February here is a time of reminders, of bright creased-red flowers swelling from dank wood, green renewed and moist, succulent. Downhill is a patch of Narcissus and he always stepped on them. Each year I would forget and lose myself in thought and then look up to see him trampling down the bright green stems, the leash still slack between us. My neighbors are patient people, and never complained though I saw it in their eyes. Their patience has been rewarded. The Narcissus are blooming this week, grown tall and unbent.
There is one patch of soil ungreened on the entire hill, a rectangle of upturned earth three feet by four. We went to the nursery a week after he died, bought blue flowers to plant over him. In our yard in Richmond he loved the Scilla: he would loll about for hours among the Delft-blue blooms, a wide patch of them two feet high until he rolled on them. I always meant to grab the camera. The nursery had no Scilla, but it is far too late for planting Scilla. We bought forget-me-nots.
I have been remembering a day eleven years ago, a mile down the road from my father’s house in New York, when we walked down Buffalo Creek in search of fossils. The creek was broad and nowhere more than a foot deep, sun-warmed July water slick with ropes of algae. We found a slab of shale, oddly intact and harder than its surrounding rock, with crinoids and brachiopods, horn corals in it, and I lugged it back a quarter mile to the truck. Craig and Allison were there with Becky, Zeke and me; we waded back upstream and then Zeke trapped himself on a little island, paced back and forth along the shore as we climbed the bank on the far side. He cried, grew a little frantic. It was only fifteen feet or so across, and no more than a few inches deep, a riffle really over shallow stones, and I called encouragement to him from atop the old abandoned bridge on which we’d parked. He didn’t listen. Before I could go back down to help him cross he’d run the other way across five times as much water, and up the far bank to reach the bridge from the other side. He flew up to us smiling. A cloudburst off Lake Erie hit and drenched us all before we could get in the truck.
The sun shone the day after he died, and we dragged ourselves out in it. South of us is the Heart Place, a ridge cloaked in pines, a reservoir atop it, and both of us went there alone with Zeke. Becky took him there when I was callous, and he’d drowse in the thick pine needles as she wept. I took him there when she was gone. We sat there together the day after he died, the trail up to the ridgetop a teary blur, our howls thrown at the unfair world below us.
It rained the whole next week.
Rain a bit on our dry soil and the soil comes up alive and green. Plums blossom all at once in February on the Pacific Coast, the quince and currants with them. There is a pink currant in our garden, and a yellow one, and both show color now. The creek is up. Mallards delve beneath submerged grass stems. I have been to the creek at least twice a day since we buried him, and I have not seen the egret flying once. Instead, he stalks the creek on foot.
I stalk the creek on foot. I run down to the bay and along the shore, race the trains rolling slow past the crew resetting sidetrack ties. Each morning I leave, walk stupidly to the closet door for the leash until I remember, go downhill beset by ghosts. At this corner I lifted him over the curb his last few weeks, when his feet were too unsure to land safely without help on the slanted pavement below. My right arm around his waist, my left hand under his breastbone I would lift him over, and steady him for a moment when his feet touched asphalt. At that long patch of ivy under oaks he would stop, smell the leaves that overhung the curb. His last visit to the park we lingered beneath that plane tree. He was stretched out on the lawn and I sat leaning up against the trunk, telling myself I would bring a book next time. On the way back up the hill he would stop again at that patch of ivy, look imploringly at me until I hoisted him, and he would lean against my shoulder for the next two steep blocks.
I turn the key in the lock and I hear him jump up to greet me and he is not there. I walk into his room and from the corner of my eye I see him lift his head from his bed to look at me through clouded eyes and he is not there. Until a week ago the sparrows foraged between his feet, trusting and unafraid. They pick over seeds and ants on the upturned soil now, and an Anna’s hummingbird browses the rosemary flowers next to him, its red head patch now dull, now brilliant through the breath-fogged window.
The plums will bloom, and then the cherries, and then the Bradford pears. When the crape myrtle blooms this summer we will travel, we tell ourselves. We will hike together unburdened by our love for him. The oaks will flower, and the grasses. The hills will brown. The wind will shift from the east. In October, or not long after, I will look up and notice rain. I will remember congratulating him, by that patch of ivy, for making it to one more season of rain, and not long after the plums will bloom again. The memory will fade and soften. I will forget him an atom at a time.
That day in New York I breathed hard putting the slab of Devonian shale in the cab of the truck, in the hollow behind the driver’s seat, and laid his blanket over it. He would sleep on it as we drove west the next two weeks, step around it for eleven years after that. He grinned in the downpour as Becky loaded him in the truck bed, climbed in after him with our niece. He was always so afraid we’d go on without him. The slab is twenty feet from him now, a jumble of Devonian crinoid stems and modern California dust. We found brachiopods that day, hard dull gems of the detail of life preserved. They shaped the rock around them. Years of proximity welded sediment into rock, a perfect imprint of the animal, and then the animal dissolved away into the world and left a void in its exact shape. The fossils we held were that void filled, a bit of dust at a time and pressed into the creases, a representation of the lost one finely detailed but still without life.
There will be years and years, each small forgetting a betrayal, each small betrayal a comfort, each small comfort another death. There is no lesson here, no lesson. Narcissus sought himself reflected in the world and found only death. Plums will bloom until there are no more plums. I will join him diffused into the soil, our component atoms intermingled one day soon, a dog and a man who walked together for a time, a brief spark of sweetness in an aching world.