During my long absence from this blog, I continued to visit the river, finding some respite in its wintry dun aspect. At the start of the year, it froze over completely, and the boys startled me with their delighted insistence on stomping over the surface to prove its impenetrability. It was some comfort to me when their mocking brazenness receded with the ice, although I missed the stillness that accompanied it. We were always alone on these coldest days.
My trash collection was perfunctory, distracted as I was by emergencies and the inevitable crises and phone calls and text messages that followed them. Among the regular bottles and cans and plastic snack bags, I once found a Frozen balloon.
What I find remarkable about this now is not the balloon itself but the day on which I found it. I must have stepped out early on this expedition because the rest of this day was taken up entirely by moving my father’s things out of his last apartment. I ended up at a storage facility, alone, locking away the last of his possessions. There was a loneliness there that I never feel at the river.
It is the loneliness that comes of things. Discarded things. Ownerless things. That one shoe by the side of the road. The tent pole caught in the brambles. The handleless cooler buried in mud.
But when I collect these things, I take away some of the loneliness. Don’t I?
Last August, it was Barbie. This June, it’s Cinderella. I found her after wading through a growing jumble of invasive japanese hops on “the island.” My son was throwing stones into the water on the opposite side of the river, where the trees are tall and plentiful enough to offer relief against the heat that has overtaken us the last few days. On “the island,” I sweated, dust and gnats and plant juices clinging to my damp legs, and collected my stash of garbage.
As I photographed Cinderella, turning her over to catch her at different angles, recording her placement on the disturbed earth, I began to feel as if I was in some twisted parody of a police procedural. Later, when I mentioned this to my husband, he conjured his best Lenny from Law and Order and quipped, “Well, it looks like she won’t be getting back before midnight.”
As a girl I was obsessed with Cinderella, especially the Disney version, with the ice-blue dress and nipped waist. I had a small book accompanied by the seventies version of an audiobook, a record recording of a magical-voiced woman reading the words to the story, interspersed with a cue to turn the pages. Curiously, although the book cover depicted the classic Disney Cinderella, the interior illustrations were in an entirely different style, more slapdash, and her fairy godmother blessed her with an entirely different dress as well: white and pink, with cap sleeves, and a massive hoop skirt festooned with what looked like crinkly pastel-colored garland. It was this dress — not Disney’s — that inspired the endless drawings of princesses I doodled between the ages of four and six.
Later, in my early feminist stage, I felt ashamed of my younger preoccupations with princesses and Barbies. I took some solace in the fact that my Barbie play usually involved operatic sagas that ended with Barbie friendless and homeless, begging on a street corner in rags. Even my princess obsession eventually evolved into an interest in mythology and, much, much later, a manuscript for a distracted fantasy novel. But I can’t deny that this early focus on external beauty certainly had some influence on my how I regarded my own appearance (that is, poorly). I didn’t escape my teenage years unscathed.
Nonetheless, I think of Cinderella fondly. It was a shame to find her abandoned in the dirt. But I threw her out anyway.
Even as I type, I can hear the the high-pitched croak of a mother starling scolding my old cat for daring to creep out onto our deck. At 17, our Ashley-cat has lost interest in hunting, and, up until about the age of 15, she never ventured out of doors (or out of our closet, for that matter) anyway. She is a strictly indoor cat by choice, and, considering her longevity, it’s hard to argue that this hasn’t been a good decision on her part. While I can’t blame the starling for vociferously protecting her babies (which are, yet again, in our chimney vent), she’s wasting energy that she could be using to fetch her children food, which they seem to need about every 5 minutes judging by the desperate racket in my living room wall.
Even if Ashley-cat had been inclined to go outdoors, we would have kept her inside. The many cats that we kept when I was growing up had full roaming privileges, going out or in as they pleased, with multiple door-openers at their service. One cat in particular, a big, blond boy with a kingly mien, preferred the outdoors and seemed to feel that he belonged to the whole neighborhood rather than simply to us. (For reasons unknown to me, as I was not yet born when he came into our home, we called him Tiffany, which made me endlessly confused about all the girls named Tiffany…I knew three of them and was convinced that all of their parents had made a mistake.) His roaming ended when he was hit by a car on the busy street in front of our house.
Upset, I did what every distraught 10-year-old girl does and wrote a letter to the editor in my local paper. In the letter (which I signed with my name and age), I chided careless drivers and requested that, if they must hit cats in the road, they stop, take the cat out of the road, and inform a local homeowner. This was all very naive, of course, and I soon received several nasty letters in the mail informing me that I was an irresponsible pet owner who was to blame for my cat’s death because I had let him outside. This enlightening experience led me to two big resolutions (in addition to self-loathing): first, I would never write a letter to the editor again, and, second, when I had my own cats, I would keep them inside.
Earlier this year, I finally broke the first resolution in order to write a letter to the editor in support of a polystyrene ban in the state of Maryland. (Kind of a no-brainer for this blogger). No one really trolls by snail-mail anymore, but I did make a point not to read any online comments. The second resolution I became even more affirmed in when I read a book by my teenage idol, Margaret Atwood, in which she warned against the dangers of allowing cats out to hunt and kill songbirds and other native wildlife. Nonetheless, I have confess, I ultimately broke it with my older cat, Olaf, who was an escape artist and knew how to take advantage of the carelessness of two young boys and the distraction of their mother. I still miss that cat, but it was his thyroid and kidneys that compelled us to let him go, not the wheel of a car, and, despite his greatness as a mouser, he never caught anything with feathers.
I used to worry about Ashley-cat’s fearfulness. She was surrendered to the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley, Minnesota twice before the age of four months, when my husband and I adopted her shortly after our wedding and move out to the midwest. To seem as small as possible, she tucked herself into the back of her cage at the shelter and, at home, spent most of her time under beds, behind couches and, finally, in closets. Even now, when she ventures out, it is to stay on the deck, a man-made surface within view of the door. If I start to shut it, she comes running with wild eyes and slips back inside. She is truly a house-cat. And she plans on never, ever, ever even knowing that there’s a river nearby.
There is a special time in early spring (or late winter, as it so happens) when this year’s young sprouts meet last year’s faded ghosts. The dry, burst seed pods of dogbane and the gray-headed husks of brittle goldenrod intermingle with the round, new buds of a dogwood. The delicate leaves and blue blossoms of bird’s eye speedwell break through a thick, crusty layer of leaves that last year crowned the branches of nearby hickories, oaks, and maples. Yesterday: meet today. Or is it the other way around? To me, it is a reminder that time is not a straight line, that there are few clean endings or beginnings, and that what is behind us is never really left behind.
Especially when it’s windy, as it has been the last few days, the woods can feel alive. I think I hear a door creak, only to turn and realize that it’s two trees rubbing against each other. Or a rustling in the leaves beside me suggests footsteps, but it’s only a fallen branch. Occasionally, of course, there really are deer watching me or squirrels racing through the brush, but usually I’m alone, surrounded by the tall, silent sentinels of the forest. Perhaps that’s why it’s eerie when they do seem to come alive. I suppose, to some, faces on trees are whimsical (hence those kits that can be bought in gardening catalogs), but in fiction they are just as likely to be foreboding. So what am I to think of this?
To me, that tree looks a little angry. Perhaps I would be, too, if a woodpecker — likely the prehistoric-looking pileated, no less — had been pounding on me. In another part of the woods, I found some sort of mythical beast, too nondescript for a hydra, but fantastic all the same. It’s not hard to remember being five when I encounter such things.
But, as when I was small, I have only to step into the light and remind myself of who I am. It’s like a variation on a favorite rhyme: “I see the tree, and the tree sees me.”
Last week’s rains filled the Monocacy to its banks, which prevented exploration for a few days, but as the water receded to more average levels, we were treated to another sort of fun: mud. Lots and lots of it. The kind that sucks off your boots and ends up in your hair. While the boys modeled it into facades that seemed to lead into the riverbanks (and which reminded us of something out of Tolkien, like the Mines of Moria, but for muskrats), I discovered a veritable treasure-trove of tracks and footprints.
They reveal the life along the river that I rarely see; the creatures that come out when I’m not there. Honestly, evidence of the white-tailed deer is everywhere, in the form of scat that my younger dog takes too much pleasure in rolling herself in (and then pouts for days over the subsequent bath), and the squirrels are rarely too shy to show themselves, either. Raccoons, however, are more secretive (being nocturnal), and herons, although visible, prefer not to let me get too close. The Monocacy is host to other animals as well: opossums (one of which made it into my house), shrews, moles, voles, mice, chipmunks, groundhogs (whose holes are another obsession for my younger dog), weasels, minks, and otters, just to name a few mammals. We’re there, too, of course, sometimes leaving a little more than footprints
At least yesterday I found a piece of trash that I could use to collect the other pieces of trash. That’s always helpful. If you look on the bright side.
I am often frustrated by the limitations of the camera on my phone, especially when the light does something near-miraculous, like turn the forest a tinny orange when the sky is the hue of a lighted bruise. It’s not just the color that I want to capture, but the feeling. Either I am on another planet or in another world, and the air is alive with its alienness. How can my limited view explain this?
The sun can play tricks, too, and turn the world upside-down. Water is its partner in this, gathering in light, amplifying it, and reflecting it back to the sky. How many worlds are there in a river that has seen so much time pass?