By Jean Wolfersteig
The pandemic was in full bloom on the day the Governor announced the stay-at-home order. Noelle went into her bedroom closet, shut the door, and sat on the floor. The closet was her safe place—her inner sanctuary from life’s obstacles and her own imperfect responses to them. Her closet was always there for her.
It was dark and cool inside, except for a thin stream of light from a window mounted near the attic hatch. She liked the color-coordinated clothing hung by length and the objects with special meaning she’d tucked away on the shelves. Even the musty smell of suits, shoved into the corners after her working years were over, comforted her.
A clock that ran backwards from the future—a gag gift she’d received before she retired—was squeezed into a nook on a shelf. Noelle had set the clock for the date of her retirement and had watched the seconds cascade in reverse until the magic day arrived. Afterwards, she’d shoved the clock in the closet, along with the dresses she’d never worn again, and had forgotten all about it.
A tiny itch crawled under her scalp, and an unwelcome notion flashed through her mind. As soothing as it was to sit in the wardrobe, it was just a museum of who Noelle used to be, and that would have to change. She installed her laptop and printer and carted a stack of books, her treadmill, and yoga mat into her cave. Then, she reached for the clock and set it for her birthday.
This year, her birthday would land on the spring equinox, when the sun moved north across the celestial equator, bestowing an equal amount of darkness and daylight. If only the pandemic would fade along with the gloom.
She sighed and crawled into a ball—tiny, tight, like a seed or the smallest of eggs—and stayed there for a long time.
Her husband began delivering her meals, and she ate—a lot. She even dined on her old ill-fitting clothing. She ate so much, she swelled a hundredfold, splitting her pants four or five times. Her legs grew stubby, and her vision weakened, forcing her to feel her way around the closet in her new roly-poly body.
What did her heart long for, she wondered? How did she want to be? Who did she want to be? She nibbled on a pencil eraser and wrote pages of what her life had been, pages of what she wished her life to be, if only…
If only she could be vaccinated right now.
The days streamed by until a strange thing happened—she lost her appetite. To manage her anxiety and keep from losing hope, she stopped scrolling through web pages and limited news from the outside world. She scribbled more pages, pouring out her fears and dreams, until she stopped eating altogether. Then, she wrapped herself in a white silk kimono and inched into a comfortable position, a fat girl suspended upside down from the closet bar.
Big changes were occurring inside her. Her body liquified and drained into her kimono. Her legs melted, and her belly pooled into her spine. Her skin floated like a raft in her cocoon. She dissolved into the space around her.
When the clock stopped running backward on her birthday, Noelle emerged from her kimono fifty pounds lighter. Her legs had grown long, and her vision had improved. She felt a lightness of being—as if she might soar.
The pandemic had waned, and there were no more pages to be written. She bumped the laptop, printer, treadmill, and yoga mat from the closet, leaving behind a deep well. Something she’d known only on the surface before had been transformed into a raw, bottomless awareness.
Life was short.
A wave of grief washed through her. She pushed through the sadness and lifted a pair of red high heels from a shoebox and slipped them on. The new silken blue and silver membranes gleamed like stained glass and tensed and shook when she moved, awkwardly at first. She pinned them back, cracked the door, and left her safe place. She floated down the stairs to the exterior door and glided outside.
Her wings yawned to their full span, shimmering in pure light. She kicked off her high heels, the last vestige of her old self, pressed her toes into the frigid ground, and vaulted into the infinite possibility of the sky.