Descry

ben_as_angel

My father still lives in the house I grew up in, lives alone since my mother died twenty years ago. For twenty years, Dad kept the last Mother’s Day fuchsia I gave her alive until the old knot of roots finally failed. I repotted it twice, each time doubtful. He brought it inside each winter, placing a plastic yellow bucket underneath to catch the watering runoff. I cut stems before it faltered, grew new roots, grew two new plants. It’s not the same, I know. It’s something.

We might save our lives but not our flagrancy.

Dad finds dogs on sale with varying outcomes, lost causes in need of rescue and rehabilitation, German Shorthair or Brittany Spaniels. Emmy is the prize. He found Ben up the valley on a farm, a food- jealous, resource-guarding bright Puck unable to make eye contact.

I started him on a leash around the little block of the old neighborhood using Mercy’s hefty retractable that we run through fields after pheasant scent, though Ben is half her size. (You can never be a bigger asshole than from the beginning.) I landed him like a Chinook at the end of the line when he bolted. Then we talked.

For two years Ben and I walked the old neighborhood, under old trees with leaves and without, in rain and fog and steaming July heat.

A woman we met walking told him he carries Buddha’s thumbprint on his forehead.

Another woman gave him a plaid bandana to wear around his neck.

Ben catches my scent out back when I tend Dad’s garden and calls for me to come, it’s time to walk.

Solvitur ambulando

 

 

Grounded

wisteria_sky

Wisteria blooms in full-falling clusters from a weathered arbor out front. Bees and hummingbirds leave off the fading rosemary to suck nectar from the blooms.

Peas are up, shallots and radish sprouting. Downhill streets are quieter, though more people walk up the hill now. They climb the road and then stand unsure why they came this way. They take in the panorama and then turn to trudge down again.

Mercy barked at one recent tourist approaching the grass verge while I planted red onion seed, doing her job as sentry, scaring some startled man back down the hill before I could round the bamboo and compost pile to see what excitement was upon us. The dog wags and smiles at strangers, but never lets them touch her. We’re all grounded now, it’s time-out.

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Mom grounded me for two weeks in high school. Although my school had an open campus policy, Madame was a neighbor. Madame felt she must report I missed three French classes during spring term of junior year, a pity (quel dommage!) as she painted pictures of great potential if I would only learn to apply myself. French class fell during fourth period, immediately following a free third period when my friends and I would slink out to the baseball dugout and smoke a blunt. I always brought along my textbook and studied the three verbs du jour, but sometimes wandered off with the crew afterwards to find something for lunch. Grounded.

That was all long before Zoom and Facetime, but still the same simply doing time. Friends came by on Friday night and tapped at my bedroom window, but on Saturday night I pretended to be sleeping. I never missed French class again and probably never truly learned to apply myself.

Down at the river yesterday I gathered flat skipper river rocks and filled the back game pockets of my vest with them until both pockets sagged and I doubted my balance. I didn’t want to trip on a tree root into the current and do a Virginia Woolf without any intention and definitely without leaving a note.

“What is the meaning of life? That was all–a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.”

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse 

On the Road to Jericho

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One red tulip cup opens in the front garden, not yet plucked by a wandering doe, a bright cup between gray lavender and dusty sage. Tree pollen billows and blows in rafts.

The full moon brought clear skies and warm afternoons, breezes to loft the gold dust away across the hill. A bright copper penny placed in the bottom of a vase will keep tulips stems upright rather than dropping their heads. An old woman told me that once long ago, repeated her instructions and stressed, as she looked up into my eyes, that it must be a bright penny.

A penny for your thoughts.

Wealth untold in this little hill that is my home: a wood, a bramble patch, an onion bed, four pots of geranium overwintered on the top deck, a bay laurel, countless rosemary cuttings grown from two mother shrubs, birch and maple saplings salvaged from the garden and potted for some unknown reason save I couldn’t bear to pull them up and toss them on the heap. I have windows and wind. The dog chases sticks and tennis balls in the morning and we patrol a patch of wild grass and woods.

I wonder at the fortitude of my friend in Manhattan without so much as a balcony; she lives alone and hasn’t left her apartment in nearly five weeks. How does one live without sky?

All those living in cities without seeing the sky for the smother of human hurry, and now skies above Delhi and Los Angeles are blue and clear, though a bright penny is paid as price. Fin whales were seen close off the coast of Marseille. My grandfather worked a tug boat there during the war, salt water somewhere under the oil and blood. Clever monkeys.

hunting

Mercy and I go out to the river and watch, proxy hunting ground squirrels, nutria, and pheasant, for a hunting dog must hunt. During the first rainy weeks of what-comes-next, we owned it all, strangely alone along the river paths, in the endless acres of park.

Yesterday, we went down to the canal beside the Japanese garden, skirting a generous margin away from three young women practicing hoops under the blooming cherry tree. They came over the rise to watch Mercy swim and laughed when the dog ran to greet them. She showered water when she shook herself and tried to pry away a pretty hoop, but then dashed back past me on the bank and into the water, showing off.

The trio were singing when they left to cross the footbridge, spinning their streamered hoops and waving, When they disappeared into the trees on the farther bank, I could still hear their voices.

 

 

Bird Box & Glitter Bomb

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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.

 

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.

february_willamette

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

pink_azalea_marker

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

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.