John Sheirer is a Straw Dog Writers Guild member from Northampton, Massachusetts. He has taught for 27 years at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, Connecticut. He writes a monthly column for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, and his books include memoir, fiction, poetry, essays, political satire, and photography. JohnSheirer.com.
Author’s note: This is an excerpt from Fever Cabin, a new novella in the form of a journal kept by a man who isolates himself at a remote Rocky Mountain cabin for two weeks because he thinks he might have been exposed to COVID-19. All proceeds from the book will go to The Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts COVID-19 Response Fund (to help people right here where we live) and Feed America (to provide food assistance for people across the country). The book will be published in mid-May.
March 25: Day 8
I had a visitor.
Last night, I woke in a cold sweat on my tiny, lumpy cot to the sound of scratching outside. Something big was looming near the cabin wall by the window next to the back porch. I didn’t move at first because it seemed like a bad dream. I’ve had a few of those this past week, but those dreams don’t involve scratching, so I forced myself to wake up and throw off the blanket in the dark. The only inside light last night was the dim red light of the clock glowing 2:13 on the counter by the sink. I sat at attention and grabbed the first thing that could pass for a weapon–a small garden shovel leaning against the wall so close to the bed that I barely had to reach for it. The thing is inadequate for digging the snow that fell yesterday or protecting me from anything bigger than a rat, but it’s what’s here. I may die from a virus, but I’m not letting a bear kill me.
All of my senses kicked into high alert and the word “bear” flashed neon red through my mind. I could see a large shape hulking outside that little window, seeming to sway side to side a few inches. Heavy clouds hid the moon, so there wasn’t really a discernable shadow–just a slightly lighter darkness surrounding the ink-dark shape of the bear standing up like a circus bear, showing an outline that reminded me of the head and shoulders of a large, deformed man.
I could hear breathing, a raspy but soft inhale-exhale, more gentle and human than I expected. Every half minute or so, the bear snorted in a way that didn’t sound remotely human or gentle. The scratching that had awakened me must have been the bear’s huge paws crunching through the snow that had melted just enough during the day to freeze into a thin crust.
Then I heard its paws moving across the outside wall like a mime looking for the corner of an invisible box. The claws strummed the wood grain now and then like a guitar student trying a new chord. Maybe I imagined this part, but I’m pretty sure I could feel the cabin moving slightly as the bear touched it. I tried to remember if the cabin had a strong foundation or if it was just a cheap, pre-fab number that sat atop a slab or pilings. To my relief, I recalled the owner making a point to tell me about the cabin’s timber footers sunk into two feet of concrete. At the time, I didn’t know why that was important enough to mention. Now I do. He was letting me know that this cabin can’t be pushed over by a bear.
Then I noticed the smell. I’ve been keeping reasonably clean during my isolation and not doing much to escalate my own body odor. Or maybe I’ve just grown accustomed to my own stink by now. But I could swear I smelled the bear, and it smelled like cinnamon–sharp enough to be distinctive but sweet enough to be almost comforting.