Categories
Uncategorized

Holy

Holy Week arrives on the wind. Above the front yard, the branches of a white pine bend and shudder in the tempest. Morning after morning, the yard is dense with pods knocked loose from Kentucky coffee trees. Each one is nearly the size of my hand: a wine-colored pouch filled with smooth, brown seeds. I gather hundreds at a time, composting some, bagging others to be hauled away, saving a few seeds in a jar. Air that flutters like a moth on a warm, June lawn blows in. The next day, winter’s gelid fingers snatch it back. Icicles hang from the hidden wounds of trees.

On Tuesday, the windchill is well below freezing. Santiago and I walk. I wear jackets in layers and a knit cap on my head. We hike beside railroad tracks where an office chair has been abandoned. Its torn vinyl shimmers gold in the sunlight, and when a gust catches it, it swivels. Last year’s grass is flaxen and withered and shining in the strong, spring light. Santi stops to roll in it, standing upright and dusty and satisfied when he is through. Below us is the bright green turf of an athletic field, its line markings fresh in yellow and white. A woman is there, at the edge of a baseball diamond, flying a kite. The kite is shaped like a fish and has streamers for a tail. It is half-drowning in the waves.

I steer Santiago to the shelter of neighborhood streets. There, porches are furnished with comfortable old chairs, books are on offer in cabinets at the sidewalk, and a guitar has been made into a bird house overlooking a garden. We walk past a park where children in face masks are running off their recess. But Santi loves a good headwind; he watches the children then cuts through the trees around which they are playing and heads for the lake. The gale off the water is unremitting–and cold. Santiago speeds up to press against it, pulling me like a sled-load behind him. The wind seems to batter from every direction, now and then catching the lobe of an ear in its teeth. In this way it is like Santi when he wrestles with me, and encountering it is the same boisterous and merry delight. We watch a man in a sweatsuit out on a spit of land in the middle of the lake. He has a cell phone to his ear. Around his legs, his pale, gray pants flap and a shiny black lab gambols. The man and the dog are flecks on the vista, the ground beneath their feet almost invisible as all around them dark waves dance a tarantella.

If there is something more hallowed than this–the wind and the office chair and the dust and the kite and the waves and the man and the dog and our happiness–I do not know what it is. When Santiago and I finally reach the curve in the shoreline that leads us away from the sharpest squalls, we are greeted by a patch of pale purple crocuses. They are the first wild blooms I’ve seen this year.

“This is my body, given for you…”

In the evening, I am online with friends. They huddle on a couch as the sky turns to sapphire behind them. I turn on a lamp to light my face. We eat and drink and talk. I tell them that my brother-in-law’s best friend will die that night of COVID. “I thought,” he said to me, “that it would be a minor character, someone in the chorus.” A wife of their acquaintance is host to a merciless cancer. Our shoulders sag; our eyes are bleak. They ask about my writing, if it is going well, and I don’t know how to answer. I only know how to work by numbers: payroll hours, salary, word count. But I feel certain that there is another way. That is what I am seeking. We sing Lenten hymns, and the sound of our voices mingles and then climbs back inside us to where sacred things live. It sits down and closes its eyes and smiles.

Before I met Santiago, I was ignorant of spring. It was to me the season of filthy snow and dreary woods, of twigs scattered on dead lawns in the bone-chilling rain, the season of nothingness that preceded the season of dizzying heat. But Santi takes me walking in spring shoes. As Easter Sunday nears, we visit a tiny lake secreted between a railroad corridor and rows of beautiful, old houses. Some have Tudor peaks and some have Spanish tiles and one has a different clay mask hanging from each window. A hawk coasts in the sky above our heads among branches that sparkle white in the late morning light. As Santi and I approach the water, a Canada goose slips from the shade of tree roots on the bank and into the lake. She honks her displeasure again and again, like she has been forced onto the shoulder in traffic, and then settles into floating silently on the blue bobbles, among the weathered cattails.

We wander back to the sidewalks. When Santiago stops to pee on boulevard trees, I gaze up at buds about to release their tiny clutches in kaleidoscopes of leaf and blossom. Suddenly, at the sidelong limit of our vision, there is a flash of fur. We turn our heads. Santi aims his snout at a brick bungalow. He makes no noise but tugs at the leash. Underneath an arbor vitae, there is trembling. We have interrupted two rabbits at their spring business. Put off by our prurience, they hop away with great alacrity, slipping through a chain link fence into a little pool of backyard sunshine. Their courtship resumes. There is leaping and hunching and shimmying. We move on.

It is Maundy Thursday, and, in the evening, I watch a church service from my couch. Santiago is beside me. When the foot-washing occurs in the sanctuary, I go to the kitchen and run a cloth under warm tap water. I daub it with lavender soap. Santi breathes lightly as I caress his body, washing away what the wind has lodged in his fur. He withholds one foot, tucked under his torso, too tired to move. I give him a treat and turn back to the screen. The priest and the deacons remove their colorful stoles and strip the chancel. They take away the candles and the Bible and the pillows for kneeling at the remnants of the rood screen. They fold the altar cloths and cart them away. They drape the cross in black. The church looks like spring: like barren soil and empty branches and dusty stones. And then, for a long time, the priest crouches and washes the altar. I can’t explain why this makes me cry.

There is no such thing as a season of nothingness.

On Good Friday, the sky is overcast and the wind has not subsided. Santiago and I go out before breakfast. Among houses bearded with a scruff of unleafed ivy, we meet a man with an Alaskan Malamute, traveling on the opposite side of the street. The dog is large and white, his tail curled over his back. The man is slight. He stares straight ahead and pulls the dog behind him. The dog walks on tiptoes and glances back at us. His feet look too small. The teetering is how I know that his neck is wound with a collar made to choke him–a collar that is choking him. We pass a miniature greenhouse inside of which there are no plants, just a replica of a human skull, its jaws open in a howl. Underneath an awning, a woman stands at her front door drinking from a mug. She nods at us. The wind tears at lilies in a pot. A man exits the gate of a crooked fence and eyes Santiago warily. Santi rushes to smell him, wagging his tail, and the man softens. “Hey, guy,” he murmurs. Just before we reach home, I notice a painted stone at the edge of the sidewalk. It has never been there before. The words face passers-by.

The stone says, “Show Love.”

I walk a farmers’ market with a friend on Holy Saturday. All of the vendors want to talk: about bee hives and salsa verde and how ducks lay eggs. There is sunshine, and the wind calms. We order take-out and eat on the deck behind my house. Santiago lies on a blanket beside us, and my friend feeds him the crusts of her sandwich, grilled in butter.

“Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Santi and I wake early on Easter morning. We hurry ourselves and arrive at the Mississippi at dawn. Clouds with sooty hems hang over an empty bench high upon a hillside. And then they part. Robins are everywhere: scuttering across the paths, flying from tree to tree, singing. There is a splash beside a cottonwood ringed with the buck-tooth markings of a beaver, and Santiago and I watch a brown head glide downstream, ripples of water trailing each cheek. The sun climbs, orange and mild. Three men are working beside picnic shelters, picking up trash. They wish us a good morning, and they shout and swear and laugh at each other. Hooded mergansers, regal as scepters, have returned to the river, and gold finches have shrugged off their winter drab and flit among the rustling tallgrass in lemon yellow dress. Beside a post at the border of the playground, as Santi stalks groundhog burrows, I find a golden egg.

On a narrow trail, a woman approaches us. She has long, gray hair and is accompanied by a dog. The dog is small and quiet and pulling on the leash that tethers her to the woman. Santiago is distracted by a scent in the grass. I explain our situation.

“He’s friendly,” I call out.

The woman tosses her leash to the ground. The dogs trot to each other and nose a greeting.

“The Lord is risen!”

“The Lord is risen, indeed. Alleluia!”

Late in the morning, I drive. The sun shines over the freeway. I bring to my mother and father chocolate and jelly beans. Mom and I sit in the kitchen and chat as Dad hands us plates of pretzels and egg rolls, tortilla chips and black bean dip. He tends to the food sizzling on the stove and baking in the oven, and Mom shows me the Ukrainian egg she made decades ago, the quilt she completed last year. In August, she and my dad will have been married for sixty years. I ask them to tell me things that I don’t know: about when she taught riding in the mountains of Colorado and when he was picked up in a Mustang for a job interview and had to figure out what to eat at a golf club. Mom recounts how her foot was pierced by a shaft of wood; she shows me the wound. When I get home, I text my brother and sister the stories. All of our lives we have been part of a narrative that happened above our heads.

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child…Then I shall understand fully, even as I have been understood.”

After Easter, the wind shifts. It rains. Earthworms by the score stretch in the gutters, and plastic eggs lie scattered in the parks, emptied of trinkets and sweets and abandoned. In a swamp, red-winged blackbirds chirr from atop the smooth skeletons of trees, and a muskrat has begun to fashion a new hut from old cattails. It showers and it drizzles and it pours, and Santiago and I walk between the raindrops, welcoming back the wood ducks and the herons. Pussy willow catkins go bushy like caterpillars. Cool air rises from the ground along with starbursts of Virginia waterleaf and needles of lily of the valley. One early morning, Santi and I board a fishing dock. I watch a man with a cigarette between his lips haul up a sunfish while Santi stares between the rails at three whitetail deer in the woods across the water. At the corners of household gardens, yellow flags of forsythia blossoms wave. A squirrel climbs a tree with a slice of pepperoni pizza in his mouth.

If there is something more hallowed than this, I do not know what it is. I turn on the computer, and I write.

Miss Santiago? You can find him rolling in the spring grass in the gallery.

Categories
Uncategorized

Goodness

On Easter morning, the green grass that has been pushing up from the soil is flecked with white. From the bathroom window, I watch a black-capped chickadee perch upon a slim nannyberry branch near the house. More snow is coming. The chickadee swivels her small head, looking this way and that, before swooping into a bird house placed upon the deck railing. She’s been living there for a few days. In the back yard, I’ve scattered long-rooted fescue seed–where Santiago digs and kicks and upturns the soft moss that grows in the shade–and I wonder if it will gulp the moisture with gratitude, or shiver and pass away.

Santi has awakened me, whining briefly for scratches amid the plush wrinkles of his neck, then standing on the bed and wagging his tail to signal his desire to go walking. I pull on long underwear beneath my jeans and wrap a scarf twice around a turtleneck sweater. I put on duck shoes: sufficient until the snow gets deep. Brushing a frozen, wet glaze from the car windows, I drive to the river. Santiago sits upright on the backseat and purrs when I turn on the heat. Along the parkway, robins hop upon the grass, fluttering momentarily into the air as we motor by. Other vehicles line the curbs, asleep with snow upon their backs. We drive slowly. No one is behind us. Up ahead, a pair of pale headlights turns down a side street.

It has been a good week. On Monday, Santiago made a friend at the dog park. We arrived at 7:00 a.m., before my work day had begun. Inside the chain link fence, under a sad, white sky, fresh mulch had been dumped over the mud, but there were no dogs. Still, Santi cried with excitement, wiggling in his car harness, begging to be allowed to run outdoors without a leash and sniff at what others had left behind. It was not until after he had examined the perimeter of the enclosure, nose to the ground; not until after he had dug a fine hole and peed on a water dish; it was not until after we had left the fence behind and walked the park proper, bouncing along the bandaged fishing dock and marveling at the goldfinches dressed in spring yellow; not until we had circled the willows and the sumacs and come back over the hill above the dog fold that Santiago saw the young husky and pulled so hard with lust that I let go of his leash and allowed him to run to the gate.

She was a puppy, just one year old, spirited and without prejudice, a dog who expected merriment to rise up and meet her. She was Santiago’s favorite sort of dog. They wrestled, and they chased. They nipped, and they bumped. They feinted and parried, panted and nuzzled and smelled, and, as they did so, the puppy’s canine companion, a black and white spaniel in a granny sweater with a heart, stood beside them and barked. The man she was with called the old dog by my great-grandmother’s name. When Santiago ran with joy and thanks at his legs, the man cupped his hands across Santi’s head, scuffing his ears and speaking kindly to him, then, as the dog dashed away, apologized to me, saying that it was hard to remember that one shouldn’t be touching anyone who didn’t live in one’s own household.

This is the story of Easter: not that human beings have the capacity to triumph over suffering, but that suffering and joy are cells proliferating in the same body, that it is in their joining that we are whole.

On Maundy Thursday, there are snow squalls. Though tulips are well up in the garden, and the honeysuckle is budding, the world has lost its color. Santiago and I walk in the woods on my lunch hour. When we encounter other people–walkers and joggers, parents with children on small bikes and in strollers–I tug a mask down from the top of my cap and place it over my nose and mouth. I am wearing a light jacket and fingerless mittens.

It is Santi who wants to go to the marsh, to escape the relative crush of the forest path. When we emerge from the shadow of the trees, it is to a white-haired couple dumping dirt from a wheelbarrow onto a corner of their front lawn. The man straightens and smiles at Santiago.

“Hello, ” he says, and his wife asks what he is looking at.

“The dog…” he explains.

The marsh is just one block away. In the time it takes to walk one block from an old man’s smile, we are standing in a wind that seems to come from all directions. My face is being needled by thousands of tiny balls of snow that have made the landscape around us white like scratched film. I close my eyes tightly against the prick of them and am suddenly aware of my ears, their nakedness and their cold. There is a loud crack, like the creaking of a tree in the gale. I have never felt a wind like this wind, and for the first time in my life, the words, “We need to find shelter” form, in a panic, in my mind.

But Santiago pulls ahead. And it doesn’t matter. There is no shelter. We cross the flattened cattails and jump up on the dock. This is where he wants to be: pursuing the thing that he tracked in the melting ice the last time we were here. The snow is driving, and it isn’t until we have leapt over the section of dock that has torn away that I comprehend it, that I think on the loud crack and wonder if the splintered wood that yet holds is going to break and we are going to float off into the marsh. A heron lifts from somewhere beside us, near the end of the dock, and settles its large dusky wings and long legs on the shore across the way, causing two wood ducks to rouse themselves and fly above the water in the wild, perturbing snow. I tug Santi, back down the dock, toward the safety of the suburban sidewalk.

And just like that, the storm passes. The snow melts from the sleeves of my jacket before I am sensible of the wind having subsided. The sun gleams shyly. The lawns smell like spring mud.

What fun we had.

I do not work on Good Friday. We drive early in the morning to the zoo, which is closed. The sky is blue like the robes of angels. We walk the perimeter of the fenced-off grounds, past brightly painted rides and the empty huts where corn dogs and ice cream and cotton candy are sold. I contemplate the zoological statuary–the giraffe, the octopus–and scan the wolf paddock for signs of softly slumbering fur. Before the fences were double here, before they were tall and barbed, I ran with the wolves, walking from home when I was in my twenties on the days without visitors, talking to the animals over a simple chain link border, inviting them to a chase, laughing with them in the air that was brisk and gray, like they were. There are no wolves on this day. Santiago licks at a pile of mammalian poop beside a dumpster.

We trot through the golf course, which is closed. The green hills rise and fall gently, only slightly marred by patches of winter-dead grass. We’ve never been here. We are trying to find our way to the lake, to the park beside the zoo. Bird houses on posts, pretty, little footbridges, and widely spaced trees bring rest to my heart, even as I scramble after Santiago, who is tracing each water hazard, looking for someone. Over and over again, he yanks me to a wet bank, climbing atop artfully arranged boulders or balancing on giving ground beside carved creeks and ponds like darling soup bowls. He does not see the muskrat breakfasting on the lawn. But when the rodent runs–its fat, round cork of a body followed by a tail straight as a dagger–into the waving silvergrass beside sun-sparkled water, Santi is there in seconds, snout lifted at last from the ground, and all four feet leaping into the dry, rustling stems.

We are out for two hours. I intend to go home much earlier, but Santiago reminds me that we are on holiday. We attend to the hooded mergansers, the mallards, the loons on the lake. We climb the hill toward the conservatory, which is closed, its glass dome against the blue sky like the lid on a forbidden candy dish. People are out now. I wear my mask, and, because I am asthmatic, I remember how much more expansive it feels on a cool, spring day to inhale air warmed by my own breath. We walk to the outdoor classroom, to the tall brick oven at the top of a wooded slope that waits, in a sand pit, for chefs to return. We encounter a squirrel who is brazen in his canine baiting. He stands stolidly beside a tree as we come nearer and nearer, until we are hardly a foot from his wee, furry head, and Santiago lunges. I shriek, and, instead of scrambling up the tree, the squirrel does two, fantastical double-pikes, worthy of Olympic acclaim. Laughter falls out of me like the scattering of loose change, forgotten in a pocket. That afternoon, we nap.

On Saturday, I keep vigil with Santiago. In a jar of treats that I stash in the car, I’ve failed to eradicate a sort that gave him heartburn months ago. I am heading into the grocery store with a short list, and I shake a handful of kibble into his dog bowl, to thank him for his patience while I shop. Too late, I notice that at least one offending pellet is in the mix.

Back at home, after he eats breakfast, Santi stands in an crippled posture, his neck extended, staring at the floor. When he looks at me, his eyes are dark with bewilderment and misery. I’ve betrayed him. I speak his name with concern, walking toward him, and he backs away. We do this several times. It is a warm, spring day. The sun is shining. I open the back door, thinking that he might want to go outside and vomit, and Santiago runs haltingly into the yard, watching to see that I don’t follow. He lies down on dry leaves, in the garden, and stays there for hours. It is what he does when he is traumatized.

When he returns to the house, he will not let me approach. He walks upstairs slowly and sleeps on the bed, alone. At last, in the late afternoon, he allows me to rest beside him, without touching him, and to pray out loud, fingering the hard, smooth beads of a rosary. His breathing becomes easier.

The snowfall is faint by the river on Sunday, almost imperceptible. The weight of it won’t come until afternoon, when five inches will pile up before the entrance to the chickadee’s home. Santiago chases a cottontail from the woods. She belly-flies across the path, white tail bounding, and shimmies underneath a bank of lockers that secrets kayaks for rent. The river is high. It has been high for years now. Mature trees rise out of the water twenty-five feet from dry land. We walk to where our path is flooded. Three mallards swim there, above the mud and the asphalt. We turn around.

We met Jesus here once, beside the river. It was a cloudless day, late summer. The sky was azure, and the compass plants towered, their yellow flowers like a cache of happy faces beaming in the sunlight. Over the tops of them, I could see the head of a young man, with black hair cut close, and a beard and mustache that were dark against his skin. I watched the way the head moved, looking for signs that the shoulder below it was attached to a dog on a leash. Santiago does not display his most genteel behavior when surprised by the sudden apparition of another dog. But the man’s movement was odd. I could not understand it.

When Santi and I turned the blind corner hewn from a maze of prairie in bloom, of sunflower and prairie clover and butterfly weed, of goldenrod waving but not yet burst, of massive cottonwood trees casting cool shade and the drone of insects in the heat, we were met by an auburn pit bull, sturdy and mild, dressed in a pink harness. Santiago was surprised. He drew to the end of his leash and bellowed, eager to get to the dog. The man laughed, throwing his head back, his smile wide, his teeth white in the sunlight. He was handsome. The dogs began to circle each other, in curiosity and delight, and they began to circle us, the man and me, which is when I understood what was odd about his movement. His gait was crooked, his balance uncertain. He had cerebral palsy. I was terrified that my dog was going to take him down.

For an infinitesimal moment, the man’s face appeared to express fear, too, and then it was gone. He laughed once more, as each of us spun and plucked–again and again, without success–at the leashes that knit us together in a dog’s game of cat’s cradle. As we bobbled, I noticed the glint in his eyes that smiled along with his lips. I noticed how relaxed and unprejudiced he was, how unconcerned for his safety, how ready to welcome joy. He was just the sort of person I like. When the dogs settled and we steadied ourselves, he told me a joke. While it was his companion who wore pink, I remember the man bathed in that color, remember his limp and his smile for their equal vividness.

When we parted, he wished me a good day.

There is snowfall and spring gladness in the gallery.