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Vacation

I am on vacation, so we travel south, to Iowa, to visit a cousin. It takes three CDs, played through twice each, to get to her house. Santiago is harnessed in the back seat. He lays his chin on the arm rest beside me as I drive, his eyes closed. The music is soft. White fog clouds the far horizon, and there is hoarfrost on the trees that hover, ghost-like, at the edges of fields stubbled with corn stalks. I have to remind myself that these areas of flat land covered with snow are not lakes. They are farms: a monotony of agriculture where once wildflowers stood seven feet tall. English settlers described “oceans of grass.”

At a rest stop, Santiago barks at a caramel-colored terrier stretching his legs on the sidewalk. Travelers disembark and talk quietly with their companions. They hold doors for strangers. Santi pulls me past the low-slung building of toilets and drinking fountains and vending machines that dispense hot chocolate into little paper cups. We trot to where picnic tables are heaped with snow. No one has left a boot print here. A profusion of deer scat lies tantalizingly beneath a tree. Santiago sniffs at the black pellets and stares into a small woods.

I love the hospitality of this place, its simple cheer. I never feel lost at a rest stop.

Just after midday, we enter Ames. Santiago knows the street that we are heading for, knows the house, knows to enter the back door. Inside, the air is sweet with roasted tomatoes and freshly baked corn bread. The dining room walls are hung with pictures of barns. We are smiled upon. We spend a long evening visiting, and when Santi and I go to bed, it is in a guest room that is always decorated for Christmas. Santi crowds me to the edge of the mattress. We sleep soundly.

On a Friday morning, we wander the university campus. Snowflakes are falling like shooting stars: faintly, infrequently, as if they were a long way off, though they are there on the breast of my coat, on the tassels of my scarf, cold and wet on my cheek. Santiago jumps over snowbanks to sniff at landscaping, crawling under shrubs and considering the possibility of following a man into the horticulture building. Under the grow lights in the greenhouse, the corn is tall.

A silent campanile rises beside a path where students walk slowly and alone. They do not hold cell phones. They do not look at me or at Santiago. They wear colorless clothing and watch the sidewalk unspool in front of their feet. They are suffering from something.

We make our way to two trumpeter swans who are floating in little black opals of water on Lake LaVerne. A Canada goose stands beside one of them on a platform of ice, motionless and alert, like a bodyguard who has fallen in love with his charge. Under an arch of tree branches that frame the scene, Santiago stops, and together we watch them: the swans, the geese, the bench beside the water gathering snow. On the other side of the lake, the students march, impassive.

When we tell them that we are educating them for the real world, what world do we mean?

While Santiago naps among the Santas and the creches, my cousin and I lunch at our favorite restaurant. We order a big green salad and a grilled cheese sandwich so buttery that it crunches, and we talk for a long while after paying the bill. Under a still-gray sky, the morning snow is dripping off awnings up and down the business corridor. We browse idly in a couple of shops, then settle in at a candy store for gelato and coffee and more talking. Our parking meter expires.

At a purveyor of housewares, a young woman with Iowa-blond hair and smart blue eyes shows us washable silicon swabs and tells us how to clean candle wax from glass jars. We talk about how we had to be taught to create garbage–tin cans and milk jugs and paper towels and dry mop heads–and fill the land with it. She says that she is committed to second-hand clothes this year. We share our habits of smoothing aluminum foil and paper sacks to be used again. The woman says that she tells her grandmother, “We’re learning to live how you did.”

It is late in the afternoon when we get to the toy store. I buy polished moss agates, as many as will fit in a drawstring bag. When I bring the bag to the register, the shop woman sends me back to the bins to stuff it until it won’t close. When she is satisfied, she rings up my sale. The agates will be my touchstones. I will put them in a bowl on my coffee table at home, and when I look at them, when I cup them in my hands, I will remember all the things I love about the world.

Santi and I drive north again under a blue sky. Starlings break around a silver silo. A pick-up truck races along a country road, past a white farm house with a colonnaded porch. A hand-painted sign on a slight hill says that this freeway is the route that monarch butterflies travel. We stop at the visitor center on the state border. Santi pees on some garbage cans. I get lefse, rhubarb pie and a wildflower map to go. I explain to an Indian woman what lefse is.

In the morning, I lie against my bed pillows and watch the sky change from indigo to robin’s egg to worn denim. It takes an hour. From time to time, I nod off. When the day has stood on its toes and yawned, I get up.

Before my vacation is over, Santiago and I go to the dam. I let him prowl on the beach without his leash. He finds again the beaver carcass that was already mostly leather in October. He takes it between his teeth from under the snow and shakes it until I shout at him to drop it. He runs to the exposed roots of a tree that shelters life and pokes his snout in the crevasses, hunting.

Santi once met a woman at a bus shelter. She called him over to where she sat on a bench and took his face in her hands and kissed him on the mouth. She looked on his stripes and declared him “a tiger pit,” her favorite kind. He is like a tiger on this winter day at the beach, prowling on the cold sand and rock, beside snow-covered driftwood, standing on the frozen shore to gaze at the water splashing against it. As it pours over the dam, the river releases chunks of ice.

When Monday comes, I awake to an alarm: the sounds of men and women delivering what seems to them to be news. The sun is not yet up. As I drive to work, a car yanks out from a curb without signaling, and I swerve to avoid it. On the computer in my cubicle, I find scores of emails from people I’ll never talk with.

Santiago’s dog-sitter is on vacation. Just after midday, I leave the office. I get in the car. When I arrive home, I have just fifteen minutes to let the dog out into the frigid sunshine on the back deck, to scratch his jowls and give him a treat. It is good to be in the real world.

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Home

Winter has reasserted itself. The temperature is in the twenties Fahrenheit. Clouds hang across the sky like a white bed sheet over a picnic table fort. Along the sidewalks, warm, wet slush has become frozen moguls requiring a light foot. Tiny flecks of snow fall almost unseen.

Santiago and I are walking in our neighborhood. It is midday. As we pass an SUV parked at the curb, a flurry of sparrows emerges from underneath it, ruffling the air as the birds fly to a hedgerow across the street. Where the grass floods each spring–creating habitat for ducks who swim in the shade of the trees–a tiny skating rink has formed; someone has swept the snow from the ice and shoveled a path to it. Two, black crows caw and clack above a hill at the bottom of which lie plastic sleds in bright, childhood colors, abandoned.

It is a weekday. Traffic passes sporadically. We meet no dogs but for a Russell Terrier who watches us from atop a couch behind a picture window, her tail curled over her back. We do encounter our mail carrier. She climbs the dirty snow of the boulevard to greet us, her mail sack slung across her shoulder. Santi wags his tail then races to the end of his leash, bidding her to join him in inhaling the scents of home.

Winter makes walking in the neighborhood dodgy. Santiago is a skater: built close to the ground, with the grace of four feet as well as paws and claws that grip, he is untroubled by ice. But I wobble and topple and split on slippery surfaces, and Santi’s flesh is vulnerable to the de-icing salt scattered along the sidewalks and brining the streets. In the warmer months, we walk out our front door bound on foot for urban lakes, woodlands, and trails in every direction, but when it is cold, we get into the car, disembarking where parks offer the safety of trampled snow.

On a vacation day, we go to the prairie. We drive north for half an hour, moving fast along freeways lined with rectangular buildings, the landscape like a concrete garage filled with moldering boxes. Santiago sleeps on the back seat. As we near the park preserve–a place neither of us has ever been–barns begin to appear set back from the road, and white clapboard churches with stained glass windows, and horses wearing blankets, their rumps furry, their necks bowed to feeding troughs. Santiago sits up. He looks outside the car windows, twitching. A burble of excitement escapes his throat.

In the trailhead lot are two staff trucks and a car that looks as though it has sat there for many seasons, its body a weathered, white-silver. Santiago and I walk for ninety minutes, meeting only a young man in blaze yellow slowly grooming the trail on a snowmobile. The man nods his head as he passes. I raise my unleashed hand, which clutches a bag of dog poop. There are no garbage cans on the trails.

But first, we run. Santiago noses at horse-shoe prints in the snow and follows them at a mad pace, pulling me behind him on paths that have felt few feet, that are not hard-packed, through snow that sometimes necessitates wading. I will not let go of the leash for fear that a rider will appear around a bend in the woods and Santi will spook the horse. It doesn’t happen. We are alone with birch trees that stand tall and white and elegant against the white sky, like lace on a bridal gown, with bunches of dried red berries that hang from the sumacs like little bouquets in the hands of bridesmaids. A flock of white-breasted nuthatches rises up from branches above our heads, the dusty blue of their wings the only real color in this world of bark and snow. Our walking slows. We come upon a little crucifix nailed to a tree. It, too, is walnut and honey and white, like the woods, the paint all worn away. The quietude is like that of a bedroom at night, when the sounds of cars and televisions and conversations recede and suddenly you are listening to your own breathing, to the heft of your own sigh as you roll over your hip, where, after a while, you hear your own heart pumping, your own blood sloshing in your ears…

Somewhere in the big woods is a pileated woodpecker. We cannot see it. But the drumming of its beak against the trees carries as we trudge through the snow, moving farther and farther away from it until the sound becomes part of us, the sound of our blood. I am sweating, and my nose is running. Santiago continues to walk at a pace that is more canine than human, full of urgency and chase. At last, we climb a slope and emerge from the woods onto a savanna blown with icing sugar snow and decorated–one, two, three–by oak trees hung with copper leaves. Behind them, is prairie: wide, white earth with nothing but the remains of last summer’s grasses bristling at the horizon.

No place has ever been prettier.

Santiago is burying his nose in the snow. He caught a vole this week, on a cold, suburban sidewalk, slurping it into his mouth and refusing to give it back until I stuck my fingers between his teeth and batted it out. The vole’s fur was damp, and there was a bright red daub of blood on the snow. Now Santi is cocking his head at a clump of Indian grass and pointing.

He revels in the life that moves and breathes in the tallgrass, but he is not of the prairie. Santiago is from away, like the sparrows, not native to Minnesota. Nor is he purebred like the big bluestem that bends in the wind beside the oak trees. His parentage is unknown–“a mix” they called him at the shelter where we met, which is a way of saying that Santi hunts and he is handsome, that his strength is startling and his playfulness endearing, that he will not fetch a ball but will beg to go outside simply to get a treat for coming back in, that to be a mutt is to boast a combination of traits at their most efficient, symbiotic, and dazzling.

The white snow, after all, is but crystals that form around dirt in the air.

Santiago and I return home to a yard with a buckthorn amid the Kentucky coffee trees. It grew up where once there was an old foundation, where nothing else would take root in the soil. After supper, Santiago falls asleep, exhausted. When he begins to bark in his dream, I imagine that he has caught the horse at last.

This essay was originally posted in error without the final paragraph.

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Acceptance

For two nights, Santiago and I walk in sleet. It blows in for evening rush hour: an icy spittle dampening the light that flickers a little longer each day now before sinking below the horizon. The first night, I slather Santi’s paws with beeswax and we walk on city sidewalks, in slush and over ice, across dry pavement and through snow-melt puddles black in the shadows of Tudors and bungalows. The rain strikes at my face under the brim of my cap and uncovers mushy piles of dog poop left behind in the snow. Santiago stops to sniff at each one. The air is warm for winter (too warm), and it is pleasant to see the golden light that shines within the houses as we pass, across dining room tables and over fireplace mantels, and to think about our own supper and how it will satisfy our wet and weary limbs when we return home.

The second night, we walk in a park that is hushed, amid bare basswoods and maples, where the snow begins to fall in big, wet flakes that stick to my coat, to Santi’s fur, to the path that becomes more and more white underfoot. Fog paints the sky the palest lavender. Santiago watches mallards who huddle darkly, by the dozens, in the open water of a drainage pond. Little waves plash around the ice that has formed farther out. The ducks quack quietly. Snow comes down on the tamarack trees with their spines and bubbles, tiny cones still clinging to the branches like tea roses. Inside our house, the tea rose that had lost all of its leaves to winter is gaining them again beside a south-facing window, and the shamrock, too, has resurrected a few green leaves, and one, white bloom. Around the pond as dusk descends outside, old, brown mullein stalks and burdock prickles and forks of vervain seem to breathe deeply as the snowflakes fall, as if wiggling their toes in the hard soil, testing for spring.

Santiago’s paw is healing. I sent a photo of it to Dr. Megan: there is no longer any inflammation, no hint of a wart or a tumor or a bump. “I guess he had an antibiotic deficiency,” she quips. I accept this diagnosis, knowing that each winter when the snow is very cold and the sidewalks are warty with de-icing salt Santi stops and shakes his paws in the air as we walk, that his eyes over his shoulder plead for me to remove the chemical crystals that lodge between his toes and burn his flesh. At the local hospital where salt is cast like grass seed, the grass itself is singed each spring, dead for more than a foot’s width beside every slab of concrete sidewalk on the campus. Year after year, strips of new turf are laid down.

What becomes of the groundwater? It continues to burn, I suppose, like a puppy’s unprotected paw.

We went to a new park on MLK, Jr. Day. The sky was blue and the day stretched before us. We arrived at a visitor center that formed the joint between paths leading to a meditation garden in one direction and an amphitheater in another. A sign itemizing things banned from the grounds read, “Dogs.” I hadn’t realized that our destination was not a park but a nature preserve.

A girl who cared for Santiago one weekend when I was away told me that he had peed eleven times on one of their walks. It must have been a short walk. Santi loves to leave his scent behind, and urinating and defecating are often followed by the powerful and incessant kicking of his large paws. He is hard on natural habitat. In the metropolitan area where we live, that habitat is three percent of what it was before European settlement. Three percent is the amount of fat on the bodies of people who don’t float in the water.

When we re-plant our wild world, we won’t have to be wary of dogs. Until then, Santi and I play by the rules. I took him to two parks on the way home.

When we arrived back at our driveway, it was to find it clogged with a heap and tumble of snow and ice chunks. The mounds of shoveled snow on either side of it were pocked with boot marks and snow pant skids. I parked on the street and let Santi out of the car. In one of the neighboring yards, two families of kids were playing in hoods and scarves and mittens.

A family with foster kids used to live down the block. There were two black-haired Native American boys and a tiny, blond girl who toddled after them. Neighbors suspected that they were being abused and called the authorities, who did not appear to intervene. The children were judged to be out of control, leaving candy wrappers, for example, in the street. One neighbor recounted to me how he’d once told the oldest boy in a dark voice, “I can be your best friend, or your worst enemy.” The child was eight. He’d left a toy truck in the man’s yard.

I spent nine years walking through other people’s yards on my way to school when I was a kid. I had no concept of property, and no one ever told me that I was trespassing. All of my backyard sledding was done on a hill that wasn’t in my backyard. I was never invited; I just showed up.

No one was in the parks on MLK Day, though the sun was high and the slush that moved through the Mississippi made a light and peaceful sound as it passed. The blue spruces were laden with pretty, white snow, and Santi circled each one of them, sniffing the dog tracks and the low branches brushed by sheltering rabbits. He pulled me behind him like a sled dog, eager, not just for the exploration of the landscape, but for the exhilaration of hauling a load. My hiking boots were heavy in the snow. I was sweating within my layers of clothing. After a while, I let go of the leash.

Santiago did not run away immediately. He wandered as is his custom when loosed, trotting to this tree and that snow drift for a sniff, contented in his humble freedom. He evidenced no compulsion to chase or to examine any particular thing. What seemed, instead, to come over him like a devil whispering at his back was a delight in dashing farther away from me each time I called to him, at last, to “Come!” The louder I called out the command and the more vehemently I attached his full name to it–“Santiago F. Anderson!”–the more his rump flounced as he ran from me. It was, I think, his way of laughing. He was out of control. And when, after several rounds of this call and response, he decided to return, he did so from a great distance, running as fast as he could, gaining momentum as he aimed with full speed and weight directly into my knees.

I stood still and took the hit. I like it when he plays. Why should I want to control a wild thing?

Two of the neighborhood kids had finished their games by the time I grabbed my shovel to clean up the driveway. A big sister walked her little brother home, both of them moving stiffly in their snow pants as they passed. The debris in the driveway was compacted and heavy, and frozen, now, to the curb. As I chopped and lifted it, a father opened a front door and welcomed his children inside.

On exhibit now in the gallery: photos of winter wonder.

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Looks

Dr. Megan comes to the house to look at Santiago’s paw. He is excited and won’t stop circling the living room, casting his hips from side to side. He pulls from the threshold of the door the snake that keeps out the cold air and shakes it in his jaws until I scold him. Dropping it, he moves like he wants to be chased, like a quarterback watching for the ball, the rug humping up beneath his agile feet. His eyes are wide and black and happy. Dr. Megan moves the pottery on the coffee table so that his eager tail won’t whip it to the floor.

She takes his paws one by one into her hands, accustoming Santiago to her touch. “One foot, two foot, red foot, blue foot,” I intone. It is the Dr. Seussian mantra that I invoke when wiping mud from his paws. I hold him by his collar and scratch his chest as he lifts each foot like a pony at the farrier. Dr. Megan examines at last the blue foot–the injured paw–with the bright, white flashlight of her cell phone. She sees two things: a tiny, crusted lump that is likely a skin infection, and a fleshy, pink tag that may be a malignant tumor. It is hard to tell just by looking.

Santiago gets last treats and bounds upstairs to sleep on the bed. Dr. Megan and I eat supper: omelets, a green salad with raspberries and maple balsamic vinegar, squares of mint chocolate for dessert. We talk about the satisfaction of being older than we once were. Santi’s playfulness, Megan’s kindness, the comfort of crunchy radishes and crumbling curds of blue cheese dispel the fear of cancer. The night is calm.

The week, though, is hard. My days at the office are long. People I’ve been trying to reach since before Christmas awaken from their naps, all crying for attention at the same hour, and an office mate disappoints me with uncharacteristically bad behavior. Overnight, it snows again and again. I rise early each morning to shovel the driveway and clear a path for Santi to pee on a beleaguered rhododendron. Dr. Megan writes a prescription for the skin infection, but the pharmacy has only three of the fourteen pills needed. On Friday, just as the gray winds of a blizzard rough into town, my neighbor calls to say that the key that she has to my house has broken off in the lock. She was trying to give Santi a snack and a potty break. I drive home, and we wait in the embittering cold for forty minutes as a locksmith works the non-standard entry. He cuts his hand and it bleeds. Santiago is inside the house, barking.

Santiago is a handsome dog. He is a terrier-pointer mutt, with a back brindled like marble. The same black and brown markings butterfly across his smiling eyes and floppy ears, leaving a brilliantly white neck that bags into distinguished wrinkles and jowls. If I’ve kept him to a proper diet, his waist is narrow and his stance is athletic. His belly is pink–like mine–but with black spots like watercolor clouds.

None of this is what makes people hang from the windows of slowly moving cars and shout, “Good lookin’ dog!” That comes, I think, of the quintessentially canine exchange of his four feet upon the ground, of the way in which his rump bounces and his snout leads. It is spurred by his long tail ticking in time, like a metronome, as he trots. The perception that Santi is a “Beautiful dog!” is born of how he moves with focus and anticipation and the confidence that I will follow, tethered by leash, where the spirit within him leads. It is the human reaction to the enchantment that Santiago expresses in being alive.

We walked in the hour before Dr. Megan’s visit. Above a lake to the east, the sky was still day-lit blue and smeared with a single, white cloud. We jogged upon a snowy boardwalk, Santiago pausing to stare with lifted paw at the trees along the shore. Over the county road to the west, the horizon was orange behind the rooftops, and street lamps cast blue shadows across the snow. We met a man and a woman walking a jet black puppy no bigger than a mop head. Santiago pulled and barked. The couple hesitated.

“He’s friendly,” I called.

The woman’s reticence eased. She loosened her grip on the leash, and the dogs met nose to nose. There was tail-wagging. Then Santi feinted, growling.

“He’s playing,” I explained.

“He’s intimidating,” the woman said, tugging her own dog away.

The man watched silently, body tensed.

Having determined that the mop dog would not wrestle with him, Santiago ceased barking and moved on, pressing his nose into a snowbank.

“I’ll bet he’s a great guard dog,” the woman called out behind her, as if requesting forgiveness.

Santiago is a rotten guard dog. When the neighbor comes to visit, letting herself in, he lies voiceless upon his princess bed–a pink shag throw tossed upon the master bed–thumping his tail and willing her to come up and scratch his ears. He adores mail carriers, massages, and small children. Big dogs make him nervous. Men with golf clubs, fishing poles, and axes have made him turn in terror and run away, bleating.

You cannot tell by looking.

Before we arrived home to greet Dr. Megan that night, Santiago and I drew up to a sledding hill. Beautiful, old oaks stand at the top of it, and from among them, two saucers came skidding down the slope. The first held a child, about eleven years old, in a gray parka. It came rushing and spinning and made its way to the farthest reach of the snow before stopping, whereupon the child cast backwards upon the ground, arms and legs outstretched in triumphant exhaustion. The second sled held a smaller child, hooded and cautious. It slowed to a lightweight stop mid-hill.

Santiago watched all of this activity intently, his body stilled in the wading snow. He watched in the way that he watches drones and model airplanes and railroad cars that make strange noises: with a longing to chase and investigate. I held tightly to his leash, not wanting to frighten the children.

Suddenly, the child at the bottom of the hill sat up. From out of the parka, long blond hair tumbled free. Santiago leapt and barked.

The girl watched him and laughed.

“Oh, that’s so cute!” she said.

Santiago danced in the snow, pulling me toward her, then side-stepping and back-tracking in a tango of elation.

“He wants to play,” I explained, but my words were unnecessary. The girl could see. She laughed again as she got to her feet.

“That’s adorable!” she exclaimed.

Joy recognizing joy.

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Life

On a week night, Santiago and I walk at dusk in a park beside the freeway. The moon is full, and the lavender night eases down upon the landscape like a silk scarf. The red tail lights of workers heading home grow and recede beyond a chain link fence. It is cold, and we run on packed snow beneath drooping yellow willow tree branches. The ground is bare under stands of conifers, and Santiago inhales the scent of the earth there amid the needles and the pinecones. The darkness deepens, stripping the world of color. A frozen pond gleams black and silver in the moonlight. On nearby streets, three rabbits hop from yard to yard: a promise of abundance in the new year.

Some of our favorite parks are in these cast-off places: behind sound barriers and beside railroad tracks, under a canopy of telephone poles and electrical towers. Beneath the shallow snow here are stone ruins: a bandshell, a fountain, a gentle hillside staircase. It is a park that was built to be visited by automobile along a nascent highway that bloomed with lilacs in the spring. There are still some lilacs, purple and fragrant. But in time, the traffic encased the park amenities–the benches that crumbled and the walking paths that sprouted weeds–like a sarcophagus.

Trees that were planted when the park was new stretch stories into the night sky as Santiago and I walk before our supper. Something tacked to a wound in one of them catches my eye. Santi trots ahead of me on the leash, eager to hunt in the snowy banks around the pond before I tug him back into the warm car. As I bend and peer at something the size and shape of a baseball card, I force the dog to stop. Moonlight through the boughs of the tree makes the figure at the center of this little scrap of paper look emerald green. Around the white edges of the card are the words: “In loving memory…”

This is where we live: not in our cars, but among the trees.

On Saturday, the sky is blue: the dazzling cerulean of a winter day when the wind has as much capacity as the sun. I wear long underwear and a hat with earflaps. The pad on Santiago’s paw is toughening, but it continues to require protection when we walk. I tape him, and he is eager to leave the house, more eager still when he understands where the car is heading. He sits up in the back seat, humming with anticipation, and becomes impatient at a long light, laying his chin upon the arm rest with a sigh.

When we arrive at last, Santiago’s glee is extraordinary. The park is empty, and I drop the leash and watch the way his white bandage becomes dirty at the heel, gathering bits of grass and leaves as the dog runs and pees and kicks and scrapes and sniffs upon the paved paths and up and down the snowy hillsides. He tracks a scent beside a creek decorated with red dogwood, his rump in the air at the edge of the frozen water. The creek runs behind an industrial building, and the smell of chemicals threatens to give me a headache. Santiago once found the foreleg of a deer in this park. There is a baseball field and high stadium lights that peek over a slope next to bird houses on wooden posts. Human habitation is stamped all over this landscape. Santiago doesn’t judge. It is all resplendent to him. At the rotting foundation of a shed topped with corrugated iron, he pounces upon a mouse who disappears.

On Sunday, I discover that though Santiago’s paw pad is healing, there are blisters between his toes that are tender and red. When I minister to them, he turns his jaw to me and pulls his foot away, licking at it where I have just applied iodine. Still, we go out walking. It is how we live.

It’s a white day. Dozens of mallards huddle in the tributary that flows to the Mississippi. A few of them quack and flap as we pass. The river itself is filled with slow-moving slush that hisses when it bumps into the icy shore. Snow is coming. Ahead of us on the path appear a man in a hooded parka and a Sheltie at his side. She keeps turning around to look at Santi, her tail swishing. The man keeps yanking on her leash to keep moving. Santiago prances and whines. I walk him down to the beach where the ice sinks beneath our feet. Two black crows land upon on the prow of an island that has been partly submerged by high water.

After fifty minutes outdoors, my thighs are cold. I give Santi the tug toward the car, but he is not done. He leans away, and I acquiesce. We walk farther. For a long minute, I stop to watch and listen to a flock of cardinals, singing in a tree. I’ve never seen so many of them: their pert red crests, the soft brown breasts of the females, the sharp arrows of their tiny, orange beaks. Beside them, a downy woodpecker works at a tree. It is said that a flock of cardinals, so rarely seen together, hosts the souls of the departed.

We stay out for over an hour. After I harness Santi to his seat, I lock the car door and walk a short way to a tree. Tacked to it, are a knit cap, a matching scarf, and a sign.

“In memory of Elizabeth Sammons, who clothed the trees to keep people warm.”

Beside the tree is a cardboard box filled with caps, scarves, and blankets. The sign says to take one.

This is how we live: not inside our cars or our houses or our jobs, not inside our insecurities or our egos or our fears, not inside our fallible bodies, but outside in the elements, offering what we have, gleaming in the dusk, singing beside the running creeks. Whether or not we live on Earth, we live among the trees.

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Rest

For two days, Santiago worries his bandaged paw.  He licks and gnaws at the gauze and tape, desperate to get at the skin that aches and itches in those initial days of healing.  When he wiggles off the dressings, I start again with iodine soaks and beeswax balm, murmuring softly and scratching his chest as a distraction from the pain.  Each night, I cut off the dressing like a cast and allow him to stretch his toes.     

On Sunday afternoon, we nap:  Santiago on a chair warmed by a heating vent and me on the floor beside him, my cheek against an orange, shag pillow, my shoulder beneath a quilt worn ragged by the dog’s claws.  The soft bubbles of his breathing send me to sleep.  After supper, Santi retires once more, curling tightly around himself on the chair, his rear end sagging off the edge of the upholstery.  I light a candle and stitch a soft, flannel patch over a tear in my favorite pair of jeans.  The radio plays.  

This is how we mend. 

I cannot walk Santiago now as we would like, cannot spend two hours at a stretch outside as we have done in recent weeks, the winter so warm that rains erode the snow, and fish houses rest uneasily on high, thin, lake ice.  But each day, we go outside, sometimes only to creep upon the rabbits who graze at dusk under the buckthorn tree, beside the headstone where the bones of my cats are buried.  We go to buy more sports tape for the dressings, and we stop at a creek, animating the mallards who tread that cold, black water beneath a fat, three-quarter moon.  

One night, we drive through suburban streets after a short walk in wind that lashes at my face. Christmas lights down the block gleam as a doe and a yearling step steadily out of the darkness, one graceful footfall following the other, crossing before our bumper from one yard to the next like the shadows of angels.  We’ve left traffic on a thoroughfare two blocks away.  I stop the car,  and Santiago and I are breathless, watching.  For long moments, there is silence.  Then, within the confines of our little car, the dog bays:  a cry like love and anger and heartbreak.  The deer move on. 

We did not walk long upon tired feet, but we met the world, and it was enough.

When Santiago first steps outside this morning, the deck gives a hard, crystalline “Pop!”  He turns around, startled, in search of the source of the sound.  It is the first truly cold day of winter.  We will not walk long tonight.  As I place the gauze and the tape and the salve on the coffee table, Santi sits on the couch and calmly lifts his foot to my hand. 

Plumes of pink smoke rise from the cityscape in a pale blue sky as I leave for work.  A chickadee is singing his two-note love song somewhere just east of the front stoop.  Spring will come.  

For now, we rest.

To see a photo of Santiago in one of his bandages, visit the gallery.

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Joy

It is winter, so Santiago is injured. He began to limp last night, immediately upon touching pavement for an evening walk. Draping a rear paw across the cold air, he hobbled three-legged in the lamplight, not wanting to forfeit the pleasure of nosing at neighborhood snow banks and tree trunks and garbage cans daubed with scent. I took the favored paw in my hand and found what I find each year: a pad from which the top layer of skin had been stripped.

I am careful: we drive to parks most days and nights in this season, rather than strolling from home, to avoid the chemical salt that speckles sidewalks to melt the snow. Still, the salt and the street brine and the swampy black traffic slush all do their work: wearing out the flesh underfoot. I walk Santi only as long as it takes for him to release his bowels, then harness him into the back seat and drive to the grocery store to buy sterile pads and gauze and duct tape for a dressing. Scattered in front of the pharmacy entrance are piles of white salt.

The next day is Saturday. The work week in winter offers only two days for walking in daylight. I re-dress Santiago’s foot in the morning, wrapping it tightly in duct tape so that it will not slip off like a boot. We drive to the river.

It is early when we arrive. The woods along the shore are covered in white snow in which the divots of old footprints are pearl gray, like the sky. A cozy smell of wood smoke drifts across the water–a January smell. The winter birds chatter in their modest, cheerful way. For most of our time here, we are alone. We’ve left behind two women with a little black brush of a dog, and not until we return to the parking lot will we see a man placing a tripod camera into a hatchback. For a moment, we are joined by a hawk, but she, too, disappears.

The dressing on Santiago’s paw makes a sound as he moves over the hard-packed snow like the sound of a diapered child crawling across the floor. It is slippery, and this leg repeatedly skids off in a separate direction from the other three but does not slow him down. He jogs, stopping only to pee in haste where his nose invites him to. I jog with him, the two of us leashed together within the air that is perfectly chilly, upon the landscape that is buttercream white, among the trees resting with their eyes open all around us.

I have lived most of my life under the apprehension that joy is an accident, that one stumbles upon it as one does a dollar bill stuck in spring mud.  I think now that I have been wrong; for, it seems to me now that joy is a choice enacted.  When Santiago pulls me down a snowy trail, branches scraping at my cap and burrs catching on my coat; when the sun behind the clouds is faint like a moon, and tiny clawed prints suggest that we are tracking a raccoon to the marsh; when the trees are hung with moss and ice beside the silvered beaches; when the dog tugs hard over the hump of a footbridge and onto a hushed trail deep within woods where we have never been, it is as if a person one had made love to many times had closed his eyes and revealed a scar that one had never noticed.

I make Santiago accompany me to the beach. He prefers snow-covered savanna to driftwood and sand. But he acquiesces, and we walk to the lip of ice that meets the lapping of the open river. Santi pauses to consider whether there may be beasts in that gentle coursing, or whether the water is, itself, a moving beast. Apprehending nothing upon which to pounce, he turns back to the rocky shore, and I let go of his leash. He trots to a tree whose roots have been exposed by high water and erosion. Each tendril is decorated with snow and among the crevasses something lives. Santiago sniffs and digs, racing around the large trunk, trying to find his way in to the den of scent. He is happy. I pick up a pebble, rough and sepia and white, like the day.

On the way home, the car heater is on. Santi sits up in the back seat, facing the vents, and purrs. I drive along as many parkways and beside as many parks as I can find, going 25 mph, both of us gazing out the windows. I will put a fresh dressing on his foot, looser. I will put baby aspirin in his food. He will sleep on the couch in the afternoon, while the sun briefly shines. We have made our day’s joy.