It’s 8.15pm. We turn off the lights in the sitting room, switch off the lamps, close the doors to kitchen and hallway. Rabbit stands on a chair so he can see over the hedge to our friends’ house and holds a torch firm against the window. We stand with him, caught in the primal tap of light and dark. Click. Click. Click and hold. Click and hold. Click and hold. From across the valley comes an answering signal. Flash. Flash. Long flash. Long flash. Long flash. It’s night two of lockdown.
I can only find the Morse code for numbers one to ten when I search the internet. The rest will be there, but I wonder how many I will need. At least 28, we have been told, but I hear whispers of more. Maybe 100, maybe 400 – the truth is, we will need as many as it takes.
In the night, I lie awake, my thought tumbling like sheets in a dryer. They tangle and spool, going nowhere. When morning comes, I shake them out, fold them neatly, but the creases are still there. In the bathroom mirror, I see that the creases under my eyes are deeper too. My hair is longer than usual and my face looks both younger and older. In a pandemic, I am all ages, young girl, old woman and everything between. The ancestors are close and one day the descendants will rise.
We are all gentler with each other and hug often. We laugh too and our language is looser. We take turns to flare, the stress and boredom catching fire. The older boy, often a worrier, is the calmest. He carries his brother to bed and has long, rambling conversations with him. The little one, our social butterfly and weathervane, is trying to make sense of it all and starting to fear contamination. “I think we should keep doing some things when this is over, like washing our hands,” he says, and my heart sinks. Stay grubby, I want to whisper.
In the days, we try to make a pattern out of the jumble. We created a schedule and lesson plan, which felt reassuring, exciting even. By the second day, they were a joke. We ordered groceries last weekend and they will be delivered on Monday, a full week later. We have all the privileges of money and resources. Our pantry and freezer are well-stocked and we have enough in the garden to fill in the gaps. I play at being a country goddess, coaxing meals out of what we have, stretching the odd ends of things. I know it’s a game not everyone can play. I know it’s a game that will grow old and get harder. The cooking and dishes never stop. I wonder how many forks and bowls four people really need to use.
On social media, we are all in the dark trying to find the light. We post a poem, share the news, show each other our houses, gardens, families, bring our classes and communities online, push a joke to see how far it will hold. They’re faulty signals, they flicker and pulse. We read under them for the hidden messages. I’m scared. I’m tired. I have hope. I don’t know what to do anymore. We’ve got this. I don’t know if we can survive four weeks together. I’m glad to stop, to slow down. We’re winnowing, finding the things we want to keep. There’s so much to do. I’m going under, overwhelmed. I like my kids, my partner – it’s good to be together. What will we find, here at home, with nothing but ourselves to fall back on? I see you, I hear you. You’re not alone. The absent ones send signals too. I haven’t posted in days. I’ve gone quiet, gone to ground. I’m not coping. It’s all too much. I’m keeping myself safe, drawing a protective cloak tight. Not everyone has these lifelines and I fear for their isolation.
* * * * * * * *
Signals are everywhere in nature. In the flowers, deep in the soil. Through tree roots and forest crowns, in fungi and birds and fish. We’ve disrupted too many of these signals, or put them out, snuffed candles in the chapel. With all of us made still, out of our cars, grounded, there is hope that Papatūānuku can rest and heal, recharge. But we will need to remake ourselves if that is to happen, take this time to learn how to do everything differently, perhaps the way we once did, perhaps in ways we’ve never done before. Faith and doubt lose meaning against those odds – we are down to dumb luck.
I call my Dad most days. His memory slips but he knows there’s a virus on the loose. He’s been grumpy about being in a rest home but now he feels safe, happy to have the world at bay and regular meals and care. The staff take the residents outside as often as possible and he likes the sun on his face. He would rather climb a mountain with a pack on his back and his brother by his side, but for now the courtyard will do. He thinks his father planted the garden, and the pride lifts his shoulders.
My greatest fear is that the virus will sneak its way in and he will die alone, in hospital with a tube down his throat. Wrapped in plastic, with plastic-wrapped doctors and nurses. No-one to hold his hand, sing him out. I fear this for myself and for everyone I love. Tangihanga and funerals are cancelled, weddings too. When this is over, the trauma will linger for generations. I don’t know if we have the strength or the tools to turn it around.
Going out is a challenge. I scope the hazards, set down the rules for how we will stay safe. “You’re very good at this,” Ian says. “Like a soldier.” The affirmation worries me. My anxiety is not an asset in peacetime. When we get home, we take our shoes off at the door and leave them outside. We walk carefully through the house and strip in the laundry. The clothes go straight in the machine. We take a shower, wash it all off. The water pressure is pathetic and we stand in a tub too narrow for the two of us, but we hold each other and turn slowly so we both get turns under the water. My body, then his. My body, then his.
This day, too, will end. Dot. Dot. Dot. Dash. Dash.
Dot. Dot. Dot. Dash. Dash.
Dot. Dot. Dot. Dash. Dash.
Dot. Dot. Dot. Dash. Dash.