual actions in a woven world.
I am notified that someone applied for a credit card with my social security number. I find mouse droppings in a lunch sack that I left on the kitchen counter. Mice have been with me all winter, pillaging grapes and peppermint Kisses, carting away plastic containers, chewing on kitchen sponges and felted wool gifts, dropping twine down the garbage disposal. Breathing still feels like trying to inflate a baseball glove. I scratch at my lungs and cry when the alarm goes off in the morning.
At noon on Ash Wednesday, I go to church. A woman with a limp arrives late. She walks the aisle leaning on a cane, her head covered with a scarf, and puts one knee stiffly to the ground, bowing toward the chancel before getting into the pew. The sermon is about the reassurance of our smallness. It is about the carbon atoms in the stars and the carbon atoms in our bodies, about the vastness of the universe, its interconnectedness and beauty. The priest stands before towering stained glass windows, shapeless underneath her cassock and surplice, her round glasses dwarfing a tiny, pointed chin, and reminds us that we are failing, that we will die and become dust, that to wish that we were something different, something greater, is a misplaced notion.
Santiago and I walk that evening with a friend. She holds the leash and practices jogging with him over icy patches to stay erect. He pees on tree trunks, on leaf litter, on dirty mounds of snow with fading yellow splotches. She wonders aloud how much urine his bladder can hold and laughs. He runs his nose along twigs that emerge from the shrinking snow, licking them with a thoughtful expression before moving on. We ask him to sit for a photo. He refuses to mind our commands. Our thighs are cold. We go home and eat cupcakes.
The next day, I find a dead mouse. Her furry body–the color of river rock–is rigid in a trap that I had forgotten about. It is not the roomy, live trap that I placed in the kitchen and stocked with dabs of peanut butter and a fat raspberry. It is a snap trap in the basement, on the floor, under a table, not baited at all. When I pick it up, my heart seizes with horror and shame. The bottom of the trap has been gnawed. Minuscule bits of plastic pebble the floor. The trap sprang across the mouse’s legs, not her neck. She tried to chew her way free.
I look at her closed eyes. I hold the trap in my hand, shaking. I want to be better, greater. My instinct is to throw the trap away, not because it will no longer work or because I have renounced the killing of mice whose footprints have been in my life as mine have been in theirs. I want to toss it because I want to pretend that I did not torture another living being until she died.
I keep the trap. I contemplate my smallness. I pray for the soul of the mouse.
I dream, and there is a path that I keep walking. I can’t quite see where I am because I am watching my feet. There are lumps of hard snow and disheveled grass along the way, ungreen, unlovely. I think that Santiago is with me. The place feels familiar. And it feels like I am in danger. It is comfortable and terrifying.
The next morning, I sit in traffic at a stoplight. The curb is grimy with winter’s refuse. There are condiment packages, disposable cups, liquor bottles, cigarette butts, plastic bags, french fry sleeves, socks. Last year’s limp, beige weeds hang from a crack in the concrete. A man holds a cardboard sign, asking for help beside pigeons eating garbage on the sidewalk. The dome of a basilica reaches high up into the hopeful canopy of the sky.
Missing Santiago? You’ll find him on fresh mulch in the gallery.