Pema woke early. It was dark, well before first light. I sat in my chair, drinking tea, listening to her stir. I held a book in my hands, but was no longer reading it coherently. Every few minutes the zippy sound of her PJ’s slid over the sheets, accompanied by deeper thumps as she turned over. I knew she was staring at me, but I didn’t want to acknowledge that. She was still in that sleepy morning space, and even if she wasn’t going back to sleep, our full frontal awareness of each other would take something subtle away. She needs that quiet liminal space to herself, just like I do.
But then I ran out of tea. As I went to fill my cup from the teapot, Pema stared at me from under the blankets like a hidden treasure waiting to be found. I held her gaze in my periphery while she eagerly anticipated my movements. Here I am, her eyes said. I laughed. “Hey pup,” I whispered, finally looking directly at her. I brushed her hair gently, leaned over her warm body, and spoke softly, “It’s still super early. You should try to keep resting. I’m just going to sit here and read my book.”
I sat back down and picked up my book, hoping for the best. Sometimes she’ll fall back asleep for another hour or two, at which time I’ll get up to feed the chickens and make breakfast. Not this time. I could feel her eyes on me, softly gazing. After a couple minutes, she started bargaining, “How long do I have to keep resting, Daddy?” Inside, I was laughing.
Sometimes I am shocked at the level of intimacy and trust Pema has with me. “You can do whatever you want,” I thought, “Why do you wait for permission?” Of course, it was gratifying to my heart that she trusted me so completely that even the simple act of rising out of bed, albeit a bit early, was something for which she thought she should have permission. Can it be that we’re this bonded?
“Alright, pup,” I said, putting down my book. She rose eagerly and crawled on her knees to the edge of the bed. “Ugh,” she said, reaching her arms out to me. “Oh, come one,” I answered. She stepped down to the bench, across the floor, and climbed into my lap. “Good morning,” I said, as she nuzzled her head into my neck. I took a sip of tea, the two of us hanging in the yellow haze of the lamp light, darkness still nesting in the corners of the room.
We fed the chickens. Pema unlatched the little square door that sits at ground level, folding down with a diminishing BANG-Bang-Bang-bang…into a little ramp. The hens climbed down. The large door, the human door, stays shut in winter. As I filled the water buckets, she took the old tobacco can full of seeds and spread a handful at a time on the ground. I opened the big door, a bucket of water in my hand, holding my breath from the dust and ammoniac odor. Several stragglers ran vigorously under my legs and out the door. A few more were still roosting on the branches, clucking suspiciously. I turned off the heat lamp. There were three eggs in the laying bins, white, tan and green.
“That’s it for the chickens, pup,” I said, closing the door. Pema had emptied the tobacco can and held it up for me. I refilled it from the tin garbage pail and passed it back to her, grabbed the second bucket of water, and headed over to the turkeys. “You coming in?” I asked, kicking away the frozen stone from the gate. “Yeah,” she answered, “I’ll stand to the side so they turkeys don’t hit me.” We laughed. This is our running joke. The turkeys, hatchlings a few months ago, are larger than the chickens now. They roost at night on branches in the little coop, like the chickens, and as soon as I open the door they come crashing out, wings and bodies flapping awkwardly. If you don’t move quick, they fly right into you.
I set the bucket of water down, grabbing the old, frozen one, while Pema poured the seed into the feeder. “Okay, pup,” I said, grabbing the handle of the door. Pema stood near the fence gate. I yanked the door open, purposefully blocking the exit for a second as I rolled a cement block to prop open the door. I ducked aside, just as the rhythmic flapping of feathers zoomed past. I walked out the gate with Pema, and kicked the stone back in place. Pema put the tobacco can in the pail and closed the lid with a clang. I dumped the frozen bucket of water face down on the ground, breaking the top layer of ice. We listened briefly to the glug-glug of rushing water as it poured onto the snow. After placing the bucket over the top of the hose spigot, we walked out of the yard, closing the gate behind us. “Thanks chickens,” I said. “Enjoy your breakfast,” said Pema. We held hands and walked to the kitchen. “How come they get to eat before us?” I asked.
As soon as we walked inside, I smelled smoke. “Damn,” I thought. We had been having trouble with the wood stove, a complex masonry stove that, when it works, is a trophy of efficiency. Its flu runs up and down through layers of fire brick, so that a small fire in the morning radiates heat for the next twenty-four hours. This year, though, for some reason that no one could yet assess, we were getting a lot of smoke out the front doors and into the Buffalo Room, the central room of our community. It isn’t such a big deal in passing, but when the kids and I are in the room, sometimes for hours, it’s a real nuisance.
Maurice, one of our housemates, was handling the fire this morning, in the hope that he might determine the cause of the problem. He had done the fire all last year, and we had never had this much smoke. This year it was every day. Someone else was doing the fire, but the complex society of our community, coupled with the complex workings of the stove, had created a bit of a gridlock.
Everyone has opinions, but no one really knows what’s going on. We’ve tried all sorts of things, different ways of building the fire, different people building the fire, cleaning various chambers and parts, fires that are hotter at the beginning, or, how about colder at the beginning? Nothing has worked. Then, just a few days ago, we installed a carbon monoxide (CO) monitor. It has gone off every day since then, at low levels, for about two to three hours, after which the room finally clears and the CO level drops back to zero. Damn.
I have now done a fair amount of research about carbon monoxide. The hemoglobin in our blood, which is the molecule that bonds with oxygen in our lungs and delivers it to our bodies, bonds more readily to carbon monoxide than oxygen, and this is why people die from it. High concentrations can kill a person almost immediately, basically by choking to death. Midrange levels are especially dangerous in places like bedrooms, living rooms, basements and garages, where ventilation is poor and a person is liable to remain for hours at a time, or even sleep. Part of the problem is that, as poisoning sets in, a person tends to become drowsy and inactive. The solution is easy - just get up and walk into fresh air, but people often suffocate without even knowing it. Hundreds die from carbon monoxide poisoning every year, and thousands more get sick.
Low levels, like we’ve had, can cause flu-like symptoms if you’re dull enough to stay in the room for long periods, which is precisely what can happen because of the latent drowsiness and inactivity. But even in relatively severe cases, once the person is moved to fresh air, the body usually normalizes. The lasting effects are minimal, so long as you get to fresh air before it’s too late. Carbon monoxide is not a chronic source of toxicity, like, say, lead.
I learned all this in a matter of a few hours, while studying the pattern of rising and falling CO levels before, during, and after the fire one day. I need to be cautious, but so long as we’re following some basic safety protocols, like being out of the room when the levels are high, I’m not particularly worried.
“I started the fire about two hours ago,” said Maurice, standing by the stove, seizing the moment to launch into a full report. Pema walked off to get her bike and began peddling around the room. I just wanted to make breakfast, but I felt obligated to listen. Because of the kids, I have been the most vocal about the smoke and carbon monoxide, and, in an endearing sort of way, all of our housemates had been trying to fix it for us.
Maurice continued, “The smoke was pretty bad, but I opened the doors and so far the carbon monitor hasn’t registered anything.” He was hopeful.
“Yeah, thanks,” I said, eyeing Pema, imagining her swaddled in a pool of colorless, odorless gas, slowly replacing the oxygen in her lungs and brain. I shook it off and walked to the monitor. Zero.
“Dada, I’m hungry,” Pema whined.
“I know, pup. Give me a second.”
As I listened to Maurice recount his observations of the last couple hours, I began to grow impatient. I was hungry too. I also knew that Brant, another one of our housemates, had plans to clean the stove pipe and some of the interior cavities of the stove later that day. To do so, he needed everything to be cold. The fact that Maurice had lit a fire this morning would be a source of irritation. He and Maurice don’t get along. They communicate poorly, and mostly just ignore each other. I appreciate all the effort people have been putting into figuring this out, but I’m also frustrated by the lack of communication. The owner, Bob, has final say in most matters, but he is very laissez-faire and he hadn’t as yet given much attention to the problem. Besides, he lacks the communication skills needed to coordinate everyone’s efforts. The result had been a sort of helter-skelter approach.
My problem is that I perceive all this. And I care. I care about the stove. I care about the kids, their lungs, and my own. And I care about Maurice. I want him to be listened to, to feel useful and respected. I also care about Brant, and I want the same for him. I want Bob to feel respected, but not burdened. And I want to make breakfast.
Having lived in community for much of my adult life, I’m relatively confident I could have brokered peace and coordination between all these parties, but this time, for whatever reason, I just didn’t want to. I’m also raising a daughter, working for a non-profit, caretaking groups of kids, and trying to carve space out for myself. I pick my battles. But sometimes it eats me up. As I sat there listening to Maurice, guessing at the prospects for the day, I felt a little hopeless. The next day was Pema’s birthday, and beyond my typical regime, I had a party to prepare for. Fucking carbon monoxide. I didn’t want to do one more thing.
Finally, Maurice finished his report. “Thanks man,” I said, “I appreciate all your efforts on this.” And I meant it. Frankly, I didn’t have any confidence that he’d discover the real culprit, but I did know that he’d sit with the fire and give it everything he had. Even if it smoked to high hell, he’d pay attention and air the room out. He’d also light the fire early, so that by midday - like when Pema’s birthday party would be - the room would be clear. “You’re welcome, bro,” he answered, and sat back down by the stove.
I turned to walk into the kitchen, but then stopped. “Hey, you know,” I said, “Pema’s birthday is tomorrow and we’re having that party at noon.”
“Yeah, bro, I’ll do the fire early so it’s all cleared out by then.”
I turned and walked up the stairs to the kitchen, shouting over my back, “Hey Pemalina! Do you want some oatmeal?”
“Dada, I’m hungry,” Pema said again, stopping her peddling to emphasize her statement with a vigorous whine.
“I know. Do you want oatmeal or do you want me to just get some cereal, or…”
“I want polenta.”
“Okay, give me a second.”
Walking into the kitchen, Francis, who was eating his breakfast at the corner table, shouted, “Hi Joe-din,” a new running joke based on the name of one of the sheep, Odin, in our fields. “Hi Francis-din,” I answered dryly, as his mother turned and smiled from the stove. “Good morning,” we both said, our eyes betraying the joy and laughably frenetic pace of parenthood. It was not yet seven-thirty.
I poured dry polenta into a pot and walked to the sink to add water. Francis’s mother, who is just as concerned as I am about the stove, said to me, “Did you know Brant was planning to clean the stovepipe today?” The intonation of her words left a heavy implication in the air. I had not done anything to coordinate between Maurice and Brant.
She and I are good friends, having lived in community elsewhere prior. During that time we both had had kids, my marriage had split apart, and hers had begun. I knew that she had overheard me talking with Maurice yesterday, and now again. All this was exchanged silently, with subtle body language. “Ugh,” I thought, “I hate it when people understand me.” She was trying to be gentle, but I was already irritated. “Yeah,” I said, stoically.
“Hi Joe-din!” Francis yelled again, smiling. He loves this game. “Hey Francis,” I answered, trying not to encourage him. I placed the pot on the stove, Francis’s mother and I orchestrating our moves in silence. She took some dirty dishes to the sink. I returned from the fridge with carrots and a purple cabbage. “You know,” I finally said, laying my veggies on the cutting board, “I just don’t want to coordinate this. I’m just…I don’t know…” I trailed off. Instantly, the mood lightened. “Yeah,” she said. She understood.
Twenty minutes later I walked back into the Buffalo Room with a plate of veggies and eggs. Pema had nearly finished her polenta and was now arranging her dolls on one of the benches. I sat down next to Maurice, but then thought better of it and got back up to look at the carbon monoxide monitor. It read 38, that is, 38 parts per million. A lethal level is around 5000. The monitor had not started beeping yet, but I knew it would shortly, right around 45. The highest it had gotten so far was 82. These are all relatively low levels, but where chronic exposure can cause flu-like symptoms.
“Thirty-eight,” I said, matter-of-factly. “You know, we should probably get out of here.” I could tell that Maurice was disappointed. He was trying. “Pema, let’s grab our things and go to our room. We can finish eating there and then maybe we’ll go outside.” I grabbed my plate and started heading for the door. “Daddy, wait,” Pema called out. I turned around. She looked at me anxiously from the bottom of the steps, two dolls, a stuffed dog, a frog, and a tiger in her arms. She was reaching for her bowl of polenta. “Daddy, I need help,” she said, starting to tear up. She often cries when she can’t do things. Sometimes I’m patient and helpful. Other times I’m not. I grabbed the polenta with enforced silence and headed to our room.
“Let’s go outside,” I said to Pema after I finished breakfast.
“Yeah!” she answered, her eyes lighting up. “We can try my new snowshoes!” She had been given an early birthday present from a friend, blue snow shoes shaped like monster feet. They also light up.
“Yeah, cool,” I said, gathering our hats and gloves. When Pema was all dressed, I looked around for my jacket, and then remembered that I had left it in the kitchen. “Hold on, pup,” I said, “I’ll be right back.”
I walked through the Buffalo Room and it was empty. Maurice had gone back to his room. The doors were open to let fresh air in. I walked over the monitor, which still wasn’t beeping. It read 39. I walked quickly to the kitchen, hoping not to get caught in any side conversations, grabbed my jacket and headed back through the Buffalo Room.
I was almost out the door when Brant walked in. “Damn,” I thought.
Brant, cheerful as always, had the stovepipe cleaner in his hands, a six-inch wire brush with an flexible fiberglass handle. He also had what looked like an old plumbing snake. “I thought we could attach the brush to this,” he said, indicating the snake, “and maybe get it through all the…” He trailed off, finishing his point with an up-down motion of his hands. Then he saw the fire. “Oh…well…” he said, disappointment creeping into his tone, “We can’t do it today then.” I could tell he was upset, but I didn’t care.
“Yeah,” I answered. He walked meaningfully into the kitchen, and I headed back to find Pema.
The air outside was cold and refreshing. The temperature had warmed up, hovering just above freezing. Snowshoes in hand, Pema and I walked through the courtyard, past the patio, over the acequia, down into the old ditch, up the other side, and across to the open field where the snow was pristine.
“Okay, pup,” I said, my mood already lightening. I bent over and dropped the snowshoes on the ground. “Put your foot in here.” The straps were bright pink, her boots bright green. The plastic bottoms, sort of sky blue, left imprints in the snow like a dinosaur’s foot. She was immediately pleased, tramping across the snowy field and into the stone labyrinth. Once in the middle, she stopped to say, “I’m making hot dogs,” another running joke.
I stomped around in my snow boots, the muffled crunch of the snow pleasant to my ears. The snow was only a few inches deep, having thawed and frozen several times since it fell over a week ago. It was now a uniform crust much like Styrofoam. Gray clouds filled the sky, but I could still make out the general impression of the mountains to the west. Flocks of small black birds flickered through the sky.
I turned to look at Pema, whom I could now hear running through the snow. She flopped awkwardly onto the ground. It was easy to trip in those things. She stood up, brushed herself off, and took off again in a quick run. “Careful, pup!” I shouted, but it was pointless. After falling a few more times, she came around to me. “I’m done,” she said. “Okay,” I said, “How about we go check out the pond?”
The pond, a short walk through some heavy weeds, had been an almost daily stop in the summer. No larger than a big puddle, we had spent hours there, watching salamanders and dragonflies come and go, stomping in the muck and algae, complaining about the thistles and prickers on our bare feet. Once I had even seen a little green frog. Keep in mind, this is New Mexico. Frogs are a visual delicacy. Sometimes, the whole pond would dry up and we would walk in the middle, peeling off layers of green-gray algae and building fairy houses.
The thought of the pond, which we hadn’t visited in months, excited me. I had images of blue-gray ice, red willows and white snow. I wanted to step on the edge and hear the ice thunder and crack, or throw a big rock into the middle and shatter the surface like glass. Would it be solid ice all the way through, or just a skin over murky water? We crunched through the stiff snow and finally descended into the little bowl that formed the walls of this little oasis. The pond.
It’s now four days later. Turns out the flu was just covered by a big piece of stone, a pizza stone to be exact. Behind and above the fire chamber is a brick oven, which can be used to bake food once the fire has died down. No one really uses it much, and the stone must have been left inside more than a year ago. No one recalls how it got there. Apparently, it cracked in two. When someone tried to use the oven a few weeks ago, they must have pushed one of the pieces aside and blocked the flu. I think it was me.