How long have I been here? A mere week yet the question sets off vertigo. Time moves in opposite directions: the countdown to the end of quarantine, and the rising tally of deaths – the deaths that are not yours, yet. It is a double-ended waiting, but a waiting for what?
I listen to the birds. They seem to alternate as the hours pass and one group replaces another. One is talking to me. It looks over as if for a response. Then a long silence. A sadness comes over me, but why? I have the sense it is something the bird said.
Is it better here than in the city we escaped?
I hear the blast of a train’s whistle and the low throb of its engine. The trains are still running? Where to, and who is on board? Then normal life goes on somewhere – though we know it doesn’t.
These days we love to read the writings of people who had long lives, full or not. Or leaf through newspapers from before all this started, found beneath a sofa cushion. Look at the date, almost six months ago! Pristine and astonishing as the first glimpse of the cave paintings.
For now, we are still alive: that’s about all we can say. Yet I feel not relief but shame. What is all this for, our circles of telling stories out here in the fields? To distract us as others die? Until enough die that we can go back? I shouldn’t put it that way. We are not bad people here. The choice is bad, for everyone. We have all been plunged into this darkness.
I have a fierce nostalgia for action, something I never thought about before. Now it represents everything we are denied, more even than pleasure. Because now action, in fact, anything but this six-foot-exile, could be death.
Sooner or later people will go berserk. They will break into the morgue and lick the faces of the dead to taunt the virus. I would do it myself.
“I wash my hands then turn the doorknob on the bathroom door then go wash them again…” Is this a fate?
Why am I writing, and for whom? A feeling of freefall seizes me without warning throughout the day. This happens to many of us, though not all. Some proceed as if this period were a gift, an opportunity to explore and deepen. These happy few irritated me at first, but now I try to study them to see if theirs is a skill I could pick up. It raises the question: am I making myself suffer needlessly? Though another question follows: Is there needful, useful suffering?
When my spirits revive, it does occur to me that there is one lesson being produced: the “meaning” we are all convinced we need, is nonsense. A psychotic’s fixations are no more substantial – that my aunt Dawn is poisoning Greek barbers. Though what a platitude. When hasn’t humanity known this? Is the broth of life today so thin that I take this an epiphany?
They call these quarantine circles – a new example of the mathematics of plague. Each of us wears a round hoop 6 feet in diameter, sitting in a circle in the tall grass, telling stories one by one. Like a scene from kindergarten, only day and night. Or a rustic Victorian folk dance.
One of our group has just returned from India. He went just as the first cases were being reported. This might not be a good time to go, he thought to himself, then booked his ticket for a month. He followed the exact trajectory of the Italian tourists who brought the disease there. The fever was just beginning to rise through them as they visited the Taj Mahal. One said right there in a call to a friend back home that it was the most beautiful building he had ever seen. An Italian said that! And his friend: “You must have a fever.” By the end of the week he was in a hospital in Delhi.
The India man continued: “I was fascinated by a ritual I’d heard about from thousands of years ago. A prince or king, finding himself in a state of confusion, not knowing which way is forward, or what is best for his people, releases a white horse from his stable and follows it with his entourage for an entire year, wherever it goes. The human acknowledges he is lost and chooses to be guided by an animal. I wanted to learn more, for our own time of crisis, and decided to go see an Indian friend who knew all of the writings going back millennia. He lives in a town along the holy river close to his guru. I flew to the capital, took an overnight train way north and then a rickshaw to his house. The area was exploding with excitement as thousands, or millions, of people collected offerings of water from the river and rushed to their temples for rites that would last until dawn. The ringing of bells and blowing of conch shells filled the air. I reached my friend’s after dark and found him at the center of a crowd of his devotees. Only then did I learn that he was three months into a year-long vow of silence. It was a time of spreading chaos and despair. Parts of the capital were exploding in riots, and the virus was beginning to gather momentum nearby. In other countries, it had brought all life to a standstill. India clearly could be next. It lost 17 million people a century before from another virus. Seeking comfort and guidance my friend’s followers traveled hundreds of miles to reach this spot, and their guru could not say a word.”
The man’s story went on and on. Like the rest I sit and listen. There is nothing else to do. We call him The Stork, because of the way he holds his head. We have been here just over a week and yet already each of us has been given a nickname: The Trout, Mollusk, Giraffe Lady, Happy Mantis, etcetera. And my own moniker: Blue Claw, from my walk they say, the result of an injury when I was a child, and a botched bone-setting job by the doctor. These names are uncannily fitting and are called out spontaneously as we listen to each other’s stories -all animals for some reason. These are good moments, when it seems that this thing we believe we share – reason, or intelligence? – actually does exist, and connects us.
The Stork is still talking: “On the path up to the temple stood a cow who had growing out of his front shoulder a fifth leg, sticking straight up, about a foot long, hoof and all, perfectly formed. The animal was considered holy and was trailed by a man who charged passers-by for money for a good luck touch. It made me tremble with revulsion. Now I wish I’d paid and touched it.” He then described being attacked by a monkey, and he showed the scars where the creature bit him, twice.
I preferred the more outlandish stories. They drew me further out of myself. Just as more energy is required to jolt an atom into a higher orbit, so some darkness in my personality needs extra combustion to be forced out. “Of course my mood is grim,” I tell those trying to cheer me, “Look around you!” But I acknowledge and envy their resistance and do not scorn them.
The Stork continues: “What if it turns out the untouchables are immune to the virus, but the upper castes drop like flies? What will happen to their society? Only sixty years ago, one outcaste group was made to tie brooms to their belts to smooth their footprints and erase all trace of their passing. But if it turns out that they alone are immune, will that mean god prefers them, will they become a holy group, revered by the others?”
He pauses to scratch himself.
“Or will they be more violently enslaved because of it? “
When my thoughts overtake me it is the same question again and again: will we ever return to life as it was? I look at us in our wide circle in the field, each with our hoop hanging by strings from our shoulders. Perhaps it would be easier if we were told point blank that life as we had known it was over and all we had was no more: the drawer of shirts, the rooms we slept in, the omelet pan, the ice skates, the mood rings, all gone.
What awaits us? A new Dark Ages? How many centuries will be lost? Civilization will have to be retooled to fit the calculi of contagion, or simply abandoned. In a thousand years an illiterate ranch hand driving his herd will come across the Taj Mahal, half-obscured in an explosion of vegetation. He will look up puzzled for a moment at this strange vision, then shake his head and move on with his beasts.
My mind turns to the idea of the guru in his vow of silence. It produces a curious solace.
The plague mathematics produces yet another yield: incubation period, R naught, viral load, polymerase chain reaction; and of course the tallies that are followed with religious dread: confirmed cases, and the number of the dead. There is a musical chairs element to this when you think of it, only we can’t hear the music.
Spring is wrestling with the world. The bare trees thrash against the sky in the torqueing winds. The small birds wheel in droves as the larger ones watch from wires.
What if this bargain were struck: every family will have to choose two members to hand over to the disease, the rest will have their health, and the illness will retreat, like a freak tide?
There is a young man so filled with despair he periodically drops to the ground and plunges his hands into the wet dirt as if trying to pull myself under.
It is the animals that give me comfort. They care little about us. For them this day is no different from any other. Nature is nature. I wonder whether they see us sitting here in our distended circle and wonder what has changed. I’m sure we smell different in this new crisis – to the animals though, not to each other. Almost certainly they can smell who has the virus.
Another hour. Another hour. I sleep. I listen. I wonder again, What was it the bird was saying to me?
It was The Pelican’s turn to go. She rocked back and forth as she spoke, eyes glittering wide, rubbing her right thumb into her left palm as if reading her own Braille. How odd, isn’t it, that one way of talking will rivet you and another bore you to tears. The Pelican transfixed me at once. It was more than her rough voice and the bounce in her telling. There were words she used that stood out, at first just one or two every few sentences, like notes from the wrong key, like feathers on a sheep. They alerted me to something I sensed would follow, some process that seemed to have been set in motion. The story and the telling diverged and converged continuously. There were inlays of rhyme, sections of intense syncopation, a movement from three-word to hundred-word sentences, all powerfully musical and imagistic at the same time. The story, though, was simple: a boy is looking for his dog.
I was not alone in being rivetted. All eyes were upon her. We breathed when she breathed, stopped when she stopped. I listened trying to draw to the surface some feature that I had difficulty putting my finger on. It was as if the story were being pulled between coherence and incoherence, as if some force were trying to disrupt the telling, to subvert it, sabotage it, force it off the tracks, but the great intelligence and vital drive of the teller fought back and lifted the story into ever higher orbits. It was a new language. It worked at so many levels that what we took in from it left us trembling and flushed.
I studied the faces of the others. All rapt. They watched with both awe and alarm. The longer I listened the more I felt that what we had been hearing and watching was the virus raging through the woman. The disaggregation, the implosion of convention, the crossovers and short-circuiting, a defibrillation of language – all was the handiwork of the disease, fever by other means, a fever that overflowed the blood into language.
But seeking what? Mere propagation? Why not, that’s all this microbe does. Was it laying its RNA in what it felt was genetic code, trying to infiltrate it? If we played the woman’s telling more slowly would we find it was a theater of antigens, bio-ventriloquism, a miscegenation of code and tale? Was there even jealousy in the viral attack, of the variation it found in this story, the oceanic possibility of language that it would try to oust and replace with its dull chorus, dictionaries reduced to the same plain word, all literature to a single sentence repeated again and again until there was no more ink to print it.
The story ended. It rang through us like aftertones in Russian bells. She, The Pelican, seemed altered. She rose with her hoop and went out past the circumference to pee among the bushes, then walked slowly back and resumed her spot. I met her eyes and tried to see if she knew what I was thinking. Was this in fact a way to subvert the disease, trick it into language and out of the body and strand it there where we have the upper hand? Was she trying out her own cure? Although what if the virus could ravage both the words and the body? Or was contagious through words as well, working backwards from the letters into the cells? This far exceeded the old chestnut of the Singularity. Far from jumping species, the virus had jumped from the nerve to the idea. This dwarfed all evolution. Did it mean then that we could argue our way out of (but also into) disease, that medicine would be replaced by rhetoric, prescriptions by sonnets?
I am standing in the bushes pissing. Despite everything, this simple pleasure remains. I train the stream on my hoop, wobbling on its guy wires. Wherever I go it follows me, and I follow it. I am reminded of the cones dogs are rigged with to keep them from chewing their wounds. Some new energy flows through me. The idea is still opening up in my mind. If I can try it out I will. If I can act on it. Above the bushes I see the moon. The shading of its lower flank is clear and beautiful. I walk back to our circle. A new story is being told: the Mantis drones on. I sit knowing sleep will come soon. Some stare in amazement at his virtuosic inability to tell a story, his uncanny sense of where to pause or accelerate to crash the attention span. I watch to see if it can get worse. And then I notice The Pelican is gone. Her hoop lies in the grass where she used to sit.
Story after story followed. I slept and woke.
I hadn’t noticed it was my turn next. All eyes were upon me. I fingered the strings my hoop hung from as if I could make some kind of music from them. The question of what all this was for had stalled me. There is a bitterness, too, in having been spared. I looked out at the faces in the circle. Above them the lacework of the still bare trees. There was a piece I had prepared but another overrode it: the story of where The Pelican is going. The first sentence spoke itself. Perhaps her fever has entered me through my ears. I hear myself speak. Where does all this come from? Maybe it lies inside us like the baby rabbit’s memory of the shadow of the hawk All are listening. “In the future we will have lightweight hoops.” It is so effortless yet effective, this trick of making a building without a stone, or tapestry without a thread: the word that makes the thing when it is said. I rise through the orbits. Both awe and alarm pulse in the eyes of my listeners. The Pelican appears before us. There is no doubt that the fever is in me too. We will have to tie brooms behind us now.