Issue 15 / Fall 2018
We are elbow deep in the dark, loamy soil we made from our own compost. I used to think getting dirt under my nails was good for me, that the energy radiating from the center of the earth would balance me. Now, I’m not sure of anything, particularly microbes.
“Even demons believe in God,” my sister says, her head down, watching her own hands transfer a tender plant from its pot to the ground.
I’m not surprised by the suddenness of her non sequitur. This will be another argument to lever a crack in my agnostic armor. She’s been trying for years. I’m accustomed to parrying her new thrusts. She put a cross on her door when she was fifteen. I hung a bejeweled heart from mine. Ten years later, we argued about the sanctity of gurus when she taped the image of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on my refrigerator. I immediately put up a photograph of the owner of the local supermarket next to it.
“I don’t believe in demons,” I say.
She gets that wry expression on her face that matches the one she uses when I take her Rook with my Queen.
“Never mind,” she says and plunges her baby tomato plant into the black dirt.
Our dirt is supposed to have only local microbes in it, no travelers. We loaded it into boxes we built by hand from lumber milled locally, and then we layered the boxes with gravel from a nearby quarry, covered with purportedly sterilized sand we bought online, and lastly the rich black dirt mixed with local manure from the dairy farm half a mile away. The boxes sit on top of our hard-packed clay soil.
We are putting in a vegetable garden. It’s March, two months earlier than we would have started any plants but asparagus ten years ago. We bought black netting and hammered poles into the ground to hold the net up above the plants. The netting comes with grommets and string so that it can be pulled back like a roman shade during the part of the day the sun isn’t too hot. On the rare occasions we have rain, water penetrates the fabric.
I saw these nets twenty years ago covering tomato plants outside Rome and wondered what they were. Now I know. They provide shade from a too-hot sun. We could switch to growing olive trees and oranges in our new climate. We used to be in zone five, too cold for Oleander. The horticulture union, or whatever they’re called, has now revised the zone chart, like that’s a solution. We’re now officially in zone eight but it’s more like ten. It’s clear it will be warmer in a few years, with no frosts at all.
Unlike Europe, we don’t have a year’s worth of rain in seventy-two hour torrents. When it rains, we capture as much as we can. We catch it in plastic barrels we ordered from the aptly named End of the World website. The barrels are supposedly treated to prevent the development of bacteria and mold. We should probably think about what they are treated with, but we don’t. We keep the pool full year round and we’ve got iodine and chlorine tablets stored in the shed for purifying the water if we need to drink it. This is just in case. There haven’t been any warning notices, although those would probably arrive a year after the emergency begins. Our well still works. We’re just practicing. That’s what we tell ourselves.
My sister wipes away sweat from her forehead with her wrist, keeping her dirt covered gloves pointed away from her face. I love her for this unnecessary fastidiousness about her appearance. Aside from our collective children, a small gang of five ranging in ages from thirteen to five, no one is going to see her gardening, or doing anything else.
Fifteen years ago, my husband and I put in forty-two trees on the property in an attempt to balance our carbon footprint. Those lovely oaks, maples, pears, birches and fir trees now block any view into our yard. We work from home except for required meetings, another effort to be responsible about our carbon emissions. We use a local farmer’s market website to purchase the food we don’t grow on our small three-acre lot. Boxes of meat, dairy, eggs, locally grown and milled wheat flour, fruit we don’t grow are left for us at the gatehouse.
We bike down to the gatehouse to pick up the boxes when we get the farmer’s text saying they’ve delivered our food. We barely wave at our neighbors for fear of encouraging the exchange of microbes not native to our own bodies. From ten feet away, we say “Hey” to Mike, the guard on duty during the day, and put the boxes with our names on them he has stacked behind the gatehouse into the large baskets on our bikes. He knows better than to ask if we want him to help us. For all he knows, we’re infected. We walk the bikes back to the house because the boxes throw off our balance. We strive for an arm’s length interdependence, thinking somehow that will save us.
“What about angels,” she says, sitting back on her heels, pulling off her gloves and adjusting her broad brimmed sun hat.
I look around as if something touched my shoulder. “Angels?” I say. “What about them?”
“Do you believe in them?”
I look at her angular, still unlined face and wonder why she is struggling with this idea of deity today. “Why is this important now?”
“I saw something,” she says. “Hovering over the kids yesterday when they were playing in the trees.”
“Heat haze,” I say. “Northern lights during the day. Electromagnetic activity caused by sun flares. Auras.”
I smile. She’s more sensitive than I am. “Maybe we’ve had enough work for one day. Let’s jump in the pool to cool off and make a picnic supper for the kids.”
My mind is already listing chicken salad, sliced avocado, grapes, and almond cookies—a fantasy meal from days gone by. My stomach growls. We live well, I remind myself, even if we never leave the compound. We treat ourselves to broccoli, asparagus, fried eggplant and cantaloupe as if we were rich people. I feel only vaguely guilty about the people starving in the cities. We all made our choices.
The pool water, which we used to heat in order to swim in cool months, is now cooled so that we don’t slowly boil ourselves. In exchange for use of the pool for his family, a neighbor who used to be an engineer did something with the heat pump and a refrigeration unit powered by its own solar panels so that instead of warming the water in the cool months, it cools the pool water in the hot months. Sometimes I feel like a sultan in Dubai floating on my back in the aqua waters, watching the peerless blue sky scroll around the earth. Then I remember that the rich in Dubai used to nibble on one-thousand dollar gold-dusted cupcakes.
The sultan comparison is not good for my karma.
My sister peels off her gloves, tosses off her clogs and hat and jumps into the pool, screaming as she did when she was a child. I ease in more carefully, stepping gingerly down the stairs in the shallow end. It doesn’t matter that we are wearing our gardening clothes. We will hang them over the porch railing to dry. There are a lot of things that don’t matter anymore.
The kids come running over, slide out of their flip-flops and join us in the water. In the water they are more otter than children. It seems to be their element. They make the loud, cheerful sounds children at play are supposed to make and those sounds echo back to us from the surrounding mountains that hug our valley. They make me feel more fully alive. I wonder briefly if those sounds cause heartache in other houses.
We know about heartache. Our husbands didn’t make it out of D.C. in time. The sickness hit with such speed and ferocity that between the time they arrived for work in the morning and the time they were supposed to return, all train and metro travel was canceled and all roads out of the city were blockaded closed. Coast Guard patrolled the river. Helicopters buzzed over head.
Our husbands were quarantined along with all the government workers, the high paid lobbyists, members of Congress who tried to storm the planes at National Airport demanding to be flown home, the unemployed, university professors, zookeepers and museum curators, ambassadorial staff, hotel workers, the young people who staffed the offices of members of Congress, the police officers charged with keeping them all in the city, reporters and television personalities and White House staff who hadn’t been highly placed enough to hitch a ride on Marine 1 when the President’s helicopter flew out of town in the middle of the day.
It was a day when helicopters rose up from the ground almost simultaneously all over the city like butterflies migrating on cue to Mexico. There were images on Twitter. The rich and well connected flew off.
Be back when it’s over, tweeted the President. Wish you the best.
I texted my husband, plotting ways for him to sneak out of town:
Walk to Georgetown, use canal path, walk west.
I’ll pick you up in Glen Echo. You can make it, no one will notice you.
Steal a boat from the marina, row across the Potomac. Hide out at Roosevelt Island.
They’ve got too many people to watch. You look so respectable.
Wait until dark. Hide out at the zoo. Walk out along the back alleys.
I’ll pick you up at the Bethesda library.
Please, try it. Please.
My husband texted back: u have no idea. total chaos here. seeking shelter.
I watched TV. The ticker below the same video on all channels: CIA now being evacuated. They were on the other side of the Potomac River.
My husband was too respectable, too rational to sneak away. He went to stay with a friend who had a lovely townhouse on Vermont Avenue. “It’ll just be a week until the panic dies down,” my husband said on the phone the last time I heard his voice. “I’ll go to work until the all-clear sounds and we can go back to our lives as they were.”
His friend died first. It took twenty-four hours from the first symptoms—nausea and vomiting, then diarrhea, palsy, unconsciousness—until death.
At least blood didn’t leak from his eyes, my husband texted. It’s hard to discern an emotional state in a text. Horror followed me into my dreams.
Two weeks later I got an automated call in a robot voice that my husband had died on September 21 from the epidemic. The call came a week after I stopped getting phone calls, emails, texts, and Facebook updates from him. It was a week of tense, desperate whispers, talking to myself, laying face down in our bed, hiding my face in my oldest son’s neck, trying not to weep, trying not to scare the kids. My sister got the call about her husband the day after. She moved into my house with her children a week later, abandoning her house in Frederick. We didn’t have memorial ceremonies. No one would have come.
Government continued running, marked and collected the bodies, made a minimal effort to inform the next of kin. All those high-end brains were stuck there in the nation’s capital. They had to have something to do. There was probably an emergency plan they followed. We learned later they burned the bodies in a pit they dug in the old Redskins stadium a few blocks from the Capitol. They wore gloves and masks. They fumigated dwellings and office buildings with chemicals supposed to kill all possible bacteria and viruses the way they did the post office facilities after the anthrax attacks.
We got our news from Twitter updates:
@ridinghigh: Caught the last ferry across the Potomac at White’s Ford. Sorry.
From @deepwater: Potomac is a sewer but I’m out of there. I reek.
@POTUS: Thoughts and prayers to all of you.
The guy who crowed about stealing a row boat from the marina and crossing against the current to the Virginia side of the river infuriated me. I don’t know why. Perhaps because my husband didn’t have the nerve to do it. Those who got out of the city were called fugitives or survivors, depending on which side of the river you lived.
Later, we learned people who survived the sickness were carriers. Anyone who got out was a danger. Our state layered fourteen-wheelers sideways across the bridges to stop traffic from coming in from other states. They set state police to guard against people abandoning their cars and walking across. Barriers went up everywhere. My neighborhood installed high gates at every entry point from the main road. We were issued electronic devices to open them.
Tweets from people we followed in L.A. and Chicago, Miami and Houston, Atlanta and New York City told us the sickness struck them at the same time. Tweets from Mumbai, Rome, Paris, and London told the same story. It was a planned attack, without bombs, smoke, or guns. Governments in exile huddled around conference tables and looked for some group to blame. Finally, they realized that all governments had contracts with the same multi-national cleaning services vendor for all public spaces—train stations, subways, airports, office buildings, post offices, monuments, and museums. Workers entered buildings at night while no one was watching. They supplied their own cleansers, washed the floors, dusted the desks, cleaned the bathrooms, and wherever they went, they left an invisible viral calling card. It took only one night.
All of D.C. became a quarantine camp. No one knew how long the quarantine would be in effect. The rumor was, a generation. The U.S. government, such as it was, moved to the vast campus that purportedly had been built for Customs and Border Patrol training center in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Military copters swarmed the pads day and night. Huge barriers went up along Frontage and Millville Roads. We saw the barriers on the rare times we ventured out of our compound to collect a package at the post office. We thought it ironic that we, the least prepared for any emergency, inadvertently chose to reside in the same region deemed safe enough for a government in flight.
We were lucky in some ways. We weren’t sick. We hadn’t lost a child. Our bank accounts continued to receive automatic deposits of the survivors pensions set up by our husbands’ firms. Two years later we were waiting for our comeuppance. We were cautious about contact with anyone.
“It had wings, a huge wingspread, and it was dark green,” my sister said, floating on her back, talking to the sky.
I gave in. “Okay, Caro. Was it menacing or protecting?”
“Neither, Jean. It was just there, hovering.”
“What makes you think it has something to do with God?”
“It wasn’t man made. Maybe it was an omen.”
We are suddenly in the space of the unspeakable, that something would happen to us, to the kids. That we would die and the kids would be left to manage on their own. It’s a fear too far. We live in the moment for a reason. We don’t speak about a future, any future. We don’t suggest to the children that they’ll go to school or college or ever have a job, much less a profession. Life is made up of doing the chores that keep the house in one piece, food in the belly, bugs out of our belfries. At night, we read out loud from one of the hundreds of books we already had. The kids have declared Stephen King is their favorite writer. I put my hands over our littlest ones’ ears at the scary parts. Our only future is the list on the refrigerator of what we’ll do tomorrow. That’s as far as we go. Unless there’s some cosmic all-clear siren, this is our life now.
A tremor runs through me. “What do you think the omen means?” Maybe hallucinations are the first symptom of the illness.
She puts her feet down on the bottom of the pool and tugs at my hand to pull me upright. We walk through the water and sit on the steps in the shallow end. The endless sunlight makes mosaic tiles of the water and I think of David Hockney’s California paintings. Mild waves lap against us as the kids cannonball into the pool.
She leans toward me and puts her head on my shoulder. We watch the kids. This is my whole family now. I can’t afford to lose any of them. Every one of them matters. We are a tiny galaxy in a vast universe spiraling faster and faster across space.
“I vomited blood this morning,” Caro whispers.
Ginny Fite is the author of the thriller No End of Bad, released in June 2018. In addition, her titles include the Detective Sam Lagarde mystery series Cromwell’s Folly, No Good Deed Left Undone, and Lying, Cheating and Occasionally Murder; a humorous book of essays on aging, I Should Be Dead by Now; a collection of short stories, and three books of poetry. She resides in Harpers Ferry, WV.