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by Joel Van Valin
Grey Cloud Island is quiet backwater of the Twin Cities unknown to even most Twin Citians. If the Mississippi is a stairway leading from the falls of St. Anthony down to lowertown St. Paul, Grey Cloud Island is the little closet under the stairs. The Dakota lived there, and during early pioneer days much was expected from this two-piece island (Upper and Lower) that just lightly kisses St. Paul Park at its north end. But for one reason or another, it just never happened. Today the island is occupied by a summer camp or two and far-flung, modest houses cloaked by woods. A great place to go if you don’t want to run into anybody—which was why, during the pandemic, we went there so often.
Perhaps the most notable thing about Grey Cloud Island is its reputation for being haunted—some ghost hunters consider it the most haunted place in all of Minnesota. Commonly reported hauntings include a spirit carrying a green lantern and a forbidding man dressed in red flannel who suddenly vanishes. Spirit activity is reported to center around Grey Cloud Cemetery and so the locals, annoyed with all the paranormal traffic, have blocked the dirt road leading to it and removed all signs. The third or fourth time we drove there, in December 2020, I looked at satellite imagery beforehand to suss out its location.
When we got to the blocked entrance, I pulled to the side of the dirt road to park. Both Alex and Sam, our two-year-old twins, were asleep in their car seats, and my wife Lisa said she’d stay with them, as she felt like she was coming down with a cold. So I walked the icy lane to the graveyard alone, and strayed about for a few moments admiring the marble stones dating from the late 19th century all the way up to a few years ago. A large, limp American flag flapped mournfully overhead. It was your ordinary small town cemetery—rather picturesque next to its woods and fields. No ghosts disturbed my solitude.
When I returned to the minivan Lisa was talking on the phone to her boss. Apparently another employee at the practice, one of the receptionists, had tested positive for corona, and they’d all have to get tested. Again. My wife is a veterinarian, so while I settled into the cushions of my chair in our kitchen nook for the duration, she found herself on the front lines of the pandemic—along with nurses, doctors, dentists, grocery store clerks, and millions of others performing “necessary services” that couldn’t be done over Zoom. Owners dropped their pets off and waited in their cars, but twenty-something receptionists who were not socially distancing were harder to avoid. As soon as we got home, Lisa went to one of those drive-in test stations. The next day she got a callback—she’d tested positive for COVID-19.
Millions of families have doubtless had this same panicked conversation on learning of a COVID diagnosis—the theme, in a nutshell, being “What the hell do we do now?” Lisa was more concerned about the boys, even though the toddler immune system seems to be more or less invincible against this particular plague. We talked about packing them off to my sister’s—their nanny—for a couple of weeks. But what if they already had it, and gave it to her? We decided that Lisa could isolate herself in the upstairs guest bedroom. That lasted all of one night. By Tuesday—three days after our visit to Grey Cloud Island—Alex and Sam both had low fevers.
In the guttering candle-end of a dark year, from deep in the slag pit that was 2020, we were rescued by none other a personage than ... Scooby Doo. The television in our nursery went on, and Lisa sat in it with the boys, who seemed, other than having low energy and little appetite, pretty much themselves, for hours at a time, while I continued working from my cushy chair. It’s called quarantine, but in a Minnesota winter there wasn’t much difference from our usual routines.
By our fourth day of isolation, the boys were back to normal, and Lisa felt chipper enough to take them frolicking in the snow of our yard—but she had lost her sense of taste and smell. Food, she said, tasted like cardboard, and she ate very little. Meanwhile the boys and I drove to a COVID-19 test site in White Bear Lake. The line of cars, the white tent, the women (always they were women) in white lab coats, the brief nasal swab through the open window, then driving out into the cold air again, straight home to our little monastic community—it would all seem routine soon enough. That first test, only Alex was positive.
People who’ve had corona will tell you that by day 7 you start feeling better—then proceed to slam into a brick wall. One week into quarantine my wife took to her bed and mostly stayed there, weak, coughing, desperately trying to rest, while I took time off work to watch the boys. She had, thank the gods, no trouble breathing, or any symptoms hospital-worthy. Despite all the hype, COVID-19 proved to be a strangely mundane illness for us—I just had to figure out how to entertain two toddlers and keep them from bouncing onto the bed and disturbing their mother. Scooby Doo!
By the 18th of December Lisa was drinking vodka cocktails again, so I knew she was on the mend. On Christmas Eve day, I shoveled some snow and took the boys for a sled ride around our yard. I felt a little winded—but then again during the pandemic, pretty much everyone got out of shape. Suffice to say no one—not even St. Nick—visited our house for Christmas.
A few days later we ventured on our one and only holiday outing: the Glow Christmas lights display on the State Fair grounds down the street from us. When our 8:30 time slot rolled around we rather reluctantly packed our kiddies in their car seats and drove out into the cold solitude of drive-by attractions.
The Glow was, to be honest, pathetic—a few of the better yard displays in your neighborhood would have matched it, without the cost or traffic. As we drove down the long dark boulevards of the fair grounds, bordered by spectral trees they hadn’t bothered to hang a string of lights on, I wished fervently I could be home in bed; I felt a bone-tired fatigue I’d seldom known, as though I’d been moving heavy furniture up and down stairs all day. Had someone offered me a velvet-lined coffin, I would have gladly crawled in and closed the lid.
What the Glow display lacked in spectacular wattage, it made up for in interminable length. Six or seven displays drifted by our car window—one with a “Prince” theme featuring a purple-lit version of that sign he once changed his name to ... something that would look about right on a thirteen-year-old girl’s bedroom wall. At one point, after waiting ten minutes or longer in a line of cars, we were directed into a small parking lot, then watched a movie of (silent) fireworks exploding against the wall of one of the State Fair buildings. Awesome. After coasting through a few more hundred yards of humdrum Christmas lights, some decorating small animal scaffoldings like the ones you’ll find in the neighbor’s garden, we made good our escape.
The next morning, I found I’d lost my sense of smell. (Wake up and don’t smell the coffee.) It was the beginning of corona’s third act in our household.
Back to the test site with its nasal swabs and lab coats. When they called me the next day, I really wasn’t surprised to hear I was positive. Sam, oddly enough, was still negative; our pediatrician has since speculated that he probably did have the coronavirus when Alex got it, but it was ejected from the Sam system so quickly it never registered in a test.
And then—just like that, it was mysteriously gone, leaving me only a slight ache in my joints. In four days, I could smell coffee, and by that time Lisa’s smell and taste had returned as well. Though the least affected by the virus, I was the last to get out of quarantine, on January 1. We were suddenly free go wherever we chose, and our new immunity allowed us to visit places heretofore off limits.
A few months later, at the Mall of America, I sat in a room of several hundred anonymous people who’d also just gotten the vaccine, waiting the allotted 15 minutes to make sure I didn’t faint, have an allergic reaction, start quoting Shakespeare etc. I thought of the alleged ghosts out on Grey Cloud Island, and wondered how many new ghosts would be haunting because of corona. Ours was a typical story, and we got off lightly. But hundreds of thousands didn’t, and we miss them. Perhaps their glowing presence, coming out of a dark time, will lead us through the darkness to come.