Survival

Ice on aspen leaf

When the snow fell from the sky for the first time, that November afternoon, people ran outside to welcome it. Some people cried. The experts warned: Do not become complacent! But the air was cold and clean and deadly to the virus, and even Eleanor put her bowl of flour and sugar down on the counter and stepped outside to feel the icy flakes sting her cheeks.

The children were at school, her mother asleep in bed, and her father alone in his study not wanting to be disturbed, so Eleanor waved to her neighbour Harry, who waved back and then did an awkward little jig, and Eleanor laughed so hard she felt warm tears on her face. 

She felt eyes upon her and turned towards the house, and saw her father standing in the window of his study, his face in shadow. She could not tell if he shared her elation or was disdainful of it. She waved to him, then turned her back on him before he could respond, and waved to the neighbours on the other side, two sisters who hugged each other and wept. They’d lost everyone, and wept for their loss, Eleanor suspected. They were tears of rage more than tears of relief. They didn’t see her wave. 

A chill gust of wind abruptly brushed the thin layer of snow from the sidewalk and lawn and it rose in a cloud. Eleanor, now damp and cold, went inside.

She wanted to tell her mother but did not want to disturb her sleep. She’d slept so fitfully this past week, the fever coming and going; she was too weak to eat and the doctor, looking almost as grey and exhausted as his patient, had set up an IV to keep her nourished. That helped soften the rash on her face and body, she looked less uncomfortable and angry, and her features softened as she slept.

Eleanor imagined the teachers setting the children loose outside in the snow, free to run and play for the first time in many months, and anticipated they’d return home flushed and glowing. She put the cookies, dark with molasses and cocoa, in the oven. They would be warm when when the children burst through the door.

Her father came into the kitchen. She could feel his presence before she saw him. He was a dark cloud that inhabited the house, like a ghost, steady and uncomplicated and now predictable. “I don’t believe it,” he said.

“Don’t believe what?” Eleanor said with a sigh. “That it is snowing? That winter is here?”

 “That it will make a difference,” he said. “That’s just another lie.”

“Papa, they know it will kill the virus,” Eleanor said. 

“Who is ‘they’? You are naive. You forget I survived this virus. I know what it is.”

He’d said the exact words before, but was never willing to explain what “it” was; nor how he would know more about the pathology of a deadly virus than medical experts solely by virtue of having contracted it.

“I’m not sure you did survive it,” Eleanor said in a low voice, turning away and vigorously wiping the counter top with a yellow cloth. 

“What did you say?” 

“I’m not sure you survived it,” said Eleanor, more loudly this time, turning to face him. “You are not the same, papa, you don’t smile, you have… strange ideas, you—”

“It took me a lifetime to understand the truth, that’s all,” he said, his face flushing.

“What is the truth?” Eleanor snapped.

“I’ve been used, we all have been used,” her father said darkly. “Where do you think this virus came from?”

“You are talking nonsense,” Eleanor said. “We know where mama got it, and how.” 

“It’s because of them,” said her father.

“Who?”

A shaft of late afternoon sunshine suddenly broke through the clouds and streamed through the window, blinding her father; he turned away and covered his eyes. He was still very sensitive to bright light, it was a lingering symptom of the virus and one reason he favoured his darkened study. He would battle a severe headache later on. Her mother’s bedroom was never brighter than the light a single dull bulb from a lamp in the corner could cast.

“I’m sorry, Papa,” said Eleanor as she closed the blinds, a chore she’d usually have already taken care of as the sun moved lower in the sky. It would be dark soon, and the school bus would drop the children home. The cookies were cooling on the rack, and the milk ready to be poured.

She brushed an unruly lock of hair from his forehead. It was almost time to give him another haircut. Her fussing used to irritate him, now he let her touch his face with a resigned indifference. It was a connection, however tenuous. Sometimes their eyes met, as they did this time. 

Her father was about to retreat to his study when the front door opened and slammed against the wall and a small boy flew into the house, dropping his knapsack on the floor. “There was a snowman!” he cried to his mother, who smiled and knelt and helped remove his jacket. “She let us come home early, so we could play. Will you play with me Grampa?”

Eleanor’s father said nothing, but a wisp of a smile played at the corner of his mouth. 

“It’s gonna be better now, Grampa,” the boy said solemnly as he took a seat at the kitchen table. “Miz Fitzgerald said.” He then burst into a toothy grin. Eleanor’s father almost smiled again, and touched the boy’s head as if to tousle his hair, but did not.

“Where’s your sister?” Eleanor asked, as she placed warm cookies on a small plate and set it on the table.

The boy’s grin vanished and he looked at his lap, then at his Grampa standing beside Eleanor. 

Eleanor looked quizzically at them both, one by one. The boy stared at his hands. Her father took a step towards her as if to hug her. She could feel the dark cloud that always hovered over him penetrating her like an icy wind. She thought of the sisters, hugging on their front lawn, her neighbour Harry doing a jig. Her mother lost in a fog of illness. Her daughter, learning how to climb steps two at a time. She felt her father’s arms surround her and hold her as if she were a weeping child.

The boy advanced and gently took her hand. “It’s gonna be better now, Momma.” 

It’s gonna be better.

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