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Comfort

For ten, straight days, the temperature is fifteen degrees above average. The sun shines without respite. Evenings approach one hundred degrees, and, overnight, heat lounges by the exit but refuses to leave. In the mornings, there is no dew on the grass, which becomes more and more like its namesake: flinty blades that stab at Santiago’s paws. Icons predicting rain pop up on my weather app then disappear hour after hour, day after day, like mirages in a desert. The atmosphere toggles between uncomfortable and debilitating.

Santi and I go walking at sunrise. One morning, as we crest a hill between a church and a wood, clear sky above us and the day warming, we see a hen and her chicks, foraging. I tug Santiago closer to me. The hen hurries for the cover of trees, and the poults follow, but two stragglers circle in confusion at the sunny edge of the wood, vibrating like wind-up toys. That is when a tom bolts from the shady understory beside us and charges.

“No!” I shout as ferociously as I can, and it comes out like a scream because my voice is high. I scatter mental files, looking for instructions on what to do when attacked by a turkey, but I cannot find anything. Santi is quiet. He does not bark and does not chase, but he spins and watches the turkey each time it advances, standing his ground.

And so we dance, the three of us. My shouts are a kind of ululation, and each time the tom rushes, Santi and I pirouette to face him, thrusting our own chests forward until he halts, beginning, then, again, in a kind of cha cha cha, all of us progressing, retreating, sidling, twirling, in time, together. When the turkey is satisfied with the performance, he wanders back to the wood. Santiago and I remain strolling across a hillside of dormant grass and bright, magenta clover. I look down at the dog.

“You had fun, didn’t you?” I say, and I smile.

That old tom was probably just cranky from the heat.

I sleep fitfully. The day’s warmth collects in the master bed room, under the roof, pressing from every side as if the walls were moving in. I try the guest bedroom in the basement, but the air conditioner roars and the room becomes too cold. Some evenings, I open windows, hoping that the moon’s breath will offer respite from the swelter, but summer sounds distract me–sirens and firecrackers and late-night traffic–so that I fidget atop the bedspread, punching my pillow, trying to get comfortable. One night, I lie down on the floor of the study in front of the wan breath of a vent. I dream of gardens. Night after night, I dream of tending gardens.

Every other day, I water the yard. It takes an hour or two. I have never had to water so much. Plants that were, until spring, housed in profound shade are wilted, crimped and yellowed. They miss the oak next door that, like two others that used to overhang my yard, was taken down for disease. Rotting branches no longer clatter down upon my car, but in the mornings, when the sun knocks at it, my front door is blistering to the touch. That same, hot sun, coupled with a creeping drought, has caused the white cedar that veils the living room windows to develop a hunch, its lower branches drooping to the ground, its upper branches folded down across the top of it, like strands of hair combed over a balding pate. The potted herbs on the deck are thirsty every day, the ferns are browning, and the violets have gone limp. The rhododendrons show hints of fall color. It is not yet the middle of June.

And yet, the prairie that I planted in a small plot of unfettered sunshine is blooming. There are vivid orange butterfly weed blossoms and wands of purple prairie clover and coreopsis like bouquets of yellow smiley faces. The pumpkin sprouts, too, have become fistfuls of large, happy leaves. I have been trying to grow pumpkins on my tiny acreage since I moved here more than a decade ago. I have not yet succeeded.

The weather is a reminder that expectations are not always fulfilled, that what is within our control is very slight, that it amounts mainly to the ability, in all circumstances, to welcome present joy and to hope for good to come.

On the hottest days, I pack water for Santiago and me. I watch for his tongue: for how quickly it parts his muzzle and how low it dangles in search of a cooling breeze. We hike in the woods and are favored with shade but challenged by steep hills and biting flies. At a pond, we encounter a painted turtle nesting in the sand, as still as a stone, and squirrels fighting so fiercely in the underbrush that one comes flying onto the footpath, squealing. The heat is hard on everyone. When Santi stops to roll in the grass–when he refuses to walk any farther but refuses, also, to head for the car–I join him. I lie down on that spiky carpet–ever drier and more decrepit–and watch dragonflies with striped wings dashing in every direction in the blue sky above my face. The dog lies on his belly, legs stretched before him, and pants. He rolls again. There is a loud squawking, and both of us turn our heads as a dozen mallard drakes rise from a stream, an eagle flying behind them like a collie herding sheep. We watch the flurry; we watch the settling. Joggers pass, smiling at us. I close my eyes. Santi rolls.

We do not need to walk. We are in the presence of all that is alive.

The heat does what it does. On the roads, drivers speed, pass in turn lanes, shout swear words out their open windows. Parks are profusely littered. I, too, am bad-tempered and muddled and tired. I can no longer walk from the beginning to the end of an idea without wanting to lie down and sleep. For two days, I turn off my phone. I do not consult it about the temperature or news of the world or what my friends are doing. I read a book. I do a crossword puzzle. I thumb a little, leather atlas and look up a word in a clothbound dictionary. I speak only to Santiago.

And for hours, I sit under a ceiling fan, pasting photos into a family scrapbook. Its genealogy begins in the eighteenth century. As I sort and cut and glue and caption, I think on famines escaped, oceans crossed, taunts rejoindered, on war and poverty, innovation and love. I remember craggy faces and rosy cheeks and laughs that burbled from the mouths of old aunties and uncles and grandparents, remember hugs that I enjoyed against those bosoms, pennies that I received for no good reason, meals of pancakes and shucked corn and cold milk that we shared, often in the summer, in a dusty land, under a hot sun.

To endure–to understand that one’s own life arises from and will be carried on in the bodies of other beings–is a great comfort.

When the heat breaks, Santiago and I park early in the morning beside railroad tracks. The sun is rising. Crows stand in the rail yard as black tank cars filled with oil trundle past. The cool, dry air feels like fall, like the start of something new. We are giddy. We run. The land along the trail is covered with June whites–ox-eye daisy and yarrow and tall stands of clover–and rabbits are grazing around every bend. A breeze blows, and the cottonwood leaves scintillate in the sun. On one side of a hill, a baseball field has been watered overnight. On the other, a stagnant pond shows a ragged hem of soil around its banks. There is smog over the city skyline: a pale, gray filth like dirt on a window that I ache to wipe away. The pandemic doesn’t seem to have changed us.

One morning, as I stand in the front yard with a trickling hose, I watch a robin pecking among the prairie smoke in the garden. She hops around, neck bobbing, then flies off with a bit of grub in her beak, landing in a small elm above a maidenhair fern. As I work, she does, too, flying back and forth, feeding her young. In the back yard, a house finch is standing in the bird bath. She cheeps at me. The water has evaporated overnight–or been drunk by alley cats and squirrels; the bath welcomes all comers. I spray the tray clean and refill it. I am gentle. In the bowl underneath the bath, a spider is tending two egg sacks.

They comfort me: the birds and the spider–and the rabbits who continue to knock over my fencing and eat the wood phlox. I have created this place for them and they have found it.

Others find this place, too. The heat has tempered, and Santi and I sit on the deck with friends we’ve not seen for a year and a half, sharing a bottle of rosé and a plate of cheese and a semifreddo that won’t thaw. A mosquito makes an appearance. We watch the sun sink behind maples and pines and chimney stacks. One day, my parents come for lunch. I put a tape recorder in front of them and ask them to tell me stories. Another farmers’ market opens for the season, a friend and I dine out, and prickly lawns are spread with wedding receptions and graduation parties. Santiago runs across the street to see Sweetie and is invited inside the fence to play.

Bare faces everywhere: it lifts the spirit to see them.

Seventeen days after the heat wave began and twenty-four days since the last measurable rain, the sky is filled with clouds. They are gray like pewter, and the air is soft and weighted. Santiago and I are walking beside a lake filled with lily pads when the rain begins. Droplets splash atop the surface with a sound like a hush, creating thin circles that spread toward a stand of cattails, toward the open water, toward us. We stand on the bank and watch. The soil at our feet becomes freckled with dark, wet spots.

It is a tremulous rain. We walk with it for an hour, but our skin is not damp beneath our clothes, our fur. It is hard not to be anxious. But this morning rain is like a greeting card on a gift wrapped in paper and bows. In the afternoon, more is revealed: a second downpour wets everything, even under the trees. And in the evening, it comes again, rain, this time, with thunder, and water pours down the trunks of the trees, leaving thick, black streaks along the bark.

Santiago leaves the bed, where he has been sleeping. He is troubled by the rattling of the heavens. He comes to sit beside me and be comforted.

To see photos of joy in a dry land, visit 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 was striped like war paint 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 silver maple 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 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.