In this story of lengthy quarantine due to an unnamed virus, a woman sneaks into the mountain to collect ferns—many ferns. Simultaneously evoking life under past Chilean political oppression and living under recent worldwide quarantines due to Covid-19, this Cortazarian story marks the author’s English-language debut.
Let the tall ferns sleep,
silent as a secret,
let them tremble sleeping,
like this, silent and trembling.
Son cries in the kitchen, probably from boredom because Husband is looking at his phone. Ever since life changed, we haven’t stopped looking at our phones, at distressing videos that stop us in our tracks and memes that make us laugh at the same time. I imagine Son must get scared watching the drama play out on our faces. Husband and I are glued to our phones even while the TV is on or while we listen to the news on the radio. The information overload makes us anxious, but it makes us even more anxious to not know what’s going on, because everything can change at a moment’s notice, and we have to be on alert. Protests that block highways and shut down the cities. Shortages. Bomb threats. Politicians who resign en masse and are then sent to prison for renouncing the regime. Riots erupt and things turn violent out there, and we have to secure the building with an extra gate so we’re not exposed. Until new ministers come along who control the “agitators”—as they call them—and things calm down. And that’s how it always is. Now, in winter, the political violence is on pause due to the pandemic. It’s been like this for four years now; we spend five months a year locked away at home waiting for the virus to subside. It’s the only way, they tell us, so we obey without question.
We spend five months a year locked away at home waiting for the virus to subside. It’s the only way, they tell us, so we obey without question.
The first year the virus attacked us the country was left in ruins, almost a million dead. Nothing went back to the way it was before. We readjusted, yes. We continued living that new way of life, which isn’t new anymore, but rather the life we have. That life we led for more than thirty years, Husband and I, no longer exists, it’s been extinguished. Evenings drinking beer with friends, falling asleep while watching boring news, waking up late for work, planning vacations, and talking about whatever. Son doesn’t know about that life; he only managed to live it for a few months, then he had his first birthday in quarantine. The three of us celebrated alone with a white candle, the kind we use when the lights go out, on a not-so-tasty lemon cake I made, because the supermarkets no longer carry cakes. Let’s just say they’re not considered essential. I tried not to cry while we sang in front of the candle, but you can still tell in the photo that I was holding back tears.
It’s been four years, and every day is more or less the same. Husband and I wake up when Son wakes up, which is almost always at dawn because he’s sensitive to light. Completely exhausted, we turn on the radio and TV to hear what’s going on out there. Son plays with the same toys as always while he eats breakfast with us. In the supermarkets, toys aren’t considered essential either; once in a while we exchange toys with the neighbors who have children, but ultimately, the toys are always the same. Then we take turns teleworking in two-hour shifts, which is how long we manage to concentrate without a break, if we’re being honest. We work for a state-owned business, so our employment is somewhat secure. While Husband takes calls, I teach things to Son. The ministries share tutorials to teach us parents how to be early childhood educators, until the children are old enough to start remote education. But I’m not an educator, I’m Mother, so I don’t follow tutorials. I just teach Son whatever I want; things that I feel will be useful to him, such as looking at the sky through the window facing the mountain to see if we see birds, so that he learns their names. Thrushes, parrots, chimangos, blackbirds, pigeons, turcas, siskins, hummingbirds. I also teach him to care for the plants. We water them, clean their leaves, move their dirt around, let them bathe in the sun every day. Then I telework and Husband plays games with Son that I wouldn’t be able to play, such as jumping on the bed, running, yelling. I’m not a Mother who plays, and that’s okay, I do what I can. Then we exercise, eat lunch, and go back to our work shifts. At the end of the day we eat dinner while watching the news and afterward we try to sleep early because at dawn we’ll be exhausted once more, turning on the radio to find out if the world has changed again.
And so the days pass, one after another, and although they’re almost indistinguishable, I note the passage of time. In the fine lines at the corners of my eyes, which I thought were from fatigue, but they didn’t go away. In my body, becoming stiffer, and my mood like my body, which is dimming in brightness. And in Son’s legs and arms that lengthen, centimeter by centimeter, almost imperceptibly, yet quickly. His energy grows, his clothes become too small, and the neighbors give us bigger pants that before too long are short again.
The first year we were foolish. You never think this kind of thing can happen to you. Diseases didn’t fit with our lifestyle, we were immortal. Old age was the only serious, incurable disease, which we otherwise believed we were on the brink of eradicating. We were giants, kings, untouchable, masters, powerful. Until half the world fell ill. First in Asia and then in a few months’ time the virus arrived in the West. It wasn’t long before it spread and took hundreds of lives each day. People died in the streets waiting for a hospital bed. The first two months were like a bad flu. The elderly and people with preexisting conditions died, so people weren’t too alarmed. Young people, the center of the universe, weren’t concerned with the elderly dying, they have to die of something, they thought. But then those same young people began to have a bad reaction to it, because it mutates, it’s never the same, it becomes stronger. You can’t trust the virus because you don’t know how it’s going to treat you. The first week you don’t notice the symptoms. It travels around with you without your knowledge; it sticks to the floor, to the handrails, to the bench in the plaza, to the bag you’re carrying in your hand. In just a few days everything escalates, and you’re intubated in the hallway of a hospital plagued with death. That is, if you’re lucky enough to get a bed. The first year it attacked the lungs, then it mutated and attacked the brain too, then the heart, whatever it was in the mood for that season. Some people are asymptomatic, and the virus doesn’t affect them at all, but they have it forever. They spend their lives healthy, infecting everyone else. They’re called passive carriers, but they don’t live with us, they live in places we’ve never been.
The government orders us to isolate ourselves in our homes every fall and winter, when the virus hits its highest curve. We’re only allowed to go out to buy food and cleaning supplies, whatever you find, once a week, with your body covered—mask, gloves, hat. In winter, when the curve is extremely high, the virus strikes out of nowhere; it lives on all surfaces, just one small slip-up is enough to become infected. Most of us have caught the virus, but that doesn’t protect us because there’s no immunity. The only thing you can do is thank your defenses for allowing you to survive it and hope for the same luck next time.
That first year we were locked away for two months until the government was able to control the curve of infections, or at least that’s what they said. Afterward we found out that they didn’t control anything, and it came back stronger. We were never the same again. When something causes panic to erupt, you accept everything. You accept the military in the streets because they protect you. You accept food rationing because you understand that there’s not enough for everyone. You accept them tracking your data to maintain control, and that they can see you through the cameras on your computer to know that you’re home. You accept that they listen to your conversations, because there are “agitators”—whom they now call “deniers”—who go out to protest against the repression, and they have to be intercepted. You accept the risk that they can shoot you if you leave your home when it’s not permitted, because the law’s not unjust if applied equally to all. You accept waiting in huge lines to buy what they tell you to buy, and you normalize the fights outside the supermarket when someone cuts in line or steals food. You normalize that people throw stones at them, and you do nothing because, always, distancing. You normalize carrying stones in your bag to the supermarket.
During the periods when we’re not in quarantine and there’s some political stability, I go to the mountain to walk through the forest and look for ferns. It’s not been more than once or twice a year, in spring and summer. You’d think that people would go out in droves during those freer and relatively “peaceful” times, but the truth is, they don’t. People did the first year because we had no idea how the virus worked. We don’t know much about it now either, but back then we didn’t know anything. We thought it would be a passing thing, that they’d find a vaccine and that it would become a part of the list of diseases solved by man. The government, anxious to return to normalcy and worried that a recession was imminent, told us that the virus was under control, that we’d gradually return to our jobs, the children to day care and school, and the students to university; and they opened the malls and lifted the quarantine so we could finally take those vacations. So we rushed to resume our lives, to the metro, to restaurants, to birthday celebrations, but that only made things worse. The virus mutated, it became stronger, it took thousands of lives. From there, the economy took a nosedive and the violence exploded. So, we accepted that life and social relationships as we knew them had then ceased to exist, and slowly, out of fear, we went about isolating ourselves.
When you live in confinement for almost half the year, solitude ends up suiting you. Suddenly, seeing someone in person bothers you; it’s not as comfortable as a video call, where awkward silences can be resolved by feigning problems with the internet. And even if we have the freedom to meet up, always at a distance of two meters and with our faces covered, we don’t do it much, or increasingly less, for fear that the virus will punish us again. The risk is high, so they tell us. Besides, if we can’t hug, what’s the point of shouting at each other from a distance to have a conversation that doesn’t flow. When it’s all said and done, your family and friends end up being the people you live with. Friends from school, former colleagues from work, cousins, siblings, your parents (if they’re still alive), are virtual beings with whom you have less and less in common. And for those who live alone . . . well, they are their own loved ones.
When you live in confinement for almost half the year, solitude ends up suiting you. Suddenly, seeing someone in person bothers you.
Soldiers are always in the streets, armed. When you’re not in quarantine season you’re “free” to move about within your zone, covered and at a distance. But you feel guilty doing it. You’re guilty of something you don’t understand, like disrupting the order that has cost lives to uphold, and that irresponsibility takes the joy out of being in the street, out of everything. And I try to escape to the mountain, where there’s no one. Those few visits have given meaning to these years; still, it’s something I don’t talk much about with Husband and Son because they wouldn’t understand. So I go alone. But it always causes a fight with Husband and uncontrollable sobbing from Son, who doesn’t understand the idea of being away from either one of us, because he’s grown up this way—an offshoot from his parents. Is that healthy? It’s something no parent questions now. Children born in the new time are like this, attached, dependent. And what does it matter? He doesn’t interact with anyone who’s not us, and we aren’t very hopeful that things are going to change. We were raised believing that independence and individuality were the essential values of a human being. What did that do for us? Nothing. If this virus revealed anything to us, it’s that accepting mutual dependence is the only way to stay alive. That’s why it’s hard for them, Son and Husband, to forgive my visits to the mountain; the break in routine makes them anxious. They’re afraid of something happening to me, and they’re right, because it’s dangerous. They can’t wrap their heads around—and neither can I—one of us growing distant, breaking off. Because we are one body, like one plant rooted in a sixty-square-meter pot.
The virus limited our ability to move about. Air travel is minimal, we don’t travel outside the region, we barely use the car now, tourism doesn’t exist. And the pause in our constant movement brought a peace to the ecosystem that not only allowed forests and rivers to flourish but also birds to appear, who were able to fly beyond the limits of their territories. Initially, we were moved by videos of exotic birds taking over the streets—they went viral all over the world. It was curious that amid all the disruptions of normalcy we also had to deal with the unexpected appearance of a condor or a falcon when going to the supermarket. Although curious, at first, it became something unfamiliar that terrifies people.
After long periods of time confined in small apartments, in front of our computers, we developed an irrational fear of nature. There’s a fear of everything that isn’t the city, screens, internet, the supermarket, online purchases. Everything outside your zone is dangerous, and even more so on the mountain, where all the trees and plants have overgrown. People fear the mountain because we still don’t know the origin of the virus. A theory suggests that it was transmitted from a wild plant. But the studies aren’t conclusive. Regardless, I understand people’s fear, because it’s true, the forest is intimidating. It’s as if that green silence would like to swallow you and make you a part of it. As if the soul of the creator of everything, including this virus we don’t understand, were there among the plants, in the bark of the trees, and in the stones, watching you. Its eyes see everything. But to me, it feels like warmth and being held.
As soon as they lift confinement, I take my bike to the mountain. Bike riding is well regarded. According to the government, physical activity is one of the essential actions citizens must perform to stay healthy. But you can only do it in your zone and when confinement is not in place, of course. Going to natural parks is considered a crime. I don’t know what the sentence would be, but everyone knows that if it’s prohibited, the punishment is harsh. Fortunately, I know exactly what path to take and they’ve never caught me.
Although I haven’t gone more than six times in all these years, the mountain has breathed life into this perpetual turning of time. In our previous life, I would go every weekend. To clear my mind, think, not think, breathe, cross the river, dip my feet. Back then the picnic areas would be full of families eating, listening to music, swimming in the river. In not one of those outings did it cross my mind that this life could end; it wasn’t in anyone’s realm of possibility. Today the hiking trails have disappeared. There’s only the old wooden gate that welcomes you, a bit broken, which I duck under after hiding my bike among the trees, without being seen. The rest is freedom. There are no soldiers, no masks, no protective suit, no gloves, just me and my regular clothes, breathing freely, hiking the mountain. Empty of people, the forest forgot us completely, the ground no longer marked for human passage. You must make space for yourself among the crowded branches until you reach a more open area to walk with ease.
When I’m a few kilometers in on the slowly disappearing trail, I feel that gaze. In the full light of day, in the shadows, among a cluster of trees. Not real, physical eyes, just the presence of eyes that surround, that speak and grow silent. It’s unexplainable, they’re just there, among the sound of the leaves beneath my sneakers, and the bugs, and the branches trembling in the wind, and the green coldness, and the tiny droplets sliding down the small shrubs in the undergrowth. I pause, afraid, and then I quicken my pace. This is what I try to find on the mountain, to freeze with fear, feel my body cold and paralyzed while I sweat and walk among the green, before surrendering to that frenzy, and to the peace of knowing that its gaze protects and holds me, that it’s upon me. Its eyes walk with me. They don’t stop watching me until I hurriedly ride my bike back to the apartment, bringing with me little ferns, out of a furious desire to carry part of that mystery with me.
The two walls that box in our small balcony are covered with vegetables and leafy greens. In the wake of the recession, the government initiated a campaign to grow crops at home, in which it gave us mandatory courses on vertical gardens for our small apartments so we could grow our own provisions and not contribute to the shortages. The only plants allowed in our homes are the ones made by the government, the “useful ones,” that provide food. They’re arranged by millimeter with twenty centimeters of space between them. The seeds we’re given are made in a lab; the plant carries within itself a genetic intelligence making it a perfect and easy crop. They’re safe, they say, free of the virus. The “wild” plants, however, possess an out-of-control nature, brutally fertile, that the government doesn’t trust. For the moment they’re prohibited, until they find the origin of the virus, and highly frowned on by the neighbors. We still have some inside the apartment, hidden. I refused to get rid of them as “suggested,” following the grow-at-home campaign. They actually started to grow more quickly, their aerial roots making crazy shapes, appearing to grow taller and thicker. We had to start pruning them almost every week to be able to keep them under control. After I smuggled the first fern back from the mountain, we began breeding them. The joy of caring for the plants daily took hold of us. Son and I take them out on the balcony every day when most people are teleworking. With his little hands, he helps me move the pots, and we sit beside them looking at the sky, wondering if we’ll see birds and they’ll see us. This ritual began as a way to distract ourselves and limit Son’s screen time, but then it became a job that we couldn’t give up. . . . Husband has to bring dirt back from the supermarket so we can repot them into increasingly larger containers, because the pruning doesn’t work for many of them. Dirt, in fact, is not scarce; buying it is viewed with approval, because it means you’re contributing to feeding your community. But we use it for the real plants, which we repot into planters improvised from Son’s milk cartons or plastic boxes, whatever we can find among the neighbor’s trash that will hold them. We repot when the roots start breaking the containers. When we no longer have containers large enough, Husband throws the plant in the trash. We fight, we yell, I cry, I lock myself in the bathroom with the plant, and then he makes me listen to reason.
The dining room table is reserved for holding twenty-one ferns. So we eat in the kitchen. The nightstands have ferns instead of lamps. A few, only seven, sleep in the bathroom.
The pruning must be done with the utmost care. Bad pruning can cause a plant to die. However, pruning done correctly gives it strength and vigor. The plant favors a branch distribution allowing sunlight to reach its interior. The strongest shoots must be cut, and the snip must never tear them. I imagine it hurts them, but also that pathogenic agents can enter through the small wounds: the virus. Regardless, the plants are strong, they seem invincible, immune to everything. Before, we avoided having them out on the balcony, so they didn’t catch the attention of the neighbors, but it became impossible to keep them all inside. The dining room table is reserved for holding twenty-one ferns. So we eat in the kitchen. The nightstands have ferns instead of lamps. They say it’s bad for you, that during the night they rob you of oxygen, but I feel it’s the opposite. A few, only seven, sleep in the bathroom. In the kitchen there are around ten more on the shelves, between the pasta, rice, and legumes. Another seven sit on the bookcase, between the books. The rest, on the floor. They’re all offspring from the plants I’ve brought back from each visit to the mountain. More than eighty species of ferns exist in our forest—one day, I’ll have them all. But Husband has strictly forbidden me not only from going back to the mountain—which will happen anyway—but also from continuing to bring back ferns. They seem possessed, he tells me, because of how quickly and heartily they grow.
We’re one month into summer, but they still haven’t lifted quarantine. By this time of year, I would’ve been able to visit the mountain twice, because at the end of winter, confinement is supposedly relaxed. According to the government this has been the harshest year of all—the virus is attacking the central nervous system, and scientists say it’ll be worse every year. There’s no definitive decision on when they’ll expand permissions to go out. Or so they tell us. Those they call “deniers” have taken to the streets to march more violently, without masks, without any kind of protection. They’re armed; they’ve organized. The message they broadcast is that the virus was controlled years ago and that we’ve been led right into a dictatorship. The “Virus Dictatorship,” they call it. We believed in this theory a few years ago. We also marched once, but things turned violent. As time passes and confinement continues, your will starts to break, and you resign yourself to the fact that this is the only way left to live. Maybe it’s true that the virus is insistent on slowly snuffing us out, without our realizing it, year after year. The government spreads this idea but doesn’t directly admit it, and neither do we, aloud, because they could hear us, and extreme fatalism is not permitted. We must keep some hope alive, they tell us. The only thing we can do is become accustomed to this life, to not question anything, if this isolation is really working or not, if the repression is necessary. We can’t do anything about it, at least I can’t. I don’t have the youth or the energy to fight. It terrifies me to think that something could happen to Husband and Son, because “denial” carries the death penalty. It’s safer to believe what they tell us.
Sometimes I think, without telling anyone, that it would be better to go out and surrender to the virus, allow those who have to die, to die, and those who have to live, to live. I try to imagine how life must be for those passive carriers, on what idyllic island they must be sunbathing alongside millions of virulent microorganisms that don’t affect them at all. I’d like to be able to share that privilege, that freedom, but we were dealt a different hand, and faced with that there’s not much that can be done. It doesn’t make sense to dwell on it, I know. In general, I don’t tend to question the life we live now. I’m used to it. I no longer remember how it was before. . . . I find that peace being home with Husband and Son, protected from the world by these plants, and with the certainty of that next visit to the mountain from which more plants will come. This gives meaning to everything and is why these months of waiting have been extremely difficult. The government updates the forecasts daily, and each time they come closer to the consensus that we’ll spend the entire year in confinement. The “deniers” are occupying several zones for that reason; in the supermarket it’s said that they’re “liberating” the people. Every night, in the tomblike silence of the quarantine, shots and chants can be heard. They say they have other data, other scientists, other studies, that things could be different. I no longer know what to think.
Nine months of confinement. I lose hope of visiting the mountain. The plants have overgrown. I pace around this small apartment and feel anxious. I allowed the vegetables and leafy greens to die; I don’t have the spirit for them. Son follows me around trying to understand what’s wrong with me. He takes the smallest plants and brings them out to the balcony to try to lift my spirits. We hug beside them and he sees me breathe, upset. Sometimes I break down crying. Husband becomes angry with me for being like this, while he secretly takes down two trash bags full of plant shoots that no longer fit anywhere. Enough! I can’t take it anymore, he yells. Then he comes back and hugs me tightly. Husband and I met when we were very young. He’s the only person in the world I could spend this confinement with, without going crazy. But we’ve had our crises. “The crises of the plants,” I say to him. Sometimes he laughs, other times he doesn’t. I know he’s thought about throwing all the ferns in the trash and getting our apartment and life in order, but some part of him knows it would kill me, and that the harmony we’ve achieved in this apartment, the three of us, in spite of what occurs outside, we owe in part to those plants.
The harmony we’ve achieved in this apartment, the three of us, in spite of what occurs outside, we owe in part to those plants.
Lately, at night, Husband sees me anxious, walking around the apartment, putting plates of water beneath each one of the ferns, because in summer they have to stay humid. They don’t need to be watered; the water evaporates, rather, and creates the environment they need to feel comfortable. It’s like living in a jungle. Hidden crickets, and other bugs we don’t see, sing among us. Some birds come in to sleep when we leave the balcony door open; an owl watches us sometimes. I walk through the narrow trails among the plants and feel like I’m on the mountain. I try to find that sensation of being held, those immense eyes surrounding me, but I still don’t feel them, not with that intensity. I need more ferns, maybe fifteen or twenty more from other species. Then I lie down somewhere in the living room, where most of the ferns sleep. Husband and Son? I don’t know if they understand it, but they accept it, because they love me, and I love them. Some nights, when a neighbor turns on a light in the middle of the night, amid the shots fired by soldiers annihilating the “liberation army”—as people call them now—Son wakes up afraid and comes to my improvised bed among the plants. He hugs me tightly. Later Husband joins us and the three of us sleep, embraced among the giant fern branches that attempt, in some way, to hold us.
Translation from the Spanish
[i] From Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, trans. Ursula K. Le Guin (University of New Mexico Press, 2011). Reprinted by permission.