Sunday supper was cleared away, the dishes and the table put to rights, and it was a golden night–clear blue sky, small breeze, soft sunshine. A perfect night for a walk through the gardens, suggested Mark, and I agreed. He went outside with his book, to sit on the brick front step and read until I was ready.
I found him there with Max the cat, sitting in almost identical poses, heads thrust forward to survey the street. He had just come out and sat down, Mark said, when he heard it–the yorrow-yowl of Maxie’s voice, the sound the cat makes when there’s something very important he needs to relate. Max padded over from across the street–from where he’d been curled up on another neighbor’s cushioned porch chair. Max doesn’t live with that neighbor, either, but never mind–he’s an agent of the world who regards us all as his well-meaning, addlepated minions.
Mark is well-trained. While I was washing up, he went inside and grabbed some shreds of frozen turkey from the freezer and brought them to the cat. Max took them, Mark said, but he wasn’t thrilled. He batted the meat around on the bricks, scowling up at Mark, narrating his disgust in a long feline warble, and then he sighed and ate the shreds. When I came ’round the house and found the two of them surveying the street, Maxie looked at me suspiciously.
Mark got up and stretched, and Max’s suspicions were confirmed.
“Taking my feedwagon, are you?” he mrowled at me. He shook his head–Humans! So boringly predictable!–and leapt nimbly from the steps to head to yet another neighbor’s house. Shirley probably had water and kibble waiting for him. And maybe there’d be a bunny or a squirrel to terrorize.
We set off in the other direction, rounding the curve by the old folks home, setting off the barking chain as we went. The terriers at Sandi’s house yipped frantically as we went by. I’m pretty sure they were saying, Are you going for a WALK? Without a DOG??? The regal gray parrot in its cage by the window started trilling along to the dogs’ cacophony. As we walked by Phyllis’s house, Ace, beautiful long hair floating as he jumped up, barking at us questioningly.
We crossed the street, walked across the broad driveway, opened the gate and headed down the stairs. Into the gardens. The noise disappeared; another world enveloped us as we walked down the stone steps to the first pond.
The tumbling rocks, the fountain and pond, made me think of the book I was reading, the second installment of Lady Trent’s ‘memoirs’, The Tropic of Serpents, by Marie Brennan. I thought about the dragons in the book, so weirdly formed, so intriguing and so dangerous. They had, the narrator told us, hazardous breath. Lady Trent learns a lot about those dragons’ secret lives by traversing a waterfall that tumbles down a rockway that I see, in my minds’ eye, as much like this one–only magnified a hundred times or so.
We lingered by the fountain for a bit, soaking in the sound of the crashing water and making the transition to this secret world, hidden within the backyards and alleyways of our city neighborhood. And then we turned and went deeper into the gardens. The hosta were pushing up blooms, and, nestled under trees, all shapes and sizes and color combinations of the plant vied to get their blossoms out there first.
After a week’s rain, everything was green and glossy, the grass thick and smooth. There was a LOT of rain this week; swampy puddles lingered. We were glad of the new pavers the gardeners had thoughtfully placed in our path.
We rounded the first turn, and there, in the gentle evening sunlight, was a woman in lacy, fulsome, bridal white, and a photographer posing her in front of dramatic blooms. All alone on a Sunday evening, the bride turned and twisted, smiled and glowed.
We waved at her.
“The wedding’s NEXT week,” she called. “We wanted to grab the sunshine while we had it!”
Another curve, a gentle slope, and we reached the rustic tea house, with its built-in log seats. Those seats are commanding; we always stop, even if we don’t need a rest or the shade–clearly, the benches are built for sitters, so visitors: please sit. The fountain’s plash was a gentle murmur here; we could just hear the muffled crash of the waterfall ahead and the muted sounds of people in cars going about everyday business on streets hidden from view by screens of green. For a moment we just sat, soaking in the natural sounds, letting go the manufactured ones.
Then Mark said, “Look.”
Not forty feet away, nimbling out of a leafy copse, were deer triplets, their spots still white against shiny red coats. Daintily, they stepped forward, all legs and ears and twitching noses. I must have moved a bit; three heads swiveled in unison, and the babies locked eyes with us.
“Hello, beauties,” I murmured, and they stepped toward us.
“Are you out for your Sunday night walk?” I asked. “Just like we are?”
They ventured forward a few more steps, and then some kind of communication passed between them. Their ears stopped radar-ing, and they put their little heads down and nibbled at the sweet grass.
“Mama must be close by,” murmured Mark. We watched the babies graze for a bit, and then stood up and stretched. The fawns froze and cocked their heads; from the copse, we heard a guttural “KEKK!” and they sprang away, back into the green cover, and we walked on.
Deeper into the gardens we went, and, very close to where the path emerges into a crossroads, we met General Gruffy, the sad old Scottie dog who patrols the place. He used to have a Scottie dog companion; that friend has been gone for two summers now.
General Gruffy has a name; I know I’ve heard it, but it never sticks; it flies off the walls of my mind as if they are Teflon-coated. The dog reminds me of a character my godson and I created, oh yea, these many years ago, General Gruffy O’Grump, with bristling eyebrows, a brushy ‘stache, and gray, gray, gray, fur all over.
The General came to see us. He is old, he told us silently, and weary; he misses his lifelong companion. But until that trumpets calls for him, he will inhabit and oversee these gardens.
He’s lonely, though–with gentle dignity, he accepted our head scratches, suffered our chatter. Then he wandered off on his way, sending us on ours.
We emerged into the sunny cut-through, followed the path through splendid backyards (I could not live here, where my backyard backed onto the garden path; I’d have to keep the space so pristine. It just would never work.) Four squirrels danced and darted in the yard to our right–two gray, one black. The last one, the smallest, had an ebony body and a tail that was a brassy brownish-red–a story there, I think, of species relations–diversity ambassadors in the Squirrel World.
To the left, a little girl in PJ’s sat at a picnic table with a rapt couple who must surely be Grandma and Grandpa. They waved to us, grinning, as little miss, brandishing a crayon, held forth with a never-ending stream of thought.
“We don’t think they ever let her talk at home,” Granddad called to Mark, and Mark replied, “That child clearly has important things to say!”
We crunched over the gravel, through the gates to the evergreen gardens, down the hill to our destination. We had the Big Pond all to ourselves; we settled in on one of the comfortable, sturdy benches, and we watched the water spill down the slope and send ripples into the peaceful mirror. Things stirred gently underneath the lily pads. Gossamer-winged bugs skimmed the surface of the glassy water. Children’s distant voices rose and faded. Sunday night peace settled.
And the sun slid lower as we sat; dusk was falling. We shook ourselves, and we wandered back the way we came: the grandparents and the little one had disappeared inside, an open coloring book on the picnic table the only evidence of their evening chat. We didn’t see the deer; General Gruffy had apparently called it a night. Even the squirrels were done, I guess, though the birds were battering the airwaves with their staccato evening talk. And a lone bunny, gaunt and twitchy, nibbled clover in the shadows.
By the time we emerged, out onto the driveway, out into the street, the fireflies were out, their flicker and response happening all around us. The dusk deepened and their lights intensified–the magical twinkling of an Ohio summer. We walked home through that shifting light show.
The screen door slapped behind us as we headed inside. We were greeted by our own little dog, whose head was cocked accusingly. “You went out again? Without me?”
Mark took her outside for a last turn around the yard; she jumped into my lap when she came in, interrupting my knitting. I watched Call the Midwife with a fine, silky, small dog’s head beneath my hand. She sighed and settled in to my lap.
And the day was over, and the house was settled and silent; Jim came downstairs to say goodnight, and Mark read a book in a quiet corner. I gathered up my dragon book, too, and, dog at my heels, headed upstairs to read for twenty minutes before sleep claimed me.
I read Brennan’s story about an imaginary but very believable rain forest, the Green Hell, and the imaginary, but very believable dragons, dun colored with slender-skinned wings, that fiercely inhabit it. And I thought that our ordinary creatures are no less incredible: the talking cat, the curious fawns, the squirrels whose cultures have become so intermingled. The loyal, weary, worried dogs who require only a head scratch or a kind word. The bugs that send a flashing light out into the summer dusk. The birds that flutter and flourish, then still themselves for the night.
I love my fiction fixes, but truth, really, maybe IS stranger, and the wildly wondrous is, really, pretty close to home, so familiar that we, of course, have to take it for granted. I fell asleep with images of queen dragons swimming through murky water; I fell asleep to the sound of the little dog, sighing in her sleep, on the carpet next to my bed.