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Unearthed

It is Sunday morning, and ours is the only car on the road. After months of extraordinary heat, I am wearing a jacket and jeans, and tall boots instead of walking shoes. When Santiago and I arrive at the parkland that is our destination, it is stretched beneath a blue sky filled with scudding, white clouds, and the dawning light shines with angelic clarity on wide hills cloaked in olive green trees about to turn. “It’s like a movie,” my sister texts when I send her a photo. And it is: it is lovely like a location scouted and filmed with great patience, with crews waiting out damp and dingy weather and the hours when the light was too streaky and the hours when the shadows were too broad and the hours when the wind was too tetchy, and it is underscored with the sound of whispering wildflowers and the call of an unknown bird, and it gives rest to the eyes, and that rest seeps down into the heart, and the heart remembers that all is and always has been and always will be well.

Santiago heads for a trail where he has encountered deer in the past. The woods back up to a suburban cul de sac where young turkeys are chasing each other around a back lawn, gobbling with a sabbatical gentleness. We glimpse dark green squashes hanging from a trellis and a worn array of colored balls and water pistols placed beside a curb and labelled, “FREE.” A man and a woman enter the trail. He is burly and riding a low bike. He wears dark sunglasses beneath a baseball cap that covers most of his gray hair. She is slender, and her sandy, white hair is cut into a page that bounces as she jogs, high-kneed, beside him. They greet us with the joviality of early risers. Santiago lifts his snout toward the tree canopy and inhales, hoping for information. My heels click to a pause against the paved trail, and it is like the sound of rosary beads being shifted on a table. The sunlight plays against white poplars and makes the red bunches of sumac berries vivid against the azure sky. In a patch of goldenrod, a garter snake is looped around blooming yellow stems, her body lifted to the sun like a music fan crowd-surfing toward the stage. We walk, and it is cool, and my throat tightens, and my face crumples.

It is all so beautiful. It undoes me.

When rain came at the end of August, our yard was drenched with over three inches in one day, and the struggling white cedar, its leaves heavy with water, tipped out of the soil beside the house and lay face down in the front yard. I texted a friend who is a landscaper, and he came on his lunch hour with stakes. But the tree was heavy. I had been watering its shallow roots through the drought, and it was green and laden with ripening cones. The stakes were too skinny to hold it upright on their own. I walked across the street and solicited my neighbors for scrap lumber, which they provided, and one of them joined us to heave the two main trunks onto our makeshift braces. My friend got stung by a bee, and I applied some baking soda paste to the bite, after which I watched a trailing vine of pollinators disappear into a tiny hole at the edge of the roof. Santiago got caresses amid the excitement. It was a sunny afternoon.

If I dig deep within myself, carefully brushing the dirt from fossilized layers of wounds to understand what hurts today, it is not the drought or the changing climate or the pandemic. It is that there seem to be, in human society now, too few moments like this one, in which calamity is met with a generous communion.

In the park, it is quiet but for the sleepy whirr of cicadas and the rustling of squirrels over fallen cottonwood leaves. For the first time since May, my boots are wet with dew as we cross from bike trail to grassy woodland, and where a lean-to of dark, brown branches has been built in dense shade, dozens of little white mushrooms gleam on the ground. The drought has not broken. The leaves on the trees are wan and limp, and if the ponds hold an inch of water, the creeks that feed them remain troughs of mud. But the land looks familiar again. Tiny, white asters bloom on tall, green stems beside Santiago and me–just as they do in our yard, where the orb weavers, too, have returned, building their beguiling webs around the deck and the front stoop.

Last autumn, I was calling a mortgage company on my breaks to ask how to pay off my loan–a query to which I received three different answers. I was calculating how much money I spend each month and waiting uneasily for this year’s insurance enrollment period to open. I was uprooting myself, not just from a job, but from a way of living that provided almost no nourishment, in order to do my work: seeking the spiritual scaffolding that holds up the world. I was puzzling over how to bury my roots more deeply in the garden of my family and friends without being able to share the air that they breathe. For more than a year, I have tended to a tight web, to the place where I live and the people whom I live with, while the world has slowly tipped forward until it seems now entirely out of place, face down on the ground, in need of support.

Autumn makes the scaffolding more visible. That is why the cool air makes me cry: because despite my efforts in a troubled time, I, too, have been tipping, and the generosity of the mushrooms and the asters and the dew, the wide blue sky and the playful turkeys and the love of two old people for the morning and for each other are the stakes that I need to hold me up.

Before the neighborhood children start school, I unearth the squashes growing in my front garden, cutting away the leaves and freeing the fruits. They are not pumpkins, and not even a master gardener at the local extension office could identify them. They are hard and green and shaped like teardrops, with patches of orange or yellow that might have spread had I allowed them to lie in the sun a month longer. I was ready to plant some coneflowers in that soil. It does not disappoint the children that the harvest is not of pumpkins. The squashes are light enough for even the littlest ones to lift onto a bathroom scale, which is its own thrill. Each child guessed in July how big the biggest one might become, and each child gets a bag filled with candy and trinkets. They run off to play with loud shouts of thanks. They are strongly rooted. They move with the wind and are happy.

Santiago and I come upon a swimming beach dotted with red and blue umbrellas. We have not been in this part of the park before. The sand is groomed, and a worker is testing the shallow water. It is Labor Day weekend: only two swimming afternoons left here. The sun is warming the day and geese are flying in formation overhead and Santi is grazing on the grass surrounding the beach. Clutches of Queen Anne’s lace–so lovely as it dries–are smaller this year, like the fists of the smallest infants. We spy a bicycle abandoned on a grassy slope, and not far away a sticker on a bike pump station reads “WAGE HOPE.”

My friend the landscaper likes the messages that I find on my walks. They are a pandemic phenomenon: genial exhortations painted on rocks, chalked on sidewalks, sprayed on signs, tacked on trees. One day it drizzles until three in the afternoon, and it remains cool when Santiago and I walk at that hour. We go to a dainty suburban park where a squirrel has left a half-eaten tomato on top of a backyard fence. At a crosswalk, a telephone pole has been hung with a piece of fabric onto which have been stitched the words, “Do more of what makes you happy.” I send a photo of it to my friend. He comes to the house with a hazelnut bush for me to plant and with stronger stakes and stronger rope, and with a saw that he uses to cut the braces for the cedar so that they do not slice into the branches but cup them. The eastern white cedar is known as the tree of life: arbor vitae. We are doing our best to support life.

Santiago and I met a friend in a river town a week ago. We drove into the sunrise to get there. Long, low clouds at the horizon shone silver and gold, impossibly resplendent, and as we arrived, they lifted, so that over the marina with its red roofs the sun was a whirling, glittering, white-gold ball. Santi and I strolled past downtown shops before they opened: windows arrayed with soap and bourbon, jelly beans and yarn, tarot cards and Christmas decorations. We breakfasted with our friend in front of candy cane-colored paddleboats under a blue sky framed by sunflowers. He has suffered tragedy in his family, our friend. We moved to a coffee shop, and I listened to him tell his stories while customer after customer stopped to smile at Santiago and scratch him about the ears as he sat tied to our table, longing for the treats he knew were in the shop’s white paper bags.

I might be wrong about human society. Maybe the scaffolding is sturdier than I thought.

Santi pouts when I won’t let him visit the playground on Sunday morning. He can hear the voices of children, and he likes children. I am thinking about my niece, who is a sophomore just starting in-person high school, about how she had been aching for a new friend and how, on the first day of classes, she met another girl who had been aching for a new friend. The past year has been long and isolating. We have entered the woods again, and I can tell from the way that Santiago holds his body that he is hunting deer. I have an instinct to indulge in the satisfaction of a fall schedule, to join a board or volunteer, to make myself busy again. But I have planted seeds; I have begun to write. In time, this writing will require trellises so that it does not topple. It will require watering and pruning and harvesting. It will require rootedness. As we round a curve, Santi and I see a doe in the middle of the footpath. She looks over her amber shoulder at us, her ears tall and attentive, before leaping into the woods, white tail flipped. Santi picks up his pace, and I allow it. Two hundred feet ahead he stops on the opposite side of the path and points. There is another doe there, still and staring at me with large eyes among the dark stripes of hardwood trees. Santiago has found the spirit in the woods.

There is a lump on one of his hind feet. In just a week, it changes from a pale pink pin-head to a puffy, oozing, blood-red sore. We visit Dr. Megan. It takes two days to get a pathology report. In the evening, the sky slowly clouds; a beam of light on a couple of peaches ripening on the stovetop sinks away. Santiago is stretched out on the couch, and I sit down beside him. He lifts a leg to entreat me to scratch his belly, and he stares half-slumbering into the distance as my fingers ruffle his fur. The air through an open window is crisp, and I gaze at an end table upon which candles are burning beside a jar of acorns gathered on one of our walks. Earlier in the evening, we had strolled beside a creek and met a man with a red parrot on his left shoulder and a green one on his right forearm. We had shared watermelon and sweet corn and biscuits for supper. As Santi closes his eyes and the candles flicker, a cricket is chirping in the yard. It amazes me that this is my life.

Before we know that the lump is not cancerous, we go walking in one of our favorite parks. There is sunshine, and a strong wind blows waves to the shore and leaves foam on the beach. Where the lake meets the land, a stick with a crook in it has been planted in a mound of sand. Santiago and I wander for hours, past pure white egrets in a swamp that is blue and green and gold in the morning light; past towering cottonwood trees and pretty, pink smartweed and vivid, gold sneezeweed with its seedheads like round rubber noses. There are grasses of every width and tuft bending in the breeze, and Santi ambles, dragging his leash behind him as I take photographs.

It is on our walks that I find both the peace of the natural world and evidence of quiet communion, of human generosity, not just toward friends, but for the benefit of strangers. In a dilapidated park, volunteers have unearthed a stone picnic table built in the last century, the latest in a series of gifts revealed by patient diggers. In a wood, a slight, worn statue of the Virgin Mary has been erected. There is a space cleared before it for prayer–the work, not of a park board but a neighbor, a lover of people and a venerator of God. On an elbow of public road, someone keeps two planters stocked with flowers.

Before Santiago and I head home, we return to the beach. Resting between the forks of the stick at the water’s edge is now a black cane. There are flip-flops on the sand, patterned with yellow smiley faces. It is after Labor Day. It is chilly. Though buoys outline a swimming area, there is no lifeguard on duty. Santi stops and watches the arms of a man butterflying through the waves, goggles bobbing.

The truth is that we are not really rooted in this life. We are buffeted by circumstances that we do not control, and our bodies fail. The cold comes, over and over again, year in and year out. Snow buries our foundations and our supports. Darkness falls. Ice forms. But in the meantime, we swim in the chop, without anyone but God watching over us. We do what makes us happy. We look for the spirit in the waves.

For photos of a season–and a dog–so beautiful that they will make you cry, visit the gallery.

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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.