Santiago and I have been traveling. On a Sunday morning, cloudy and cool as milk punch, we drive across the Mississippi to walk in Saint Paul with our cousins. The dogs lead: Santi and a springer spaniel named Casey. Casey has long and wavy snow-white fur with auburn spots, and he pulls like Santiago, both of them rooting after scents in boulevard gardens and around old, gray trees, beside fire hydrants and hockey rinks. My cousin, his wife, and I are dressed in the fall colors of the maples and oaks: red and orange and olive. We’ve had juice and coffee, and it is a long loop, so we route past portable toilets. November is when permanent public bathrooms get locked, when trash bins are removed from trails, as if no one is expected to be here in winter. We pass a long-shuttered pool house built of pretty limestone, its outer walls hung with paintings. There is hope that one day it will open again. We skirt a golf course where a pond features a stone coyote meant to frighten ducks, and the dogs trot across the grass, hind ends buoyant. We humans talk about the things in our communal life that make us angry. The wind roughs our cheeks. After a while, we say that we’ve learned to gather with people we love and to appreciate that which encircles us: the earth and the sky and the present moment.
I’ve been relocating mice. We had a cold rain, and night temperatures fell. The mice made their way indoors. As I carry them up from the basement in the mornings, I whisper, “You cannot live here.” They are in a metal box that contains cookie crumbs or seed shells, and a capful of water. Sometimes there is one mouse in the box; sometimes there are two–house mice with round features and pink tails. Usually they are silent, but one mouse pounded at the lid like a prisoner clattering a tin cup along the bars of his cell. I load them onto the floor in the front of the car, harnessing Santiago in the back. That is where he stays as I kneel among leaf litter at the park–any park with a stand of trees sufficiently far from our house–and release them. Their black eyes look at me as they sit unmoving inside the box, its lid lifted to freedom. After consideration, they climb out and scurry a short distance, then wander off slowly. I watch them.
The earth is God’s and all that is in it, all the world and those who live in it.
A week passes, and Santiago and I meet a friend beside the St. Croix River on a Saturday morning. She has parked on a side street near a bridge that crosses into Wisconsin, where she lives, and she is standing there, waiting for us. She wears a red jacket, and a pink bandana is tied over blond hair that she has streaked with blue. Jack-o-lanterns dangle from her ear lobes. I roll down my window and call to her, and she replies in a voice that is low like winter thunder. We have not seen each other since before I adopted Santiago. We walk the bridge as the sun’s rays press at gray clouds, piercing and parting them until they drift off entirely and a bank of trees gone pumpkin and amber, rust and gold rises from the dark ruffle of river that glitters in the light. The nightmares of my childhood always began on a bridge over infinite water. Still, I tug Santi to each lookout. Once, twice, three times, I stand an awkward step from the railing, suspended high above the river, watching slow-moving boats diminutive in the distance, and I marvel at the beauty.
It is important: the beauty.
On the other side of the bridge, labels are staked in the dirt next to thin and brittle roadside plants. The labels are a reminder of the past, of what it had been hoped the future would bring. Drought has lingered, and a disease of rabbits has been confirmed for the first time here. I can’t remember when I last saw a rabbit. Traffic roars past, and I am comforted to be with an old friend even as she tells me about her mother: a woman wrung out over years by a tormenting dementia. She died in July. We walk and wonder what suffering can be for. We come to a farm with red outbuildings and a black steer who is singing a song that captivates Santiago. Downstream, blue plumes rise from a smokestack. We speak about the moment when death is near, and the moment when it has come and is gone, and we are left behind. We make our way to a café and sit outside, sipping coffee. We talk then of the young: of children, a niece, of the ways in which they are forming themselves in a world that isn’t the same today as it was yesterday. We share our pastries with Santiago, who is tied to the table and still manages, in his excitement, to knock over a dog bowl filled with water. He laps the spreading pool from the concrete as a woman at another table laughs.
Santi works with what is.
As mice enter the house to live, wasps come in to die. For weeks, they flicker and buzz in the front rooms, having traveled from their nest behind the eaves into the coat closet. Poisoning them would mean poisoning me and Santiago, and they will pollinate plants when warm weather returns; so, I ignore them, putting their shriveled bodies into the garbage bin after the wasps have departed them. It was the same at my condominium apartment. Wasps there crept into my bedroom window in the fall, and for a month when the sun shone, I could not open it. Santi chases our visitors like flies, and on the day that a wasp clings to his tail and stings him, so that he tries in vain to bite it and turns to me with great, sorrowful eyes, I am displeased with what is. I stop ushering the wasps outside and stomp them instead.
November arrives, and we make another trip. On a Monday morning, I load a bag that includes kibble and a bottle of water into the car and drive north. We are going to see a friend who resides on the north shore of Lake Superior. Santiago purrs as we approach one familiar exit after another, thinking that we are going to the park, the zoo, the nature preserve, then thinking that we are driving to Wisconsin, where my parents used to live. When we pass that exit too, he settles on the back seat and goes to sleep for the last long hour of our ride. Copper-colored oaks give way to white stands of birch and tall red pines and tamaracks with magnificent gold needles. The road that had been straight and flat begins to curve around hillsides and streams. When tiny snowballs start to fall from drifting clouds, I lean over the steering wheel to watch them as a thrill rushes up from my belly.
I love winter.
But I feel terror when I come to the lift bridge in Duluth. I have never been here, and a sign says that the area is restricted, and I don’t like bridges, and the two cars in front of me turn left, and I am alone with my beloved dog, unsure of the way forward. I roll my wheels slowly up the little slope, steel mesh over deep water, and suddenly a car comes into view, crossing from the other side, and I relax, and then we have arrived. Our friend is on the sidewalk, waiting for us. We hug, and she gets inside the car, and we drive beside the lake to a beach where the wind is tussling long strands of grass atop the sand dunes. We get out, and Santiago pulls at his leash as I look across the water to where my great-grandparents met and married. It is chilly; my friend and I wear knit caps and winter jackets. We head into a spit of forest, the ground soft with pine needles, and she takes Santi. We talk about the pandemic. To be confined to an office with other people is frightening, she says. And there is too much to do, so that the sense of hurry never wanes. But it is beautiful here, in this place where she lives. Before we leave, Santiago trots unleashed across the dunes, the water vast before him. He looks small. My friend and I look skyward as a flock of geese flies low over our heads before landing on a calm inlet with stuttering splashes.
It is snowing again. I take photos of the flakes on my windshield–no bigger than grains of sugar–while my friend picks up the lunch that we have ordered. We are back on the lift bridge when ahead of us a light flashes and a gate comes down. Our car is the last to cross; a ship is coming. We park outside my friend’s apartment and climb the outdoor stairs to her second-story deck. Her girlfriend makes us hot tea, and we dress the table between us with a linen. We sit down, unwrap our sandwiches and wait–both of us happy that the cold weather has returned. The ship blows its horn, and we watch as it passes under the uplifted girders and through the canal, beside the old lighthouse and out toward a horizon that is becoming ever more azure as the snow clouds roll away. When it has become a pebble on the waves at the edge of the visible world, we finish our sandwiches, wipe our fingers, and take Santiago to the beach: my friend’s beach, the one onto which her back door opens, a beach that is, on this bewitching afternoon, empty. Santi runs. I have let go of his leash and it trails him in the sand, which is scattered with November leaves. He races back to my friend and pauses for a moment, looking at her. He feints in one direction, then throws his hip in another, runs a half circle around her, and takes off. He is ecstatic. The sun is shining. I lie down in the sand and make an angel–to celebrate the season’s first, timorous snowfall. We walk, then, to the southern pier, where gulls perch on a wall over the water and wait for us to approach before taking flight: like synchronized swimmers arching and diving into a pool one after the other. When we have gone as far as we can go, climbing a few steps to gaze out over the moving waves, we head into town and get ice cream. We eat it outside on a bench with our mittened hands. Santi gulps down a frozen treat in the car, then barks for more. I walk to the parking strip, open the car door and share a spoonful of mine.
At home, the Kentucky coffee trees drop their leaves the night before Halloween. There are no more seed pods hanging from the subnude branches than I have fingers on one hand; there has not been enough rain to produce seeds. I rake the leaves into garden beds, along with the needles that fall from the white pine. When my neighbors’ oak and maple trees drop–and my nannyberry–those leaves, too, are raked into beds. Insects will slumber among them in the cold, and in time the leaves will become soil. I let the withered plants stand–prairie dropseed and bee balm, goldenrod and butterfly weed. They will provide food and habitat for the sparrows who have been throwing parties in the bird bath. I take pleasure in the unremarked colors of the season: the pink leaves of Virginia creeper before they turn red; the purple of the berries that droop from great, yellow fronds of Solomon’s seal. The plants that sprang up in the seams of the driveway are doing their work: grabbing leaves that would otherwise blow into the street and down the sewer to sediment in city lakes. I do not think of them as weeds, these plants, and I do not think of myself as a manager of this land. The land is older than I am, and wiser, larger and more capable. I study it.
Autumn comes to a close with a long, cold rain. Before the drizzle begins, Santiago and I rise from bed and leave the house. We walk to the oak tree where a neighbor scatters food for squirrels. Their feet have worn the earth bare beneath it, and there is hardly a shell to be seen. School children stand on street corners as school buses lumber noisily under a firmament that is pearl gray, waiting. We scuffle through thick piles of silver maple leaves on the sidewalks. A crow flaps overhead. After passing through an alley, we round a corner and encounter a young woman whose puppy is twisting in his harness, turning repeatedly in an attempt to see Santiago as the woman repeatedly yanks the leash and denies him a glance. I smile and call out, “Which way are you heading?” Santi and I will walk another way. The woman does not reply. She wrangles with her silent dog, and I hesitate.
“You just go where you’re going,” she says at last, and it is not an invitation. It is a command.
I shrug inwardly, and Santi and I approach. He pulls toward the dog who is pulling toward him and barks. The puppy leaps and Santiago leaps. And then it comes:
“You need to control your dog!”
She is angry, this woman. I do not mean that she is angry at us, although that is true. I mean that she is made of fear, and her words are the ugly echo of words that I despise:
“You need to control your woman!”
“I choose not to control my dog,” I say, though I am tugging him onward, trying, for a second time, to avoid a person who might simply have walked ahead of us or given us the information that would have allowed us to avoid a confrontation, but who is, instead, standing her ground on a principle of mastery: she will master this small dog and she will master me and she will master the situation. And then I use an ugly word, because I do not know another way to say what I mean.
“He is not a slave,” I say.
Santiago is not here to satisfy my desires. He responds to life as it makes sense to him to do, the same as anybody else.
We are down the street then. Three seconds have passed. But the woman is holding tight to her resentment of everything that has gone wrong. She calls after us.
“Your dog is aggressive!” she shouts. But he is not. His snout is deep in a garden bed lined with wilted hostas. While two women chatted, he was saying hello to a fellow dog.
It is critical: the stories that we tell ourselves.
Santi and I walk for nearly three hours, though I do not know that until we are home. Road construction that had barred us from a favorite street is at last finished, and we walk past brick houses with window boxes and pretty gardens and lawns that drape like fine curtains. We take a footpath into a park and find a hidden glade in the woods with a rope swing and a lean-to. When we reach a paved trail, a man with silver hair and dark sunglasses jogs past and says, “Good morning,” and he is followed by a man with a bushy brown mustache who waves and says, “Good morning.” Beside a creek, a massive willow has left its leaves like slivers of moon across the path, and where the creek meets a lake, men in blaze yellow jackets are shoving a dock farther out into the water for winter. We nip out of the park to an apartment building where a pond is surrounded by red maples, then cross a freeway and watch a buck do the same before it disappears into a stand of trees. It is chilly enough now to jog, and we do, making our way across an abandoned golf course. In the distance, the city skyline is fringed by autumn’s last orange and yellow leaves. It looks small. On and on we hike, through woods where buckthorn is still green in the understory and back to the creek where it courses past dusty black boulders. We listen to a towering aspen rattle in the wind that is carrying the rain. At the edge of a church yard where stakes have been taped with signs that read, “Leaves Here,” we stand in them–the mulched leaves–so thick that we wobble as our feet search for the earth. We walk past cats who watch us from couch backs, behind picture windows, and past an arborist who greets us as Santiago sniffs at his wood chipper. When we approach three workers smoking cigarettes outside their building, Santi lifts his eyes to their faces and wags his tail. They laugh between drags and scratch his jowls, rub his ears, pat his bum.
We walk. Santiago leads. We do not hurry. I take no photos, and I do not wonder what time it is. We have no place to be and nothing to hope for. We are just here.
To see photos of Santiago at The Big Water, in autumn’s palette, and underneath the clouds that bring rain and snow, visit the gallery.