lundi 17 janvier 2011

At rest

The Argentière glacier at sunrise


We went away, and now we are returning.

In a few minutes. We are not in a hurry. We are never in a hurry to leave the vallée. It has become home for at least one long week a year, but one long week, however long, is not enough. Not if you love winter, snow, mountains, long walks with your dogs in the forest below tree line and skiing the rocky slopes above.

The dogs have been a godsend. No one should travel anywhere without dogs if they wish to meet the locals and anyone staying longer than a week, usually, however long. They are conversation starters when you cross others with theirs, walking in the forest. They attach you to a place in a way just walking alone does not, and sometimes, they become part of a place, like Baccarat.

We brought her back, like we promised ourselves we would do. For months, her ashes remained in a plastic bag, sealed with a twist-tie, inside a hideous, cheap, but certainly well-intentioned Delft china style urn provided by the crematorium (a word I do not like) in a pristinely white cardboard box, a white envelope containing a certificate attesting to the ashes really being those of our dog, Baccarat, taped with equally pure white tape to it, all inside a plastic bag from our vet's office. I put it up on a storage mezzanine in the petite maison to wait until our time to leave again for Argentière, and every time I'd go in to make up a bed for a guest or iron in the Summer room, I'd look up to the bag, sitting above my head next to an over-sized and unused lampshade and say, "Hello, Bacs."

It made me very uncomfortable. She needed to get to her place. But, time eventually passed and the day came to pack the car and drive off to Chamonix. I went for the plastic bag, containing the urn, holding her ashes in the plastic bag sealed with a twist-tie, and carried it to the car to join the bags, the skis, and Rapide and Fia for the trip back to the valley. And then, the bag and its contents sat on the daybed in our hotel room on the pile of luggage, waiting.

"Where will we leave her?" I asked Sam. "In the forest, or shall we take her up to the top of the mountain, over the glacier?"

"I don't know. Maybe both," he said, "But let's take some home." I considered that for a moment.

"You mean divide her in three? You think that's alright?"

"I don't know," he said. "I guess so."

And so, a day, and then two, and finally a third went by, and the box sat still on the daybed with the bags. Then, I got up on the fourth day and heard a voice.

When are you going to finally get around to doing this? asked myself. The prodding self that makes me get things done, including the most unpleasant and difficult things.

"I'll ask Sam."

I think, said myself, that he is waiting for you to get around to it. How about now?

Now. I set the plastic bag on the table and removed the box, peeled back the white tape, removed the envelope with the certificate, removed the tape from the cheap Delft style urn and opened it. There was still the matter of removing the bag of ashes, which was larger than the mouth of the urn. I got three small Ziplock bags and prepared to pour Baccarat into them in equal parts, without spilling any of her on the floor for housekeeping to sacrilege by vacuuming her unceremoniously up. Dust puffed up. I was breathing. I was breathing in Baccarat. I tried to breathe less.

Sam opened his eyes and watched the procedure from his bed.

"We'll take one bag up with us today, and go all the way up. Don't worry. I'll double-bag it."

I was remembering the incident from the previous day when the bag containing the apricots, figs, almonds, a clementine and half a banana exploded open in his Dakine backpack. I was sure he was envisioning Baccarat clinging to every surface of the inside of his backpack in yet another scenario of sacrilege, and this was not meant to be humorous or catastrophic in any way.

We took the téléphérique up to Grands Montets, just below the Aiguille Verte, Europe's highest ski trail, and began skiing down the black along the glacier, "Point de Vue".

Where will you leave her? asked myself. The opportunities were sailing past us the farther along we skied.

"I'll ask Sam."

"Sam?" He slowed and turned to look back up at me; I am generally somewhere up behind him. I slid in next to where he waited. "Where will we put her?"

He looked around the mountainside, "Maybe where we stopped and had lunch last year."

I nodded. That would do. It was a place that looked out over the glacier, and it was a place where we had stopped to share a meal. We skied on until we arrived at the place and took off our skis, trying not to slide down the side of the mountain into a crevasse. We did not wish to spend the rest of eternity with Baccarat, up on the glacier.

"How will we do this?" I asked, looking around at the various stones poking up out of the hard scrabble dirt and sparse tufts of golden grass, snow blown up into ridges under the little overhangs they provided. He concentrated and chose a stone. We made our way down to it, sliding on our bottoms and using the heels of our ski boots to dig in.

"I can't reach," I said, watching him finish his hole with the point of my ski pole. I had inched down a little too far and inching back up seemed too much like tempting fate.

He reached down, took the bag I held out to him and poured her ashes into their hole, and then he moved his hand in an arc, brushing snow up to cover them, trying to pat down the powdery snow. I joined his effort, brushing the light coating of feather-light snow off the stubbly yellow grass and ice to cover her deeper, and I felt a tear slide down into the foam of my goggles, and then another. We stood and made our way back up to our skis. I looked back.

"Be a good dog, Baccarat," I said, and realized they were my last words to her when I left her in her cage the night before her surgery. Silly words. "Of course you will be. You were the best dog."

I felt better, but there was the place to choose in the forest.

Sam came with me for our evening walk, after it was dark and we would be alone on the trails through the giant firs. We considered a first and then a second place.

"It shouldn't be so close to the main trail," said Sam. We turned down toward the stream.

"This is where Baccarat ran into the freezing water and got all soaked that first night," I said.

We walked along, looking at trees. Sam has become fascinated with trees, taking photographs of them like I do on my morning walks. He stopped by a tall fir, growing out of the hillside on the other side of the trail from the stream bank. We stood silently, Fia and Rapide nosing around our legs. I wondered if they understood our purpose. Rapide, anyway, although it was Fia I suspected of understanding.

"Do you want to do it here?" I asked.

"This is the first place she came into the forest," he said.

The tree divided at its base, sending roots down into the soil, and where it did, it formed two small, perfect chambers. They looked like the rooms of her heart that filled with the tumor that killed her. It looked like the perfect place to nestle part of her. I climbed up the turf, covered in soft fir needles and encased in crusty snow, and Sam turned the torch on his iPhone on for me so I could see to pour her ashes into the smaller chamber, like the place where the tumor grew, and covered them with tiny fir needles and some chunks of snow and then a rock.

We walked on home, to the hotel, and a day or two later, I took the white box and the Delft china style urn to the garbage and recycling bins and tossed the urn in one and the box in the other. That was the moment I felt the freest and the lightest since the phone rang while we waited during her surgery. We had done what we had set out to do, and Baccarat's circle was complete.

The third bag is for home in Mousseaux. Perhaps I will ask the mason to build a little chamber under the stone at the top of the steps which she made her outlook, surveying the lower garden, the field and the Seine and the world beyond. In that chamber, I can put a little box containing the other third of her in her garden.
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