Year of the Ox

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When Rat finished with us, it scuttled away under the brier whipping a naked tail in a long last lash. Cursed Year of Rat.

We crossed under the tall firs down to the river edge but saw no sign of Ox. It’s the Year of Metal Ox come along with the new moon and Lent. Ox is a slow beast like the freight engines pulling across the water heading east into the mountains across country, strong like a big yellow bulldozer. I found a small river rock painted by a child among mushrooms and lichen sprouting from a fallen log; it was a dragonfly, a totem. I put it in my pocket.

I drove Dad and Jo down to the fairgrounds after the new moon. I printed  their names and confirmation codes in big block letters on an index card and handed it out the window at intake. The volunteers guiding traffic at the 80-and-over vaccine clinic were from Lane County Search and Rescue. They waved light wands to direct us to the next open tent as if we were a plane lumbering toward our gate.

We parked to wait 15 minutes afterward to ensure neither Dad nor Jo had a reaction to the shot. Jo opened the thermos of coffee Dad brought. He packed the same bag they always use to go on day trips to the bird refuge or Irish Bend. They nearly quarreled over the coffee cups and the coffee. I offered around  diamond-shaped pieces of Revani, a coarse semolina cake I baked, soaked in blood orange syrup and topped with crushed pecans. We sipped coffee and ate the crumbly sweet while we waited.

In October, when I took Dad to his local pharmacy to get a flu shot, I choreographed the operation as carefully as a jewel heist. As we walked out, his pharmacist called out behind us “I love you.” Dad turned to me and asked me what she said. 

In the Rat, I made vats and kettles and cauldrons of soup to share out, pans of spanakopita and lasagna, stews and sesame soba noddles, coconut cake, banana cake, gingerbread, and oatmeal cookies studded with bing cherries. I’m weary of my own cooking.

In March, on the day before California locked down, I asked Dad not to go to the grocery store anymore, not to go to any store, to stay away from crowds. I made him a mask from a bandana and hair bands. I buy his groceries every week as well as our own.  (Though I know he and Jo snuck out to Costco to buy a cheesecake this summer for my birthday, I didn’t say anything.)

Even after he gets his second shot, I’m still uneasy about letting him go out among many people again. I feel the thaw coming, slow like learning to walk again, yet still feel like an anxious parent rather than his child. That’s beside the fact our weekly grocery exchanges go roughly like this:

“You got two turkeys but no chicken,” Dad drops deli meat in the refrigerator drawer as I bring in more bags from the car. I push the front door shut with a toe shove.

“There wasn’t any chicken,” I hoist double-bagged sacks up onto the counter.

“No chicken,” he’s disappointed. His dogs get strips of the prepackaged deli meat on top their dinner kibble, nibbles from slices he doles out while eating his lunch.

“What’s this?” Dad rummages in a sack and pulls out a bottle of dish soap.

“It’s soap, Dad. Palmolive, like you asked,”

“This is the green. I use the blue,”

“There wasn’t any blue,” I set the bunch of bananas, green enough to ripen and last through the week, in the ceramic bowl next to the kitchen window.

“No blue? I can’t believe that,”

“There’s a lot of empty shelves in the store,”

“What?”

“A lot of empty shelves, in the store,”

“What?”

“Do you have your ears in?” I gesture to my own ears, asking in pantomime if Dad is wearing his hearing aids.

“No, I was going to take a shower,” Dad hobbles along the counter to the nook where he keeps his wallet, keys, and hearing aids and fiddles the devices in to his ears.

“I need new batteries,” Dad returns and rustles a hand in another brown bag and pulls out a box of instant oatmeal.

“Now? You need them now?”

“The left one is dead, I think,”

“Sure it isn’t ear wax again? Are you using those Q-tips I brought you?”

“What?”

“Q-tips.” I shake the box of swabs next to the prescription bottles and vitamins lined up on the shelf above the counter.

“Those hurt my ears,”

“Dad, I don’t want to go back to the audiologist already, we just had them cleaned,”

“I just need batteries,”

“Fine. Ok. I’ll go back to the store after we put this away,”

“Go to Bi-Mart, they’re cheaper,”

“I’m not going to Bi-Mart. I’m trying to stay out of the stores. That’s why I want you to think about your list every week. Make sure you have everything,”

“I can go to Bi-Mart. I’ll wear my mask,”

“No Dad, you need to stay away from crowds, or why am I doing this?” I bang the cupboard door shut and, turning, stumble over Dad’s German Shorthair, Emmy, hovering at my heels. She yelps. “Dammit, Emmy, get back,” I clap my hands above her head and holler “Snap!”

“Come on, Em,” Dad shifts down to the stove and offers the dog a crust of bread from the big plateful he toasts every morning. They both avert their eyes.

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Let the thaws come soon

Ginger

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The southern sky burnished fire at dawn, orange and brass, under a haloed last-quarter moon.

The rains tapered and ceased. Freezing fog abated. The moon ebbs to black now until she eclipses the sun. The Butte is a weather vane, a barometer, the day’s augery.

Ginger it is, then.

Mercy and I walked the north canal paths, crossing away from the level south bank where ever more people pass, picking our way through mud, sodden leaves, and marshy grasses. Some wear masks, some do not.

As we came up one slippery rise, I looked down on to the stadium parking lot with white tents pitched in the gravel in the same space tailgaters reveled before kickoff last year. Lines of cars waiting to pull inside a tent and park, a driver tilting back a head to be probed by a nasal swab, and then pull through the other side and drive away. Wait for the results. And then the next car, until they close the gates because the swabs are gone for the day.

Along the trails we find three things. The dog found the first at a fishing spot along the canal bank. I roll up the line the fishers leave behind, tie it and put it in my pocket, pick up the interlocking plastic rings left behind after the six-pack is emptied, scan for hooks and weights, anything more dangerous to water birds than we are and stuff it all in the game pocket of my vest. Mercy unearthed a scruffy stuffed animal with a stiff blue tail and a red nose. As she thrashed and tossed the toy, I realized it was Rat. Leave it, I said, and we walked on. Cursed Year of the Rat.

We found a hot pink Frisbee. I threw it for Mercy in the long soggy grass. The hapless Golden Retriever, Bailey, came splashing through the puddles with his owner calling for him away in the distance and stole it, leaving behind a bright yellow tennis ball. A good trade, I told Mercy, and put the ball in the game pocket.

As we left the trails and came up to the road, we happened upon a playing card, face up. It’s a Knave, I thought, but no. It was a Joker.

I made cake with blackstrap molasses, sliced apples caramelized in butter and sugar, with cinnamon and heaps of bright burnished ginger.

God Clouds

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“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

–Theodore Roosevelt

The full moon arched overhead masked by clouds, a chip-shot eclipse while we slept, a rosy glow lingering on the western horizon at dawn. The last of day of November cruising the Via Combusta, a cursed month in a cursed year.

We held a masked drive-by Thanksgiving. My sister and I filled plastic containers with turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, pumpkin pie and whipped cream and stacked them in boxes for family to pick up, although she did most of the cooking. I made wild chanterelle and sage dressing. My caramel-apple gingerbread came out doughy and underdone. I think I overreached by trying to squeeze in the last half an apple.

Eventually, all the Tupperware floats along some inscrutable relay and ends up piled in a bag at our father’s house to retrieve. Christmas trees will be small and potted this year, maybe Rosemary pruned to resemble a fir. We will send the Tupperware circulating again with a spin for the next round of holidays.

I made a pie of leftovers, from dressing mostly and dry bits of chopped poultry. Caramelized onions and spinach wilting on its own formed the base of a roux. Mix in the leftover cup of gravy and mushroom stock, stir in heavy cream that wasn’t whipped and mash it all together. The pie looked like knobby dirt and tasted delicious.

I dreamed the dog was nuzzling at the tawny flanks of a lioness seated in the desert looking far into the horizon. I tried to call her off to me, hissing quietly so as not to break the cat’s meditation and have her devour Mercy. When I woke, I realized the lion was me.

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A Feather

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The first rager of winter bellows in from the Pacific, swirling wind circling southeast in the valley bowl, bends the birch and tears the last frond feathers from the locust. There will be more and they will keep coming.

An inch of rain pounds against the stove cap, wind whistles through the chimney cap, eaves overflow with leaves and water spills broadside. Black moon in a black sign at the end of the Via Combusta, wait for the lights to meet and seed a new turn. Then we will know.

Venus trails and lingers, fingering the Feather and Scales as Maat; she still walks the burning road. The Messenger knows the secrets, where the bodies and the booty lie buried in the bog. The Warrior turns for the third and final battle.

Dress in mist, all the colors of air, to slip between: chalk, slate, smoke blue, steel. Waft through empty spaces like vapor, never noticed by human eyes, observed only by the heron at the river bank who sees and, wishing herself invisible, remains unseen. There is deep pooling water along the trails we tread–sky traps ensnaring clouds and gobbling them whole.

The coipú, the swamp rat, startles as the dog emerges from the mist, slips off the bank and dives underwater. I watch for the creature to surface for air downstream. It is last quarter now, in this cursed Year of the Rat.

Just the weight of a feather~

Dust and Phantoms

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The clock turned itself back one hour, one week too soon. US daylight savings time ends late All Hallows Eve, before dawn of All Saints. The dog jammers from bed about breakfast in her whale-singing-song steadily gaining pitch. I look down at her and then look at the clock, digital time out of sync with the gray light dawning through the windows. Trust the dog. Always trust a dog to know when it’s breakfast.

Shuffling upstairs in wool socks and sad sheepskin slippers, kicking puffs of dust and leaf strung on strands of hair as scaffolding along the baseboard, it’s time to sweep the floors again. Again, and again, chasing all the detritus blown in or tracked in or slipped through cracked afternoon doors and only seen in the slanted cast of this waning light.

Hard frost: 22F/-5C the eaves are white with crystal. The citrus trees replanted this spring in thick keg-shaped ceramic pots are still outside, covered in yellowing sheets against winter. As the wind stirs the worn fabric, I startle at the unexpected apparition outside the kitchen window, cloaked phantom treat-or-treaters dressed like cartoon ghosts. I hang the hummingbird feeder back up outside while the birds hover at my ears impatient to suck the sugar water.

There is much, so much, to let go of.

Big white cannellini beans I scraped from the bottom of a bin in March, when the world scrabbled for toilet paper, go in the pot with a smoked ham hock acquired at the same time, shoved in the freezer against fear. Two bay leaves from the laurel tree, two stalks of celery, five peppercorns, and all day to simmer, all the time in the world.

[It’s Decorative Gourd Season…]

Descry

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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

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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.