Atmosphere

[Leer cuento en español]

A storm like this is unheard of at Kilstonia during the dry Oregon summer. Strange to see the pounding rain; only this morning, the baked cloudless sky had set off in stark shadows a beaver brazenly gorging himself on the willow tree on the island. Vera’s willow tree. She jumped out of bed, 81 years and recent foot surgery at once forgotten, grabbed her .22, unlatched the lock to the balcony, paused a brief instant to avoid spooking the critter, and edged the door cautiously open. Resting the gun on the railing to avoid any unwanted trembling, she closed an eye to aim carefully, mumbled “I got you, you little bastard,” and shot him to doll rags, one more witness to her excellent aim.

While she was at it, she picked off a couple of passing nutria, an exotic invasive species with no business in these parts. The beaver may have a bit more local cred as the state animal, but he should have thought more about the responsibilities which accompany that honor before sinking those blunt teeth into her willow tree. Blasting those animals away filled her with peace. Vera already has enough to bear with the geese blanketing the shore of her lake with shit, the birds pecking at her corn, and the deer invading her garden every time she forgets to latch the gate. What a glorious morning.

That happiness was shattered when Vera remembered that the bridge was being repaired, and leaving the animals there to gaze at the sky might mean an unbearable stench in a few days, because it’s hard to guarantee the prompt services of a vulture or a hawk. Normally she would have asked Steve to collect the inert animals, but her husband was still inert himself, and she decided that, in the end, it would be less trouble to take care of it herself than to spend all day begging him to. Anyway, she knew very well it wouldn’t take long: she gathered her gray hair in a ponytail, grabbed the boat, rowed the thirty feet needed to reach the island, seized the beasts by their necks and, once back on terra firma, tossed them into the woods to be eaten by a fox, a lynx, a cougar or any other carnivore that should take a liking to these nasty creatures.

When she got back to the house, its 10,000 square feet imposing even amidst the natural splendor stretching out in every direction, Steve was impatiently waiting to go on their daily morning stroll to pick up the mail, on many days their only lifeline to civilization. When he heard about Vera’s spree, though, he took an unusual step: in case they crossed paths with any hungry animals lured by the sweet stench of his wife’s victims, he fetched the hunting knife that usually only accompanied him on late night walks.

As they returned home under the clear blue sky, Vera felt a sudden sharp pain in her temples and told Steve that a storm was brewing, but he sternly disabused her of that misconception with that universal reflex of husbands that always drove her to desperation. Fine, let him think whatever he wants, time will tell. She can’t be touched by negativity, because pacing the paths of those 40 acres that are her corner of the earth cures her of all ills: she has always dreamed of having her own forest, and now she has much more than that at Kilstonia.

Like every morning, the couple did the New York Times crossword puzzle, side by side, the effects of the coffee mingling with the rush from solving the trickiest clues. Vera was surprised that Lidia the spider was not in the kitchen, but she didn’t take it as a bad omen at the time. What did begin to arouse her suspicions was that, in all the hours and hours she spent tending the garden, she didn’t spot a single arachnid among the daisies, the roses, the delphiniums, the achillea, the lilies, the hollyhocks, or the columbines. And this despite painstakingly searching for them because, in the tradition of the Czech community of Baltimore where she grew up (still the foundation of her vision of the world seven decades later), spiders bring good luck.

This mysterious absence sent a chill down her spine, intensified by the dark, bruised clouds lurking in the west that merged with the tops of the dozens of pine trees encircling the house. She remedied this by wrapping herself in her favorite sweatshirt, which reads “My body is a temple (ancient and crumbling).” She continued busying herself with her wonderful flowers, where today not one bee was buzzing, playfully, to bathe itself in nectar… “Ježíš Marjá,” she exclaimed. She had been so fixated on spiders that she had overlooked the complete disappearance of insects. She listened intently: there was no bird song either. She shook her head. Ježíš Marjá, Ježíš Marjá. When she swore, the words always came out in Czech.

Curiosity outweighed any real concern and, since there was nothing to disrupt her habits, at four o’clock in the afternoon she sat down in the sunroom with her book — she was currently immersed in the mammoth History of the Persian Empire — a white wine and soda — to help her relax — and a bowl of potato chips, such a treat that she broke them into progressively smaller and smaller pieces to stretch them across time — something her brother taught her as a child.

That’s when the storm arrived suddenly, a violent barrage of hail assaulting the skylights with such force that Vera felt dazed, transfixed for several long moments before staggering to her room to take her second nap of that strangely dark day at the end of June.

Now, the couple of retired aerospace engineers is quietly cooking dinner, but the storm and Vera’s headache rage unabated. So powerful is Steve’s sweet tooth that Vera expresses love through fine pastry, but today she just wants to do something quick and dirty, so she can get to bed and sleep all night long. Steve’s warm voice and the meticulous narrative style he learned as an only child in a bookish Jewish environment massage Vera’s aching temples. Her husband recounts his day and laments lacking time to do everything he wanted: he played the piano for a while in the music room but not the violin, he played chess online but didn’t read, he did a few push-ups and weights in the attic but no abs, he grumbled at length while reading the President’s latest tweets and jotted a couple of notes but didn’t add a single paragraph to his book Feeling Our Universe. Same old same old.

The coronavirus has barely tickled them. There have been a few changes, of course: they can’t receive visits from their children and grandchildren, or hold the music camp they’ve been hosting for years, or attend the monthly Eugene Atheist luncheons, or play string quartets, or meet with Cottage Grove Community United, the group they founded to upend the area status quo, already triumphant in shutting down the infamous “fascist knife shop” (two of the owners having been recently convicted of hurling rocks through the windows of a synagogue). They miss the energy of group creativity, activism, and family, but the routine, the essence, is still intact.

Vera rubs her temples, and Steve recommends that she take an aspirin and heads to the first floor to fetch it. Five years younger than his wife, he is concerned about her health and takes zealous care of her, especially now: Vera has already made it through six or seven bouts of pneumonia, so the virus would strike her mercilessly. Steve does all the shopping so that Vera needn’t come into contact with people at the supermarket, but he’s not too worried about Laura, the woman who cleans the house every week, or Jake, the bipolar gardener who lives illegally in the cabin next to the barn, the rusting hulks of his cars covering the lawn, and whom they’ve been politely inviting to vacate the premises for some time without effect. After all, Vera has been practising social distancing all her life — thank God for her Central European origins — and she still has excellent hearing, so she doesn’t need to get too close to anyone.

The clouds cling to the treetops of Kilstonia and drape the entire sweep of the heavens without diluting their fury, and by 7 PM, an unusual greyish darkness has already fallen almost two hours before sunset. The first blackout hits when Steve is descending in the elevator, aspirin bottle in hand, but it doesn’t last long and he escapes the funereal claustrophobia within a few minutes. Neither of them is scared, because they live with the simple conviction that fear is not a useful recourse.

For dinner, they have spaghetti in a thick sauce overflowing with meatballs. No calorie counting or fad diets here — the blood of generations of butchers run in Vera’s veins, after all — but they eat so gracefully that neither of them allows a single drop to escape onto the spotless white tablecloth, still immaculate and unwashed after hundreds of meals. Under the flickering chandelier, Steve tells her how salt was a monopoly of the Spanish royal family from the Middle Ages until 1869, prices tyrannically raised when unforeseen expenses arose, such as a war or the fancy for one more palace. Vera has been intentionally undersalting her cooking for decades because Steve never asks her to pass the shaker without unearthing another tale from the annals of salt, apparently endless, of which she never tires.

In the same week in August 1966, Steve discovered and named the comet Kilston and gave a ride to a funny, intelligent blonde girl whose car had broken down in the Berkeley hills and would become his wife ten years later, after a decade-long soap opera involving irresolute sisters, the Summer of Love, and three children thrown in. The comet will not return for another 180,000 years, and his love for Vera would not repeat any sooner.

For dessert, they have toast with Plum Impeachment Jam from the 2017 summer harvest, lacking flavor for Steve but leaving Vera content. That’s when the generator explodes.

“It seems like the Donald isn’t a fan of his jam,” declares Vera, who never loses her cool, but they immediately get into an argument about whose turn it was to fill the propane tank — yours, no, yours, no, yours, yours.

Well, we’re not going to fix this tonight: Steve scrounges around for some candles, clearly with no intention of going to bed, but Vera is not up for any nonsense — there is a storm pounding outside and inside her skull — so she climbs step by step by step up the majestic double stairway, supporting herself with her cane and the bannister (when was the last time she dispensed with the elevator?). Before she gets into bed, she gives herself a quick sponge bath and goes out on the terrace to admire the vast moonless night from the balcony: what extraordinary beauty, that absolute darkness that does not exist in the city, and that she had never known until moving to the kingdom of Kilstonia.

She sleeps peacefully and, at around one in the morning, in the midst of that dream where she shoots zombies from the balcony as they lurch towards the house, their faces uncovered, their coughing virulent, their hands clutching “Trump 2020” signs, she is awoken by frenzied footsteps ringing on the metal spiral staircase by her window. She peers out and sees Jake, waving a shotgun with crazed blue eyes popping out of their sockets, in what looks like another one of his psychotic breaks. Not again… She calmly draws the curtain, opens the door to the hall and proclaims with that authoritative echo that is a gift of grandiose architecture: “Steve! Go out to the east wing and see what the hell is wrong with Jake.”

She tries to get back to sleep, because she has a couple of zombies left to deal with, but the loud notes of the piano reverberating through the floor ensure that she can’t sleep a wink. What a drag. Steve clearly didn’t pay any attention to her at all. She grabs her cane and heads downstair — step, step, step — engulfed in inky blackness illuminated sporadically by relentless flashes of lightning. She reaches the bottom with a stumble and raises her cane up high so the grandiloquent excoriation that Steve is about to receive for not dealing with Jake will be more theatrical. She opens the door to the music room and the piano stops playing. She tells herself that it must be the ghost of the music camp that will never happen this year, and she lets out one of those guffaws which only one’s own unsurpassed wit can elicit, and it rumbles through the walls of the mansion and mingles with the thunder.

But Vera only believes in one ghost, that of her mother, who haunts her from the morning, when she carefully arranges everything in its proper place, through the afternoon, every time she finishes a task with iron perfection, to the evening, when she performs her washing ritual (hands, face, and feet) before going to bed.

When she closes the door to the music room, she hears Paganini clattering from the radio in the dining room, and Vera is led there by blows of her cane and lightning. In the brief pallid clarity of a flash, Vera sees a red gush that has ravished the cleanliness of the tablecloth and fleeting legs dragged across the floor. Fear grips her for the first time in decades: she has not known terror since fleeing her mother’s wooden spoon after revealing her engagement to her first husband.

She doesn’t know how to react. She flicks the nearest light switch, as if to illuminate her house and her mind, both immersed in darkness, in the nightmare of Steve’s blood on the tablecloth, of his feet now disappearing from her view through the glass door. Nothing. Should she climb stair by stair by stair to retrieve the .22 from her room? How could she have left it upstairs? What a blunder. But there’s no time to go back for it: she could lose Steve. A sudden Socratic epiphany blazes, and she remembers the wild hemlock she’s been trying to dispose of for ages, but which she subconsciously has always known she’d eventually resort to.

She creeps outside stealthily. The sky roars, the rain drums down ceaselessly, the branches of the garden mosaic writhe and turn to snakes, the raven Cicero croaks his long-winded discourses without respite, the wind chimes abandon their delicacy and howl with metallic fury, Vera tears the hemlock out with her gloved left hand and ponders how to administer the poison. Of all the possibilities, her favourite is undoubtedly shoving the herbs up Jake’s ass, but she realizes the logistics may prove tricky — although, well, as a child she threw a boy twice her size into a hole when necessary to defend her brother: no doubt she’ll manage to make it work now. She’ll have to improvise based on what she’s given. That bastard Jake, clinging to them like a limpet, unabashedly calling himself one of the family — pah, as if they didn’t already have family to spare with five children and seven grandchildren — with his gun collection filling his illegal hut, worse than a thousand hungry beavers or nutria. She, like the police, had believed him when he claimed his wife woke up in the middle of the night and shot herself, but now she is filled with doubt. She remembers the crimson stain, the slack feet bouncing, the protruding eyeballs of a maniac with coronavirus (I mean, he never wears a mask, this guy). Hemlock. Up the ass.

Vera, limping in sandals and socks and a white nightgown, her hair disheveled, spots movement in the pond, like a struggle, and advances quickly under the pitiless rain, taking advantage of the fact that the noise of her footsteps is swallowed by Cicero’s incessant harangue and the hooting of the owl from the windowless barn. The shadowy figures of the two men are battling for their lives amidst the water lilies, and Vera remembers Baba Sklutskem, draped in muck and algae, that club-wielding water spirit lurking in the depths of lakes to drag men to their death, who appears with her mother’s face, and the vision makes her recoil and turn around. Steve calls out Vera’s name.

Her Steve, her beloved Steve, the apple of her eye! She will sniff his tie-dye shirts every day, erect a shrine in his honor in the geographical centre of Kilstonia adorned with orchids and marshmallows and chess pieces, cry every time she sees the North Star shining in the sky. Ježíš Marjá, Vera, save your husband, your mother is long dead and lives only in your daily routines, and Baba Sklutskem exists only in folklore and certainly isn’t welcome in Kilstonia. Vera tosses away her cane and runs with an agility she’d thought long-gone; she thinks of the red blood on the tablecloth, of the dragged feet…

Vera, Vera! Steve keeps yelling, and the yells fill her with such fury that she crushes the hemlock into juice. When she arrives at the shore, panting, Steve turns casually to her and informs her with the greatest tranquillity in the world that Vera’s shrieking about Jake startled him so much that he had soaked the tablecloth in stewed rhubarb, that he was forced to eat the entire bowl so it wouldn’t spoil with the fridge off after the generator explosion, hehe, some people might think it was too sweet to eat plain, but the final bite hadn’t lost any of the relish of the first bite, fancy that, an entire bowl, well, until she’d made him upend it! That Jake was hysterical and lost, and that Steve had to soothe him by explaining the magical essence of our gentle universe, how everything is connected and how for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. That Jake suffered a real shock when he got wind of this, and Steve had to drag him into the lake so the icy water would bring him back to his senses, because there was no other way to revive him, look how calm he is now, our dear Jake. That the two of them are tangled up in the pedicels of the water lilies, though in no danger, but the hunting knife has sunk to the bottom of the lake, so a pair of pruning shears would really come in handy.

Because of her unwonted exertion, Vera’s hips, left knee, right big toe, and upper eyelashes hurt, and she is drenched with rain and foaming rage. Now she would love to use the hemlock on Steve instead, via the same orifice, but she can’t, not for lack of enthusiasm, but because it has all disintegrated along the way. Vera, who had avoided the pinch of fear for more than sixty years, peers down on the miserable duo crouching damply among the plants and melts back into the storm, illuminated by a continuous explosion of lightning bolts: Ask Baba Sklutskem to help you out, or perhaps I could cut off the stalks from the upper balcony with my .22, but I can’t vouch for my aim at night, so maybe you lovebirds had better manage on your own, and after you’ve gotten out, the two of you can see to it that the tablecloth is sparkling by the time I’m up for breakfast, because there’s no place for stains in Kilstonia. And she departs screaming an endless flurry of Ježíš Marjás at the top of her lungs.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

More tales of the pandemic based on real stories at
Love in the Time of Coronavirus,
by Patricia Martín Rivas.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

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