Quarantine by Mary Sylvia Winter

At the height of the Covid pandemic in 2020, extrovert Brit Nell is forced into a stifling quarantine when she travels to her family's old cabin in Ontario; by Mary Sylvia Winter.

There is silence, and then there is silence.

Some people are born to be silent, thought Nell crossly. Not me. Definitely not me. Some no doubt acquire silence. Hermits. Writers, maybe. Again, not me.

And some have silence thrust upon them. Me.

She sighed, did a last check over the car she had rented three hours ago upon landing at the airport in Toronto, and then shoved the key into the drop box of the company's northern branch. She hoped it wasn't covered in Covid germs. Damn - should have disinfected it. Too late now. She settled the rucksack onto her shoulders and set off for the walk to the house. Even if it hadn't been Sunday and the rental place closed, she couldn't have asked for a lift from one of the staff. Not right after getting off a plane from England. For all anybody knew, she could be a walking coronafactory. Well, the rules had it all handled. Two weeks of quarantine. Too much silence.

It was seven miles to the house. In a car, a piece of cake. On foot, and after the day Nell had had, it was a bit daunting. Also by the time she got to the last bit, the woods on either side of the track would be darkening to nightfall, and there was a fair chance of meeting a bear. Nell checked her watch and picked up her pace.

She'd survived the journey by dividing it into stages. Stage One: Manchester Airport, journey to, leaving at a quarter past four in the morning. Distanced chat through masks with check-in staff. Stage Two: The flight. Long, boring - but at least she'd had a whole row to herself and so had been able to stretch out and sleep. Minimal interaction. Stage Three: Car journey up north. Heading straight for her place of quarantine, as per the regulations. No stopping (apart from fuel, and a take-out Tim Horton's) and almost no verbal exchanges. And now Stage Four: The walk to the house. Lucky she'd had that sleep.

Close to the rental outlet there were a few shops and homes. Nell was conscious of people fairly close to her, coming and going. They weren't people with whom she had the slightest connection, but at least they were human beings. She could even hear a few of them talking. It was conceivable that, should she wish to, she could have a socially-distanced conversation with one of them. The thought itself was comforting.

Once she crossed the bridge there were no more people on foot - just people in cars and trucks. The road was a (very) long stretch of factory outlets, car showrooms (closed on Sundays) and a school bus depot (full now in the holidays). Human contact was limited to a smile and a wave when a driver was kind enough to leave her room so that she didn't have to step off the roadway and into the gravel.

Halfway home, Nell stopped to eat the sandwich she'd prudently bought at the airport. There would be an online order waiting for her when she arrived at the house, but she knew she'd be too tired to cook tonight. In fact, she'd better not sit still too long or she'd seize up and not make it home at all. She wasn't used to walking this far. She struggled to her feet and carried on.

Once she turned onto the side road, Nell began to pass houses. People had come here to build their dream, slicing neat wedges out of the Muskoka forest so that they could have a veranda with a (limited) view. She prepared to wave and shout hello at intervals. But tonight, not one family was sitting on their veranda. There were very few cars, and the one cyclist who passed her didn't reply to her greeting. It was like heading down a long and increasingly soundproof tunnel.

By the time she turned onto the neighbourless dirt track, it had been four hours since another human being had spoken to her. That had been the young woman at Timmy's, who had told her to 'Have a good day' as she'd passed over her decaf with just a splash of milk. Nell supposed that there must be days - Saturdays, for example - when she went for such a long stretch without conversation, but she avoided it whenever possible. Well, when she got to the house she could check in with her son and daughter. They'd be expecting to hear from her.

Nell became suddenly and piercingly aware that what she was hearing could not be called 'silence' in any literal sense. The darkening woods on either side were filled with a life of their own. Sounds she could identify were fine - that wood thrush was utterly lovely - but sudden snappings of twigs might be anything, and the sound off to the right of something large pushing through the trees made her heart race so that she was almost convinced she could hear it. Silence + noises - human voices = terror. She nearly broke into a run, but stopped herself when she remembered that running could trigger a bear charge - if indeed that large creature should turn out to be a bear. She dug into her memory for more wisdom from the 'You are in Bear Country' leaflet, and accomplished the last half-mile to the accompaniment of her father's favourite hymns, sung at the top of her voice.

Yes, the online grocery order had been delivered. She stared at it, piled up in the porch. Was there enough? 'No visitors for two weeks'; she was assuming that included people delivering food. Or did it? The ferocious fines for breaking Canadian quarantine regulations made her inclined to err on the side of caution.

Nell stepped round the pile of cartons and fitted the key into the door. It swung open into a dusk-filled room, inhabited also by the shades of those she had loved. Her heart lifted. She would not, perhaps, feel utterly alone here, in what had, after all, been her ancestors' first dwelling-place in this country.

Nell kicked off her dusty sandals, turned on all the lights and began to bring the food in from the porch. She'd better get the milk into the fridge right away. If it went sour, that would mean no coffee for two weeks.

Food away, she picked up the phone - then remembered. In England, where her working and family life had somehow ended up, it was now two in the morning. Neither her son (loving and somewhat patronising) nor her daughter (loving and generally slightly irritated) would thank her for waking them at that hour. Contact would have to wait until tomorrow.

Meanwhile she had done it! 'This is Day One of your quarantine', the airport official had announced brightly, as if introducing her to a new system of counting. She had arrived at her destination, slightly footsore but unharmed, fully supplied with food for two weeks (if she was careful...), a computer and a cell phone. The house was full of books and puzzles; she had a new knitting project; she had jobs to do round the house, which the forest was always trying to reclaim. And she was home. It had been worth it, just for that.

She slept.

Day Two started with a round of telephoning. Report to son and daughter. 'Mom, are you okay? I still think you're insane!' Get cell phone contract set up for the summer. Register with the Government of Canada coronavirus watchdog. Report symptoms (none). 'You will be called from this number to verify your compliance with quarantine regulations.' Well, that was fair enough. She was grateful to be here; so many people's holiday plans had not worked out this year. She would be happy to talk to a strange government official. Perhaps more than once. Perhaps every day, by the second week. But for now, it was okay. Nell contemplated an afternoon free of phone calls with some relief. Perhaps she could get on with some reading. Or start knitting her new afghan. Or...

In the end, she went for a walk. This was, after all, what she'd come for - to reconnect with the land and to look after anything that was amiss on the property. She had somebody who came in to check on the isolated house during the winter, and various cousins, nieces and nephews used it throughout the year. They appreciated it, telling Nell so with suitable frequency. They left it clean, and contributed towards expenses. They were assiduous in asking what jobs they could do while they were up, and without their collective help the whole project would by now be unsustainable. But still, when she came home every year there were repairs to do, or problems that nobody else had noticed - plus the annual task of dealing with the pile of unclaimed crap that always seems to build up in shared spaces. Nell threw an irritated glance at the table where it always seemed to collect, and resolved to deal with it after her walk.

Nell's walk took her up high, to the cairn that an unknown ancestor had built unknown years ago. A way of marking a boundary. This made sense to Nell, who liked to label photographs, drawers of screws and the Tupperware containers in which she took her lunch. The cairn had been rebuilt several times - she and her cousin Gary had done it about twenty years ago - but always the same rocks were used. A connection. She laid her hand on the warm granite pile for a moment, imagining her great-grandfather's hands, perhaps, searching out these rocks, balancing them inexpertly, having to do the job again the following spring when the frost-heave had tumbled it to the ground. He'd not been a very expert countryman, coming from Victorian London. Nell found it difficult to imagine how he had survived here at all.

Hopefully, Nell examined the ground around the cairn. Several times she and Gary had found arrowheads in the area, which her father had said were Ojibway. Apparently there had been a village here long ago. They'd been told about it when they'd taken the arrowheads into the local museum.

'But where are the people now?' Nell had asked, troubled at eight years old.

The curator had shrugged. 'We don't really know. Moved on, perhaps, when the farmers started to settle here. Or maybe they were already gone - dead of smallpox, maybe. A lot died that way.'

Nell had fingered the vaccination scar on her arm, wide-eyed. A whole village...

Back at the house, Nell made herself a salad for a late lunch and thought about Gary. They'd not spoken for a couple of years, but he was on the email list for the house-sharing arrangements and so must know that she was here. On impulse, she put the salad back in the fridge and dialled his number.

'Nell! Great to hear from you! Glad you managed to get here this year -'

The conversation, as was normal these days, centred mostly around coronavirus. Even when work and children were mentioned, it was all about how the pandemic had affected jobs, schooling, wedding plans... Nell wondered for a moment what on earth they would all find to talk about Post Vaccine.

Gary's two boys had turned up for a socially-distanced barbecue, so the conversation was brief. He promised to phone back at some point during her quarantine, and Nell hung up and ate her salad. She glanced at the clock. Half past two. What the hell was she going to do for the rest of the day? She couldn't phone the kids again just yet...

It was so silent. Almost anything could happen in this sort of silence.

In the end, it was fine. Really. She cleaned out the toy chest that her youngest nieces always left in such a mess. She vacuumed mouse dirt out of drawers. She threw out all the random socks and hairclips, and recycled last year's calendar. She made herself cook something for supper, partly on the grounds that this would make her supply of chocolate last longer. At about eight o'clock, she figured she'd earned a chat with one of her friends in England. She lifted the phone and looked up Anna's number - only to remember that it was now one in the morning in England. Slowly she put down the phone, made herself a last coffee and drank it in bed, reading War and Peace. The damn book had been sitting on the bookshelf in her room for twenty years; this was clearly the year to deal with it.

Day Three: Wind. She was relieved; it sounded as if she were sharing the place with somebody. Yesterday when she'd come in from her walk, it had been hard to come into the empty house. She didn't know whether she felt like going out again, actually... But now the wind was blowing the heat and humidity away, so she would make bread.

Making bread in what was still, in some ways, a pioneer house, was a perfect way to use up a whole morning. First there was the necessary wood to be brought in - a ridiculous amount. She would need to do what her ancestors had done: use the precious heat for other forms of baking as well. Some cookies. Maybe even a cake. Banana cake; not all the fruit she'd ordered had enjoyed its journey in the delivery truck. That meant a nicely-judged bit of timing over mixing, rising, changing oven temperatures and how long you could reasonably expect cake batter to sit around without turning into pancake batter. Nell did a series of rapid sums inside her head, then turned the radio on and got to work. The morning passed very pleasantly, yielding a wonderful turnout of four oatmeal loaves, a mound of chocolate chip cookies and the cake. Nell contemplated her handiwork with pride, and turned to call over her shoulder -

The zest went out of the morning. Slowly Nell bagged up the bread, put three of the loaves plus the cookies into the freezer and put the cake into the fridge. It would take a long time for one person to get through it. Then she tackled the washing up.

Halfway through the mound of pans and bowls, she remembered that she hadn't yet checked in by phone to report her symptoms. Her spirits rebounded eagerly. She would get to hear a human voice - if only a recorded one - speaking just to her.

Afterwards, she went to sit on the deck and look at the lake. There were all sorts of things she might be getting from this silence, she told herself. The early Christian hermits used silence to empty themselves of self so as to let God come flooding in. Nell wasn't a great one for God; she preferred to let other people come flooding in, and that was precisely what she was missing. Then there were the Romantic poets, who sought solitude so as to clarify their sense of self. Whereas for her, all that seemed to be getting clarified was her sense of herself as a profoundly social being. Nell sighed. Maybe the difference lay in the matter of choice: the desert fathers and the Romantics had chosen silence, whereas she was only putting up with it as the price of coming home.

It occurred to Nell that the main records she had read of people who had survived imposed silence were the accounts of people who had endured solitary confinement. This was not an encouraging thought. Nell got up and gave herself a brisk talking to. This was the twenty-first century, for God's sake, and she was in possession of a landline, a cellphone and four gigabytes of data. She was hardly in solitary. Not really.

Day Four began with turning out the toolshed. This was a job she detested, but it had to be done every year, and Nell had found that it just didn't work to delegate it. Nobody else had the confidence to make decisions on what to throw out. Quite a few of them were unaccountably squeamish over encountering abandoned mouse nests. Besides, the toolshed was also used as a toyshed, and the beach buckets and badminton rackets seemed to have a life of their own. And nobody seemed capable of lifting a hammer to put in a few extra nails to hang things from.

Sighing, Nell began the thankless task. Today was really hot - just the wrong sort of day for working inside an oven like this. She had to keep emerging for air and water. She was done by lunchtime, though, with all the corners swept clean and a pile of discards to take to the town recycling depot.

She turned instinctively to share the moment with her son Brad, who usually did the job with her. But of course - no Brad. This was actually the first year that neither of her grown children had made the summer trip with her, and it was hard to get used to. Of course she supposed it would have happened anyway at some point, but Covid had forced the issue. And yes, of course she knew that other people had worse Covid-related problems than she did - but hers felt quite real enough.

Slowly she went into the silent house and made herself another salad for lunch. She ate it on the deck, which she found herself sharing with a particularly bold red squirrel. It seemed to regard her feet as merely one more obstacle to be negotiated. She found herself having quite an extended, if one-sided, conversation with the small creature. It had an expression of irresistible intelligence in its bright, white-ringed eye. It was better company than none at all.

She wondered how long it would be before she began to imagine that the squirrel was talking back.

Before Day Five had properly begun, she woke up with a start at two in the morning, remembering that she had forgotten to check in with the coronawatchdog the day before. Now she'd broken the rules... Oh well - she probably wasn't about to get arrested. She tossed and turned, got up to go to the toilet, took some paracetamol for her arthritic twinges, tried a bit more of War and Peace, and finally (possibly due to War and Peace) drifted into a sound sleep towards morning.

She woke about ten. It was another hot day, and she was still dehydrated from spending too long in that damn shed yesterday. She drank copious amounts of cold water, phoned in to report her non-symptoms, then decided to blow some of her kilobytes of data getting caught up on the news. And maybe even having a ten-minute Skype with Anna.

The news was not uplifting. South Africa was imploding. Brazil and America, led by deluded narcissists with no grasp of science, were in Covid freefall. And in the UK, her own current dwelling-place, where everybody with any brains agreed that Lockdown had come three weeks too late, the death toll was approaching 40,000, and over five hundred health and social care workers had died just as a result of going to work. So unfair. So unnecessary. Nell could feel her blood pressure rising - not good on such a hot day. She closed down the news website and tried Anna on Skype.

'Nell! You got there! How's quarantine?'

'It has its up-side,' answered Nell cautiously. 'The quiet... I woke up to find three deer grazing on the front lawn today, and the local red squirrel population seems to have accepted me as one of their own. On the other hand - the high point of my day is now a conversation about my symptoms with a recorded voice. Not good.'

Anna laughed. It was good to hear a laugh. The coronawatchdog voice never laughed. When she and Anna rang off ten minutes later, Nell was smiling.

The heat was horrible. Not a breath of air; it felt as if the whole province was just waiting for the storm to break. Nell sat on the veranda overlooking the lake and tried to get started on her new afghan. But the pattern kept swimming in front of her eyes. Too much glare. She went inside for her sunglasses and a glass of cranberry juice, one of the treats she had allowed herself. She took a quick swig. Funny - the stuff had no taste. She sighed; Own Brand was certainly cheaper, but she definitely wouldn't be buying it again. Oh well - at least it was wet.

Time was starting to behave in a most peculiar manner. Nell could not actually remember whether she'd eaten two meals or three today. In the end she decided just to have a piece of homemade toast and go to bed.

That night Nell could not get cool. It must be a hundred degrees still, she thought, reverting instinctively to the measurements of her childhood. A hundred degrees was such a nice, clear, decisive way of saying that it was about as hot as anybody could stand. As a child in Canada, she'd learned to cope with weather like this by lying perfectly still, forcing herself not to move. If you so much as turned over you would break out in a sweat. Despite all the years in the more temperate English climate, she had never lost this ability - but tonight it didn't seem to be serving her well. Eventually she drifted off into an uneasy doze.

Day Six was just as bad. 'It's so hot,' she complained to her daughter Julie when she finally reached her by phone.

'Well, what did you expect, Mom? It's Canada in July! Isn't this what you wanted?' Mixed feelings were not something Julie was comfortable with. Besides, she'd just got in from work and sorry, Mom, but she couldn't really talk now.

Nell hung up and stared at her watch in some confusion. Even when she remembered Julie's flexible working hours and the five-hour time difference, it still didn't make sense. Slowly she realised that the watch must have stopped. Naturally it wasn't anything as self-maintaining as clockwork - not these days - so there was nothing she could do by way of winding. A new battery was needed - and of course that would mean a trip into town, which was currently off limits. Well, she would have to go by the radio and her phone. Not the end of the world.

She didn't take the watch off, though.

That afternoon she made a start on turning out the pantry. It hadn't been done for years, and besides, there would never be another opportunity like this. She cleared the table in the main room, and systematically began carrying junk from the pantry to put on it. Surely half this stuff could go... but that wasn't really why she was doing this. She just wanted to expose the corners so that she could do some serious mouse-proofing.

The job was slowed down considerably by the fact that almost every artefact seemed to have some connection with a dead family member. She found herself having conversations with these elders: 'Great-Grandfather, no offence, but did you actually know how to USE one of these?' 'Great-Aunt Clara, I'm afraid these jam seals have had it - but rest assured that I still have your recipe for gooseberry jam - and you're quite right that it's the only way of making the darn things edible,' and so on. She was chattering away quite blithely when the telephone rang, startling her back into 2020.

It was Brad. 'You sound chipper, Mom. How's it going?'

'Great! Just chatting away with the ghosts.'

There was a brief silence on the other end of the line. Then - 'You really okay, Mom?'

'Fine, really. It's been a little quiet, though, so I'm glad to have the company.'

'No symptoms?'

'Nope. Just feeling the heat...'

They rang off; Brad had never been a big talker. Nell suddenly lost heart in the pantry project, made herself a sandwich for supper and watched the sunset. There was a peculiar greenish glow down near the lake which was somewhat alarming. Or maybe it was her vision; she had a heat headache. She would take some Tylenol and head for bed. It probably wasn't time yet, but she couldn't be bothered finding her phone to check.

She staggered upstairs and lay down.

She was woken at three in the morning of Day Seven by a clap of thunder right beside her ear - at least, that was what it sounded like. Her reaction was atavistic: she shot from the room and headed for the lower floor of the house. Lights, lights - these twisty stairs were lethal - damn it, why didn't this switch work? Then she realised that a tree must have fallen onto an overhead wire. In fact, she could hear trees crashing all around the house as the wind raged like a demented thing. She scrambled down in the dark as best she could, and managed to put up the storm shutters on the door that overlooked the lake. Just in time; a sudden gust threw something against it and she heard glass shattering. She gave a shriek that nobody could hear, threw herself onto the sofa, pulled a cushion over her head, and lay there shivering for the next twenty minutes until the worst had passed over.

Finally the world stopped shaking and screaming, although still no lights would come on. Mercifully, though, the air had cooled. Not bothering to go upstairs again, Nell pulled an afghan over herself and went to sleep.

When she woke for the second time on Day Seven, she knew she was in trouble. Her body ached with more than just the stiffness of lying on the sofa all night. She couldn't remember feeling like this since - since she'd had the flu twenty years ago. She tried laying a hand on her forehead, but apparently that only worked with other people's foreheads. While she tried to think through what she should do next, she drifted off to sleep again.

Or not sleep. Something. There was a state she was inhabiting while not awake that felt not so much like sleep as being elsewhere. When she came back to herself, she remembered that she had brought a thermometer to Canada with her. All she had to do was find it...

'Julie! Julie!' Surely her daughter wouldn't mind running an errand for her this once... She wasn't just being lazy. 'Julie!' Then she remembered: there was a reason for the silence in the house. She would have to get the thermometer herself.

Dragging herself up the stairs felt like the hardest thing she had ever done. When she eventually managed it, she collapsed onto the bed and drifted into unconsciousness again.

When she woke the next time, she actually managed to take her temperature. It took a number of tries for her to read the mercury, but it definitely seemed to be over a hundred. There was something she needed to do... something....

After another spell in that non-sleep place, she remembered: phone the coronahotline. This meant another trip downstairs. In a sudden moment of clarity, she decided to move everything she would need downstairs for the duration. Picking up her rucksack, she slowly filled it with whatever items looked like a good idea. War and Peace. Tylenol. Deodorant. Warms socks. Then, clinging to the handrail for dear life, she made the perilous journey down the twisting stairs and collapsed onto the sofa with relief.

It was a couple of hours later before she surfaced again and remembered that there was still something she needed to do. She reached for the phone, and with difficulty focused on the number for the government check-in line. She actually did have something to report today. A faint sense of importance gripped her and sustained her through the effort of dialling.

Nothing. Must have misdialled... She made another superhuman effort. Still nothing. What did that mean - nothing? She replaced the old-fashioned receiver carefully in its cradle, then lifted it again. No dial tone. That meant - that meant the overhead phone line was down as well. Dimly she remembered having refused, a few years ago, the idea of having the cable dug into the property. Stupid.

With a faint sense of smugness, she realised that nobody could now blame her for not reporting her symptoms. She sighed with relief and drifted off again.

The need for the toilet finally wakened her again. She had no idea what time it was, or even where her phone was. It was still light, though. That meant it was still Day Seven. Probably. She struggled to her feet and felt the room sway around her. She sat down rather suddenly again, then tried more carefully. This time she gripped walls and chairs as she made her way to the bathroom. There was some reason why she mustn't use the edge of the table...

Her head was splitting. She detoured by the kitchen on her way back and managed to pour herself a drink of water without spilling more than half of it. She downed two Tylenol and wished she had some way of telling the time. Mustn't overdose... Mustn't get too dehydrated, either. Feeling pleased with her cleverness, she filled a water-bottle and took it back to the living-room with her.

As she crossed the floor, her footsteps appeared to elicit a light jingling in response. This was not something that usually happened in this room. Nell sat on the edge of the sofa and thought hard. If only her head hadn't been hurting so badly... Did she dare to take codeine as well? Maybe later. She didn't want to be too out of it in case... in case...

Her eyes fell on the table, covered with the contents of the pantry. So that explained the faint jingling noise. Feeling a vast sense of relief at having solved the mystery, Nell lay down and drifted off again.

When she next swam to the surface it was dark. She didn't bother trying the lights. Lights were a thing of the past. But it was a pity she hadn't thought to look for a flashlight during the daylight.

She managed to find her water-bottle and have another drink. She swallowed a couple more Tylenol. She went to the toilet and washed her hands for twenty seconds afterwards, including her fingertips and the entire surface of her thumbs. This exhausted her, and she staggered back to the sofa, setting up that faint jingling once again.

She was just re-entering her between-worlds state when she heard the first voice. Or rather, the first two voices.

'Robert, you know those cattle are vicious! A man was gored just last week!'

'That was a bull, Maria. These are calves. They've got to be castrated or we'll have a worse problem in a few months' time.'

The voices faded. So he did know how to use a castrator, thought Nell in some wonder. Although her great-grandmother appeared to have little confidence in him, judging by the quiet crying that was still going on in the background.

Did he have any help? Nell wondered. He'd been such an absolute, rank beginner at this farming business. And his wife had known even less about the life she was getting into than her husband had. What had it been like?

She listened closely. The crying had stopped, and in fact had turned to gentle humming, accompanied by a rhythmic creaking and a sort of smacking and slurping sound. Nell smiled; she recognised that particular symphony. Her great-grandmother was sitting in a rocking-chair and feeding her baby just a few feet away, beside the fire in the living-room of the old log house. Nell drifted off again, still smiling.

The next time she woke it was a sort of grey daytime. Early morning or mid-evening? She had no idea. She reached for her water-bottle and found it empty. Must get water must... and more Tylenol. Sod the time. The various aches in her body were as good as a clock.

In the kitchen, her eye fell on her cell phone. How did that get here? But never mind - great to see it. She picked it up and swiped. Nothing. Pressed things. Nothing. She'd have to plug it in. She was halfway to the twisty stairs to get her recharger when she remembered about the power.

So now she really was without means of contact. No phone, no cell phone. No wifi and now no way to set up a hotspot. No car, and the road in any case doubtless blocked by trees. For one appalling moment Nell stared at the facts - then her aching limbs reasserted themselves and she headed for the sofa again.

Life now consisted of a series of whiles. A while later she woke again, wondering how long it would be before somebody at the coronahotline tried to check in with her. When they couldn't get a response, what would they do? Would they assume that she was talking to friends and family 24/7? Or would they realise that, following the storm, a person in quarantine might be in a little trouble?

She rehearsed the questions in her mind: Do you have a temperature? Press 1 for yes. Do you have a cough? Press 2 for no - except that suddenly, rackingly, she DID have a cough. This was the legendary coronacough. Nell was exhausted long before the coughing fit was over.

Are you having difficulty breathing? Not yet... Nell pushed the fear down and went back to sleep.

The voices woke her again. Anxious, this time.

'Mother, Edith can't breathe!'

'Let me see - dear God, she's turning blue! Robert, what is it?'

There was a short silence, filled with the struggles of the tiny child. The breath was whistling in and out of an increasingly narrow airway.

'Maria, I think it's diphtheria. There was an outbreak of it in town - I didn't want to worry you -'

Her great-grandmother's voice was a whisper. 'The other children - the doctor -'

'Fan, take your brothers and sisters upstairs and keep them there. As for the doctor - I heard he set out last night for the lumber camp. One of the men was hit by a tree. He won't be back until tomorrow.'

There was a silence. Then the mother said, more calmly now, 'We'll get steam going. We'll hold her upright. It may make it easier for her to breathe. We'll take turns.'

And there in the old log house, with the other children listening from upstairs and Nell listening from the sofa, the mother and father walked their child up and down, up and down, the artefacts on the table jingling slightly but not managing to drown out the increasingly desperate sounds from the little girl's steadily-closing throat. As the first light crept into the room the sounds stopped altogether, and with one agonised wail from Nell's great-grandmother the voices faded and died. Nell lay on the sofa, her face wet with tears as another day broke and another racking coughing fit seized her.

The days had lost their numbers. Nell coughed, dozed, took Tylenol and listened for the voices. Death had happened in this very room, and Nell waited calmly to see whether or not it would come for her.

When she woke in darkness once again, the voices were not inside the house but outside. They were not speaking but singing - a steady rising and falling accompanied by drums. With a great effort, Nell hauled herself off the sofa and peered out one of the windows.

Scattered around the house were bark lodges, smoke coming from the roofs of many of them. There was another fire in the middle of the village, right near what would someday be the front door of the log house. Seated around it was a group of men, their bronze shoulders gleaming in the firelight as they beat their drums and chanted. An older man in regalia that marked him out as having special status stood by the fire, his arms raised as if waiting.

Nell was so close that she could make out the expression on his face. It was the face of one who looks on disaster and knows that he has no power to make it fall any more lightly on those he loves. And while he focussed all his attention on his silent plea with the powers above him, there was another wail from one of the lodges. One of the men staggered to his feet with a cry and ran sobbing towards the lodge, where in the doorway appeared a woman bearing the body of a child. The child's face was covered in the red, oozing sores of smallpox.

Nell turned from the window, unable to watch any more. Had her own people been responsible for bringing the disease that had wiped out this village? Probably not - that damage was done long before her great-grandfather received his land grant from Queen Victoria - but her family's home was built on blood nonetheless. It would serve her right if she died in the current pandemic. But live or die, it had left its mark on her.

She crept back to the sofa and coughed some more. Outside the singing went on, prayers and determination and the desperate will to survive rising again and again to the night sky. Little by little the singing grew feebler as the ranks of the drummers were thinned out. And then there were none.

Two days later - or was it three? - Nell woke to realise that she was hungry. This was such an odd sensation that she spent some time lying still and analysing it. Yes, definitely hunger. As well as thirst, of course - but she no longer felt as if it would take all the water in the house to cool her face.

She tried sitting up. That went better - no dizziness, no swimming of vision. She looked around the room like someone seeing it after a long journey. What on earth was all that junk on the table?

Slowly memory returned to her, of the voices and the deaths she had witnessed. The price of contagion... once so well known to all, and suddenly rediscovered by her own contemporaries in all its horror. What she had suffered was nothing - nothing. Just a fever and a cough. And now - really, she felt almost well enough to venture outside.

She actually managed to make and eat a piece of toast before having to take a rest. It was the first time she'd opened the fridge since the storm, and miraculously quite a lot of her food seemed to have survived. She closed the fridge door hastily and poured herself a glass of water. No need for Tylenol any more, apparently - and thank God, the cough was better, although she still sounded like an elk in the rutting season.

When she opened the front door, the sunlight flooded in. And - what was that sound in the distance? Was it - a chainsaw? Excited, she slipped on her sandals and started off down the road.

Nell had to stop several times to sit on fallen logs. It wasn't that she was feverish any longer - just so weak that she was convinced she would collapse. Getting round some of the fallen trees was an epic struggle. But little by little, she made her way towards the incoming sounds.

And then, round a bend, she saw them - the Ontario Hydro work crew, methodically cutting through their way through the tangle of trunks that the storm had piled up like jackstraws across the power lines and the road.

When they saw her, they switched off their tools and came towards her practically at a lope. Lovely, strong young men, with big voices and power tools. She wanted to hug them, and at the same time ring the modern equivalent of the leper's bell.

'Hey there, lady! We didn't know whether there was anybody down here or not - couldn't get through. How long you been cut off?'

Nell put up a warning hand. 'Don't come any closer! I'm in quarantine.'

They stopped instantly. 'Have you had it, then?'

She nodded. 'You bet. Been out of it for days...' Her voice trailed off. 'What day IS it?'

They looked at her oddly. 'It's Friday.'

She did some slow-motion calculations. 'Then my quarantine ends tomorrow.' She felt overwhelmed - unsure whether she could cope with the incoming tide of reconnection.

'Don't worry - we'll have you hooked up again before the end of today.'

She nodded and thanked them. Then thanked them again, apologising for her feeble voice. 'Not quite myself yet.'

One of the men was still looking at her curiously. 'It was Covid you had, right?'

She nodded again. 'Why?'

'Only -' he stopped in embarrassment - 'I didn't know it could do that to - you know - your face.'

Nell was unconcerned. It was no wonder her face was slightly flushed after the way she'd been feeling. But still - she'd check it out when she got back to the house. She said goodbye and set off for the return journey, which felt interminable.

The men's voices faded as she walked slowly back to the house. Strong, young voices, with a laugh and a joke in them. The first human sounds she'd heard since the last of the drummers' voices had died into silence. She felt as if there were two of her, each listening in a different century.

When she got back to the house, she went into the bathroom and looked at herself in the mirror for the first time in a week. And looked.

Her entire face was covered with the scabbing and pitted marks of smallpox.


  1. Pretty interesting story, one that held my attention to the end (something of a rarity for me nowadays).  This line really upped the ante: "Funny - the stuff had no taste." I'm not sure what smallpox's symptoms are, but will assume this was researched. In any case, the ending came as such a surprise as to be almost funny. Given all the mouse shit she'd cleaned, I was half expecting she had a hantavirus infection. Paints a real picture of the "pandemic" and was worried it'd get preachy, one way or the other, and was glad it never did. Fine writing.

  2. I agree, it was interesting and made me read on when I wanted to stop...too much virus stuff around...but read on I did. At the end when she felt there were two of her upped the ante for me. I like to think of these stories beyond what's written. This one is a prime candidate for such daydreaming.

  3. Interesting read, definitely did not expect the twist at the end. I found Nell's mysterious fever/delirium induced connections with her ancestors and prior tenants of the land very intriguing. Always love these "it was all a dream...except for this bit of physical evidence" sorts of tales.