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.