While we’ve talked on the phone and texted and Facetimed, it’s been almost two years since I’ve seen my sister and niece. The COVID-19 Pandemic, SARS-CoV-2, sliced clear lines across Michigan, dividing upstate and down, U.P. and lower, and though I only live four hours south of my family, it’s like I’m in another country.
So when Vi pulls into my driveway this Friday afternoon, I’m edgy and excited. I swallow a belch and switch off my under-cabinet radio. Elon Musk is trying to purchase Twitter for 43 billion dollars. Children are starving in Afghanistan. Ukrainians don’t have running water as they hide from Russian bombs. The more the world explodes, the more my stomach bubbles.
“Aunt El!” my niece, Grace, calls, bounding to meet me at the side door. She’s a bundle of Nirvana tee, leggings, and white Nikes with purple swooshes. “Did you know octopi have three hearts? And lionfish are invasive?” She pauses on my welcome mat and cups her hands as if carrying a tiny creature, her voice skipping an octave and her hair, the copper of jewelweed, falling over her eyes. “And if you hold a hermit crab so, so gently it won’t bite?”
“That’s awesome, Gracie.” I lean to hug her. She’s grown taller and fills my arms, all muscle-y and solid like a red oak. Quercus rubra, the scientific term slips prefrontal.
Grace squeezes my waist, then slides past me into the house. “Does Mr. Rogers still have a cold? Where’s he hiding? I brought him treats.” Last I saw Mr. Rogers, he was upstairs, obliviously curled in the middle of my bed, his fur warm with sunshine.
“Here’s Grace’s bag.” Vi marches up the two steps into my kitchen. She lands a bulky duffle against the wall.
“I’m so glad you’re here!” I hug her, but she doesn’t soften. Vi’s all angles and slender neck. I let slip a burp near Vi’s ear, and she jolts away.
“Gross, El. You still do that?”
“I can’t believe how long it’s been.” I change the subject. “Is the Tahoe new? I dig the gold. And where’s Zach?”
“We weren’t supposed to leave our county.” Vi pokes the pillowy skin on my stomach and walks through my kitchen into the combination dining-living area. Like my neighbors, my bungalow was built after WWII with GI Bill money. It’s compact and efficient, no frivolous spaces, but plenty of room when it’s just me and Mr. Rogers.
Grace hops down the stairs that lead to my attic bedroom with Mr. Rogers around her neck like an airplane pillow. “He’s all better, Mom, and look at his kittie paws.” Her voice dips as she caresses my cat’s feet. Felis catus. Mr. Rogers frowns at me.
“Hey there cat-o,” Vi says as she scratches under his chin. “Ok, babe, give me a hug.” Vi opens her arms and Grace steps into them without releasing Mr. Rogers’ fuzzy white socks. “I’ll be back on Sunday. You and Aunt El have fun. Go get settled?”
“Wait, you’re leaving?”
Grace’s eyes skip between me and Vi.
“I’m meeting some friends in Milan.” Vi points down the short hall. “The guest room’s on the left, right El?”
“Friends?” I say, following Vi back through the kitchen and out the side door. My lower intestine gurgles. Last I knew, her only pals were the ones she cut class with in high school, girls who had babies and weddings and divorces just like her, except Vi’s still married.
“Some guys who came into the salon when we finally reopened after quarantine. They were up north four-wheeling.” Vi climbs into her Tahoe and closes the door.
Did I mention my sister’s a hairstylist? She’s also gorgeous, way too pretty and smart for the northern Michigan town where we were born and where my family still lives. Red hair, gray-green eyes, a pencil-tip mole near her lips. Although I’m the one our parents sent to college. And I’m the one they all pushed, Vi included, to take a job downstate.
I knock on the driver’s window and Vi opens it. “So I’m supposed to watch Grace while you go for a booty call?”
Vi’s cheeks flush. “Stop bossing me around, El. I’m the big sister.” She gazes through the windshield, toward my garage. “It’s been two years since I’ve had any fun.” Vi raises her chin and presses a switch. As the window creeps between us, she says, “It’s time to live a little. You should try it.”
Vi reverses onto the street. Shadows cast by silver maples, planted along the sidewalks in the neighborhood’s infancy, camouflage the Tahoe as it grows ever more distant. Branches snag in the breeze, gnarled and crooked. The maples are one of the reasons I purchased this house—they stand near every mailbox, every black-topped driveway, full enough to fool me into believing I’m not living in urban sprawl. There’s a gash festering in the trunk of the Acer saccharinum closest to my mailbox. It’s rotting from the inside and will have to be chain-sawed.
Grace waits at the window. Her eyes meet mine, but I can’t read her expression. She shrugs, pivots, and disappears into the darkness of my house.
It takes twenty minutes to reach the nearest metro park where there are two ponds I’ve convinced Grace she’ll want to explore. As long as I’ve lived downstate, I’ve been hunting nature. Nothing like northern Michigan, but at least there are wildflowers and outposts of trees, and I only kinda feel the concrete grime. Grace is unimpressed. She’s used to sand and the blue bite of Lake Michigan. We could motor into Detroit, visit the DIA or Science Center, but I’ve been avoiding crowds even after the quarantine orders lifted, and my gut tightens when I envision six lanes of traffic and exits at the height of overpasses.
We wander away from the parking lot, steadily climbing a grassy incline. I swallow acid as worry settles on my chest like a lead coffin. Vi was 19 when she got pregnant with Grace. 20 when Grace was born. I was still a senior in high school, and one afternoon, I walked into the living room, hands full of mail, and found Vi on the couch, belly swollen yet still modelesque in pajamas, highlighting a cosmetology textbook. I opened an envelope from Michigan State—I’d been accepted for fall. I should’ve been excited—maybe even bouncing a little—yet my digestive tract ignited with crazy gas. I belched so loud Vi jumped. “God damn it, El!” She whipped her highlighter at me and it thumped my eye. “You gotta get a handle on that or you’ll never have any friends.”
The problem’s worsened as I’ve been so far from Vi and our parents, trying to make a life downstate and persuade the freshmen at the private school where I teach Life Science, to peer closely through their microscopes, and care about wearing masks properly, the warming Great Lakes and extreme seasonal shifts, anything but the scratches on their Audis, their trust-funds, or latest iPhone upgrades.
Grace twines her fingers through mine as we reach the hilltop, anchoring me once more to the real. “Think we’ll see Tiger Swallowtails? We had caterpillars in my classroom that hatched into yellow moths and we let them go on the last day of school.” On the downward slope, we discover a swath of scorched land. “Fire is part of land management,” she reads on a signpost. “What about all the animals who live here?”
“It says fire is used to balance the ecosystem. The flames are controlled and afterwards, the prairie renews and fresh plants grow, attracting different birds and insects, even snakes like the massasauga, the Michigan rattler.” I squeeze her fingers. “The critters know how to stay safe.”
Grace picks at a corner of the sign, peeling the laminated paper. “I think Mom and Dad are getting divorced.”
My colleagues have talked about quarantine’s toll on their relationships—all those little things that niggle and irritate growing unforgivable as the COVID months wore on. Maybe Vi and Zach couldn’t handle how the other brushed their teeth or left empty milk jugs in the fridge. Maybe Zach is a climate-change denier. One positive of being so far from family—no need to lock the bathroom door for five minutes of peace. Just me and Mr. Rogers at home, teaching through a Google Meet and DoorDashing dinner. For months. Me and Mr. Rogers.
Grace squints at the burnt grass, and I adopt an enthusiastic voice. “The Sistrurus catenatus is Michigan’s only truly dangerous snake. And apparently, it loves metro Detroit.” My stomach galumps—how can I actually help her? I attempt to swallow it, but a burp escapes.
Grace smiles. “Aunt El, say excuse me.”
“Right, excuse me.” I reach for Grace and she takes my hand again. We walk into the patchy woods. “Most of the Michigan sightings are in Oakland County where I live.” Our shoes thump on the trail. Cattails and young aspen circle a pond the size of a backyard pool, and Grace drops my hand and leaps onto a fallen oak, murdered by wilt, Bretziella fagacearum. Her arms stretch for balance while she tight-ropes to the end. Eventually, we pass a pile of two-by-sixes and another sign claiming the city’s improvements—a boardwalk soon to bisect these wetlands. Homo sapiens love to contain and tame nature, to democratize and organize it with pathways vast and graveled for our personal pleasures, yet maybe coronavirus is nature’s revenge.
Grace breaks off a cattail reed—Typha—fleecy and spongy with all the June rain. She guides it along the others, and gentle thwacks fill the quiet afternoon. In seconds, she’s wandering near the first pond’s lip. I toe-tap for firm earth, and Grace pushes her shoes into the mud. She grins with each glug and pop, each tug of suction.
The previous week, I’d come to this metro park to silence the tanks and missiles and mass graves of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to process Mom’s telephone interrogation about my job, my social life, the chance I might bring someone north for the weekend. I’d found a wood duck nest, Aix sponsa, in a white cedar—Mother Nature’s alternative to the slime my niece is expertly oozing across her white Nikes. I pull out my phone and open Merlin, the Cornell ornithological app for bird sightings. I’ll show Grace a wood duck image. My thumb hovers above Life360 instead. One push and I’ll know exactly where Vi is.
When I first moved to metro Detroit, Mom convinced me to download the app. She and Dad and Vi all have it too, locating our family upon the mitten like the cubes in Risk. Sometimes—ok many times throughout those long at-home months when even Mr. Rogers wouldn’t cuddle—I tracked them and their goofy profile pics pinging across northern Michigan. Ok, I still use Life360 way more than is probably normal.
I spin around a scraggle of bushes and find my niece marooned. Muck seeps over her socks as she struggles, but I don’t see a hard approach. “Hold on, Grace!” I shout and jog back to that pile of lumber we’d just passed, ignoring the stitch in my side. Vi would say I should run more, be out in the world again. Maybe even meet somebody who also hates running but recognizes the importance of exercise.
I drag two boards, one under each arm, back to Grace. Positioning the two-by-sixes end to end gives me a walkway, and on tiptoes, I step forward, trying not to press too hard. I grasp Grace under her armpits. Her heart thuds beneath my fingertips, insistent and scared, and with one hard heave, the sludge releases.
Grace wipes at her leggings, scrubs her Nikes against the grass, yet the earth grips the canvas constrictingly. “My shoes are ruined,” she whispers.
She’s probably right. I wrap my arms around her and try for reassurance. “We’ll spray them off when we get to my place. Don’t worry.”
Grace sags against me. “When will Mom be back?”
“This was a bad idea, Gracie. We don’t need to see the other pond. Let’s go home instead, and we’ll make s’mores in the microwave and stream a movie.”
“Do you have Moana?”
After pizza and two movies, I stand in my darkened backyard, targeting my niece’s shoes with the hose. Lamplight shines through the sliding glass door, and Grace sits on the steps and watches me dig at her Nikes with my fingernail.
“Are there turtles at that other pond, Aunt El?”
I hold one shoe higher for a better shot. “I’ve seen painted turtles. Chrysemys picta. They have red patterns, like zebra print, on the underside of their shells, and yellow or red stripes on their necks, legs, and tail.” I aim the nozzle at Grace and spritz water on her toes. She jerks her feet back and smiles. “Snappers—Chelydra serpentine—have beaky faces. Don’t ever pick one up unless you have to,” I warn. “They bite.”
“Dad isn’t living with us right now.”
My abdomen clenches. I don’t know what stings more: Vi and Zach struggling, my niece suffering, or my older sister keeping secrets. I switch to the other Nike and scrub it with a bristle brush. “Do you—”
“Lights, Aunt El! Back there!” Grace interrupts, pointing at the burning bushes that line my yard as six-foot-tall sentinels.
Glow bursts speckle the branches as we stare. Lampyridae. I position Grace’s shoes—more cream than white now—on the cement path that leads to my garage and sit beside her. The insects flit and blink low near the grass then zoom up into the Euonymus striata, a glimmering tango just for us. We rarely saw fireflies up north—too cold—so that’s one special thing about my life downstate. Our breath slows and synchronizes, and we become as unruffled as the stars, appearing above despite the telephone wires and chimneys.
“I wonder what Mom’s doing,” Grace murmurs. She leans against my shoulder, her eyes closing.
“Probably sleeping. Like you should be.” I nuzzle her hair and inhale her salty scent, but neither of us stands to go inside. I could check Life360. Give Grace a more specific response. Crickets perform the opening measures of their nightly symphony. Next, a cicada maracas. Cicadoidea. The stars, the insects, the natural world that endures despite humanity’s best efforts, insulate us.
“C’mon.” I pull Grace to her feet. “Bedtime. We’ll talk more about everything tomorrow.” I slide the screen open and guide her inside. We cross the living area, our toes sinking into my rug.
At the bathroom, Grace turns to me. “Can we see the second pond? Tomorrow?”
I usher her bangs away from her eyes, and flick on the bathroom light so she can brush her teeth. “Sure thing.”
On Saturday, Grace and I trek once more up the metro-park hill, past the scorched field, along the path that circles the first small pond. She avoids the really muddy trail borders. Eventually, we reach a jag in the trail with a side jaunt I’ve never noticed before. My stomach flips with something close to curiosity, like I once felt up north. After graduating from MSU, before I found what Vi and our parents call my “real job” teaching spoiled fourteen and fifteen-year-olds about the circulatory systems in earthworms, I spent afternoons biking in and away from our northern Michigan woods in peaceful ignorance of the deadly viruses just waiting to pass from infected civets to people, conducting frog surveys and documenting dragonflies. Anura! Anisoptera!
The sun sloughs Grace’s cheeks red. She drags a forearm across her eyes, leaving a slither of dust, and then squeals and points to the pond. “Aunt El! Turtles!”
Three reptiles bask on a fallen log, near the shore. Grace crouches, chin on crossed arms, and as she concentrates, I reach over her shoulder and, very slowly, pick one up. Its flotilla slide into the water and disappear.
“It’s a painted turtle, isn’t it?” Grace runs a finger along the yellows and reds of the turtle’s plastron, a kaleidoscopic design unique to each Testudine. It blinks.
I swivel the turtle ever so gently, hoping it’ll display a leg, but instead, it tucks its head deeper into its shell.
“That’s a survival mechanism,” Grace announces.
“If it pretends to be a rock, predators might leave it alone,” I whisper. Though my family might not treat me like one, I’m the adult here so I ask, “Do you want to talk about your dad?”
Grace shifts her attention to the middle of the pond. Her bangs fall over her eyes as she speaks. “Mom says he’s back where I was born. She used to see elk there sometimes.”
I release the turtle into the water, and when it dives beneath the surface, I stand. “I remember that cabin. I guess a black bear came into their birdfeeder once.” Ursus americanus.
“Dad says he has to get my room ready. That soon we’ll have a campfire and look for snakes.” Grace frowns and grabs a rock and tosses it into the pond. We watch the ripples widen and disappear.
“I used to hide in the reeds near local lakes and creeks each spring to listen for frogs,” I say. “It was my job to record every croak and submit the data to the DNR.” I start to walk again and turn when Grace doesn’t follow. “Maybe you’ll get to do cool things like that.”
A heron—Ardea herodias—lifts from the opposite shore, its gangly body so awkward and vulnerable, yet so assured in its decisions. Grace stares then matches my pace. “Maybe.”
The path here is overgrown, and cattails and long grasses creep from the water, repopulating the trail. Footsteps sound behind us. A woman with red hair power walks in our direction, and I squint against the sunlight. “Vi?”
“I’ve been texting you!” she yells then hurdles over a fallen branch, no break in gait.
“Mom!” Grace squeals and sprints into Vi’s hug.
With an arm around Grace’s shoulders, Vi waves her phone. “Thank god for Life360. It led me right to you.”
“I thought you weren’t coming back til tomorrow?”
“Those guys were idiots. No fun at all.” Vi shrugs and looks to Grace. “I’d much rather be with you.”
Grace grins. “We saw turtles and last night there were lightning bugs in Aunt El’s yard, and I just spotted a heron.” She inhales sharply and gazes at her Nikes. “I got mud all over my shoes. Aunt El tried to clean ’em.” Grace holds onto Vi’s arm with one hand and raises a foot for inspection.
“Oh well. We can get you another pair.”
I didn’t think it was possible, but Grace’s smile spreads more broadly across her face. She fist bumps the air and leaps onto a log, trotting along the knotty surface. “These can be my play shoes!”
I caress a cattail husk with my thumb. Inexplicably, the scents in my nose are sweet, and my abdomen loosens. I hadn’t realized I was tense. “Why didn’t you tell me about Zach moving out?”
Vi pulls her phone from her back pocket, checks the screen, then returns it. “I don’t have to lay out my problems for you, El. You don’t share much with me.”
I grimace and tug the milky Typha fluff free like delicate and precious feathers, wanting to explain how the nerves that swelled my stomach up north now chain me to the couch most days, how even when I try to untangle via the metro parks, headlines and statistics and spiky fear fog my view of the world. How I want to quit my job and flee back across Zilwaukee. Even Mr. Rogers and his pliable underbelly don’t help.
Vi stares at me, waiting. As I open my mouth to speak, a hollow click vibrates the air.
“Grace?” Vi’s tone is mother-strong.
Ahead of us, Grace’s voice comes low. “Over here.”
We find her around a bend in the trail, crouching feet from a massasauga, its signature tail quivering. Dark brown spots pattern the scales on the coiled Sistrurus catenatus, with edges jagged and mismatched, irregular. The colors merge in horizontal stripes on its head, so we can’t see its eyes.
With the unflappable calm and certainty she’d employed when helping me format my résumé, Vi eases Grace backwards, tucking her between us. Grace doesn’t scream but bunches Vi’s tank top in her fists. “Careful,” Vi says. “Let’s all back up slowly. Together.”
I’ve never seen a rattler, or any venomous snake, not even all the times I’ve tramped deep in the woods and swamps up north, and my nerves slosh loud enough for Vi and Grace to hear. My sister slams a hand over my mouth.
The massasauga twitches. We move with synchronized steps, a retreating unit, white flag flying. Cracks. Dry quick snaps. I trip over branches hidden along the trail edge and sprawl in the dirt. Grace almost fumbles on top of me, but Vi catches her, and the rattler swivels toward us, smooth and menacing.
“I hate snakes,” Vi hisses through clenched teeth. She clasps my hand and yanks me to stand while keeping her other hand protectively over Grace’s chest.
Without thinking, I prattle, “Serpentes aren’t bad, Vi. They’re actually essential to a robust and healthy environment.”
“Shut up, El!” Vi nudges us down the path but keeps her gaze on the rattler. When we’re a safe fifteen feet away, she shouts, “Run!”
We dash in tandem, Vi and Grace pulling ahead with smooth, athletic strides. At first, I panic they’ll leave me behind, but then I feel my legs, strong, closing the distance. The massasauga’s alarm fades beneath the sounds of our breathing. We don’t stop until we reach Vi’s Tahoe, parked beside my Prius.
I pace, trying to recover my breath, to quell the gas threatening to erupt.
Vi hugs Grace and they laugh. “That was exciting,” Vi says. “Kinda scary there for a minute.” She jabs a finger in my armpit. It hurts and tickles at the same time, like everything with her. “Your big sister saved the day.”
I stare at the trail. It’s not gray or ominous, just leafy and wild. “I don’t think we were in any real danger though,” I say, feeling for once it might be true.
About the author:
Alissia J.R. Lingaur is a writer and teacher. Her work is forthcoming in Bodega and has appeared in Adanna, Unearthed, Crab Orchard Review, The Villa, The Offbeat, and the NMC Magazine, of which she is the literary adviser. She has also authored two novels, The Trainstop and The Fugue Sisters. She teaches creative writing, developmental writing, and composition at Northwestern Michigan College. When not teaching or writing, she’s in the woods with her husband and kids, usually untangling their basset hound’s leash from a tree while their boxer mix looks on, ever patient. Find out more about Alissia at alissiajrlingaur.com.
Feature image by Raimond Klavins on Unsplash