Something Unseen Out There

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – There’s a creature living under my back porch. I presume it’s a rodent, although rabbit, fox, or possum would be all right, too. Skunk, porcupine, or raccoon would not.

It was a clip from “Holland Has Talent,” in which little Amira Willighagen stands up to the microphone, amid the obvious condescension of all, to sing “O Mio Babbino Caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. After the first bar, people in the audience begin standing.

It first betrayed its presence by harvesting the leaves of the coltsfoot that grows at the foot of the ramp leading to the back door and – again presuming – stashing them away against the long, cold months ahead. Kiki, my mighty hunter, occasionally sniffs around the opening that whatever-it-is is using and, if the scent is fresh, dives in for the kill. No kills yet. That critter, clearly aware of its vulnerability, ventures forth only advisedly, does its thing, and disappears.

So do I. Looking out my office window, as I am right now, I see only blue skies, browning fields, and a morning sun warming the yard. But there’s something unseen out there, too: an airborne virus that, ignored, can kill us. So, like the little harvester beneath my deck (I’ve checked the side effects of coltsfoot and hope she isn’t pregnant), I venture forth timidly and thoughtfully, protected by a mask for grocery shopping or human contact closer than two meters. The CDC puts me in a high-risk category; so, though life owes me no more years, I’d hate to end it by being stupid.

It must be maddening to be confined to a small apartment in a big city, with a view out the window of only the building across the street. Vermont, by contrast, is a paradise. Still, the restrictions can sometimes be depressing. I can’t go west to my native New York without quarantining two weeks after my return. I had to make a trip east this week, to just the New Hampshire side of the Connecticut River, but learned that Grafton County is now colored yellow on the Vermont Department of Health map. So, I called for advice. Which was: If it’s only for the day, and you wear your mask, you’re okay. As Huck Finn says, “That warn’t hard, so we done it.”

Punctuating a life spent mainly alone gazing at a computer screen is not too hard to do, if – and this is a big if – you can overcome the depressing torpor that glues you to your chair. Kiki, luckily, insists on a daily walk in the park, except in a deluge; and on our weekend walks we have the charming and lively company of a high school French teacher. But the exercise machines sitting in the now-unused living room loom like sermons: good for me, but boring.

The magazines that pour in here faster than I can read them are a relief, but these days most of them are focused on a situation that I’m sick to death of reading about. My wife’s “Popular Mechanics” subscription, though, is still active, and “Archeology” puts me to sleep each night as soon as I realize I’m reading the same paragraph for the third time. Both are blessed breaks from politics.

Music is an almost constant accompanist – and sometimes the soloist – in my life. As I write today, the late virtuoso Andrés Segovia, through some electronic magic, fills the corner behind the computer with pavanas, galliards, and canzonettas. I can’t tell one form from another, frankly, but I love to hear the old man’s fingers squeaking on the guitar strings.

In the evening, when lights are low (as the song goes), I turn back to the Twenties – John McCormack, Jimmie Rodgers, Vernon Dalhart – or even farther, to a stash of Civil War ballads. The heartbreak inherent in those songs is a strong cathartic.

Just yesterday, seeking a break from the constant dolor, and inspired, perhaps, by Jimmie Rodgers’ yodeling, I googled “Alpine yodeling.” But after a few bits of Schweizers in Lederhosen yodeling at the Alps, the thread led me to “Nine-year-old singing aria.” It was a clip from “Holland Has Talent,” in which little Amira Willighagen stands up to the microphone, amid the obvious condescension of all, to sing “O Mio Babbino Caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. After the first bar, people in the audience begin standing. It was impossible, what she was doing: Maria Callas, resurrected in a nine-year-old! Even writing about it now, my eyes are wet. Heaven, just as it did the day Mozart was born in Salzburg, has rained down an ineffable, prodigious talent. She will be my evening relief from our “cabined, cribbed, and confined” condition. The world’s illness will briefly go away, and we’ll end the day with, as always: “Good night, and joy be to you all.”