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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.

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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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Help

In a dream, I run into a friend. She is tall, with serious eyes that fall into the furrow of her frown and then leap above the laughter of her cheeks, bouncing as on a trampoline as she thinks. She is dressed in dramatic plaids: a shirt and a matching cloak in blocks of vivid color that swirl around her. It has been over a year since we have seen each other. We embrace. Without preamble, I begin to sob in her arms: tears like the juice of a bruised fruit, surprised by touch.

I did not know, I think, that I missed this.

After breakfast, Santiago naps in a sunbeam on the bed. The light climbs in past white shutters and casts against the wall a dark green shadow of Mary, the mother of God. She is carved from wood, a foot tall, standing atop the night table. Over her pressed palms, her eyes are open to the world. In a few days, this pellucid hour that we have been calling eight o’ clock we will call nine, wrangling time into a new shape to suit our desire to be busy late into the day.

As Santiago snores, I read scripture and pray. I am anxious. I have changed the trajectory of my outer life, but my inner life lags behind on the old route. Absent a job, I fill my days with substitutes–scheduling an air duct cleaning, completing an insurance review, scrubbing hard water deposits from the faucets–in part to be prudent and in part to maintain my share of tedium. I feel guilty about my freedom, nervously reminding myself of the years that I worked two jobs, four jobs at a time; looking around the house at my second-hand furniture; knowing that I eschewed the costs of marriage and children and vacations, but unable to ignore the fact that my family could afford to help me buy an education, a car, a house. I write to legislators. I attend online lectures that are curiously depleting, so that I consider whether cameras might, as some have believed, truly steal souls. The world seems, not broken, but put together wrong: as if God had given us Tab B and we jammed it into Slot A. If I knew how to help, I might be like Mary: at peace with my eyes wide open. If I knew how to help, I might be like Santi: free, with the morning sun streaking my jowls.

Santiago and I explore little in winter. It can be hard to see where trails run in the snow or, if they are paved, to know whether they will be covered with ice or salt. But temperatures have been far above average–as if we lived four hundred miles south of here. We have seen swans floating on the river and heard cardinals singing in the treetops. Hawks fly low over our heads in the suburbs, and joggers are attired in shorts. Inside the house, shamrocks are unfolding in a pot, while on the streets, children ride their bicycles, drivers speed, and ambulances blare their sirens. Sidewalks are littered with shards of glass, plastic bags, chicken bones. Recklessness has returned.

And so, on a Friday morning, Santiago and I visit a park that we have never been to before. The sky is filled with dirty blue clouds that shift underneath a pale, yellow sun. The same hues wash over the land, where snow retreats from mud and withered grass beside a black and blue river. Santiago wears a duct tape boot. He has not made it through the season without a cracked paw pad. Every day, I dress the wound, and then we walk.

The needles under the pine trees at the edge of the park are soft beneath our feet. Santiago sniffs at the smells released by the warming earth, the signatures of those who sheltered here over the winter. We walk to a lighthouse that we have seen only from the other side of the river. There are red rose petals scattered along the trail in the thinning snow, and to be beside this structure–blue and white like a piece of china–is like being inside an enchanted mirror. As we wander, I stop to look at a wide, gray statue against the low, brooding sky and, later, the words, “I’m sorry” carved into a wooden bench. There are curving paths that balloon out and return to hug the river that underscores the city skyline. There is a torn kite in a tree, and a man on a bike taking photographs, and an array of stuffed animals near the beach where a boy drowned last fall. I consider the multitude of bears, the furry monkeys, the smiling frog, the pigtailed girl, the vase of popcorn, all of them lined up beside a boulder, the snow still hunched at their feet and the cold water at their backs. It touches me: this gesture of childlike grace, this tiny host of angels who will not forget the one who is gone, who will guide to safety those who remain behind, who will provide help for the sorrow that cannot be helped.

The clouds blow away. After walking the neighborhood that surrounds the park, Santiago and I cross the street and rest on a rocky beach. An elderly couple passing slowly waves at us, smiling under their hats and behind their masks. I sit on a driftwood log and order take-out: a biscuit stuffed with egg, tomato, and herbs. I’ll share it with Santi. His face is turned toward the sun. I don’t feel anxious.

It has been a hard season. Lent arrived. I stopped eating chocolate and my friends began attending funerals. There were three last month, and another is coming. I have family members who are in chronic pain. A friend texts to say that stress is making her hair fall out. We are making ourselves capable of freedom, of turning our feet to new paths. It hurts.

Driving home with the warm biscuit in a paper bag, I take an unfamiliar turn and am startled to see three lanes of cars coming toward me. The street that runs two ways further west is, apparently, one-way here. I pull over to the curb while a white-haired woman honks at me repeatedly. My confusion is like that of geese in the middle of a road, to whom the same frenzied bullying is applied, the noise triggering panic but providing no direction. The woman continues to honk long after I am out of traffic and have ceased moving, and she pulls up beside me, shaking her finger and shouting something behind her window. I look at her and shake my head in puzzlement.

“How are you helping?” I ask quietly.

Like Santiago, I am healing from a late winter wound. On a day when the sun was brilliant, creating an imperceptible swish of water atop old ice, I slipped at an intersection. It seemed as if the world went black and then as if my limbs were splayed in more than four directions. But Santiago stayed where I told him to, despite my having lost hold of his leash. And my overalls did not tear and soaked up the blood without complaint. We continued walking. There were candy canes still hung in a boulevard tree, and a mail carrier stopped to pat Santi’s head. I found a good book in a Little Free Library. And in the middle of a shady block, I watched a small, gray-haired woman crawling up the front steps of a house, muttering sadly.

“Do you need help?”

She was trying to put a mis-delivered envelope into the mail slot beside the front door. The steps were covered with ice and had no railing. I took the envelope from her. Santiago jumped around in a bid to play with the woman, so that I spoke sharply to him as I did my own crawling, one hand clutching the envelope, the other tugging at his leash, the blood on my knee not yet fully clotted. I was a little taller than the old woman. My arm reached the slot, even in a crouch.

We expect it to be easy to move from winter to spring, but it isn’t. It’s a hard season.

On Sunday, Santiago and I walk at a nature preserve. The sun shines and the ice slicks that remain along the path are melting. The air smells faintly of both rot and nascent greening. A muddy new trail has been cut higher up the bank where the swamp is perpetually flooded. We take it and are surprised, at last, to find ourselves at a busy county road. The trail does not loop.

We turn around. When we are near the flooded pass once more, where a “TRAIL CLOSED” sign is half sunk in grainy ice, a woman approaches from behind on the path. She is running and calling a name over and over again. She is not wearing walking shoes or a hat or a jacket.

“Who have you lost?” I ask.

A seven-year-old boy.

We begin looking, too, Santiago and I, peering hard into the stands of trees. The woman runs ahead of us, calling, and I hear something, across the swamp: a sliding note that gets swallowed by the wind. The woman keeps running and calling, and again I hear the sing-song reply.

“Do you hear that?” I call to her.

She stops. I point backwards, across the frozen water. Santiago sniffs at felled trees beside the path. The woman calls and the sweet soprano whisper comes again, drifting among the trees and over the swamp. The woman turns and runs behind us once more.

“Oh, thank God!” she cries.

Freedom is not a reckless wandering. It requires something: not innocence or maturity, not bravery or wisdom, but the grace of God.

The days continue clear and warm. In the mornings, I watch the sun rise. In the evenings, I talk with friends. Santiago and I walk in the neighborhood, past cats sunning themselves on front stoops next to faded Christmas decorations. People I love get vaccinated. The robins arrive. And Santiago has his first roll in the grass, outside city hall. A man stops to admire his joy.

When most of the snow has melted from the yard, I gather the pods that have fallen from the Kentucky coffee trees in winter’s wind. I put them on the compost pile and use a shovel to turn them in among the citrus rinds and egg shells and onion butts that have lain atop the ice and fed the occasional rabbit and raccoon. I prune a white cedar branch outside the living room window that broke in a heavy snow. I unwrap the boxwood beside the backyard deck. Its leaves are glossy and full. And among the soggy oak and maple leaves that cover the gardens, there are peeks of violets and pachysandra and White Nancy.

That evening, the sky goes gray and clears its throat. Santiago comes to me in the kitchen, where I am washing dishes at the sink. He does not cry, but he clings to me. I hang the dish rag and invite him to the couch. I light candles, and we lie beneath a blanket as hail lands like fear and anger and sorrow against the roof and siding. Santi is balled up beneath my crooked knees. His breathing is slow and even. I reach my hand beneath the blanket and caress his ears, rub my palm against the coarse fur of his neck where the skin bunches. I cannot expect him to be with me more than another five years. When he returns to the freedom of dust, I want to remember what he felt like. That will be a hard season.

To watch the snow melt, and to see Santiago’s first grass bath of the year, visit the gallery.

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Union

Brilliant sunshine arrives at last accompanied by brutal cold.  I fall asleep on the couch at 3:00 in the afternoon with a book in my lap.  Santiago naps upstairs on the bed, in the dip in the mattress that his body has formed day after day, night after night, over the course of five years.  His head is against a pillow.  In the living room, my sleeping elbow escapes the quilt I’m huddled beneath, and I feel winter rising from the hardwood floor to meet it.  I am slumbering too deeply to move, and there is bliss in this:  the paralysis of the season, the frozen world imposing rest.  I wake hours later to the thud and shudder of the dog jumping off the bed.  He descends a steep and narrow staircase, hind end wiggling, and climbs atop me, licking my face and biting my ear, requesting supper.  

He is allowed on the bed. He is allowed on the couch. He is allowed to inquire after a bit of nosh. He is not a guest in this house. It is his home.

The cold draws in the walls of our cloister. For weeks, the sunlit hours are thirty degrees below freezing, the nights twenty degrees below that. The deck pops when we walk across it, like ice groaning on a lake. There are days that permit Santiago only ten minutes of running in the yard. And so we crawl into the very center of our lives. Santi chews on a deer antler. I putty and paint over the cracks in the walls that are the sighs of a settling house. The paint is pale green like the longing for spring.

Over the course of two days, I make a chocolate layer cake. I misjudge the size of my pans, which are too small, and the batter puffs and oozes in the oven, dripping and burning until I slip in a cookie sheet to catch the overflow. I accidentally add whole eggs to the German chocolate mixture. There is an error in the recipe, and the cheesecake layer comes out both lumpy and grainy. The ganache is perfect at the moment that I notice a squirrel on the deck railing outside, sitting across from the cake, which is swaddled in freshly beaten buttercream frosting and setting in the frigid air. By the time that I retrieve the platter, the final icing has curdled.

When I cut myself a slice, Santiago wants one, too. Chocolate is the rare food that I will not share, remembering the day that a chunk of coating slid off an ice cream bar and Santi left the vet with a bloodshot eye after being forced to vomit it up. I give him a dog biscuit. Outside, the neighborhood is dark and quiet and cold. Inside, candles in terra cotta pots warm the air at the kitchen windows where the drafts come in. Nothing distracts me from this adventure on a cake plate, this winter caretaking, this abundance. Stacked atop one another, the flawed layers are beautiful, their purpose fulfilled.

United in the mouth, they are delicious.

I spend my days mending clothes and teaching Santiago to fetch, and in the nights I dream of work to be done. I am in my childhood home and it is crowded with people. The rooms are littered with children’s toys that no one bends to pick up. I am holding in my arms a baby who is not mine, frustrated that abandonment has made her my charge. In the mornings, my jaws and temples ache. Breakfast is accompanied by car exhaust. Day after freezing day, a neighbor idles his car in the driveway to warm it before taking his children to school; the tailpipe is two feet from my fresh air intake.

Walls are not what we think they are.

The temperature continues to sink, but every day the wild world calls to Santiago and me. Our own car engine slurs as it slowly turns over. I wax Santi’s paws to withstand scattered salt and roughening cold. I dress in layers of cotton and tie a hat beneath my chin before putting on thick mittens. We trot along park trails, cajoling our bodies into a cheerful warmth. The snow is hard-packed and so dessicated that it squeaks beneath our feet. The sun shines.

The outings are brief. But I gather vignettes like wildflowers to be pressed between the pages of a book: an unsent envelope, stamped and addressed, lying in a snow-covered hedge; a fire hydrant’s chipping layers of red and yellow paint; the sculpted silhouette of a baseball catcher, big as the sky, in a yard secreted behind untraveled train tracks. One morning, Santiago wedges his head into the branches of a juniper tree, in search of the popcorn left for wintering birds. He emerges with a sneeze, smelling like Christmas. On a backyard shed, we encounter a painted cat: black as Santi’s nose and four feet tall. He side-eyes her as we progress along the path, his tail alert, a bark held in his throat. In the treetops, chickadees chase and cardinals sing. A returning eagle glides on the biting wind. It is impossible to find the border between winter and spring.

At home, the electric fireplace hums and my skin itches in the dry air. Santiago is shedding. As I stroke his back, clumps of fur gather at the base of his tail. I sit on the couch before a bowl of polished stones. One by one, I place them in my hand, gazing upon their daubs and splatters of color, their geometric designs, feeling the weight of each rock in my palm and stroking it between my fingers until I find the one that cries out like the wilderness. That is the one that I clasp–turning it over, feeling its silken planes and the little places that prickle–as I say again and again with closed eyes the words that my heart needs.

It is hard to learn to pray without this: winter.

The clouds return, warming the earth like a soft blanket. For a few days, we are trapped beneath that blanket with the toys that we’ve left scattered on the floor: the air is filled with fine particle pollution. I wear a mask when I walk with Santiago and wonder about his lungs.

And then, when it is time, the wind moves and the cold breaks. We go to the river. It is late morning, a degree above freezing. The sunshine is mild, like butter. A young man is jogging in long shorts and bare legs. As we cross the bridge from west to east, a man working in a blaze yellow vest gives Santi his palm: “Hi, pupper,” he says. “Good day!” We agree. We pass a gray-haired man carrying skinny skis who nods as he walks by, and there are ice fishermen on the pond, hauling equipment behind them on sleds. Three women stand facing the river, sharing a pair of binoculars. On a floe that remains in the midst of the ruffled blue water are what appear to be scores of white and blue snow geese. They are impossible to identify as Santiago pulls ahead with joy. The pavement is free of ice. Where whitetail deer are leaping in the woods, the snow has become wet and sticky. Everybody smiles.

We approach an old couple, a man and a woman, each holding the hand of a tiny girl in a pink coat who walks between them with raised arms.

“Is your dog friendly?” asks the man.

“He’s a kisser,” I reply, which is both welcome and warning.

Santiago does not want to stop. I tug at his leash, bring him back to the girl. Her eyes are cautious beneath a knit cap, pale pink to match her jacket. Face to face, Santi is large. He looks at the girl for a moment and then does what he always does: he licks her mouth and nose. The girl’s eyes crinkle and shine in the sunlight. The man and woman beam down at her.

“You got a kiss,” says the man, and the girl’s lips turn up with pleasure.

She is my child, the one put into my arms today.

Santiago and I walk for nearly two hours. We walk our favorite path, so far from where we parked the car that we haven’t been on it for months. There is no plowing here, just a snowy path with boot prints on one side and two, thin sets of ski tracks on the other. This field is where wild roses will bloom. It is where teenagers will spray messages on transmission towers and under freeway overpasses. It is beside the wood where deer browse and beavers gnaw down trees to build their dams. It is where goldenrod will fade to fluff beside sumacs more red than apples. This field is where I feel connected to what is.

A couple approaches from the opposite direction. None of us is wearing a mask. I coax Santiago to the other side of the path, walking in the strip of snow at the edge of the field, where grasses will green in a month or two. A jogger is coming up behind us. The couple turn their faces from the sun to nod and smile at the dog and me. Santiago is impatient to get back to the smells on the boot path. I tell him to wait until the jogger passes. She comes slowly. She comes too close. She says, “Don’t let your dog walk in the ski tracks.”

And because she has come so near us, and she has spoken as if her words were kind, Santi leaps to greet her. She is inside six feet, the length of his leash. She falls over him.

Sometimes we are reminded that our work is not what we thought it was, that what we have separated, God has united.

After I have fallen asleep, Santiago climbs the stairs and settles on the darkened bed. In the night, he moves like the advent of spring, little by little, closer to my body. There is no border between his side of the bed and mine.

To watch the blue sky return, visit the gallery.

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Presence

On Sunday morning, Santiago jumps into a lake.

All winter long, he wore his car harness. We drove, even to parks close to our home, in order to avoid the blocks of densely scattered de-icing salt that produced this year, not just a reliable wound on his paw, but a skin infection as well. The frequent grating of the harness rubbed the fur from a patch of tender skin two fingers wide along his belly. And so we switch to a different harness: one with less contact and with rings for a leash affixed to his back, rather than his chest. This gives him more leverage. As I stand on the edge of the lake before a mane of dry cattails, feeling the sudden lunge of the dog’s desire, I am aware of the instability of the soft silt beneath my boots, of an ache in my shoulder that is always there, of the weakness in my old, piano wrists, of Santiago’s strength. I let go of the leash.

In a couple of weeks, Santi will celebrate his seventh birthday. His eyebrows have come in white this year. In the mornings, he is not so quick to run down the stairs for a walk. He lies in bed while I putter at the front closet: shrugging on a jacket, tying my shoe laces, rummaging for poop bags. Sometimes I think that he is luxuriating in the comfort of the mattress, uninterested in crossing cold floors, and sometimes I think that he no longer hears me as well as he once did, preparing for our daily elation. Often, I have to call him twice. When he was younger, he insisted upon quickening my pace outdoors, pulling me into jogs along parkways and sprints up hills, eager to encounter every twig and bone of the world from which he was once separated. For one, perfect year, we have moved in tandem. Time will shift, and my heart will break. Soon, I will pull him.

On our way to the lake, we come upon a red fox in the grass. She is dead. I had been thinking, moments before, as we walked under the colorless morning sky, of the day last fall when we watched a fox gallivant on her little, vulpine legs just here, where we are, between the soccer field and the marsh. She had looked at us from behind a pointed nose, from underneath a pair of pointed ears, the bright autumn sunlight dazzling across her copper-colored coat, her bushy tail stilled mid-swish. When she ran into the woods, Santiago gave chase, and I went stumbling and laughing behind him. She escaped us. Sown amid the grass that day were goose feathers: small and downy and quivering in the breeze, and long and clumped and bloody. That memory is what Santiago shares with me as he tracks. Finding the fox’s remains, he is satisfied. He sniffs for but a fraction of a second then pulls ahead to where rabbits sometimes shelter beneath a low-slung pine. I look at the fox’s leg, bent the wrong way, at her body, small and bunched. I feel shock. I follow Santi.

You have to be in a place, in its presence, for a long while to take the full measure of its beauty. We walked last week on unremarked roads, looking for quietude. We circled a statue tucked behind a magnolia about to bloom, and a suburban drainage pond where bird houses are hung among the sumac and lampposts. We ambled along a chip path beside an urban lake hardly big enough to be called a lake, where Canada geese and wood ducks bathed in the sunlit water, and the bird song and flurry in the trees was like a high school chorus: sweet and strutting. We took note of the lilacs behind a high wooden traffic barrier, litter at their feet but still burgeoning with little, purple buds. When Santiago dies, I will walk with binoculars and a garbage sack: released from the leash to linger over the color and movement of the birds and to pick up trash. My stewardship will be a memorial.

Santiago is present to his surroundings. He led me in the middle of the week from the tiny urban lake, along a dead-end road of sunshiny bungalows and greening grass, past a community garden untarped but unplanted, over a slight slope, to where the dog park was wide and inviting across the street. I don’t think that he was surprised to see it there, the way that I was. We crossed the street and entered the gate. There was a lazy sashaying of snouts and tails. When Santiago barked in his leading-man baritone, a proper chase with an elegantly marbled pup was instigated. There was running up a hill. There was running across a field. There was stopping to sniff at clumps of mud and grass, and barking to call for more running. It was a warm day. He became winded, and his voice came out in a wheeze, and he found his way to the water dish that he pees in when he is at the park alone. He took a long drink. I worried that he would get sick, and that he had tired too quickly.

We watched goslings this week, bobbing soft and yellow-bodied between their parents on a creek that flows into the Mississippi River. There were two sets of them. Santiago and I had not intended to be at that place, but the trail toward which we had aimed our feet was closed. We arrived at a sign that barred our way like a scheming troll; so, we walked the neighborhood streets that we know well, passing driveways chalked with hearts and flowers and words of good cheer, moving along the sidewalk and under the road to arrive at a park where years of rain and high water have eroded the roots of trees that now lie face down in the creek. It was a cool morning. A fisherman stood silently on the shore, line in the rushing water. The geese swam in the shade, untroubled by Santi and me as we wandered high up on the wooded bank and gazed at the blue morning above the river.

My yard began to bloom this week. Each day, I paced among the garden beds, bent like a bobby pin, peering at minuscule shoots. First, the bloodroot presented its white petals, as welcome as a smile. I was with Santiago the very first time that I saw bloodroot–along a bike path–and it astonished me. How can a flower be blooming beside a lump of snow? How can something so beautiful have sprung up from the gray rubbish of last year’s leaves?” Spring beauty was next: the flowers so small–not even as big as the nail on my pinky–that what I noticed as I scanned the ground was not a bloom at all but a tiny, red stem, coursing like an artery in the dry soil. I lifted an oak leaf to follow it, wondering what it might portend, then finally caught sight of a flower–pink stripe gleaming in the evening sun–then a cluster of flowers, then another cluster.

It is a season of holiness, when the presence of a force that is great and good and uncontrollable is in evidence all around us. Wild ginger is unfurling beside my front stoop. Lily of the valley shoots up around the white pine like a crown of thorns. Virginia waterleaf reaches out green hands that will soon be waving lavender pom-poms. I watch a bee fly into the gold trumpet of a daffodil in a pot then fly away. The raspberry stalks that were not eaten by rabbits over the winter have begun to bud. After a spring rain, a boy knocks on my door to show me the nightcrawlers that he has found wriggling atop the soil. He is beaming.

It is a pair of mallards that Santiago is after on Sunday. They lift up from the sheltering cattails at his advance, quacking and landing on the troubled water under a cloudy sky. I am relieved that they have escaped his jaw. And I am happy with his lust and his power, with the life that is still present within him. He has a queer look on his face as he slowly climbs out of the lake. I think that it may be that he has never before felt the bottom of a body of water. He is experiencing a baptism.

Back at home, we eat breakfast and go to church. Santiago curls up on the bed in the sunshine and begins to snore in the particularly contented way that he does when prayers begin. I hold my phone across my belly and close my eyes, too, listening to the organ music from my church across town, to the familiar liturgy, to the reading. The last is about the disciples whom Jesus greets on the road after he has been resurrected. They do not recognize him.

In the evening, Santiago sleeps on the couch, too tired to climb the stairs to the bedroom. Though I’ve scrubbed him with a washcloth and liquid soap, his fur remains grimy from a week of rolling in grass and prowling at water’s edge. I sit down beside him, and he snorts softly, begging me to scratch his chest. He lifts his chin, so that I may caress his neck. His eyes are closed. I run my index finger from his nose to the divot between his eyes. This is the place that should be worn bald by my love.

I go to bed alone.

You can always find Santiago in the gallery.

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Medicine

Santiago rises first on Sunday morning. As I lie hugged to the sliver of mattress left to me by his sprawling, he slowly stands upon the bed. Turning to the windows, he places his paws on the footboard and contemplates the murk outside. After a moment, he bows, and a stretch ripples across his sloped back. He yawns and smacks his jowls; the air is dry. When he jumps to the floor, I roll over, casting my arms and legs wide beneath the sheets. I listen to the soft thud of his footfalls on the carpeted stairs, then the click of his claws across the kitchen floor. I know that he is standing at the back door, watching through the glass for animals grazing at dawn.

Earlier in the week, I awakened with a headache. The pain stretched across my face and curled around the base of my skull. I felt dull-witted and cross. I lay in bed, eyes closed, examining how the throbbing might react to more sleep. The effort of that gentle examination was like dead-lifting double my weight. I needed medicine. I rose and dressed. I called Santi to the front closet and pulled out his leash. We drove to our favorite lake.

The sky was ivory when we arrived, and out of it, from time to time, a mellow sunbeam reached down to drag its fingers through the water. A woman dressed in gray was steadying herself in a gunmetal canoe beside the tree-lined shore. The air was tepid and salutary. As we made our way across a blistered boardwalk, red-winged blackbirds swooped and fluttered in the marshland, perching upon an acre of old cattails that nearly swallowed a railroad bridge. The birds puffed their shiny black wings like bellows, calling, feathered sparks rising at their shoulders. Along the edge of the big water, docks and deck chairs remained stacked, while far out in the lake two loons floated, serene as seraphim, their sharp beaks aimed at a southern inlet. When Santi and I tramped through the muddy woods across the road, we found moss growing vividly on fallen trees. Thoughts of the ache in my head were replaced by pleasure in the cheerful messages chalked on sidewalks, in the bobbing of mallards off the beach, in the friendly wave of a train engineer, hauling cars slowly along the tracks. It was an ordinary day, full of beauty.

I get out of bed after a few moments and go down to the kitchen to let Santiago outside. Though day has not yet broken, there is no need to turn on a light: a garage-mounted lamp down the alley murders the darkness, as if it were something to fear. I stand inside the house and watch Santi’s white tail moving among shadows in the yard. He pauses to pee on a rhododendron, then trots through leaf litter and nascent violets to sniff at rabbit trails. Catkins from the oak tree next door have begun to fall across the deck.

I spent a week moving among shadows. I feared to do my taxes, no longer certain about my future income. I purchased groceries behind a plastic shield, scrubbing the credit card pin pad with a bleach wipe from the bagging shelf, as if I knew what I was supposed to do and was not nervous. I cursed silently at joggers three abreast upon the sidewalk, their unmasked breath hanging in clouds on the cool morning air. With my sister, I raged and later wept about the school kids now on view to every classmate as they sit before the cracked windows, the trailer windows, the car windows that are their homes, their thin protection from a savage and unsharing world.

What I have wanted very badly to control appears to be controlled entirely by the imagination of God.

On Friday, the temperature fell below freezing. By afternoon, it had not changed even one degree. Santiago and I walked early in the morning, not far from home. We snuck off a paved trail and onto a mown path where last year’s wildflowers were tall and brittle, then into the woods beside a small lake. Next to a lean-to made of fallen branches was a white bucket on which were written in green marker the words, “Please pick up the trash.”

I saw the deer first. She was just twenty feet away, her long limbs and neck as brown as the bark around her, her eyes wide with curiosity and caution as she looked into mine. Santiago stopped when I did, alert but unable to find the shape of the deer among the timber. I reached into my pocket, wanting a photograph of her lovely face. She turned her shoulder, then, disappearing among the tree trunks, her white rump flashing for just a moment, which is what Santi saw.

We ran then, a short way through the woods, until the trail became perilous with tree roots and sucking mud, and I made Santiago turn back, his sides heaving, still crying to be let loose to hunt. A few minutes later, back on the tar, he stood and stared at the wildflowers, seeing before I did the deer and her companion, wriggling his nose and lifting his paw, until at last his unmoving desire raised from the dusty tallgrass their listening ears and then their bobbing white tails which disappeared again into the gloaming of the woods. Santiago’s running and crying began anew. It was a fine way to spend the hour before breakfast.

Santi satisfies himself about who has been in the yard. He climbs the deck and sits three feet from the back door, watching through the glass to confirm that I have a treat for him. I do. We return to the bedroom. Santi lies down on the rumpled quilts while I slip underneath them and fall back against the pillows. I gaze out a bank of white, shuttered windows facing east. While the back yard had been as gray as a lake under a sunless sky, out front there is an almost imperceptible ribbon of pink at the base of a deep blue heaven. It illuminates three-story fir trees that form a dark crown across the horizon. As Santiago breathes quietly beside me, I watch the sun rise. I am tired. I am trying to figure out how to live as if everything I believe is true, as if every thing that happens is the lullaby of a tender spirit. My eyes fall closed, and each time I open them, the sky is wider. Slim clouds drift and glitter with molten gold. The blue of the sky becomes soft and pale behind the fir trees that have shaken off their black and become green. At last, a sunbeam climbs across one of the little, white shutters and tousles the bedcovers.

Saturday was colder than Friday. We walked early once again, more eager than usual to find unhindered pathways. We were not two minutes out of the car, roaming a sleepy, urban parkway before Santiago flushed four turkeys from their breakfasting in the scrub beneath a railroad bridge. They moved off regretfully. Before our wandering was done, we met them again, in a high wood, and gave chase. I wore a mask through which my breath fogged the sunlit atmosphere, and I waved at the other early-morning people. We can no longer see each other smile. On telephone wires, cardinals sang. Atop the emergent grass, robins hopped. In the sky above the treetops, a blue heron flapped its dreamy flight, aimed at the Mississippi River. The unleafed trees afforded a view to distant skyscrapers: hulking, empty, hibernating.

We rise, finally, on Sunday to walk. It is warming again, and the sky is very blue. We stroll our own neighborhood, past a fire hydrant that Santi pauses to pee on; through an oak wood where he snarfs up seeds scattered for the squirrels; beside fences where other dogs bark their greetings, their queries, their warnings, their Sabbath preaching. We pass a house where the medicine on the door is row upon row of pastel-colored paper hearts.

I am first to see the eagle. She is flying lower than I have ever seen an eagle fly: below the tree line. Her white head gleams. In her talons is a clutch of dirty rags, a loose sack. She drops it in a clearing among the trees and settles on a nearby branch. Two crows crowd in beside her and begin to squawk.

Santiago is not interested in knowing that the rags are a raccoon, her fur torn back, her round, pink innards exposed. The eagle is watching. The crows are making noise. It is not a time for chasing. He tugs on the leash. He pulls toward the medicine of home.

Visit the gallery for this week’s medicine in pictures.

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Distance

Early Sunday morning, we roam the neighborhood in a cold slush. I have rubbed Santiago’s paws with wax to protect them, but he prances gingerly, favoring snow-covered grass and eschewing the puddles that are forming along the sidewalks. The sky is white. The streets and alleys are quiet, the only sounds around us the slap of our own feet in the slurry, the drip of snow sliding off rooftops, the trickle of the dawn thaw to sewer grates.

Santiago pulls me, sniffing at wet tree trunks and black garden soil on the boulevards, heading for a wide road that I won’t usually cross with him. On this day, there is no traffic. We step onto abandoned pavement as a robotic voice in the crosswalk signal calls, “Wait! Wait!” We are heading for church bells. I listen to their clang and chime, trying to discern a tune, but I hear none. The bells simply ring–on and on and on and on and on–as we walk through the slop of snow, past the church itself, which rises modestly beside late-sleeping bungalows. There are no other dogs outside, not even in their yards. There are no other walkers, no joggers, no bicyclists. Santiago runs his nose along front yard fences. The metal tags on his collar jangle to the rhythm of his paws, the combined percussion like wire brushes on a cymbal as he moves through the slush. For more than five minutes the church bells ring, sounding a final chord at last, dissonant and sweet beneath the morning bird song. We are blocks away.

All week, the local media reports that popular city parks are congested beyond the ability of people to keep six feet of distance. Santiago and I don’t prefer those parks. We go to little, wild places. We watch returning hooded mergansers in a city drainage pond, in the rain, the black and white blockheads of the males arresting beside the honeyed mohawks of the females. We see them in a squiggle of suburban creek another day, along the river bank a third day. One gray evening, I study a bald eagle sitting high atop an elm tree behind a darkened office building. Her yellow eyes survey a tiny, one-block walking path and a brook beside which Santiago prowls on faded grass, dry as paper, while mallards float, watchful, on the water.

When Santiago is outdoors, he is nearly always at the end of a six-foot, leather leash. The dogs that he meets are nearly always discouraged from interacting with him. They are tethered to the waists of runners or yanked to the edges of the trail; they have muzzles on their snouts or they are scolded, “We don’t bark, girl; remember?”

Santiago barks. He barks when there is a rabbit in the yard at daybreak. He barks when I eat cheesecake. He barks at dogs who are bigger than he is and at dogs with cold stares. He barks at dogs who bound and waggle and at dogs with sexy trots. On lucky days, he barks at a dog whose human companion stops, content to allow the leashes to tangle as the dogs circle and inhale each other, nose to nose.

On an afternoon as blue as a robin’s egg, we visit a wetland. It sits behind a metropolitan airport, so that as we walk through a thimbleful of woods, painted biplanes fly low overhead. Pussy willow branches beside the boardwalk are bursting with soft, silver catkins that shimmer in the sunlight. Behind a scrim of old cattails, Canada geese can be heard honking, flapping, and splashing in the marsh.

Santiago is hunting. We are half-way around the trail–which hugs weathered and moss-covered trees that lean, stumped and jagged, out of the icy water–when he begins to run along a length of boardwalk. He stops short, gazing out over the water, front paw lifted. I move cautiously behind him, eyes above his, breath held, watching for what he might find. He turns back to the boardwalk and begins to run again. I follow, leashed at six feet, joined in the chase.

I am the first to spot the muskrat lodge hidden among the cattails–made of them, but caulked with mud so that it is dark among the bleached gold of last year’s stalks. I do not see it before Santi jumps off the boardwalk in search of it. I see it only after I have hauled him out, after he has experienced the giving way of water where he expected solid ground.

He never does see the muskrat. She is auburn and enjoying a bit of nosh atop a soggy log in the open water. Back and forth Santiago runs across the planks, zig-zagging from one side to the next, his black nose quivering when he pauses to assess the air. Even when I position him with the hope that he might see around a haystack of cattails, he gives no sign of triumph. He does not bark intensified desire. The muskrat slips into the water.

On Friday, we go early to a dog park. Clouds press down, scratching a train that passes slowly beside the fenced fields, the cars covered with graffiti. Santiago greets two dogs who are with one man. The canines chase each other around a pine tree, just for a minute, and then the man calls his dogs to the gate. Santiago barks at them behind the rails of the fence as they get into a car. We are alone.

After he has run his crooked run across the unsprouted prairie, and sniffed the shared water dishes and peed on the plastic chairs, I take Santi to meet someone. We visit a marker along a WWI memorial. It is the same bronze cross I always visit, carved with poppies and oak leaves, its smoky, green patina camouflaged against this moment between winter and spring. The name at the top of the cross is the most sonorous of all the names on the memorial. It belonged to a bugler. His lungs gave out in 1918.

Santiago is watching a woman on the other side of the parkway rake winter’s leavings from her yard. A black lab keeps her company. I sit on the concrete slab and place my hand on the cold cross. I come here when I need perspective. I start to speak, and I begin to cry. I had meant to bring greetings from 2020. I had meant to bring the comfort of a dog. I had meant to be hospitable. But there is water in me where I thought there was solid ground. I am full of a worry that has grown large while I was carrying files home from the office and keeping six feet from my neighbors and watching my savings dwindle and emailing everyone I love, and that worry is greedy now. I sit and I sob.

The lab moves and, across a wide boulevard, Santiago barks and wags his tail. I wipe my eyes with the tissue I carry against accidents with poop bags. My worry is not about death. It is not about money. I am lonely. I miss the person I was before I was told that I am coping with a pandemic.

“Be happy,” says the bugler.

That’s what he always says.

On Saturday, Santiago and I run lightly through the woods. We walk a chilly beach past a canoe filled with brown water. We stride into the wind, out to a lake point where we can view an island, tree-lined and slight as a scrub brush off in the distance. We meet a woman with gray braids and walking poles who smiles at Santi as he wanders the path with his nose to the ground. She says, “Puppies always have the right of way.” We stand still and listen to chorus frogs.

At home, I cup oak leaves in my hands to see if anything is coming up beneath them in the gardens. I find tiny crocus shoots and leafing Jacob’s ladder, evidence of bloodroot and primrose among the tulips and day lilies. At the end of the sump pump pipe that runs out into the back yard, the mesh cover has been knocked off by the mice so that they can come and go freely from the house.

What grass there is for a lawn is a dull yellow. But if you come in close, you can see blades of green.

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Wind

Strong winds blow all week. The auburn leaves still clinging to the oaks rattle, drop, and swirl around overcast suburban streets. My outdoor garden pots, stripped of the weight of browning evergreens, tip in the gusts. I pick up exhausted pine branches from a yard impossibly littered with rabbit pellets. What Santiago does not eat will fertilize the soil for spring violets and the ostrich ferns that will unfurl one day like paper noisemakers at a celebration. The snow that remains on the landscape takes the form of stubborn, little humps in shady corners and mountainous, black piles at the edges of parking lots.

The sun, too, is strong–so that a nap in a closed car at lunch hour is as warm as a bed heavy with quilts–but the wind is cold, and temperatures fall. During the course of the week, mist and fog and sinking mud revert back to frost that must be scraped from the windshield in the morning. I return to wearing my winter coat and gloves with fingers and a hat that covers my ears.

It is a chaotic season. The ice shrinks back, the streets dry, and the speeding and weaving of drivers becomes more reckless, as if some impatient few were hauling summer itself in trailers on a deadline. There are more fire engines and police cars on the roads, too, blinking and wailing, not just for traffic pile-ups, but for household accidents: the Christmas lights unlooped from eaves at last via perches on slippery shingles. It is the same every year: the loud whirr-chunk of medical choppers above the treetops, out and back, out and back, out and back…

I spend the week listening to the radio, to reports of the virus, novel and terrible, that lands in one country and then another and then another as if riding the wind. At work, we prepare to close the office. I buy groceries on a day when I wouldn’t normally buy groceries, wondering what my need will be in the days ahead. My heart beats nervously, ticking off the risks to my loved ones by health or circumstance. I monitor a cough and an ache in my lungs, remembering what I sometimes forget, which is that I have asthma, that I am vulnerable. I write lists of people to pray for, and I pray on my knees, at my bedside.

Day after day, Santiago and I walk.

It is warm early in the week–forty degrees Fahrenheit–on an evening when rain threatens to fall from a flat, gray cloud that hangs like the top of a cliff over the city. Santi and I head for a little lake in our watershed that is filling with cattails. We are escaping the evening crowd at the park proper–the people and dogs taking in the moist air, the grainy snow, the smell of mud. We have not been to this weathered dock for months, and Santiago runs through the brittle marsh grass to get to it, runs along the planks to the end of it, his pointed ears flapping like small wings. He has caught wind of something. He lowers his head under the railing and sniffs at the mottled ice and the now beige stalks sticking out of it. He trots to each corner of the dock, peering at the worn wood which is decorated, here and there, with markings in colored chalk. He presses his nose to the cracks between the planks. While I am listening to the chirr of a red-winged blackbird–that most magical sound of spring–and looking to spot it, my first blackbird of the year high atop a still bare tree, Santi slips between the rails to creep upon the ice in search of the source of the smell.

He does not find it. But each evening, in this climate of uncertainty, we welcome spring. One night, we pass a dozen picnickers in a park. They are young, in their twenties, the men standing with beer cans in their hands and the women seated close to one another around the picnic table, their laps and shoulders covered with blankets. They are all smiling. Minutes later, we watch a fisherman walking the frozen water far from shore, his slumping tent the only ice house left on the lake. Two men strolling the beach call out, asking Santiago’s breed, and when I stop to talk with them, Santi races to the end of his leash, too excited to chat, in search of the deer in the woods, the mice at the shelter, the geese in the marsh: twitterpated.

Forty-eight hours later, we drive in a wind so harsh that the car shimmies between the lines along the freeway. As I struggle to stay in my lane, the sun for the first time that day pierces the milky sky which curdles into fat white clouds in a brilliantly blue heaven. We park near young children at play with their parents in a ball field and climb a hillside that will bloom with tallgrass and prairie flowers. It is only now, before the new growth begins, that I let Santi romp here, among crunching stalks and bird houses on wooden posts and trees that shimmer in the golden light of the setting sun.

A neighbor texts on Friday night, wanting to know how I am doing in this time of change. My throat is red and sore. She brings soup, and though I tell her that I may be contagious, she knocks on the door and places in my cupped hands a bowl that is warm–filled with homemade stock and shredded chicken, with wild rice and hunks of onion, with bright orange carrots and creamy mushrooms. It is unexpected, this soup, and I eat it with gratitude. When I have washed the bowl and placed it by the front door for return, Santiago finds it, nudges it to his mouth and begins lapping it with his wide, pink tongue. It still smells good. I wash it again.

Jesus said, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

Over the weekend, the governor announces the closure of schools. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend against gatherings of fifty people or more for the next two months. Vulnerable people are told to shun public life. Across the state, stores are raided of toilet paper, and businesses report having their supplies stolen. Yet toilet paper will not stop the wind from blowing.

Santiago and I walk on Saturday just as the sun breaks out. There are no other cars in the parking lot when we arrive at our destination midday. The temperature has dipped again; it is barely above freezing. Beneath our feet, the wood chip trail is hard. In the stream that meanders beside us, three mallards bob with their butts in the air, foraging for food under the water. As the sun becomes generous, people appear: an African woman who eyes Santi warily, singing as she walks; a chubby white girl who halts her scooter to video-record two geese on the lawn beneath a tree; an old woman in a polka dot dress who sits on a bench, watching the day glow; a man and an Irish setter playing fetch before a row of archery targets. Santi and I walk for over an hour. Before we leave, he flops to the ground and rolls on the faded grass, waving his legs, stretching his neck, and exposing his white chin to the sky.

Sunday morning, we walk early, when the sun is still rubbing the sleep from his eyes. We wander the riverside, where slabs of ice melt slowly at the shore but throngs of robins now flit from tree to tree, their bellies red as life. I am not on my knees, but I pray. Santiago sneezes to clear his nose for hunting. The wind blows.

To see pictures from a week of hopeful walks in a fearful time, visit the gallery.

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Spring slips in on wet ice. On a Sunday morning, we walk before seven a.m. Santiago cries sharply from the back seat of the car as we pull up to the dog park: a plea to be let loose. He jogs the grounds alone, sniffing at the fencing, at the iron legs of a picnic table, at frozen water in a dog dish. The sky is the barely-blue of frayed denim, and the air has a chilly, winter stillness, but above our heads, birds yodel and cheep. Santi barks at the gate, satisfied with his examinations, and we walk in the woods. A new lean-to has been built there, beside a narrow footpath. Two logs inside it form a bench upon which to contemplate railroad tracks stretching west beyond the trees to where the day has hardly begun. Santiago trots and I follow, dancing as the path rises and falls, trying to slow the momentum of my heavy boots when he suddenly stops to press his nose to a root beside a mossy trunk. It will be the last day of hard-packed snow.

The rest of the week is wearying. I scribble visits to the dentist, the optometrist, the primary into the margins of my work schedule. My brother-in-law has a hospital stay. A friend of my parents dies. At the office, a salary nearly double my own is described in my hearing as insulting: an inequity of expectation that can only exist in a culture in which to be treated like a dog is to be judged to be without feelings, delicacy, or desire, as if there were grades of being. Day after day, the sun is strong but the wind is cold. Santiago and I walk in the evenings on snow that has melted and re-frozen, leaving boot moguls that are dangerously slick. Trees sway and creak. Where the snow has receded, there is sucking mud. I buy a box of compostable bags for Santiago’s poop, and the first three off the roll tear like paper through a shredder. It takes twenty-five minutes to return them.

I walk with Santiago because I love him and because he is an alchemist: because to emerge on a bitter evening in a season of disappointment from a dark underpass thick with ice to a vivid pink sunset, unexpected and lovely and hanging high across the sky, the snout of a shadowed dog aimed at it like an arrow is to make time. I did not understand this when Santi first came to live with me. I had appointments then, too, and a job, and chores, and family and friends who mattered to me, and goals that goaded. I clocked our walks, tugging at the leash with frustration as Santiago stopped to smell each un-met blade of grass, each lamppost wet with scent. In our early days, it took half an hour to circle two blocks. It was love that made me consider the wonder of a blade of grass to an animal who had been caged for his entire life. It was grace that reminded me that I am an animal. If I have learned by my salary how much the commercial world values my time on Earth, I have learned from Santiago how to be without purpose, making merry in creation, tending to the labor of my soul.

On Friday evening, Santiago is impatient with me. We are walking a parkway we’ve eschewed all winter, and I keep stopping to take pictures of the moon. It is nearly full–a bright white orb in a clear, blue sky–and the setting sun casts golden light across tree branches that hold it like a pearl set in a ring. We are ecstatic. The weekend has come and we have time. There is a dog park here, and Santi cries to be let in, but I will not allow it. The stench of ammonia in the mud is overwhelming, and there are more canines playing than Santiago can encounter without being visited by spooks from his past. He will bark warnings and foam with worry and I will have to hustle him away from the dogs he fears as people cluck and imagine that he is aggressive.

We wander north instead. A weathered bench sits at the bottom of a sloping golf course, waiting for the grass at its feet to green. A sofa lies on its back in the scrub beneath a railroad bridge. We find a rugby pitch hidden like a fairy glade, a plaque on a boulder beside it tracing its lineage to England. Santiago sniffs at copper-colored pine needles dropped under the trees. He pees on straw archery targets. He leads me across fields where the grainy snow gives beneath our feet and along dry sidewalks scattered with streams and ponds of snow melt. Netting posted far above our heads to catch stray golf balls is torn and peeled back before the moon that is glowing in an ever duskier sky. Gazing through it is like being invited into eternity.

I am sorry to see winter go. I like the quietude, the darkness, the permission to stop moving. The weather is warming. On Saturday, the lakesides are full of people who have shed their heavy coats and are wearing sunglasses. There are children in shiny, rubber boots wading through the wet snow and joggers in shorts and trainers on the puddled paths. There are women riding bikes and men pushing strollers. There are dogs of every form and hue, the midday sun lavish on their sleek and shaggy sides. I watch a man climb a tree while a woman photographs him. I watch a boy climb atop an overturned lifeboat and sing, “Row, row, row your boat…” I watch the wind push returning Canada geese sideways across the sky. Santiago jumps with all four feet upon a bush he suspects of sheltering a rabbit. Before we go home, he rolls in grass still weighted with the gray dust of winter.

That night, we move forward. I turn all the clocks an hour ahead to Daylight Saving Time. The neighborhood children have roused themselves from hibernation. They chalk the sidewalks with games, ride scooters in the street. The ones who have only just learned to walk stand on their driveways in the afternoons, their coats unzipped, their cheeks smooth, considering the blades of grass in wonder.

On Sunday evening, I take Santiago grocery shopping. He has already had a long walk by the river, but there is a tiny trail near the store, and the work week is coming: I make time for a second walk. We watch a mallard dining in a bird feeder and greet a white-haired man with a leather fisherman’s cap. The creek burbles. The sun sinks. Santi waits in the car with the windows open while I buy cereal and almonds and avocados.

I see them first as we drive home. Santiago is sitting up in the back seat, purring. There are five of them. They cannot yet be said to be tall, and their heads are free of antlers. They are in a valley that houses a couple of businesses but backs up to a park. Browsing among the landscaping, the deer relax their white tails. I pull the car to the shoulder, put on my hazard lights, and look down the hill at them. For a long minute, Santi watches in silence. The smallest deer begins to gambol and the others follow him after a fashion, moving slowly away from us, across a parking lot. Santi begins at last to make noises that sound as if I am slicing him with knives.

He sleeps that night with his princess bed delicately kneaded to provide a pillow for his head. I have washed the mud from his paws with lavender soap. He snuffles softly, his eyes closed, his nose twitching in a dream. I contemplate with wonder, as if it were gold in my pocket, his time on Earth.