Santiago balances, six feet from shore, on a fallen tree submerged in a swamp. He looks across the dark water that a muskrat has disappeared into, holding his body alert with the desire to continue the chase: ears and tail pricked, belly taut, neck extended. After long moments of yearning, he releases his shoulders and turns to look at me, standing at the top of the green bank that he descended to get to where he is. The sky is grim with clouds. His paws slip on what must be slimy bark beneath the water. The swamp ripples around him. Uncertainty enters his eyes.
Our days are no longer subject to time. They make their own demands. The sun wakes us. Navigating morning traffic has been replaced by kneeling beside the bed in prayer. I cook hot dinners in the afternoon, and evening supper is early and light. Sometimes, when fatigue visits in the middle of the work day, I climb the stairs and join Santiago on the mattress for a nap. Life is becoming normal.
Santi is first to yawn a greeting at break of day. With a squeak of his throat and a smack of his muzzle, he rouses me, then rests, nose to tail, as I dress. We go walking along the river where a mourning cloak butterfly descends in scattered sunlight to rest on a sandy bank. We walk where lilacs overhang a garden fence and where garlic mustard is pungent around a hidden pond. We walk past a black cat stalking ducklings from a private dock and on city sidewalks that lead to a bakery. The doughnuts at the bakery are puffed and chewy, filled with tart custard and topped with sweet icing. They are handed out by busy young men in cloth masks.
Santiago once helped himself to four doughnuts I had hastily placed on a bench inside our front door. When I found the empty paper sack a minute later, it was as clean and whole as if it had just been slipped out of a kitchen drawer. Santiago does not ask for permission to partake in delight.
It is delight that files at the hard calluses of my judgement and worry. A bare-faced woman at the flower mart refuses to follow one-way signs, arriving at the register from the wrong direction and leaving other customers scowling over the tops of their masks, each one forced to stand a little too close to the next. I come home with seedlings in plastic pots, and anxiety. But when I crouch over the ground beneath my elm tree, I am awed by the little, black stem that has pushed up through the soil late in the spring and sprawls into a maidenhair fern. I feared that it had been lost to winter. For my father’s birthday, I make a rhubarb pie, and it rains, and I worry about having my parents inside my house to celebrate, about infecting these people whom I love–healthy, but old, now, as I am old–with a virus I might have without knowing it. They arrive, and we eat, we look into one another’s faces, and after they return home I watch a furry bumblebee, fat as a thumb, nuzzling the purple poms of Virginia waterleaf blossoms. I let go of disease.
The swamp is in a park that Santiago and I are visiting for the first time. We make the drive on Sunday, early in the morning. Trails wrap around wetlands adjacent to a lake where a man and a boy are casting lines from a shallow beach. We leave them behind and walk between steep banks stitched with oaks and ferns and wild geraniums, and the gray swamp with its eerie tangles of cattails and dead trees. Snowy egrets are abundant here. They stand stoically at the water’s edge and lift off on magnificent, white wings as we pass, their long legs dragging behind them, their necks looped like sink drains, silent. We come across wood ducklings in a flooded stand of young cottonwoods, and pretty, red columbine on the slopes of the forest, and a deer, up on a ridge, whom Santiago never sees but tracks with ferocity. A woman stops to tell us that half of the park has been under water for years, the result of development on the watershed. She calls Santiago handsome.
We are alone when Santi sees the muskrat. It happens quickly. The ground is wet. I fear losing my footing and being pulled down the muddy slope, limbs bumping and splaying. I let go of the leash.
I assume that my dog can swim, and I am wrong. I climb down the bank and stand before the murky water that does not lap, calling him. He reaches out a paw to test the solidity of a patch of decaying cattails and retracts it when the paw passes through them, as if they were an apparition. He has sunk the log that the muskrat was lounging on, and is on a different log–it, too, ghostly beneath the water and unconnected to shore. He returns to looking for the muskrat, perhaps to distract himself from a situation that is becoming unsettling. After a long posturing, he looks back at me. He scans the distance between us. It is short, but we are both uncertain of the water’s depth. He shifts his weight and a little cry escapes him. I wonder if he is cold.
I sit on a cut stump stained with mud to think. I call to Santiago from time to time, hoping that he will ease himself into the water and take just the few swipes needed to get to shore. Each time, he hesitates, looking for firm footing. My voice becomes hoarse. When at last I climb back up the bank, I see on the opposite side of the walking path what I am looking for: the trunk of a fallen tree. It is six feet long. It is several inches across, wide enough for a dog’s gait. I lift it. It is not heavy. It has been lying here right behind me as I shouted, whispering its providence.
I drag the log down the bank, sorry for the plants that I am destroying to save my dog. I shove it into the swamp, spinning a couple of branches downward into the water. I hold the end of it. The log floats above the surface of the slate-gray swamp and Santiago can see it. I call to him in my cheeriest voice to come, and he turns with wary care on his own wet log, tentatively reaching a paw toward the bridge that has been extended. He crosses slowly, like a child on a curb not wishing to fall into the street, then bursts into ebullient running when he reaches the bank. He stops at the top of the slope, shaking himself dry on the paved path. I scramble up after him, telling him what a good boy he is. He waits for me to pick up his sopping leash. He pulls ahead, the past sunk in the swamp. He is happy.
I reach my hand across the bed that night and touch Santiago’s side. It is soft with a new summer coat and clean after a soaping. He smells of lavender. For just a moment, I think about the alternate reality in which he did not make it through the swamp. I dream of a man in blue scrubs and a white lab coat. He brings me into a room filled with COVID-19 patients who sit on folding chairs breathing through slack lips. The doctor leaves. I awake with a stomach ache before dawn. I remember that I ate mushrooms, that I don’t usually eat mushrooms.
When I call 911, my bowels have violently emptied three times and I am losing consciousness. I look at my phone keypad and it reads “911-00” and I don’t know how to fix it. Then a woman is repeatedly asking me my address while I throw up into the sink.
The virus is reaching its peak in Minneapolis. I sit limp-necked in a wheelchair in the ER waiting room for four hours. I pass out at least once, wondering when I come to why my vomit bag and hospital pager are on the floor, where my phone is. The woman sitting six feet away with her child says nothing. I feel dizzy and gather my strength to say to the security guard, “I need an IV.” He looks at me, confirming what I have mumbled behind my mask. “You need an IV?” he asks, and I nod my head, relieved. No help arrives. I am not different from the man beside a land line on the wall who shouts, “Can someone help me use this phone!” The guard explains that if the man is going to go to a bar instead of his apartment, he’ll have no transport but the city bus. I use the public bathroom over and over again, and I walk to the nurses’ station to ask for water. “You can’t have any. You’re here for gastrointestinal upset.” I try to say, “No. I’m here for poison,” but there is uncertainty in my eyes as I fail to find the words.
When it is over–after I have been wheeled into a room and asked why I didn’t tell anyone that I had passed out; after I have lain tongue-tied with confusion, sure that I did, then not sure, wondering what I did wrong; after I am stuck with a needle and given, at last, two liters of saline and I have gone home–my sister says with lingering trauma that I did not sound like myself on the phone. I do not remember talking with her on the phone. But I remember that my neighbor texted that she had fed Santiago and let him outside to pee. I remember that my brother-in-law grieved that no one was allowed to sit with me, that the love in his text made me cry on the edge of my paper mask. I remember texting to stay conscious. I remember not being alone. I remember that my sister’s best friend, accidentally drawn into the thread, called me a strong oriole, a Baltimore oriole, and told me to ask for blankets, that as I lay on the exam table shivering from the cold saline solution being dripped into my warm body, my eyes closed on visions of black and orange birds, slight and vulnerable, held aloft on the breath of God.
Love finds ways to communicate. I arrive home to a paper sack hanging on my front door knob. Tucked inside is a boule of freshly baked bread. It is still warm beside a note from my neighbor. Dog food and ginger ale, tea and yogurt are hand-delivered. “What do you need?” people ask, and furnace filters arrive in the mail, a thermometer, face masks, a magazine for planning a vegetable garden. A friend writes that he was thinking of me all day, that he wanted to send me a beautiful, sad song called “Waiting Room.”
He didn’t know that I’d been in the hospital.
I am alive the next day, the day after Memorial Day. I walk in the neighborhood with Santiago at 5:30 a.m., wearing a mask, my body stiff from hours of lying down. Santi misses the world and wants to move with speed to caress every inch of her skin. I am wondering how many tests were run on me, what the charge is for an ambulance, how high my deductible is. The sky is a hot, humid gray. In the park, dandelions have gone to seed. A crow sits on a weathered wooden fence next to a bike path. At the base of front lawn trees, squirrels cling with side glances, taunting Santiago to chase them.
I am elated. Though I feel weak in the chest, I am untroubled by the past, bounding up the bank. In this scrubby park, where dandelions have been left to flourish unplucked and unpoisoned, there is love. Where ants build their spring homes under little cones of soil and march without a boot to the head, there is empathy. A tiny, white egg shell flecked with brown lies cracked in my front garden, near the cedar where a cardinal has nested. All around me are swamps, reminding me that disruption is what happens before you live.
Santiago and I walk, and there are orioles, singing. A chorus of orioles. At the edge of the park, where the land is barren but for prickly grass, someone has tacked a small card to the great log of a telephone pole. Printed on the little swatch of paper, resurrected and transfigured, in blue robes that gleam white with radiant light, is Jesus. The card has been left as a gift–the widow’s mite–generosity in a time of poverty, just as people leave painted rocks in the crooks of trees these days, just as they walk into a smoldering city with brooms, sweeping up broken glass, handing water to those who thirst, extending a bridge, offering providence.
Now in the gallery, photos from Minneapolis and St. Paul.