I swatted my Eagles hat just beside Savannah’s eyes, taking out two dozen gnats swarming there. Then I swung the hat around my head before bending down and using my thumb to brush away the gnats lined on Savannah’s eyelids.
“Okay,” I said to Savannah. “That’ll help for about a minute.”
I grabbed the cart and pushed it in long, fast strides, attempting to walk too fast for the gnats to gather or at least get out of the dark part of the road as quickly as possible. It was the shaded and damp areas where gnats gathered in black clouds. In the valleys it was too hot for them, but we’d been climbing all day and were reaching some sort of altitude, so now the gnats were appearing in force.
The road was narrow, bordered by pines which leaned from the mountain wind and formed a tunnel that blocked out most of the light. It was midday and hot in the sun, but in the tunnel of pines it was cool. The air had a moist earthen taste to it; smooth, sleepy, and textured by the occasional gnat sucked into the throat.
While I walked I alternated swinging my hat by my ears and slapping my hat against the side of my cart. There were hundreds of gnats floating just beside the cart and each time I hit the cart with my hat fifty gnats were crushed and fell to the pavement.
Ahead of me Savannah walked as though with a limp. We’d left Salamanca three days earlier and the spot on her paw where the thorn had passed was scabbed and healing, but because of the gnats she alternated between walking and dragging a paw over her eyes.
I felt bad for her but there was nothing more I could do; bug spray didn’t work and stopping only attracted more gnats.
At a place where some trees had fallen I paused to stand in the sun. Savannah made for the shade but I called her back. It was cooler in the shade, but we had to stay in the heat so the gnats would fly off.
To my right, in the valley and running partway up the opposite mountain face, was scorched earth. The trees which remained on the black floor were stripped bare and appeared more like exposed roots than things which once were green and noble. Even from my faraway vantage I could smell the black landscape. It reminded me of Ireland and its fields of peat.
Once most of the gnats had flown off Savannah and I started walking again, but after only a minute the gnats returned and so I took to swinging my hat around my head again.
Eventually the gnats simply faded away. Nothing changed; I couldn’t figure out why the gnats had finally left, we were walking the same road, but irregardless I was happy to give my arm a rest and sit for a minute.
I parked my cart in the middle of the road and leaned against one of the tires. Savannah came up to me with gnats still latched to her eyelids. I wiped them away then poured her water.
Above us the tops of the pines moved in the wind. As a strong gust blew through Savannah looked alert, then resumed drinking.
The day progressed and by six we had left behind the cool tunneled road and were walking a service road along a reservoir lake.
Through most of Spain we were in low country, crossing the occasional hill, but for the first time in weeks I was looking at a mountain peak. Across the lake the peak was shaped like a shark tooth. For a few hundred meters to the top the terrain was stony, but below that the mountain was green with a pine forest.
To my left was a pine forest too; though this was drier than the one we walked through earlier. I could see felled trees and a sandy path.
The road ascended gradually for a half mile before reaching its highest point.
It wasn’t until the road was level that I realized I’d been walking uphill all day.
I dropped myself on a cushion of pine needles to rest against a tree and felt suddenly the throbbing in my calves.
A few months before, when I left Denmark, I approached my days as though I were in the same physical form I was in when crossing the Andes after two years of steady walking. But I’d only recently recovered from a bacterial sickness, and even though my weight was back to normal, my muscle density was not.
Through northern Europe I could never get into a rhythm because for each full day of walking I needed a half day rest to recover.
But I was better now. My calves throbbed, but not with that drained, empty feeling they used to reach a few months prior. Now I could feel muscles deeper than where the ache resided – reserves of muscles which had yet to be called upon.
After only a few minutes of rest I thought of getting up and continuing. There were still two hours of daylight and I knew if I stayed where I was for much longer that I’d end up staying for the night.
But with the soft forest floor and the mountain view I couldn’t find it in me to move.
So I sat there. And Savannah lay beside me.
A few feet from us was a stream. In my tired state its gurgling acted like a massage for me.
Ahead of Savannah and me, we were up in the forest a little ways, was the service road and a dirt clearing which faced the shark-tooth mountain peak. Every fifteen minutes or so a cyclist would pass. After an hour a young couple pulled into the dirt clearing to watch the sunset. The girl had long brown hair and wore a yellow dress and stood on her tippy-toes to kiss the boy and the scene reminded me of a life I might have lived.
While the couple and myself watched the sun fall behind the mountain ridge I ate three peanut butter jellies, half a bar of dark chocolate, and three granola bars. I drank a liter of water as well then laid out on my tarp feeling the pressure of everything in my stomach.
By the time I sat back up from my stupor the young couple had gone and the sun was serrated partly by the mountain ridge.
Savannah was patrolling the ferns uphill. I called her over.
From the cart I grabbed my medkit, baby wipes, and one of Savannah’s booties. I sat beside Savannah and nudged her onto her side so I could work on the wound on her back paw.
I spread her toes so I could see the soft space between her middle two knuckles and as I did a white puss released slowly from what had been scabbed a moment before.
Since leaving the veterinary office five days earlier there had been blood from the wound but it was always clean.
Now there was puss.
At the sight of such a change, I was immediately scolding myself for not being more proactive about keeping the cut clean. I should have been stopping every hour to clean it. Checking the wound a twice a day wasn’t enough.
Though checking it all the time would have reopened the scab, and cleaning it all the time would have done the same. Maybe I should have stayed in Salamanca longer.
With baby wipes I cleaned the wound now leaking a blood-puss mixture. Then I rolled my thumb down across the wound like the vet showed me and forced out more of the convoluted liquid.
I rolled my thumb over it once more, pushing a little harder his time, and an inch-long whitehead erupted.
That was what she needed, I thought. It would heal for good now.
I swept at the whitehead with a baby wipe and realized what had erupted was not a whitehead at all, but an inch-long, spear-shaped, puss-covered seed.
For a long moment I held the seed between my fingers and marveled at it as all the past events of Savannah’s injury suddenly made sense in light of the new evidence.
A thorn never went through Savananh’s paw at all. The spear-like seed had entered her paw horizontally, like an IV entering a vein. And when I took Savannah to the vet and pointed to the wounds on the top and bottom of her paw, the vets probed the wounds vertically which is why they never found anything.
I thought of what the vet had said to me, “The thorn will always leave. Always. It just depends on time.”
Intending to take a picture of the seed, I sat it on my knee (the only available service which wasn’t the forest floor).
Savannah lifted her head, sniffed the seed, then licked it into her mouth.
“Savannah!” I burst. “What the hell around you doing?” I was amused. “Why the hell did you eat that?”
Savannah licked her lips, sniffed my knee, then dropped back on to her side.
“God damn it, Savannah. I wanted to take a picture of that.”
Savannah heaved in a big sigh and shut her eyes.
With the seed gone the blood leaving the cut was pure and smooth. I finished cleaning it, then slathered Neosporin into the cut and put a bootie on Savannah to keep her paw clean for the night.
With the boot on Savannah acted as though she were paralyzed. When I packed the medkit into the cart, Savannah lay watching me stiffly when normally she would have jumped to her feet the moment I stood.
But after a while, once Savannah needed a drink, she got up and walked to the stream, only letting the covered paw touch the earth delicately.
By morning the wound between Savannah’s paws was covered in a thick, dark scab. And after two evenings the scab had fallen off and revealed a fresh new layer of skin.