Santiago and I fight in our sleep. He has torn the soft, black pad of one of his paws, and, in the night, he licks the itching flesh. I hear the hinge of his jaw and the spittle on his tongue lapping, lapping, lapping, lapping. My eyelids flutter loose from dreams. “Leave it!” I say, but my voice is mushy. The dog laps. Reaching a hand from beneath warm sheets, I find his injured paw and hold it. His fur is soaked in saliva. He lays down his jowls. We fall back into slumber.
I adopted Santiago. The print-out taped to his kennel at the Animal Humane Society displayed him chin up, sniffing the camera lens, along with the words, “People call me playful.” His weight was listed at 57 pounds, which was 27 pounds heavier than I thought my second-hand furniture would accommodate. His ears were as expressive as jazz hands—pricking and folding—and he wagged a white-tipped tail, begging for snacks, nose pressed to the gate, hind legs jostling. When I grabbed a handful of kibble from the bucket on the gate and tossed it to his feet, he snorted softly as he ate.
He was the only dog in the shelter that day who was happy.
Sometimes I watch Santiago tracking a scent and in my head I hear him humming a tune as if he were a cartoon dog. A steady diet has made him muscled and elegant, his white legs beneath a brindled back like the crawler that carries a rocket. He sashays, and he is strong. When we walk in winter—Santi tugging ebulliently at the end of a six-foot leather leash—people call out from where they are shoveling their front stoops, “Ya got yerself a sled dog!” The last time we went to the vet, he weighed 67 pounds.
On a November day, we walk at the dam. The air temperature is in the twenties, slapping at our faces so that we feel the mirth of being alive and jog straight across the bridge, the water upstream reflecting dainty clouds in a blue sky, the water downstream catapulting into a roaring froth like scribbles on a vast chalk board. Santiago moves with impatience to reach the other side, where smells will unwrap themselves like gifts in tufts of grass and mounds of fallen leaves.
At the end of the bridge, a man with a beard and a sweater—both of them brown and unravelled—stands at the railing watching islands in the river. He turns and smiles at us, eyes sinking into soft cheeks. I smile back, and Santiago dips his snout in greeting then pulls at the leash, eager to move on. We walk for three-quarters of an hour along the eastern shore, past a black crow perched above an orange, stone table, past a deep blue lake surrounded by gnarled canes of dried mullein. The movements of the world are slight around us.
I am in my fifties, and pains that were inflicted decades ago come to me now, like the knocking of unexpected visitors. In the morning, a remembered fight causes me to sit on the edge of the bath tub until I can stop crying and dress for the day. After nightfall, I pull bedclothes to my chin and think about the lover I would have married, had he asked me. In a dream, I cling to a waitress at a diner and sob, mourning the fact that I have no children. My heart is so thin that the outer layers come off like dust.
Santiago came to me wounded. On a bright, September day, he entered my house for the first time: barging through the vestibule, weaving around my legs, and darting into the living room where he leapt upon the couch before I could set down my keys. There he sat, smiling and panting with delight, the bearer of a trophy. I gave him the couch. And when he held his weight that day at the top of the stairs to the basement, silent but cowering, I gave him the kitchen. I had hoped to feed him on an unfinished floor. But when I got him to follow me below ground, he whimpered and urinated in a spasm of fear. He was wary, too, of going outside for toileting, as if uncertain that he would be let back in when he was done. One evening at dusk, as we were walking toward a young man sitting at a bus stop, Santiago yelped and spun back the way that we had come, straining at the leash and bleating over his shoulder, as if the man might pursue us.
His paw is worse. He licks it for an hour while I am doing chores: soaking through four quilts, two sheets, and the mattress pad. For a week, we do not walk. The house feels heavy.
When I can tap the injured pad without a shudder from Santiago, I dress his foot in a cotton sock and a plastic bag that I affix with twist ties. We drive to the dam, and when I unharness him, he leaps from the back seat and tears across the sidewalk. It takes just five minutes for the dressing to slink down and be shed in the snow. Santi runs, yanking me behind him, my winter boots strung with ice cleats. He stops, sniffs, pees, inches his nose over the edge of an embankment and watches the river wandering black below. He turns and runs again, brushing past paper-dry grasses and shrubs that hover over the white-blanketed ground, limping at first, then allowing his healing paw to land squarely and push off, again and again. Our lungs are filled with cold air, the sky powder blue behind a procession of clouds. Just off the shore, sandy flats are covered with rocks and sheets of ice, like slabs of peppermint bark.
This is the queer thing about my sorrow: that I am happy. I am happier than I have ever been. The wounds that lift themselves to the surface coexist with moments like this: with creation asserting itself like a fresh skin.
I did not expect to be who I am now: a woman with a panting dog and snow clothes damp with sweat. My childhood smelled, not of woodsmoke in a cold, blue sky, but like the cozy, inching mold of the library. I devoted my girlish afternoons to Schumann and Chopin played on a family upright with wafers of ivory topping the keys. On summer evenings, as neighborhood kids shouted in the late-descending darkness, I was glad to be called to the steam of a bath, to my wall-papered room. They were squinty-eyed with their own sadness, those kids, and cruel.
But I come from outside, from parents who believe in outside. We camped as a family, and I despaired of spiders and rough grass and hard ground and heat. We skied, wearing knit masks from the gas station against pitiless Minnesota winds. We picnicked on beaches, sand pebbling our meals. And so outside was seeded within me: through sleigh rides over slopes mogulled with frozen cow dung, through fireworks set off in daisy fields, through my grandmother’s dusty, grasshopper garden and the cool hillside caves of the family homestead. Outside bided its time as I grudgingly scrambled up quarry gravel with my siblings or knelt, nose to the breeze, in the prow of a speed boat on a choppy, autumn lake. I did not learn the constellations. I cannot name the trees. But now, when I am in need of it, outside has sprouted. Its tendrils curl from my fingertips, shoot from my toes, leading away from rooms where my thoughts circle and choke.
Life leaves its marks. Within us like the rings of trees are our histories of terror and hope.
In the night, I dream. I am in an alley of brown shadows, and there are bad men. My heart courses loudly and fast like water over a dam. Suddenly, Santiago is there, bellowing from deep within his rocket chest and chasing the men away. Fear leaves my body and I breathe. I roll over in bed, consciousness rising for a few, gray seconds. I feel Santiago’s warmth against my thigh. His eyes are closed and his yips are high and stifled. I fall back into sleep. He is barking in his dream.