All morning I felt sullen and morose, bereft of words but not of the terrible urge to put something down, anything, no matter how trite or insipid, knowing from experience that one thing leads to another, like an opened faucet unleashes a flood. Reading Jim Harrison helps but when that too failed to spark any creativity or insight I switched gears to another concern, that of photography and my Vernal Equinox Project. What I would photograph today—the central query launched with each dawn—swiftly met the same fate as writing. Maybe I was all used up, I thought, or needed a break on some remote island with warm tropical breezes and the lulling whisper of tides lapping sandy shores, or even a remote cabin with no distractions other than views of distant mountain ranges. As if that could happen in this lifetime.
A close friend who has evolved into what he considers an intellectually spiritual mystic and what I call a New Age evangelical had been hammering me to open up to the “spirits.” He himself had done so and now they eagerly flocked to his bidding whenever he sat in his author’s seat to conjure words from the ether. “You need a muse,” he cajoled, to which I snapped, “I had a muse, and she died.”
After the exchange which was a conversation-breaker of the first order I followed my wife to the bedroom where we collapsed in a heap. What transpired next was a sort of twilit dreamscape that left me wandering through fields dark with soot and stunted with misshapen vegetation, surely the inner sanctum gone to ruin as my creativity had apparently tanked. Not even in sleep could there be refuge.
When I awoke it was late afternoon and the sun was westering. If there was anything to be done to resurrect the day it had to be now, so I kissed Lori goodbye and rushed out the door. Already the sun was sinking into clouds rolling in from the Rockies and the light had washed out to a wan glow. Rather than walking I drove the car the two blocks to the edge of town and parked and grabbed the camera and headed out across the stubbled field, snow underfoot crusted with ice and a rising wind like razors. My objective was the old Musil barn and one true image that would mark my day as something extraordinary. For the next half hour I worked my camera until the sun disappeared and I’d lost all feeling in my fingers.
When I pulled into the driveway the pallid heap of stones marking Mr. Bun’s cairn seemed to swim out of the gloom, while off to the side a deeper darkness beckoned where Sheba’s grave remained unmarked save for two small stones. The emptiness stood as a reproach that frankly mystified me. For months I’d deluded myself with the idea that she wasn’t really gone, that her presence was alive and well in the wild rabbits that emerged each evening, but now all I could hear was the echo of my words to my friend and feel in my hands the memory of her life departing even as her heart ceased its finite beating. So the task was unfinished, and here was the confrontation.
The timing could hardly have been worse but then bad news rarely schedules an appointment. As I downloaded the photographs onto my computer I thought about stones and the work involved to erect a cairn and also of the poison oak that had spread throughout the area of her grave that needed to be eradicated. It might be hypocritical to feel that way but my willingness to let nature take its course goes only so far. Last week I actually cut down a mulberry that was growing too close to the driveway, an act I at first felt wretched about but then quickly chalked up as a necessity. Coming from the desert as I do gives me perhaps a deeper appreciation for greenery than the average northeast Kansas native, and anyway I’ve allowed an entire thicket to thrive where no tree had ever sank root. If numbers were to be tallied for the ledger then I was ahead on all counts.
My mind wandered as it tends to do and ended up in a place of absolute weirdness: the pet cemetery at Fort Riley. My one and only visit was marked with a mixture of sadness and pity over the extremes people extend to memorialize their companion animals. That I am potentially guilty of the same doesn’t escape me. But as my companion and I wandered through the headstones, me keeping an eye out for migrating warblers and vireos, several markers stood out in their excess. Possibly the most egregious stated in block letters, “Dog spelled backward is G-d.” Discovering oblique references to Talmudic mysticism in such a setting was bizarre enough that we soon packed up and left. I’ve always wondered what inferences the dog’s owner was making and whether there could be a smidgen of truth to it. If so, I’m in trouble for I’ve always disliked canines of any stripe.
The answer of what to do about a marker for Sheba’s grave was not long in coming. Lori convinced me to attend a meeting at a friend’s house where I glanced around with an eye toward images for my project. Leaning on an old whitewashed picket fence out the back window was an ancient Schwinn bicycle, electric blue (Chinese blue, actually, I was to learn from a local expert), its flat tires buried in sycamore leaves. The homeowner registered my interest and said I could have the bike if I wanted.
“We don’t have a place for it,” Lori said.
“We’ll take it,” I added.
Two days later I hauled it home. A fierce wind raked from the north, snowflakes stinging like pellets, a glacial and miserable day that reminded me of the morning we laid Sheba to rest. I propped the bike against the two stones and made sure it wouldn’t topple.
“It’s not much, girl,” I said. And suddenly I felt lighter than air, almost transparent, buffeted by winds from the far side of the moon and as cold and sterile, my words torn from my lips and whisked away to forever imbue the fields and forests and the frigid blue steel of a manmade monument. Grief is love in another form, I thought, but given the chance the two can merge into remembrance and absolution. I said a few other things but the dead hear with different ears and the words didn’t matter anyway.