I will admit I thought it would be milder. I’m vaxxed and boosted and eat my veggies (metaphorically and literally), so when the two lines appeared on the COVID test, I thought I’d have a few days of snot and cough. It’s good to be humbled, I suppose. It’s good to be proved dead wrong.
It has not been lovely: waking up with sweat-soaked pajamas, bruising a rib from coughing, but most of all, needing to rest and only rest. I move from bed, to couch, to hammock, to yoga mat in a stupor. I haven’t read or walked or worked—it’s all too much effort. My life has been simplified to the very basics, such as the concentrated effort of getting up to get a pure glass of water. That, and staring up at the sky in a state of loopy daydreamy delirium.
What I’ve discovered is this: Something about being sick collapses time. You wonder who felt good or poorly before you were alive. You wonder who will inhabit your space in the future after you’re dead (hopefully not from COVID, and a long time from now). Perhaps it’s just that being sick increases empathy for all others who have been sick—and empathy extends to other time zones, including past and future, as well as across the globe.
The particular gift COVID gave me was the opportunity to ponder a woman named White Owl.
I grew up and now live near a small enclave in northern Colorado named La porte, French for “the door” or “the gate,” which is exactly what this place is. It’s situated at the base of the mountains, with a river that runs through it, and that river provides a gate up into the mountains. I live in the next town over, also named by the French, near the banks of the river Cache la Poudre, which means “hide the powder.”
So while the French have plenty of say around here, I’ve been thinking of those who lived here before they arrived, the teepees that once sheltered people during the ups and downs of their human existence. I’ve been thinking of those who have my same view, who likely stared at the same patch of sky while feeling ill.
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 that they called Colona, and then later LaPorte. The Provosts ran the first ferry across the Cache la Poudre River and had a saloon with dirt floors at 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 cemetery in LaPorte that I prowled as a kid, one full of all sorts of death from sicknesses (nothing like a cemetery to remind you of our mortality, of past diseases, of the markers of time).
In my quieted state of forced rest, I thought beyond the facts I knew of Mary White Owl. Instead, I dreamed up a lot 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 the same banks of the river as I have. Some probably-dumb questions, too: How’d she appreciate going from a beautiful name with a clear image—a white owl—to a word that must have felt so unfamiliar to her mouth.
Mary. Did it clank in her mind? And did the words “marriage” and “Mary” go together somehow for her—because in marriage, she became Mary? Did she like waking to the smell of campfire or the sound of the river? What was the sickest she’d ever been? Was she relieved when Provost stayed back here when she was forced to leave with the others after Custer’s “battle” (massacre), first to Red Cloud, Nebraska, and then to Pine Ridge, South Dakota? And what were the emotions of all that?
As I stare at the foothills from my bed, cough medicines and pulse oximeter and tissues all around, I contemplate her staring at the same view. I live near Provost’s place still.
Yes, I know that spot.
It is our spot. All of our spot. We share it with all nonhuman creatures—as well as humans, past and future. Many have sheltered and suffered in this one place—and that is true of everyone’s place. This is what roils around the COVID-brain.
Yeah, being sick has made me loopy. But in a lovely way. Crunching and expanding time makes for interesting perspective. As I wait out this era’s sickness, I want to bring all future inhabitants and past inhabitants a cup of tea.
The fever and fog make me want to commune with all the beautiful souls who have loved and walked this valley. We share the experience of living at this door to the mountains—in health and in sickness. Tossed about by the realities of existing in our human bodies, the thing that separates us—time—seems like a thin separation indeed.
Laura Pritchett is the author of five novels and winner of the PEN USA Award for Fiction, the WILLA Award, the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, the High Plains Book Award, and several Colorado Book Awards. She directs the MFA in Nature Writing at Western Colorado University. More at www.laurapritchett.com.
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