Always dogs. His name is Ben. He’s a Brittany Spaniel, one-year old. My father adopted him, but he was a hurricane.
He’s not my dog. Sometimes I take him down to the park. The city waters the grass early in the morning enough to seep down past the roots. It’s still dewy and soft along the field when we walk through and circle for another pass. I coach him to follow, to sit when I stop, to come when I call. It’s so hot, August hot, that he stretches out in the clover to cool off when we pass under the shade of the walnut tree.
He’s not my dog. Sometimes I take him out to let him see ducks floating along the canal. He wades in and practices his dog paddle. Two canoes come upon us, in the shade of the lower canal, and he swims out to investigate. The women offer him tennis balls that were floating by, but he’s only interested in the canoes and the paddles. I thank them and slip the wet balls into the game pocket of my vest for later. There is pheasant scent and squirrel, vole and snake, much to be studied on for a young dog. Fall is coming.
The sun turns and slants south, a rising late summer light heavy with dust, a sultry white sky rimmed with smoke. Ferocious maws of flame chew through dry tinder mountains near Redding, California: fire gnawing forest, suburban lawns, homes and bones. Ash rises in mushroom clouds.
Birch leaves turn gold and drop, skittering and rattling across the road; the first leaves to green in the spring, the first to let go. The trees clatter. The blackberries are early this year. In the evenings, a doe leads her twin spotted fawns to the berm across the road to feed on the ripe berries.
In the full height and completion of summer, we arrive at the cross-quarter, here between the promise of the summer solstice and the inevitable falling away at the equinox. It’s in my bones, this season, the time of ripeness and venom. My mother broke a tooth chewing ice the night I was born.
When I walk out on the hill with the dog, hat brim low over my eyes against the morning sun, the ground is cracked and sparse with weeds. The grass withered and died. Wasps skim over the sereness. I watch my feet. Yellow jackets hover at the hose nozzle. They are early this year, angry.
I set up the trap on the top deck where they menace and hunt. It’s a simple jar filled with water and a drop of soap. The jar is intersected by a funnel fixed with bit of chicken for bait. The wasps are drawn in by the scent, but cannot find their way out again. They drown, their own nature betraying them, like most clever traps.
Clocks don’t tick any more. Once upon a time, clocks were wound. The ticking of clock springs divided time. Darkness had cadence.
Bombs must not tick anymore. In James Bond movies, green and red wires attach to a wind-up clock. Tick-tick-tick: the immobile hour hand and the long minute hand lurching forward by anticipated seconds. It’s nearly midnight before 007 snips the red wire with his platinum nail clippers. These days, bombs detonate digitally, at a distance, with a cell phone. I suppose that’s progress.
It brings to mind that dark time of night, the very middle of the night, when the clock strikes three. It’s when we awake, or lie awake, soaked in apprehension verging on terror tossing and tangled in sweaty sheets. The prowling beast is at the door. In daylight we are distracted with shiny things; in the hour of the wolf, we startle awake to stare into night’s shadow.
Every journey begins in the dark. As you settle back into your chair while the house lights dim, but before the curtain rises, you begin. Lie awake in the night to listen for the alarm to catch your early flight out. Float in the dark waters of your mother’s womb, the light of the world inconceivable. We can hear our own heartbeat, there in the dark, alone with the dream and the terror.
It’s a thousand-mile round trip. Launching over the Cascades through Willamette Pass, running south with the pines that border the high desert, skirting Klamath Lake down to the California border, down south further, weaving through the Modoc, we buy gas and ice cream sandwiches in Susanville. I ask the clerk where we can run the dogs, and he directs me to a city park where community softball teams are gathering for a game. My dog won’t jump back into the car when we load to drive.
Mercy balks, unsure of her footing, distrustful of the plastic bumper on the Outback, though she can clear five feet over a fallen log. We back the left rear tire into a pothole on the gravel road to lower the gate and wrangle her back inside with an improvised choke chain. Emmy, the German Shorthair and smartest dog I’ve ever known, rides in the back seat like a boss with Dad.
We wait for the flagger to flip the sign, paving the road smooth and black on the highway into Reno, licking ice cream from our fingers, a billboard on 395 advertising a Counting Crows concert at the casino. We blow through Carson City up the pass on 50 to Lake Tahoe, weaving out of Nevada, back into California, south from the lake up further into the granite mountains at dark.
There are black bears and mountain lions here, aspens, sequoia, pine,and juniper. I think on these natives before settling to sleep on the back porch, in the open air with the dog, trespassers that we are in this place. Each day I spot a sabled coyote up the steep ridgeline, dancing over golden boulders and windfallen logs, watching.
The first lesson in a blackberry battle: You will bleed.
Do not scoff, believing you are nimble and strong, accept that it will be so. The only question in this contest is how much.
It’s been a kind and fruitful spring, enough sun, gentle rain, birds beginning to sing before sunrise (in what seems the middle of the night), a fortnight until solstice and the long day. If you are patient, and sit quietly, you can hear the green thrum in the garden.
Blackberries sent out their runner cane, from some secret mother root of all blackberries, and overtook my father’s yard. Tangled knots of brambles, tough wooden thorns that pierce new leather gloves, thick canes climbing the low limbs of the surrounding trees: this is the dragon. We are late. The new cane blooms into berries and the bees work the flower. A slow unwinding of the serpentine knot to salvage the roses.
Begin by circling the edges, testing.
When caught by the hair or the shirt sleeve, bitten by the dragon, resist the panic to tug away. This only tightens the grip of the beast. Lean in to the talons, against your instincts, and duck away. You were impatient.
You will bleed.
Stack the cane and hammer it with the flat of a rock rake. Roll it into a bale. Hammer again. Break the cane.