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Medicine

Santiago rises first on Sunday morning. As I lie hugged to the sliver of mattress left to me by his sprawling, he slowly stands upon the bed. Turning to the windows, he places his paws on the footboard and contemplates the murk outside. After a moment, he bows, and a stretch ripples across his sloped back. He yawns and smacks his jowls; the air is dry. When he jumps to the floor, I roll over, casting my arms and legs wide beneath the sheets. I listen to the soft thud of his footfalls on the carpeted stairs, then the click of his claws across the kitchen floor. I know that he is standing at the back door, watching through the glass for animals grazing at dawn.

Earlier in the week, I awakened with a headache. The pain stretched across my face and curled around the base of my skull. I felt dull-witted and cross. I lay in bed, eyes closed, examining how the throbbing might react to more sleep. The effort of that gentle examination was like dead-lifting double my weight. I needed medicine. I rose and dressed. I called Santi to the front closet and pulled out his leash. We drove to our favorite lake.

The sky was ivory when we arrived, and out of it, from time to time, a mellow sunbeam reached down to drag its fingers through the water. A woman dressed in gray was steadying herself in a gunmetal canoe beside the tree-lined shore. The air was tepid and salutary. As we made our way across a blistered boardwalk, red-winged blackbirds swooped and fluttered in the marshland, perching upon an acre of old cattails that nearly swallowed a railroad bridge. The birds puffed their shiny black wings like bellows, calling, feathered sparks rising at their shoulders. Along the edge of the big water, docks and deck chairs remained stacked, while far out in the lake two loons floated, serene as seraphim, their sharp beaks aimed at a southern inlet. When Santi and I tramped through the muddy woods across the road, we found moss growing vividly on fallen trees. Thoughts of the ache in my head were replaced by pleasure in the cheerful messages chalked on sidewalks, in the bobbing of mallards off the beach, in the friendly wave of a train engineer, hauling cars slowly along the tracks. It was an ordinary day, full of beauty.

I get out of bed after a few moments and go down to the kitchen to let Santiago outside. Though day has not yet broken, there is no need to turn on a light: a garage-mounted lamp down the alley murders the darkness, as if it were something to fear. I stand inside the house and watch Santi’s white tail moving among shadows in the yard. He pauses to pee on a rhododendron, then trots through leaf litter and nascent violets to sniff at rabbit trails. Catkins from the oak tree next door have begun to fall across the deck.

I spent a week moving among shadows. I feared to do my taxes, no longer certain about my future income. I purchased groceries behind a plastic shield, scrubbing the credit card pin pad with a bleach wipe from the bagging shelf, as if I knew what I was supposed to do and was not nervous. I cursed silently at joggers three abreast upon the sidewalk, their unmasked breath hanging in clouds on the cool morning air. With my sister, I raged and later wept about the school kids now on view to every classmate as they sit before the cracked windows, the trailer windows, the car windows that are their homes, their thin protection from a savage and unsharing world.

What I have wanted very badly to control appears to be controlled entirely by the imagination of God.

On Friday, the temperature fell below freezing. By afternoon, it had not changed even one degree. Santiago and I walked early in the morning, not far from home. We snuck off a paved trail and onto a mown path where last year’s wildflowers were tall and brittle, then into the woods beside a small lake. Next to a lean-to made of fallen branches was a white bucket on which were written in green marker the words, “Please pick up the trash.”

I saw the deer first. She was just twenty feet away, her long limbs and neck as brown as the bark around her, her eyes wide with curiosity and caution as she looked into mine. Santiago stopped when I did, alert but unable to find the shape of the deer among the timber. I reached into my pocket, wanting a photograph of her lovely face. She turned her shoulder, then, disappearing among the tree trunks, her white rump flashing for just a moment, which is what Santi saw.

We ran then, a short way through the woods, until the trail became perilous with tree roots and sucking mud, and I made Santiago turn back, his sides heaving, still crying to be let loose to hunt. A few minutes later, back on the tar, he stood and stared at the wildflowers, seeing before I did the deer and her companion, wriggling his nose and lifting his paw, until at last his unmoving desire raised from the dusty tallgrass their listening ears and then their bobbing white tails which disappeared again into the gloaming of the woods. Santiago’s running and crying began anew. It was a fine way to spend the hour before breakfast.

Santi satisfies himself about who has been in the yard. He climbs the deck and sits three feet from the back door, watching through the glass to confirm that I have a treat for him. I do. We return to the bedroom. Santi lies down on the rumpled quilts while I slip underneath them and fall back against the pillows. I gaze out a bank of white, shuttered windows facing east. While the back yard had been as gray as a lake under a sunless sky, out front there is an almost imperceptible ribbon of pink at the base of a deep blue heaven. It illuminates three-story fir trees that form a dark crown across the horizon. As Santiago breathes quietly beside me, I watch the sun rise. I am tired. I am trying to figure out how to live as if everything I believe is true, as if every thing that happens is the lullaby of a tender spirit. My eyes fall closed, and each time I open them, the sky is wider. Slim clouds drift and glitter with molten gold. The blue of the sky becomes soft and pale behind the fir trees that have shaken off their black and become green. At last, a sunbeam climbs across one of the little, white shutters and tousles the bedcovers.

Saturday was colder than Friday. We walked early once again, more eager than usual to find unhindered pathways. We were not two minutes out of the car, roaming a sleepy, urban parkway before Santiago flushed four turkeys from their breakfasting in the scrub beneath a railroad bridge. They moved off regretfully. Before our wandering was done, we met them again, in a high wood, and gave chase. I wore a mask through which my breath fogged the sunlit atmosphere, and I waved at the other early-morning people. We can no longer see each other smile. On telephone wires, cardinals sang. Atop the emergent grass, robins hopped. In the sky above the treetops, a blue heron flapped its dreamy flight, aimed at the Mississippi River. The unleafed trees afforded a view to distant skyscrapers: hulking, empty, hibernating.

We rise, finally, on Sunday to walk. It is warming again, and the sky is very blue. We stroll our own neighborhood, past a fire hydrant that Santi pauses to pee on; through an oak wood where he snarfs up seeds scattered for the squirrels; beside fences where other dogs bark their greetings, their queries, their warnings, their Sabbath preaching. We pass a house where the medicine on the door is row upon row of pastel-colored paper hearts.

I am first to see the eagle. She is flying lower than I have ever seen an eagle fly: below the tree line. Her white head gleams. In her talons is a clutch of dirty rags, a loose sack. She drops it in a clearing among the trees and settles on a nearby branch. Two crows crowd in beside her and begin to squawk.

Santiago is not interested in knowing that the rags are a raccoon, her fur torn back, her round, pink innards exposed. The eagle is watching. The crows are making noise. It is not a time for chasing. He tugs on the leash. He pulls toward the medicine of home.

Visit the gallery for this week’s medicine in pictures.

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Time

Spring slips in on wet ice. On a Sunday morning, we walk before seven a.m. Santiago cries sharply from the back seat of the car as we pull up to the dog park: a plea to be let loose. He jogs the grounds alone, sniffing at the fencing, at the iron legs of a picnic table, at frozen water in a dog dish. The sky is the barely-blue of frayed denim, and the air has a chilly, winter stillness, but above our heads, birds yodel and cheep. Santi barks at the gate, satisfied with his examinations, and we walk in the woods. A new lean-to has been built there, beside a narrow footpath. Two logs inside it form a bench upon which to contemplate railroad tracks stretching west beyond the trees to where the day has hardly begun. Santiago trots and I follow, dancing as the path rises and falls, trying to slow the momentum of my heavy boots when he suddenly stops to press his nose to a root beside a mossy trunk. It will be the last day of hard-packed snow.

The rest of the week is wearying. I scribble visits to the dentist, the optometrist, the primary into the margins of my work schedule. My brother-in-law has a hospital stay. A friend of my parents dies. At the office, a salary nearly double my own is described in my hearing as insulting: an inequity of expectation that can only exist in a culture in which to be treated like a dog is to be judged to be without feelings, delicacy, or desire, as if there were grades of being. Day after day, the sun is strong but the wind is cold. Santiago and I walk in the evenings on snow that has melted and re-frozen, leaving boot moguls that are dangerously slick. Trees sway and creak. Where the snow has receded, there is sucking mud. I buy a box of compostable bags for Santiago’s poop, and the first three off the roll tear like paper through a shredder. It takes twenty-five minutes to return them.

I walk with Santiago because I love him and because he is an alchemist: because to emerge on a bitter evening in a season of disappointment from a dark underpass thick with ice to a vivid pink sunset, unexpected and lovely and hanging high across the sky, the snout of a shadowed dog aimed at it like an arrow is to make time. I did not understand this when Santi first came to live with me. I had appointments then, too, and a job, and chores, and family and friends who mattered to me, and goals that goaded. I clocked our walks, tugging at the leash with frustration as Santiago stopped to smell each un-met blade of grass, each lamppost wet with scent. In our early days, it took half an hour to circle two blocks. It was love that made me consider the wonder of a blade of grass to an animal who had been caged for his entire life. It was grace that reminded me that I am an animal. If I have learned by my salary how much the commercial world values my time on Earth, I have learned from Santiago how to be without purpose, making merry in creation, tending to the labor of my soul.

On Friday evening, Santiago is impatient with me. We are walking a parkway we’ve eschewed all winter, and I keep stopping to take pictures of the moon. It is nearly full–a bright white orb in a clear, blue sky–and the setting sun casts golden light across tree branches that hold it like a pearl set in a ring. We are ecstatic. The weekend has come and we have time. There is a dog park here, and Santi cries to be let in, but I will not allow it. The stench of ammonia in the mud is overwhelming, and there are more canines playing than Santiago can encounter without being visited by spooks from his past. He will bark warnings and foam with worry and I will have to hustle him away from the dogs he fears as people cluck and imagine that he is aggressive.

We wander north instead. A weathered bench sits at the bottom of a sloping golf course, waiting for the grass at its feet to green. A sofa lies on its back in the scrub beneath a railroad bridge. We find a rugby pitch hidden like a fairy glade, a plaque on a boulder beside it tracing its lineage to England. Santiago sniffs at copper-colored pine needles dropped under the trees. He pees on straw archery targets. He leads me across fields where the grainy snow gives beneath our feet and along dry sidewalks scattered with streams and ponds of snow melt. Netting posted far above our heads to catch stray golf balls is torn and peeled back before the moon that is glowing in an ever duskier sky. Gazing through it is like being invited into eternity.

I am sorry to see winter go. I like the quietude, the darkness, the permission to stop moving. The weather is warming. On Saturday, the lakesides are full of people who have shed their heavy coats and are wearing sunglasses. There are children in shiny, rubber boots wading through the wet snow and joggers in shorts and trainers on the puddled paths. There are women riding bikes and men pushing strollers. There are dogs of every form and hue, the midday sun lavish on their sleek and shaggy sides. I watch a man climb a tree while a woman photographs him. I watch a boy climb atop an overturned lifeboat and sing, “Row, row, row your boat…” I watch the wind push returning Canada geese sideways across the sky. Santiago jumps with all four feet upon a bush he suspects of sheltering a rabbit. Before we go home, he rolls in grass still weighted with the gray dust of winter.

That night, we move forward. I turn all the clocks an hour ahead to Daylight Saving Time. The neighborhood children have roused themselves from hibernation. They chalk the sidewalks with games, ride scooters in the street. The ones who have only just learned to walk stand on their driveways in the afternoons, their coats unzipped, their cheeks smooth, considering the blades of grass in wonder.

On Sunday evening, I take Santiago grocery shopping. He has already had a long walk by the river, but there is a tiny trail near the store, and the work week is coming: I make time for a second walk. We watch a mallard dining in a bird feeder and greet a white-haired man with a leather fisherman’s cap. The creek burbles. The sun sinks. Santi waits in the car with the windows open while I buy cereal and almonds and avocados.

I see them first as we drive home. Santiago is sitting up in the back seat, purring. There are five of them. They cannot yet be said to be tall, and their heads are free of antlers. They are in a valley that houses a couple of businesses but backs up to a park. Browsing among the landscaping, the deer relax their white tails. I pull the car to the shoulder, put on my hazard lights, and look down the hill at them. For a long minute, Santi watches in silence. The smallest deer begins to gambol and the others follow him after a fashion, moving slowly away from us, across a parking lot. Santi begins at last to make noises that sound as if I am slicing him with knives.

He sleeps that night with his princess bed delicately kneaded to provide a pillow for his head. I have washed the mud from his paws with lavender soap. He snuffles softly, his eyes closed, his nose twitching in a dream. I contemplate with wonder, as if it were gold in my pocket, his time on Earth.