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The Dog Days came early. Usually, August is the boiling month under the star Sirius, a ferocious mascot of hellfire and incineration. But a Bermuda current of overheated and humid air blew up along the Atlantic seaboard and planted itself overhead, and we wilted like so many thirsty weeds. It used to be you could live in Vermont without an air conditioner, or even a fan. The stores were very sparing in their shelf space for such things. Now, all the big retailers pile up boxes of cheap rattling room coolers as early as May, and sell them off. There’s a rush on window fans, floor fans, revolving fans, anything that can stir the dead air. The spiders love the heat, the ants are enjoying their freedom after a long siege of cold weather. I pick them off the top of my desk as I write, and squish them between my fingernails when they brave the territory of my armchair at night. I am merciless in my territoriality when it comes to those little black biters who enjoy tormenting me.
So we are waiting for a little cool front, some puff of an angel’s breath to blow out the logy humidity, and to give us some reason to put on a long-sleeve shirt and return to normal. I’m told tomorrow will be such a reprieve. But with Biden gone off to Europe for some diplomacy and a meeting with Putin, I feel anxious. The papers and cable news can’t say enough that Biden may not be meeting his agenda, and that Joe Manchin and Mitch McConnell are indistinguishable in the senate as they thwart voting rights and infrastructure bills. And the right wing press is dusting off their headlines to celebrate the return of Trump to the campaign trail, to stir up trouble and make us all fret that the Republicans will take back the House, the Senate, the White House come the next elections. Sirius beams down its scornful face and fries the tenderest shoots of the garden.
But the cool air is moving on sluggish feet toward us and will take its cosmic broom to the offending heat. That’s my prayer. And there are signs of optimism beginning to emerge. Take the FBI sting of all those criminal gangs smuggling drugs around the world. An encrypted and highly secretive network invented by our own agents seduced the underworld into confiding all its secrets to the dark net. How wonderful! A victory for sanity, for law and order, for some shift in the scales of injustice and corruption. There may even be a bit of wiggle room on the infrastructure bill if Manchin can get bullied a little — his state, the bedraggled and beggarly West Virginia, needs new bridges, maybe some earth removal from all those clogged streams the mining companies buried with riotous glee. He might just budge, a little. Like a breeze playing around the curtain edge, tickling the wings of a butterfly resting in a patch of shade.
The grinding wheels of justice are slowly turning against Trump, as well. Talk about standing in front of the open refrigerator and basking in an icy shiver. Old cronies and underlings are beginning to talk; they can hear the thundering shudder of a cell door closing, and it’s enough to make a coward find his nerve and dump out a brief case of hard evidence. No one’s talking in New York; the silence coming from Cyrus Vance Jr.’s office is deafening to people like me — who sense a sea change in the making. Trump’s anarchistic morbidity is beginning to look a little fragile, maybe even a bit too vulnerable for those still hiding in his shadow. Open the window, it’s beginning to drizzle as the front moves in.
I am reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov for the first time. It’s slow, achingly ponderous in places, but when Alexy’s older brother, Ivan, begins to hold forth in a tavern to elucidate his attitude to God and human nature, you begin to feel the power of this writer’s vision. He has thought it through; he understands the fatal poison of malice, the forces of greed and envy pushing the world toward chaos. I turn pages in bed and forget to swallow, to breathe. Ivan tells horrific stories of cruelty inflicted by seemingly virtuous people. The children are not spared the birch rod with its twig ends left in to cause as much pain as possible. Dogs are unleashed on a small boy for having struck a man’s hunting dog. He is torn to pieces as his mother looks on. Ivan says it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine how a God, any God, could countenance such perversity and still make people believe. He is jaundiced, burning with the heat of the death star Sirius, scorching the table and tavern glasses with his despair, as his young brother Alyosha, a monk, listens without blinking. But maybe someone will leave the door ajar and the night’s trickles of borean air will find their way upstairs into their corner of the room.
Medieval Catholicism had invented advertising to overcome the impediment of illiteracy among its believers. They commissioned endless panels of cartoons to be painted onto church walls showing devils impaling atheists and heretics on their tridents. The narratives are crystal clear and anyone sitting idly in a pew while a priest droned on about the horrors of apostasy could gaze into these Dantean fantasies of hell and feel the chills rising up their legs and arms and genuinely dread retribution at the end of life. The great demon Sirius presided over this dystopian vision, with its raging fires and the poor mortals being pushed off cliffs into these incinerating furies. No one put it better than Hieronymous Bosch, who delighted in imagining giant scorpions and huge, venomous spiders attacking the frail, bony flesh of those newly cast into hell. Ivan Karamazov could not square this vision with anything like hope or redemption. He saw the horror, like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, and could find no solace in the world beyond it. So there we leave him, confiding to his younger, naive brother the torment he felt in his soul. No one left the door ajar; the heat built up and the dead air sat on their hearts.
But Derek Chauvin is awaiting sentence for his gruesome murder of George Floyd. That’s a tendril of chilled breeze beginning to circulate in the rafters of the Minneapolis courthouse. The Covid virus is abating in America, as arms are bared and vaccine injected in to the little swells of muscle. Nurses lean down to administer the fluid with their masks neatly stretched over their faces; just the eyes look down, a hand daubing alcohol before thrusting the needle in. How kind of them. How like a mist coming off a wandering iceberg in the middle of the North Sea. The power to heal hovers like a tiny god above each of these men and women in their hospital scrubs, their hands glossy in their latex gloves, the used needles landing in the trashcan beside them as the frail mortal life before them gets up a little dizzy and wanders to a chair to recover. Let us embrace these signs of hope, these invisible doves fluttering over the heads of everyone, nurses and ordinary souls together. There is hope in the dimly lit hotel ballroom where we sit waiting our turn to be inoculated. The rugs are worn a little, where dancing has occurred so often in the past, where the good times lie folded in people’s memories.
I am eating a cheese sandwich in the kitchen gazing out at the grass shimmering in the hot sunlight. I’m told there will be isolated showers this afternoon. The fat, glimmering crows are moving around where the mowers have cut down the gray weed stalks, looking for dinner. They know how to weather out the despair that heat brings. They have been here many times. They know winter’s knives can penetrate any skin, any feathery armor, and strike the most credulous with bitter doubts. They are the gurus of the air, the wisdom keepers who sing a raucous song as they fly overhead. They are as black as the deepest despair and hopelessness, but nothing can deter them from fighting to stay alive, from finding the secret predicate of joy. They eat the road kill with relish and brave the oncoming traffic narrowly missing their seance over the departed. Don’t bully a crow. Nothing deters them from their purpose, not even Ivan’s sermon on the evils of this world. Not even Sirius at his hottest fury, which we won’t see until August.
Copyright 2021 Paul Christensen
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who lives in Vermont.