Field Notes

Being a record of certain phenomena found in the environs of the Lost Quarter.  

Mourning Boxes

It is often easy, especially for those who are from there, to dismiss the Lost Quarter as an unremarkable place, no different than any other in the western domains with whom we have a shared history of settlement. Certainly the indigenous peoples of these regions made no distinctions between this place and any other that fell under their purview in those ancient times that are somehow not that long ago. We, who came after they had been pushed out and exiled to reservations, established borders and townships and provinces and all the rest, though borders have always been tricky here, never quite able to take hold. The Quarter was always set apart, without anyone quite realizing it, the ways in and out unclear except to those who know them. 

All this I say by way of introduction to the most unique custom of the current inhabitants of the Quarter. I speak of course of the mourning boxes. They are nearly ubiquitous in the households of the Quarter, yet found seemingly nowhere else. Each family possesses one, visibly displayed, if not in a place of honour or pride exactly, at least where guests will not miss it. The individual boxes vary, ranging from the size of a jewelry box to a mantel clock at their largest. The majority are perfect cubes, though the larger are shaped like a chest. There can be no mistaking them for a storage vessel though, for they are enclosed with no obvious means of opening them. Most are made of wood, stained but not painted, sometimes with engravings. These vary considerably and can be quite elaborate.  

I have said they have no obvious means of being opened, which perhaps gives the false impression that they can be. They cannot without being deconstructed and there is no purpose in doing so for they contain nothing. Their sole purpose as an object is display. Yet, they are not art exactly, though some are quite beautifully constructed. Nor are they, despite their name, vessels for memorializing the dead. Quite what they are for and why so many residents of the Quarter possess and display them is something of a mystery.  

Notes on the Grippe

Day One Thousand Twenty One

One year ends and another begins, the calendar’s remorseless march. How we obsess with measuring the moments of our lives: years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds. So many of them pass without us realizing it as we keep moving relentlessly forward, head down against the wind. Until suddenly we are standing in a new town with no firm grasp of how we have come to be here. Everything looks familiar, but the closer we inspect the less recognizable it all seems. Everyone we meet is a stranger with a faint, polite smile and a gaze that won’t quite meet ours. They, like us, are already casting their eyes ahead to the horizon.

As miserable a beginning to winter as I can remember there being in years. Bitter cold and snow from November on. My love and I escaped it by fleeing these parts for a few weeks, but it was still waiting for us when we returned. Day after day of -20 or colder as the nights grew longer and longer. Followed by warm spells where the temperature rose above freezing so quickly I ended up with headaches as Chinook winds blew in from the west. A day or two later the cold would regain its grip upon these parts, unrelenting.

Looking back at the past year, what will I remember in the years to come? I do not know when the history books will say the Dread Lord Grippe Reborn was defeated, but this was the year where we resumed the parts of our lives we had set aside for those two miserable years. Though he managed to touch both my love and I, I suspect I will not remember any details of that illness. It will blend in to all the other colds and flus that have been inflicted upon me, comfortingly unremarkable.

I will remember how as the weather warmed and spring turned to summer the crowded streets in our neighbourhood as people returned to their old habits. How light my heart was seeing them. We made three trips beyond the Quarter, venturing to Europe and the Eastern Dominions, something I had missed more than I realized. There are moments in both that I will treasure. Not just seeing the great sights, but those chance moments that can only happen in that particular place. Sitting in parks in the sun in a strange place watching people going about their days. Walking with my love alongside three great rivers. The taste of espresso, a fresh pint of beer, a baguette with ham and cheese, cucumber sandwiches at tea.

A good year, all in all. The world felt as though its missing pieces returned and we learned how to live in it again.  

Notes on the Grippe

Day One Thousand

One thousand days of the Dread Lord Grippe Reborn. His reign of terror can perhaps be said to be over – we all certainly act as though it is – and yet he persists. An insidious presence at the heart of everything. Every week dozens perish in these parts by his hand. There are solemn announcements, ignored by most as we go about our days. Our hospitals are overflowing again, this time with children, who were spared the worst of the Dread Lord’s initial ravages, but now seem to be suffering from other disputants to his crown. There are even suggestions they may be working in concert in some way, exposure to the Grippe Reborn’s touch ensuring that we are all weaker when we face one of his challengers. Or perhaps it is just that our quarantine measures spared us from this suffering for two years and now that they have been lifted we have not had our regular exposure and so have fewer defences than we might otherwise.

That seems to be the way of things now. We are living through the unforeseen consequences of our desperate actions. The overflowing hospitals, the doctors and nurses leaving their professions because they are overwhelmed by the relentless tide still rising, threatening to drown us all. We have all been broken in some way it seems by these last, long one thousand days. We have lost the order of things and are fighting now to regain solid ground. Everyone is disoriented, haunted somewhat, wishing that life could just be for a little while.

We all react differently to this unsettling new world. There were the protesters of course, trying to overthrow the Dominion and restore some mythical lost world. They still remain, though dwindling in number, convinced of a grand conspiracy and the need for action. There are those whose sense of personal safety has been so completely shattered that they demand a return to the quarantine strictures and the cocoon of safety it provided. Others complain about how terrible everything has become, our governments inept and flailing, our institutions revealed as ineffectual, and madmen everywhere. To them we have entered an inevitable decline as a civilization from which we shall not recover.

I remain hopeful for a future despite all the turmoil of this current moment. Like the first thousands days of the Grippe Reborn, this moment too will pass. What our battle with the Dread Lord has revealed is what we can achieve when we work together. For so long we have heard how little we as individuals can do to thwart the great crises of our day like climate change. It is a way by which those who wish to do nothing can excuse themselves from feeling guilty. But we have now seen what is possible if we work together at something. We can turn aside the Dread Lord. We are capable of so much more than we allow ourselves to believe.

Notes on the Grippe

Day Nine Hundred Ninety Five

Our bodies betray us. Day after day, time marches on, and we are not what we believe we are. The face in the mirror looks different than the one in our minds. There is sagging here and pudginess there, a slouching kind of inevitability. Fight against it as much as we can, it remains. Worse, we are forced to realize that we are made of flesh and blood, shit and piss, phlegm and other dripping things. Hacking and coughing, sniffling and sweating, exuding noxious and unpleasant fluids.

The Dread Lord Grippe Reborn is diminished, a shadow of his former terror, yet still present, still insidious. Joining him in the general clamour of the gloomy first days of winter are the disputants for his crown. How much longer will he hold it while they marshal their powers and battle for supremacy. None of them will claim it for some time, we can hope, but we will all still suffer and wheeze as they move among us.

My love and I were both felled by one of the disputants a few weeks ago. An annual occurrence that had been pleasantly absent these last few years of quarantine restrictions, one of their few benefits. Their absence may have made the return all the worse though, for both of us were quite miserable for a week or so. It seems everyone is suffering these last weeks, the shelves bare of medicine, the doctor’s offices filled with coughing petitioners. Another of the great benefits of our quarantined years, we can now stay home from the office while sick without guilt or recrimination.

There have been some benefits, it is easy to forget, but the price paid was so dear. I wonder, when we have time to look back on all of this, to see all that came to pass, to measure the results of it all, what we will say was worth doing and what our mistakes were.

Notes on the Grippe

Day Nine Hundred Eighty Seven

From high above the Quarter appears a gleaming wintry tundra, unbroken but for the river valleys and creek coulees, dark fingers that extend across the land, digging deep. Only from this vantage point does the true emptiness of the Quarter become apparent. A few clustered houses here and there marking towns and in between them vast spaces of white. Even the cities seemed dwarfed by all that land. In other places I have ventured to, cities bump up against other cities, towns litter every byway. One cannot go more than a minute without seeing some evidence of human habitation.

The Quarter, on the other hand, can feel like you have entered a post-apocalyptic world. All the signifiers of our existence are there: the road you are driving upon, the fences strung with wire marking the borders of territories, and the electric lines that must lead to some house, and yet none is visible. Even the cattle that should fill the pastures are not apparent, hidden far from the road by some watering hole. The occasional car appearing in the distance shakes you from your reverie, reminding you that you are not alone in this place. An uncomfortable feeling, as though you have been exposed just by being here, implicated by having come to this lost place.

Notes on the Grippe

Day Nine Hundred Forty

The days go on, the Dread Lord Grippe Reborn still present but forgotten by most of us as we go about our lives. Everyone is planning on travelling or has just come back. School has returned as it was before, work as well, families are gathering for holidays. When I go into the office, head to a shop or take a bus there are fewer and fewer people wearing masks. Yet every now and again the Dread Lord still manages to intrude  upon our eventful lives. Two weeks ago my love and I got the latest dose against the Grippe Reborn’s newest disguise and every week news comes of someone else who has been touched by the Dread Lord. Some suffer more than others, but all have been able to return to their lives without much concern.

That is why it was so bizarre to watch the leadership contest for the governing party of these parts, who had forced out their old leader, in part, over his failures during the pandemic. Those who opposed the quarantine restrictions are still exercised about them, still furious at being told to get their inoculations and being denied the ability to travel. They want blood and they shall get it, for their choice of leader is now in charge. She has declared that she will remove all those who were in charge of the health system, calling them failures, though they were only implementing the policies put in place by the government she now leads. At a time when the system is still strained by lack of people and resources, throwing it into more turmoil seems foolish, but that will not stop her.

It is disheartening to be governed by a populist who spouts conspiracy theories that it appears she actually believes. She talks of throwing off the shackles of the Greater Dominion, of sovereignty, though not independence. That will come once the empty threats she makes to the federal government bring us nothing in return. How much damage can she do before the next election in seven months time? And is it possible she could be victorious? A depressing thought indeed.

At least we are lucky enough to experience another glorious autumn. For a second year in a row the days have been warm and pleasant, the leaves slowly changing their colours from green to gold. Every time I venture outside I marvel at how beautiful everything looks. It is hard not to feel at peace looking upon such beauty, the steady changing of the seasons. These are the things that make up our lives as much as the turmoil and clamour we bring to them.

Notes on the Grippe

Being an accounting of the recent and continuing pandemic and its various circumstances, from the perspective of an inhabitant of the regions lately called the Lost Quarter. Dates unknown.

Day Eight Hundred Eighty Four

On and on, these endless hot days of a languorous summer. I cannot remember so many days with the temperature over thirty. And there has been no rain for at least a month, not even the thunderstorms that typically accompany the heat. The other day the sky clouded over, the humidity rising, and a few halfhearted drops fell as we were walking, not even reaching the ground. It is parched again, the grass scorched brown and the leaves of the trees wilting.

The sameness of the days has been oddly tiring. It feels churlish to complain about hot days in the summer when soon enough we will be complaining about cold days in the winter, but it hasn’t stopped me. After awhile it all begins to feel ominous. All my life I’ve heard warnings of the coming changes to the climate and how it will impact everyone. They were easy to discount – there were always more pressing matters to be concerned with – but now it is impossible to deny something is happening. The weather is markedly different than it was in my youth in these parts.

We are always slow to recognize what is happening and the change has been so gradual it has been easy to choose not to notice. I still feel the same as I always have, or so I think, and yet hours spent at my desk at work now trouble far more than they used to. There is aches and stiffness, aggravated nerves throbbing. It used to be I could ignore such things, go for a walk, and they would resolve themselves. Lately I have been busy at work and continued to ignore the warning signs, assuming they would just go away. At first they did, but then they returned and were far worse than before. Now I am going to physio for treatment, doing stretches and strengthening exercises, frantically trying to force my body back to normal.

I have had these issues with my nerves getting aggravated on and off since the Grippe Reborn arrived in these parts. A symptom of a more sedentary life spent largely at home, or just a fact of getting older? All the above most likely. What has become sadly clear is that the normal I am striving to return to isn’t going to happen. This is the normal and is something I will have to watch and deal with from now on. I’m no longer the person I was and there is no returning to that. There is only living in the world as it is and working to make sure it doesn’t get any worse.

Notes on the Grippe

Being an accounting of the recent and continuing pandemic and its various circumstances, from the perspective of an inhabitant of the regions lately called the Lost Quarter. Dates unknown.

Day Eight Hundred Seventy

Midsummer. I begin to notice that the evenings are not quite so long as they have been. A blessing in some ways on hot days, allowing more time for the house to cool off before heat arrives again. Languid and lazy and lying about, that was my last week. After months of feeling as though we had to fit in as much of what we had missed these past two years with the Dread Lord Grippe Reborn as possible, we finally allowed ourselves the pleasure of nothing. No festivals to attend, no friends and family to visit, no activities. All of it made for perfect summer days.

The last few months have felt like a frenetic race to make up for lost time. Travels to distant shores that were not permitted under quarantine, but also just getting together with friends and family. Events, like the rodeo or music festivals, that previously we might attend or not depending on our mood and availability, now felt important to go to. We now understood there were no guarantees they would be offered every year. No guarantees that things would go on as they have.

It has proven exhausting though. I am no longer used to being out amongst people all the time. I am more aware of the energy it takes to do so. The things that I used to occupy my time during the last two years have fallen away. I have spent less time baking bread and tending to my garden. I planted late and until the heat of this last week it has looked thoroughly unimpressive.

The Grippe Reborn remains and yet this summer has an air of finality about it. Quarantine strictures everywhere have been dismantled and people returned to their old lives more or less. Every week I hear of someone who has been touched by the Dread Lord, but the trepidation that used to accompany such pronouncements is gone. Most everyone seems to have accepted that there is risk in encountering the Grippe Reborn, but that we are all likely to do so eventually, and they are willing to live with that. Even those I know who have been the most cautious have in the past weeks have become much less so. I think that will only continue, regardless of what guise the Dread Lord adopts in the coming months. He will remain, part of the fabric of our days, but only a part, never the whole of our thoughts.

Notes on the Grippe

Being an accounting of the recent and continuing pandemic and its various circumstances, from the perspective of an inhabitant of the regions lately called the Lost Quarter. Dates unknown.

Day Eight Hundred Forty Nine

They came upon the town as dusk settled, the summer sun having finally vanished over the horizon. Their windshield and the front of the truck were spattered with grasshoppers, the sides streaked with mud and dust from many trips down chewed up gravel roads after the recent rains. The streets were quiet off the highway, everyone settled in for the night or at the hotel bar on main street, with its false fronts and appearance of history. Everything here was recent, in point of fact, having been built in the last fifty years. Yet, even the newest buildings looked as though they had stairs that creaked and were in need of a coat of paint.

It could have been any town in these parts. It was any town, with streets wide enough to run a military parade down them, but no crowd in sight. They drove down the side streets and residential areas and there were a few homes for a sale and a few that looked forgotten. All the yards were tidy, as they would be, though a few had vehicles that looked unlikely to be going anywhere anytime soon in the back alley. Seemingly everyone had an RV and a truck parked somewhere, so much so that the houses that didn’t could almost be assumed to be empty, their inhabitants out at the reservoir or further afield.

They talked about how things had changed since they’d last been through after another long drive across the prairies. The thing was, it hadn’t, not in any substantive way. The shops on main street might have different names and signs but in the twilight gloom they looked much the same. There were a few new houses on the southern edge of town, ostentatiously large, as though their inhabitants thought the town was too small to contain them. Everything else felt smaller than they remembered, desiccated despite the rain. It felt like everyone was trying to hold time still, with the result that they had shrunk and folded in on themselves, turning away from the brightness of their headlights. Except for the roads, which were wide, open and empty, stretching out into the growing darkness.  

Notes on the Grippe

Being an accounting of the recent and continuing pandemic and its various circumstances, from the perspective of an inhabitant of the regions lately called the Lost Quarter. Dates unknown.

Day Eight Hundred Twenty Eight

A rainy June in these parts, so welcome after the drought and heat of last year. For three days we had a torrential, almost tropical rain that combined with the snow melt in the mountains to threaten flooding. Nine years ago there was a massive flood at just this time of year after similar rains. It swallowed much of downtown and whole blocks in neighbourhoods along the river. The damage was incredible. With that event still fresh in the minds of so many there was a flurry of preparations as soon as the storms were forecast. In the years since the great flood there has also been considerable mitigation efforts, building up banks and establishing berms and the like. All of this seems to have paid off for there was little in the way of flooding.

The two rivers that pass through the city are still high and muddy, their currents swelling and rushing. More rain is forecast in the next few days and there is still snow in the mountains with our late spring so we are not out of danger just yet. As I write this it is another cloudy and humid day – I cannot remember so many overcast days in these parts – that promises rain. Soon the farmers will be complaining there has been too much.

Lately I have found myself thinking how fortunate we are to live in these parts. The news has been so unrelentingly grim here and everywhere that it has been easy to focus only on the faults in our lives. To be sure there are still many things I would change, which has true of everyone, everywhere for all time. What surprises me is how often I find myself marvelling at something that a few months ago I would have taken no notice of. These are the same views and streets that were all that was available to us for two straight years. But now that we have gone elsewhere and seen how others live and come back I am seeing it all in a new light.

It helps as well that the people have returned to the streets this summer. Everyone is out and everyone wants to be out, to go places and do things. There is an energy that has been absent. Even in those times in the last two years when restrictions were limited and people were free to go about their lives, we all did so under a shadow. That shadow seems absent now even with the Dread Lord still present. We have faced him and know we shall not be defeated.