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.

 

 

Advent

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Black Friday I lit the fire early hoping to relieve the laboring heat pump banging and shedding ice. Brew chai and plug it with honey, survey the frost and fog.

Two weeks until Solstice; the Sun hangs three days before turning.

Black Friday open an inbox of advertisements, act-now deals, coupon codes, and come-ons that just keep coming. Even the organization administering Mercy’s microchip data sends emails pitching personalized collars and dog beds. Two years ago I ordered a light from Home Depot and can’t get the unsubscribe option to stick. Cyber Monday. Giving Tuesday. The newspaper itself is a slim fraction of the inserts stuffed inside. An offer for 10% off pet insurance just arrived. Monetize is the mantra.

Night falls during a dense afternoon and a crow pecks at the last withered apple.

I like to shop at the local hardware store. The handsome clerk downstairs with long gray hair and frost blue eyes is patient prompting me through the payment options on the card reader and the music piped through the store is classic rock not Christmas carols. I buy strands of multi-colored lights and string them around the house, toy with timers, light them up when I come upstairs in the morning and leave them on all day.

There are Christmas tree farms nearby. Trees are carefully trimmed each year, cultivated to achieve the classical cylinder shape expected by consumers, and then cut and sent to lots in the cities. There are free permits to cut a spruce, fir, or pine in the national forest, wild trees all akimbo and chaotic. When I was growing up and my family went upriver to cut a wild tree, I was skeptical when I saw the jagged limbs; yet, hung with lights and glass and shine, an ungainly tree transforms just as magically.

When I lived in southwest Oklahoma, I adopted a black Labrador named McKenzie, a cunning dog from a Cajun duck hunter’s litter. I named him for my homesick river and assured him there was wild clear water in the world. There was nothing evergreen out on the Plains, nothing except great globes of mistletoe strung in the oaks. When we went to the Christmas tree lot and looked over the selection of trees available, I refused to buy one. They were dry and brown, just like the landscape, needles already shedding. I bartered to take their freshest cuttings for a few dollars.

McKenzie and I walked out along Medicine Creek, where the tallest trees grew, with a frisbee in hand. I hurled the disc up hard into the oaks and knocked off bunches of mistletoe. McKenzie retrieved the frisbee. I threw it again. We worked together until we gathered armfuls of green and then we went home. I wove the mistletoe and bartered pine cuttings into an interlacing structure and decorated it with lights and ornaments.

Every year since, with any evergreens at hand, I weave an alter of rosemary, holly, fir, and pine. Strike fire in a time of stone. There is the magic.

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Mystery

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I worked on the 14th floor of the bank tower in downtown Portland. As part of June’s Rose Festival celebration, upriver bridges lifted for ships to pass through to dock downtown. Crowds gathered to greet sailors at the docks, to stand in line for tours along the towering decks. No one returned to witness the cranking castoff and engine reverse at the end of the pageant, when the ships turned their steel bows back out to sea and rose petals blew black on the sidewalk. I watched from the tower window.

I rode the Burnside bus. My stop came at the foot of a pocket park between the bank tower and Mary’s Strip Club. There are upright canines plying downtown streets, the jackal-men, the wolves, coyotes, and hounds. One December morning, I stepped off the bus behind two men. One pulled a package of raw chicken from the waistband of his pants, meat stolen a dozen blocks up Burnside from the Safeway store where they boarded. As I crossed the park, one tore the plastic wrap away, crouched down and ripped at the dimpled fat with yellow teeth, vapor from their co-mingled breath wreathing as they huffed at flesh and disappeared in fog.

Sometimes I took the elevator down to the street to smoke, coat-less in the cold. I wore cobbled black pumps like retreaded tires and shivered in a faux-silk polyester blouse. When she saw me braced against the wind on the sidewalk, Audrey turned her loopy-wheeled shopping cart up 5th to ask for a cigarette. Her left eye was lazy and drifted to doze as we talked. She traveled with an old Yorkie bedded down on the black plastic bags stacked in her cart. When I gave her a cigarette, Audrey tucked it behind her ear and drew down her navy surplus cap. She didn’t smoke, she said, she needed to trade it for something to feed the dog.

I walked the pedestrian alleyways and sidewalks downtown. Coyotes crouched on flattened cardboard drumming stubble cheeks with stained fingernails. I worked my way across city blocks diagonally, crossing streets as traffic ebbed and stalled, skirting construction pits, smoke-eyed poodles with pink hair and script tattoos, wolves with red silk ties wheeling Humvees into valet parking. I moved to another city and took another job in another downtown, another one skimming the concrete fringe, searching out my own reflection in plate glass windows.

***

In the freezing fog of November, the camp in the oaks collapsed to a heap of canvas and nylon, a single shoe, broken glass. We walk up river, skirting crushed plastic bottles and clothing shreds the dog takes into her teeth and thrashes, if I let her. This one is a pirate seeking booty. I scout the ground as we walk, scanning for the glint of needles or orange syringe caps.

We pick our way down the bank, over black rocks, to the river. Great Blue Heron fish alone, still as snag, feathers blending with the timbre of the current. Sheltered by reeds and overhung alder, I startle a bird from her reverie beside an eddy. The heron cries out before launching aloft over the river. Chastened, I counsel the dog as we watch her flight dissolve in the mist.

The scent of water and wet dog settles over me, walking out singular, but not alone, into the open places, another vagrant, another mutt looking for home. There may be meaning in daring a place among this enigmatic array of earthly things, though it eludes me still.

I whistle for the dog and walk out, listening. These secrets are beside the river, if they are anywhere. There are fierce shy birds hidden there along the bank, birds the color of water.

 

Heron

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Fog seeps in during the dark morning hours and licks at windows and jambs. It may dissolve by noon, or it may settle and weep for a week. Out of the valley, above, the sky is bitter blue and the sun radiant. Waiting in traffic, playing with the radio.

One or the other, not both. Choose.

At some point the building inspector comes to check the new hot water heater installed yesterday. There’s a sign stapled outside displaying the permit number. The old tank started leaking and a towel laid to soak up the rivlet needed changing twice a day, wringing out one and barricading with another, hanging the wet one out on the deck railing to drip. It’s a hybrid hot water heater with wifi, warming a tank of water via heat rummaged from the air. It looks like the robot from Lost in Space.

D. managed the replacement, as with all the structural and engineering things that go wrong in a household because he’s a wizard, moving my plastic bins packed full of salvaged wrapping paper and Christmas ornaments from the garage shelves to run the condensate line along the wall to drain outside, and then stacking them carefully back. Before the young men came to install the new heater, I took a long hot shower and combed through my hair with my fingers to shed any honey locust leaves, because civilization is held together with duct tape.

Dancers learn to spot during an extended turn, during a fouetté, a pirouette, to maintain body line and balance without becoming dizzy. A dancer focuses her eyes on a fixed point as she turns, whipping her head around ahead of the turning body to maintain equilibrium.

Pick a farther spot, one in the middle distance, and don’t let go.

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Hallow

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Terry comes on Wednesday mornings. He drives an old gray pickup with a cracked windshield and garden tools lashed in the bed: mower, edger, leaf blower. Terry works for neighbor Vic across the road; he backs his truck into the hammerhead atop our hill and lets down the tailgate to roll out machinery. Mercy races from the front windows downstairs to the back yard yammering and howling, hammering at the back gate until I catch up to let her out to greet Terry and his dog, Aggie.

Hard frost in a moonless night, leaves skitter to drifts, bank against stone.

When Mercy was a pup, we went over to properly introduce ourselves beyond a nod and wave. She’s shy with strangers other than children, flitting and flirting, but determined to avoid strange hands reaching out to pat her square head, fumble at her silver doeskin ears. Mercy took a shine to Terry. She’s not startled by deafening gas-powered machinery now, quite the contrary. While riding in the car, she attends to every stranger out mowing we pass, as if each one might be Terry.

Dry cold air, sparking static from doorknobs and grocery carts, tentative metallic taste, another sort of lightning. Ground. Downward into this tilting northern darkness, a sinking ship, unsounding leviathan.

I walked out after Mercy with a bag of Halloween candy for Terry and chicken jerky for Aggie. I don’t know why I buy the candy anymore and stage it on the hallway table close to the front door when no one knocks; the steep hill and dead end road are a bad bargain for costumed children.

My son is grown and on his own, well beyond trick-or-treating–those years I insisted he eat some dinner before we ventured out in various storms to canvas the neighborhood and collect sweet booty in a plastic jack-o’lantern.  He was always the Dark Knight.

Snow above high in the wind, barometer of falling. The Wasp Queen driven out from her nest under fallen timber wanders, seeks shelter before the storm. 

I throw a tennis ball for the dogs, throw a stick Mercy stole from the wood crib when the ball is lost, and talk while the wind lifts my hair like Medusa because I’ve forgotten my hat. Terry has a backstage pass for the show at MacDonald Theater tomorrow, he says and asks, what do we plan for Halloween?

Prepare a fine meal, I explain: a lamb chop, an apple cut for the star seeded inside, a glass of red wine, arranged on linen with the blessed dead invited to dine.

Do they come? He asks.

Yes.

 

 

Coyote

“The coyotes roamed the edges of the neighborhood at dawn and dusk, big eared, serene, drawn tight as bow strings. Coyotes love to trick domestic dogs, to play with them and draw them away from their yard and out into the hills, where they then set upon them as a pack, kill and eat them.”

–Cameron Mackenzie, Cutbank Weekly Flash Prose

The heat pump register bangs, laboring to filter and deliver warm air against condensing fog, heavy morning mist. It may burn off by noon, or not at all. Sometimes we don’t see the sky for days, with rain and fog and full-spectrum gray from dove to doe. Sink down in the loam like locust backing into the earth to wait. Dread, over the left shoulder and behind, yet looming ahead.

This is not the season for the hopeful. They come in the summer, go to school, fall in love, find a job, and stay. When the light drains away and freezing fog fills the valley for days, they ask how long it will last. When a far line of sight is blocked, the only view is inward down to the bone.

I once hired a brilliant network engineer named Jonathan. He moved here from the mid-west with his girlfriend after she was accepted into a graduate program. Get the best rain gear you can afford, I advised, walk outside every day; get candles if you don’t have a fireplace, grind spices for tea and bathe in the vapor. Jonathan lasted until early December. He apologized, and I argued, but he had to leave he said, else he would hang himself.

Solace of apples, perhaps the same alchemy that extracts antivenin from venom, the honeycrisp as cure. Core and chop the fruit to simmer down to chunky sauce, spike with cinnamon and nutmeg. Heat a cup of amontillado to a near-boil and soak red flame raisins to plump. Mix a muffin batter with applesauce and raisins. Give away the batch to those who politely refused the crisp imperfect apples from the tree.

Temporary measures, taken in sequence, become strategy.