Aimee Mann provides the soundtrack, pulling the balaclava up, walking through the warehouse door into Costco, wrestling down a sack of dog kibble for Mercy, a sack for Ben, the crazy Brittany my 88 year-old father adopted two years ago, all, it’s all just for love
The greenhouse is open and swept, most combs the paper wasps crafted knocked down. A collection of seed packets is stacked on the shelf. It’s still too cold to start tomatoes because the only heat is solar, but soon. The sun is marching north. Take a breath. Take another.
Here are radish, chard, kale, carrots, some seeds so small that breath will scatter them. Three packets of sugar pea pods, the heirloom variety, fourth generation nasturtium seeds gathered and dried in autumn all sleeping and waiting for this.
It must be getting early, clocks are running late
Paint-by-number morning sky looks so phony
Dawn is breaking everywhere, light a candle, curse the glare
Draw the curtains, I don’t care ’cause it’s alright
The moon waxes in the sign of the Bull, the place of earth. Lettuce roots are shallow and salad might be grown in a dish, plucking outer leaves every night for supper, until days grow too hot and the plant bolts to seed. Soak the peas.
I see you’ve got your list out, say your piece and get out
Guess I get the gist of it, but it’s alright
Sorry that you feel that way, the only thing there is to say
Every silver lining’s got a touch of grey
Four yards of mint compost delivered last week and dumped under the birch tree. Oregon grows one-third of US peppermint. After the mint oil is extracted, the cooked vegetation is spun further into a fine compost. The heap steams from the center, each shovelful releasing shimmers of heat. Pollen from the birch blows gold away as gray clouds gather.
I know the rent is in arrears, the dog has not been fed in years
It’s even worse than it appears, but it’s alright
Cow is giving kerosene, kid can’t read at seventeen
The words he knows are all obscene, but it’s alright
Artichokes, woody herbs such as oregano and rosemary and alliums grow outside the fence. In a hard winter, late spring, the deer will try to eat the chokes and even the green tips of sprouting garlic, but usually they move on as the season softens. Last year there was a late snowstorm and deer pulled up onions as they ripped at the greens. I pushed them back into the dirt. Deer are so destructive to gardens because they cannot bite, they tear with side teeth.
The shoe is on the hand it fits, there’s really nothing much to it
Whistle through your teeth and spit ’cause it’s alright
Oh well, a touch of grey kinda suits you anyway
And that was all I had to say and it’s alright
Mercy watches me pitch compost into the onion bed and her tennis ball rolls down the hill. In the dark of the moon, I push the shallot sets down under the black dirt. How old is Asher, our young downhill neighbor? I try to remember, but figure he’s between 13 and 14 now, born at home in the beforetime. He has books from the library about gardening and wants to learn, but doesn’t know how to handle a spade.
I find an overturned two-gallon black plastic pot and sweep out the leaves and webs. Asher shovels compost into the pot and mixes in vermiculite from the bag I bring out from the greenhouse. He watches the heap of compost steam.
“Is it cold?” he asks.
Asher presses a palm down over the impression he shoveled out.
I nod as he uses his bare hands to mix the dirt and glittering minerals together in the pot. I tap out pea seeds and radish, show him how to read the back of a seed packet. Give them dirt, light, and water and get out of the way, I advise. Nothing will stop them.
Italicized lyrics lifted from Grateful Dead tune “Touch of Grey,” by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter
MG Belka writes powerful and visceral posts, particularly his series on our shared global experience with pandemic, from our town at the south end of the valley. His writing deserves reading, if you are inclined.
The sun melts the frost and the wind blows downriver with the iron scent of snow. I zip-up my down vest.
Monday, March 16th, with public schools closed through April, the University emptied, people working in offices booting up laptops to work from home, and the announcement that all Oregon restaurants and bars are ordered closed yet to come later in the day. Circles tighten.
There’s no one else on the road. Christmas-morning-style silent empty streets, yet without the tingling expectation of warmth and fellowship to come with cinnamon and cider. There’s a flagger ahead on the parkway and I’m startled construction work is still progressing at the stadium. She flips her sign to “Slow” when she sees us, the only car for miles. I wave as we pass, yet a clench and fleeting guilt that I’ll be stopped and asked for my papers crossing the frontier.
Everything clenched. Dominoes tipping in slow motion grasped in triple time.
The long grass in the fields is wet. The dog and I walk out to the canal. There is no one else. As we tread the open space, I decide this is my estate and inheritance and that I am its Lady, surveying the opening green haze of the willows and cottonwood and translating the song of a red winged blackbird. Breathe here, a cold wind bright sun burning my cheeks, remember this.
Canada geese post sentries for their flock and these sentries watch us approach and escort the smaller birds further away in an orderly retreat. I keep Mercy tight-in on her lead until we pass, and then release her to dash to the water.
The heron. We withdraw to let her fish in peace and move down the canal, the dog working the bank where the nutria dig their dens. The song of the blackbird repeats a phrase from an ancient reed pipe. So it is, and was, and will ever be.
I read somewhere, probably Reddit, that a clever teacher uses glitter to teach her first-grade students to visualize otherwise invisible germs. At the beginning of the school day, a spoon of glitter is dished into the hand of one student. At the end of the day, the class looks to see where they can find glitter. It is everywhere.
Blindfolded with a Bird Box.
The sun is high enough now, the frost is melting. Time to go.
“Florentines carried the bodies of the recently deceased out of their houses and put them down by the front doors, where anyone passing by, especially in the morning, could have seen them by the thousands. . . . When all the graves were full, enormous trenches were dug in the cemeteries of the churches, into which the new arrivals were put by the hundreds, stowed layer upon layer like merchandise in ships, each one covered with a little earth, until the top of the trench was reached.”
–Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron
Other plagues came from the East.
Italy was infected, the entire island of Sicily. Fleas with the pestilance rode rats invading just as Mongol armies swarm across the steppe, stowaways on merchants ships bound for Genoa. A Black Death a mere 20 generations ago. Perhaps half the population of Europe died, depending on the data used and the optimism of the analyst, perhaps only two-fifths, while Boccaccio wrote his hundred stories.
The scene opens in Florence. It is 1348. After solemn mass one morning, seven aristocratic young women decide it better to flee the infected city and withdraw to a country estate to shelter two weeks in hopes of escaping the pandemic. Three young men, distant kinsmen, are invited to withdraw with them in this scheme to cheat death.
In the fresh wholesome air of the Tuscan countryside, they agree to pass the time telling stories. Each day a theme is named and each day (excluding a day for worship and a day for personal matters) the young women and men share stories. This setting provides the narrative framework for the 100 stories of the Decameron upon which both Chaucer and Shakespeare borrowed and stole.
Is it all forgotten now? Ground as grist under that same mill that bore away the bones of a score of my mothers, who survived? My old university copy is here somewhere, still packed in a box probably.
I downloaded a PDF.
We have Costco, Chlorox, and Purell, if it can be found. We have polite terms for seclusion much as Boccaccio framed for his narratives: social distancing. Baseball games broadcast without a crowd in the stadium and interactive maps updated with infections and deaths every day at noon.
Will we have art such as this?
Herman Hesse set his 1930 novel of two friends in the time of the Plague. Narcissus remains in the cloister and becomes an abbot. Goldmund ventures into the world to discover life through the senses and, ultimately, strives to translate human passion into art. The two characters embody the tension between intellect and intuition, Sun and moon, the Appolonian and the Dionysian. Art is the union of the two, Hesse surmised, a new moon.
“O how incomprehensible everything was, and actually sad, although it was also beautiful. One knew nothing. One lived and ran about the earth and rode through forests, and certain things looked so challenging and promising and nostalgic: a star in the evening, a blue harebell, a reed-green pond, the eye of a person or a cow. And sometimes it seemed that something never seen yet long desired was about to happen, that a veil would drop from it all, but then it passed, nothing happened, the riddle remained unsolved, the secret spell unbroken, and in the end one grew old and looked cunning . . . or wise . . . and still one knew nothing perhaps, was still waiting and listening.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.