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Union

Brilliant sunshine arrives at last accompanied by brutal cold.  I fall asleep on the couch at 3:00 in the afternoon with a book in my lap.  Santiago naps upstairs on the bed, in the dip in the mattress that his body has formed day after day, night after night, over the course of five years.  His head is against a pillow.  In the living room, my sleeping elbow escapes the quilt I’m huddled beneath, and I feel winter rising from the hardwood floor to meet it.  I am slumbering too deeply to move, and there is bliss in this:  the paralysis of the season, the frozen world imposing rest.  I wake hours later to the thud and shudder of the dog jumping off the bed.  He descends a steep and narrow staircase, hind end wiggling, and climbs atop me, licking my face and biting my ear, requesting supper.  

He is allowed on the bed. He is allowed on the couch. He is allowed to inquire after a bit of nosh. He is not a guest in this house. It is his home.

The cold draws in the walls of our cloister. For weeks, the sunlit hours are thirty degrees below freezing, the nights twenty degrees below that. The deck pops when we walk across it, like ice groaning on a lake. There are days that permit Santiago only ten minutes of running in the yard. And so we crawl into the very center of our lives. Santi chews on a deer antler. I putty and paint over the cracks in the walls that are the sighs of a settling house. The paint is pale green like the longing for spring.

Over the course of two days, I make a chocolate layer cake. I misjudge the size of my pans, which are too small, and the batter puffs and oozes in the oven, dripping and burning until I slip in a cookie sheet to catch the overflow. I accidentally add whole eggs to the German chocolate mixture. There is an error in the recipe, and the cheesecake layer comes out both lumpy and grainy. The ganache is perfect at the moment that I notice a squirrel on the deck railing outside, sitting across from the cake, which is swaddled in freshly beaten buttercream frosting and setting in the frigid air. By the time that I retrieve the platter, the final icing has curdled.

When I cut myself a slice, Santiago wants one, too. Chocolate is the rare food that I will not share, remembering the day that a chunk of coating slid off an ice cream bar and Santi left the vet with a bloodshot eye after being forced to vomit it up. I give him a dog biscuit. Outside, the neighborhood is dark and quiet and cold. Inside, candles in terra cotta pots warm the air at the kitchen windows where the drafts come in. Nothing distracts me from this adventure on a cake plate, this winter caretaking, this abundance. Stacked atop one another, the flawed layers are beautiful, their purpose fulfilled.

United in the mouth, they are delicious.

I spend my days mending clothes and teaching Santiago to fetch, and in the nights I dream of work to be done. I am in my childhood home and it is crowded with people. The rooms are littered with children’s toys that no one bends to pick up. I am holding in my arms a baby who is not mine, frustrated that abandonment has made her my charge. In the mornings, my jaws and temples ache. Breakfast is accompanied by car exhaust. Day after freezing day, a neighbor idles his car in the driveway to warm it before taking his children to school; the tailpipe is two feet from my fresh air intake.

Walls are not what we think they are.

The temperature continues to sink, but every day the wild world calls to Santiago and me. Our own car engine slurs as it slowly turns over. I wax Santi’s paws to withstand scattered salt and roughening cold. I dress in layers of cotton and tie a hat beneath my chin before putting on thick mittens. We trot along park trails, cajoling our bodies into a cheerful warmth. The snow is hard-packed and so dessicated that it squeaks beneath our feet. The sun shines.

The outings are brief. But I gather vignettes like wildflowers to be pressed between the pages of a book: an unsent envelope, stamped and addressed, lying in a snow-covered hedge; a fire hydrant’s chipping layers of red and yellow paint; the sculpted silhouette of a baseball catcher, big as the sky, in a yard secreted behind untraveled train tracks. One morning, Santiago wedges his head into the branches of a juniper tree, in search of the popcorn left for wintering birds. He emerges with a sneeze, smelling like Christmas. On a backyard shed, we encounter a painted cat: black as Santi’s nose and four feet tall. He side-eyes her as we progress along the path, his tail alert, a bark held in his throat. In the treetops, chickadees chase and cardinals sing. A returning eagle glides on the biting wind. It is impossible to find the border between winter and spring.

At home, the electric fireplace hums and my skin itches in the dry air. Santiago is shedding. As I stroke his back, clumps of fur gather at the base of his tail. I sit on the couch before a bowl of polished stones. One by one, I place them in my hand, gazing upon their daubs and splatters of color, their geometric designs, feeling the weight of each rock in my palm and stroking it between my fingers until I find the one that cries out like the wilderness. That is the one that I clasp–turning it over, feeling its silken planes and the little places that prickle–as I say again and again with closed eyes the words that my heart needs.

It is hard to learn to pray without this: winter.

The clouds return, warming the earth like a soft blanket. For a few days, we are trapped beneath that blanket with the toys that we’ve left scattered on the floor: the air is filled with fine particle pollution. I wear a mask when I walk with Santiago and wonder about his lungs.

And then, when it is time, the wind moves and the cold breaks. We go to the river. It is late morning, a degree above freezing. The sunshine is mild, like butter. A young man is jogging in long shorts and bare legs. As we cross the bridge from west to east, a man working in a blaze yellow vest gives Santi his palm: “Hi, pupper,” he says. “Good day!” We agree. We pass a gray-haired man carrying skinny skis who nods as he walks by, and there are ice fishermen on the pond, hauling equipment behind them on sleds. Three women stand facing the river, sharing a pair of binoculars. On a floe that remains in the midst of the ruffled blue water are what appear to be scores of white and blue snow geese. They are impossible to identify as Santiago pulls ahead with joy. The pavement is free of ice. Where whitetail deer are leaping in the woods, the snow has become wet and sticky. Everybody smiles.

We approach an old couple, a man and a woman, each holding the hand of a tiny girl in a pink coat who walks between them with raised arms.

“Is your dog friendly?” asks the man.

“He’s a kisser,” I reply, which is both welcome and warning.

Santiago does not want to stop. I tug at his leash, bring him back to the girl. Her eyes are cautious beneath a knit cap, pale pink to match her jacket. Face to face, Santi is large. He looks at the girl for a moment and then does what he always does: he licks her mouth and nose. The girl’s eyes crinkle and shine in the sunlight. The man and woman beam down at her.

“You got a kiss,” says the man, and the girl’s lips turn up with pleasure.

She is my child, the one put into my arms today.

Santiago and I walk for nearly two hours. We walk our favorite path, so far from where we parked the car that we haven’t been on it for months. There is no plowing here, just a snowy path with boot prints on one side and two, thin sets of ski tracks on the other. This field is where wild roses will bloom. It is where teenagers will spray messages on transmission towers and under freeway overpasses. It is beside the wood where deer browse and beavers gnaw down trees to build their dams. It is where goldenrod will fade to fluff beside sumacs more red than apples. This field is where I feel connected to what is.

A couple approaches from the opposite direction. None of us is wearing a mask. I coax Santiago to the other side of the path, walking in the strip of snow at the edge of the field, where grasses will green in a month or two. A jogger is coming up behind us. The couple turn their faces from the sun to nod and smile at the dog and me. Santiago is impatient to get back to the smells on the boot path. I tell him to wait until the jogger passes. She comes slowly. She comes too close. She says, “Don’t let your dog walk in the ski tracks.”

And because she has come so near us, and she has spoken as if her words were kind, Santi leaps to greet her. She is inside six feet, the length of his leash. She falls over him.

Sometimes we are reminded that our work is not what we thought it was, that what we have separated, God has united.

After I have fallen asleep, Santiago climbs the stairs and settles on the darkened bed. In the night, he moves like the advent of spring, little by little, closer to my body. There is no border between his side of the bed and mine.

To watch the blue sky return, visit the gallery.

By J. Anderson

J. Anderson and Santiago live and walk together in Minnesota.

2 replies on “Union”

My friend Grace and I walked today and sat for a while with our faces lifted toward the sun. I relate to how the weather affected your willingness and ability to walk. I am so pleased to be able to walk comfortably again. We passed a young woman sitting on a bench with a huge St. Bernard lying on the snow in front of her.. As we went by, I asked her about whether she could get the dog to go where she wanted. She said, “That’s why we’re here. He decided he didn’t want to walk any more.” I wonder how long they stayed there.
It’s interesting. We, and I would guess others, are far more likely to speak to other walkers if they have a dog with them. I enjoy the reports of your encounters with the people you meet.

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You bring up something interesting. I remember noticing years ago how many strangers conversed with my friends when they were out and about with babies. I often receive attention when I’m with Santi–though the attention is clearly directed at him. I think that people respond to Santiago’s joy. More generally, there is an instinct to care for the vulnerable–which dogs are in our society, just as babies are–and a certain shine accrues to those, for example, who will sit and rest to take care of a dog’s needs. Like you, I am also as interested in what people are doing outside as in what the other animals are doing. Happy walking!

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