It was October and Louise decided that in the winter she would hibernate. She created a cave in her bedroom closet and filled it with modern necessities. For example: a clock radio with a CD player, a blue and white miniature lamp, a chrome toaster with the word “Toasty!” printed on the side. In November, she entered her closet and stayed for three days. She chose the three days after Thanksgiving as she would not be missed at work and her family would think she was busy with Oliver. She knew she wouldn’t be able to leave once the real hibernation began and there would perhaps be other technical difficulties. Some people, like her mother, would think she had been kidnapped. Her fifth graders would think she had been fired or that she had run away. They are romantic in that way. She would miss checking the mail and saying hello to the mailman. She would not know if someone important was trying to contact her, to tell her she could do anything she wanted—to give her permission to live. Also: Oliver might try to ruin her, but she could not think of him now. She settled onto a stack of braided Indian blankets and slept peacefully. When she woke in the morning, she turned on her CD player and listened to a song called “Carnival Town” by an artist she could no longer remember. She liked the song because it was melodious and careful. When it began, she felt as if she were in a grey meadow or an abandoned playground in the middle of February. She flowed through the music. When there was a break in the song, it was also lovely because it made her aware of how much she needed silence.
When she was tired of music, she turned off the radio and listened to the sounds of the house. Sometimes she could hear voices from a television and sometimes, the sound of a dog barking. There was a dog in the apartment next to theirs that always tried to bite her ankles when they passed in the hallway. She wondered if it was this dog barking now. If she were a dog, she would not want to bite ankles or to bark loudly and malevolently. She would gently nuzzle and look at her owner with sad eyes, asking silently to be held. She might gaze at the door and whimper, indicating her desire to be walked. Sometimes Louise does this now, though Oliver pretends not to notice.
In English class the week before, she had posed this question to her students: What would you save from a fire if you could only save one thing? The question was not realistic—if you had time to save one thing, then why wouldn’t you be able to save two things? If there was actually a fire, wouldn’t you only be concerned with saving yourself? Her fifth graders did not think these questions, and if they thought them, they did not ask them aloud. Instead, they answered in all seriousness: a collection of beetles, or a favorite doll, my brother Jim, Skippy—their basset hound. What would you save, Ms. Dover?
She paused. She said something reasonable—inarguable. They let it go. She did not tell them that she wouldn’t save anything—that nothing would be worth saving.
In her cave, there is a pillow and a stack of books, a small container of Scrabble letters, and a hairbrush. There are piles of clean underwear and socks and large billowy sweaters. Since she does not want to live in squalor, Louise allows that she will be able to leave her cave once a week to take out the garbage and wash her clothing. Clothing is not a problem for bears, so she feels she is allowed this exception. There are two hanging plants to ensure an adequate supply of oxygen, and a box of tissues for tears. There are buttons and a spool of thread. There are paper clips and candles that smell of pine and evergreen. There is a box of matches and a tin of Lorna Doones. There are pens of all colors and pads of white and yellow paper. There are post-its in various colors. There is bubble wrap and aluminum foil. There is clay for moulding. There are toothpicks. The closet is quite full and Louise almost does not fit, but it is cold, so it is not uncomfortable to be around so many things and also to be in the dark.
She doesn’t tell her fifth graders that she is hibernating, though they do begin a unit on bears and hibernation. The essential questions are: Why do bears hibernate? What must bears do in preparation for hibernation? And: What would hibernation be like for humans? Their assignment is to research and answer these three questions in a three-page essay due the last day before winter recess. She doesn’t tell them this is also her last day and that she will be grading their essays from the safety of her closet. They watch a movie called Bears in the Wild and read articles from the science section of the Journal News. They have discussions on the different types of bears and their various hibernation patterns. Did you know that Black Bears can go 100 days without waking up? “I once slept for 34 hours straight and I wasn’t sick or anything,” a boy called out, and she ignored him because she was not feeling patient. “I do not feel patient today,” she said, “What else can you tell me about black bears and hibernation?” Louise pays careful attention to the movie and does not tell the kids that she needs this as much as they do. She has started watching National Geographic at night and has borrowed 21 books from the library on bears and other hibernating animals. Apparently, raccoons and skunks and woodchucks and chipmunks and hamsters and hedgehogs all engage in some form of hibernation. She tells Oliver everything she is learning and his dismissiveness annoys her. It is not enough to talk with 10-year-olds about something so crucial. I need this, she tells Oliver, because she knows he does not think she needs it. During those 100 days of sleep, the bear will not eat food or drink water, nor will it urinate or defecate. Since Louise is not a bear, she knows she will need both food and water and she will need to urinate and defecate. There is a bathroom next to the closet, and she does not tell Oliver that she is planning to make a hole in the wall so she can crawl through to use the toilet and take baths. She leaves him careful instructions not to enter the closet and not to talk to her if she leaves her cave to do laundry. “If there is an emergency,” she tells him, “you may slip a note under the closet door.” Of course, if there is an emergency like a fire, she allows that he may come rescue her.
He wants to know what she will eat. “I will live off my fat stores like the bears,” she says, and laughs loudly. Then she ticks them off her fingers: “Rice cakes, raisins, Frosted Mini-Wheats, banana chips, mini-muffins…I don’t know. I’m hibernating. My metabolism will slow, so I won’t need all that I’ve been eating,” she paused, “You could also bring me things and leave them outside the closet door.”
Oliver shakes his head. “What if I don’t?” he asks.
He does not ask her why she is doing this, though she can see the question in his eyes when she talks about bears and possums and being rescued. She does not tell him that last month, she had been called into the principal’s office. Some parents had complained about her—their kids thought she was weird and one in particular had described her entering a trance in the middle of class. It’s like we’re not even there, he said, like she sees right through us. Louise thinks this is funny, seeing as he was the one who saw right through her. They all did. The principal was reading from a piece of paper in front of him, and she wanted to defend herself but could not. It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him the story of how she did not tell them what she wouldn’t save in the fire. She had paused and looked at them deliberately and seriously before saying, “I would save a good book to read outside while I am waiting for the fire to be put out.” She had been pleased that her voice had remained unwaveringly Doverish and equally pleased when the kids groaned in their usual way. The principal looked up from the paper he was holding, and she looked down and clasped and unclasped her hands. She did not tell him. Later that night, she did laundry and put on clothing straight from the dryer. She stepped into the laundry basket and slept there beneath the fresh towels and the sweatpants and the underwear. That was how Oliver found her in the morning and he laughed and his laughter woke her. She had been dreaming of caves.