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Debra Monroe

Shelter in Place

From the start I called the official order lockdown, quicker to remember and say, though my stepmother who uses quotation marks like others use underlining, for emphasis!, wrote me a letter to say her “lockdown” was “worse” since she was “trapped,” not due to “COVID,” which was “fake news,” but because the house she shared with my father was “a prison.” Meanwhile, my husband and I cleaned our house on Easter, Easter the same as any day, vacuuming, dusting, and we finished early and so took the first of our Sunday drives through pandemic-empty streets to open land where cotton-puff clouds rolled across deep blue, no smog, the car rocking in gusts as faraway trees bowed and swayed.

My husband told me that over the next hill was a church he remembered from decades of bicycling, decades of his muscles stretching and contracting, lungs emptying and refilling, days, weeks, years, miles recorded in inky columns of notations on a wall inside our garden shed, a church he’d bicycled past before the city got expensive and so people bought homes in what used to be country towns, which became exurbs, and then teeming commuters filled the roads, too dangerous for bicycles then. But the roads were empty again on COVID Easter, the only COVID Easter, we believed, lockdown soon to be over, we believed, the roads as empty as when he’d long ago bicycled them with their blind hills and curves but no traffic except a solitary truck or tractor, its driver nodding, a slight wave, salute, before giving him room enough to ride, he said, as we crested the hill and saw white clapboard crisp against a periwinkle sky, a tin-roofed steeple flashing silver.

Having begun without realizing the surrendering of pre-COVID standards, I mean not bothering to wear makeup or smooth my hair, I had on ragged jeans, a T-shirt streaked with dust and cleaning powder, my husband’s sunglasses, mine still on the desk where I’d left them a month earlier, and I stood on the church’s porch, properly called a parvis, from the Middle English parvys, from Old French parevis, from Latin paradīsus, from Greek parádeisos, and maybe congregants earlier had crossed the parvis to sing and pray, thinking COVID was a city problem, or maybe service was canceled but some impassioned flower-lover wanted the church bedecked all the same, because at the top of steep stairs on the parvis was a flower-cross as tall as me, a chicken-wire cruciform studded with fragrant flowers already starting to wilt, and wind whipped my hair like banners, so it seems in a photo my husband took, and the cross quaked and bright petals scattered.

Heartfelt, I’m eco-nothing, though using my brain I know that global warming will kill humans first, the planet next, that rivers, streams, oceans, wetlands, and forests are endangered, and I wonder how one person can stop human encroachment as I encroach, hoping the trees, sky, water, and dirt will have me, and sometimes I bring my husband who sees me swoon for nature like a Victorian lady poet and asks why I don’t like camping. Long ago I did try camping to please a man I failed to please or he failed to please me, a man who told me a sleeping bag that retains body heat is a mummy bag, and all night I unzipped mine to free my arms, freedom, then rezipped to stay warm, comfort, then sat outside wrapped in blankets watching the black sky pocked with stars turning pale, then coral, then daylight: noise, conversation. My happiness over, if that’s what it was.

Happiness happens by happenstance, which clarifies that I just stay ready as when I lived in the country where I wasn’t into nature, but my house was in nature, and I was near nature, and I’d go into it in the middle of the night to see foliage and trees in humid shadows, and even in the city where I live now, on long walks I arrive on a deserted street and enter a green tunnel, tree limbs extended, and the limbs are literally extended, so I’m not using the literary device pathetic fallacy—the attribution of emotions to things that don’t have emotions, let alone responses to my emotion, and to believe trees emoted for me would be pathetic in a merely woo-woo way—yet I imagine they have extended, an invitation.

I started wandering nearby gullies and thickets in what used to be ranchland but got carved into lots for houses with thirty acres saved for hiking trails. At first I had trouble finding my way in but learned to see veiled portals, ways in, and out, and learned to ignore the sound of nearby expressway and also that if I walked far enough, past a hundred trees and boulders and stretched-out remnant of rusty wire attached to ancient posts, past a sprawling cactus and into a wide meadow with teeming wildflowers, I would hear just birds and wind, but then vrooming lawnmowers and shouts again, and by these noises and the slant of sun found my way home, though once I ended on a highway on an unfamiliar edge of the city, stepping out of the tangle into light and people, once I rounded the corner to a sidewalk, stared. Because I had twigs on my clothes and a too private look on my face—my flashing eyes and floating hair—having been so recently ecstatic.

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