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Place

On the day before Santiago’s eighth birthday, we get on the road early and head north. The sun has risen, but it is not yet forty degrees. We pass through the city and the suburbs and the exurbs, through orange-coned construction zones, past brightly painted outlet malls, beside sleepy distribution centers. I use one hand to unwrap a slice of pound cake that I’ve laid on the passenger seat. Santi awakens behind me and puts his chin on the arm rest, his nose bunching as he inhales the butter-and-marmalade scent. I tear off a sticky chunk and share. From time to time, wind gusts shoulder the car closer to a field of grazing cattle or to a roadside flower mart or to a parked truck advertising a rodeo. The date for the rodeo provides no year, and I wonder, as the sun gleams on clapboard houses behind little stands of trees, whether it expresses an event that is to come or one that might have been had there not been a pandemic.

After ninety minutes, we pull in at a dairy. We get out of the car and stretch our legs. Though we have not been here for three and a half years, Santiago knows this place. He sniffs at the trees in the pet station, lifts his leg, then tugs me through the parking lot, toward where the asphalt disappears and the air smells of hay and sweet grass and horses. I bring him back to the car and enter the shop. I order a hot sandwich with egg and ham. I buy provisions and gifts: cheese, crackers, liquor, candy. The last purchase is a “puppy cup” for Santi: a few, generous mouthfuls of vanilla soft serve. It is for celebrating the strange joy of living in a body, year after year, on this little, blue planet, spinning in a galaxy made of dust and gas and darkness and stars.

We eat outside. Santiago guzzles the ice cream like it’s cold water on a steaming day, after which he begs for my sandwich. I share. We are in Wisconsin now, heading east. Our destination is the small town where my parents had a home for nineteen years. On weekends, it slept children and spouses and grandchildren, nieces and cousins and life-long friends. The living room windows looked out across low ferns and conifers, past the trunks of tall, skinny hardwoods to a lake that jogged like a jigsaw puzzle, with hollows for swans and wild rice. The kitchen windows took in the morning sun across a rock garden planted with roses and geraniums and coneflowers. At the end of a long driveway, my father built a wishing well, and the beds in the house were laid with quilts hand-stitched by my mother.

For twenty years before they moved to that house, my parents owned a cabin nearby. It was small and smelled of mold, and it faced a shoreline with soft, clean sand. There were mosquitoes and bats, bunk beds and a hammock, and a trail that led through the woods to an old gangster hideout. This lake country is where my family’s roots are deepest. It is where we smoked meat and toasted marshmallows and played lawn games; where we drank gin-and-tonics on a slow-trolling pontoon boat, searching for eagles among the trees; where we watched the sun set over the water and listened to loon calls in the cool, black night. In this place, teenage crushes were confessed and Sasquatch tales were told. This town is where we shopped after Thanksgiving, convening for lattés, splitting up to purchase gifts, bumping into each other at the candy store, year after year after year. It is where we marched in a Christmas parade, bells jingling on our elf hats, tossing candy as we accompanied a seaworthy tugboat formed by my father’s hammer and strung with lights.

Here, I swam in gray, September waters. Here, for the first time, Santiago played in snow.

The Earth spun. We aged. My parents moved closer to me, closer to my brother and sister. But I did not leave that place. Each memory is a story, and the stories are stacked in my mind like books on a shelf, piled top to side in a helter-skelter of delight, and when I pull them down for a look, the spines flop open to favorite passages and vivid illustrations, and the books smell of sunblock and wood smoke and cocktail peanuts and pine needles and roasted turkey, and score sheets from old board games fall from the pages, and my heart remembers, and I am not discontented, for I have lived.

I give Santiago some kibble, and he settles into the back seat. He understands where we are going; it will take us another ninety minutes to get there. Familiar landmarks–rivers and cemeteries and bars, a golf course, a fire station–grow large as we approach, then vanish in an instant behind us. When we pass the county sign–the last significant marker before we reach town–I swallow a few upstart tears. We cannot, of course, go to the house that my parents sold to others. We pull up, instead, at the library. Behind it is a park. My dad and his friends designed it. They cleared the paths, built the bridge and the benches, erected the kiosks. After a tornado touched down, they did much of the work a second time. They cared for this place as if it were their home.

The spring air is warming, and the sun shines in a blue sky through which the wind pushes fat, white clouds. Santiago knows the trail. He puts his nose to a statue just outside the woods and then, pissing, begins the extended process of greeting this ground after our long time away. The path is mulched and clear. Red pines tower above us, and small markers staked in the soil name the plants in the understory. Throughout the park, child-size podiums display the pages of a picture book: a tale of animals who live in this place and how they survive the winter. We linger over sites that we have remembered with fondness: the footbridge over a pond from which water lilies are rising to the surface; the preserved cross-section of a century-old oak; the forest pocket from which an entire flock of foraging grouse once took flight. In a glade, in front of an old row of benches, we encounter a new, open-air stage. Santiago crosses the boards and stops, as if a spotlight shone upon him and he were about to deliver a tender monologue.

In the gardens at home, I have been snipping the hollow stems of last year’s perennials. The bees who might have slumbered within them, warm in the snow, are now at the dandelions, which have already bloomed and gone to seed and are standing naked and reedy in the lawn. I don’t uproot them; I like their sunny faces and bitter leaves and the blowzy way they depart when it is time. I trim the grass around the beds and prune Virginia waterleaf where it hangs over the other vegetation like a poncho. I fill the bird feeders and scrub the bird bath. There are twigs to rake and catkins to sweep, and these duties assert themselves day after day. The air smells of lilac and lily-of-the-valley, but there has been no rain for weeks, only the cloud spittle that makes the car in the driveway even dirtier. I get out the watering can. I sprinkle the potted herbs and the plants that are blooming: the Jacob’s ladder, the Jack-in-the-pulpit, the maidenhair fern sprung up suddenly high and gangly. I do not want to waste water. But the rain doesn’t come. I get out the hose. I am not sure of the right way to provide nurture.

We come to the edge of the park and Santiago starts across the road. I hold him back. We have never been here before. But a footpath is visible on the other side of the asphalt and, beside it, a sign with faded print. I release my hold, and Santi leads us to another set of trails where spring azure butterflies flit across the forest floor. It is impossibly quiet. Trees have not yet leafed in the north, and only the thinnest blades of grass poke out from straw-like patches beneath our feet. We follow the shoreline of a lake that is blue-gray and shining as the wind ruffles it. Pine cones loll in the shade.

This is the state where my great-grandparents met and married, where they built a house and raised sheep and children. With its lakes and hills and woods, it reminded my great-grandmother of her birthplace in Sweden. The railroad stopped bringing their sheep to market, and they moved to Colorado. The land was dry, and Grandma called the fencing poor, no good for shepherding. She never took to the place. When she was very old, she labored in a garden behind her cottage, growing irises that reached her hips and made her smile. She lost her wedding band in that garden. It wasn’t found until after she had been laid in the ground. Every morning, I slip it on my finger.

When we have walked for hours, Santiago and I make our way back to the car. I open all the doors and give him water and kibble. He waits patiently on Main Street while I buy a latté, and as we head southwest, he sleeps. The sun is hot on his back. Signs along the road warn residents and passers-by that fire danger is high. Near the place where, on a cloudy morning years ago, a deer stepped on graceful legs into the road before my front bumper, disappearing into the trees as I crushed my brakes and my heart beat against my eyes, we pass acres where the woods have been removed. Half a dozen yellow trucks lumber over the bare earth.

The road trip wasn’t for Santiago. It was for me. I was thirsty. I needed a latté.

The next morning, it is Santi’s birthday. We leave the house on foot, before breakfast. It is his favorite way of waking up. He chooses an excellent route, one that loops through five parks, crossing back and forth over train tracks on sneaky trails whose stories he remembers. We watch a woodpecker knocking at a fallen snag, and swans floating in a marsh below a transmission tower. In the afternoon, I give him cheese. In the evening, I climb onto the couch beside him, facing him like a lover, my hip hanging off the cushion, breathing his breath, scratching his chest as he purrs.

We met a man on the trails in Wisconsin. He was young. He wore shorts and a tee-shirt and sunglasses. He rode a fat tire bike and approached–almost without sound in the impossibly quiet woods– from behind us. After he had passed, he turned his head and called into his wake.

“That’s a handsome dog!”

A short while later, at the library park, we met a gray-haired couple, both tall and rangy. They wore faded sweatshirts and walked with their grandchildren. They let Santiago jump on them.

“He’s like ours,” they said. “We just lost him. Ten years old. In bed. Didn’t wake up. We weren’t ready.”

This is the place where Santiago and I live: between our handsome youth and the death that will come too soon. I have been happy, and the consequence of my happiness is that time is moving faster than I have ever known it to move. I water the bare ground where–as the planet spins–the slimmest shoots of prairie clover and butterfly weed will emerge. I wash dishes and fix toilets, shake out rugs and turn the compost, hang out laundry and sweep the floors. These cares assert themselves day after day. And day after day, I walk with my companion in the peace of the morning until we are spent. In attending to this place, I am satisfied.

My parents, too, have birthdays in May. One afternoon, they take me to a park near their home in the suburbs. The trees in the wood reach toward the light–poplars and ironwoods and red oaks, and flowering shrubs that we touch and try to name. They have leafed and arch over us, and moss grows on the rotting logs scattered in the brush, so that to walk here is like walking the wide aisle of a great cathedral in which the stained glass windows are all in shades of green. We encounter turkeys on a hillside and a tiny, white-haired woman who walks briskly, stocking-footed. When we come to a sun-bathed bridge, we stand in the middle of it, watching the minnows swimming in the water below until we notice the eagles flying among the trees.

To see Santiago treading the boards, and the green cathedral of spring in other places, visit the gallery.

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Protection

For a week, the sky is gray like the inside of an old shoe. Rains arrive in all their demeanors and stay for a while. Santiago invites a Labrador to wrestle, and while the other dog declines, Santi’s own wagging and feinting and jouncing cause him to walk away with a limp that persists for days. I am early to an appointment to get the vaccine. The list of reactions that I’ve had to food and drugs, plants and insects, adhesives and ointments is long, and I am nervous. The nurses require me to wait thirty minutes after the shot is administered before I may leave. I sit facing a large, digital clock and read a page in the book I’ve brought over and over again.

When I am released to the parking lot, my mood is fizzy, like I’ve shaken from my tailpipe the car that has been following me, like I’ve been married at the court house, like I have fireflies under my hat. I want to celebrate. I drive home and pick up Santiago. We go to the river, where a cold drizzle falls on fresh green horsetails that have sprung up along the path. Over the dam, the Mississippi is pouring muddy, and the water is high. It laps at stone benches on the banks, the giving sand of the beach where we tramped in the fall visible beneath the ripples. I watch minute raindrops splash on the sleeves of my coat. Their glister in the dull light makes me feel warm and dry inside my clothes: protected.

For a day, I compelled Santiago to rest his leg. The energy within him now seems to pound at his chest; he tugs as if seeking double the encounter with the world. He leads me to a dog enclosure, and I take off his leash and let him inside. He wanders in the rain alone, engrossed, sniffing out departed spirits. We cross a field, then, and follow a bike trail, past the silver-wooded remnants of a split-rail fence, past junipers and growing grass. In a hidden glade, we find newly appointed bird feeders, and cardinals and blue jays who swoop from branch to branch. The sky holds its water.

The paths around the park are mostly empty. A man with two little girls tells them that they mustn’t wander too far from the car because more rain is coming. He points Santiago and me to an osprey nest that has been erected nearby. We walk to it, past white birches and gnarled pines and oak leaves that lift off the forest floor and settle again. A mallard tucks his beak beneath a wing on the shoreline below us. The shallow nesting box rests upon a tall beam staked among the trees, the entire vista an inky silhouette against the sky. The insulating scraps inside the box overtop it and flutter in the wind. Two ospreys stand guard, one at each end of the nest. They eye me sharply as I gaze up at them in wonder. Santiago starts munching the grass, the first of the season, dressed with raindrops.

This is the paradox of scowling clouds and swollen rivers, of wind that bites and rain that spits: that we make ourselves vulnerable to the world, and it sustains us.

I was vaccinated in a city that had been looted the night before, where a police officer killed a man on a Sunday afternoon. I live pressed between that city and one where a trial is being staged for the death of another man at the hands of another officer. For more than a week, my phone erupts with stabbing, curfew alarms. I learn to turn it off at 9:00 p.m., at 7:00, at 6:00, so that the last sound that I hear before closing my eyes at night is not panic. The vaccine injected into my body is banned the morning after I receive it as doctors review the hospitalizations and death that it has caused. I begin to dream about charging animals and murderous men and severed limbs, waking with jaws that are stiff and temples that ache from nights of clenching against the expectation of harm. In the daytime, I cannot draw a full breath. It is unclear whether this is due to my asthma–to the damp and the cold and the pollen–or to the anxiety that fills me like a taut balloon. Santiago’s limp returns.

All of the forces of protection appear to have failed.

Several times each day, I massage Santi’s leg. I cannot see an injury, but when I caress his shoulder and his elbow, he is motionless and thoughtful. When I stop, he looks at me pleadingly. He prefers this method of healing to eschewing the adventure of a daily walk. I remember that for the first two and a half years of his life, he was confined to a cage. The risk of lameness seems not to trouble him as much as the certain death of remaining folded in upon himself.

So we go outside. We walk in a wood where a sunbeam shines upon a single daffodil as tiny balls of spring snow tumble from the clouds. We watch bufflehead ducks glide across a pond, their blacks and whites like flecks of a fine tweed billowing over a loch. We greet the loons who have returned to our neighborhood lake, and we begin, again, to be startled by great blue herons, as inconspicuous as shadows, who rise suddenly from the banks of creeks and take flight, their large wings loping across the firmament.

The verdict in the murder trial is coming, but I cannot bear to listen to the radio. For days, the same deadly stories air over and over again, on every program, hour after hour after hour, a poison poured into the ear and running down the neck. I think of a literature student who once asked me, bewildered, if our syllabus included any happy stories. I have come to wonder whether it is true, as I was taught, that a good story must include conflict. Santiago and I stroll past a house on an elegant parkway, and it takes a long moment for me to recognize that the cardboard images placed in the front windows are of people shooting at passers-by. At an intersection, we happen upon a man slunk down in the driver’s seat of his car, giving the middle finger to everyone he passes, his eyes squinting, his mouth set.

Early on a Sunday morning, Santiago and I drive to a nature preserve. The temperature has barely breached freezing, but the day is bright and warming. For over an hour, we walk on hills that are covered with faded wildflowers and flagged with a tree or two, hills that dip down into woods green with moss, with understory beginning to leaf, and to lakes where ducks rest on the water and snail shells litter the grass. The birds and the wind speak in chapel whispers. Horses are welcome here, and each time we run across fresh manure, Santiago stops to examine it, nosing at the mound with curiosity then touching it with the tip of his tongue and drawing its full scent up into his nostrils.

There is more than one way to respond to what life lays on our path.

When we complete the loop, we eat. It is Santiago’s first picnic. I choose a table in the shade, and he sits on the ground beside me. I’ve brought kibble, which I feed to him bit by bit, but as I unpack more food he places his front paws on the bench and quivers with excitement. I share with him a hard-boiled egg and some challah stuffed with feta cheese and garlic salt. I pour him cold water, and I drink hot tea from a thermos. The sweet things are saved for later: an orange, a cookie, dog treats. Other people are beginning to arrive at the park: a man with a camera, a couple with children. I slide the pack onto my back, and we begin walking again.

We hike another trail. Birches and sumacs lead to a rushing rivulet where chorus frogs are croaking. Santiago wants to race ahead, but I ask him to stop and to listen, to digest his meal as the day gleams. We walk slowly through cool woods and out into the sunshine, where the ground that horses have trod has become as soft as powder. I do not tell Santi when riders on two, white steeds pass behind us, at a distance, but I watch the way the bristles of last year’s meadow seem to brush at their stirrups. The prairie sky is wide and blue above the worn, gold curve of the earth. Dark-winged swallows amass in a solitary tree. As I stare at the horizon, tears rise in my throat and fill my eyes. I breathe and take into my body the beauty of the landscape and the animating force within it. I receive them, not like a vaccine that teaches the cells what to resist, but like a lover embracing what is real and imperishable, with a heart at peace in the expectation of tenderness.

In the yard at home, bloodroot petals open at last to the sun, and tiny blossoms of spring beauty follow. Trimming raspberry canes, I see my first bee. I sit on the front stoop in the sunshine with Santiago at my feet, and I watch the neighborhood children wheel up and down the street on bicycles and tricycles, in wagons and on scooters. A mother stands at the door of her house and calls to a girl to put on her helmet.

Jury deliberation takes two days, and when the verdict comes, I stream it live. With people around the world, I watch the face of a man as he is convicted of murder. I do not know the name for the emotion that I feel. The over-stretched balloon of my anxiety deflates, but there is no relief. I weep alone in my house, my satisfaction unprotected from profound sadness.

When Santiago and I walk in this season, it is sometimes beside grassland black with soot or forest hacked and piled with brush. Death is present. But it is not separate from life, a thing to be resisted. Life and death are lovers, vulnerable to one another. Sunlight will reach the forest floor; it will grow greener, and the prairie will grow taller. Use of the vaccine injected into my arm will resume. After a slow wait, I will enjoy the sweetness of talking with neighbors in my yard.

On a windy day, Santiago finds a fairy house in a wood. When I open the door hinged to the hollow at the base of the tree, I find a rock upon which someone has painted the words, “Ice Cream Solves Everything.” On a warm day, Santi pulls me up a county road and down to an island park, where a man gathering trash smiles and says, “Happy Earth Day!” On a day when we are stalking groundhogs, a truck slows beside us, and I clench, expecting harm. It stops, and an old man with a ruined eye calls out the window, “I didn’t mean to scare you. My dog likes to see other dogs.” She is auburn, and her name is Wrinkles. She sits on the passenger seat and shimmers in the sunlight, and Santi embraces her with his barking.

On a cold day, he pulls me to a dead end on a suburban street. Before us, a lake backs up to private property: modest yards with shy gardens, and chairs set up to watch the sunrise over the water. A barred owl is calling. Its voice is low and summery underneath the riotous chirping of red-winged blackbirds. A woodpecker provides percussion. Canada geese begin to honk. We desire no protection from the life that we find here.

To see Santiago at his first picnic, and other scenes from a vulnerable life, visit the gallery.

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Holy

Holy Week arrives on the wind. Above the front yard, the branches of a white pine bend and shudder in the tempest. Morning after morning, the yard is dense with pods knocked loose from Kentucky coffee trees. Each one is nearly the size of my hand: a wine-colored pouch filled with smooth, brown seeds. I gather hundreds at a time, composting some, bagging others to be hauled away, saving a few seeds in a jar. Air that flutters like a moth on a warm, June lawn blows in. The next day, winter’s gelid fingers snatch it back. Icicles hang from the hidden wounds of trees.

On Tuesday, the windchill is well below freezing. Santiago and I walk. I wear jackets in layers and a knit cap on my head. We hike beside railroad tracks where an office chair has been abandoned. Its torn vinyl shimmers gold in the sunlight, and when a gust catches it, it swivels. Last year’s grass is flaxen and withered and shining in the strong, spring light. Santi stops to roll in it, standing upright and dusty and satisfied when he is through. Below us is the bright green turf of an athletic field, its line markings fresh in yellow and white. A woman is there, at the edge of a baseball diamond, flying a kite. The kite is shaped like a fish and has streamers for a tail. It is half-drowning in the waves.

I steer Santiago to the shelter of neighborhood streets. There, porches are furnished with comfortable old chairs, books are on offer in cabinets at the sidewalk, and a guitar has been made into a bird house overlooking a garden. We walk past a park where children in face masks are running off their recess. But Santi loves a good headwind; he watches the children then cuts through the trees around which they are playing and heads for the lake. The gale off the water is unremitting–and cold. Santiago speeds up to press against it, pulling me like a sled-load behind him. The wind seems to batter from every direction, now and then catching the lobe of an ear in its teeth. In this way it is like Santi when he wrestles with me, and encountering it is the same boisterous and merry delight. We watch a man in a sweatsuit out on a spit of land in the middle of the lake. He has a cell phone to his ear. Around his legs, his pale, gray pants flap and a shiny black lab gambols. The man and the dog are flecks on the vista, the ground beneath their feet almost invisible as all around them dark waves dance a tarantella.

If there is something more hallowed than this–the wind and the office chair and the dust and the kite and the waves and the man and the dog and our happiness–I do not know what it is. When Santiago and I finally reach the curve in the shoreline that leads us away from the sharpest squalls, we are greeted by a patch of pale purple crocuses. They are the first wild blooms I’ve seen this year.

“This is my body, given for you…”

In the evening, I am online with friends. They huddle on a couch as the sky turns to sapphire behind them. I turn on a lamp to light my face. We eat and drink and talk. I tell them that my brother-in-law’s best friend will die that night of COVID. “I thought,” he said to me, “that it would be a minor character, someone in the chorus.” A wife of their acquaintance is host to a merciless cancer. Our shoulders sag; our eyes are bleak. They ask about my writing, if it is going well, and I don’t know how to answer. I only know how to work by numbers: payroll hours, salary, word count. But I feel certain that there is another way. That is what I am seeking. We sing Lenten hymns, and the sound of our voices mingles and then climbs back inside us to where sacred things live. It sits down and closes its eyes and smiles.

Before I met Santiago, I was ignorant of spring. It was to me the season of filthy snow and dreary woods, of twigs scattered on dead lawns in the bone-chilling rain, the season of nothingness that preceded the season of dizzying heat. But Santi takes me walking in spring shoes. As Easter Sunday nears, we visit a tiny lake secreted between a railroad corridor and rows of beautiful, old houses. Some have Tudor peaks and some have Spanish tiles and one has a different clay mask hanging from each window. A hawk coasts in the sky above our heads among branches that sparkle white in the late morning light. As Santi and I approach the water, a Canada goose slips from the shade of tree roots on the bank and into the lake. She honks her displeasure again and again, like she has been forced onto the shoulder in traffic, and then settles into floating silently on the blue bobbles, among the weathered cattails.

We wander back to the sidewalks. When Santiago stops to pee on boulevard trees, I gaze up at buds about to release their tiny clutches in kaleidoscopes of leaf and blossom. Suddenly, at the sidelong limit of our vision, there is a flash of fur. We turn our heads. Santi aims his snout at a brick bungalow. He makes no noise but tugs at the leash. Underneath an arbor vitae, there is trembling. We have interrupted two rabbits at their spring business. Put off by our prurience, they hop away with great alacrity, slipping through a chain link fence into a little pool of backyard sunshine. Their courtship resumes. There is leaping and hunching and shimmying. We move on.

It is Maundy Thursday, and, in the evening, I watch a church service from my couch. Santiago is beside me. When the foot-washing occurs in the sanctuary, I go to the kitchen and run a cloth under warm tap water. I daub it with lavender soap. Santi breathes lightly as I caress his body, washing away what the wind has lodged in his fur. He withholds one foot, tucked under his torso, too tired to move. I give him a treat and turn back to the screen. The priest and the deacons remove their colorful stoles and strip the chancel. They take away the candles and the Bible and the pillows for kneeling at the remnants of the rood screen. They fold the altar cloths and cart them away. They drape the cross in black. The church looks like spring: like barren soil and empty branches and dusty stones. And then, for a long time, the priest crouches and washes the altar. I can’t explain why this makes me cry.

There is no such thing as a season of nothingness.

On Good Friday, the sky is overcast and the wind has not subsided. Santiago and I go out before breakfast. Among houses bearded with a scruff of unleafed ivy, we meet a man with an Alaskan Malamute, traveling on the opposite side of the street. The dog is large and white, his tail curled over his back. The man is slight. He stares straight ahead and pulls the dog behind him. The dog walks on tiptoes and glances back at us. His feet look too small. The teetering is how I know that his neck is wound with a collar made to choke him–a collar that is choking him. We pass a miniature greenhouse inside of which there are no plants, just a replica of a human skull, its jaws open in a howl. Underneath an awning, a woman stands at her front door drinking from a mug. She nods at us. The wind tears at lilies in a pot. A man exits the gate of a crooked fence and eyes Santiago warily. Santi rushes to smell him, wagging his tail, and the man softens. “Hey, guy,” he murmurs. Just before we reach home, I notice a painted stone at the edge of the sidewalk. It has never been there before. The words face passers-by.

The stone says, “Show Love.”

I walk a farmers’ market with a friend on Holy Saturday. All of the vendors want to talk: about bee hives and salsa verde and how ducks lay eggs. There is sunshine, and the wind calms. We order take-out and eat on the deck behind my house. Santiago lies on a blanket beside us, and my friend feeds him the crusts of her sandwich, grilled in butter.

“Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Santi and I wake early on Easter morning. We hurry ourselves and arrive at the Mississippi at dawn. Clouds with sooty hems hang over an empty bench high upon a hillside. And then they part. Robins are everywhere: scuttering across the paths, flying from tree to tree, singing. There is a splash beside a cottonwood ringed with the buck-tooth markings of a beaver, and Santiago and I watch a brown head glide downstream, ripples of water trailing each cheek. The sun climbs, orange and mild. Three men are working beside picnic shelters, picking up trash. They wish us a good morning, and they shout and swear and laugh at each other. Hooded mergansers, regal as scepters, have returned to the river, and gold finches have shrugged off their winter drab and flit among the rustling tallgrass in lemon yellow dress. Beside a post at the border of the playground, as Santi stalks groundhog burrows, I find a golden egg.

On a narrow trail, a woman approaches us. She has long, gray hair and is accompanied by a dog. The dog is small and quiet and pulling on the leash that tethers her to the woman. Santiago is distracted by a scent in the grass. I explain our situation.

“He’s friendly,” I call out.

The woman tosses her leash to the ground. The dogs trot to each other and nose a greeting.

“The Lord is risen!”

“The Lord is risen, indeed. Alleluia!”

Late in the morning, I drive. The sun shines over the freeway. I bring to my mother and father chocolate and jelly beans. Mom and I sit in the kitchen and chat as Dad hands us plates of pretzels and egg rolls, tortilla chips and black bean dip. He tends to the food sizzling on the stove and baking in the oven, and Mom shows me the Ukrainian egg she made decades ago, the quilt she completed last year. In August, she and my dad will have been married for sixty years. I ask them to tell me things that I don’t know: about when she taught riding in the mountains of Colorado and when he was picked up in a Mustang for a job interview and had to figure out what to eat at a golf club. Mom recounts how her foot was pierced by a shaft of wood; she shows me the wound. When I get home, I text my brother and sister the stories. All of our lives we have been part of a narrative that happened above our heads.

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child…Then I shall understand fully, even as I have been understood.”

After Easter, the wind shifts. It rains. Earthworms by the score stretch in the gutters, and plastic eggs lie scattered in the parks, emptied of trinkets and sweets and abandoned. In a swamp, red-winged blackbirds chirr from atop the smooth skeletons of trees, and a muskrat has begun to fashion a new hut from old cattails. It showers and it drizzles and it pours, and Santiago and I walk between the raindrops, welcoming back the wood ducks and the herons. Pussy willow catkins go bushy like caterpillars. Cool air rises from the ground along with starbursts of Virginia waterleaf and needles of lily of the valley. One early morning, Santi and I board a fishing dock. I watch a man with a cigarette between his lips haul up a sunfish while Santi stares between the rails at three whitetail deer in the woods across the water. At the corners of household gardens, yellow flags of forsythia blossoms wave. A squirrel climbs a tree with a slice of pepperoni pizza in his mouth.

If there is something more hallowed than this, I do not know what it is. I turn on the computer, and I write.

Miss Santiago? You can find him rolling in the spring grass in the gallery.

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Noise

On a Monday morning, I step in dog poop. I am wearing new walking shoes that are the color of pipestone. They resist water and hug the arches of my feet. It is their second outing. Santiago has sprung at a little, red morsel the size of a rabbit’s liver on an abandoned ball field. Like nearly everything that he snatches from the ground with his mouth, the morsel is impossible to identify amid the noise of grass and leaves and litter that surrounds it. My shout to “Drop it!” yields nothing. In an effort to sweep the thing from his mouth, I rein in his leash with one hand and accidentally release from the other the sack that I am carrying of Santi’s own excrement. As he wrests away from me to enjoy his trash treat, I step on the sack. I hear it split. I look down and see the contents climbing up the midsole of my shoe.

Spring has been like this–with splats that keep coming. The air duct cleaning has to be rescheduled because asbestos is discovered in a ninety-five-year-old vent and has to be remediated. As I am thinking about friable fibers dangling in the gust of the furnace blower, I am informed of two, extended family members whose cancer has returned. I hear of people in their fifties, in their teens who have been vaccinated, and I become confused and anxious about when it will be my turn. One morning, dear friends text that their cat will be dying that day. And then the county releases its plan to divide my town in two with light rail running a block from my home. My mind is crowded with unpleasant thoughts, and a day comes when I can’t get dressed. Santiago and I do not go walking. I sleep, and I cry.

I tug Santi to the bleachers and sit down. I am muttering at him crossly as I grab a twig from the ground and begin cleaning my shoe. The spring warmth is tender, though the wind is chilly. I wear a light jacket and fingerless mittens, and my head is bare. On the ground nearby, yellow blooms of the year’s first dandelions are mirroring the sun. Overhead, creamy, white clouds have been stirred into a blue sky, and a young beech tree has sprouted little fists of leaves ready to unfurl. Santiago waits for me, sniffing the air over the creek behind us, where a couple of wood ducks are hiding in the scrub. It is a beautiful day. I turn down my muttering. I breathe. Stuffing the stick, the mess that I’ve created, and the broken sack into another that I’ve pulled from my pocket, I resume walking with my best friend. We walk until the din in my head is replaced by the song of the woodpeckers and the red-winged blackbirds who flit among the trees beside the long, still water.

When we return to the car, I rub Santiago’s jowls, give him a snack, and harness him into the back seat. I thank him for our time together. I check the bottom of my shoe. It’s as clean as the grass.

In the week before I step on the sack, on the morning after I’ve cried all day, I awaken to snow. It has fallen like sugar and lace, sweetening the lawns and festooning the trees. I am reminded of the folly of worrying about the future when the world routinely changes overnight. I take Santiago with me to a large park before breakfast. Everything is silver and white: empty picnic tables and upturned fishing boats; arching footbridges and cattails in their crooked, winter stacks; geese on the water beside the shrinking lake ice; birch trees in the wood. The fresh snow absorbs sound. Even my bootfalls and the jingle of Santiago’s tags are hushed. As we approach a bend in the path, though, I hear a man’s voice. He comes into view, and his jacket and cap look like raw gold against the landscape drained of all but the subtlest colors. He is alone. He is looking at the top of a tree. He has been chatting with a blackbird. He greets us.

“It’s a beautiful day,” he says.

Santiago is ecstatic. It is perfect scenting weather: the day is warming, making the snow cool and wet and full of fragrance. Santi ignores the squirrel tracks that run from tree to tree but is keen on what may be a skunk. For a long while, he is in pursuit of a coyote or a fox who is in pursuit of a deer–at least, that is the story that I read in the tracks. And deep into the woods, both Santi and I are captivated when we happen upon a holiday parade: a man and a woman attired in bright green St. Patrick’s Day hats and sweatshirts who are walking beside an Irish setter. Santiago barks and barks, providing curbside applause for the spectacle. On the way home, I stop at a strip mall shop and buy a cake doughnut with white icing and green sprinkles.

The splats come, but so do the robins. Santiago gets his first tick of the season, and shipping begins anew on the Mississippi River. When we walk in the neighborhood, we see snow shovels on front porches and paper tulips in front windows. Tulip shoots are coming up in our gardens. Where I split my knee on the ice, the scab falls off, and my winter skin stops itching. One day, I run into a neighbor I haven’t seen in over a year and he hugs me on the sidewalk. I flinch; I have embraced only Santi since the lockdown a year ago. But it’s nice. My neighbor says that the mayor and the county commissioner have to hear from people about the light rail plan, that he will be calling them. A decade ago, they wanted to raze his home and the fox den in the yard and the hundred-year-old pines and run the rail there, in the alley behind my house. I go inside and pick up a rosary. I start praying for everyone I know who needs healing.

My neighbors to the north are away, and the quiet is astonishing. I cannot stop listening to it. In our old, urban neighborhood, the lots are close. The rattle of wagons on the abutting driveway, the whirr of bikes, the thud of a basketball, the shouts and laughs and screams of the children who live in the house and play in the yard next door are but five feet from my kitchen sink. The absence of power tools and carpools and cousins and all of the noises that a family of six makes is like my own retreat. I feel less cross.

Santiago and I drive to our favorite park after the snow melts. On the approach, I see from my window a Canada goose standing atop a beaver dam with the morning sun glowing behind him. It’s a beautiful day. Santi loops around fragrant junipers and red-painted bird houses to the dog corral for a look-see and then to a trail we’ve never been on before. It is bright but cold, and I regret not having brought gloves. I watch a couple of deer leap across the scrub and disappear into the woods while Santi is sniffing a fence. The roaring of the March wind among the trees is at times so loud that, once, I turn to see if there is a motorized vehicle on the path behind us. I stop and record the sound: God pushing spring forward.

At home that day, I redistribute sodden leaves throughout the gardens, lightening the load where autumn winds had dealt unfairly and applying the mulch where the soil is bare. When I straighten my back, my arms around a wad of leaves like a sack of potatoes, I am startled to be looking into the eyes of a child. He is my neighbor to the south, standing on the retaining wall beside me. He has to go to pre-school soon, he says, and he doesn’t want to learn because it takes too long and is tiring. His sister appears. She is older. When I ask why she isn’t in school, she says that she has a runny nose and a cough. The muttering in my mind begins again.

Rain comes. It comes when I expect snow, and this, too, causes muttering. It is too warm. But the future can’t be expected. The earth is no longer frozen, and the rain soaks into the soil, and it is good. Santiago–having peed quickly in the yard and submitted to a toweling–has retired to the bed. I stack breakfast dishes in the sink and make tea. The radio broadcasts news of a shooting at a grocery store a thousand miles away. My cousin shops there. I text her. She is all right. She worries that she will know one of the dead. My sister says that a rainy day is a good one for not worrying. I tell my cousin that I love her and turn off the radio.

When the rain slows to a drizzle, I dress and Santiago and I go walking. We are in a wood, on a winding dirt path high above a pond. The sleeves of my raincoat swish against my sides, and drops fall upon my hat with the almost imperceptible plink of tiny needles hitting a hard floor. In the water below us, geese are courting: the chasing and honking, flapping and splashing rise up the banks like the noise of young lovers crashing down an amusement park flume. Above us, too, the bird song is clamorous–the screech of blue jays and the whistle of chickadees–and where seed has been left, cardinals are feeding beside red and gray squirrels. We pass a few other people, walking in the damp air with their hoods up. And then the rain evaporates. The moss on the forest floor has become a vivid green.

The county wanted to run light rail here, too. As if getting somewhere else were very important.

At home, green leaves of bloodroot and prairie smoke are coming up in the gardens among the soft noise of fallen leaves faded to dun. I make a batch of buttermilk biscuits for supper. I fold and re-fold the dough so that they will be high and flaky, and I form them with a large cutter that was once my grandmother’s. Santiago and I share one, warm from the oven, as the rain comes down again. It is the only noise I hear.

To see a lost winter hat and a milk carton bird house, an Easter basket and frogs at tea, as well as other pleasures of spring creeping in, visit the gallery.

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Help

In a dream, I run into a friend. She is tall, with serious eyes that fall into the furrow of her frown and then leap above the laughter of her cheeks, bouncing as on a trampoline as she thinks. She is dressed in dramatic plaids: a shirt and a matching cloak in blocks of vivid color that swirl around her. It has been over a year since we have seen each other. We embrace. Without preamble, I begin to sob in her arms: tears like the juice of a bruised fruit, surprised by touch.

I did not know, I think, that I missed this.

After breakfast, Santiago naps in a sunbeam on the bed. The light climbs in past white shutters and casts against the wall a dark green shadow of Mary, the mother of God. She is carved from wood, a foot tall, standing atop the night table. Over her pressed palms, her eyes are open to the world. In a few days, this pellucid hour that we have been calling eight o’ clock we will call nine, wrangling time into a new shape to suit our desire to be busy late into the day.

As Santiago snores, I read scripture and pray. I am anxious. I have changed the trajectory of my outer life, but my inner life lags behind on the old route. Absent a job, I fill my days with substitutes–scheduling an air duct cleaning, completing an insurance review, scrubbing hard water deposits from the faucets–in part to be prudent and in part to maintain my share of tedium. I feel guilty about my freedom, nervously reminding myself of the years that I worked two jobs, four jobs at a time; looking around the house at my second-hand furniture; knowing that I eschewed the costs of marriage and children and vacations, but unable to ignore the fact that my family could afford to help me buy an education, a car, a house. I write to legislators. I attend online lectures that are curiously depleting, so that I consider whether cameras might, as some have believed, truly steal souls. The world seems, not broken, but put together wrong: as if God had given us Tab B and we jammed it into Slot A. If I knew how to help, I might be like Mary: at peace with my eyes wide open. If I knew how to help, I might be like Santi: free, with the morning sun streaking my jowls.

Santiago and I explore little in winter. It can be hard to see where trails run in the snow or, if they are paved, to know whether they will be covered with ice or salt. But temperatures have been far above average–as if we lived four hundred miles south of here. We have seen swans floating on the river and heard cardinals singing in the treetops. Hawks fly low over our heads in the suburbs, and joggers are attired in shorts. Inside the house, shamrocks are unfolding in a pot, while on the streets, children ride their bicycles, drivers speed, and ambulances blare their sirens. Sidewalks are littered with shards of glass, plastic bags, chicken bones. Recklessness has returned.

And so, on a Friday morning, Santiago and I visit a park that we have never been to before. The sky is filled with dirty blue clouds that shift underneath a pale, yellow sun. The same hues wash over the land, where snow retreats from mud and withered grass beside a black and blue river. Santiago wears a duct tape boot. He has not made it through the season without a cracked paw pad. Every day, I dress the wound, and then we walk.

The needles under the pine trees at the edge of the park are soft beneath our feet. Santiago sniffs at the smells released by the warming earth, the signatures of those who sheltered here over the winter. We walk to a lighthouse that we have seen only from the other side of the river. There are red rose petals scattered along the trail in the thinning snow, and to be beside this structure–blue and white like a piece of china–is like being inside an enchanted mirror. As we wander, I stop to look at a wide, gray statue against the low, brooding sky and, later, the words, “I’m sorry” carved into a wooden bench. There are curving paths that balloon out and return to hug the river that underscores the city skyline. There is a torn kite in a tree, and a man on a bike taking photographs, and an array of stuffed animals near the beach where a boy drowned last fall. I consider the multitude of bears, the furry monkeys, the smiling frog, the pigtailed girl, the vase of popcorn, all of them lined up beside a boulder, the snow still hunched at their feet and the cold water at their backs. It touches me: this gesture of childlike grace, this tiny host of angels who will not forget the one who is gone, who will guide to safety those who remain behind, who will provide help for the sorrow that cannot be helped.

The clouds blow away. After walking the neighborhood that surrounds the park, Santiago and I cross the street and rest on a rocky beach. An elderly couple passing slowly waves at us, smiling under their hats and behind their masks. I sit on a driftwood log and order take-out: a biscuit stuffed with egg, tomato, and herbs. I’ll share it with Santi. His face is turned toward the sun. I don’t feel anxious.

It has been a hard season. Lent arrived. I stopped eating chocolate and my friends began attending funerals. There were three last month, and another is coming. I have family members who are in chronic pain. A friend texts to say that stress is making her hair fall out. We are making ourselves capable of freedom, of turning our feet to new paths. It hurts.

Driving home with the warm biscuit in a paper bag, I take an unfamiliar turn and am startled to see three lanes of cars coming toward me. The street that runs two ways further west is, apparently, one-way here. I pull over to the curb while a white-haired woman honks at me repeatedly. My confusion is like that of geese in the middle of a road, to whom the same frenzied bullying is applied, the noise triggering panic but providing no direction. The woman continues to honk long after I am out of traffic and have ceased moving, and she pulls up beside me, shaking her finger and shouting something behind her window. I look at her and shake my head in puzzlement.

“How are you helping?” I ask quietly.

Like Santiago, I am healing from a late winter wound. On a day when the sun was brilliant, creating an imperceptible swish of water atop old ice, I slipped at an intersection. It seemed as if the world went black and then as if my limbs were splayed in more than four directions. But Santiago stayed where I told him to, despite my having lost hold of his leash. And my overalls did not tear and soaked up the blood without complaint. We continued walking. There were candy canes still hung in a boulevard tree, and a mail carrier stopped to pat Santi’s head. I found a good book in a Little Free Library. And in the middle of a shady block, I watched a small, gray-haired woman crawling up the front steps of a house, muttering sadly.

“Do you need help?”

She was trying to put a mis-delivered envelope into the mail slot beside the front door. The steps were covered with ice and had no railing. I took the envelope from her. Santiago jumped around in a bid to play with the woman, so that I spoke sharply to him as I did my own crawling, one hand clutching the envelope, the other tugging at his leash, the blood on my knee not yet fully clotted. I was a little taller than the old woman. My arm reached the slot, even in a crouch.

We expect it to be easy to move from winter to spring, but it isn’t. It’s a hard season.

On Sunday, Santiago and I walk at a nature preserve. The sun shines and the ice slicks that remain along the path are melting. The air smells faintly of both rot and nascent greening. A muddy new trail has been cut higher up the bank where the swamp is perpetually flooded. We take it and are surprised, at last, to find ourselves at a busy county road. The trail does not loop.

We turn around. When we are near the flooded pass once more, where a “TRAIL CLOSED” sign is half sunk in grainy ice, a woman approaches from behind on the path. She is running and calling a name over and over again. She is not wearing walking shoes or a hat or a jacket.

“Who have you lost?” I ask.

A seven-year-old boy.

We begin looking, too, Santiago and I, peering hard into the stands of trees. The woman runs ahead of us, calling, and I hear something, across the swamp: a sliding note that gets swallowed by the wind. The woman keeps running and calling, and again I hear the sing-song reply.

“Do you hear that?” I call to her.

She stops. I point backwards, across the frozen water. Santiago sniffs at felled trees beside the path. The woman calls and the sweet soprano whisper comes again, drifting among the trees and over the swamp. The woman turns and runs behind us once more.

“Oh, thank God!” she cries.

Freedom is not a reckless wandering. It requires something: not innocence or maturity, not bravery or wisdom, but the grace of God.

The days continue clear and warm. In the mornings, I watch the sun rise. In the evenings, I talk with friends. Santiago and I walk in the neighborhood, past cats sunning themselves on front stoops next to faded Christmas decorations. People I love get vaccinated. The robins arrive. And Santiago has his first roll in the grass, outside city hall. A man stops to admire his joy.

When most of the snow has melted from the yard, I gather the pods that have fallen from the Kentucky coffee trees in winter’s wind. I put them on the compost pile and use a shovel to turn them in among the citrus rinds and egg shells and onion butts that have lain atop the ice and fed the occasional rabbit and raccoon. I prune a white cedar branch outside the living room window that broke in a heavy snow. I unwrap the boxwood beside the backyard deck. Its leaves are glossy and full. And among the soggy oak and maple leaves that cover the gardens, there are peeks of violets and pachysandra and White Nancy.

That evening, the sky goes gray and clears its throat. Santiago comes to me in the kitchen, where I am washing dishes at the sink. He does not cry, but he clings to me. I hang the dish rag and invite him to the couch. I light candles, and we lie beneath a blanket as hail lands like fear and anger and sorrow against the roof and siding. Santi is balled up beneath my crooked knees. His breathing is slow and even. I reach my hand beneath the blanket and caress his ears, rub my palm against the coarse fur of his neck where the skin bunches. I cannot expect him to be with me more than another five years. When he returns to the freedom of dust, I want to remember what he felt like. That will be a hard season.

To watch the snow melt, and to see Santiago’s first grass bath of the year, visit the gallery.

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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.

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Survival

I lie in bed alone, listening to winter. My eyes are closed. The bedroom door is closed. The windows are closed. The world has settled in, is only just this big: the shape of the room that floats beyond flannel sheets, just out of the reach of dreams. A hollow rasping near the foot of the bed is the furnace beginning to heat the house for the day. When it cycles off in the darkness, I can hear the faint, high-pitched whoosh of a small humidifier sitting atop the dresser. I listen for car engines, for the cold crunch of rubber tires on packed snow. Though it is a weekday morning, there is nothing. Suddenly, a crow importunes, and the cackle and whine of its call is swallowed, just as suddenly, by the silence. I listen to my own breathing.

Santiago is downstairs, on the couch, where he sleeps when he is very tired. We had a long walk yesterday. The day before that, he stood in the middle of an empty dog park, the sun grinning fitfully far above his head in a sky full of shifting clouds. He faced the gate, scanned the horizon, and barked: once, twice, three times, pausing between vocalizations. His body was motionless, all of his energy gathered like platelets to a wound in pricked ears, a quivering nose, yearning eyes, alert to the dog who would answer his call to come and play. There was no response. He hung his head and walked to a bench. Sniffed it. Dug at the snow underneath it. Peed on it. And then, along a gently sloping path outside the fence she came: a year-old, shepherd-collie mix, small-boned and eager, watching Santiago as she walked beside a tall man with a crooked gait and kind eyes. He was a former mail carrier. We talked about the boon of leggings for keeping snow out of one’s boots. He told me who to call to get the literary journal that had been lost at the post office for a month. The dogs played.

You never know when a prayer will be answered.

Santiago has another new friend. She has moved in across the street. Her ears are tall and elegant. She is younger than Santi, still a puppy, with a frame like his, but slighter. She likes wrestling and chasing and is not afraid of Santiago’s power and flamboyance. On the morning of their last date, I received a text–“Sweetie could be ready early”–moments after Santiago had stood on our bed and barked a demand to go outside, so that it seemed that the dogs were communicating with one another, in whatever way they have that we humans do not comprehend.

I harnessed Santiago into the back seat of the car that morning and turned the key in the ignition. Winter’s silence followed. It was 3ºF. The battery had not survived the cold. I unbuckled our seat belts and we left the car in the driveway, trotting as quickly as we could–over ice-mogulled sidewalks, and around fenced-off railroad tracks, with Santiago stopping once to leave a deposit that I had to stoop to retrieve–the ten blocks to the park where Sweetie awaited. When he saw her, Santi gave a great cry of longing, of joy strangled and desperate to be unleashed. The dogs had the corral to themselves. They played in the bright, cold snow until thirst overtook Santiago, silver-browed now, his vigor no longer as eternal as it once had seemed.

This is how we recharge ourselves: by walking out to where our dreams can find us.

I tried turning over the engine once each day, and when the quietude of the season remained unbroken, I smiled at the great blessing of having no need of a car. I spent the weekend scribbling notes in an online writing class, reading a story referenced in a magazine article, napping between meals: the open-ended unaccomplishments of a person at work on being someone rather than doing something. When Monday arrived, I called for a jumpstart and took the car to a shop. Santi and I wandered the neighborhood while the battery was being replaced. We discovered front porches kitted with cheery chairs, competing Christmas spectacles in neighboring yards, and shop windows stacked with new novels and vintage furniture and cupcakes. Santiago got a treat from the auto shop clerk before we left.

The ice came, as it does every winter now, weeks ago: a warm, slushy snow that froze in the subsequent cold. Unshovelled sidewalks have become a glaze of cratered boot prints; intermittently plowed park paths sport a sheen of snow drift that melts and then re-freezes; and snowy, forest footpaths have been trampled to a startling lubriciousness. I have learned to trot with Santiago in winter, to take his speed rather than trying to rein him back to mine. It is counter-intuitive: the notion of traveling more quickly rather than more slowly over hazardous ice. But experience has taught me not to resist the conditions, to move with the ice the way that one moves down a hill, acquiescing to momentum. I am more likely to splay or topple when a plodding heel hits a slick surface than I am when my toes land lightly and dance forward. This dancing makes us more svelte in the colder months, Santiago and I, than we are in the fat heat of the summer.

We walk around a lake basin one day. Someone has speared broken egg shells onto a couple of cattails. It is like happening upon a cairn or a cave painting or a shard of cut stone. Who made this thing and what was in her heart? I tug Santiago into the snowy marsh to get a better look, but the cattails are too tall for me to see inside the egg cups. I wonder if they are filled with bird seed. Above us, the sky is white. Around us, the cattails and the woods have the sepia tint of an old photograph. We walk. A shock of red dogwood branches frames a winding, snow-covered creek. Where the water breaks free from icy banks, beneath a footbridge, it trickles blackly over green stones. Santiago is sniffing where mallards often huddle. The scuffling of our feet stilled, I listen. The creek burbles softly, and the water that constitutes my body heeds it and begins to flow with the same, calm eddying… A chickadee sings, and then a junco. A woodpecker knocks. We walk for an hour and see no one. I wonder how others survive.

I spent the last week of January doing final edits on the memoir of a man in his ninth decade of life. His childhood roommate was a grandfather who fled the pogroms in Russia. In high school, he worked at his uncle’s junkyard and made out with his girlfriends on the balcony of the movie theater he managed. He walked half a mile from the bus stop to his college campus because he couldn’t afford to live in the dorms. He joined the Army and was stationed in Germany, where he drank wine in the shadow of castles on the Rhine River; he was terrified that WWIII had begun when Russia invaded Hungary. He has had two wives and three careers and one bankruptcy. He spent an entire winter in a contagion ward after contracting hepatitis from an unclean dental instrument. When the Angel of Mercy came to him, he says, he fought like hell. The sound of the laughter that punctuates his stories is like the sound of footsteps dancing across ice.

Santiago and I walk before breakfast one morning and watch the sun rise. The sky is a grubby blue behind dark rooftops limned with pale pink clouds. I do not know how long it has been since I have seen even so tepid a dawning. By the time that we are back in our kitchen, the sun has disappeared again. Day after day after day after day, the clouds smother us.

But Santiago and I do not resist. We walk with glad, bare heads in the dangerous winter warmth, under the blanket of clouds. These are the days that have been given to us. I open the windows of the house to wave out the stale air of fried eggs and pine-scented candles and frustration. Then I shut them and call Santi to the couch. He settles in against my side, underneath a blanket as heavy as a pelt. I settle in against a pillow, book in hand. He snores. I read. This is what clouds are for.

For too long, I disappeared each day like the winter sun, returning to the house at dusk with enough money to pay a woman to let Santi out to piss while I was gone. It was not a way to live.

On Sunday, it is cloudy. It is so warm that the thick ice on the sidewalks has gone mushy. It is snowing. The flakes are large and desultory, so widely spaced that I forget that they are falling until I notice them on my coat sleeve and am astonished by their loveliness. Santiago watches a man and a boy gliding across a hockey rink with two-handled shovels, sweeping away the snowfall. We are walking on streets we’ve never traversed before. The houses change from block to block–from rows of little bungalows to sleek modern facades oriented to the light, to a house on stilts two stories high built into a steep wood–so that one can watch history unfurl like a scroll as we pass.

Santiago marks the plowed snow at the ends of driveways, and I consider adornments in the yards: a heavy-shouldered wicker moose; great, wrought iron chimes; a sailing ship affixed beside a house number; an angel lifting a star to a rooftop. In front of a wooden swing, a sculpted buck has lost one antler. He is wearing a bright orange bow and strings of Mardi Gras beads. He looks at us with a weathered eye.

Who has placed this here, and what is in her heart?

To see the buck, the egg shells and other homespun art, as well as Sweetie and Santi out for a walk, visit the gallery.

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New

On Epiphany, Santiago and I walk in a place where we have never been. We have come a long distance. We leave the car and follow a trail beside which a star hangs from a tree. It is made of gingerbread, decorated with icing, and hung with a pipe cleaner. The sky is a faint blue mottled by clouds, and the day is warm: before evening, it will be above freezing. We circle the park twice, walking a paved outer path where women chat with each other as they jog, and a snow-packed inner trail where poplars are nailed with nest boxes and a bench overlooks a silent, silver pond. Every half mile or so, another Christmas ornament dangles from a tree branch.

Santiago is happy. We meet a pit bull pup–a beautiful black and white female with eyes as large and dark as the new moon. The man and woman who attend her are gray-haired and wiry, with backs that bend forward a little stiffly. They smile as Santi pulls toward their girl, barking. “He just wants to say hello!” declares the man, and we are relieved that he has understood us. The dogs still themselves for a moment, paws planted on the pavement, inhaling one another’s scent, their eyes wide and thoughtful. Then the beautiful pup lowers her front paws, wags her tail, and feints back, and Santiago barks with joy, leaping at her with the twisted spine that is his canine cartwheel. When their wrestling tangles our leashes, we unloop them and move on. Santi and I are getting tired. A wooden sign that reads, “The Hug Tree” is tied with brown twine around a coppiced red maple. There are boot prints in the snow beside it. I tug Santiago off the path and press my cheek against the bark. I let the two trunks hold me.

We are in this place because Santiago has a lump. It appeared last year: so small that I thought it might be a swollen tick–dead but not dislodged. It is near the base of his arching tail, nestled beneath fur that makes it discoverable only by caresses. Months ago, I sent photos to Dr. Megan.

“Watch it,” she said.

For weeks at a time, the little nub seemed to be gone, perhaps because my fingers did not wish to find it. But after I turned in my keys to the office in December, my petting hands worried it once more, and it seemed larger, and I wondered if it might be impossible for me to live without restiveness, if ruts in my mind had been permanently worn–by alarm clocks and traffic jams and emails with exclamation points and colleagues practiced in deceit–into paths that led always to anxiety, anger, and fear, if, without those things, I had no idea what to do with my days. I made an appointment for Santiago and me to see Dr. Megan at her clinic.

On the first day of my life without a job, Santiago and I walked in a familiar park. The sky was stuffed with clouds and smelled of vehicle exhaust, and a sudden tantrum of snow fell across our backs as we embarked on the day’s journey. The trails that we followed in warmer months now dead-ended, time and again, into groomed ski trails. Signs indicated that bike paths in the woods were no longer open, but the tread of tires cut deeply into the snow. It was difficult to know which way to go. We exited the park and walked along the railroad tracks. The sun came out.

With no authority to conform to, I wonder when to get out of bed in the morning. I wonder how many meals I should eat in a day. I ask myself what I want to wear, and I remind myself that I am the only person in the audience.

The day that Santiago and I walked along the train route, we ate for the first time at the trailhead shelter. A group of adults sat on benches out front, listening to ski instruction. The snow around the facility was icy and gray. I ordered a BLT with fries from a sliding window in the side of the building, and the clerk gave Santiago a bowl of water after the dog put his paws on the counter and begged for what he could smell. I chose a table at the far end of the patio where we could watch skiers walk slowly up a gentle slope and then come rushing down it. The table had bits of food stuck in the latticework, and I had to keep Santi from licking at frozen ketchup on the concrete beneath it. Fire pits flared around us and, though it was midday, lines strung around the property were dotted with lit bulbs. Santi accepted french fries gracefully but barked with sharp lust each time I shared a bite of bacon. My fingers were cold. There was no need to go home to attend to anything at all.

It was exhilarating.

Santiago loves visiting. He has never been to Dr. Megan’s office. She has mended him at church and in our living room, and he goes to a local clinic for shots. When we arrive at the little building far down the freeway from where we live, he is eager to sniff the pot filled with evergreen branches outside the front door, to wander the perimeter of the waiting room, to interrogate the shelf stacked with toothpaste and treats, and the chairs devoted to guardians of cats. Dr. Megan pulls down her mask when she enters the exam room, showing Santi her face, and he stops barking. She checks his teeth, his heart, his paws. It is hard to find the lump because he is prancing. She takes him away, shaves a bit of fur, and aspirates it.

Daylight in this new year is like a dirty sheet. Every morning there is haze, and most days the clouds never part. I wear a mask to keep from taking grimy air into my asthmatic lungs. The temperature is ten or fifteen degrees above average, barely falling when night comes. It is like my first winter with Santiago, when paths were mostly dry and we rarely got snow in our eyes. We were coming to the end of drought years then.

And yet, the frost is bewitching. When the winter sun shines weakly in a pale blue sky, ice like white down glints fuzzily on curling vines and last year’s berries and wands of mullein and hyssop as Santiago tromps through the snow and pokes his snout into groundhog dens. When clouds stifle light and sound, and all is colorless and quiet, a brittle twig breaks in the wood, and suddenly we see where a whitetail deer is hiding. Inside the house, it is easy to imagine that nothing ever changes, that all paths follow ruts that dead-end at gloom and disappointment. But the same is not true outside. Outside, the world is always new.

When Dr. Megan calls in the evening, her voice is tired.

“It was a long day,” she says.

The news is good: the tissue in the lump was not obviously malignant. But it was a needle biopsy, not a surgical one.

“Watch it,” she says.

And, because she has been working all day, she asks, “What happened at the Capitol?”

The ice on lakes is said to be unpredictable this year: thick enough to bear weight mere inches from where it is not. One day, Santiago picks up a scent at the edge of a lake, and he wants to pursue it across an expanse of ice, to a hillock of cattails. I watch this desiring–the way he holds it in his body and in his eyes, not pulling, but wishing–and I relent. There are sled marks on the snow that covers the surface of the lake, and boot prints, and we are barely five feet from shore, but I move cautiously. Santi is giddy. He heads for the patch of vegetation in the middle of the frozen water. When we arrive, he dives into the amber leaves, burying his muzzle in the snow beneath them.

It is said that muskrats, who build their homes of mud and cattails, weaken the ice. I do not have an ice pick, and Santiago does not know how to swim. When he is satisfied with his tussling, he guides me past trees that overhang the shore. I want to go the other way, where I think the water underneath our feet is less deep. But I acquiesce. The dog climbs a steep bank of slippery snow, anchoring me as I scramble up, and we find ourselves beside an apartment building parking lot. We are pleased.

I quit my job because the familiar path dead-ended, because leaving my house for nine and a half hours each day to do someone else’s work was a rut, an old way of thinking that served only to create anxiety, anger, and fear.

The fog is thick the morning that Santiago and I arrive at a park to find two men training a dog. The men are dressed in wool jackets and hunting caps and mittens. The dog is large and dark and sits hunched in the snow in front of a border of frosted spruce and pines. One of the men makes his way across the expanse to retrieve the pup, who does not appear to respond to calls.

There are spectacular lean-tos in the woods that day, and the frost is beautiful on goldenrod galls. The dumpsters at the zoo are open-lidded and filled with straw and dung, and Santiago investigates them with a fidgeting delight. The sunlight behind gnarled tree branches is shallow and yellow-gray and lovely. On a quiet hillside, a child’s tennis shoe rests on the arm of a bench.

When the man with the big mitts reaches the dog–reeling in a tether as he hikes through the snow–she shakes her shoulders and the form of her body is revealed. She is not a dog at all. She is a golden eagle. The falconer grasps her by her feet and holds her upside down for a moment, to protect himself, and she shakes her wings with discontent. There is brutality and risk in this learning. I tug Santiago to a stop and wait for the bird’s next flight.

Her reach is greater than the height of the falconer. Every day, without fail, the world surprises.

To see photos of a frosty winter and a magnificent bird, visit the gallery.

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Habit

Sunrise holds back now. I lie in bed listening to the whisper of Santiago’s breath in the darkness. The scrape of air entering his nostrils and the silence that follows–the repetition like a chant–constitutes the day’s first prayer. One by one, I invite into my mind the people I love, petitioning for their care as I was taught to do as a child. I name, too, those who trouble me, for this is the hour when my heart is soft. I name the roof that is close above our heads, the walk that we will take after sunrise, the cinnamon rolls that we will share at breakfast, both of us gleeful and gluttonous.

Santi senses my consciousness. His chanting ceases. He lifts his head and releases two, pitiful sobs. I reach my hand out from under the bedclothes and feel for his chest. It is narrow and muscled and covered with fur that is short and velvety. When I find it, I begin to scratch. He lays his jowl against the bed once more and sighs: another prayer.

I get out of bed and throw up a sash. Most years by this time, the windows are sealed with frost, but day after day this December, the temperature is high, as if we lived much farther south. A bit of night blows out of the room and a cardinal sings as I sit in a rocking chair and read scripture. I am trying to establish a new habit. Santiago slumbers once more. He will not rouse himself until I have brushed my teeth and done a few stretches; until I have drawn the living room curtains and rummaged for a hat and gloves; until I have jangled his harness and called his name again and again and opened the front door to entice him. Then, at last, he will blink away his dreams and trot down the stairs, eager to greet the dawn. But not before that time. Winter has its rhythm.

On the third Sunday in Advent, we visit the dam. There is a pearl-gray wash over the landscape, which is unruffled save for those few Sunday morning men who walk alone in flannel shirts and hooded eyes. I point to a beaver swimming in the river, her tail ruddering and leaving a slender wedge of wake, but we are on a distant bank and, though he pauses, I’m not sure that Santiago sees her. We walk for two hours, through the papery remains of the summer prairie and through woods where the dignity of naked trees–with their paunchy trunks and fungi like jewels, their flung skeins of half-sunk roots and branches decorated with buttons of hopeful buds, their furrowed bark and the wounds from which new branches grow as wild as sparklers on the Fourth of July–is as heart-stoppingly beautiful as the vaunted green habit of spring.

Santiago tracks, zigzagging back and forth along the trails. I am tugged to piles of brush in search of mice, to fields that smell of deer. We come to a wooden footbridge, and though we know it very well, the dog takes a step or two across its arching frame and sinks into a crouch. His pace slows and he moves fearfully, his body like that of a soldier crawling through enemy territory. The temperature is just below freezing. Beneath us, the wooden planks pop and the metal supports ring, the noises disorienting. What had been familiar and firm suddenly seems eerie and frightful. I watch Santiago, and a rumble of worry echoes inside me, so that with each crack I imagine a plank beneath our feet snapping.

When we get to the other side, on a beach upstream, Santi pads through the soft, dry sand and runs his nose thoughtfully along a freshly gnawed tree surrounded by wood chips. There is more than one way to see.

On the Monday before Thanksgiving, I resigned from my job. Like wind shaking fruits from a tree, the convulsions of the year shook loose from what has been ordinary and expected the life that I want to live instead. I have no truck with freeway traffic. The work clothes that I prefer are pocketed overalls and dusty boots. To labor in a cubicle where the sky cannot find me has been to betray a friendship. I have just three more days to office.

I am crossing the wailing bridge. I am eyeball to the gap between the slats, looking at the winter black river and its brittle layer of ice. I am judging the patch of rust on my car, listening to the flutter of the furnace. I am awaiting an insurance card and sitting on a couch whose torn cushions are dressed with laundered blankets. There is no paycheck ahead, no work but what I create for myself.

A couple of weeks ago, Santiago and I walked at a nature preserve: a small, favorite place tucked between apartment buildings and an air field. The morning sun cast orange light across the highest trees in the wood, and where there was grass, it was the beautiful blue that results from an application of frost. We trod the familiar boardwalk, through a dry marsh as alien as a moonscape. In this park where Santi has avidly hunted splashing muskrats, there were, among the bleached stalks of cattails, some patches of gray ice. But the waters had mostly receded, and we looked upon humps of hard soil, bits of formerly submerged vegetation, and dead trees–all sparkling like tinsel. For the first time in two years, we walked parts of the boardwalk that had been flooded. I watched woodpeckers knock at trees. Santiago examined a perfect set of tiny, wet footprints that climbed up one side of the boardwalk and lingered for a stroll before climbing down the other.

The landscape changes and we adjust. Life persists.

It is forty-three degrees Fahrenheit at 7:30 in the morning on December 23rd, when Santiago and I begin our walk. We have left our car near a hockey rink. The ice within the boards gleams with a layer of water, and blades of grass poke through its surface. The sun is not yet entirely over the horizon, and the clouds are as thick as a wool muffler, making the neighborhood’s seasonal decorations blink with a gentle vividness. In a warmly lit room with glass walls, a white tree is hung with glittering ornaments. Beside a back yard dog house, a pup made of yellow bulbs wears an illuminated red cap on his head. There are window boxes dressed in pine and bows, and a Little Free Library offers a dish of peppermint candies. In one plot, every tree and eave is wrapped with lights, and the garden is planted with candy canes. I watch two squirrels run across a telephone wire. The air smells of wood smoke and cedar and fabric softener.

A young man and woman cross the road. They are dressed in scarves and knit caps. They walk at an easy pace. Santiago stops to piss on a fire hydrant and the couple passes us.

“The calm before the storm,” the man says, and he smiles.

When Santi and I return to the hockey rink, two men are grooming the ice, one with a broom, the other with a rake. Santiago watches them for a long time, the water splashing at their feet.

The cold is coming.

At home, I make French toast from old cardamom bread. I smother it with powered sugar and maple syrup and stud it with clementine chunks and sliced almonds, and Santiago and I eat gleefully and gluttonously.

My family has adjusted its holiday traditions. I walked around a garden with my parents this week, watching my father adjust my mother’s mask to clear her fogging glasses. They gave me a thumb drive of family photos to keep me company on Christmas Day. At a wildlife sanctuary with my sister’s family, I laughed when my niece accidentally doused me in feed corn and watched in wonder as a yearling stuck his nose through a chain link fence to lick her hand. I delivered what presents I could and stood in line to ship the rest. Until the day that I turn in my office computer, I don’t need to be anywhere but home.

The snow begins to fall: the first since October. It is wet and heavy. As the temperature drops it will become ice. I put on a sweater and clear what is on the ground, even as colder snow continues to plummet and blow, the landscape now as fluid as a river. By evening, it is ten degrees. On Christmas Eve, it will be below zero.

The weather was warm a couple of days ago, at the winter solstice. People were out in the park where Santi and I were walking. There were families with preschoolers on little bicycles and women jogging in pairs. There were men on fat tires in the woods and a group of four young boys on scooters at the bottom of a slip of pavement. The boys were wheeling themselves, one-footed, up the hill. The smallest one trailed the others, and he looked at me and Santiago as we crossed his path.

“That was really fun!” he said, his face as bright as a comet.

With his hand, he made a diving gesture.

“Shwoop!” he explained.

That day, Santiago and I walked on a high ridge amid towering red pines. We had never been there before, had never imagined that this vista existed in a place so familiar to us. When we got home, I indulged a habit, reaching for a notebook and pen. I wrote about the peeling plates of cinnamon bark on the trees and the ladders of broken branches describing their age; about the tufts of white-tailed deer fur that lay among the milkweed pods and about the dead deer who lay between the freeway and a pile of brush several yards away; about the tents hidden between the horsetail and the railroad tracks, and the graffiti under the bridge by the abandoned plant; about the sky that darkened and the oak leaves that began to whirl and advance like angry spirits; about the dock pushed out from shore to hibernate in ice as pretty as green marble; about the little boy who asked me to watch him on his second descent and about all of the boys who came shwooping down the hill, their stocking caps flying behind them.

Writing is how I see. And I expect that it will hold.

For the joys of the season, including including deer and ornaments and orange-tinted dawns, visit the gallery. Merry Christmas!

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Belief

Santiago’s muscles tense as he spots a Sasquatch crossing the field. The hominin is slouching through dry grass near the marshy ground where cattails sway in the wind beside silver maples that have lost their leaves. The morning sky is a moody blue shot through with sunrise, and underneath it, the Sasquatch is dark and unmoving. Santi has slowed his trot along the trail, and his eyes do not leave the shaggy, broad-chested figure–a cut-out that someone has newly placed here in a park that we frequent. After a long moment, the dog judges that there is no reason that Bigfoot should not be here. He moves on: under a willow and across a short, gray boardwalk, up a hillside dotted with Canada geese as thick as cloves on a spiced orange, to the edge of a pond where hooded mergansers are passing through once more, the males as startling to behold with their bright, white, fright wigs as any cryptid could be.

It is a strange season. On the Saturday after the presidential election, it is more than sixty degrees Fahrenheit when I awake–a dozen degrees above the average high for early November. I dress in darkness, and as daylight begins to press up from the ground, Santiago and I drive to the falls. After months of aridity, the air is heavy and wet and redolent of mud and fallen leaves and organic rot: to breathe it is to be embraced by a friend who has been away and has been missed more deeply than had been expected. Over the rock face, the water that pours into a shallow creek is slender. The day, too, is still slight, and cloudy. There is trash lolling at the overlook, and around the park the grass has thinned to naked soil during this year when people have been forced to carry outside their agitation and unknowingness. Santiago moves eagerly, sniffing at walls and fences, at the brush along the trail, listening for the songs of ancient souls who have lived in and enchanted this place.

We descend several flights of stairs and follow the creek. The woods are quiet. Where a boardwalk is being laid, the trail is closed, so that we cross back and forth over the black rope of water. Its talk is sleepy. On a tree stump beside the trail, someone has draped a checked shirt: the lost-and-found courtesy of hikers. A man in shorts is wading in the water, busy at something. He has gray hair and is frowning. We watch as he grabs at a topple of trees that the creek splashes through, but Santiago tugs, then, toward the light that has pulled open the sky up ahead, where the creek meets the river. We pass a wooden bench that hugs the bluff and has been spray-painted with the word, “PEACE.”

And then we reach the Mississippi.

The sand beneath our feet gives. It is speckled with rocks and I long to beach-comb, but Santi is tracking at an energetic pace, following the scents up to the sandstone cliff where generations of people have carved their initials in what looks like marble: a rumbling deep brown and safflower gold and pale sand, streak upon streak marked with hearts and the hope for eternity. Upstream, water tumbles over a dam that once generated power.

The light is extraordinary: day has come.

When we wander back to the picnic grounds, Santiago rolls on his back in that runty grass, atop a few fallen leaves, and I spy a tick on his belly. I pull it, and it comes with a little blood. In spite of the warmth, everyone is getting ready for winter. Santi and I take the slow route home, along the river. He sits on the back seat, watching the world pass by. Underneath an enormous bridge painted in state university colors, several scullers are out, propelling their boats downstream under what is now a sunny sky. There is no knowing anymore when or whether the river will freeze.

At home in the late morning, I rake leaves into the garden beds around the yard. Though my little plot of land has neither oaks nor maples, those leaves fall ankle deep across my property. They are a gift, more abundant than the slim leaves of my Kentucky coffee trees. They provide warmth for vegetation needing shelter, especially during those cold seasons that refuse to lend a blanket of snow. I rake them gently off the grass and up around the white cedar, the white pine, these leaves of neighboring trees that will room the blessed bugs, the creatures that pollinate our plants and decompose our trash. I spread them over shady soil where violets grow, and ferns, where the earth needs protection from Santiago’s tramping and scraping. I listen to people up and down the block burn the bugs to death with screaming blowers, watch them pack the leaves for transport, leaving deserts of cut stems and bare ground to skirt their houses. In the spring, big trucks will arrive at their curbs to lay poison on the ground where children walk.

We have lost the knowledge of how dirt comes to be, and of what it gives to us.

My parents and I eat apple pie that Saturday, after the presidency is called, four days after election day. It is, by that time, well over seventy degrees: thirty degrees above average. We accept the warmth with thanks, eating on the back deck, for it is too dangerous to breathe the same air indoors. The apples are tart–grown in the soil across the street, delivered by generous neighbors, and mellowed with whisky and dark brown sugar. I’ve used pastry flour in the pie crust, which has given it a fine crumble. Each slice is topped with vanilla bean ice cream and salted caramel sauce. We eat in the knowledge that we will not be gathering for Thanksgiving, not with each other, not with my siblings, not with my nephews, my niece, my great-niece. Where we sit in the warm air and mild sunshine, we can hear the sirens of ambulances hurtling toward a nearby hospital. Medical choppers roar above the trees. In another week, the line of vehicles whose drivers await COVID tests will reach nearly to my back door, eight blocks from the testing site. A nurse will say on the radio that over each shift she treats a person struggling to breathe who says that he cannot have the coronavirus because it is not real.

It has always been dangerous to be inside our houses, where our own thoughts grow, unchecked, like a cancer.

By Wednesday, there is snow again: three or four inches weighted with water. It is impossible to know what story the landscape intends to tell this year. When I open my blinds to the day, I see that someone has plowed the sidewalk in front of my house and the end of my driveway: the heaviest snow. I try to thank one neighbor and then another, but neither of them is responsible. Someone whose name I do not know has visited this kindness upon all of us, in the dark of morning, without desire for recognition.

It is Armistice Day. I leave my office laptop on the kitchen bar late in the morning while Santiago and I go to the war memorial. There are always people there at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month to remember when, a century ago, soldiers stopped fighting and believed with glad and weary hearts that war would never trouble the world again.

Santi is wearing boots for the first time. I am trying to save him from the de-icing salt that has been scattered on sidewalks and streets, that irritates his paws until he chews holes in them for relief. I do not want the pads of his feet to become like the barren, gray ruts beside the sidewalks where once grass and other plants thrived. The boots are too big, but the next smallest size caused Santiago to lick sorrowfully at his trotters after he tried them in the house. And so he walks like a circus clown, heels slapping at the slush as the rounded, red toes point up at the air, half empty. He makes a go of it, in spite of this awkward attire, gleefully tugging toward garbage cans and alleys, toward backyard dogs and corner shops. When we reach the memorial, we watch a man steer a white-haired woman in a wheelchair to the flag pole. She is covered with a blanket and wears dark sunglasses. We watch small children in bright coats gambol noisily upon granite benches. We watch a young woman with a pom at the tip of her knit cap silently snap a photograph.

The virus comes closer. People I know have it. People I know are putting in graves the bodies of people whom they have loved. There is crying in office meetings held on hard screens, far from arms that once might have widened with welcome and comfort. I have learned to walk away from the screens, to go to other rooms, to get down on my knees and sigh, and then to pray.

I exit my front door with Santiago one morning and see a rabbit, bunched and motionless, in the side garden. She will wait out the winter under my front stoop and back deck, decorating the snow with her tracks and leaving pellets for Santi to eat like holiday chocolates. In the evenings, I will beg him from the back door to resist that indulgence, my breath wreathing under the lamplight in the chilly air, and after he has gobbled what he wants, he will run up the stairs to the house, smiling, and beg for a treat before coming inside. He doesn’t see the rabbit this morning as he aims with impatient strength toward the driveway, toward the dawning of the new day.

Santiago is the color of winter. He is white and black like a birch tree, gray like a frozen pond. He is brown like a bare-armed forest, and the silver on his eyebrow is like a flake of falling snow. His joy is never-ending. He is emblematic of this time of hiddenness and quiet in the northern hemisphere, this time of muted colors and cold temperatures and stillness that are celebrated with lighted candy canes along a front walk and glittering balls hanging from a neighborhood pine; with blow-up snowmen and toy trains beneath a window box; with sparkling, white reindeer and Santas with black faces: this season of Advent, of good things coming.

We have never before gone all the way around our favorite lake in one jaunt, Santiago and I, but on a Saturday in November we do so. The mileage and how long it will take us are unknown to me at the start. I know that if we follow the bike trail, we will head too far west, away from the water, that there are places where we should travel the sidewalk and places where we should cut through the parks, that the lake, from time to time, will disappear behind plots of tall houses or lots of thick trees, and it will be difficult to know which trail hews closest to the shore. But when I park the car under a cloudy sky, Santiago leaps out and heads east, onto a segment of trail we’ve never walked before, precisely the segment we need to tramp in order to make our loop. We discovered it–this last three blocks–a couple of weeks ago. Santi has been purring in the back seat and now strains against the cold wind as I stop and lock the car doors. He is confident that the way will open before us.

The temperature hovers at freezing, and the docks are covered with snow. Goldfinches and sparrows flit and titter in tangles of woodbine and dormant grass among frosted silver milkweed pods, and creamy puffs of goldenrod. A handsome chickadee perches on a poplar whose buds are pretty beads against the white collar of the sky. On a boardwalk at the edge of the lake where cattails grow thick, someone has planted a pinwheel in the weathered, wooden railing. It is red, white, and blue. It spins in the wind.

I become warm as we walk, pulling off my hat and loosening my scarf. My head aches a little. We have not eaten breakfast, and I am hungry. And while Santiago finds a restroom at every turn, I am longing for one.

When we have walked for over an hour and are about as far away from our car as we will be, Santi peers down at the water around a painted red gate hung with a wreath. Below the banks of upturned canoes and snow-limned summer tables are choppy waves and bobbing waterfowl. Among them, all around the shoreline, are trumpeter swans. I have never seen them here before and do not recognize them at first. To me it looks as if hunks of icy snow are floating among the geese and the ducks and the gulls. But those fat, feathered rumps tip down from the act of underwater grazing to reveal long, curved necks at the other end and beaks as black and shiny as polished river stones. The swans are stoic as the geese occasionally raise their chests and flap their wings and call out warnings. I stare at the trumpeters, at these large, white birds and their pearly gray youth, not quite grown. It has taken a hundred and fifty years to restore them to these waters. To a grateful heart, they are like unicorns.

It is too late when I recall why we don’t enter the park woods by the short cut. The footpath is harrowingly steep and studded with roots and rocks, impossible to navigate as a biped with a hurrying, sure-footed dog. And on this day, it is covered with slippery snow. I let go of Santiago’s leash. He jogs down the hill and turns around to wait for me. The safest way to get to the bottom of the slope is to do as he has done: to run. Hesitancy can only result in a heel going out in front of me. I suck in my breath and aim for a tree that might hold me if momentum wants to hurl me to the ground. It is awkward. The slush moves me and the tree stops me, my palms against it, elbows splayed.

And then we are there: in the snow-covered woods, not far from where we left the car. I breathe in the beings all around us: the hardwoods and conifers, the shy birds in their branches, the frozen earth beneath our feet, the smell of wood smoke, the unseen lake. I pick up Santiago’s leash and we move on. It takes us two hours and twenty minutes to complete the loop: 6.2 miles. When we stand beside the car once more, Santi’s legs and belly are spattered with dirt and snowmelt.

I lay in the passenger seat two sprigs of spruce I found lying beside the trail . I believe that they will look nice in a vase. Christmas is coming.

To see Bigfoot, and other beings who fill the heart with wonder and gratitude, visit the gallery. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.