Season of Change

acorn-on-the-strett

In the early mornings, the little dog Greta goes outside, and she skitters and twitches. Acorns dead-fall from the trees; they land on the street with a pocka pocka. Their hard berets snap off and roll. The dropping acorns make the dog dance.

Some mornings there is fog, too. As Greta steps forward, into the street, out of the driveway, a deer might loom up out of the mist. The dog will turn and bolt for home.

Dark begins to spread at 7:30 PM now; the dog goes outside then, and there are whole families of deer grazing in the gloaming. Greta stands and sniffs, wary. Up on the hill, up by the Helen Purcell home, six deer stop, silhouetted. Two are mature, watchful mamas; two are tiny, leggy, still spotted. One of the inbetweeners has antlers just beginning to sprout. Their heads turn; they gaze at the dog. Their ears rotate like radar panels.

Then they turn and lollop down the wooded hill.

Squirrels dart and scrabble up trunks, clutching acorns in their teeth.  Greta cautiously feels her way in the teeming early dark.

It is autumn, and things are changing.

Jim sets up a work space in the bay window of the dining room; he has a new tall table that just fits into that nook. He plugs in a new laptop, and, once it’s up and running, loads it with new software. He borrows a bedside table from the little guest room and sets up the printer-scanner when it arrives. He has successfully written a grant for this equipment; the local disability services program has funded his purchases.

In the afternoons, from 2:00 until 5:00, he sorts recipes, types them neatly onto pages with headers and footers, creates tables of contents and indexes. He prints and punches and puts things into binders, creating order out of chaos and creating family cookbooks from shoeboxes full of long-kept recipes.

A local advocacy group asks Jim if he might be able to write a skit for them. He attends a meeting, listens as a group of gentle people brainstorm how to demonstrate what it’s like to be an adult with a disability. How can they show children how bad it feels when people are mean and cruel, and also how nice it is when people are kind and welcoming? They percolate a scenario: a boy on a beach, a careening kid smashing into his sand castle. Two possible outcomes.

Jim types it up, adds a strong narrative voice, sculpts the two endings, a sad one and a happy. He emails it to Missy, the group’s facilitator, and her feedback is warmly enthusiastic. They will take this skit on the road.

Jim has his own small business, a daily purpose, and a skit in production. He walks a little taller.

It is autumn, a time when things are changing.

Things are changing for some very dear people.

A lifetime friend texts on her way home from chemo–her second to last session. Done by Thanksgiving: let’s hope there’ll be reasons for her to give deep, fervent thanks. Her illness has forever transformed her life, but surely this treatment will bring change for the better.

A talented friend who has devoted herself to scholarship, juggling family and job and graduate school, pushing, pushing, gets a call with an offer of a dream job. Her hard work has opened doors. How nice, how just and nice: people who deserve to snatch the golden ring sometimes get to do that. She is open, welcoming change.

I have coffee with a friend and colleague. We talk, and I remember what it was like to be young and hurt, bereft and deeply betrayed. I remember what it’s like, first, to learn to trust, and then, to learn to dare. She is going on a date, and this carefully thought-through outing could truly be a game-changer, the first step on a path to new richness.

It’s autumn, when people dare to take chances. They dare to change.

On a cool September Saturday morning, Wendy and I park on the grass beyond a school in a lovely suburban community, and we follow the crowd to the commons. A band plays and an announcer’s voice blares from a dais. Our official numbered tags, with the computer chips glued to the back, are safety-pinned to our t-shirts.  We mill in the crowd; we bounce on the balls of our feet, neither of us entirely sure about our new sneakers. We find our corral, in the back, with the other 10K walkers who are participating, not competing.

Others have long sleeves and layers in the morning cool; we rub our arms and hop up and down, and we are glad when we begin to move.

We’re glad, too, NOT to have layers to peel as the sun burns off the mist and we walk by a sapphire man-made lake, by wooden bridges leading from walkways to golf courses, by sprawling, lavish, pink-bricked houses. And by a violinist serenading us from atop a hill.

We chose the 10K over the half-marathon this time–a challenge still, but not one that required focused, manic training all summer long. We chose to walk just for the sake of walking and not to be timed or ranked. It’s a good push, a worthy walk, and we gather up our bling at the finish line, eat a quartered Asiago bagel each, accept plastic cups of organic chocolate milk, and then we find the car and head back to Zanesville.

It’s autumn, and things are changing.

Mark and Jim go to the used book store and come home with three stout boxes of beautiful note-cards, discovered on the clearance rack. They hand them to me, grinning. I open up a pack that night and write a letter to a friend.

At work, one day, I find a basket twined with scarlet and gold silky leaves on my office table; it is filled with squash and gourds and sweet potatoes and apples, all nestled around a round pie pumpkin. There is a little basket of ripe pears.  I think of a home-baked pie, slices of apple and pear, the warm scent of cinnamon, a sugary, flaky crust.

autumn-basket

The next day, outside my office door, two burlap bags heavy with golden and red skinned potatoes wait for me. That night, I coat a chunk of boneless pork with olive oil; I roll it in a thick coating of herbs and spices, and I surround it, in the heavy glass baking pan, with neatly cubed potatoes. I crumble herbs, dash salt and pepper.

They roast for two hours, the potatoes and the pork, perfuming the house with their sizzle, crisping and browning. We sauté up a panful of veggies, the last of the summer squash, onions, carrots, peppers, all fresh from a friend’s bountiful farm. And we feast, that night, on things grown in the dirt of this place we call home.

At a meeting, Terry hands out bags of homemade party mix, salty and sweet and crunchy, and coated in a butterscotch-y glaze. I bring it home to share, but it’s so good, I rue the generous impulse. Mark and I race each other to get to the bag.

I’m glad Terry included the recipe.

It’s a time of gifts and plenty.

It’s autumn, and things are changing.

The days are warm still, but not nearly so humid.  The morning word puzzle tells me this: Summer’s heat ripens the apples; autumn’s heat turns them into cider.

On Friday nights, the blare of the announcer–as bland and opaque as the voice of a Charlie Brown grownup–floats up the hill from the football field.

Some mornings it’s too cool to sit outside with my coffee.

My work hours shift.

Fall meetings begin, and Saturday mornings become busy times. The yards need tending; rain has persuaded the grass to grow. Bushes need to be trimmed and flowering plants, their leaf tips browning now as the growing season winds down, need to be clipped for their winter’s dormancy.

We read, over and over, that the Farmer’s Almanac says this winter will be a harsh one. Plenty of snow, deep levels of cold.  We clean the coats that go safely in the washer; we take the coats we cannot wash to the dry cleaner’s. We pick them up, soft and fresh in their plastic, bag-tied coverings. We hang them, ready, in the front hall closet.

It’s autumn, and things are changing.

And the shelves of supermarkets and drugstores bulge with fat bags of candy sheathed in oranges and browns, candy glitzy in golden wrappers. The frozen custard stand has pumpkin milkshakes.  Panera offers sugared pumpkin muffins. The Riesbeck flyer highlights pumpkin roll, freshly made in their bakery.

Campaign rhetoric grows more rapid and more rancorous. I carve out campaign free zones, places of civility, but there is no doubt that the elections are coming.

It’s autumn, and there WILL be change.

In person and on FaceBook and in letters, many people say this: Autumn is my favorite season. There is a sense of both motion and comfort.

There is a drawing in, as daylight shortens and the growing time ends. The freezers are full. There are gleaming jars, filled by other industrious people’s hard work, of jewel-toned jams and jellies and salsa on my pantry shelves. The long push of summer is done; classes are back in session. Energy seems to lift and settle.

At night, I have the urge to knit.
I begin to plan for holidays.
I turn from the light and frothy books of summer and I settle in with some serious reading.

There is a looking forward to a season of tournaments and holidays and families and friends reuniting.

There is a sense of calm urgency: time to bundle things in, time to clean things up. Time to get ready for the winter.

It’s autumn. It is time for change.

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The Cat Came Back (He Never Was A Goner)

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“Is that,” Mark says, putting down his hot cup of tea and moving the curtain so he can see better, “MAX????”

I join him at the window and we stare across the street.  A mostly black cat sits on the brick stoop at Barbie and Ken’s–a cat with a triangular white fur bib and a head like a squashed softball.  THIS cat, though, appears to have a smear of white on his nose. Did Max have a smear like that?

We can’t remember.

We don’t think so.

But.

Mark goes out to check, to see if this porch-snuggled visitor might really be our intrepid buddy Max.  The cat disappears.

That’s un–Max-like.

But.

***********

I grew up in middle America in the 1960’s,  when neighborhoods were static things, and a move out or a move in, a major event.  In fact, my family constituted the event more than witnessing it–we moved three times between my fourth grade year and the start of high school, moved so much that other people raised their brows in alarm at our rootless ways.

Most people we knew stayed put, sent down roots, raised a family in a place where the kids’ “2 years old” heights were marked off on the same basement pole as their “16 years old” heights.  That dent, a friend might say, pointing, is where Dickie fell off his bike and his noggin hit the porch.  The accident might have been ten years past. Houses, back then, held family histories within their architectural quirks.

But today, neighborhoods are more fluid things, with some stay-ers and some move-ers making a constant ebb and flow.  People buy starter homes when kids are little, planning, by the time those little ones hit junior high, to be in a bigger house, with more bathrooms and more yard, and maybe, just maybe, a paved drive and a basketball hoop.

And so the cute little house across the street has seen changes in tenants in the almost-five years we have been here. First it was Kim, who rented.  Then it was Julie, who bought.

Julie moved out and her tenant, a very nice person named Ann, moved in, and therein ties the tale of Max.

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Kim, who was tall and lean and tanned and had that kind of curly hair that peaks at a high point above the middle part of her head and fans out just above the shoulders (a Triangle Do, I call it), whose age was impossible to guess–she could have been thirty, and she could have been sixty,–had been a fixture in the neighborhood long before we moved in.  She introduced us to Shirley, and Sandy, and  to Colleen and Terry, and to Phyllis, and to Pat.

She invited us to throw the branches and leaves and twigs piled up after vigorous gardening down the steep bank behind her house.  Natural mulch, she theorized.

She showed us her beloved Corvettes, which she kept in a garage behind the little white house she’d rented. She toured our house after the workers had transformed it from a highly floral wallpaper palace to a calmer venue with less vocal walls.  She pronounced it good, and heartily approved the placement of a half-bath in the storage room by the back door.

And she discovered that the little white house she’d rented for twenty years or more was shifting on its foundations,—was in danger, in fact, of sliding off and down that steep, mulchy bank. When the long-term landlord wouldn’t fix things, Kim up and moved away.

As new as we were, we could tell something intrinsic to the neighborhood culture left with her.

**************

And then the little white house stood empty for a couple of seasons, before some flippers with construction skills came in, lifted the thing right off its foundations, and fixed its sliding woes.  They put it on the market then, and Julie–pretty, dark-haired Julie with her mini-me dark-haired daughter named Natalie–bought it and moved in.

*************

Julie worked at the hospital, and we would encounter her in her colorful scrubs running to her SUV at odd hours, heading off to work.  Often her inside cat would sit in the picture window while she was gone, curled up on what was surely the back of a couch, patient and waiting.  That cat never came outside; it was only noticeable popping up in excitement when Julie’s car moved up the street.

Then Natalie added a new cat friend to the household. That cat was Max.

Natalie’s best friend was going off to college, and Natalie’s friend’s father was NOT a cat-lover.  He was a hunter, though, and he matter-of-factly informed the friend that, as soon as her car was out of the drive, he was getting his gun out to kill her cat.

The friend was horrified and broken-hearted; Natalie was pro-active.  She grabbed Max, threw him in her old white jeep, and brought him home to Julie.

And so Max, with his squashed-looking head and loud vocals, his white-toed feet and insistent manner, came to adopt (and rule) our neighborhood.

**************
Max preferred the outdoor to the in, probably to the vast relief of Julie’s indoor cat, with whom Max communicated through the window.  Max would sit on Julie’s porch table; Indoor Cat would be on the back of that couch, and they would stretch and paw and bat at each other.  All the while, Max would be warbling, telling his long sad tale of woe (“Can you believe that dude was going to SHOOT me???”) to his indoor kitty counterpart.

We could, of course, not hear the reply,which was probably something like, “I’m glad my food dish is INDOORS and yours is out.”

Max only went inside Julie’s house when the temperatures were so cold he would literally freeze to death if he stayed out.

But he loved going inside Barbie and Ken’s.

****************

Max, once arrived, immediately started working the neighborhood.  He scored a bed in the window well at Shirley’s house. Shirley, who thought he was a stray at first, put food and water out for him everyday.  That practice didn’t end when Shirley met Natalie and discovered Max was ‘homed’ but thoroughly independent.  By then, Max’s morning breakfast was part of the routine of Shirley’s AND Max’s lives.

Max sat in Sandy’s yard sunning himself while she gardened, and he tormented her excitable little dogs, resting just beyond their chained reach.  He would calmly inspect his sharp pointy claws while they jumped and strained, choking their little selves in their anxiousness to pounce at him.

We often thought we saw cartoon thought-bubbles floating above Max’s head.  In Sandy’s yard, when the dogs were yipping and straining, Max’s bubble  contained the words, “Ho hum.”

Max adopted Mark, who is NOT a cat-lover, running up the driveway warbling his sad tale of woe whenever Mark embarked or arrived.  Mark would stand and wait for his cat-buddy. Max would twine around Mark’s legs, often leaving hairy evidence of a black kitty neighbor on lawyerly khaki pants.

Mark would usually run back into the house to snatch a bit of frozen turkey from the freezer, offering it to his cat friend.  Max preferred his meat defrosted; he would bat the tidbit away, complaining (Thought bubble: What? You don’t have a microwave???), and then come back later to eat it.

When the weather got cold, Mark the Great Cat Hater took my old fishing basket and lined it with a snug, worn rug, and slid it under the bench on the porch–a refuge from wind and snow.  Just, you know, in case.

Often, there was evidence that something had slept there.  (We may have been sheltering neighborhood raccoons, but it was relieving to know there was shelter from the storm for our buddy Max, if he needed it.)

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But when Barbie and Ken moved in across the street, right next door to Julie, Maxie fell in love.  One of their trucks would pull into the drive and Max would come bounding from wherever he was in the neighborhood, yelling.  He’d leave Mark, mid-warble (“Chopped liver, that’s what I am,” Mark noted, sadly), or he’d stop stalking the mouthy black squirrel in the tree down the street, and he would bolt to see those new neighbors whom he idolized.

Once we watched the crazy cat leap into Ken’s arms, a feline rocket so big, so heavy,  and so fast that Ken, a hefty guy, staggered backwards.  But he held on–Max’s affection was completely requited by Ken and by Barbie.

They would crate their dogs, who wailed, and let Maxie in, and Max would make himself at home.  He knew, Max did, that he lived at Julie’s; he returned there time after time, but Barbie and Ken’s house was his favorite place to be Inside.

***********
Most of the time, though, Max ruled the neighborhood and beyond.  We would see him wandering far afield when we drove home, doing his rounds, Mark said.  Julie, not wanting to be responsible for a world populated by second and third generation Maxies, took him to the vet.  There, Max’s manly valves were permanently wrenched into the ‘off’ position.

Maxie came home, spent a single day recuperating, and was back on the prowl.  His amorous instincts may have been permanently dulled, but the cat remained a mighty hunter.  Mark was forever knocking on the front window.

“MAX!” he’d yell.  “Put down that baby bunny!  Put it DOWN!”

And Max, who knew when he was being chastised, would turn his head toward the window.  His face would be all innocence.  The thought bubble would read, “Bunny?  What bunny?” even as the wretched baby twitched its last in the cat’s iron jaws.

Julie and her new boyfriend, a funny, wonderful guy named Terry, would smack their heads.  Mark would wander over to commiserate with them, where they sat on Julie’s front porch, enjoying a brewski in the evening cool.

“What are we going to do with that cat?” one of them would say, but acceptance and vast affection swirled with the chagrin.

The neighborhood rodent population sank rapidly.  Squirrels became wary tree-toppers.  Bunnies poked their noses out to their own peril.  We never saw a chipmunk while Maxie roamed the streets.

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And then, their relationship having deepened and matured, Julie and Terry decided to throw their lots together and form a new household.  They would move to a home out in the country, surrounded by nature’s beauty.

“Max the mighty hunter will love THAT,” we agreed, a little sadly. We wondered, though, about Max’s tendency to hunt down people to talk with as well as rodents to terrorize.  We wondered about his love affair with Barbie and Ken.

But, just shy of Memorial Day, the UHaul pulled up, and Julie and Terry and Natalie and a vast and varied crew of helpers took Julie’s household apart and put it into the truck.  There was a pile of junk at the curb; there was a cat in Julie’s SUV. And there was Max, looking unhappy (Thought bubble: What the…????) in the front seat of Natalie’s jeep.

They waved, vigorously.

We waved back.

Silence fell into a little, lonely vacuum.

“I’m gonna MISS that cat,” said Mark sadly, as he turned to go into the house.  He paused.

“And Julie and Terry and Natalie, too,” he added, “of course.”

****************
Ann, who is very nice, moved in with her quiet teen-aged son, and the neighborhood settled into its post-Max persona.  Chipmunks returned to Normandy Drive, and the squirrels climbed down their trees and frolicked in the yards, boisterously.  The bunnies grew bolder; on Sunday, Mark and I stood by the window with our steaming morning beverages and watched two of them alternate clover-munching with a gleeful game of rabbit-run tag.

Later, I walked the dog, who snuffled in Shirley’s ivy and scared off a couple of tiny black-furred moles.

The rodents didn’t miss that cat. But everybody else did.

***************
And then this morning–the black cat on Ken and Barbie’s porch.  That nose, though, that smear of white…I pulled up a photo of Max, and we compared:

Head: check.
Bib: check:
Nose smear: UNcheck.

I walked out the back door to see if I could spy that kitty, and my eyes lit on the plastic bowl where I’d been soaking a white-paint brush in cold water.  The water was completely and thoroughly gone. I had a vision of a cat lapping up the water and rubbing his nose on the painty white brush.

“OH, my gawd,” I said.  “Mark!  Do you think he drank…?”  I ran to cross the street and check the cat–couldn’t ingesting latex paint make a kitty badly ill? But as I hurried out into the yard, Barbie’s white truck pulled out.  Inside, I was sure I could just see the swishing tip of a black tail, and a floating thought bubble that read, “REALLY?  Paint in my water bowl????”) I imagined him purring, reunited with his beloved Barbie. I imagined her driving him the five miles to Terry and Julie’s house, returning him to his family.

***************

By lunchtime, the rodent population of Normandy Drive had breathed a collective sigh of relief and were frolicking on the lawns.  But I wonder if they’re not a little premature.  That cat’s smart and he’s intrepid. I bet we haven’t seen the last of our friend Maxie.

Sacramental Walking

 

Daffs 1
Just itching to open…

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.

The Everyday Animals on Normandy Drive

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.