The furnace is churgling.
Mark bustles around, getting his things together, showing me a funny video he just remembered finding on FaceBook, a video of a baby elephant nuzzling its people, trying to wriggle up onto their laps. We laugh together, even while our knees ache in sympathy with those loving handlers. We step out onto the back stoop and a cold wind weaves around us. The little dog Greta slips out, and she stands between us, hopefully.
Mark offers to supervise her duties in the front yard; she trots out, too-long nails clicky-clacking on the concrete driveway, but turns and comes right back.
Shivering, Mark ducks in to get a jacket.
The dog stares up at me, entreating.
Sighing heavily, I go back inside, pour my steaming mug of coffee back into the pot, close up my journal (which is a beat-up wine-colored binder filled with a sprawl of loose-leaf pages and clippings and notes, its pockets bulging with reminders of things I need to think about when the day to think about things arrives), and pull three plastic Kroger bags from the master sack by the door. I shlep into my old red slippy shoes, their silly bows limned in housepaint from some past project, push the bags into the pocket of my old cloth jacket, and grab the leash. The little dog dances happily.
I slip the hook onto the metal ring on her collar, and we head out. I breathe the awful breath of desperate martyrdom, thinking of my warm dining room, my coffee, and my unfilled pages.
Soft gray clouds ceiling the sky. Off to the…hmm: southeast, I think,…off over where the river winds through the downtown, it’s like a giant finger lifts an enormous gray window shade. Golden light pours underneath the edge, glows around the horizon. Looky here, says the sky; pretty special, eh?
The dog slows down to let me look; I breathe deeply. A little foul martyrdom dissipates on the exhale.
I could have missed that golden rim.
Today, Greta pulls me left. She snuffles in the ivy that borders Shirley’s yard. I bet she is smelling the neighborhood deer. Last night, seven does uptailed and bounded away through Sandy’s backyard, on the other side, when the little dog and I stepped out the back door for her late night rituals. Five of them moved clumsily, their sides tightly extended. The two littler, lither bounders circled back and returned to the wobbling mamas, a sweet gesture of protection.
There will be white-spotted babies soon, our neighborhood herd burgeoning. I know I probably shouldn’t be excited about the impending births; there are territory issues and garden wars and hosta hostilities. One day, not too long after we moved here, I looked up from my writing and saw the whole family, Big Buck and Little Buck included, meandering down the hill mid-morning. I grabbed my cell phone, pulled up the camera app, and ran outside, arm extended, to capture this unexpected visit.
The deer stopped and turned to look at me, willing posers, and I lifted the phone to snap a shot. And then a screen door slammed open, loudly, and my neighbor Beth popped out of the doorway.
“Don’t you feed them!” she yelled, and her voice had a little edge of hysteria. “Don’t FEED them!” I shifted to show her I was snapping only, and the deer slipped away, down the rocky ledge to some secret domain. And I realized then the shakiness of the detente between deer and human in this tucked-in city habitat. The wild meets the tamed, for sure, but it’s not a willing meeting.
Still. I cannot wait to see those untamed, leggy babies explore their new world.
We walk on down to the big messy lawn of the 1950’s rancher where Old Dog lives. Old Dog is 18, I think, blind and lame and mostly silent. In warm weather, when her people are home, she rests on a crib mattress in the shade of a scraggly old tree. She surveys the neighborhood wisely through milky eyes; she nods a blessing at passers-by.
One night, when Mark and Jim and I were taking a family walk with the little dog, Old Dog suddenly lurched to her feet and stumbled out to us on stiff, unbending legs. Head down, she was intent and urgent, and we stopped, amazed, to wait for her. She wanted, I guess, to say hello, to check out this younger, crazier dog who was carving out a chunk of neighborhood. She came to meet us, let us stroke the soft, sleek top of her bony head. Then, chuffing, she stiff-legged back to collapse on her mattress.
Old Dog’s lady was outside unloading shopping from her little bronze hatchback, and she came over to tell us she hadn’t seen the old girl move like that in two years or more. The sunshine must have made her springy, thought the owner, and she told us tales of when Old Dog was a fierce force with which to be reckoned. There was a front yard confrontation with an alpha buck, she said, that the buck finally won by lifting Old Dog in its antlers, tumbling her across the lawn.
Stitches were planted in the dog’s torn and oozing side that day, and that was not the first or last contretemps that led Old Dog to the vet’s office. The owner shook her head fondly.
“As long as she’s not in pain and life interests her, we’re keeping her around,” she said. The dog lifted her whitened head in benediction. We tugged Greta along and continued down the hill.
There’s no sign of Old Dog on this spare, gray March morning. I wonder how she wintered. Greta stops to snuffle in the yard, and I see, as I pay attention, little stars of crocus, lavender and white with brave orange hearts, peppered through the lawn. The neighborhood is quiet at 7:32 AM on a Friday morning, neither cars nor people in motion–just us, the awful sighing woman, the anxious little dog.
The air, compared to yesterday’s balminess, is fresh and crisp. We wander down the hill to where a low fence, orange and white striped luminescence when caught in the headlights during dark-night drives, keeps the driver, the pedaller, the walker, from tumbling down the rocky slope the deer traverse so surely. Greta stops to sniff the tough grass that grows up around the fence posts.
I look out over the ridge, across the street down below, and see the lights in the steel plant, hear the chugging of great machines. Industry, I think, and I ponder the connotations of that word.
Greta, scented messages received, turns back up the hill, and I climb up the street with her, enjoying the tug at my leg muscles. I think of my friend Kim, whom James and I will visit later today. Kim will walk from her snug little apartment to meet us at the biscuit place; she’ll walk despite the advanced cancer that kept her up until 4 AM last night, and that nips firmly at the edges of the longevity she should, by all that’s right and just, be able to enjoy. All told, her meandering will take her a mile or more. She will wander home to where the hospice people wait for someone who is supposed to be an invalid, but who refuses to sit still.
The hills crests at my driveway. Greta prefers to walk on to the middle of the front yard and take the old stone steps up into it; a prissy city dog, she wants to walk on pavement and not sully her precious paws in wet morning grass. I pick up the big city newspaper, waiting for me in its plastic sleeve,–too late, again, for Mark to enjoy it with his morning tea. I notice the onion grass sprouting all over the lawn; the tips of its leaves are tan and sere and they curl like witchy fingertips. But proud clusters of daffodils are readying to bloom; thick bulbs are as tightly ready as those anxious mama deer’s sides.
We will have shining yellow blossoms soon; the next warm day will coax them completely out. Easter is coming. The word ‘joyous’ flutters through the mail slot of my mind, lands on the floor of that empty room, settles in.
The dog leads me inside. I dig a treat from the bag in the kitchen pantry, and she takes it and disappears. I pour coffee back into my favorite Hartstone mug, the one with the painted purple pansies, and I sit down, pick up a pen, and open my journal. The little dog comes and lays her chin on my knee. I stroke her silky head, and I look out the window onto the quiet neighborhood. The layered branches of the fir tree by Shirley’s house riffle gently. Back from a walk. Quiet house. Time to breathe it in.
Some times I go chasing prayer; I go chasing it, and never catch it. And sometimes it comes to me with entreating eyes, and I only grudgingly acknowledge its possibility, grabbing a leash with ill grace and stepping out into a sacred morning.