Smoke sidles in on the north wind. Wildfires are raging west of us, in the U.S., and north, in Canada. I am asthmatic. I begin masking against the outdoor air. Without protection, my lungs seize, my sinuses clog, my throat burns, my head aches. It can take days for the inflammation in my body to diminish, so crossing the yard with a watering can counts. I worry about Santiago, who has an enlarged heart and an appetite for long walks. The windows of the house have already been closed for weeks against angry heat, and the indoor air, too, accretes into something unpleasant and unhealthy. In the mornings, if the smoke is merely grimy and not assaultive, I put a fan in a single bedroom window and blow out the stale air while I dress. Then I push down the sash and wonder about those who live where the fires are actually burning.
The ash endows a paradoxical mercy: it filters the sunlight and keeps temperatures from continuing to soar. We are well above the state average for days in the nineties. Spasms of rain fall, but the drought deepens. In the back yard, ferns flop and violets lie with their cheeks to the ground the way they usually do at the end of September. The firmament is more white than gray–like very old dirt–and sometimes the smoke sits like mist over the horizon, softening the rooftops and trees, and the sky then is an uneasy gold, a smoldering thing, a warning to those who can see.
The plants in the yard are doing their best. The grass, of course, is dormant, like broom straw; it hasn’t required mowing since spring. Even dandelions and clover have ceased growing in it. On alternate mornings, I move through the gardens with a hose, watering everything except the turf: the bent cedar, brown-edged hostas and wild ginger, brand new clumps of little bluestem, an old black spruce. It takes an hour or two. Each plant gets only a little water, but everyone is alive. The prairie plot is still bright with color, though the butterfly weed is now forming slender, green pods. I’ve removed fencing from around hazelnut shrubs and wood phlox and columbine. When the browsers come, I pray that they will be restrained. White snake root is blooming among Joe-Pye-weed and goldenrod, and a towering pink anemone has unfurled her petals. All these tall, unruly stems dance with each other when the wind blows, and their wild tangle is what I hoped my yard would look like.
I can smell through my mask a neighbor smoking cigarettes two houses down. It’s the same every morning. Occasionally, there is coughing. Beside the retaining wall and in the seam that meets the sidewalk, horseweed has sprung up. It is a native aster, but it has never been here before. It is growing in direct sunlight without any water and is as high as I am and about to burst with small flowers. I leave the stalks lined up like soldiers to strain runoff, should rain ever come again. As I approach with water, dragonflies and grasshoppers and moths flutter up from the gardens. A lone cricket sings.
It does me good to see them.
One morning, Santi takes me on a two-hour walk. Our movements are slow against the brutalities of the air, but we are cheerful as we wend our way through one park after another. We pass the boardwalk from which we have watched catfish mouth at the surface of the water, but they are elsewhere on this day, the lake low and murky and still. We stop at the edge of a road construction site where upturned earth abounds with scent. We walk above a hillside where the black-eyed Susans are small and defiant amidst the other withered wildflowers. Hardly a milkweed plant has bloomed all year.
It is the weekend. Here and there, a front stoop is occupied by a person bent quietly over a book or a mug. We watch a man lay a sprinkler down beside a patch of purple coneflowers, then stand back, contemplating the arc of the spray, before returning to adjust it. We encounter stone lions guarding a doorway, whirligig flowers in a garden plot, an eagle painted across a garage. They touch me, these facsimiles of plants and animals, in a season in which beings with blood and chlorophyll struggle to find food and water and clean air. Santiago and I see white-tailed deer everywhere this month: a calf on a suburban street; a doe with a gamboling fawn in a wood; three young bucks on the grounds of a power plant. I read that they are getting coronavirus infections, the deer.
A man walking toward Santiago and I with a preschooler says to the boy, “Do you know how to get your sillies out?” The boy looks at him from under hair that is like blossoming goatsbeard. The man shakes all of his limbs.
There are things that I need to shake out. I had my peeling cast iron bathtub refinished, and afterward the drain didn’t seal. It took me two days to figure out that the technician had installed a rubber washer upside down. The heat brought mice into the house, looking for a better place to live. The smell of their bodies decomposing led me to forgotten traps–one a live box, so that the thought of the mouse’s slow perishing cracked my heart. The washing machine is leaking again, a result of hard water barnacles. My drains are slow, and the toilets behave strangely; I pour enzymes and plunge sinks and puzzle over which of the pipes on the roof vents the sewer. I invite a bid on replacing half-broken rope and pulley windows, and a man arrives without even a face mask in his pocket and with body odor that I need to clear from two levels after he leaves. I open the windows for ten minutes. My breathing becomes labored.
As Santiago and I continue walking, there is a gentle scratching on the sidewalk behind us, and suddenly we are joined by a tawny gray pit bull. He is more squat than Santi, bull-headed and merry. He wears no collar. Santiago does not know how to react. He makes a few, hesitant communications. He prefers female company–and wrestling, which this dog is not interested in. But the pit accompanies us for blocks. When he wanders up into a yard to piddle, Santi is jealous. I wonder if I should call someone, but the dog doesn’t appear to be mistreated. It is not hard to imagine Santiago sneaking off for a walkabout. He would not be lost. He would know how to get home if that was where he wanted to be. So the three of us walk together until the pit spots a squirrel. We last see the dog near the side of a stuccoed bungalow, the squirrel twisting in the air at the top of a downspout.
My outlook has become as smudgy and sour as the smoke-filled air; so, for two weeks, I vacate obligations. One day, Santiago leads me from a park that we know to one that we have never seen, where a swallowtail butterfly flits among coneflowers and a pavilion rests above the river. Nearby, youth with shy smiles are amassed on a ball field and planters are draped with vines and squash blossoms. As I take a photograph, Santi stares at the wooded shoreline–then takes off in the opposite direction after a rabbit. I chase him, and a few moments later he emerges, panting and happy, from around the side of an old, brick apartment building. It has wrought-iron fencing and yellow lilies and flourishes cut into wooden stairs and diamond tiling at the roof line. It is beautiful. We are hot, then, and we walk to the water’s edge and sit for a while. The cityscape pokes the hazy sky across the river that plashes at our feet. There is graffiti on the lookout beside us and a shiny bit of trash under the rippling water and wood ducks near the opposite shore. A breeze blows across our faces.
My birthday comes, and my favorite bookstore reopens. I have never had to wriggle past so many people as I browsed. I dine with my parents, and with my godparents, and I go to a spa, and all of these actions are complicated by infection rates, which are rising. I mask whenever I can, suffering nastiness upon occasion. On an afternoon when the air is bad and we cannot walk outdoors, I take Santiago with me to the hardware store. There are odors in every corner of a building that has been eyeing humanity for a century, and Santi shows his appreciation by pulling me to the end of every aisle, rear end swinging. He meets a young girl carrying a doughnut in a sack and strains for it, wagging his tail. She caresses him and calls him sweet. The cashier gives him dog treats.
It has become a labor to claim joy, but we do it. There is no other way forward.
I rein Santiago to a stop in front of a Little Free Library. It is a lucky day: I find two books that I want to read. A young man–thin and muscled and wearing tawny gray shorts and a tee-shirt–pedals by on a bicycle and asks if we’ve seen a dog. I tell him where to find his pit bull. There are acorns on the sidewalk, and I feel contented, outside the walls of my worries, watching life in motion.
There was a day this past month when I wasn’t sure whether or not the three, red leaves that Santiago trotted through were poison ivy. There were evenings when we picked up our produce share and the neighborhood was filled with people doing yoga in the dry grass or running in teams after a Frisbee, with dogs and strollers and children in pink fairy wings, and I wondered whether anyone noticed the sky with its dingy teeth bared, its breath stinking. I slept through afternoons of enervating heat then laid awake thinking about the rattling spindles of saplings left unwatered where a parking lot replaced mature conifers. Up the street, an oak collapsed: it fell on a house, crushing the front awning, the fourth oak death in two years. One morning, I pulled Santiago home, block after anxious block, as he turned and yelped at the pain inflicted by a bee.
At the edge of a park, we come upon a man with a shaggy black dog. They are wary of us, but the man allows Santiago to approach his female, which makes Santi glad.
“She was just attacked by a pit,” the man says.
As Santiago circles her, the man shows me a knife that he has tucked into his waistband. He didn’t know what to do when the other dog bolted at them from a yard. He kicked it, and a man came out of the house and yelled at him. So now he carries a knife.
When we are back at home, the kids on the street knock at our door. I have instituted a contest, and they have come to present me with their guesses–sealed in an envelope–of the October weight of the first pumpkin to appear in my garden. They are crowded on the stoop. They have an electric guitar and are taking turns strumming it. Santiago slips out the door and stands among them, wagging his tail against their chests and faces.
“Why is it foggy?”
That is what they ask me later that day, when I am snipping errant trees in the yard. I want to tell them that the fog is why I blow my nose into cloth handkerchiefs, why I don’t buy fruit in plastic packaging, why I take sponge baths instead of showers and do not send the autumn leaves away. I want to explain and deflect blame and enlist their help and tell them that I am scared and I am sorry. But I say simply that the fog is smoke from wildfires, that when the wind comes from their direction–I point–smoke settles over the land. They watch me as I speak. Then they resume their play.
On the day that I drive to my brother’s house, road signs glow with a message that reads, “AIR QUALITY ALERT. CONSIDER REDUCING TRIPS.” My car windows are rolled down because I do not have air-conditioning, and I am masked because I cannot breathe the air. Day after day, it is hard to know what to do. But, that afternoon, for the first time since Christmas eighteen months ago, I am with my family: everyone who lives in the state. I watch the newest baby toddle along the deck of a swimming pool, floats on her arms, her grandmother beside her, to be tossed from the diving board into her father’s embrace. I watch the previous baby, now a high-schooler, lounge in the water like a mermaid in a chic, red bathing suit. We eat ribs and beans, tuna salad and ice cream sandwiches, and, after the sunning and swimming and lunching, the whole house starts singing “Hakuna Matata”–no worries–as the new little one watches The Lion King, her eyes liquid with enchantment.
The next day, I take Santiago to the pet market. The outdoor air remains sickening. The parkway is closed for construction, so we drive through the urban heat island, contributing to the pollution. Stopped at a traffic light, windows rolled down, mask on, I hear a church organ noodling over someone else’s radio.
A voice booms, “And I know it doesn’t feel good right now!”
The intersection is colorless, all asphalt and white glare. It is sweltering, and it smells of exhaust, and there is nothing but garbage to look at.
“But we take solace,” says the voice. “We know that all will be well.”
I start to cry.
We leave the market with puppy pastries in a sack. Overhead, the sky has become blue. I check the air quality index. It is improving. I drive Santi to a park and give him a cupcake in the grass.
Several days later, the rain comes. The clouds are in motion for four days over our house, often in the night, so that I awaken to their release, to the patter and snap and bellowing of the rain, and I thank God for its confidence. The tomatoes in the front garden become heavy with fruit and their pot topples in the wind. I put stakes in the ground and tie up the stalks with twine while a friend moves a spirea from beneath the aging cedar to a bright corner of the yard. We go to a whiskey distillery that evening, sipping cocktails and crunching pretzels on a terrace facing the churning clouds. We pay our tab when the rain starts to reach under our umbrella.
I hear from a cousin, a neighbor, my CSA farmer about close calls with the virus. I make dates to see my friends, knowing that they will be both the first and the last for months.
And on mornings when rain has scrubbed the air, Santiago takes me on long walks. Though the drought has not broken, the footpaths in the woods are just damp enough to ease the dust, to give us sure footing. Santi sniffs out a muskrat gliding through lime green duckweed on a refreshed pond. The needled branches of tamaracks wave with cones and blue-beaded junipers smell like Christmas and a park bench is mottled with wet, yellow cottonwood leaves. Rows of crabapple trees bear fruits blighted with monstrous orange fingers. The rain does not fix everything.
But the parkway opens again. And Canada geese begin to appear in great flocks on hillsides and golf courses. A crowd pours from a rugby pitch, boisterous and unmasked. Everyone will find their way home.
In the garden, there are new pumpkins. At least, I think that they are pumpkins.
To see Santiago at the height of a hot, dry summer, visit the gallery.