Pandemic by Vivian Lawry

Genilee had made seven masks, all floral—two of which reversed to classic black, suitable for formal occasions, should she ever again have one. She had a standing order for grocery delivery, used alcohol wipes on mail and package deliveries, and washed her hands more often than ever before. She made the latter more tolerable by using French milled soaps scented with lavender and thyme. Sometimes, about halfway through the hand-washing song, she spent the last ten seconds wondering, “Why bother?” With her staying home and no one visiting, how was anything harmful going to get on her hands anyway?

She was grateful every day for her good health and prosperity. She had given up her landline phone three years ago and was richer for it. Her smartphone was so smart that she decided she could do without a laptop and a tablet as well. She kept her Kindle, however, because reading on a phone strained her eyes. All in all, she was pleased to declutter.

But Genilee had been crying for three days now, ever since she dropped the hot cast-iron Dutch oven on the kitchen counter, and her phone skittered into the sink and down the garbage disposal. She flipped the off switch immediately, cursing and sucking her burned fingers, before retrieving the mangled mess. The Apple Store did not qualify as an essential service and had been closed for weeks, and she hadn’t figured out how to replace her phone. Walmart was still open because of their grocery department, but she hated Walmart, doubted that they carried iPhones, and panicked at the thought of starting over with another phone. For one thing, she no longer knew any phone numbers—and her Rolodex had gone the way of her computer and tablet. Everything was backed up to the cloud but could only be retrieved on an Apple product—which she had no way of buying!

If she didn’t talk with someone soon, she’d go bonkers. Surely this was enough of an emergency to call up Granny. When Granny lay dying in 1984, she said, “Honey, if ever you truly need me, I’ll be with you.”

Well, Genilee might not be on her deathbed, but she surely needed her Granny. “And how’s that supposed to work?” she muttered. She seemed to be talking to herself out loud a lot these days. She called, “Granny, where are you?” and “Granny, I need you!” several times to no effect.

All morning she sipped coffee and pondered. She’d never been a believer in the paranormal or supernatural. Were those the same thing? She had a dear friend, Elizabeth, who identified herself as Wiccan. Thinking of Elizabeth brought to mind her friend explaining how she got into scrying. Her mother had been polishing silver and became enraptured by images in the bowl of water. Afterward she swore that Elizabeth’s dead twin had spoken to her. Elizabeth had become a water witch years later and first used a bowl of water to scry but later added a crystal ball and a scrying mirror. She’d told Genilee, “You can use any reflective surface.” Elizabeth claimed that scrying brought her important messages and visions.

Genilee had a crystal ball, but it was manufactured, not natural. A mirror seemed too pedestrian. “So a bowl of water it will be,” she murmured, as though the walls cared.

The obvious choice was a blue Depression glass bowl that had belonged to Granny. Granny had called it “moonlight blue.” It was an eight-inch square with four feet, its sides crimped and its rim fluted. Genilee filled the bowl two-thirds full with water and set it on the old oak table in a shaft of sunlight. The blue bowl reminded her of Granny’s eyes—of her own eyes.

And then she was at a loss as to what to do next. Leaning over the bowl, her breath rippled the water. She dropped a clear glass marble into the bowl, and a circle of waves washed outward to the edges. And there, in the middle of the rippling waters, Granny’s face appeared. Not her face just before she died, but as Genilee remembered from her childhood.

“Granny!” Tears filled Genilee’s eyes and dripped into the bowl.

“Now, child, there’s no need to cry.”

“Oh, Granny, I’m just so glad to see you, to hear your voice! You said you’d be with me if I ever needed you and here you are.”

“So tell me why you’re so upset.” Genilee started babbling about the pandemic, her words tumbling out so fast that Granny said, “Slow down, child. Take a deep breath and then tell me what you need.”

Genilee described the mask-making. When she got to the stay-at-home order, Granny said, “Why, that sounds just like the Spanish flu. I was fifteen when soldiers from the Great War brought it to Big Stone Gap. That would have been in October 1918. Pretty much everybody thought it would be like the flu that came around every fall. Every year we were told to avoid crowded or unventilated places, to keep our hands off our lips and noses, to cough or sneeze into a hanky or with head bowed toward the ground. The grippe, as we called it then, seldom caused death.

“But soon the Wise County Board of Health said the county would follow the advice of Surgeon General Blue. They closed nearly all public gathering places—especially churches, schools, and theaters. They hired men to enforce sanitary laws, like the one against spitting on the sidewalks, and to break up any forming crowds. People could be fined between ten and twenty-five dollars for violations—and that was a lot of money back then.”

Genilee gasped. “Except for the part about fines, that’s exactly what the governor is doing now!”

“All the papers called it a war against an unseen enemy, of unknown source, though some people believed the Germans were using germ warfare against us. I never really believed that. And they told nurses and doctors it was their patriotic duty to answer the call.

“It was a bad, bad time. Southwest Virginia was the hardest hit area of Virginia. Partly that was because so many poor folks lived in those hills, and getting help to them was hard. Both my brothers who got it in France—that would be Harmon and Leonard—both of them survived. They were immune afterward so they were much in demand to be pallbearers and gravediggers. They told stories of hungry dogs snapping at them while they carried a coffin. We had so many dead that the undertakers and coffin makers couldn’t keep up.”

“Yes! That’s what’s happening now! Storing bodies in refrigerated trucks and then burying them in mass graves.”

Granny nodded. “We lost Sister Cynthia. She died a painful death. Mommy kept the rest of us children away from her. We ate in the yard and slept in a tent out there. Mommy took care of Sister Cynthia all by herself. She said she didn’t want Harmon or Leonard to carry it back and forth, so they were in the yard with us. When Sister Cynthia died, they carried her out on the hillside, built her coffin, and buried here there, in sight of the kitchen window.

“While they took care of Cynthia’s body, Mommy started in on the house with soapy bleach water. She scrubbed down the walls and floors, wiped down the furniture, put all Cynthia’s clothes and bedding in a washtub with lye soap and bleach water, and set the washtub out in the yard overnight. It’s the Lord’s own mercy that the flu didn’t take Mommy too.”

Genilee sobbed. “I can’t imagine how awful that was for everyone.”

“Yes, it was the worst time—even worse than the Great Depression. You might think Mommy wouldn’t take it so hard, what with eight children and both parents still alive. Ours was one of the lucky families. But for years after, I’d sometimes come into the kitchen to find Mommy staring out the window at that grave, tears just rolling down her face and spotting the bib of her apron.”

“Oh, Granny, I never knew any of that!”

“Well, by the time you were old enough to understand, that was all old news, eclipsed by World War II and the Cold War and whatnot.” Her smile looked sad. “But you didn’t call me up to talk about my pandemic. What’s been the worst thing for you?”

Genilee dabbed a tissue to the corners of her eyes. “The absolute worst is not being able to talk with anyone. I’m used to living alone. It’s been five years since John died. But I was always able to reach out to friends and family.” She told Granny about staying in and the debacle with her cell phone.

“How could something as big as your phone get into the disposal?”

“Oh, Granny.” Genilee chuckled. “Phones aren’t anything like they used to be. My mobile phone is less than six inches long, less than three inches wide, and thinner than my pinky finger.” She paused to think. “I won’t try to get into the technology of it. Just know it does a whole lot more than make phone calls. But right now, not being able to get in touch with people is the worst. “

“I suppose you threw it away.”

“No. I just keep hoping that when the Apple Store reopens, they will be able to salvage some important things, like my address book and my photos.”

“Photographs and addresses on your phone? What’s the world come to?” Granny’s eyebrows arched upward. “Show me this gizmo.”

Genilee retrieved the mangled phone from the kitchen windowsill and held it over the bowl. The screen had splintered into slivers, the body was twisted, and all the edges looked chewed.

“So this is what you call a mobile phone?”

Genilee nodded. “Yes. A mobile phone—a cell phone. A very beaten-up one.”

“And you’re sure it isn’t functional at all?”

“I’ve tried everything, I’m sure.”

“Well then, drop it into this bowl.”

“What? Water ruins cell phones!”

“But this one is already ruined, you said.”

“Umm. Okay.” She slid the phone into the water. It settled to the bottom just behind and slightly above Granny’s closed eyes. Genilee stared as the shattered screen smoothed and healed. The body of the phone untwisted. The chewed edges filled in the missing bits. Even the phone case looked pristine again. She gasped. “Granny! How did you do that?”

“It’s the healing waters.” Granny offered a small smile. “I’m tired now, honey. I need to go.”

“But…when can I see you again?”

“Now don’t get the wind up your bloomers!” She grinned. “This isn’t going to be like a weekly call home. But if you truly need me, I’ll come.” She sighed. “And child, when they first tell you it’s okay to go out and stop taking precautions, don’t. Just don’t do it. The Spanish flu hit in three waves. I want you to stay safe.” Granny’s face faded.

Genilee retrieved the phone, dried it with paper towels, and tapped it on. Instead of the blooming hellebores she used to see, her wallpaper was now Granny’s face.

Vivian Lawry’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in more than fifty literary journals and anthologies, from Adanna Literary Journal to Xavier Review. For a full list of her publications, visit her website, vivianlawry.com. In addition to her short pieces, she has three books: Dark Harbor and Tiger Heart—installments in the Chesapeake Bay Mystery Series—and Different Drummer: a collection of off-beat fiction.

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