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.