A tired dog is a good dog
Left eye fluttering yesterday, a tic at the outside corner tracing the track tears and sweat run, squinting against migraine sunshine and air growing thick: a storm rising sensed through lashes and brows, though the sky is clear.
Dwarfs bowl at pins in the mountain.
Dragons spar, red and black, teeth and claws.
Distant thunder sauntering from the southeast to crouch and slash jagged bolts over the Butte bright, violet.
Black dragon, then.
The electrical storm marks the season falling. Another threshold up waterwheel steps, an escalator to climb, or fall and be mangled in the machinery. Life is for the strong and simplest for the distracted. The garden is tired and ready to give up.
Six months ago, after a week snowbound by another storm, at a pub table toying with crusts of toast and scrambled egg, I read the email from Shirley after her appointment with the oncologist. Stage IV. The basketball game on the big screen TV blurred and flooded. The waitress came and took my plate.
Shirley’s oldest son drives her car now up the hill to check in on Vic or take him to doctor’s appointments. When I see it pull in the driveway across the road, I forget for a moment and then stop myself from stepping out on the porch to visit. She wanted to pick the color when they bought it last year, but Vic insisted on white. Statistically, a white car is safest.
Dad and I went to his couple dozen medical appointments, two surgeries, this summer. I carry mints in my purse and a water bottle, enter calendar reminders on my phone. I pickled cucumbers and sugar snap peas, grated zucchini into muffin batter, packed an overnight bag,
After running the dog, I stand in the shower and let the water wash the salt from my eyes.
There are hollowed dry bones littered through the house I step on barefoot in the dark.
It rained last week, real rain in August, battering the grape leaves and splitting tomato skins. It reached 100 degrees this week. Yesterday there was morning thunder, more rain, and a 6.3 earthquake off the southern coast of Oregon. I walked Mercy down to the park to sweat tears in the steaming field when the cloud cover lifted and the sun came out. I didn’t feel the earthquake although I woke suddenly and got out of bed. I stepped on a bone.
Cagibi published my postcard from the Upper Truckee River this week. I forgot it was coming out so pleased to see it up. I finished the same stubborn essay again, enough to submit. Finishing is the trick. True enough that works of art are never finished, only abandoned. Submitted. Rejected. Revised. I reach the limits of my senses at a certain point. As though born unable to hear, yet aware there is a realm of music beyond my comprehension I scan for but can never translate. I know it’s out there. The challenging is finishing.
Max and Faten are building a cabin on the Calapooia river up the valley. The river was named for the original local tribe, the Kalapuya, a rocky trout run that slides down the Cascades to join the Willamette. Fish skate the granite and quartz rocks and dart away.
For August, a checklist:
Buy roses, an odd number as the French do, rather than an American dozen–white roses, with a blush, to suit the bleached afternoon sky and the crumbs on the tablecloth. Cut the stems severely short. Wipe the small cobalt vase to place on the center of the dining table. Fill the blue bowl with water each morning and sigh.
Water the monster red geranium, the one that survived another winter, the one that spilled out and overwhelmed its large ceramic pot littering blood-red petals that smear underfoot into jammy stains.
Take Mercy to the river to swim and muck about in the weeds and willows. Bring home a flat smooth river rock that fits when I close my fist around it.
Check the Orthodox calendar to confirm the feast day of the Dormition of the Theotokos is August 15th. I am not Orthodox, but the stores close in Athens and it would be difficult to find a taxi if I was in Greece.
Count the cantaloupes swelling on the vine. There is only one. I tickled the yellow-starred blossoms with a twig because I didn’t trust the bees. They seemed distracted. It’s too late.
Move the hanging fuchsia to the backyard; deer crept up on the front porch early one morning and ate two-thirds of it. The dog warned me, but I stayed in bed. Check whether the gladiolas were devoured as well.
Resist reading any news, avoid all media sites, including Reddit. Pace the length of the upstairs deck, turn, pace again as though the house plunged in open water and call “Avast,” to the pots lining the forecastle, exhorting the geraniums and bay laurel to hold fast.
Bundle up the wool Flokati rugs and lug them down to the local laundromat next door to the cannabis dispensary. (Laundromats are damp and dismal places even with all the hopeful scents of detergent and fabric softener.) Load a bag of quarters in three industrial-size machines, cold water only, and work the crossword puzzle in the free weekly newspaper while the machines spin. Lug the wet wool home again and flatten the rugs to dry in the sun for several days, turning as needed.
Let the young repair men inside to replace the tattered canvas of the awning. Though I tugged the monster geranium and its fellow potted flowers out of the way, the trailing petunia managed to be crushed underfoot.
Avoid the headlines. Return to the root.
Walk Ben to the park and loop down Walnut Lane on our return to see the enormous house under construction. Let the workers pet Ben, but avoid the nice woman with the yellow Lab, because Ben is still sketchy sometimes. Throw sticks for Mercy on the hill and let her greet the landscapers who arrive every Wednesday to mow and tend the neighbor’s yard.
Pick zucchini. Pick sun-gold cherry tomatoes. Pick pea pods. Pick cucumbers. Squeeze a grape, not yet. Wash my hair and comb through the spiral curls with my fingers before they completely dread.
Grate zucchini, salt it and and wait for the shreaded squash to sweat in the colander. Squeeze the water out and stir into muffin batter with the last of the blueberries. Freeze a few.
Strain the red currents that soaked in apple cider vinegar for a week and blend the juice with thyme-infused simple syrup. Bottle the fruit shrub and tuck it away, satisfied with sampling the overfill.
Write another poem.
Think of washing the front windows, but sit on the edge of the front porch dangling my feet and roll tiny white blooms of summer savory between my fingers instead.
Most things hang by a thread.
“Where the bee sucks. there suck I:
In a cowslip’s bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat’s back I do fly
After summer merrily.
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.”
–Ariel’s Song, The Tempest
Last fall I gathered all the wrinkled peas dropping from the blown nasturtiums and dried them on newspaper shoved to the back of the trestle table. I hoarded the dried seeds in a sandwich bag propped behind the dusty tequila and cassis bottles on the sideboard until spring. I planted them everywhere there was soil and hope of water and shade. Nasturtium flowers are edible, peppery, cheerful fellows. Each year the colors of the blossoms shift, mutate, shades and streaks similar, yet not the same.
I took Mercy to the river to swim this morning. We walked the path down to the old boat landing through foxtail grass and swaying bishop’s lace, the sky turning white as the sun rose higher, cool by the water but rising hot mid-morning through the fields. The dog dives like a land seal. I stood at the bank flinging sticks in the water and saluted a passing drift boat.
Wrestling a rewrite on a long stubborn essay, shying from the squintingness of it all, I received an email from Cagibi accepting a 300-word postcard piece for publication in late August. (Thank you, Sylvie and Christopher. Just when one is ready to surrender, something shifts. ) Read “How to Set the Dining Room Table,” a creative nonfiction work in the latest issue by Elizabeth Jannuzzi. It’s a brilliant narrative device flawlessly executed.
Most things hang by a thread.
I don’t remember why I wanted red currants. I bought two plants as bare-root stock and planted them in deep black pots. When I moved, they came along, as well as the twisted hazel in its half-barrel. Here we dwell still, the shrubs and tree and me, on the dead-end verging hillside these many years. Heavy snow in early March topped the hazel. I sawed the split trunk down and rubbed bee’s wax on the exposed wood to protect it from infestation. I cleared the broken mantle, rubbed it with wax, and set it to season in the dark.
Devoured by the dragon’s head, lashed by the dragon tail.
The red currants, tiny gems related to gooseberries, ripen in July. The fruit dangles from a thread called a peduncle (a word I just learned and probably will never use again, but sounds bawdy when I say it aloud, so maybe I’ll remember and work it into conversations.) It’s useless to try to pick individual berries as they simply tear and bleed ruby juice. I use a pair of scissors to cut the peduncle from the branch and catch the streaming beads into a chipped porcelain bowl. It’s slow work that I don’t want to end.
In eclipse, what is hidden reveals itself through shadow.
Half the currants are crushed and mixed with apple cider vinegar to make shrub. This mash melds in a sealed bowl for three days, with fruit and vinegar transmuting into a third thing. While the mash ferments, I cut sprigs of fresh thyme to seal in a jar with white sugar. I strain the mash and press the juice through a sieve. The infused sugar is dissolved in water, a simple syrup such as hummingbirds drink, and mixed while hot with the juice. The strings (penduncles) and seeds are dumped out in the brambles on the hillside and the beverage is corked and stored.
Latency is the cold stone rolled, bone-thrown runes cast by a toothless goddess.
Shirley died two weeks ago on a gray morning before dawn. It started to rain. All the visiting family, caregivers, and hospice nurses drove away. The hillside is empty of cars again. Vic is alone in his house across the road. He puts on his hat to come out to the road and check the mailbox. Thursday evening, after I finished with the currants, he came to the front door and knocked. I drove him to the emergency room.
Half of the currant crop I worked at the kitchen table, spreading strings of fruit in a single layer on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Pan by pan, I set currants in the freezer for half an hour and wander from room to room to gaze out windows. Once the fruit is slightly frozen, the tines of a fork run down the string separates the berries to fall into a bowl. Until there are no more.
Ground. Clear. Cleanse. Ward. Offer.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in
You can add up the parts
You won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march
There is no drum
Every heart, every heart to love will come
But like a refugee
–from “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen
Grape clusters dangle and swell under leaves fanning larger than my hand. Grape tendrils test their boundaries every morning, fondling the neighboring cucumber’s trellis all-so-wistful before seizing the iron frame to claim it again.
The first cucumber is cut for slicing and the grapes nudged back into the confines of their arbor. Green and red grape vines share one rack and reach to the window on the second floor. I cut grape leaves to line the bottom of a platter yet linger awhile inside the arbor. There is shelter. Here is mystery, inside the breathing green sprung from dried roots.
A succession of caretakers and nurses arrive and leave now in a nearly-familiar rotation. They park out on the dead-end road and walk up the neighbor’s driveway to the front door and disappear inside. Shirley is no longer waving from the hospital bed propped up by the picture window when Mercy and I walk home up the hill. I search the glass, squinting under the brim of my hat, but it’s blank.
I dried a long wand of catnip cut before the herb came to bloom, bundled stalks of pungent mint to soothe the squabbling neighborhood cats quarreling among themselves and tormenting the dog when they sashay along the front deck. (It’s usually the same sashaying cat: the lunatic tabby that once charged and tried to take down a grown turkey.)
I took the wand out into the road the other night before dark and called to the cats, whipping the tip in the air and scraping the pavement to entice them. The tabby bounded along parallel with me, keeping a wary eye out for the dog, pacing down the hill. I laid the catnip wand down on the grass for a midsummer revel and went home to cook dinner.
Shoot grows to bud, flower comes to fruit, seeds weave their secrets to unfold in another season. The solstice passes when the sun ebbs south again after hanging stopped in the sky. Eclipses are coming with the next moon.
Rain came to wash away the gold dusted pollen and cottonwood fluff. Thunder and wind heralded the change of season. Today clouds graze and chew the blue.
Our old green 1954 Ford Tudor sedan sat squat in the driveway. My parents bought it new from a west coast bootleg dealer before I was born. Most Saturdays when I was young, my mother and older sister dressed up to drive downtown in the Triumph and browse department store racks. They ate lunch in the restaurant on the third floor of the Bon Marche, and returned with shopping bags flaunting tissue paper. Dad loaded my younger brother and me into the old green Ford, a shotgun or a rifle, and we drove out of town. Dad joked: Henry VIII was a Tudor; Joan of Arc was a wonder. Barney always came along, our fox-red Labrador, even if, sometimes, he rode in the trunk.
Saturdays I learned to scramble along reeds and brambles bordering the river, pry out gray stones impressed in the bank to plunk into the current, how to keep moving when the viscous mud fronting the lake sucked to the ankles of my black rubber boots. I studied how to ease through these places, to watch and be still, when to wait, like any wild thing. I learned to trust what the dog told me.
–Excerpt from “Birds the Color of Water”
Happy Father’s Day Dad.