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Report from Monona County: Mysterious Work

by Kelly Madigan Erlandson

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We have made some progress in learning to be warm here, carrying in space heaters, sliding a heating pad between the sheets. The two women who were here before left many things, including four knitted afghans which we have laundered and draped over the chairs. Still, it is an old farmhouse in a remote valley, and the forced air furnace heaves on and off, pushing cold against the edges.

The coffee cup feels good in my hands this morning, though risky. I haven’t been right for weeks. My belly distends with aftershocks from eating even the smallest portions, wakes me up at night. Something I can’t swallow or can’t stomach sent me to ultrasound imaging, where a wand in the hand of a young girl pointed in turn at each of my abdominal organs: There’s your gallbladder, that’s your left kidney. The grey images reminded me of my first views of my unborn daughters, a glimpse of what my parents and grandparents couldn’t see until the child appeared in the flesh. Here were my organs, hard at their work, a mysterious work I couldn’t begin to explain.

The first time we drove up to the house at dusk, the fields were filled with deer. My husband and I had finished signing the paperwork that afternoon. My youngest daughter and my son-in-law ran up the snowy hill behind the house to count the deer, pointing them out to one another. On the neighbor’s hill behind us the next day, the dark shapes of turkeys moved in synch with one another.

Each morning here, at first light, deer forage in the stubble field beyond the pond and the alfalfa field behind the barn, and we peer through the kitchen window with the lights off, or sit on the glass porch with the space heaters on, watching their quiet movement.

Last weekend I hiked beyond the fields and partway into our wooded hills for the first time, slowed by this thing I cannot digest. I haven’t yet had the stamina to walk the property line, but I followed the path of the deer through the snow and over fallen trees, their black pellets not yet frosted over, and sat on the hillside in the woods, letting quiet do its own mysterious work. Tiny birds I couldn’t identify made a sound like a bell ringing as they flew from one treetop to another, and occasionally a muffled gunshot sounded from the state land to the south. In the intermittent stillness, I asked for a healing.

On the slow way back, I spotted scat so big and smooth it had to be cougar, and I took it as a sign. Though not their favorite prey, cougars will eat porcupines, and have been found with partially digested quills in their stomachs with no apparent ill effects. My stomach has something to learn from the resident cat.

My doctor says my organs look fine in the ultrasound, so she orders a swallowing test. The radiology tech hands me a cup of fizzy liquid to drink that creates air in the stomach, followed by a cup of thick white liquid which the radiologist can watch as it moves through the esophagus and inflated stomach and the first part of the small intestine. I down them quickly, as instructed, and the fast shutter snap of images begins. Every internal process the radiologist sees works efficiently; nothing is blocked or broken.

Last week we walked through all the rooms of the barn, an old red one a previous owner saved by tinning the roof. Because some doors were lodged shut, we had to climb over troughs, feeling the smooth valleys in the edge of the wood from the sturdy necks of animals who fed there. Up in the hayloft, mud dauber and barn swallow nests lined the rafters, all quiet in the twenty degrees of January.

We own several bales of something, straw or hay, which we don’t know the first thing to do with. A window on either end of the hayloft swings open, one facing the south fields and the hills beyond them, and one overlooking the pond to the north.  We talk about sweeping out the neglect up there—another item for the list of things to come, which is already several years’ worth.

Down at the edge of the frozen pond we stumble on the remains of a wooden rowboat, a skeleton really.  It is the third boat we have found on the property. Two wood duck nests dangle on posts, one with the floor and roof missing. My husband walks out across the ice, learning the size of this body of water, and I skirt the edges, walking where the two-toed deer have left their prints.

Today my sister-in-law helps me clean out kitchen cupboards, emptying, sterilizing, deciding what to pitch. We’ve taken down old drapes, given away trinkets and knick-knacks, and made beds with new flannel sheets.  The place is beginning to smell like bleach and dish soap. As we work, my nephew sits on the porch, binoculars pressed against his face, and spots five wild turkeys walking the crest of the hill.

In this house, I pick up item after item, saying, What is this for? What do you do with this? Sometimes no one knows, and sometimes my new neighbor, Eileen, tells me this iron rod was for moving pans on the wood-fired stove. This house was once her brother’s, and she grew up in this valley, in a house north of here that has since been razed.  She lives a mile away now, with her husband, dog, and twenty peacocks. She is one of our closest neighbors in this nearly empty county.

The nurse from my doctor’s office calls with results of the lab work. There is a bacteria living in the lining of my stomach, a spiral-shaped bug that won two men the Nobel Prize when they first discovered it. Prior to that, researchers believed that no bacteria could live in the acid environment of the stomach. One of the men substantiated his theory by purposely infecting himself with the bacteria. The lab detected it in me through antibodies in my blood.

Fourteen days on two antibiotics and an acid inhibitor ended yesterday, and while not well, I am improving. Today I had my first cup of diluted coffee, with no ill effects. My belly is slowly waking up, ready to resume its work as long as it isn’t overtaxed.

Scientists do not know how the Helicobacter-pylori infection is transmitted—perhaps through contaminated food, or oral contact with another infected person. It is more common in developing countries. My doctor seems interested in my frequent exposure to river water on kayak trips, though she cannot say if that is the cause.

The Helicobacter Foundation reports that many people harbor h-pylori undetected and symptom-free for years and don’t require treatment. Others respond with inflamed stomach linings, peptic ulcers, and ultimately the onset of stomach cancer. Because h-pylori lives in the mucus lining of the stomach, the body’s natural infection fighters are ineffective. They either get wiped out by stomach acid before an attack can be mounted or they find it difficult to penetrate the stomach lining. Our hope is the two-week antibiotic regimen killed the bacteria, and now my irritated stomach just needs time to heal.

As I fell asleep last night, I could see stars above the hill out my window. At two o’clock in the morning, awake for no reason and listening to the unfamiliar sounds of the house, I heard what at first seemed to be a distant conversation, a wavering stop and start from somewhere outside. Then one high, long note sounded and I knew it was coyotes, somewhere in the hills, noses pointed to the dark sky, singing and yipping.    

Today I am listening to my body, practicing moving slower and letting others care for me in their tender ways. I am a little stronger than yesterday, the bacteria flushed, the old linens washed and aired, midway through a season of repair. I have asked for a healing, and the answers have been cougar, mud dauber, starlight, turkey, doe, swallow.


Kelly Madigan Erlandson is the author of Getting Sober: A Practical Guide to Making it Through the First 30 Days (McGraw-Hill). Her poems and essays have appeared in Best New Poets 2007, Crazyhorse, qarrtsiluni, and Prairie Schooner. Kelly’s web site, which includes links for online help with addiction, is www.KellyMadiganErlandson.com.

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