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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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Survival

I lie in bed alone, listening to winter. My eyes are closed. The bedroom door is closed. The windows are closed. The world has settled in, is only just this big: the shape of the room that floats beyond flannel sheets, just out of the reach of dreams. A hollow rasping near the foot of the bed is the furnace beginning to heat the house for the day. When it cycles off in the darkness, I can hear the faint, high-pitched whoosh of a small humidifier sitting atop the dresser. I listen for car engines, for the cold crunch of rubber tires on packed snow. Though it is a weekday morning, there is nothing. Suddenly, a crow importunes, and the cackle and whine of its call is swallowed, just as suddenly, by the silence. I listen to my own breathing.

Santiago is downstairs, on the couch, where he sleeps when he is very tired. We had a long walk yesterday. The day before that, he stood in the middle of an empty dog park, the sun grinning fitfully far above his head in a sky full of shifting clouds. He faced the gate, scanned the horizon, and barked: once, twice, three times, pausing between vocalizations. His body was motionless, all of his energy gathered like platelets to a wound in pricked ears, a quivering nose, yearning eyes, alert to the dog who would answer his call to come and play. There was no response. He hung his head and walked to a bench. Sniffed it. Dug at the snow underneath it. Peed on it. And then, along a gently sloping path outside the fence she came: a year-old, shepherd-collie mix, small-boned and eager, watching Santiago as she walked beside a tall man with a crooked gait and kind eyes. He was a former mail carrier. We talked about the boon of leggings for keeping snow out of one’s boots. He told me who to call to get the literary journal that had been lost at the post office for a month. The dogs played.

You never know when a prayer will be answered.

Santiago has another new friend. She has moved in across the street. Her ears are tall and elegant. She is younger than Santi, still a puppy, with a frame like his, but slighter. She likes wrestling and chasing and is not afraid of Santiago’s power and flamboyance. On the morning of their last date, I received a text–“Sweetie could be ready early”–moments after Santiago had stood on our bed and barked a demand to go outside, so that it seemed that the dogs were communicating with one another, in whatever way they have that we humans do not comprehend.

I harnessed Santiago into the back seat of the car that morning and turned the key in the ignition. Winter’s silence followed. It was 3ºF. The battery had not survived the cold. I unbuckled our seat belts and we left the car in the driveway, trotting as quickly as we could–over ice-mogulled sidewalks, and around fenced-off railroad tracks, with Santiago stopping once to leave a deposit that I had to stoop to retrieve–the ten blocks to the park where Sweetie awaited. When he saw her, Santi gave a great cry of longing, of joy strangled and desperate to be unleashed. The dogs had the corral to themselves. They played in the bright, cold snow until thirst overtook Santiago, silver-browed now, his vigor no longer as eternal as it once had seemed.

This is how we recharge ourselves: by walking out to where our dreams can find us.

I tried turning over the engine once each day, and when the quietude of the season remained unbroken, I smiled at the great blessing of having no need of a car. I spent the weekend scribbling notes in an online writing class, reading a story referenced in a magazine article, napping between meals: the open-ended unaccomplishments of a person at work on being someone rather than doing something. When Monday arrived, I called for a jumpstart and took the car to a shop. Santi and I wandered the neighborhood while the battery was being replaced. We discovered front porches kitted with cheery chairs, competing Christmas spectacles in neighboring yards, and shop windows stacked with new novels and vintage furniture and cupcakes. Santiago got a treat from the auto shop clerk before we left.

The ice came, as it does every winter now, weeks ago: a warm, slushy snow that froze in the subsequent cold. Unshovelled sidewalks have become a glaze of cratered boot prints; intermittently plowed park paths sport a sheen of snow drift that melts and then re-freezes; and snowy, forest footpaths have been trampled to a startling lubriciousness. I have learned to trot with Santiago in winter, to take his speed rather than trying to rein him back to mine. It is counter-intuitive: the notion of traveling more quickly rather than more slowly over hazardous ice. But experience has taught me not to resist the conditions, to move with the ice the way that one moves down a hill, acquiescing to momentum. I am more likely to splay or topple when a plodding heel hits a slick surface than I am when my toes land lightly and dance forward. This dancing makes us more svelte in the colder months, Santiago and I, than we are in the fat heat of the summer.

We walk around a lake basin one day. Someone has speared broken egg shells onto a couple of cattails. It is like happening upon a cairn or a cave painting or a shard of cut stone. Who made this thing and what was in her heart? I tug Santiago into the snowy marsh to get a better look, but the cattails are too tall for me to see inside the egg cups. I wonder if they are filled with bird seed. Above us, the sky is white. Around us, the cattails and the woods have the sepia tint of an old photograph. We walk. A shock of red dogwood branches frames a winding, snow-covered creek. Where the water breaks free from icy banks, beneath a footbridge, it trickles blackly over green stones. Santiago is sniffing where mallards often huddle. The scuffling of our feet stilled, I listen. The creek burbles softly, and the water that constitutes my body heeds it and begins to flow with the same, calm eddying… A chickadee sings, and then a junco. A woodpecker knocks. We walk for an hour and see no one. I wonder how others survive.

I spent the last week of January doing final edits on the memoir of a man in his ninth decade of life. His childhood roommate was a grandfather who fled the pogroms in Russia. In high school, he worked at his uncle’s junkyard and made out with his girlfriends on the balcony of the movie theater he managed. He walked half a mile from the bus stop to his college campus because he couldn’t afford to live in the dorms. He joined the Army and was stationed in Germany, where he drank wine in the shadow of castles on the Rhine River; he was terrified that WWIII had begun when Russia invaded Hungary. He has had two wives and three careers and one bankruptcy. He spent an entire winter in a contagion ward after contracting hepatitis from an unclean dental instrument. When the Angel of Mercy came to him, he says, he fought like hell. The sound of the laughter that punctuates his stories is like the sound of footsteps dancing across ice.

Santiago and I walk before breakfast one morning and watch the sun rise. The sky is a grubby blue behind dark rooftops limned with pale pink clouds. I do not know how long it has been since I have seen even so tepid a dawning. By the time that we are back in our kitchen, the sun has disappeared again. Day after day after day after day, the clouds smother us.

But Santiago and I do not resist. We walk with glad, bare heads in the dangerous winter warmth, under the blanket of clouds. These are the days that have been given to us. I open the windows of the house to wave out the stale air of fried eggs and pine-scented candles and frustration. Then I shut them and call Santi to the couch. He settles in against my side, underneath a blanket as heavy as a pelt. I settle in against a pillow, book in hand. He snores. I read. This is what clouds are for.

For too long, I disappeared each day like the winter sun, returning to the house at dusk with enough money to pay a woman to let Santi out to piss while I was gone. It was not a way to live.

On Sunday, it is cloudy. It is so warm that the thick ice on the sidewalks has gone mushy. It is snowing. The flakes are large and desultory, so widely spaced that I forget that they are falling until I notice them on my coat sleeve and am astonished by their loveliness. Santiago watches a man and a boy gliding across a hockey rink with two-handled shovels, sweeping away the snowfall. We are walking on streets we’ve never traversed before. The houses change from block to block–from rows of little bungalows to sleek modern facades oriented to the light, to a house on stilts two stories high built into a steep wood–so that one can watch history unfurl like a scroll as we pass.

Santiago marks the plowed snow at the ends of driveways, and I consider adornments in the yards: a heavy-shouldered wicker moose; great, wrought iron chimes; a sailing ship affixed beside a house number; an angel lifting a star to a rooftop. In front of a wooden swing, a sculpted buck has lost one antler. He is wearing a bright orange bow and strings of Mardi Gras beads. He looks at us with a weathered eye.

Who has placed this here, and what is in her heart?

To see the buck, the egg shells and other homespun art, as well as Sweetie and Santi out for a walk, visit the gallery.