First Breath After

quince

Wild quince is blooming out among the river brambles and tiny bleeding hearts tremble beneath the ferns along the animal paths.

New moon yesterday when the lights join again to trace the waxing wheel from dark seed to bright mirror and back to darkness. Mercy and I walked out to the old boat landing. She swam after sticks and dug in the sand. I pulled rusty bits of shopping cart out of the river and up onto the stones, too heavy to pack with us when we leave. The rough-built cross marking the place of ashes still stands after the winter floods.

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Vic still lives across the road, though he can no longer drive and can barely hear. When Shirley died in July, he refused to move no matter how the family implored and reasoned. A friend takes him out for exercise and errands several times a week. He orders groceries online, tins of sardines and rice pudding. I labeled his house key and put it in the little wooden bowl on the table with the other odd bits.

Sometimes I glimpse Shirley, out in her robe and slippers, watering the planters or checking the mailbox. We would stand in her driveway and talk and laugh. Mercy, bored with it all, would lie down and wait in the shade.

Somehow she melted, like the moon, like the snow.

A year ago there was a snow storm in the valley that dropped almost two feet over two nights. When I opened the blinds the first morning, the dogwood tree was bent to the window glass. I went out with a broom and rocked the branches to dump the powder, much of it down my arms and neck, but the bent dogwood did not break. It bloomed in May.

mercy_snowplay

Repost of Born for This the first breath after:

Vic is shoveling snow off his driveway with a flat half-spade. There are soft trailing footprints where Mercy and I climbed the slope to deliver white bean and chicken soup and take away a bag of trash to the street. We put the bins out for collection Sunday night as snow started to fall and stick. I knocked a foot of snow off the bins with the snow shovel, twice. The snow on the hill is up to Mercy’s belly and my knees. I’m keeping an eye on Vic through the front windows as I write. Vic is 89. He doesn’t want any help.

Vic’s red plaid Pendleton is tucked into khakis hitched up to his lower ribs. When the sun came out after the latest flurries, he leaned against the garage and unzipped his coat. He slices at the top of the snow with the spade and lets it slip off to the growing pile on the side. Looking south to the Butte, he stops and rests, bowed with both gloved hands on the handle of the shovel. Twice I nearly pulled my boots back on to go out to help and then stopped. He refused my help twice already.

Monday morning there was a foot of snow. Mercy was out back barking before daylight, baying at snow drifts. My phone starting pinging with incoming text messages. The power went out at ten o’clock, yet I had enough presence of mind to brew extra coffee and fill every thermos from the top cupboard with hot water before it went. We lit a fire and set up the camp stove under a sheltered eave. I pulled on my gear and took the dog out back to dig the gate free while she capered and plowed through the powder.

Small trees, herbs and shrubs, my beloved curling hazel, all snapped and broke under the weight of the first fall. Fallen cedar limbs yawn like leviathan bones jutting from the snow. A 30-foot scotch pine toppled in the back and took out a section of fence. Fir trees cracked in the middle distance. An electrical transformer flashed and exploded farther away. Another ten inches of snow fell. Shy yearlings lurk down the hill behind tree trunks watching the dog tunnel in the snow. Deer mice crept in during the night to scoop frozen drippings from a corner of the grill pan.

Mercy danced.

The main roads are plowed now. The power is back. The sun was out briefly before it freezes tonight. Our hillside spur road needs to melt more to drive down; even in the Outback there is not enough clearance to negotiate the grade. Shirley was referred to an oncologist and has her first appointment tomorrow morning. She thought she’d try to walk down the hill to meet her son where the roads are cleared. I shook my head and suggested alternatives. Shirley is 81.

The patient advocate at the cancer clinic is sending transportation for the appointment, a chained high-profile vehicle with a chance of climbing.

Shirley doesn’t think Vic will be able to travel with her, although he desperately wants to go.

Treading

plum_branch_rain

“She treads on the tail of a tiger

and is not bitten;

That which treads

does not stay,”

— I Ching, Hexagram 10

Rain seeps down and cradles the plum blossoms before dropping into the brambles. Out on the hill the wild turkeys gather. There are many hens and a few formidable males strutting after. Their tails are fanned and their chest feathers ruffed, making a show of light playing off the metallic sheen of copper and graphite quills flashing gold.

I find feathers in the grass; the best of them stand in a jar outside the backdoor like a bouquet. They are said to be a sign of prosperity and abundance. Mercy stands at the window and growls and frets at the mating display. Though I might let her out to scatter the birds when there are fewer, not now, not when the heat is on them.

I hear the big birds down in the woods when the dog and I walk out and remain watchful until we pass. The turkeys call to each other in high peeping chirps to gather and form a flock, a small unexpected whine from such large bodies.

They can fly, and do, when the dog charges them out on the grass verge, 100 yards into the fir trees. I’m careful, because she would kill one if she caught it, or worse, didn’t kill it and had to fight raptor claws. I don’t want to kill a turkey as much as the dog wants blood and we hold that equilibrium. When we show ourselves, the birds grow nervous, leave off their pecking and edge toward the woods. It’s best now, before poulting, because they don’t remember from season to season.

One spring turkeys adopted our elderly neighbor’s deck as their territory. Vic and Shirley were unable to go out to the garden without being mobbed by twenty-pound birds. I bought them a slingshot and showed them how to shoot dried chickpeas from the doorway. Mercy and I patrol the fence line.

I carry a long strong lead in a heavy case bought online from Gun Dog Supply, the only one I’ve found she hasn’t snapped. Yet. She’s broken steel cables and pulled posts from porches where cables were anchored. I don’t need to lift weights. I fly a hundred-pound dog.

I submitted a piece to a literary journal this morning, the first after many months turned away. How long to polish the shield before the reflection of the gorgon is clear enough to strike? Dither here, in this public scrapbook, posting markers and milestones so I might remember.

Rain seeps down and bows the buttery cones of the first daffodils along the river. Geese pass high and cry as they circle, pairs come in low to land along the canal by the footbridge. Herons fish alone and nest together, awkward above their nests in high branches of one tree. The dog swims after sticks and watches the geese land beyond her reach.

Under the cedars, sheltered from the rain, there is a rough-hewn totem most probably intended to represent Squirrel. Mercy wants to take it up and shake it, but I offer her a fallen branch instead. It doesn’t look much like a squirrel to me, but I’m distracted.

I think the Year of the Rat arrived.

squirrel_rat

 

 

Quarantine

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Forty days and nights sequestered.

Ships wait at anchor, just as once they stood offshore from Venice during the Black Death, the Plague, the Pestilence. Venetians waiting for the crew to finally die and the diseased ship be burnt to the waterline, or live and revel in release by the Doge, trade their cargo of spices and silk, laugh at night in the wine house and raise the full ruby goblet while sharing wondrous tales from the East.

Forty days and nights in the wilderness tempted.

Make bread out of stones, to feed unbelievers with miracle; jump from a pinnacle and fall into mystery in the arms of angels; worship the Prince of this World in return for authority over all kingdoms, the Grand Inquisitor contends. This is all humanity desires: miracle, mystery, and authority, not the scourge and starvation of freedom. The prisoner remains silent, yet is set free with a kiss.

Forty days and nights in the Bardo.

Forty days of Lent.

A full moon falls on the 40th day this year.

heron_treecharcoal

Noir

“Do you tell fortunes?

I do.

How? With just an ordinary deck of cards?

I leave the Jokers in the deck.”

Chairs in the tiny waiting room are too close and our knees might brush if someone else entered and sat down. There are slush stacks of grimy magazines. Try not to touch anything. The fan vent, or perhaps it’s the whir of various diagnostic machines, cycles a whine that repeats it sounds like a bear.

A colorized black-and-white film with a smear of pink lipstick.

The tires slap on the highway tunneling through dark fir phalanx in every direction and passing semis spray the glass before the wipers salute and return. A man in a cave, or possibly not a man. A bear. A gnome with a red beard fathered by a bear.

Queen of Diamonds crossed by the Two of Hearts.

Off the highway pull into a truck stop furiously lit with humming florescent floodlights. Green skin in the mirror scaly as a slyth and liquid silver eyes. I thought I’d outgrown all that.

Solitary men slouched on vinyl booth benches, backs to the wall and faces to the door, newspapers folded on the table next to mugs of coffee and plates of toast. They look up when the bell on the door jingles as it opens without raising their heads, just their eyes. Home fries, not hash browns, scrambled, not fried. Coffee, yes. Do you have cream? Plain cream, not this vanilla kind.

Ten of Spades follows behind.

No one is wearing a mask. A black and orange warning sign over the door to beware of nuclear isotopes, as though they might be dodged as easily as a flock of gulls, an exotic virus, a besotted stalker. No food, no drink, no smoking, no lipstick.

Pick a card.

 

 

Witch Hazel

Far away from down the hill, a child cries. The wailing swells and then suddenly falls away.

The river is full and fast, deceptively swift. The dog pulls toward the old boat landing where she likes to swim, but I nudge her the other way, toward the fresh-filt canals where geese and wood ducks shelter.

It’s last quarter moon, gauzy and gray, dissolving since the eclipse brought storm and havoc. Ringed by snow in the foothills embracing the valley, the mountains wait. A winter’s snow pack fell in the Cascades over the course of the moon. Wind down the wick of this lunar year, before the Rat arrives, when the scenery changes with new parts and lines to learn.

Pheasant skim along atop the muddy fields. Mercy is preoccupied with ground squirrel burrows.

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” and so Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina.

Are there happy families? Or are there only eddies swirling after the rapids, a submerged spiral born from equal measure forbearance and exhaustion? Photographs of Britain’s ginger Prince are recycled every day on news sites announcing his break from a gilded royal family ward to earn his keep like an American. (Indeed, there are no kings are queens here, save commerce.) In other news, our US President is on trial for high crimes and misdemeanors.

Crossing the bark path we meet a woman with a yellow Lab as tall as my chocolate. The dogs greet each other and we fall into step. When we turn toward the canals, they join us. A flock of Canada geese notice us approaching and toddle toward the water, I unleash Mercy to charge them and send the birds scolding. The woman releases her dog Mac, who is enthusiastic but confused.

“He doesn’t swim,” she says, “besides, it’s so cold,” I throw sticks in the water for Mercy and Mac wades along the reeds until finally he let’s go of his footing and swims.

We leave them to walk a loop along the waterway as rain spits down harder. Gray-on-gray, among bare branches and bristled fir, the flowering yellow petals of witch hazel glow alone.

 

Stone

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“Women cook and clean to keep the holidays”

–Amy Tan, Joy Luck Club (apocryphally attributed)

New Year broke already, arrived Christmas night.

There’s only stone now. Pour from the kettle in fingerless gloves, scant the honey, and save the bones for stock. Turkey vultures perch in the dying fir and spread their wings, not enough wind to dry in the mist, no rising thermals to hunt. They fly away north. It’s a long way down.

Solstice day the rain fell a river into the valley howling in from the Pacific. We lit the fire with rosemary limbs salvaged after February’s snowstorm, lengths of white holly from the tree cut down last fall. (Beware the Holly King I tell my son before he leaves for New Orleans.)

Take up the cauldron and brew. Sunday to the market, early with first light, where the staff are surly in their rumpled holiday sweaters stacking eggs and carrots, fresh loaves of rustic bread, hams and brisket for the crowds coming after me. Simmer soup from barley and beef shank, handfuls of thyme, Marsala wine, enough to share these days in the darkness when the sun stands in this liminal space loud with silence and phantoms.

My son wants his own iron pot as his gift. I go to a department store in the mall, out again at first light, and buy a fine red pot, the largest and iron heavy. I navigate down the escalator carrying it somehow, though I couldn’t see over the box, waiting behind two older women afraid to take the first step onto the unfolding case. “It’s a long way down,” one says to the other.

Wash the holly leaves and berries, dry it mindful of the barbs, arrange sweets around the sprig on a red platter. Bake the first pan of pasta, set to broil the final minutes to crisp the crumbs on top, pack everything into a basket insulated under a thick blanket. We go out in the early dark to join the company gathering to crack crab and hear O. Henry’s story read after dinner, The Gift of the Magi. Home then in the dark, sleepy and wine-filled, to feed Mercy and stroke her head beneath the starry lights of Christmas Eve.

What does it mean? I don’t know. For now, in this time of stone, the only certain succor comes from the kitchen; the dragon head in the moon’s own sign rages and needs feeding.

Talk won’t cook rice.

 

 

To Juan at the Winter Solstice

sun_oak_cloud

To Juan at the Winter Solstice

There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling,
Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
That startle with their shining
Such common stories as they stray into.

Is it of trees you tell, their months and virtues,
Or strange beasts that beset you,
Of birds that croak at you the Triple will?
Or of the Zodiac and how slow it turns
Below the Boreal Crown,
Prison to all true kings that ever reigned?

Water to water, ark again to ark,
From woman back to woman:
So each new victim treads unfalteringly
The never altered circuit of his fate,
Bringing twelve peers as witness
Both to his starry rise and starry fall.

Or is it of the Virgin’s silver beauty,
All fish below the thighs?
She in her left hand bears a leafy quince;
When, with her right hand she crooks a finger, smiling,
How many the King hold back?
Royally then he barters life for love.

Or of the undying snake from chaos hatched,
Whose coils contain the ocean,
Into whose chops with naked sword he springs,
Then in black water, tangled by the reeds,
Battles three days and nights,
To be spewed up beside her scalloped shore?

Much snow is falling, winds roar hollowly,
The owl hoots from the elder,
Fear in your heart cries to the loving-cup:
Sorrow to sorrow as the sparks fly upward.
The log groans and confesses:
There is one story and one story only.

Dwell on her graciousness, dwell on her smiling,
Do not forget what flowers
The great boar trampled down in ivy time.
Her brow was creamy as the crested wave,
Her sea-blue eyes were wild
But nothing promised that is not performed.

–Robert Graves