LALIBELA, ETHIOPIA—I came to Ethiopia for book research that has to do with displacement and Eden, and tracing our beginnings as humans. How could I have known that the trip I had meticulously planned for months would be so ill-timed, that the world would be so anxious about endings?
I left the United States when coronavirus cases seemed localized in California and New York, but hand-sanitizer was already gone from shops. The day I landed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia confirmed its first case of coronavirus.
A bellyful of worry increasingly accompanies my quest to contemplate our origins, the history of our relationship with place, and human movement, ancient and modern. On my second day in Ethiopia, at a paleontological site, I stood over the place where researchers had found the fossils of a 4.2-million-year-old Australopithecus, who preceded Lucy by a million years. I moved on to the nearby fossil field of homo sapiens remains dating back 160,000 years, where passing camel herders draped their arms over their Kalashnikovs and asked news of the coronavirus. So did the women in the nearest village, where I overnighted in a reed hut. I fell asleep wondering: What did the Herto Man, our direct ancestor, who had lived here once, fret about?
News from America: my child’s university transitioned to virtual classes, and the students, displaced, must leave their dorms. I drove northward, past posters warning in Amharic against the perils of illegal migration. Thousands of impoverished Ethiopians try to reach Arabia and Europe each year, often by sea: the exodus from Eden continues. I spoke to young men my child’s age who had crossed the Gulf of Aden to Saudi Arabia and were deported, even younger men who say they will try to make the crossing again, others whose friends have died on the journey. I could not reach my child: my US phone has no cell coverage here. When I stopped for the night at a roadside hotel, there was no Internet, and the bellhop explained that it had been turned off to contain coronavirus rumors.
The disease is spreading quickly; panic spreads quicker. The government has confirmed more Covid-19 cases, and the US embassy in Addis has posted a security alert: foreigners in Ethiopia have been violently attacked because they are believed to spread coronavirus. In coffee shops, men watched coronavirus standup comedy on their cellphones. I drove through towns where health workers were demonstrating hand-washing techniques to passers-by at busy intersections. All schools have closed for fifty days. In America, my child has found shelter at a friend’s home.
In Lalibela, where a twelfth-century Ethiopian king hewed churches out of mountains, twelve pilgrims died this week in a bus accident, and I arrived in a town flooded by thousands of mourners in white. My worries felt petty. Then I learned that it was unclear how much longer Ethiopian Airlines, the only transportation by air still available, would be operating international flights. I was supposed to stay for three weeks but changed my ticket, losing a week of research. I panicked and tried to rebook for an even earlier flight, but the Internet connection was too slow.
What to do? I hiked up to Asheten St. Mariam, a monastery carved into the face of a cliff, 13,000 feet above sea level. The monastery church is older than the Black Death, older than the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima. I think of how the pandemic exposes our aspirations and dread. I think of the entire history of human strife and how we navigate the frightening and the unknown. I think of how I will get back, but the concept of “back” feels vertiginously spectral.
Anna Badkhen is the author of six books, most recently Fisherman’s Blues. A Guggenheim Fellow, she is at work on An Anatomy of Lostness. (March 2020)
GAINESVILLE, FLORIDA—This is the seventh day of our self-sequestering in Florida. Our antique neighborhood, normally swarmed with children on bikes and on foot, has gone eerily still. From the porch, thick with pollen, we hail our neighbors walking their dogs, and over a safe distance from sidewalk to porch, we shout about catastrophe, pandemic, toilet paper, stock markets. People in this section of town are mostly affiliated with the University of Florida and have taken radical precautions, but we hear from those who still go out to work that other parts of town are nearly as normal.
I find I have to run very early in the morning to avoid the crowds of blithe young people who cluster on the grass in the parks, exposing their flesh to the sun. I am not their mother, so I don’t yell at them to protect themselves the way I want to. At the same time, I find myself sympathetic; we are all dreading the heat that we can feel gathering itself, about to crash down in a week or so. Too soon we will be forced to estivate, to draw the shades against the sun searing through the windows and live our days in gloom; we will go out only when it’s cool, in the early morning or after sunset. Pandemic claustrophobia will arrive.
My normal life is the life of a shut-in, as a writer with no other job, and for me this time has been disconcertingly social. One of the concessions my husband granted in exchange for making me live in Florida is that I can go straight to my work in the morning without having to deal with, hear, or even set eyes on my children. Now that they are away from school, I find myself with company all day, scrambling to keep my boys busy. I have been leading a daily writing workshop on Google Hangouts for the neighborhood kids, and I’m struck by how easily the under-twelve crowd picks up ideas that are hard for graduate students to understand.
I wake every morning to an email by a group of beloved writers, each taking turns sending poems they have recorded in their own voices, to keep morale up. Different clusters of friends have daily cocktail hours online. I’m reading Don Quixote in a book club with two brilliant novelists. My days, generally empty of others until my boys come home from school, have become nearly too full with other people. Perhaps I am over-sating myself, in fear of loss.
Some people have imaginations sparked only by what they can see; I blame this blinkered empiricism for the parks overwhelmed with people, the bars, until a few nights ago, thickly thronged. My imagination is the opposite. I fear everything invisible to me. From the enclosure of my house, I am afraid of the suffering that isn’t present before me, the people running out of money and food or drowning in the fluid in their lungs, the deaths of health-care workers now growing ill while performing their duties. I fear the federal government, which the right wing has so—intentionally—weakened that not only is it insufficient to help its people, it is actively standing in help’s way. I fear we won’t sufficiently punish the right. I fear leaving the house and spreading the disease. I fear what this time of fear is doing to my children, their imaginations, and their souls.
The only thing to do to escape the prison of these fears is to immerse myself in other people, to pull the bodies of my boys close, to sink into the minds of the writers I’m reading, to love the faces of family and friends visiting by computer screen. And to sit in the relative coolness of the morning, now, listening to the birds newly arrived from South America in the magnolias, knowing it’s the last of the gentle weather we will be having for a very long time and trying not to think about the misery to come.
Lauren Groff is the author of the novels The Monsters of Templeton (2008), Arcadia (2012), and Fates and Furies (2015), and of the story collections Delicate Edible Birds (2009) and Florida (2018). Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, and Harper’s. (February 2020)