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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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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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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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Peace

On Sunday morning, I wake before five and crack open a bedroom window. Outside, it is cool and dark and quiet. Santiago is on the couch downstairs, where he sleeps when he requires a rest undisturbed by my tugging at quilts, my twitching in dreams. I crawl back into bed and close my eyes. I listen to the wind chuffing the leaves. It is breathy and low, like the murmuration that Santi makes when he wants his chest scratched. It is the only sound I hear. All around me, I feel the weight of slumber: in my body, in the houses on the block, in the roots of trees, in the air itself, as if it rushes to reach its bed before sunrise. The street where the leaves gather in the gutter will not be illuminated for two more hours. I fall back to sleep.

Halloween decorations have begun to appear in the neighborhood. Santiago and I encounter skeletons reclining on Adirondack chairs, spiders engulfing mailboxes, enormous yellow cat eyes glowing in a front window, and wraiths and ghouls in purple and gray hanging from crabapple trees. There are pumpkins on stoops and smiling scarecrows, and real crows cawing at the dawn. Here and there, late-blooming dandelions with perfectly round seed heads spring up from dry lawns. Along the parkway, I reach up one morning to touch the soft needles of a red pine and notice a broken twig from which a trickle of clear sap hangs frozen like a teardrop.

Winter is biding its time.

I text a photo of the skeletons to my niece. She loves the spooky season.

My sister and her husband pull up to the curb outside the house one weekend. They unload the electric fireplace that they purchased for me–as Santiago wiggles his hips and prances around the living room, pressing his black nose into palms and thighs. He misses people. We plug in the fireplace and clap at the flickering orange flames, the facsimile of charred logs, the purr of warm air. I am reminded of a tortoiseshell cat I loved before I loved Santi. Her name was Inez, and she slept on the electric radiators in the condo we shared. During those winters, when I smelled singed fur, I would find her crouched on the metal conduit behind the futon, her eyes wide and defiant, her tiny, almost fleshless bones warm in a way that her luxurious coat could never manage. She is buried in the back yard here, along with her sister.

We drive to the farmer’s market, the three of us, while Santiago stays behind, mournful. We wear our masks and roll down the car windows. We park in a handicapped space because there is a cane among us, and a fragile heart. It isn’t just the pandemic that makes us do things differently: we have aged. We do not walk all the avenues of the market or visit each of the stalls. We move slowly, letting the crowd flow around us, and we know what we want. It is our changing that gives us peace. My sister buys leeks and potatoes and beans to make a soup, and I buy a lop-sided pumpkin to put beside a pot of mums in the garden. When we are weary, we head to an unhurried suburban street and eat doughnuts on the square before finding our feet again. We shop, and my brother-in-law buys a book; my sister, a mug; and I, a shawl. They are not things that we need. They are mementos of our exhilaration. We are with each other, out in the world, and we do not take our giddiness for granted.

After they go home, Santiago lies on the deck in muted sunshine and gnaws a beef bone that I bought him at the market. Rain is predicted, but it doesn’t come. Long before sunset, we fall asleep together on the couch, the fireplace purring at our feet.

The days bounce like a kid on a pogo stick between startling cold and exceptional heat. Early one morning, Santiago and I go to a park where the frost on an acre of blue-green cattails surrounded by turning oaks and maples is so beautiful that it makes me hold my breath. Santi trots with glee in the cold. We love this weather. But his pace is no longer the frenetic one of the two-and-a-half-year-old pup I met, the one who had lived his entire life in a cage. When we come to a rocky slope that we must descend–the trail narrow between saplings and brush–I let go of his leash to avoid losing my balance. Santi clambers down but stops a few feet ahead of me and looks back from beneath silvered eyebrows. He waits for me to reach him and to grab the leather strap draped over his back. He is not as interested as he once was in venturing out alone.

As the sun shines upon the frosted earth and vegetation begins to gleam wetly all around us, I watch swamp swallows hop the lily pads in a pond. Santiago sniffs at rushes along the edge of the water until half a dozen wood ducks take flight. Behind the crown of conifers in the woods, the waning moon is crisp and white in a glad blue sky.

Two days later, it is 80ºF. I can’t remember the last time it rained. When we go walking, Santi’s hind legs kick up puffs of concerning, gray dust. Migrating Canada geese settle on wrinkled mud flats that once were running creeks. In the yard, the rhododendron leaves are curling and the white cedar has developed droopy, copper foliage. Every other day, my throat burns, and I wonder if I have developed an autumn allergy or caught the coronavirus. Then I note once more the beige film that coats the clouds: the wildfire debris that blows in and out of town on the shifting winds.

But in the side garden, delicate asters are blooming beside pretty, pink sedum, and on the boulevard, zinnias as high as my shoulders unfurl in a profusion of fuchsia and orange, lilac and crimson. I’ve planted native seeds beneath them, in the ground where the zinnias will die and to which they will not return. I haul a hose around the yard after supper one evening and water everything: the trees, the gardens, the lawns where I’ve scattered fescue and clover seed. A neighbor wanders home from an autumn walk. The sun is sinking behind the house. We stand in the street and talk about God, about making peace with uncertainty.

One afternoon, as I sit at the office laptop in my kitchen, working listlessly, with anxiety about the chores to be done on that little screen and the chores to be done in my home and yard, with worry about the future, which is presented, hour by hour, as a problem to be solved, there is a sudden movement in the sunshine outside my glass door. A white dove lands on the railing of my deck and looks at me. My eyes widen. She flies away.

This past Saturday, my brother texted that he has watched his first Christmas movie of the season. Our family has understood, of course, that, for the first time in our lives, we will not be together for the holidays. We have fragile hearts, burning throats, and cold bones to take care of and, for now, that is best done in our own households. And so there is a need to find solace, to reconsider where joy and meaning reside if not in the places where we boxed them up and stored them last year.

Santiago and I walk. We walk in the magnificent, cool mornings when the sun rises behind wisps of lavender clouds, and in the warm, happy evenings that smell of wood smoke and toasted marshmallows. We take in hillsides burnished with golden light and unearthly purple asters and rabbits grazing in the shadows. We marvel at red squirrels twining themselves around neighborhood trees and deer who stop to watch us, unafraid, and we amble across empty, river beaches and sigh to see the scores of passing waterfowl. Now and again we tussle, as I stop to photograph yellow cottonwood leaves floating in a beam of sunshine or a blue heron posed in a naked tree and Santiago stops to munch on grass or nose at piles of leaves beside the trail. The splendor overwhelms us. We walk for hours when we can, visiting prairies where the switchgrass has gone blond and blowsy and still ponds that reflect the colors of the trees like jeweled necklaces.

Christmas has come early this year.

If you need to unwrap spectacular solace, you can find photos of Santiago and autumn in Minnesota in the gallery.

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Blue

On Wednesday, morning, I wake to silence. The sun has arched an eyebrow over the horizon, but the bedroom is dark behind scarves tossed over the window shutters for curtains. Santiago is sleeping downstairs, on the couch. I hold my breath, listening. The old furnace, for the moment, is not clacking or panting like a beast in a metal cage. I send my mind into my ears and discern neither sound nor vibration. I listen and listen, until I must inhale at last, and though my home is ringed by a street and an alley, and a county road is but one block down, I don’t hear a single car pass.

I slip my feet out from the bedcovers and turn on a lamp. When he hears me open the closet door, run the bathroom tap, Santiago comes upstairs. I am dressing, and we are going to walk. A few days ago, we had snow. I haven’t driven the car since then. The temperature has hovered around freezing, and what the spring sun has managed to melt has slid from the top of the car to form a sheet of ice at the bottom of the windshield. I chip it off and kick away the icicles that have affixed the chassis to a frozen puddle on the driveway.

Day has dawned now, cool and bright. When we arrive at the park, there are three other cars, yawning across two, wide lots. The air has been scrubbed clean by the shutdown of factories, the stilling of traffic, and the sky is a shade of blue that I cannot remember ever seeing before. Where it hangs low along the tree tops underneath childish, white clouds, the atmosphere is an indescribable color, a blue so limpid, so permeated with light, so captivating and alluring that it is like a chorus of Sirens. I cannot stop staring at it. It is so beautiful that every now and again, as my feet move and the tender air touches my face and the sunlight is gold on the far tips of tree branches, I look at it, and I cry.

We take to the woods. There is a lone hooded merganser floating calmly on a hidden pond. The white patch on his head gleams over the brown water. Most of the trees have neither budded nor leafed. Where the sun beats down, there is grass; where the ground is valed or shaded, snow. Beneath our feet, the gray leaves have frozen, and they rustle with a crystalline dryness as we walk. The embracing quiet of the morning persists, but it is accompanied by the chatter of birds: cardinals, chickadees, robins, seagulls, crows.

There are no children at the playground. A sign posts its closure. I watch Santiago on the leash ahead of me, absorbed in the smell of the soil. He trots to a shallow beneath a fallen tree green with moss that seems to wiggle in the sunshine. He stops to inhale and consider this space, to wonder who has been here. Over his back, the morning light plays across blowzy, honey-colored cattails. I think about the children who live next door to us, how they run to follow a heron in the sky, how they call to me, asking if I’d like to see the beetles cupped in their hands, how they beg to hunt for frogs in my yard. There are many ways to play.

Everything that Santiago and I love in this preserve has become enchanted under the clarity of the blue sky. The little, white chapel at the edge of the park shines as against heaven itself, the granite headstones on the hillside glinting as the snow shrinks around them. At the beach, Canada geese sunbathe on warm, faded sand. They watch us sideways as we pass, sidling slowly into the water, which is its own, extraordinary shade of cold, clear blue. As a pair of wood ducks takes flight from the shore–worried by Santiago’s attentions in the grass–a hawk dives into the lake, and life expresses itself with splash and flutter.

There is death, too. In the woods at the outskirts of the lake, we come across a lifeless muskrat. Her body lies in the snow underneath a small branch. Santiago is not very interested in dead things, but I am. What caused this animal’s death? In the moments that preceded it, was she frightened? Is her spirit now at peace? Her chestnut fur looks as soft as a mink, so that I think for a moment that she is one. Her tiny black eye stares. I say a prayer, but I have to say it quickly. The blue sky is calling to Santiago.

Let the dead bury the dead.

I work that day, at the dining room table, on a computer taken from the office. I do not know how long I will have a job. In the evening, I close the laptop and prop my phone on the kitchen bar. The ice clinks pleasantly in a gin and tonic when my friends call, their faces filling the little screen. We drink and nibble and converse, smiling at each other. I move to the living room and join Santiago on the couch. He is snoring with his snout tucked behind a pillow. I watch the trees in the light that coalesces to sink outside the porch windows a dozen miles away. We talk about our fears. When night reaches inside the house, I turn on a lamp, I take down my hair. We learn to play a new way.

The sun remains strong on Thursday, but the wind is sharp and surprising. I work for a few hours then pack Santiago into the car for a midday walk. I intend to go someplace else, but, as I drive, I suddenly think on a perfect little park: a lake walk with asphalt and wood chip trails, trash cans and dog poop bags, a landscape of bench and stream, playground and ball field and forest. Santiago begins to purr in the back seat when I veer onto the freeway bridge that takes us there. The park was his idea.

On a path not far from a stand of towering birch trees, we meet a small, old man wearing a mask with blue and white stripes. As we near each other, I tug the scarf wrapped around my neck up over my mouth and my nose. The man quips, “Nice smile,” and his eyes twinkle. He wishes Santi and me a nice day. I watch the sky, looking at the buds on the trees–some fat like nuts, others long and reaching, like fingers pressed together in meditation. Santiago stops before a scrim of trees that separates the parkland from a row of suburban back yards. I stop, too, scanning the woods in the direction of his quivering, black nose. He never sees the three deer, but when they move and reveal their white tails, I do. They remain grazing and eyeing one another unguardedly on the other side of the wood, as if they were enjoying a picnic lunch on their own lawn.

They are.

We walk for an hour. Santiago dogs at lake edge and creekside, nosing around for wet mammals and waterfowl. I listen to red-winged blackbirds click and chirr. The wind blows through pussy willow branches whose catkins have gone silvery-green, about to burst into flower, and high above a lake filling in with cattails, a bald eagle sits with straight neck and puffed chest. I think about how my life before I met Santiago–before I learned from his attentiveness and his joy–was impoverished, about how the deer and the catkins and the blackbirds were present but hidden from me, unnamed and unknown, about how I perceived only the gross outlines of a material world squatting underneath a dirty sky.

I receive mail this week: an envelope hand-written to me, with a return address and name that I don’t recognize. I turn it over in my hands, frowning, and slice it open cautiously, as if poison might tumble out. Inside are a hand-colored illustration, a page of prayers, and a double-sided sheet of jokes, from a family I’ve never met at a church where I am not even a member. I watch the priest from that church deliver a sermon online from his kitchen table, and as he reaches the sober peak of his argument, a calico cat glances into the frame, climbs upon his lap, and awaits back scratches and belly strokes. Everyone is re-learning how to play.

And just like that, spring comes. The snow in the yard is gone. The wind is still cold, but when I peer underneath the oak leaves that blanket the gardens, I find tiny zippered fronds of Jacob’s ladder, white buds of bloodroot, a clump of sprouting fescue, deep red wrinkles of rhubarb, succulent green runners of wild stonecrop. The cow parsnip is so large already that I can see it from the upper story inside the house. And two, wee hazelnut bushes, not a foot tall, are budding. They have survived their first winter.

Over the weekend, more mail arrives: my sister sends masks that she has sewn in pretty, patterned fabrics, and I am pleased because the paper masks that I’ve been wearing have a habit of slipping askew and scratching my eyeball. One of those paper masks lies in a drawer in my abandoned office cubicle. I wore it when the indoor pollution strained my lungs and raised my blood pressure, sometimes for weeks on end. At home, I breathe easily. I breathe easily outside most of the time, too, though a mask on a cool day is a comfort to twitchy lungs, warming the air via the heat of one’s own body.

Santiago and I no longer wake to an alarm. On Saturday morning, we rouse ourselves just after daybreak and spend two hours at the dam before the crowds with their naked faces arrive. We startle a Canada goose whom we startled last year, nesting on the same little finger of land along the river. She leaves her eggs in fright or fury and escapes into the water where she honks and honks though we are long gone above the roaring cascades, halfway to the opposite shore. The goose is not interested in playing a new way. She is, perhaps, part of what Nature intends, with her pandemic, to protect.

Santiago and I stroll on Sunday morning in a park on the way to the grocery store. Pairs of mallards move through the placid creek, water rippling behind them toward last year’s shaggy grass over-hanging the banks. In the afternoon, I bake a visiting cake scented with lemon zest and topped with toasted almonds. I write the recipe on eight postcards and affix stamps for mailing. For the moment, this is how we share cake. I am wearing overalls that remind me of my great-grandfather, who cut timber and husbanded sheep and raised children. I am not wearing a bra or mascara. I think about the office buildings, imagining their windows unsealed and opened to the fresh, blue sky, their rooms emptied of workers and filled with families. Santiago is napping beside me on his soft, pink blanket. He is twitching as he dreams. Life has moved home.

To dream in blue, visit the gallery.

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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 was striped like war paint 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 silver maple 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 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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Discovery

As I dress, Santiago nestles into the warm divot left in the bedclothes by my body. He is curled around himself, chin on tail, breathing with an almost silent rustling through his nose. The room is dark, the shades not yet drawn. When I drift by with a toothbrush in my mouth, Santi sighs into the pillow.

It is Saturday morning. Outside our house, the air is 20º F. The sky is a pellucid blue. I pull on layers of cotton, and–when I go downstairs to the front hallway–a heavy coat, hiking boots, a hat, mittens. Spring is languorous and cold this year. When he hears me open the closet door, Santi leaves the bed and comes downstairs not quite quickly; he is still sleepy. I put on his harness and leash and the collar and dog tags that will make him jingle as he goes. We skip breakfast to travel with the sun. It will be gone by afternoon. We drive to the river.

It has been a week of settling into rhythms that once were familiar. The pandemic has given me back an hour each day that used to be spent in traffic, and a lunch hour at home. There are more moments for wiping away the dust that gathers under sunbeams, for writing out postcards and polishing shoes, for stretching and meditation, for telephoning family, for baking cinnamon rolls, for reading, for prayer. Santiago and I wake without alarm. And we walk whenever wide skies beckon and our bodies respond with desire.

One icy sunrise, Santiago and I stop to listen to a turkey calling at the edge of a wood. The sound comes again and again, from up a hill, over the tops of trees: a high-pitched, burbling, prehistoric bark. Santiago does not bark back. He stills himself with snout aimed at the sound then begs to chase it through the woods and up the hill. I tug him home to breakfast. On the first day that smells like spring, in morning mist that wets the earth and the asphalt and last year’s fallen leaves, I admire the soft, silver catkins about to bloom on a pussy willow. We stroll at noon one day beside a local lake, sending scores of mallards at rest on the north bank waddling and flapping into water that sparkles in the sunlight. The information imparted by turkey and catkin and mallard and mud is not optional to the health of our souls.

There are others, like us, who have been sprung from the cells of their daily routines. One tepid midday, Santiago and I step aside as a woman and three school-age children bicycle over a little bridge that spans a splashing creek. We encounter a couple conversing as they jog and a man with a pig-tailed girl watching ducks swim in water that was only days ago a skating rink. We approach a teenage boy walking with three younger children, the littlest of whom brandishes a stick at Santiago and scowls at the dog through his eyeglasses. The older boy scolds him. At a drainage pond, I stop and hold up my phone to the mane of cattails and conifers and hardwoods that circle the water, recording a chorus of bird song. An owl calls over the red-winged blackbirds and the cardinals and the chickadees as a woman pushing a stroller and walking a labrador retriever passes by.

One day, a girl with vivid blond hair sees Santiago and me coming up the street. She runs down the driveway where she had been playing.

“Can I pet your dog?” she calls.

These are not normal days. I tell her that we will get close, but not too close. The girl crouches at the curb and looks into Santiago’s face. I tell her his name. She coos it back to him. He wags his tail. She smiles. She does not pet him.

On Saturday, the water crashing over the dam leaves a slippery white mist on the walkway across the river. I jog as slowly as it is possible to jog with Santiago over the long, long deck in order to keep my footing. Where the water churns below the falls, a beach ball twists in the waves. The roar of the dam subsides when we reach the eastern bank, where fields of tallgrass are still lying down before stands of birch and oak, awaiting this year’s growth. Frost glitters on the golden stalks like lace gloves.

We have arrived at the hour of old men. They walk alone, with fat hoods and worn jeans, sunglasses and stiff gaits. I cluck Santiago to “our side” as we pass. The men say “Good morning,” but the words are not accompanied by up-tilted lips. They have an alloy of warmth and crankiness, these early morning men, an unfancied getting-on-with-it. They cheer me.

Santiago does not want to walk among the tallgrass or in the woods. He pulls me to the shore. He has caught scent of someone. The river here licks at the land from beneath a layer of shiny, intermittent ice. In recent years, smooth sand has been swallowed by high water so that we are tangled among scrub, ducking under branches. Santiago wants to charge through the saplings into the water. I rein him in, and together we scan the river’s edge, which shines darkly in the sun. Suddenly, downstream, we hear the plop of disturbed water, of something surfacing where the ice has melted. I turn and see ripples.

I do not know what we are hunting–an otter, a muskrat–but we hunt it, moving along the shore. I plead for a slow pace; my feet are not as nimble as Santiago’s among the tree roots and the driftwood. At a clearing, we encounter a man fishing. He is young. He wears waders and buffalo plaid and a dark beard. He skips a stone across the thinning ice and it makes a hollow, musical sound. Santi stops to consider it. The man does it again for the dog’s enjoyment. I enjoy it, too. It’s the first time I’ve heard this melody.

We do not discover our river prey, but we walk farther south than we have ever been. We discover a footbridge beside which a tree lies toppled, its stump gnawed to the pencil point signature of a beaver. There is a map beside the trail and I pause to read it, but I am no good at swiveling directions in my mind to reflect the view before me. I know where the river is. We follow the trail. It becomes an abandoned road, in a ditch beside a new freeway. Pebbles roll around the crumbled asphalt in the morning light. A bluejay flutters past, and robins hop and call. On the grass beside the path lies the leg of a deer–bloody at the naked joint but still covered with auburn fur where once it met a belly. It is quiet here, in spite of the freeway, and empty. Across a wetland, beyond an electrical tower sprayed with graffiti, I can see women walking, closer to the meandering river. The asphalt ends, trees arch over us, and Santiago and I enter a woods. As we loop back to the trail we know, we pass an old man.

At home, my neighbor calls one evening to see what food she might add to her grocery order for me. The next night, she texts that she has made treats and has left some on my doorstep: oatmeal-chocolate bars. They are impossibly satisfying. There is revelation in crisis. The joy that I feel in speaking with my parents, my sister is intensified. I take delight in video-conferencing with my colleagues, in glimpsing their worn sweatshirts and paint-spattered jackets, the clothes that make their identities click into focus, the clothes they don’t wear to the office. I stop using mascara. I start using food stuffs that have been in the pantry for years. I walk with Santiago for two hours at a time. There are no longer any errands to be performed.

On Sunday, the wind is fierce, the sky is gray. Santiago and I walk beside railroad tracks. A roastery nearby makes the air smell like coffee. Santi is tracking deer–someone has trampled a patch of milkweed stalks, their gray pods like commas in the grass–but I am examining a pile of bones. I have seen them here before. I pick up a jaw bone, bleached by time and weather. I wrap its sharp edges in a dog poop bag and pocket it. I will brush its teeth, some of which will remain brown after the mud is removed. I will try to discover who it is.

Visit the gallery if you’d like to see Santiago sheltering in place.

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Wind

Strong winds blow all week. The auburn leaves still clinging to the oaks rattle, drop, and swirl around overcast suburban streets. My outdoor garden pots, stripped of the weight of browning evergreens, tip in the gusts. I pick up exhausted pine branches from a yard impossibly littered with rabbit pellets. What Santiago does not eat will fertilize the soil for spring violets and the ostrich ferns that will unfurl one day like paper noisemakers at a celebration. The snow that remains on the landscape takes the form of stubborn, little humps in shady corners and mountainous, black piles at the edges of parking lots.

The sun, too, is strong–so that a nap in a closed car at lunch hour is as warm as a bed heavy with quilts–but the wind is cold, and temperatures fall. During the course of the week, mist and fog and sinking mud revert back to frost that must be scraped from the windshield in the morning. I return to wearing my winter coat and gloves with fingers and a hat that covers my ears.

It is a chaotic season. The ice shrinks back, the streets dry, and the speeding and weaving of drivers becomes more reckless, as if some impatient few were hauling summer itself in trailers on a deadline. There are more fire engines and police cars on the roads, too, blinking and wailing, not just for traffic pile-ups, but for household accidents: the Christmas lights unlooped from eaves at last via perches on slippery shingles. It is the same every year: the loud whirr-chunk of medical choppers above the treetops, out and back, out and back, out and back…

I spend the week listening to the radio, to reports of the virus, novel and terrible, that lands in one country and then another and then another as if riding the wind. At work, we prepare to close the office. I buy groceries on a day when I wouldn’t normally buy groceries, wondering what my need will be in the days ahead. My heart beats nervously, ticking off the risks to my loved ones by health or circumstance. I monitor a cough and an ache in my lungs, remembering what I sometimes forget, which is that I have asthma, that I am vulnerable. I write lists of people to pray for, and I pray on my knees, at my bedside.

Day after day, Santiago and I walk.

It is warm early in the week–forty degrees Fahrenheit–on an evening when rain threatens to fall from a flat, gray cloud that hangs like the top of a cliff over the city. Santi and I head for a little lake in our watershed that is filling with cattails. We are escaping the evening crowd at the park proper–the people and dogs taking in the moist air, the grainy snow, the smell of mud. We have not been to this weathered dock for months, and Santiago runs through the brittle marsh grass to get to it, runs along the planks to the end of it, his pointed ears flapping like small wings. He has caught wind of something. He lowers his head under the railing and sniffs at the mottled ice and the now beige stalks sticking out of it. He trots to each corner of the dock, peering at the worn wood which is decorated, here and there, with markings in colored chalk. He presses his nose to the cracks between the planks. While I am listening to the chirr of a red-winged blackbird–that most magical sound of spring–and looking to spot it, my first blackbird of the year high atop a still bare tree, Santi slips between the rails to creep upon the ice in search of the source of the smell.

He does not find it. But each evening, in this climate of uncertainty, we welcome spring. One night, we pass a dozen picnickers in a park. They are young, in their twenties, the men standing with beer cans in their hands and the women seated close to one another around the picnic table, their laps and shoulders covered with blankets. They are all smiling. Minutes later, we watch a fisherman walking the frozen water far from shore, his slumping tent the only ice house left on the lake. Two men strolling the beach call out, asking Santiago’s breed, and when I stop to talk with them, Santi races to the end of his leash, too excited to chat, in search of the deer in the woods, the mice at the shelter, the geese in the marsh: twitterpated.

Forty-eight hours later, we drive in a wind so harsh that the car shimmies between the lines along the freeway. As I struggle to stay in my lane, the sun for the first time that day pierces the milky sky which curdles into fat white clouds in a brilliantly blue heaven. We park near young children at play with their parents in a ball field and climb a hillside that will bloom with tallgrass and prairie flowers. It is only now, before the new growth begins, that I let Santi romp here, among crunching stalks and bird houses on wooden posts and trees that shimmer in the golden light of the setting sun.

A neighbor texts on Friday night, wanting to know how I am doing in this time of change. My throat is red and sore. She brings soup, and though I tell her that I may be contagious, she knocks on the door and places in my cupped hands a bowl that is warm–filled with homemade stock and shredded chicken, with wild rice and hunks of onion, with bright orange carrots and creamy mushrooms. It is unexpected, this soup, and I eat it with gratitude. When I have washed the bowl and placed it by the front door for return, Santiago finds it, nudges it to his mouth and begins lapping it with his wide, pink tongue. It still smells good. I wash it again.

Jesus said, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

Over the weekend, the governor announces the closure of schools. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend against gatherings of fifty people or more for the next two months. Vulnerable people are told to shun public life. Across the state, stores are raided of toilet paper, and businesses report having their supplies stolen. Yet toilet paper will not stop the wind from blowing.

Santiago and I walk on Saturday just as the sun breaks out. There are no other cars in the parking lot when we arrive at our destination midday. The temperature has dipped again; it is barely above freezing. Beneath our feet, the wood chip trail is hard. In the stream that meanders beside us, three mallards bob with their butts in the air, foraging for food under the water. As the sun becomes generous, people appear: an African woman who eyes Santi warily, singing as she walks; a chubby white girl who halts her scooter to video-record two geese on the lawn beneath a tree; an old woman in a polka dot dress who sits on a bench, watching the day glow; a man and an Irish setter playing fetch before a row of archery targets. Santi and I walk for over an hour. Before we leave, he flops to the ground and rolls on the faded grass, waving his legs, stretching his neck, and exposing his white chin to the sky.

Sunday morning, we walk early, when the sun is still rubbing the sleep from his eyes. We wander the riverside, where slabs of ice melt slowly at the shore but throngs of robins now flit from tree to tree, their bellies red as life. I am not on my knees, but I pray. Santiago sneezes to clear his nose for hunting. The wind blows.

To see pictures from a week of hopeful walks in a fearful time, visit the gallery.