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Without

As Santiago and I walk the streets and alleys and park trails of our neighborhood, rodents are at work. It is late August, early morning, and chipmunks stuffing their cheeks with acorns are joined by red squirrels whose tails flounce around them like flags on convertibles, and by gray squirrels, too, who chase each other around the trunks of trees, the scratch of their claws on dry bark amplified by the quietude of the half-awakened suburbs. There are rabbits nibbling their breakfasts and bounding across lawns, and one dark-haired bunny no bigger than a softball wriggles between fence posts just ahead of Santi’s snout. Their industry and good cheer is an antidote to the land itself, which seems to look on human life with a chastening eye, as if having concluded that it could no longer rally to the cause of supporting it.

Santiago has been taking me on long walks. One morning, he leads me on a sunrise expedition that lasts three-and-a-half hours, and this feels, not extended and triumphant like a marathon, but quotidian and delightful, like a stroll to the corner ice cream shop. We weave in and out of parkland, avoiding police tape around roads with new asphalt and concrete curbs, doubling back over railroad tracks, repeating these moves like we are tugging at a stuck zipper–up and down, up and down. It is a kind of letting go, this lack of clarity about where we are going and how we will make our loop home. Santi prowls for some time at a drainage ditch. It is ringed with rock and shaded by switchgrass now blowsy with pink seeds. We have been here when egrets waded in the water, watching us warily, but on this day there is no water and there are no egrets. Santi sniffs the ground and looks over the mud with a kind of confusion and longing and disappointment. We keep wandering. We pass purple coneflowers beside a wall where the street comes to a surprising end, and houses graced by statuary on long, wide lawns, and a low lake clogged with lily pads, and a child’s adobe play village, and a man who wishes us a good morning, and a small roll of staked fencing at the edge of a yard, with a painted sign that reads, “Caution snapping turtle egg.”

What makes Santiago a fine guide is that when I am out with him, I am reassured that life persists and that an unseen hand cares for each least, fragile thing.

Nuts that have not been gathered by the fauna crunch beneath our feet. We are on a suburban street, and every now and again fallen apples, too, appear along the curb. We have already traversed nearly the length of a wooded park, but Santi eschews every opportunity to nip back into it and take a short cut home. It is a warm morning, and he walks slowly but with intent. We pass a house with beautiful garden beds. They are stocked with well-watered flowers, tall and glossy, in summer pinks and purples, in oranges, reds, and yellows, and with tidy stones piled underneath green shrubbery, and they curve gracefully around the corners of the building and the sweep of the driveway, so that the effect is like that of a pretty paisley. I love these gardens. And it troubles me, too, to see them as the Mississippi River drops and drops and drops and drops.

And drops.

A block down, a woman and a dog on the opposite side of the street are climbing the hill that Santiago and I are descending. The dogs greet each other, and the woman and I greet each other, and the woman says that she has arrived home. She waves an arm over her lawn.

“Brown!” she decries.

Most of the lawns on the street are brown. She tells me that it is worse up north, on the lake where she has a cabin. The lake that she names is one that my family visited when I was a child–it might, in fact, be our mother lake, the one that gave birth to all of our seasons on shores and in boats. I have a photograph of myself and my siblings and our friends beside that lake: children standing in a row on the sandy beach, hair wet from swimming, smiles young and full of gaps. When I think of that lake, I can smell propane and toasted marshmallows and what we used to call “suntan lotion,” and to know that it, too, is suffering in the drought is a blow that lands on a bruise that surrounds an unhealed wound.

Friends come one evening to sit on the deck. Without rain, it has been a summer without mosquitos–I have encountered only two–but as we chat, a yellow jacket lands on the rim of a wine glass. The wasps have enjoyed the arid heat; there has been little chance of ground nests being flooded. I lure the hard, bright thing to a napkin and encourage it to fly away. It obliges. My friends say that where they visit up north, the river is dotted with exposed stones. They imagine that they could walk across it now: the Mighty Mississippi.

We have arrived at Santiago’s destination: a small lake with a boardwalk stretching over it. Unlike the area ponds–where Canada geese and great blue herons appear to be walking on water, their feet on the muck beneath the thinnest veneer of surface wave–this lake has a bit of depth. A measuring stick beside the boardwalk puts it at fourteen inches–a thing to celebrate. Santi stops again and again to hang his nose between the rails and sniff. There are bumblebees on the purple loosestrife that grows among the cattails, and there is duck weed, and algae. But the red-winged blackbirds have gone. There are no mallards or wood ducks. It is quiet. If there is a muskrat among the reeds, we fail to find him. At the edge of the lake, we cross a footbridge over a creek bed that holds nothing but a few puddles. A gnarled tree with a large knot stands against the sooty blue sky. Gold beggarticks–sunflowers–rise up around it.

To walk and walk is to whittle one’s life to its essence.

Santiago and I go home. We eat, and we nap. I have stopped watering the gardens with a hose. In the morning or in the evening, I bring a watering can to plants that are flowering and to those that are young, to tomatoes that are ripening and to the white cedar with its shallow roots. All others I give to God, who is not without plans. In the afternoon, I write. The cow parsnip that never truly bloomed becomes a wooden stake. The ferns fall to the ground. They will not come back this year. When darkness comes, I read books that remind me that people survive loss.

One afternoon, Santiago comes with me to pick up our produce share. It is ninety degrees outside, and I am surprised by the humidity. The journey is just seven or eight miles roundtrip, but Santi lags and pants. When we reach the house where goods are stacked in boxes, each labeled with a name, we wait in the shade while another woman packs her share into bags. It is a heavy load this week. When it is my turn, I carefully place a watermelon in the bottom of my backpack, braced by zucchinis, with tomatoes on top. In one hand, I carry a sack with spaghetti squash and banana peppers, and in the other, I hold Santi’s leash. I am masked against the air, which remains smoky from undoused wildfires. I am sweating. As we head for home, Santi moves at the pace of a toddler learning to walk, and because I am uncomfortable, I snap at him. He looks up at me, and his eyes are mournful and apologetic. His sides heave–in and out, in and out–as he tries to breathe the hot, damp, dirty air. I see how small he is, how fragile. There is a bench nearby, and a bowl of water for passing dogs. We stop. I put the sack down. I let the backpack slide off my shoulders.

I was pleased in the spring to purchase a pair of leather walking shoes, sturdy and impervious to morning dew. But there has been no morning dew this summer. I watch gulls drinking from puddles in a parking lot after a warm drizzle of rain; it is the cleanest water available to them. I watch time and again as men on riding mowers roar through parks and preserves where the grass has gone dormant, clouds of dust billowing up behind big, black wheels. I watch neighbors forcing lawns to grow with sprinklers and fertilizer, then razing them when the blades are as high as a grasshopper’s back. On weekends, I watch city people pack their cars and go camping. They escape to where the land is wild.

Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

One day, I stop on my basement stairs to watch a gray squirrel. She is outside a ground level window, spinning an acorn in her hands, gnawing at its green shell. She pauses and bends at the waist, still clutching it within its woody cap. She is near the foundation, six inches from my eye. Turning her back to me, she plunges the nut into the soil, pats grass back over the hole, and disappears into a thicket of hostas.

A friend of mine once complained about squirrels. They were burying winter stores in her pots, she said, uprooting flowers and herbs, and her displeasure was a bonfire of rage. The tinder to that fire was willful ignorance of the purpose of squirrels; for, who is a squirrel but a planter of trees? It was mad, her wrath. I expect that it was born elsewhere: a sorrow tamped down and unexamined, the fumes of some hardship over which human beings are entirely without power.

Squirrels have begun to dig up my pots. All the rocks that had served as a defense in years past have been placed in a border around the transplanted spirea. It is all right. I am trying to let others act with the wisdom endowed upon them at their creation. I have laid down my gardening hose in the knowledge that the dazzling transition between summer and autumn, when wildflowers are lithe and vibrant and lovely, will not dazzle in the same way this year. Santiago and I have walked through fields where the goldenrod was not even a foot tall, spindly as thread and barren of blooms. I am trying to live without the certainty that what pleases me is what is best.

At a swimming beach one morning, Santi and I hike across shoreline that before the drought had been under water. Nearby, a woman with white hair pulls a blue caftan over her head and places it on a picnic table. She is wearing a black bathing suit. Her round face is luminous as she smiles and greets us and heads into the lake, her warmth and openness so complete that I wonder if she notices the sharp stones, the litter, the stagnant water. Above the empty lifeguard station, where sand gives way to trees, Santiago catches wind of a chipmunk. He gives chase underneath a trailing length of woodbine, but his paws lose traction and skitter across the powdery soil. Above our heads, the red cedars appear limp and rusty. But they have often looked that way–like uncombed beards decorated with the crumbs of forgotten meals. They are tolerant of the dry ground. They do not need much.

I am thinking about the swimmer: about how buoyant she was on the wave of what the day had brought, how utterly without rancor.

When Santiago and I return home, I take off his harness and he trots to his water dish. The air conditioner is puffing and Santi is lapping, and it takes some time for me to realize that a toilet in the basement is flushing itself over and over and over again. It is a problem that I had tried to fix a day earlier. It is worse now. When the question of how many gallons of unused water have been flushed down the drain rises in my mind, I tamp it down, unexamined, and call a plumber.

In the afternoon, the cowbirds come. They number about a dozen, black-winged and brown-headed, browsing for insects and eating the seed on offer. Under the shade of spruce boughs, two of them sit in a hanging feeder like lovers on a swing. Two stand in the bird bath, preening, sunlight opalescent on their feathers. The rest strut the yard, poking their beaks into the earth among the brittle remains of grass and moss and violets. They are not alone. The cowbirds are joined by a pair of goldfinches and a robin, by a handful of cardinals and a few chickadees, by a solitary woodpecker and some social sparrows, each bird chirping and squawking and pecking and pounding, fluttering across the yard from branch to branch, swooping to the feeders and alighting on the edge of the bath, more birds than I have ever seen in my yard, their flights knitting in the air an invisible tapestry of avian life.

When they have gone, I empty the bath and refill it with a pitcher of tap water. If they return for supper tomorrow, I don’t want them to go without.

You can find pictures of the end of summer in the gallery, and video of Santiago “Tracking Joy”at HitRecord.

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Place

On the day before Santiago’s eighth birthday, we get on the road early and head north. The sun has risen, but it is not yet forty degrees. We pass through the city and the suburbs and the exurbs, through orange-coned construction zones, past brightly painted outlet malls, beside sleepy distribution centers. I use one hand to unwrap a slice of pound cake that I’ve laid on the passenger seat. Santi awakens behind me and puts his chin on the arm rest, his nose bunching as he inhales the butter-and-marmalade scent. I tear off a sticky chunk and share. From time to time, wind gusts shoulder the car closer to a field of grazing cattle or to a roadside flower mart or to a parked truck advertising a rodeo. The date for the rodeo provides no year, and I wonder, as the sun gleams on clapboard houses behind little stands of trees, whether it expresses an event that is to come or one that might have been had there not been a pandemic.

After ninety minutes, we pull in at a dairy. We get out of the car and stretch our legs. Though we have not been here for three and a half years, Santiago knows this place. He sniffs at the trees in the pet station, lifts his leg, then tugs me through the parking lot, toward where the asphalt disappears and the air smells of hay and sweet grass and horses. I bring him back to the car and enter the shop. I order a hot sandwich with egg and ham. I buy provisions and gifts: cheese, crackers, liquor, candy. The last purchase is a “puppy cup” for Santi: a few, generous mouthfuls of vanilla soft serve. It is for celebrating the strange joy of living in a body, year after year, on this little, blue planet, spinning in a galaxy made of dust and gas and darkness and stars.

We eat outside. Santiago guzzles the ice cream like it’s cold water on a steaming day, after which he begs for my sandwich. I share. We are in Wisconsin now, heading east. Our destination is the small town where my parents had a home for nineteen years. On weekends, it slept children and spouses and grandchildren, nieces and cousins and life-long friends. The living room windows looked out across low ferns and conifers, past the trunks of tall, skinny hardwoods to a lake that jogged like a jigsaw puzzle, with hollows for swans and wild rice. The kitchen windows took in the morning sun across a rock garden planted with roses and geraniums and coneflowers. At the end of a long driveway, my father built a wishing well, and the beds in the house were laid with quilts hand-stitched by my mother.

For twenty years before they moved to that house, my parents owned a cabin nearby. It was small and smelled of mold, and it faced a shoreline with soft, clean sand. There were mosquitoes and bats, bunk beds and a hammock, and a trail that led through the woods to an old gangster hideout. This lake country is where my family’s roots are deepest. It is where we smoked meat and toasted marshmallows and played lawn games; where we drank gin-and-tonics on a slow-trolling pontoon boat, searching for eagles among the trees; where we watched the sun set over the water and listened to loon calls in the cool, black night. In this place, teenage crushes were confessed and Sasquatch tales were told. This town is where we shopped after Thanksgiving, convening for lattés, splitting up to purchase gifts, bumping into each other at the candy store, year after year after year. It is where we marched in a Christmas parade, bells jingling on our elf hats, tossing candy as we accompanied a seaworthy tugboat formed by my father’s hammer and strung with lights.

Here, I swam in gray, September waters. Here, for the first time, Santiago played in snow.

The Earth spun. We aged. My parents moved closer to me, closer to my brother and sister. But I did not leave that place. Each memory is a story, and the stories are stacked in my mind like books on a shelf, piled top to side in a helter-skelter of delight, and when I pull them down for a look, the spines flop open to favorite passages and vivid illustrations, and the books smell of sunblock and wood smoke and cocktail peanuts and pine needles and roasted turkey, and score sheets from old board games fall from the pages, and my heart remembers, and I am not discontented, for I have lived.

I give Santiago some kibble, and he settles into the back seat. He understands where we are going; it will take us another ninety minutes to get there. Familiar landmarks–rivers and cemeteries and bars, a golf course, a fire station–grow large as we approach, then vanish in an instant behind us. When we pass the county sign–the last significant marker before we reach town–I swallow a few upstart tears. We cannot, of course, go to the house that my parents sold to others. We pull up, instead, at the library. Behind it is a park. My dad and his friends designed it. They cleared the paths, built the bridge and the benches, erected the kiosks. After a tornado touched down, they did much of the work a second time. They cared for this place as if it were their home.

The spring air is warming, and the sun shines in a blue sky through which the wind pushes fat, white clouds. Santiago knows the trail. He puts his nose to a statue just outside the woods and then, pissing, begins the extended process of greeting this ground after our long time away. The path is mulched and clear. Red pines tower above us, and small markers staked in the soil name the plants in the understory. Throughout the park, child-size podiums display the pages of a picture book: a tale of animals who live in this place and how they survive the winter. We linger over sites that we have remembered with fondness: the footbridge over a pond from which water lilies are rising to the surface; the preserved cross-section of a century-old oak; the forest pocket from which an entire flock of foraging grouse once took flight. In a glade, in front of an old row of benches, we encounter a new, open-air stage. Santiago crosses the boards and stops, as if a spotlight shone upon him and he were about to deliver a tender monologue.

In the gardens at home, I have been snipping the hollow stems of last year’s perennials. The bees who might have slumbered within them, warm in the snow, are now at the dandelions, which have already bloomed and gone to seed and are standing naked and reedy in the lawn. I don’t uproot them; I like their sunny faces and bitter leaves and the blowzy way they depart when it is time. I trim the grass around the beds and prune Virginia waterleaf where it hangs over the other vegetation like a poncho. I fill the bird feeders and scrub the bird bath. There are twigs to rake and catkins to sweep, and these duties assert themselves day after day. The air smells of lilac and lily-of-the-valley, but there has been no rain for weeks, only the cloud spittle that makes the car in the driveway even dirtier. I get out the watering can. I sprinkle the potted herbs and the plants that are blooming: the Jacob’s ladder, the Jack-in-the-pulpit, the maidenhair fern sprung up suddenly high and gangly. I do not want to waste water. But the rain doesn’t come. I get out the hose. I am not sure of the right way to provide nurture.

We come to the edge of the park and Santiago starts across the road. I hold him back. We have never been here before. But a footpath is visible on the other side of the asphalt and, beside it, a sign with faded print. I release my hold, and Santi leads us to another set of trails where spring azure butterflies flit across the forest floor. It is impossibly quiet. Trees have not yet leafed in the north, and only the thinnest blades of grass poke out from straw-like patches beneath our feet. We follow the shoreline of a lake that is blue-gray and shining as the wind ruffles it. Pine cones loll in the shade.

This is the state where my great-grandparents met and married, where they built a house and raised sheep and children. With its lakes and hills and woods, it reminded my great-grandmother of her birthplace in Sweden. The railroad stopped bringing their sheep to market, and they moved to Colorado. The land was dry, and Grandma called the fencing poor, no good for shepherding. She never took to the place. When she was very old, she labored in a garden behind her cottage, growing irises that reached her hips and made her smile. She lost her wedding band in that garden. It wasn’t found until after she had been laid in the ground. Every morning, I slip it on my finger.

When we have walked for hours, Santiago and I make our way back to the car. I open all the doors and give him water and kibble. He waits patiently on Main Street while I buy a latté, and as we head southwest, he sleeps. The sun is hot on his back. Signs along the road warn residents and passers-by that fire danger is high. Near the place where, on a cloudy morning years ago, a deer stepped on graceful legs into the road before my front bumper, disappearing into the trees as I crushed my brakes and my heart beat against my eyes, we pass acres where the woods have been removed. Half a dozen yellow trucks lumber over the bare earth.

The road trip wasn’t for Santiago. It was for me. I was thirsty. I needed a latté.

The next morning, it is Santi’s birthday. We leave the house on foot, before breakfast. It is his favorite way of waking up. He chooses an excellent route, one that loops through five parks, crossing back and forth over train tracks on sneaky trails whose stories he remembers. We watch a woodpecker knocking at a fallen snag, and swans floating in a marsh below a transmission tower. In the afternoon, I give him cheese. In the evening, I climb onto the couch beside him, facing him like a lover, my hip hanging off the cushion, breathing his breath, scratching his chest as he purrs.

We met a man on the trails in Wisconsin. He was young. He wore shorts and a tee-shirt and sunglasses. He rode a fat tire bike and approached–almost without sound in the impossibly quiet woods– from behind us. After he had passed, he turned his head and called into his wake.

“That’s a handsome dog!”

A short while later, at the library park, we met a gray-haired couple, both tall and rangy. They wore faded sweatshirts and walked with their grandchildren. They let Santiago jump on them.

“He’s like ours,” they said. “We just lost him. Ten years old. In bed. Didn’t wake up. We weren’t ready.”

This is the place where Santiago and I live: between our handsome youth and the death that will come too soon. I have been happy, and the consequence of my happiness is that time is moving faster than I have ever known it to move. I water the bare ground where–as the planet spins–the slimmest shoots of prairie clover and butterfly weed will emerge. I wash dishes and fix toilets, shake out rugs and turn the compost, hang out laundry and sweep the floors. These cares assert themselves day after day. And day after day, I walk with my companion in the peace of the morning until we are spent. In attending to this place, I am satisfied.

My parents, too, have birthdays in May. One afternoon, they take me to a park near their home in the suburbs. The trees in the wood reach toward the light–poplars and ironwoods and red oaks, and flowering shrubs that we touch and try to name. They have leafed and arch over us, and moss grows on the rotting logs scattered in the brush, so that to walk here is like walking the wide aisle of a great cathedral in which the stained glass windows are all in shades of green. We encounter turkeys on a hillside and a tiny, white-haired woman who walks briskly, stocking-footed. When we come to a sun-bathed bridge, we stand in the middle of it, watching the minnows swimming in the water below until we notice the eagles flying among the trees.

To see Santiago treading the boards, and the green cathedral of spring in other places, visit the gallery.

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Habit

Sunrise holds back now. I lie in bed listening to the whisper of Santiago’s breath in the darkness. The scrape of air entering his nostrils and the silence that follows–the repetition like a chant–constitutes the day’s first prayer. One by one, I invite into my mind the people I love, petitioning for their care as I was taught to do as a child. I name, too, those who trouble me, for this is the hour when my heart is soft. I name the roof that is close above our heads, the walk that we will take after sunrise, the cinnamon rolls that we will share at breakfast, both of us gleeful and gluttonous.

Santi senses my consciousness. His chanting ceases. He lifts his head and releases two, pitiful sobs. I reach my hand out from under the bedclothes and feel for his chest. It is narrow and muscled and covered with fur that is short and velvety. When I find it, I begin to scratch. He lays his jowl against the bed once more and sighs: another prayer.

I get out of bed and throw up a sash. Most years by this time, the windows are sealed with frost, but day after day this December, the temperature is high, as if we lived much farther south. A bit of night blows out of the room and a cardinal sings as I sit in a rocking chair and read scripture. I am trying to establish a new habit. Santiago slumbers once more. He will not rouse himself until I have brushed my teeth and done a few stretches; until I have drawn the living room curtains and rummaged for a hat and gloves; until I have jangled his harness and called his name again and again and opened the front door to entice him. Then, at last, he will blink away his dreams and trot down the stairs, eager to greet the dawn. But not before that time. Winter has its rhythm.

On the third Sunday in Advent, we visit the dam. There is a pearl-gray wash over the landscape, which is unruffled save for those few Sunday morning men who walk alone in flannel shirts and hooded eyes. I point to a beaver swimming in the river, her tail ruddering and leaving a slender wedge of wake, but we are on a distant bank and, though he pauses, I’m not sure that Santiago sees her. We walk for two hours, through the papery remains of the summer prairie and through woods where the dignity of naked trees–with their paunchy trunks and fungi like jewels, their flung skeins of half-sunk roots and branches decorated with buttons of hopeful buds, their furrowed bark and the wounds from which new branches grow as wild as sparklers on the Fourth of July–is as heart-stoppingly beautiful as the vaunted green habit of spring.

Santiago tracks, zigzagging back and forth along the trails. I am tugged to piles of brush in search of mice, to fields that smell of deer. We come to a wooden footbridge, and though we know it very well, the dog takes a step or two across its arching frame and sinks into a crouch. His pace slows and he moves fearfully, his body like that of a soldier crawling through enemy territory. The temperature is just below freezing. Beneath us, the wooden planks pop and the metal supports ring, the noises disorienting. What had been familiar and firm suddenly seems eerie and frightful. I watch Santiago, and a rumble of worry echoes inside me, so that with each crack I imagine a plank beneath our feet snapping.

When we get to the other side, on a beach upstream, Santi pads through the soft, dry sand and runs his nose thoughtfully along a freshly gnawed tree surrounded by wood chips. There is more than one way to see.

On the Monday before Thanksgiving, I resigned from my job. Like wind shaking fruits from a tree, the convulsions of the year shook loose from what has been ordinary and expected the life that I want to live instead. I have no truck with freeway traffic. The work clothes that I prefer are pocketed overalls and dusty boots. To labor in a cubicle where the sky cannot find me has been to betray a friendship. I have just three more days to office.

I am crossing the wailing bridge. I am eyeball to the gap between the slats, looking at the winter black river and its brittle layer of ice. I am judging the patch of rust on my car, listening to the flutter of the furnace. I am awaiting an insurance card and sitting on a couch whose torn cushions are dressed with laundered blankets. There is no paycheck ahead, no work but what I create for myself.

A couple of weeks ago, Santiago and I walked at a nature preserve: a small, favorite place tucked between apartment buildings and an air field. The morning sun cast orange light across the highest trees in the wood, and where there was grass, it was the beautiful blue that results from an application of frost. We trod the familiar boardwalk, through a dry marsh as alien as a moonscape. In this park where Santi has avidly hunted splashing muskrats, there were, among the bleached stalks of cattails, some patches of gray ice. But the waters had mostly receded, and we looked upon humps of hard soil, bits of formerly submerged vegetation, and dead trees–all sparkling like tinsel. For the first time in two years, we walked parts of the boardwalk that had been flooded. I watched woodpeckers knock at trees. Santiago examined a perfect set of tiny, wet footprints that climbed up one side of the boardwalk and lingered for a stroll before climbing down the other.

The landscape changes and we adjust. Life persists.

It is forty-three degrees Fahrenheit at 7:30 in the morning on December 23rd, when Santiago and I begin our walk. We have left our car near a hockey rink. The ice within the boards gleams with a layer of water, and blades of grass poke through its surface. The sun is not yet entirely over the horizon, and the clouds are as thick as a wool muffler, making the neighborhood’s seasonal decorations blink with a gentle vividness. In a warmly lit room with glass walls, a white tree is hung with glittering ornaments. Beside a back yard dog house, a pup made of yellow bulbs wears an illuminated red cap on his head. There are window boxes dressed in pine and bows, and a Little Free Library offers a dish of peppermint candies. In one plot, every tree and eave is wrapped with lights, and the garden is planted with candy canes. I watch two squirrels run across a telephone wire. The air smells of wood smoke and cedar and fabric softener.

A young man and woman cross the road. They are dressed in scarves and knit caps. They walk at an easy pace. Santiago stops to piss on a fire hydrant and the couple passes us.

“The calm before the storm,” the man says, and he smiles.

When Santi and I return to the hockey rink, two men are grooming the ice, one with a broom, the other with a rake. Santiago watches them for a long time, the water splashing at their feet.

The cold is coming.

At home, I make French toast from old cardamom bread. I smother it with powered sugar and maple syrup and stud it with clementine chunks and sliced almonds, and Santiago and I eat gleefully and gluttonously.

My family has adjusted its holiday traditions. I walked around a garden with my parents this week, watching my father adjust my mother’s mask to clear her fogging glasses. They gave me a thumb drive of family photos to keep me company on Christmas Day. At a wildlife sanctuary with my sister’s family, I laughed when my niece accidentally doused me in feed corn and watched in wonder as a yearling stuck his nose through a chain link fence to lick her hand. I delivered what presents I could and stood in line to ship the rest. Until the day that I turn in my office computer, I don’t need to be anywhere but home.

The snow begins to fall: the first since October. It is wet and heavy. As the temperature drops it will become ice. I put on a sweater and clear what is on the ground, even as colder snow continues to plummet and blow, the landscape now as fluid as a river. By evening, it is ten degrees. On Christmas Eve, it will be below zero.

The weather was warm a couple of days ago, at the winter solstice. People were out in the park where Santi and I were walking. There were families with preschoolers on little bicycles and women jogging in pairs. There were men on fat tires in the woods and a group of four young boys on scooters at the bottom of a slip of pavement. The boys were wheeling themselves, one-footed, up the hill. The smallest one trailed the others, and he looked at me and Santiago as we crossed his path.

“That was really fun!” he said, his face as bright as a comet.

With his hand, he made a diving gesture.

“Shwoop!” he explained.

That day, Santiago and I walked on a high ridge amid towering red pines. We had never been there before, had never imagined that this vista existed in a place so familiar to us. When we got home, I indulged a habit, reaching for a notebook and pen. I wrote about the peeling plates of cinnamon bark on the trees and the ladders of broken branches describing their age; about the tufts of white-tailed deer fur that lay among the milkweed pods and about the dead deer who lay between the freeway and a pile of brush several yards away; about the tents hidden between the horsetail and the railroad tracks, and the graffiti under the bridge by the abandoned plant; about the sky that darkened and the oak leaves that began to whirl and advance like angry spirits; about the dock pushed out from shore to hibernate in ice as pretty as green marble; about the little boy who asked me to watch him on his second descent and about all of the boys who came shwooping down the hill, their stocking caps flying behind them.

Writing is how I see. And I expect that it will hold.

For the joys of the season, including including deer and ornaments and orange-tinted dawns, visit the gallery. Merry Christmas!

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Dust

On a Wednesday evening, I arrive home to find a potted bromeliad lying sideways on the living room rug. I bought the plant a year ago, at the zoo, on a sunny spring day when the air was still cool and I had to wrap the shoots and the roots in slippery plastic bags and carry the package awkwardly to where I had parked my car. The dirt in the pot is hard; not much of it has scattered. It has been unclear to me during the dark, dry months of winter whether or not the plant was alive. Now, six inches of palm leaves have been abbreviated all around, leaving short, raggedy blades that will no longer communicate with the sun or make food. I hear the thump of Santiago springing off the bed and landing on the floor. He comes down the staircase, feet prancing agilely on old, narrow steps. He greets me with hips that samba in anticipation of a walk. One of us has killed the plant.

Santiago is a grazer. In the summer, the world is his pantry. He trots at a clip, hardly dipping his head to bite off the grass that bends at the side of the trail, inviting consumption. I discourage this, for grass does not change composition in his gut, coming out in the same, long strands in which it went in, wreaking havoc on his elimination. But to snack while chasing scent is his canine bliss. He eats goldenrod in every season, nosing it out from its tenderest, green appearance over the soil in spring to its tall, toughened stalks that survive the fall frosts, their tiny yellow flowers gone pale as ghosts in the fields.

That night, my throat feels like it has been stung by bees. I’ve been surrounded by people with rumbling, wet coughs. I go to sleep early, and in a dream, I run with wolves. There are a dozen of them, the color of river rocks. We trot untiringly among desert scrub and across sandy buttes that stand, square and lonely, against an infinite white sky. It is not clear to me whether I have two feet or four. The air is warm and dry and untroubled. All of my needs are met.

I work a day at the office. My head fills with fluid that begins to pound like waves breaking against a sea wall. My ears itch low in a hollow that can’t be reached. My lungs flutter weakly and deflate, aching. I am hot. Friday, I stay home. I am in bed, late morning, when Santiago opens his eyes and stands upon the mattress. We have been sleeping. The sun is bright through the bedroom windows. The dog bows, stretching his back, and waves his rump. He yawns. He moves toward me, feints, moves away. He looks at me with shining eyes. He barks.

Every day, we have need of feeling the scratch of earth beneath our feet.

I choose a route that is flat, that is likely to be free of ice, that is sheltered from the wind, a route that will accommodate my fatigue. We drive to a suburban lake surrounded by trees, with a trail just over three miles long. The sky is a blue so shot through with light that to be under its canopy is to be showered with hope. Spectacular cattails surround the frozen water. They are no longer smooth and brown but golden, and ragged and fluffy with use, plucked at by insects for food, by birds to line their nests. This borderland of sentries will thrive and spread in the scores of years that the lake will take to fill in, to continue dying in the way of watery things and become a marsh.

Santiago and I walk. We see few creatures. Winter is disappointing in this way; for, it was in this park hardly three months ago that we encountered on one day both a pheasant–bejeweled and regal and rustling in the woods–and a possum–so slow-moving and pink and bewildered by Santi’s woofing that I abjured the animal’s reputation for fierceness. Now there is only crusty snow and the stoic reach of trees. The trail curves and the scene changes. Beyond a swath of maples and poplars hugged by buckthorn, are fresh stumps near a stream where mallards have gathered. They quack quietly. Sawdust litters the path, and a flatbed truck is parked beside it. It is jarring: this disruption of the soil, the nakedness where trees once stood, the hulking frame of metal and rubber, a human footprint that seems misplaced.

And then I see the trail: fresh mulch has been laid across the path beside the stream. It is fragrant–woody and fecal and dusty and sweet. I inhale it, the smell reminding me of my grandparents’ farm. The pulp is soft beneath our feet as we pass the ducks who flap at the air and fly to the opposite bank, the silver water rippling and glinting in the sunlight. The cold air is a purgative to my lungs. I cough up sadness, discouragement. And there, in the unsettled soil still white with morning frost, a week before February’s finish, I see my first robin of spring.

It is a wonderful weekend. I rest, and on Saturday Santiago and I go to the dam. The air is warmer now. Upstream, chunks of white ice have crashed and stacked upon themselves in the freeze and thaw but are still. Downstream, the water is black and moving from shore to shore. We walk on ski trails gone to mush in the woods beside the river. I watch eagles gliding high in the sky over muddy beaches, and Santi sniffs at layers of scent uncovered in the melting snow. We wade through puddles that trickle over the asphalt path. Before he gets back into the car, I towel him off. He smells of dog sweat and brine.

And he starts to vomit. The bromeliad comes up: more than forty-eight hours later, in the same form that it went down. It is cold again, and Santiago vomits for days, sometimes openly–begging in the hours just after midnight to be released to the yard–and sometimes surreptitiously, so that I leave for the office and the house smells sour when I return and I wander the rooms, looking for the mustard stain of bile and scrubbing carpets. Santiago and the plant and I have entered a new life together, the consequence of our individual actions in a woven world.

I am notified that someone applied for a credit card with my social security number. I find mouse droppings in a lunch sack that I left on the kitchen counter. Mice have been with me all winter, pillaging grapes and peppermint Kisses, carting away plastic containers, chewing on kitchen sponges and felted wool gifts, dropping twine down the garbage disposal. Breathing still feels like trying to inflate a baseball glove. I scratch at my lungs and cry when the alarm goes off in the morning.

At noon on Ash Wednesday, I go to church. A woman with a limp arrives late. She walks the aisle leaning on a cane, her head covered with a scarf, and puts one knee stiffly to the ground, bowing toward the chancel before getting into the pew. The sermon is about the reassurance of our smallness. It is about the carbon atoms in the stars and the carbon atoms in our bodies, about the vastness of the universe, its interconnectedness and beauty. The priest stands before towering stained glass windows, shapeless underneath her cassock and surplice, her round glasses dwarfing a tiny, pointed chin, and reminds us that we are failing, that we will die and become dust, that to wish that we were something different, something greater, is a misplaced notion.

Santiago and I walk that evening with a friend. She holds the leash and practices jogging with him over icy patches to stay erect. He pees on tree trunks, on leaf litter, on dirty mounds of snow with fading yellow splotches. She wonders aloud how much urine his bladder can hold and laughs. He runs his nose along twigs that emerge from the shrinking snow, licking them with a thoughtful expression before moving on. We ask him to sit for a photo. He refuses to mind our commands. Our thighs are cold. We go home and eat cupcakes.

The next day, I find a dead mouse. Her furry body–the color of river rock–is rigid in a trap that I had forgotten about. It is not the roomy, live trap that I placed in the kitchen and stocked with dabs of peanut butter and a fat raspberry. It is a snap trap in the basement, on the floor, under a table, not baited at all. When I pick it up, my heart seizes with horror and shame. The bottom of the trap has been gnawed. Minuscule bits of plastic pebble the floor. The trap sprang across the mouse’s legs, not her neck. She tried to chew her way free.

I look at her closed eyes. I hold the trap in my hand, shaking. I want to be better, greater. My instinct is to throw the trap away, not because it will no longer work or because I have renounced the killing of mice whose footprints have been in my life as mine have been in theirs. I want to toss it because I want to pretend that I did not torture another living being until she died.

I keep the trap. I contemplate my smallness. I pray for the soul of the mouse.

I dream, and there is a path that I keep walking. I can’t quite see where I am because I am watching my feet. There are lumps of hard snow and disheveled grass along the way, ungreen, unlovely. I think that Santiago is with me. The place feels familiar. And it feels like I am in danger. It is comfortable and terrifying.

The next morning, I sit in traffic at a stoplight. The curb is grimy with winter’s refuse. There are condiment packages, disposable cups, liquor bottles, cigarette butts, plastic bags, french fry sleeves, socks. Last year’s limp, beige weeds hang from a crack in the concrete. A man holds a cardboard sign, asking for help beside pigeons eating garbage on the sidewalk. The dome of a basilica reaches high up into the hopeful canopy of the sky.

Missing Santiago? You’ll find him on fresh mulch in the gallery.

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Church

On Sunday morning when I awake, snow is plummeting to the ground outside my windows. Every rooftop up and down the street is frosted with white innocence. Every tree branch is trimmed with heaps of delicate ice crystals, and cars at the curb are capped with it down to their door handles. For miles around, the world is draped in a baptismal gown. Santiago wades through the powder on the deck to piss in the yard, the snow nearly touching his belly. It is quiet.

After breakfast, I join the dog, who has returned to the bed. The quilts are still taut, but he has settled onto the pink shag throw that I call his “princess bed,” kneading it comfortably around himself. I light a devotional candle that smells of rose petals and features an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe that glows before the flame. Arranging pillows behind my back, I settle in next to Santi and wrap my feet in an afghan crocheted by my mother. I begin to read aloud from The Book of Common Prayer.

Santiago likes church. He is motionless, his eyes closed, his jowl against a hump of soft, pink shag. His breathing as I speak centuries-old incantations of petition and praise becomes looser and steadier, his slowly lifting and sinking side like the swinging of thurible filled with incense. The whistling of his nose subsides. His body is a prayer of peace.

A couple of years ago, we met a man at a park beside the Mississippi River in February. It was morning. Snow was knee-high and dazzling under a bright blue sky following a two-day blizzard. The man was tall and young and black and handsome. He stood near a battered pick-up truck in the parking lot. When I got out of my car, he asked if I knew when the shelter would open. It was a Monday. It wouldn’t open.

“Do you need help?” I asked.

“I need some water for my car,” he said.

He talked quickly, explaining conditions under the open hood. He was agitated.

“I can take you to a gas station.”

“Really? That would be great!”

“Can you share the car with a dog?”

The man looked into my back seat. He hesitated.

“As long as he won’t bite me.”

I got back into my car, and the man folded himself into the passenger seat. Santiago stood up and began dancing on his back feet, pressing his snout into the man’s ear, sniffing and licking him. The man smiled. I headed in the direction of a gas station.

“What’s his name?” the man asked, submitting to Santi’s affection, offering the dog his face and his hand.

“Santiago,” I said.

“Iago,” he said. “That means James.”

“Yes,” I replied, turning my eyes to the man, “Saint James.”

“That’s my name,” he said. “James.”

I am reading Morning Prayer. When I reach the psalm, I chant it softly, as was done in the church of my childhood by a priest with tight permanent curls, a guitar, and cowboy boots under his cassock. The humidifier sighs in the corner of the room, louder, now, than Santi’s breathing, for he has fallen into exquisite slumber. I sing a hymn. I complete the prayers. Picking up a rosary, I finger the lacquered beads, reciting little mantras until my mind, too, is lulled to rest. I put my prayer book on the dresser and curl my body around Santiago’s. He lifts a single eyelid and thumps his tail. The snow falls.

St. James and his brother John left their fishing nets puddled on the sand and followed Jesus. They traveled with nothing: no purses, no food, not a fresh shirt nor a walking stick to lean upon. They had only their feet and their faith. They were there on a mountaintop when light phosphoresced around Jesus and a cloud enveloped them and a voice said, “Listen to him.” They once wondered if they ought to set heavenly fire to the opposition, but Jesus rebuked them.

I’ve been going to a cathedral on my lunch hour. Sometimes there is a service; most of the time, there is not. I sit with my prayer book in my lap and stare at the stained glass windows, telling myself Bible stories. I wander the sanctuary, looking at sculptures of Mary, of Paul, reading the scripture engraved on the pulpit, watching the flicker of votive candles.

In the evenings, Santiago and I walk. We visit a creek in which the snow-covered banks and slim pines are reflected in perfect stillness, the tree trunks reaching into both the earth and the sky ad infinitum. We wander the river at sunset, Santi burying his nose in the white woods as geese honk out on the water and lamps begin to twinkle on the opposite shore. We walk at a city park, where adults are pulling children in sleds across a skating pond and ducks are flying before an orange horizon and red wreaths shaped like hearts are hanging on front doors.

On Monday morning, the roads remain slippery from the storm. It takes me more than double the usual time to get to work. At a traffic light, I watch two men slowly cross the street, one of them holding a German Shepherd tightly on a choke chain, his hand held high. The dog minces and lurches, not knowing how to move. I start to cry. Cars inch forward, coasting atop greasy slush. Everything in my life that I cannot speak is incarnate in that dog. I pray.

When James was back in the passenger seat with a gas jug full of water, he said to me, “Not everyone would have stopped to help me.” We both understand that he means that he is a young black man and I am an older white woman and we do not yet live in the world that Jesus spoke of, the one without distinctions.

On the night of the Sunday snowfall, Santiago and I return to bed. I light the Virgin candle once more and the humidifier with its cool sigh. It is too early to sleep. I hold a book in my lap. I pet Santiago. This is my prayer.