Schmetterling at The Schmetterling.

I made it three years without contracting COVID. But when I did…

Honestly, I didn’t know I had it the days it hit me the hardest, the first two. I mean, it’s not surprising that I picked it up. I’d been exceedingly cautious for three years, but once the requirement for wearing masks was lifted on Vienna transportation, though I still found myself surveying the other passengers warily, I’d had enough of my glasses fogging up.

I’d been in seven countries over the preceding month, on every form of public transportation, at a crowded music venue, a couple packed bars, cafes, grocery stores, museums, restaurants, a ping pong rec hall, but when I was looking through my photo roll and backed up the days from when it took hold of me, I feel like I got it at the butterfly museum. I remembered then, pushing aside the plastic curtain to enter a tropical petri dish, and finding that my idea of escaping the driving sleet, cutting sharply into skin on a serrated edge of Arctic wind, and peacefully watching butterflies in a cozy venue, was not unique. Every Gustav, Dick and Sally had lit on the same solution. I reached into my pocket for a mask but was not rewarded. Neither did a search of all my pockets and my backpack yield any of the 30,000 masks that until very recently had been stashed everywhere. 

It was so bloody hot I had to remove and carry my heavy winter jacket, which I then used to discreetly cover my nose and mouth as I pressed my belly against those I was passing going in the opposite direction on the narrow path. That is, when we weren’t at an absolute standstill watching each other wipe runny noses while someone took a selfie. I was able to make it to an archway, a bridge overlooking the first floor where one could breathe forward without inhaling someone’s exhalation, though you could still see everyone’s breath condensing in streams down the hothouse windows, feeding the orchids and the moss pistils and then rising again.  It just didn’t feel sanitary if you know what I mean. It felt fungal, fertile, fervidly reaching.  I wanted to be anywhere else, but I stubbornly hung out there until I felt I’d seen seven euros’ worth of schmetterlings. Then I moved toward the exit route, a low tunnel hugging the wall in a steep descent followed by a narrow trail where I’d have to ooze through a stagnant crowd. As I stepped into the tunnel, two boys rounded the bend and came barreling headlong toward me, spewing forth all of the saliva they could muster as they howled like monsters. The tunnel rumbled. Madly pumping their arms as they ran, they both nearly knocked me over, but nose in sleeve, I marched forth. This was not the idyllic visit I’d anticipated. But that was no longer the issue. I just needed to escape.

Still, I’d forgotten about that escapade. And COVID wasn’t on my mind as I pulled up my gravel driveway, ending the last leg, a seven-hour car drive in a rattling Subaru with every stinking light on the dash flashing. I was exhausted from traveling. Past exhausted. But collapsing is never an immediate option when I return home.

I like different experiences and am sometimes away from my cabin deep in the woods for extended periods. And I know enough to be filled with terror as I am turning the door handle.

Of course, at this moment I am relieved the log cabin has not burned down, but I can tell that from the top of the hill before the last curve on Pig Run if I slow down and really look, which I do. So, I’ve had a minute to move on in my thought process and brace myself to accept whatever I find when I open that door, and deal with it. This has ranged from every floor carpeted with dead ladybugs and no place to step without a crunching sound while the windows are crawling with wasps and stink bugs, the latter flying slowly and buzzily across the room, dragging out the threat of releasing their stink on you, sometimes careening right into your face or worse, your hair, to a trio of bloated mice corpses floating, marinating in the antifreeze in the toilet... there is nothing like the smell of dead mice and I can assure you this particular form of death ups the ante, to a basement of slithering deadly poisonous copperhead snakes, pit vipers.

My biggest fear is finding a human corpse on my bed. When I opened the door this time, a bitterly cold late April afternoon, heavy raindrops finding their way down my neck and into my jacket as I fiddled with the stubborn lock, I was not entirely disappointed.

My first coping mechanism is denial. If there is one reliably favorable attribute to COVID, it is the diminishing of smell, so I just pretended I wasn’t about to swoon and proceeded to do an inventory of the house. Unfortunately, this inventory proved that the house had no power and probably had not for quite some time. That meant that the deep freeze full of meat now held bloody, rotting corpses which may or may not yet be hosting seething maggots. As did the freezer, which very efficiently supplies its aroma to the fridge. It was irrelevant that I seldom ate meat and that I still liked the farmer’s wife, despite her Armageddon outlook from watching Fox news. As you know, it’s seldom black and white with people, thank god because when it is, it’s even harder to take. What I’m saying here is that she helps disabled and troubled kids develop intellectually and emotionally by using her little dogs as therapy pets, opening the door for the kids to communicate through them, and even though she is so pushy that she actually sold me, very close to vegetarian me, half of a large steer, showing at my house up the week before its scheduled delivery with a deep freeze she had found at a bargain price for me also to buy. When I’d made it down to about the half full point of the deep freeze, she and her husband arrived in their mammoth pick-up with several coolers packed full of dead cut-up pig for me. That is, all but the bacon, which is the only part I like, along with some other cuts of ham wrapped flimsily in paper she’d clearly had for too long already in her own deep freeze. This was, she explained, in exchange for paying her husband to bushhog which I was going to do anyway even though he offered to do it for free, that’s another story that actually hardly even matters because I have in all seriousness been waiting for him to do it for four years, all the while the farmer’s wife stringing me along with “soon” and often “next week”.  Most of the autumn olives are now much higher and broader than his tractor. I was a bit stunned as she rummaged through the coolers showing me all of the cuts of ham. Ham always conjures funeral dinners in church basements, and I didn’t want to invite that vibe into my life, but here it was. And just like I was when I practiced law across from jack-ass male attorneys I knew I’d have to deal with again and again, I remained entirely too polite and effusively grateful about the ordeal.

Anyway, I had all this meat plus some vegetables. In fact, I was thinking on my ride home, well, even if I’m not a huge meat-eater at least I have a lot of food since I really blew my budget in Europe. It wasn’t all meat; there was homegrown basil pesto, great for bruschetta and cherries from my cherry tree last summer for a couple more pies, and vegetables for a stir-fry for my dinner.

But that was definitely no longer the case.

My focus became getting the power turned on and the rotten meat out as quickly as possible. The fact that I was dead tired, had no food in my belly and felt like shit, with every muscle in my body aching didn’t matter. I’d soon be wrenching my back and twisting my knees and pulling my neck out from too-tight shoulders as I hauled construction bag after bag of meat to the car. I put on a mask because this felt like a hazmat project, but being super congested, each time I broke out of the basement into the cold air, my nose ran hopelessly, soaking the scratchy mask. Still, I was on a mission not be deterred. If you have ever seen maggots though only recently hatched seemingly in orgy mode as they crawl over each other, hundreds at a time, all the while hissing, you know my desperation. Then there was the sopping up of the blood and the disposal of all of this from my car as expeditiously as possible. I threw away absolutely everything in the fridge and freezers. Even the brand new $30 bottle of krill, the ice cube trays and the maple syrup. It all went.

The power company electrician found that squirrels had chewed through my transformer fuse. No surprise. They were pissed because I’d removed my tarps from the woodpile and the kindling, and not only exposed their smelly nests to predators and the elements, but sprinkled coyote urine all about. Aggression is never rewarded by the animal kingdom. I’ve had my auto engine wiring harness chewed through three times and only last week had a standoff at 3 am with a mouse who refused to vacate my Subaru engine. After returning from a forty-minute drive, my only goal to whirr him up in the engine or let him leap down in the library parking lot, he simply jumped out of my engine onto the driveway. I surrounded him with traps and was able to chase him onto one of those horrid sticky traps, by he danced off it. I threw ammonia in his eyes. He wasn’t fazed. Then I tried to run him over, at which point he leaped back into the engine. My attempts did not end there, but at 4 am when I simply couldn’t stay awake any longer just to fight with him. In the morning there were two mice nesting in the engine. I have a ridiculous number of these stories.

We don’t have garbage pick-up out here, so even though I probably was not supposed to drop it off in the dumpsters for household garbage or construction waste, that place is such a free-for-all I felt like this one time I’d not be too goody-two-shoes about it. I really didn’t know where else to go; this stuff would even sicken vultures.

I didn’t shower until everything was thoroughly scrubbed out and I’d placed bowls of vinegar and baking soda in the freezers and fridge. Though I had zero energy left in me, I couldn’t sleep because I couldn’t breathe. I trotted to the bathroom every half hour with a wad of toilet paper from blowing my nose and flushed it down the toilet. Or so I thought. It wasn’t until after my poop in the morning that I found that the tube to the toilet fill valve had somehow slipped off while I was gone, and the toilet was now irreparably clogged. Try as I might, the plunger failed me. All the fucking snake did was scratch my new porcelain toilet bowl. By now I had a fever, was shaking, every muscle in my body felt as though shredded by daggers, and possibly bloody, and my head was causing me great pain with its pounding. Fat black dots were coming out of my eyes with each heartbeat and I thought my temples might explode. There was still a lot to clean and unpack, so it wasn’t until the third day when I took my temperature that I decided to use one of my expired COVID test kits. Yup. And googling the CDC website about a revised expiration date for that kit, the result again was: Yup.

It wasn’t until two weeks after I got COVID, after I thought I was healed and ready to move on, that the bad stuff began weaseling in.

To be continued.