I admit I thought it would be sweeter. I’m vaxxed and boosted and eating my veggies (metaphorically and literally) so when the two lines showed up on the COVID test I thought I’d have a few days of snot and cough. It’s good to be humble, I guess. It’s okay to be wrong.
It was not very pleasant: waking up in sweat-soaked pajamas, hurting a rib from coughing, but above all, needing rest and only rest. I go from bed, to couch, to hammock, to yoga mat in a stupor. I haven’t read, walked or worked, it’s too much effort. My life has been simplified to the essentials, like the concentrated effort of getting up to get a glass of pure water. That, and staring at the sky in a state of daydreaming delirium.
What I discovered is this: Something about being sick makes time collapse. You wonder who felt good or bad before living. Wondering who will inhabit your space in the future after you die (hopefully not from COVID, and a long time from now). Maybe it’s just that being sick increases empathy for everyone who has been sick – and empathy extends to other time zones, including past and future, as well as across the world. .
The special gift COVID gave me was the opportunity to reflect on a woman named White Owl.
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I grew up and now live near a small northern Colorado enclave named The door, French for “the door” or “the door”, which is exactly what this place is. It is located at the foot of the mountains, with a river running through it, and this river opens a door to the mountains. I live in the nearby town, also called by the French, near the banks of the river Hide powder, which means “hide the powder”.
So while the French have a say here, I thought of those who lived here before they arrived, the tepees that once housed people during the ups and downs of their human existence. I thought of those who have the same point of view, who have probably looked at the same piece of sky while feeling sick.
For example: He-hos-ko-wea, or White Owl, also known as Mary. From what I can tell, she was sold by her brother to a man named Jean Baptiste Provost when she was 16. He was a French trapper who came from Fort Laramie in 1859 with other French-Canadian Sioux and Arapaho couples to found a town which they called Colona, then later LaPorte. The Provosts operated the first ferry on the Cache la Poudre River and had a saloon with dirt floors in the same location as the house where I grew up. They were the first to bury their children on a hill that became the historic LaPorte Cemetery that I prowled about as a child, full of all kinds of dead from disease (nothing like a cemetery to remind you of our mortality, the diseases of the past, markers of time).
In my calm state of enforced rest, I thought beyond the facts I knew of Mary White Owl. Instead, I imagined lots of questions to ask her if I could. Open-ended questions about what it was like to be sold, to be married to Jean, what it was like to walk on the same banks of the river as me. A few probably silly questions too: how did she enjoy going from a beautiful name with a clear image – a white owl – to a word that must have sounded so unfamiliar to her mouth.
Married. Did it go through his head? And did the words “marriage” and “Mary” somehow go together for her – because in marriage she became Mary? Did she like waking up to the smell of the campfire or the sound of the river? What was the sickest she had ever been? Was she relieved when Provost stayed here when she was forced to leave with the others after Custer’s “battle” (massacre), first at Red Cloud, Nebraska, then at Pine Ridge, D.D. South ? And what were the emotions of it all?
As I gaze at the foothills from my bed, the cough medicine, pulse oximeter, and tissues all around, I contemplate her staring at the same view. I still live near Provost.
Yes, I know this place.
This is our place. All our place. We share it with all non-human creatures, as well as humans, past and future. Many have sheltered and suffered in this one place, and that is true for everyone. That’s what’s rumbling around the COVID brain.
Yeah, being sick drove me crazy. But in a beautiful way. The crisp, expanding weather offers an interesting outlook. As I wait for the sickness of this era to end, I want to bring a cup of tea to all future residents and former residents.
Fever and fog make me wanna commune with everything the beautiful souls who have loved and traveled through this valley. We share the experience of living at this mountain gate, in good health and in sickness. Tossed about by the realities of existence in our human bodies, the thing that separates us – time – indeed seems like a thin separation.
Laura Pritchett is the author of five novels and winner of the PEN USA Award for Fiction, WILLA Award, Milkweed National Fiction Prize, High Plains Book Award and several Colorado Book Awards. She directs the MFA in Nature Writing at Western Colorado University. More than www.laurapritchett.com.
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