Cabin LifeJennifer Fernandez
Back in the before-times, I used to preach online about the importance of a well-informed skincare routine. I’d rattle on explaining the differences between mineral and chemical sunscreens and the relevant benefits of hyaluronic acid and peptides to get that summertime dewy glow. I used to endorse cassava flour and collagen powder, maca, matcha, and fire cider for digestive health, and made money through corporate sponsorships, product endorsements, and giveaways. I was a lifestyle influencer hocking the virtues of living close to the land and nature, all from my cozy apartment in the city. Nature was a get-away, a place apart from the fermented funk of reality. But reality will find you even if you run away from it. Somehow it hitches a ride.
Everything falls into one of two categories, now: before or after. Before, picking dandelions was a novelty. A fun activity to do when my parents and I came out here for vacation. Gnarled roots for tea, bitter stems for sautéing, petals for salads. Now it’s just another way to pass the warmer months. I’ve been here just over a year and a half. Or maybe closer to two years, now that I think about it. My last entry in here was two days before my twenty-seventh birthday. I gave myself the gift of not writing in this thing and now I’ve no clue what the date is. All I know is that there are long stretches of minutes behind me and an unknown number of days ahead. Starting this up again seems like a good idea, though. Another way to keep my mind busy. Look at me convincing myself that journaling improves one’s quality of life. I’ve written whole posts on the subject!
My hope is that someday someone will happen upon this and find my story helpful. In that case, hello unfortunate person who finds my body! You’ll have noticed that in earlier entries I kept things pretty light—the details of my Paleo breakfast, for instance. Re-reading them I’m embarrassed, writing as if I had an endless supply of paper but not saying anything. So this is my “Goals & Intentions” post (of sorts). When I’d do these online, my goals were things like “drink more water” or “be in nature more.” I’d encourage followers to post their lists, tag me, follow the sponsoring
product line, and comment. Giveaways could boost engagement, grow your followers, and produce user generated content.
So here are my Goals & Intentions for this journal: (1) Make it useful in some way to whoever finds this; (2) Write every day; (3) Be real!
He’d proposed his plan just before the rupture between before and after.
“If everything goes to shit and we need to leave town, we should go to your dad’s cabin.”
He said this as I was drifting off to sleep late one night. My mind exhausted from another day overrun by Zoom meetings, I thought I misheard him.
“Hmm? What??” I said, keeping my eyes closed.
“I just mean, things don’t seem to be getting better.”
My eyes smacked open. “What are you saying?”
He turned on his side, propping himself up on his elbow. “I’m saying that we can’t wait until the world’s on fire to come up with a plan. We need to start planning now.”
There was a long pause and I could feel him deciding whether to continue. I lay still, doing my best not to interrupt his process. We’d been together long enough for me to know that if I attacked him with questions, he’d shut down. Finally, in the spiked tone he used when he needed to convince me of something, he started again, “I’ve been thinking about it and I think we need to have a bag packed, something light that we can just throw in the car in case we need to leave fast.”
As much as I wanted to avoid sending him into a spiral, this seemed extreme to me. Things were bad, but I hadn’t heard of anyone making exit plans. If they were, no one was talking about it. But it would make sense that we hadn’t heard anything, since we made our plans in secret too.
There were sentiments surging, insidious and hateful. I figured they were fringe groups, people far away being stupid. And though we’d already weathered disapproving glances and infuriating comments from grand-parents and uncles, I still had no clue how he felt or what he saw coming. I understand now that he could feel things in his body I couldn’t, see things coming that I couldn’t. Just by virtue of the body he lived in.
On Tuesdays, or what might be Tuesdays, I gather firewood. I give myself about half the day to do this. It requires a lot of walking back and forth to and from the cabin, half the time lugging, you know, heavy stacks of wood. My own cottagecore CrossFit routine. The other half of the day, I like to work on something artsy or mellow like watercolors. I used to enjoy reading, but we didn’t think to pack books. The only ones already in the cabin were a book on fly fishing and an old cookbook.
Mom brought the watercolors to the cabin years ago. She had an irritating habit of getting excited about a craft or activity, and then quickly losing interest and moving on to the next one. Before watercolors was aromatherapy, after watercolors was DIY tea blends, and then sashiko, the Japanese art of functional decorative embroidery. Each activity was something she’d learned about during book club or online. “Your friend Mabel has been talking about calligraphy meditation for days! How have you not heard of this?” Mabel was not my friend. I didn’t even know her personally. She was just another influencer who was probably making money off the calligraphy brush people. Mom was convinced we all knew each other and had brunch on weekends.
The summer she brought the watercolors to the cabin, she and dad were getting along surprisingly well. They’d been growing cold of late, each seeming to hide something from the other. I had put up a fight in the days leading up to that cabin trip, but honestly once we were here, it was nice to just watch them be kind to each other again. Mom made her “famous” pesto pasta—with extra bacon for me—and showed me how to use the watercolors by the light of the lantern. We sat and ate pasta and painted spindly flowers, saw-toothed leaves, and knotty trees. She hummed Jim Croce and the lantern gave off just enough light for us to tell the difference between indigo and black. Those cabin trips seem precious now—gardening, foraging, fishing, building fires. All those times I thought she was being flighty, distracted with new projects, or when I thought he was being obstinate, insisting that I go fishing with him or learn to cut firewood—they were really teaching me about the strange enchantment that exists between humans and nature. That alchemy between us. Maybe that’s giving them too much credit, but I suppose that’s how I understand it now that I’ve lived out here alone. Either way, I’m grateful. I’m grateful too that he got to know this place and my parents.
He’d met them once before at a dinner, but bringing him to the cabin was obviously a much bigger deal. I wasn’t too worried. He was confident and beautiful. My parents loved him because he loved me. But he was easy to love. Some evenings we’d walk, just the two of us, out to the far end of the meadow. One night we stood under one of the trees silently surveying. He stood behind me and pulled me close, wrapping his arms over my chest. My back pressed up against him I could feel his heart beating, his breath on my hair.
These days, I’m up well before the sun is above the mountains. But the honey glow of morning is only beautiful if you don’t think about what might be happening on the other side of those hills. The other day, I had a dream that made me realize I still haven’t written anything about what brought me here. But if I’m being truthful, I haven’t been very truthful at all. I’ve been hiding from you. Maybe that’s the real reason I haven’t written in what seems like over a month.
In my dream I was facing the meadow, the sky burning and grainy as if it were made of a million fire ants skittering around. It throbbed and flickered, combusting and releasing back to earth all the crap we’d sent up, our bloated sentimentality, our misery, our pollution. My hands felt warm and wet. Blood streamed off my palms and dripped down my fingers. Garter snakes like moldy sesame noodles, twisted and curled around my feet. Crows swirled above me cawing. I woke up crying.
The night it happened we were fully asleep. Earlier in the evening while he was cooking dinner, he said he was sure some people at the store had been talking about him. By that point the car had been packed for a month. He’d been carrying supplies out to the trunk little by little in the middle of the night, in case anyone was watching. I thought he was being paranoid but speaking up at that point would have been absurd, so I just sat there, finishing my drink and listening. When he was done I walked over, put an arm over each of his shoulders, and got up on my tip toes. I kissed him and told him how “hard” it all sounded. I was an idiot.
We cleaned up the dinner dishes together that night like we did every night and he asked how my day had gone. I told him about the brand I was working with, which was a maker of ethical pet clothing.
“What’s that? Like clothes that aren’t uncomfortable for your pet?”
“No,” I chuckled, “like not sweatshop made.”
We talked about fast fashion, unions, and worker’s rights. He washed, I dried. I didn’t mention that earlier in the day my content manager told me she’d noticed an uptick of hits on a few posts featuring us as a couple. An anniversary post where I glowed about how happy I was we were still together, a vacation picture we took a couple years earlier in Burma. It never occurred to me to say something. As we went to bed, everything seemed as normal as was possible at the time.
There was a boom and a crash. Everything shook. In the dark a rush of bodies came into the bedroom. There was screaming and yelling coming from every single body. He shouted at me to run. So I did. But they weren’t after me.
I drove close to 5 hours without stopping. When I arrived, I did everything as he’d planned. I blocked the path, covered the car, and walked the rest of the way, making sure to go through the rocks, I did all of it, everything. Just like he said. When the front door closed, it finally hit me:
I was here. He wasn’t.
After I arrived, I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I tried to fill every second with activity. I saw once on a survivalist show that your brain needs things to work on so you don’t go crazy in extreme isolation. It felt strange and uncomfortable not having anyone to talk to, no internet to post on, no friends or neighbors or strangers. I noticed that I’d started talking to myself, and that seemed weird so I started talking to the crows instead, which I thought was marginally better. Soon it dawned on me that before coming here I was surrounded by an endless barrage of stimulus. People talking at me online, comments and DMs, Zoom meetings, phone calls. There was always noise. Out on the street, noise. Watching videos on my laptop, noise. I thought I knew what quiet was, but it wasn’t until I got here that I realized I’d never had quiet.
Even when we came here as a family, we’d have each other to listen to. Mom would hum while she worked on some project and Dad’s newspaper would rustle or he’d be out cutting wood. There was always some other human making sound. But real quiet, the kind that exists when we’re all too busy clamoring around, is like a vortex that can suck you up.
The total darkness of nighttime left me with nothing to do but stew in my own guilt and loneliness. In the beginning, I cried into the cabin’s musty, overstuffed feather pillows, confronted by the vast silent ache of time and uncertainty before me. I had to get used to being alone during the day. I started writing in this thing again. I talked to the crows, gathered firewood. I learned to tend the garden, pick the elderflower, yarrow, and chamomile regularly. Botanical supports not only promote gut health, they can also be immunity and mood boosters. Now, I still fill my time, but more slowly, with purpose instead of desperation. Repairs are needed from time to time—a hole in the roof, a clog in the woodstove. But there isn’t a night though when I don’t think of him and of what I did.
The creek is about four miles away so I check carefully to make sure I have everything I need before leaving. There were a couple of times early on when I’d get to the creek and realize I’d forgotten the flies or the gun, so I’d either have to walk all the way back or just say fuck it, and leave everything to chance. Dad loved fishing and when we’d go out to the creek, he’d show me all his new ties. He wasn’t so fancy that he’d make them himself, he’d buy them at the store, but he was always proud and excited to show me. I remember loving their brightness and flare. He’d tell me the names of each one and what made it special, but I just thought they were pretty and would look nice on a hat.
Today I used the long green and white tie, the one with a red bead for an eye. It dove deep down into a hole where the fish were and snagged one. That shocking snap and pull is always a relief. I was terrible at first, rusty from years of begging off whenever my dad suggested we go fishing.
Memo to whoever finds this: when packing your bug-out bag, make sure to pack yourself a lipstick. I know, you’re probably thinking, “Who is she trying to look nice for? The crows?” But one day you’ll wonder what your friends are up to and whether they’re safe. You’ll wonder if they’ve thought about you and whether they miss you too. You’ll remember mimosas on Sundays, picnics and barbecues, birthday parties, and asking one another if you have anything stuck in your teeth. You’ll miss laughing with them and then you’ll cry praying they’re not alone, like you. You’ll want to look good for them, for the memory of them, in honor of them. There will be a day when you wish you could pretend, even for a little bit, like you’re getting ready to meet them for coffee. You’ll want to cover up your dry, cracked lips. Pack a lipstick. And if you can, try to make sure it’s free of synthetic antioxidants like Butylated Hydroxytoluene which is known to cause liver damage. But honestly, who gives a shit at this point?
The wind has been howling and whipping and I’m afraid if I go out there, I’ll flake off into tiny pieces and be blown away like ash. I haven’t left the cabin in over a week, I think. Today I watched as part of the fence got knocked over and dragged out to the meadow. An invisible hand took hold of it and, in a rage, twisted and warped it before sending it flying. Windstorms make me wish I could leave, get in the car and go, but I know it probably wouldn’t start. Even if I did get it running, I have no way of knowing what I’d be driving back to.
Thick and heavy, I feel like I’m covered in moss or fur. Dank and woolly. My hands have become hooves, awkward and clunky. My teeth are loose. The wind keeps me up at night, but so do my dreams. Lying in my parents’ bed I smell the pillowcases trying to find one last hint of their smell, but they hadn’t been here for years even before I arrived. One took a long and arduous road to death, while the other went quick, as though by shortcut. They’d done their parts to make everything easy for me. Wills had been written, preferences stated, coffins and plots paid for. The only thing I needed to do was cry and grieve and wail. And I’d wanted to. But somehow I couldn’t.
The sun is out and the mountains are glowing, massive and plump. On these days, before the sun is high, the sky is the palest of pinks. Halfway up the hillside, mist lingers, slow and melty. The tops of the hills are a dark seaweed green, sandwiched between the milky blush of sky and the wispy mist that eventually slips away to some unknown place. I think we’re all happy to see the sun again, the crows and me. It’s been good to leave the cabin, check on things, look for that piece of ravaged fence. It’s slow going. For the most part, things held up well. There’s a lot to clean up but none of it is beyond repair.
A crow has been cawing out an alarm for days. I suspect there’s something in the area like an eagle or owl. Usually they call out like that when there’s something in their space that shouldn’t be. I saw them once gang up on eagle ten times their size. They dive-bombed it, taking turns mobbing in and out. Eagles may be majestic, but the crows are scrappy, so I root for them. They come by and watch me when I’m outside and we talk. I tell them everything I can remember about him, like how he liked soft custardy scrambled eggs on Sunday mornings or how he’d stretch out long, like a cat in a sunbeam. With his hands way up above his head, he’d point his toes and extend his legs taut, making them look like pencils. His eyelids scrunched like walnuts. I used to watch him do this from across the room, admiring his sinewy muscles, the crack and snap of his ankles, the way his t-shirt would ride up and show the hair around his belly button.
These days my body isn’t up for the kind of work I used to do. It seems I’m always tired. One morning, I’d been out plodding in the garden for a bit but got hungry and could feel my energy waning. Standing to come inside, I glanced up at a crow who’d been perched on the fence watching me work—and then noticed behind him, just at the far edge of the meadow, a man standing under one of the trees. I don’t know how long he’d been there.
I backed away and ran inside, going straight for dad’s gun. My chest ached, my hands were sweaty and hot. All this time, and I’d never seen anyone. Who would even find this place? Why is he just standing there.
When I gathered the courage to peek out again, he was gone. Fear was coursing through my chest, but what struck me in that moment, what stopped me cold, was that he looked just like him.
I packed a bag with some essentials and came out to look for you a few days ago. I know it was you that I saw. “Essentials” now boil down to a knife, gun, some bits of food, and my coat. A piece of paper, a pencil, and a needle and thread are my luxuries. You’re out here. Maybe lost and hungry. My body is cracked and brittle and my gums are bleeding. I’m out further than I’ve been before but I can’t leave you again. I can’t see you, but you’re there. Behind the tree that’s behind that tree.
Not knowing what became of you means you’re everywhere, and nowhere. You might be dead, or, like in a fairy tale you’re alive and waiting for me in a tiny cottage in the woods living a parallel life. Maybe the crows know you too. There is a vacuum in these woods that splits with every caw and each skittering squirrel and mouse. I listen for your voice, an echo, a vibration through the trees. Are you calling out to me? Are you there?
Jennifer Fernandez is a Cuban-American writer. Her short stories have appeared in several literary journals and her creative nonfiction piece, “The Cuban Brown Rabbit” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2021. She lives near Seattle, Washington.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Seven.