By Linda Mills Woolsey
It’s always the day for something, though I don’t always pay attention. The day we learned of the first case of COVID-19 in our rural village in western New York, the teakettle whistled, as it always has, and our mail arrived punctually at noon. But that was the day I noticed that the carrier’s hand was blue, a gloved caution. Since then, a motley flock of chickadees, goldfinches, redwings and grackles continues to flutter at our feeders, gobbling seed at rates that defy our best calculations for stretching days between grocery trips. More than ever, each day teeters on the uncertain edge of fear and wonder.
The house still demands its loop of care: dusting, mopping, vacuuming. But home-keeping has taken on new urgency. Does this recipe use too much milk? Did I remember to wash my hands after touching the doorknob? Is there a handle, a remote control, a counter I’ve failed to clean?
Oblivious to the pandemic, our strictly indoor cats maintain their rhythms of sleeping, chasing, eating. While I wash my hands with the frequency and anxiety of a caricature germophobe, they remain poster pets for cleanliness, maintaining hygienic calm, devoting more than twenty seconds of detailed attention to each paw.
Social distancing has not dislocated their world—they curl close together in a silky heap of fur, or purr on my lap, nudging aside the book I’m trying to read. Some days, though, they’re restless, catching our unease. As the virus stalks our village, the engines of normalcy sputter, hesitate, halt. We check the internet obsessively, anxiously scanning news that doesn’t resolve anything.
After a flurry of cancellations weeks ago—audiologist, dentist, hairdresser, library board—the days are still punctuated by robocalls. The refrigerator hums, racing paws drum on hardwood floors, birds chatter at the feeder, a fox yips from the wood’s edge.
Emails from family in Buffalo comment on the city’s new quiet—no traffic roar, no police sirens, no shouts and laughter passing by. Even in our quiet village, a deeper hush. Since the outbreak, the daily clip-clop of Amish buggies headed for Dollar General has vanished. I picture shelves of preserves—peaches, tomatoes, beans, sausage. This year, winter’s need has been extended. How long will their reserves last?
Entropy still marks the hours with everything’s tendency to come undone—a broken fingernail, crumbs on the counter, dust settling, subtly, as we breathe. I remind myself that life has always been this precarious—joy or disaster just a phone call away. We’ve never really known what the day would bring. But now, I can’t take tomorrow for granted.
My grandparents survived the 1918 pandemic. Half a century later they still talked about it sometimes, with sadness and a strange wonder at its fury and desolation. Passing through it, they went on with ordinary life: getting married, having children, keeping house, keeping memories of grief and helplessness, lines of hearses, the mystery of surviving.
Collecting our mail at the end of the drive, I wave to a masked boy who’s walking to the fire hall to pick up food provided by the local school. Next door, reassuring squeals and shouts of my neighbors’ small sons ricochet across the grass.
We can still walk out from the village, past weathered calendar-photo farms, past the collapsed sheds, barns, and porches of an already strained rural economy. Out here, smart-ass signs picture human silhouettes in the crosshairs of a gun’s scope. If things get worse, what will these neighbors do with the guns they’ve been stockpiling?
On the doors of The Barefoot Quilter and Rushford Public Library, signs announce: “Closed due to COVID-19.” At the bank, only the ATM is open. As I near the P.O., a little girl comes bounding out, straight blonde hair lifting in the wind, face half obscured by a neat black mask. I stop well short of the building to let her pass safely to a waiting pickup. The gray-haired woman in the truck flashes me a smile. We are learning the choreography of social distancing.
Mostly, we stay at home. A trip to the local supermarket feels like a trek into Mordor. Our grocery list is a battle plan. Instead of swords, we carry a sandwich bag of disinfectant wipes; in place of a shield, a tiny bottle of hand sanitizer we had on hand before pandemic hoarders emptied the shelves. We have improvised masks. I’ve become keenly aware of all we are using up—the last tablespoon of apple sauce, the last packet of yeast, the potato peels blackening in the compost. And the hours, slipping away.
Each moment is the marvel it always was. But I stop more often, just to notice. The first morning of New York’s emergency, I saw frost-clad spiderwebs draped across brown stems of last summer’s verbena, like crystal rigging on a specter ship. In the second week, a large toad startled as I lifted the garage door. His mottled, warty shape snapped open in a frantic leap that set my heart skittering. The day we learned the virus had reached the village, daffodils bloomed, defiantly yellow.
All we’ve ever had is this day with its daylily moments—bright, crisp, delectable. Shriveled by the next morning. As my hair grays and my bones grow fragile, life feels more and more like those time-lapse nature films we watched in grade school. As the pandemic arrived, someone sped up the projector. Sunrise, sunset. Moments quick as a hummingbird’s heart.
Now that the virus has found our village, each dawn cracks the lid of night like a shell. Here is the everyday, emerging. This is the day, the only day, with its familiar step on the stair, birds battling at the feeder, bread rising in my grandmother’s bowl.
Linda Mills Woolsey's poems, essays, and short stories have appeared in Anglican Theological Review, Appalachian Heritage, Christian Century, The Cresset, Lullwater Review, Mars Hill Review, Midwest Quarterly Review, Relief, The Sow's Ear Poetry Review and other journals. Her poem “Bice’s Dream” was a semi-finalist in the 2016 Ruminate Magazine poetry contest. She lives in the rural village of Rushford, New York with her husband and two companionable cats and a hoard of books for solace in the pandemic.
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Photo by Linda Mills Woolsey.
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