Day 53: Monday, May 4
The cardinals are building a nest in the same crook of the burning bush that they did last season. I watch them out the sunroom window. The female tucks a dried hydrangea flower into the nest’s base. We watch her carry sticks and grass and leaves and nudge them into place with her coral beak.
“Pretty sloppy,” Eric notes.
Later: from the dining room I hear cardinal alarm calls. I peak into the sunroom and see a robin sitting in the partially finished nest. She bears her body against the twigs and kicks her feet, pressing it all down while the cardinals watch in distress. She’s giving them a clinic on how to build a proper nest, but the cardinals are not amused.
I open the side porch door and scare all the birds away, hoping to give the cardinals some space to regain control before the robin reappears.
“They won’t come back now that they know the robin’s found it,” Eric shouts from the parlor. He’s been on the internet.
The cardinals give up and so do I.
Since I closed the shop because of the virus I rarely visit the post office any more. Our post office box is overflowing with junk mail. I go to the front desk to collect a box of sample tiles we ordered. I feel guilty about this. I want to support companies who are trying their best in this pandemic, but I also don’t want to put people’s lives at risk because of something as trivial as tiles. We’ve been planning to rebuild our heatless kitchen since we moved here 14 years ago, and while we’re still not sure we’ll be able to pull it off this year, it’s been a nice distraction to have something planned for the future.
As I’m leaving, an elderly neighbor is limping toward the door. Instinctively I rush to help her, but then I step back and wait.
Once she comes inside, in my attempt to change her opinion of me as cold and heartless, I say: “I would have helped you with the door, but I don’t want to get too close…”
“Oh, I know it, thank you,” she says. “I’ve got [some condition of the foot I can’t remember the name of] but I forgot my mask in the car!”
“Oh dear,” I say. Some people are fearless.
Day 54: Tuesday, May 5
I spot an oriole chittering in the top of a bradford pear. I remind myself it’s ok to stand and watch him.
On our hike to the waterfalls we wonder aloud if we’ll find a lot of trash from the weekend, but the only sign that people were here is a fresh carving on the birch tree at the corner of Star Falls, and a Twisted Tea can.
Day 55: Wednesday, May 6
I haven’t yet learned the difference between the crow’s alarm call for fox and the one for hawk. I always hope it’s a fox and run to the field only to find a hawk in the sky turning acrobats to elude the crows pecking at its tail feathers.
This time I figure as much, but as I trudge out to the far gardens to water the onions I spot her auburn fur.
“Eric!” I whisper-shout as loud as I can, but he can’t hear me. I walk backwards, she continues to monitor the grass. “Eric!” I whisper again. He hears me this time and reaches to turn on the water. I wave my arms, “No! Over here!” This time she hears me too and sits up, perking her ears and looking straight at me. Eric starts running and so does she. “I lost her,” I say.
“She’s behind the pears.”
We watch as her beautiful bushy tail disappears into the woods by the creek.
“She must have been the one that uncovered that bottle.”
Saturday while we checked on our willows and the ramps we planted last season in the low area by the creek, a light blue antique bottle caught my eye laying on the dirt of the bank near a freshly dug den. It said “R.R.R Radway & Co. New York” in raised lettering.
“The earth giveth.”
My ancestors used the back embankment as their landfill for ages. The stuff we’ve uncovered from the ’70s-90s is pure plastic trash, but we’ve found some perfectly preserved bottles from the late 1800s, including this one that our fox friend uncovered for us.
“I think maybe it was her after all that left the headless mole on our back porch.”
Eric nods. Sometimes I feel like it’s a Disney movie around here, except a little bloodier.
Day 56: Thursday, May 7
I spend the day planting two plots of potatoes. Every year I forget how to do everything and have to relearn all over again. Usually I just feel it out, look at my notes, my reference books, the inside of my brain memory. This year Eric’s around for me to dribble out my lack of confidence to and he finds this incredible article about seed potatoes and we (nerd alert) spend almost 45 minutes talking about the physiological age of potato seed. But when he comes outside and asks me if I shouldn’t be planting the potatoes a little bit deeper I snap at him and ask if he’s still eating potatoes from our garden last year. (This is the latest into the new season we’ve had potatoes and it is a fact that I currently find myself too proud of. My pride seeps out in that despicable way that it does and leaves me feeling humbled by my inability to maintain modesty in the face of skepticism). He agrees that he is indeed, still, in May, almost every other day, eating the potatoes I grew last year. And then he asks me again if I’m planting the potatoes too shallow. It’s hard to find a second wind after this. We’re both tired.
I can’t get the smell of sulfur out of my nostrils. It clings to your clothes and skin, the hairs in your nose. I still smell it even after I shower. My back is stiff from digging.
I’m too tired to hike up the mountain so I tell Eric I’m going to meditate in the field instead.
“Where are you going to sit?” he asks.
“I haven’t thought about it…maybe under the pear trees.”
“Why don’t you sit between the magnolias because I want to take a picture of you.”
And so I do and so he does.
While watering the carrots a woman runs through our yard frantically. She stops 20 feet from me. “Have you seen a little black dog? He’s in a harness, ran from the green duplex down the street? Really skittish. Doesn’t like people.”
“No,” I say. “But you can feel free to wander through the yard.”
“His name’s Charlie,” she says. “The owners only got him 2 weeks ago.” I am amazed at how alarmed this woman is and it’s not even her dog. “I’m gonna try and cut him off at the train tracks,” she says, retreating back to the sidewalk.
“Good luck,” I say and Eric and I head into the back fields to look for Charlie.
“I’m gonna go up to the train tracks too,” Eric says. I look at him with that look I’ve been giving him a lot. “I’ll be careful,” he says. It’s starting to rain.
He comes back 20 minutes and two phone calls later.
“Lady started running at the dog and he took off up the hill. She’s literally chasing him into the woods. The owners just stood there watching her. I told them how to get up there in the car. They were the ones that mentioned coyotes. But I agreed. Poor dog.”
Day 57: Friday, May 8
I have trouble getting going. That happens to me sometimes after a hard day. I dig up some volunteer lilacs I find in the vegetable gardens and repot them. I transplant some vinca. Reseed a tomato variety that didn’t germinate properly because of how cold it’s been. The carrots have finally germinated after 18 days. It took the patient and wise gardener in me not to reseed them 10 days ago and just wait it out instead. Farming has a way of finding your weaknesses. When I tell Eric the carrots are finally up he asks me how long it usually takes. “To be honest,” I say “I don’t remember.” When I look up the varietal description it says it can take 3 weeks for scarlet nantes to germinate. I think the days feel longer now. Or I’m less patient than usual. Maybe both.
On a Zoom call with my childhood friends we talk about the prospect of reopening. Everyone turns to Dave who’s a dentist and would be one of the first among us to go back to work.
“We finally got our face shields,” he says, “but the only N95s we have are the 5 Mike delivered to me.” We imagine outloud the social distancing mask trade-off that happened between our two friends and marvel at the fact that a dentist can’t get N95s but someone in the energy sector can.
“The thing of it is,” Dave continues “is that our drills and other tools aerosolize the virus. We may only be able to use hand tools.” Now is not the time to break a tooth. Dave recounts his time volunteering in Jamaica when he was in Columbia Dental School at a clinic where they only had hand tools.
“Bet you thought you’d never have to use those skills,” someone quips.
Dave shakes his head. “I literally had to chisel a section of a guy’s jaw with hand tools. I never thought I’d be in the situation to do that again.”
With Dave we’ve always jokingly invoked Steve Martin’s character in Little Shop of Horrors but it’s starting to look too real.
Day 58: Saturday, May 9
The wind blows fiercely arctic and I can’t tell what’s snow and what’s pear petals falling from the sky.
The chill is too much for working outside. Eric records in the parlor. A brand new Mamas & the Papas/Smashing Pumpkins/America inspired tune. I read in the sunroom catching glimpses of the robin finishing her nest. After she stole this spot from the cardinals she built only lazily. Bringing a strand of grass in the morning and then disappearing. For awhile I thought maybe she was just pretending to build. But one morning I woke up and there it was, nearly finished. I wondered if she had been replaced by another more experienced robin, or if confused by the cold, she finally hastened her nesting. She spent yesterday bringing soggy grass to mortar it together. Her beak brown with mud. Today every few minutes she brings billfulls of dried grass. Mouthing stray pieces into place.
I uncross my legs and my chair squeaks.
“You drinking wine in there?” Eric calls to me.
“Just the chair.” I say. It sounds like a cork squeaking out of a bottle. He asked me this same question two weeks ago with the same squeak.
It sounds like he wants wine but it’s only two in the afternoon and even though that’s no reason not to pour neither one of us do because of the grayness of the day and all the meaningless yet important things we want to get done and we know if we start drinking wine we won’t do any of them which only means that we won’t write, but there’s only so much time for writing and plenty of time for wine when the writing spirits have retreated to their caves for the night.
Something clatters to the floor. A piece of an old green flower pot. I pick up the pot from which it fell to inspect. Another piece falls off, exposing the pinkie-sized, white tangled roots of the spider plant, Supermaning its way out. I bundle up and head to the shed to find a larger replacement pot and epoxy the old one back together.
This African violet stand and its corresponding pots belonged to Aunt Margaret and while I’m gluing I realize this isn’t the first time someone repaired this pot. I’m surprised at my disappointment when I realize these roots aren’t strong enough to bust through a thick ceramic pot. But I’m equally surprised at the confidence I imparted on this plant thinking that it actually might.
As the leaves on the trees of the Norway maple and sugar maples and Bradford pear and burning bush fill in, the sunroom has turned into a shade room. The succulents don’t mind but the sages and rosemary, the lemon tree, geranium and cactus begin to lean and yearn with yellow. But it’s not safe for them out in the world and I’m starting to feel the same. Leaning, yearning, wanting to be out but knowing it’s not yet time.
Day 59: Sunday, May 10
It’s winter-like while I wander outside with my clippers bundling a bouquet for Mom. The flowering trees have been suspended for more than a week because of the cold, the one upside to this weather. I clip flowering crabapple and pear, weeping cherry and magnolia (“how did I forget the peach?” I ask Eric later). I clip bleeding hearts, spilling over in aching arches. I clip hellebore and their secret blushing flowers. I clip lilacs, tight bundles of sweet smelling deep purple. I clip a pale daffodil and the only tulip our deer didn’t eat.
We drive to my parents house, text them when we’re outside with our masks on. They come outside, Mom in her N95, Dad in a regular disposable mask, which I’m not sure they’re disposing of (who is?). We air hug. Eric heads immediately to the property line, hunting beneath the white pine and azaleas for the morels we know grow there this time of year. He finds four little ones and pops them into his pocket. I hunt between the lily of the valley where we found the first palm sized morels four years ago. But I don’t find any this year.
“It’s been too dry,” Eric admits.
We sit in the driveway ten feet apart.
“Want a drink?” Dad asks.
“It’s hard to drink in these things,” I say, pointing to my mask.
“Plus, then I’ll have to go to the bathroom.”
On the way home Eric confesses the fog in his brain feels like it’s lifting.
“I just really think I missed being with people.”