On The Trail to the Swamp

She is alone. Alone, with cats and dogs and fish. The morning is dark. She flicks on a kitchen light switch. She descends to the basement TV room to feed the flitting neon swimmers. She sees that she forgot, the previous night, to turn off the tank light. Her hand taps two shakes of flaked fish food into the lit water. At first, the flakes float upon the surface, and then they descend, slowly, nipped at and disintegrating, to the tank bottom. She climbs back up the stairs. She turns on the hall light. She cleans the litter boxes at the end of the hall, sifting clumps of waste from the grains, bagging them in recycled grocery bags for the trash. She cannot flush the litter-clumped waste without damaging the septic. She turns on the bathroom light. She washes her hands. She turns off the bathroom and hall lights.

She turns on the light in the house entry. She bundles up against the well-below- zero cold, zipping a snow-skirt over jeans, quilted jacket over fleece, scarf over face, boots over feet. She grabs for the retractable leash with the green blinking light that can be activated with a touch. Good to have in case of the unexpected. She calls in the dogs, who have slept outside. The old one goes to an inside pallet in the kitchen. The young one leaps at the leash. The woman does not attach the leash to the young dog’s collar. They are not going to walk on the road. They will walk through the woods to the swamp. She is taking the leash in case she needs it to bring the young dog, who can be distractible, close to her. Sometimes there are moose in the swamp. An annoying dog could get kicked by a moose. Sometimes there are coyotes. Best let them slink away without a fight.

The full moon hovers yet above the ridgeline defining the valley. It is possible to follow the packed trail to the swamp by snow-reflected moonlight. The young dog is exuberant. He bounds ahead and back, forays into the woods, circles her. She keeps a steady pace. They are descending on snow-cover over the icy overflow of a spring, towards the frozen swamp that extends to the frozen river. The young dog comes at her from behind, gives an enthusiastic body-shove at the knees. He is full of playful glee. She goes down. Her head hits the ice with all the force of her falling body. The leash skitters down the slope. Her eyes close. She gasps. Her head hurts. Really hurts. She does not want to rise.

She wants to rest in the snow. Rest in the snow for a long, long time. It would be so easy to disappear here. To just fall asleep in the snow. Her eyes remain closed. She is considering. The young dog is chasing something. Maybe a squirrel. He would have a fine time, with or without her. The cats would scratch their way into a bag of food. Would the fish die before anyone noticed? What about the old dog? Are a tankful of fish and an old dog enough reason to rise from the snow? She breathes. Really? She continues to breathe. It seems so. She sighs. Habits of caring are hard to break. Why can’t she be without care? She rolls herself to her side. Her head throbs. Slowly she brings herself to her knees. She pauses for her dizziness to fade. She rises to her feet. Step by step she moves to retrieve the leash. She calls the young dog. He sits for her, while she attaches the leash, activates its light. He is confused, but obliging. He pulls her back up the path, her weight controlling his instinct to dash, the green leash light beckoning her forth.

Mary Kancewick is an MFA student at the Institute of American Indian Arts, but writes from her home in Alaska. She is of Lithuanian descent and has an ancestral connection to the Indigenous Yakut people of Siberia. She credits this ancestry in drawing her north to Alaska.

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