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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.