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Noise

On a Monday morning, I step in dog poop. I am wearing new walking shoes that are the color of pipestone. They resist water and hug the arches of my feet. It is their second outing. Santiago has sprung at a little, red morsel the size of a rabbit’s liver on an abandoned ball field. Like nearly everything that he snatches from the ground with his mouth, the morsel is impossible to identify amid the noise of grass and leaves and litter that surrounds it. My shout to “Drop it!” yields nothing. In an effort to sweep the thing from his mouth, I rein in his leash with one hand and accidentally release from the other the sack that I am carrying of Santi’s own excrement. As he wrests away from me to enjoy his trash treat, I step on the sack. I hear it split. I look down and see the contents climbing up the midsole of my shoe.

Spring has been like this–with splats that keep coming. The air duct cleaning has to be rescheduled because asbestos is discovered in a ninety-five-year-old vent and has to be remediated. As I am thinking about friable fibers dangling in the gust of the furnace blower, I am informed of two, extended family members whose cancer has returned. I hear of people in their fifties, in their teens who have been vaccinated, and I become confused and anxious about when it will be my turn. One morning, dear friends text that their cat will be dying that day. And then the county releases its plan to divide my town in two with light rail running a block from my home. My mind is crowded with unpleasant thoughts, and a day comes when I can’t get dressed. Santiago and I do not go walking. I sleep, and I cry.

I tug Santi to the bleachers and sit down. I am muttering at him crossly as I grab a twig from the ground and begin cleaning my shoe. The spring warmth is tender, though the wind is chilly. I wear a light jacket and fingerless mittens, and my head is bare. On the ground nearby, yellow blooms of the year’s first dandelions are mirroring the sun. Overhead, creamy, white clouds have been stirred into a blue sky, and a young beech tree has sprouted little fists of leaves ready to unfurl. Santiago waits for me, sniffing the air over the creek behind us, where a couple of wood ducks are hiding in the scrub. It is a beautiful day. I turn down my muttering. I breathe. Stuffing the stick, the mess that I’ve created, and the broken sack into another that I’ve pulled from my pocket, I resume walking with my best friend. We walk until the din in my head is replaced by the song of the woodpeckers and the red-winged blackbirds who flit among the trees beside the long, still water.

When we return to the car, I rub Santiago’s jowls, give him a snack, and harness him into the back seat. I thank him for our time together. I check the bottom of my shoe. It’s as clean as the grass.

In the week before I step on the sack, on the morning after I’ve cried all day, I awaken to snow. It has fallen like sugar and lace, sweetening the lawns and festooning the trees. I am reminded of the folly of worrying about the future when the world routinely changes overnight. I take Santiago with me to a large park before breakfast. Everything is silver and white: empty picnic tables and upturned fishing boats; arching footbridges and cattails in their crooked, winter stacks; geese on the water beside the shrinking lake ice; birch trees in the wood. The fresh snow absorbs sound. Even my bootfalls and the jingle of Santiago’s tags are hushed. As we approach a bend in the path, though, I hear a man’s voice. He comes into view, and his jacket and cap look like raw gold against the landscape drained of all but the subtlest colors. He is alone. He is looking at the top of a tree. He has been chatting with a blackbird. He greets us.

“It’s a beautiful day,” he says.

Santiago is ecstatic. It is perfect scenting weather: the day is warming, making the snow cool and wet and full of fragrance. Santi ignores the squirrel tracks that run from tree to tree but is keen on what may be a skunk. For a long while, he is in pursuit of a coyote or a fox who is in pursuit of a deer–at least, that is the story that I read in the tracks. And deep into the woods, both Santi and I are captivated when we happen upon a holiday parade: a man and a woman attired in bright green St. Patrick’s Day hats and sweatshirts who are walking beside an Irish setter. Santiago barks and barks, providing curbside applause for the spectacle. On the way home, I stop at a strip mall shop and buy a cake doughnut with white icing and green sprinkles.

The splats come, but so do the robins. Santiago gets his first tick of the season, and shipping begins anew on the Mississippi River. When we walk in the neighborhood, we see snow shovels on front porches and paper tulips in front windows. Tulip shoots are coming up in our gardens. Where I split my knee on the ice, the scab falls off, and my winter skin stops itching. One day, I run into a neighbor I haven’t seen in over a year and he hugs me on the sidewalk. I flinch; I have embraced only Santi since the lockdown a year ago. But it’s nice. My neighbor says that the mayor and the county commissioner have to hear from people about the light rail plan, that he will be calling them. A decade ago, they wanted to raze his home and the fox den in the yard and the hundred-year-old pines and run the rail there, in the alley behind my house. I go inside and pick up a rosary. I start praying for everyone I know who needs healing.

My neighbors to the north are away, and the quiet is astonishing. I cannot stop listening to it. In our old, urban neighborhood, the lots are close. The rattle of wagons on the abutting driveway, the whirr of bikes, the thud of a basketball, the shouts and laughs and screams of the children who live in the house and play in the yard next door are but five feet from my kitchen sink. The absence of power tools and carpools and cousins and all of the noises that a family of six makes is like my own retreat. I feel less cross.

Santiago and I drive to our favorite park after the snow melts. On the approach, I see from my window a Canada goose standing atop a beaver dam with the morning sun glowing behind him. It’s a beautiful day. Santi loops around fragrant junipers and red-painted bird houses to the dog corral for a look-see and then to a trail we’ve never been on before. It is bright but cold, and I regret not having brought gloves. I watch a couple of deer leap across the scrub and disappear into the woods while Santi is sniffing a fence. The roaring of the March wind among the trees is at times so loud that, once, I turn to see if there is a motorized vehicle on the path behind us. I stop and record the sound: God pushing spring forward.

At home that day, I redistribute sodden leaves throughout the gardens, lightening the load where autumn winds had dealt unfairly and applying the mulch where the soil is bare. When I straighten my back, my arms around a wad of leaves like a sack of potatoes, I am startled to be looking into the eyes of a child. He is my neighbor to the south, standing on the retaining wall beside me. He has to go to pre-school soon, he says, and he doesn’t want to learn because it takes too long and is tiring. His sister appears. She is older. When I ask why she isn’t in school, she says that she has a runny nose and a cough. The muttering in my mind begins again.

Rain comes. It comes when I expect snow, and this, too, causes muttering. It is too warm. But the future can’t be expected. The earth is no longer frozen, and the rain soaks into the soil, and it is good. Santiago–having peed quickly in the yard and submitted to a toweling–has retired to the bed. I stack breakfast dishes in the sink and make tea. The radio broadcasts news of a shooting at a grocery store a thousand miles away. My cousin shops there. I text her. She is all right. She worries that she will know one of the dead. My sister says that a rainy day is a good one for not worrying. I tell my cousin that I love her and turn off the radio.

When the rain slows to a drizzle, I dress and Santiago and I go walking. We are in a wood, on a winding dirt path high above a pond. The sleeves of my raincoat swish against my sides, and drops fall upon my hat with the almost imperceptible plink of tiny needles hitting a hard floor. In the water below us, geese are courting: the chasing and honking, flapping and splashing rise up the banks like the noise of young lovers crashing down an amusement park flume. Above us, too, the bird song is clamorous–the screech of blue jays and the whistle of chickadees–and where seed has been left, cardinals are feeding beside red and gray squirrels. We pass a few other people, walking in the damp air with their hoods up. And then the rain evaporates. The moss on the forest floor has become a vivid green.

The county wanted to run light rail here, too. As if getting somewhere else were very important.

At home, green leaves of bloodroot and prairie smoke are coming up in the gardens among the soft noise of fallen leaves faded to dun. I make a batch of buttermilk biscuits for supper. I fold and re-fold the dough so that they will be high and flaky, and I form them with a large cutter that was once my grandmother’s. Santiago and I share one, warm from the oven, as the rain comes down again. It is the only noise I hear.

To see a lost winter hat and a milk carton bird house, an Easter basket and frogs at tea, as well as other pleasures of spring creeping in, visit the gallery.

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Peace

On Sunday morning, I wake before five and crack open a bedroom window. Outside, it is cool and dark and quiet. Santiago is on the couch downstairs, where he sleeps when he requires a rest undisturbed by my tugging at quilts, my twitching in dreams. I crawl back into bed and close my eyes. I listen to the wind chuffing the leaves. It is breathy and low, like the murmuration that Santi makes when he wants his chest scratched. It is the only sound I hear. All around me, I feel the weight of slumber: in my body, in the houses on the block, in the roots of trees, in the air itself, as if it rushes to reach its bed before sunrise. The street where the leaves gather in the gutter will not be illuminated for two more hours. I fall back to sleep.

Halloween decorations have begun to appear in the neighborhood. Santiago and I encounter skeletons reclining on Adirondack chairs, spiders engulfing mailboxes, enormous yellow cat eyes glowing in a front window, and wraiths and ghouls in purple and gray hanging from crabapple trees. There are pumpkins on stoops and smiling scarecrows, and real crows cawing at the dawn. Here and there, late-blooming dandelions with perfectly round seed heads spring up from dry lawns. Along the parkway, I reach up one morning to touch the soft needles of a red pine and notice a broken twig from which a trickle of clear sap hangs frozen like a teardrop.

Winter is biding its time.

I text a photo of the skeletons to my niece. She loves the spooky season.

My sister and her husband pull up to the curb outside the house one weekend. They unload the electric fireplace that they purchased for me–as Santiago wiggles his hips and prances around the living room, pressing his black nose into palms and thighs. He misses people. We plug in the fireplace and clap at the flickering orange flames, the facsimile of charred logs, the purr of warm air. I am reminded of a tortoiseshell cat I loved before I loved Santi. Her name was Inez, and she slept on the electric radiators in the condo we shared. During those winters, when I smelled singed fur, I would find her crouched on the metal conduit behind the futon, her eyes wide and defiant, her tiny, almost fleshless bones warm in a way that her luxurious coat could never manage. She is buried in the back yard here, along with her sister.

We drive to the farmer’s market, the three of us, while Santiago stays behind, mournful. We wear our masks and roll down the car windows. We park in a handicapped space because there is a cane among us, and a fragile heart. It isn’t just the pandemic that makes us do things differently: we have aged. We do not walk all the avenues of the market or visit each of the stalls. We move slowly, letting the crowd flow around us, and we know what we want. It is our changing that gives us peace. My sister buys leeks and potatoes and beans to make a soup, and I buy a lop-sided pumpkin to put beside a pot of mums in the garden. When we are weary, we head to an unhurried suburban street and eat doughnuts on the square before finding our feet again. We shop, and my brother-in-law buys a book; my sister, a mug; and I, a shawl. They are not things that we need. They are mementos of our exhilaration. We are with each other, out in the world, and we do not take our giddiness for granted.

After they go home, Santiago lies on the deck in muted sunshine and gnaws a beef bone that I bought him at the market. Rain is predicted, but it doesn’t come. Long before sunset, we fall asleep together on the couch, the fireplace purring at our feet.

The days bounce like a kid on a pogo stick between startling cold and exceptional heat. Early one morning, Santiago and I go to a park where the frost on an acre of blue-green cattails surrounded by turning oaks and maples is so beautiful that it makes me hold my breath. Santi trots with glee in the cold. We love this weather. But his pace is no longer the frenetic one of the two-and-a-half-year-old pup I met, the one who had lived his entire life in a cage. When we come to a rocky slope that we must descend–the trail narrow between saplings and brush–I let go of his leash to avoid losing my balance. Santi clambers down but stops a few feet ahead of me and looks back from beneath silvered eyebrows. He waits for me to reach him and to grab the leather strap draped over his back. He is not as interested as he once was in venturing out alone.

As the sun shines upon the frosted earth and vegetation begins to gleam wetly all around us, I watch swamp swallows hop the lily pads in a pond. Santiago sniffs at rushes along the edge of the water until half a dozen wood ducks take flight. Behind the crown of conifers in the woods, the waning moon is crisp and white in a glad blue sky.

Two days later, it is 80ºF. I can’t remember the last time it rained. When we go walking, Santi’s hind legs kick up puffs of concerning, gray dust. Migrating Canada geese settle on wrinkled mud flats that once were running creeks. In the yard, the rhododendron leaves are curling and the white cedar has developed droopy, copper foliage. Every other day, my throat burns, and I wonder if I have developed an autumn allergy or caught the coronavirus. Then I note once more the beige film that coats the clouds: the wildfire debris that blows in and out of town on the shifting winds.

But in the side garden, delicate asters are blooming beside pretty, pink sedum, and on the boulevard, zinnias as high as my shoulders unfurl in a profusion of fuchsia and orange, lilac and crimson. I’ve planted native seeds beneath them, in the ground where the zinnias will die and to which they will not return. I haul a hose around the yard after supper one evening and water everything: the trees, the gardens, the lawns where I’ve scattered fescue and clover seed. A neighbor wanders home from an autumn walk. The sun is sinking behind the house. We stand in the street and talk about God, about making peace with uncertainty.

One afternoon, as I sit at the office laptop in my kitchen, working listlessly, with anxiety about the chores to be done on that little screen and the chores to be done in my home and yard, with worry about the future, which is presented, hour by hour, as a problem to be solved, there is a sudden movement in the sunshine outside my glass door. A white dove lands on the railing of my deck and looks at me. My eyes widen. She flies away.

This past Saturday, my brother texted that he has watched his first Christmas movie of the season. Our family has understood, of course, that, for the first time in our lives, we will not be together for the holidays. We have fragile hearts, burning throats, and cold bones to take care of and, for now, that is best done in our own households. And so there is a need to find solace, to reconsider where joy and meaning reside if not in the places where we boxed them up and stored them last year.

Santiago and I walk. We walk in the magnificent, cool mornings when the sun rises behind wisps of lavender clouds, and in the warm, happy evenings that smell of wood smoke and toasted marshmallows. We take in hillsides burnished with golden light and unearthly purple asters and rabbits grazing in the shadows. We marvel at red squirrels twining themselves around neighborhood trees and deer who stop to watch us, unafraid, and we amble across empty, river beaches and sigh to see the scores of passing waterfowl. Now and again we tussle, as I stop to photograph yellow cottonwood leaves floating in a beam of sunshine or a blue heron posed in a naked tree and Santiago stops to munch on grass or nose at piles of leaves beside the trail. The splendor overwhelms us. We walk for hours when we can, visiting prairies where the switchgrass has gone blond and blowsy and still ponds that reflect the colors of the trees like jeweled necklaces.

Christmas has come early this year.

If you need to unwrap spectacular solace, you can find photos of Santiago and autumn in Minnesota in the gallery.