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.

 

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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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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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.

 

Sunset

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“I leave a white and turbid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where’er I sail. The envious billows sidelong swell to whelm my track; let them; but first I pass.”

–Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Rain rips the red leaves from the dogwood and whips waves of gold down from the birch. A frost last week, though not hard and certain, was enough warning to corral the potted citrus and thorny bougainvillea inside for the season. Crushing acorns underfoot as we walk the trails, a year in the making. The crows pick the meat from the shells and the dog charges the squirrels when we return. Shed.

Houses in the old neighborhood are decorated for Halloween. It seems it’s always been this way, this casting and passing, this litter of leaves.  Dad’s ginger dog Ben and I walk down to the park. We pass lawns decked out with styrofoam tombstones, trees dangling plastic pumpkins lit by violet eyes. These are wards, I know, talismans strung on each threshold to forestall unfriendly spirits, effective even if purchased at a box store. After the cross-quarter, such magic, no longer needed, will be assigned to the trash. But the warding is sincere. Darkness gathering in the north, we walk on.

 

 

Downtown

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Yesterday I went downtown. I checked my hair for leaves and twigs and changed out of dog clothes.

Pam and I meet up at the Thai place where I order red curry, extra spicy, with eggplant and tofu. Pam still works on the 4th floor and shares her play-by-play intrigue at the office, a one-page sheet outlining goals of the next reorganization, current buzz words like “inclusive” and “creative,” a forecast of a brilliant and final restructure ensuring everlasting productivity and prosperity. Whatever. I make my predictions and give Pam her birthday present. Our server’s name is Eternity.

A quarter block from the restaurant, in an alley behind the video arcade bar, a homeless woman’s skull was crushed when a garbage truck ran over her while she slept early one morning last month. There is no city hall here. It was torn down and paved into a parking lot. New structures fill the pits that yawned so long from the demolished Woolworth and Sears buildings, empty so long that groves sprung from the cracked concrete at the bottom. It’s still the same downtown I left three years ago.

I’ve earned $560 since then, writing words of my own.


Six months ago, I resigned from a job working in a shabby cubicle with a stunning view to the east. I rarely turned around from my dual monitors to look out the window, not unless there was a rainbow or a police take-down at the transit station.  Even then, I only turned because other staff rushed in to lean against the credenza, chattering and pointing and leaving fingerprints on the glass. I spent too many years in different cubes, in hindsight all remarkably the same. I write at home now. I spend long moments lost, gazing out windows.

–Excerpt from “Vagabond,” originally published 2017 in Thoughtful Dog


 

 

Bridges

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The dog won’t cross bridges. She prefers to swim. A bridge is a different sort of crossroad. There might be trolls.

Once we hiked down the Ridgeline Trail, descending the grade to the footbridge over Amazon Creek marking the end of the spur, and Mercy refused to cross. She braced her feet like a donkey unmoved by sticks or carrots. The draw was steep and filled with brambles. I finally unleashed her and walked across. She watched me from the other side, stutter-stepping and complaining while I waited. With much rocking back-and-forth to test her mark, she eventually sprinted across the short span and took my arm in her jaws all reproachful at my betrayal.

We don’t go up to the Ridgeline much any more, not only because of bridge logistics, but because of my persistent prickling certainty we are being watched. Mercy might be willing to tangle with a cougar, but I am not. Or perhaps more truthfully, there is no doubt the dog can outrun me.

There is one wooden bridge she crosses readily, perfectly content to parade back and forth across, tucked along the trails among oak savanna at Morse Ranch. Today she happily leapt off the bridge down into the stream and returned after plowing through the water several turns. We met a little man there once, sitting and dangling his feet over the water, with a long ginger beard and a red hood. He tickled Mercy and let her kiss his mustache. If he whispered in her ear, I did not hear. A dog knows things.

It’s autumn, that time of year when the squirrels go squirrely, darting across a road before abruptly deciding to double back, only to freeze in place. It’s a pre-winter thinning of the squirrel population, I suppose, when the most fickle finally end up smashed in the road for crow food. A cyclist was killed when a squirrel leapt into the spokes of his front tire and he was thrown over the handlebars.

Beware of squirrels and trolls who boast of  “great and unmatched wisdom.

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