Thro’ the woods, Edward S. Curtis.
I was two years old in 1979 when my single mother moved us into a cabin we called The Little House on top of a mountain in Vermont. There was no electricity or phone or running water, but its deficiencies now seem poetic and useful. We had a large room with another one just over it, and a corner above the tiny kitchen where I kept a few dolls, an antique, illustrated Aesop’s Fables, and a handful of records including The Fox and the Hound, the story of a fox and his bond with a bloodhound raised to hunt him. I rinsed my own plate in our double-barrel sink and carried in buckets of water from a brook that ran behind the yard and wound down the mountain through sycamores, birch, and oaks, just a few miles from the paths Robert Frost had walked decades before. The house was, as Gaston Bachalard writes, a topography of our intimate being. In the winter, my mother and I slept on a stiff, horsehair futon upstairs heaped with quilts; in summer, on an iron bed on the back porch. During rainstorms, I’d pretend I was on a ship in a Babylonian flood like Noah, rocking high over the earth with the last animals.
When the new coronavirus arrived in North America, when it touched and began to bloom here from human to human, I took my own three children out of the city and back in time. Recently separated from their father, I’d been living alone with them; the youngest’s respiratory system had twice gone into distress with a virus so I didn’t dare let this one near us. Our shelter was a house in the woods with no hospital nearby, no grocery delivery or reliable ambulance. But I equated the unbreathed air and miles of emptiness with a certain nonhuman security. In the absence of germs and infectious disease I chose loneliness, a too-quiet hunter’s cabin through the trees, a wasp infestation and near-wild land governed by coyotes and bears. The woods are where my mother escaped to with me; where I feel safest, and most afraid.
Without formal school, without lessons or sports teams or even strolls through the grocery store, my kids’ days filled with the slow heat of boredom. I watched this happen, immobilized as much by moral obligation—what is life, a parade of amusements?—as by shock at the progressing emergency. What did I do when I was a kid? I picked currants and ate them out of my shirt pocket. I wandered around with my dog, Cher, who chased my legs back and forth as I swayed on a swing, and hunted for gophers and beetles in the grass. I pulled a frog out of a snake’s mouth, nursed a baby bird back to health in a wood box, and listened to The Fox and the Hound over and over, admiring the friendship between two animals who should have been natural enemies but came to rely on each other in the face of human greed and menace. When I told my kids that I didn’t go to school then, that I had no friends or TV, no iPad or phone, they were amazed. My six-year-old, Arlo, asked if cars were invented yet. Doon, who’s eight, asked if my mother lived through the Black Plague.
Chloe, at thirteen, was repelled by the story of the snake I found. A mild neurotoxic venom immobilizes its prey, so even when I managed to extract the frog from its mouth, one of its legs was paralyzed and fat with blood while the other leg tried its best to hop alone and failed. The frog sat for many hours in the grass blinking, its dead leg awkwardly splayed out beside it, both aware of me and too overcome to move. Saved, but insolvent.
Life in the woods was an exercise in relativity, and an interrogation of reliance. In whom can we have faith here? Whom do we trust? People are more dangerous than animals, my mother said more than once. I was drawn to stories that featured tricky relationships between creatures who embodied characteristics harder to see in humans—cruelty, pride, initiative. The helplessness of children. What I could never get over in The Fox and the Hound was that the whole book was, more or less, about the relentless hunt of an animal who had no one else in the world but the hunter.
On a warm evening, three months into our quarantine, our hunter, it seemed, had arrived. Doon was suddenly, inexplicably sick. I sat at the foot of his bed feeling as jarred as the septic frog, going over every encounter we’d had in the past seven days: the mailman who chattily dropped off a box on the porch while I was weeding; the friends passing through who stopped by for a socially distanced visit in the yard. Impossible, one side of me thought. Textbook timing, thought the other.
I took his temperature every twenty minutes while he slept, looking all over his body for a tick or bite. It can strike anywhere from the brain to the toes, I’d read. My hands shook; an owl hooted somewhere out the window and I tried not to think about the fact that its call, in many cultures, is an omen of bad luck. The degrees wobbled around but kept going steadily up until a red light flushed the whole screen at 102. Then it was true. It would be twelve hours before it went away on its own, only to creep back the next night, after a day of him refusing food. “Everything tastes weird,” he would say, handing me back his favorite toast with jam. “I’ll just have water.”
In the time of Covid, I knew what this could be, and with it, what I must do. Unable to touch my children, unable to let them touch each other, lumbering into rooms masked like a lurid mannequin, I began to ache for the analgesic, painkilling effect of contact. We had been wrenched from every other body we knew for months, and now severance had come to us, too.
On the second day of the fever, I sat between the doors of the kids’ bedrooms and read from my old copy of Aesop’s Fables. The lessons come to the fox and stag and crow swiftly: sometimes after only a paragraph or two, sometimes suddenly, like the frog who puffs her chest to make a point and simply bursts. That’s the end of the story: “She burst”! The fables don’t carry much emotion; they feel breezily astute and usually offer a note of principle (“pride comes before a fall”)—something to live by, if we need it. But the kids found the stories too coherent for our wildering moment. An invisible virus was sneaking around in bodies, plundering the weak, finding new ways every day to hurt us. There was no moral. We couldn’t find any lesson. What’s bred in the bone is sure to risk death? He is no friend who doesn’t wear a mask?
The first fever I knew was my brother’s. He was baby, a year and a half old; I was eight. The night it came—105.5, high enough to render him basically unconscious—our whole life turned toward what would become maniacal survival ever after, a kind of heliotropic fixation on not dying, the way a field of sunflowers will all track the sun and turn to face it dutifully, identically. We still didn’t have a phone, so calling a hospital required driving all the way down the mountain (ten miles on dirt roads in a fifteen-year-old Buick). It would be weeks before we returned home. Now, I never set my phone down. In the days of my own son’s fever, which I feared in its contagion would become his brother’s fever, I was the sapient Frankenstein of my family’s making, existing in permanent fight-or-flight.
I recognized the quiet perilousness of my own early life. I had, with my kids, entirely decelerated. We walked in and out of doorways, looked out windows, those stoic thresholds of containment, and began to watch an Eastern Phoebe build a nest on the rafter of the porch, just above the front door. She stuffed green moss into crevices for hours, carried grass from the fields, dust-bathed in the yard. But after she laid her eggs—small, ellipsoid, white-pink like cherry blossoms—two more appeared that were larger and spotted. We looked in our Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior and learned these were cowbird eggs from a brood parasite that would likely cause her own chicks to starve.
The Phoebe’s industry turned to hypervigilance and she sat wide-eyed on the nest like a soldier. At night when I’d take the dog out, she’d go berserk, darting back and forth across the porch, diving straight at my head. I considered scooping the cowbird eggs out to save her the suffering she’d face in eight to ten days, but the Audubon website said that cowbird mothers can retaliate and have been known to ransack a nest when their eggs go missing from it.
I would have sucked the virus out of my son’s body and died with it, had this been an option. The same energy overtook the bird; she was myopically, violently driven to protect her eggs. Tenderness and duty entwine like filaments, like structures of resistance.
In the woods, there are enough tangible dangers at night to replace every tenuous one in the mind. Owls larger than our dog hovered in the trees; packs of coyotes in the distance shrieked suddenly and all at once over a kill. Twice I glimpsed the shadow of a bobcat, like a piece of ice down my back. Somewhere in my memory, two bobcats fought viciously in front of the Little House while my mother and I hid behind the front door, my mother saying, My god, they’re going to lash their way in.
On the third day, after calling a hotline and answering some questions, I took Doon to a drive-through Covid-19 testing center an hour away. It was early June; testing was becoming just slightly less impossible than the previous three months. He met the criteria, I was told, and so I should be tested, too. On the drive, his head bobbed in and out of sleep, and I realized it had been months since we’d been off our hillside. We passed acres of farmland, crops of asparagus and rhubarb, peach orchards, fields of cows and wild phlox. So much life happening. Ploughmen everywhere hearing Icarus fall into water.
We were instructed, when we arrived, not to open any car windows and to put a large sign on the dashboard with our names and birthdays. The testers had been given all our information, including Social Security numbers, over the phone. Two people in surgical masks checked everything on the other side of the windshield; we couldn’t hear them, but they gestured for us to go through, as though we were at a car wash. Around the next bend an open-air tent waited with three people in hazmat suits. We opened the window to a convergence of relief and agony: The fresh, cool air poured in just as the sting of a six-inch nasopharyngeal swab seemed to break into the delicate space behind my eyes. I had to hold Doon down after the first nostril while he screamed in pain against the second. Driving back, our heads throbbing like we’d snorted cayenne pepper, Doon weeping behind me with a popsicle, I held a sheet of paper in my lap with instructions for retrieving our lab results and the agonizing wait time: three to five days.
Under fifty-foot maples, against unbothered land, I thought of the family of Old Believers who, in the 1930s, left a small town in Russia to shelter in the vast Siberian taiga and didn’t come back for forty years. I had told the kids we were safe, we were tucked far away, but I knew that on the other side of the wall a hunter was in pursuit, mutating, multiplying, possibly traveling through air. I felt our many invasions—wasps laying eggs in the window frames, tree beetles pushing through screen cracks and congregating by the dozens on dish rags, on countertops where the tiniest microbes of the coronavirus might have just fallen from the mail or an egg carton— but one can only regard so much battle. I read in The Atlantic, “The pandemic is not a hurricane. [It’s not] a wildfire. It is not comparable to Pearl Harbor or 9/11. Such disasters are confined in time and space.”
I felt its limitlessness, the collapse of intervals and margins. I woke in the night wondering how many weeks we’d been here, how many weeks are in a year. How long can a storm go without landfall? How long can a virus live if we all hide? Absurdly, our wall clock tripped on the “8” in late March so we lived, for two months, perpetually in a single hour. The loose shape of a day only came with the clamor of Doon’s teacher starting a Zoom class for 26 second graders, followed by the first peak in the birds’ bimodal feeding pattern—upside-down finches, overeating starlings—followed by a second cup of coffee, which meant it was somewhere around noon. Those were the old structural columns of our time, ancient ruins sitting alongside a new town. I wanted to plan eatings in the grass like Frances the badger, I wanted to teach mathematic arrays with lemons, with meringues, but new stories kept crawling out of the cities and towns: deadly inflammation presenting in children; young adults having strokes. Was this what it was like to try to build a nest while a giant door slams open and shut all day underneath you?
When I was four, I got lost on our mountain. I must have wandered too far into the woods behind the Little House, because when I turned around things looked the same in every direction. I’d been moving toward the sound of a woodpecker drumming a dead tree, the hollow clang it made to declare its territory a deviation from my solitude in the yard where I’d been sent out to play. But then, I was somewhere and nowhere. I thought the house had vanished, or that it was hidden behind a reflection of the trees on the other side of it, and the whole of it—including my mother, who was all I had—was gone.
It’s one of my earliest memories, the first cell assembly in my dark fairy tale. What are yours? I asked the kids. Arlo said getting our dog, which was 10 months ago. Doon said being thirsty when he was still inside my tummy. What makes an experience stay when most others will go? That afternoon when I was a child the sky had slit marks of light through the clouds as though a fingernail had dragged across it, and under me the flat, damp ground pressed my feet—where were my shoes?—as I understood I had gone beyond the visible compass of our home, out into the stratosphere where Cher would disappear for hours, sometimes walking four or five miles to Breadloaf Pond, until my mother would call out for her in a high pitch, as though on an ultrasonic frequency, and, incredibly, she would find her way back.
I was afraid to be alone. The feeling pervaded through decades, became the feeling I most associated with my private self, though I was ashamed of it and delivered lines from Robert Frost’s “Birches” to my earliest journals: “I’d like to get away from earth awhile. And then come back to it and begin over.” I wonder how these months or years, with their forced divisions and exertions of mortality, the fear of other people—their breath, their bodies—will alter the future selves of my children? Whether this pandemic, making touch and nearness dangerous, coming like an air wake behind the ship of their parents’ separation, will be the anxious heart of all they remember.
And what stories will they tell about it? I loved and hated “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” as a kid, the whole town of children marching after a hypnotizing flutist into permanent erasure. The piper had come to lure the rats away—it was the middle ages, the town was besieged by the Plague—but the children followed, instead, a horrifying realization when their parents returned. “From street to street he piped advancing, and step for step they followed dancing,” Robert Browning’s verse goes. I was rapt. Was it safer to be with people or away from them? Chloe says that sad stories take time to gather, and hold us. “But happy stories need sadness,” Doon says, happy being a comparative emotion reliant on the depth of sorrow before it. The good ones, they decide, are both. “Be content with your lot,” Aesop’s crab tells the fox as he’s being eaten.
* * *
Arlo’s pulmonologist, Dr. Needleman, calls and we make a plan in case Doon’s test results are positive. We’ll leave the woods and be closer to the hospital that knows Arlo, since he’d be likely to develop it, too. I tell the doctor I haven’t slept, that I feel traumatized by the fear. He says this is not unusual, especially for parents with a medically fragile child. Most of us aren’t used to feeling this in America, he says. In Syria, people live with this kind of fear every day.
That night, the fever goes away. The next day the center calls to tell us our results are negative, though the kids’ father, who tested separately, has antibodies from what appears to be a previous infection. To celebrate, we hug for the first time in days, then eat a pint of mint chip under a blanket together, using separate spoons.
After Arlo’s first hospitalization with another virus two years before, I got used to leaving a store if someone was coughing. I was alert as a deer but alone all the time, my relentless nerves a contained and private grief, no newscaster to magnify it, no surgical masks in the grocery to escalate unease. Now everyone is preoccupied by contagion, wary of something none of us can see. In the elaborate Lego Star Wars base in the living room, Arlo has built a hospital ward with an extra level on top “for quarantine”. There are now Lego doctors inside and Lego security guards protecting patients with lightsabers. In a writing assignment, Doon describes a refrigerator truck of bodies parked in front of a hospital and a brother who keeps forgetting to breathe.
On the porch, one Phoebe egg disappears from the nest, then another. The mother frets; the cowbird babies hatch and are bigger than the Phoebe herself. I can hardly watch as she exhausts herself trying to keep the changelings fed. Tasks on the land feel peremptory and toilsome: hundreds of flights back and forth across the yard, wood gathered for a fire, choke vines pulled down, squash cooked, as though time has been stripped of its signposts. Trees bend in the gale winds. Turkeys waddle in busy groups over the stone walls that have been here since this was all farmland two hundred years ago, or 12,000 years ago when the ice sheets melted and left them behind.
The boys’ light feet patter to my bedroom every night as feet have for thousands of years, their mismatched pajamas of stripes and sharks, their grown-out hair, and I let them in and we lie squashed like hatchlings. “This is our first pandemic without Dad,” Doon says, yawning.
If it rains at night, the lion in me lies down in my childhood ark. The whole world outside is flooding and I slouch on my arms, relishing the shelter, lulled by a violence that can’t reach me. It’s millennia ago and the living world is forming, or it’s decades ago and I’m under quilts on the back porch of the Little House, the roof thunderous, back, as Bachelard says, in my first universe.
One day, a group of hawks appear high over the yard and begin to soar in circles, their huge wings open and unflapping on thermal columns of air. The dog spins and barks underneath them, and the kids run out to watch what seems like a synchronized swim in the sky. Looking through the bird guide later, we decide they most resemble Coopers Hawks, but Coopers tend to be solitary. These were most certainly aligned, acrobatically forming a ring over the house as though some urgency had called them together. In all our years coming here, we’ve never seen hawks so close and banded together.
I was eight when my mother called a hospital from the payphone at the bottom of the mountain, which sent an ambulance, which took my fevered brother to a bigger hospital across the state. He would spend two weeks there battling bacterial spinal meningitis while my sister and I lived in a Ronald McDonald House nearby. I’ve been thinking about that night most of my life because my mother woke up. Because, like the hawks, like chance, we were banded together; she knew her baby was sick by the feel of his body slumped beside her, on fire, in the bed we all shared. She registered a seven degree change in her sleep. Imagine if we’d slept apart, if there had been, in our quarantine of rural poverty, separate rooms?
Years later, she would fall into a depression and we would scatter too soon, a danger for broods in the wild, I read, though future generations will strengthen. Eventually I’d move away to New York, have my own children, my own work, but those years in the woods we were glued, we were elemental, our very nearness keeping us alive.
Once I lived in the woods with my mother, I tell my kids. Is this a sad and happy story? they ask, and it is.
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