Prologue

 

Viruses are embedded into the very fabric of all life.

— Luis P. Villarreal, “The Living and Dead Chemical Called a Virus,” 2005

From my hotel window I look over the deep glacial lake to the foothills and the Alps beyond. Twilight vanishes the hills into the mountains; then all is lost to the dark.

After breakfast, I wander the cobbled village streets. The frost is out of the ground, and huge bushes of rosemary bask fragrantly in the sun. I take a trail that meanders up the steep, wild hills past flocks of sheep. High on an outcrop, I lunch on bread and cheese. Late in the afternoon along the shore, I find ancient pieces of pottery, their edges smoothed by waves and time. I hear that a virulent flu is sweeping this small town.

A few days pass and then comes a delirious night. My dreams are disturbed by the comings and goings of ferries. Passengers call into the dark, startling me awake. Each time I fall back into sleep, the lake’s watery sound pulls at me. Something is wrong with my body. Nothing feels right.

In the morning I am weak and can’t think. Some of my muscles don’t work. Time becomes strange. I get lost; the streets go in too many directions. The days drift past in confusion. I pack my suitcase, but for some reason it’s impossible to lift. It seems to be stuck to the floor. Somehow I get to the airport. Seated next to me on the transatlantic flight is a sick surgeon; he sneezes and coughs continually. My rare, much-needed vacation has not gone as planned. I’ll be okay; I just want to get home.

After a flight connection in Boston, I land at my small New England airport near midnight. In the parking lot, as I bend over to dig my car out of the snow, the shovel turns into a crutch that I use to push myself upright. I don’t know how I get home. Arising the next morning, I immediately faint to the floor. Ten days of fever with a pounding headache. Emergency room visits. Lab tests. I am sicker than I have ever been. Childhood pneumonia, college mononucleosis — those were nothing compared to this.

A few weeks later, resting on the couch, I spiral into a deep darkness, falling farther and farther away until I am impossibly distant. I cannot come back up; I cannot reach my body. Distant sound of an ambulance siren. Distant sound of doctors talking. My eyelids heavy as boulders. I try to open them to a slit, just for a few seconds, but they close against my will. All I can do is breathe.

The doctors will know how to fix me. They will stop this. I keep breathing. What if my breath stops? I need to sleep, but I am afraid to sleep. I try to watch over myself; if I go to sleep, I might never wake up again.

 

 

1. Field Violets

at my feet
when did you get here?
snail

— Kobayashi Issa (1763 – 1828)

In early spring, a friend went for a walk in the woods and, glancing down at the path, saw a snail. Picking it up, she held it gingerly in the palm of her hand and carried it back toward the studio where I was convalescing. She noticed some field violets on the edge of the lawn. Finding a trowel, she dug a few up, then planted them in a terra-cotta pot and placed the snail beneath their leaves. She brought the pot into the studio and put it by my bedside.

“I found a snail in the woods. I brought it back and it’s right here beneath the violets.”

“You did? Why did you bring it in?”

“I don’t know. I thought you might enjoy it.”

“Is it alive?”

She picked up the brown acorn-sized shell and looked at it. “I think it is.”
Why, I wondered, would I enjoy a snail? What on earth would I do with it? I couldn’t get out of bed to return it to the woods. It was not of much interest, and if it was alive, the responsibility — especially for a snail, something so uncalled for — was overwhelming.

My friend hugged me, said good-bye, and drove off.

At age thirty-four, on a brief trip to Europe, I was felled by a mysterious viral or bacterial pathogen, resulting in severe neurological symptoms. I had thought I was indestructible. But I wasn’t. If anything did go wrong, I figured modern medicine would fix me. But it didn’t. Medical specialists at several major clinics couldn’t diagnose the infectious culprit. I was in and out of the hospital for months, and the complications were life threatening. An experimental drug that became available stabilized my condition, though it would be several grueling years to a partial recovery and a return to work. My doctors said the illness was behind me, and I wanted to believe them. I was ecstatic to have most of my life back.

But out of the blue came a series of insidious relapses, and once again, I was bedridden. Further, more sophisticated testing showed that the mitochondria in my cells no longer functioned correctly and there was damage to my autonomic nervous system; all functions not consciously directed, including heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion, had gone haywire. The drug that had previously helped now caused dangerous side effects; it would soon be removed from the market.

When the body is rendered useless, the mind still runs like a bloodhound along well-worn trails of neurons, tracking the echoing questions: the confused family of whys, whats, and whens and their impossibly distant kin how. The search is exhaustive; the answers, elusive. Sometimes my mind went blank and listless; at other times it was flooded with storms of thought, unspeakable sadness, and intolerable loss.

Given the ease with which health infuses life with meaning and purpose, it is shocking how swiftly illness steals away those certainties. It was all I could do to get through each moment, and each moment felt like an endless hour, yet days slipped silently past. Time unused and only endured still vanishes, as if time itself is starving, and each day is swallowed whole, leaving no crumbs, no memory, no trace at all.

I had been moved to a studio apartment where I could receive the care I needed. My own farmhouse, some fifty miles away, was closed up. I did not know if or when I’d ever make it home again. For now, my only way back was to close my eyes and remember. I could see the early spring there, the purple field violets — like those at my bedside — running rampant through the yard. And the fragrant small pink violets that I had planted in the little woodland garden to the north of my house — they, too, would be in bloom. Though not usually hardy this far north, somehow they survived. In my mind I could smell their sweetness.

Before my illness, my dog, Brandy, and I had often wandered the acres of forest that stretched beyond the house to a hidden, mountain-fed brook. The brook’s song of weather and season followed us as we crisscrossed its channel over partially submerged boulders. On the trail home, in the boggiest of spots, perched on tiny islands of root and moss, I found diminutive wild white violets, their throats faintly striped with purple.

These field violets in the pot at my bedside were fresh and full of life, unlike the usual cut flowers brought by other friends. Those lasted just a few days, leaving murky, odoriferous vase water. In my twenties I had earned my living as a gardener, so I was glad to have this bit of garden right by my bed. I could even water the violets with my drinking glass.

But what about this snail? What would I do with it? As tiny as it was, it had been going about its day when it was picked up. What right did my friend and I have to disrupt its life? Though I couldn’t imagine what kind of life a snail might lead.

I didn’t remember ever having noticed any snails on my countless hikes in the woods. Perhaps, I thought, looking at the nondescript brown creature, it was precisely because they were so inconspicuous. For the rest of the day the snail stayed inside its shell, and I was too worn out from my friend’s visit to give it another thought.

Memory Wall Cover ImageWhen I began this column, one of my goals was to shine a flashlight on short stories, the neglected baby sister of the fiction world. But when I sent out an APB last year for under-the-radar story collections, and the writer Steve Almond recommended “Tony” Doerr’s latest, I balked.

I love natural history museums—especially dinosaur exhibits. The one in my hometown played such an integral role in my educational development as a child it’s a genuine curiosity I didn’t grow up to be a paleontologist. Dinosaur names like Parasaurolophus and Deinonychus rolled off my tongue before I had any idea what a multiplication table was. I’ve maintained a membership since moving back to California, and visit frequently; it’s one of those few places that both stimulates my imagination and grants me a measure of peace. I feel at most myself among the bones of the ancient dead.

It’s where I recently met famed paleontologist Jack Horner, one of my childhood heroes, who was giving a lecture as promotion for his new book. Inside my copy he wrote, “The bones tell us stories. We just have to how learn to read them.”

The museum has expanded and grown magnificently in the last decade, but if I close my eyes I can follow my boyhood steps through the facility of my youth, wandering from the whale skeleton mounted over the front entrance through the displays of southwestern mammals and marine life downstairs, before finally reaching the main dinosaur display, where a complete Allosaurus skeleton towers over me from the centerpiece. I can see every vertebra in the tail, every chasm in the skull, every curving tooth and claw.

These “thunder lizards” should terrify me, but they don’t. Terror is nothing but wonder without the awe. And there is awe aplenty for me inside this building.

A few years ago I participated in a neurological study and learned that I possess what the researchers defined as a “low-grade eidetic memory,” or what is commonly referred to as a photographic memory. Eidetic individuals are known for their extremely accurate recall when it comes to visual images, memories summoned up like still images or filmstrips.

This explains why I was able to describe the geographic orientation of the furniture in my best friend’s new house after five minutes spent walking through it for the first time; why I never got lost exploring town on my bike as teenager, even though I’m terrible at memorizing street placement; why I can remember, in uncomfortable detail, what every girl I’ve gone out with wore on our first date—and what they looked like in later, less-dressed states.

Why I can’t seem to forget dozens of sights from my experiences in Hurricane Katrina that would best be left unremembered.

The term photographic memory is a flawed one though, I think. The word “photograph” implies someone making a conscious decision to capture and preserve those images, and that’s not how the human mind—or at least not mine—works. I’m not speaking of the basic mnemonic devices of memorization, but rather the active choice that this image, this particular set of visual information will be stored. While there’s a fair amount of coherence among things from, say, my preteen years forward, anything beyond that is really just a meaningless shuffle of disordered images, odd fragments of things remembered but not necessarily known.

These memories are not photographs; they are fossils, their bones extruding from the sedimentary rock of the mind. And like true fossils, some of them have to be studied closely before their stories reveal themselves.

One in particular has surfaced recently, provoked in part by recent tour I took through the museum’s off-exhibit areas during Horner’s presentation. It’s an old one; Triassic period, if we wanted to stretch the metaphor a bit further. In it I’m very young, five or six at the oldest, attending one of the museum’s weeklong parent/child classes, where we’re learning about paleontology by building paper-mache models of prehistoric creatures. A half-formed Pteranodon, one of the largest of the non-dinosaur flying pterosaurs, sits on the plastic painter’s tarp in front of my mother and me, a wet coat of chalky gray paint just applied to its newspaper skin.

Sharing the workspace and craft supplies with us are G., my mother’s partner in adultery and the man who would become my stepfather, and his daughter, my eventual stepsister. They’re building a generic long-necked sauropod dinosaur. This is the first time I’ve met them.

This isn’t some sort of revelation or epiphany; the extraction of this memory doesn’t send cathartic earthquakes rumbling through my psyche or sully my love of the museum. This class was one of a dozen or so I attended at the various scientific institutes around town over the years, and the memory of it has always been there to some degree of clarity or another. But it’s only now, when I look at it in the light of adulthood, that I understand it.

And what I understand is that those two cheaters were on an extended date. Enrolling us children in this class allowed them the opportunity to spend the week together, hiding in plain sight under the noses of their spouses. While my would-be stepsister and I were learning how to reconstruct prehistoric life, our parents were in engaging in behavior that would destroy our present ones.

It isn’t a happy memory, for certain, but neither is it a sad one. Ultimately it’s more of a curiosity, another roll-your-eyes tale of how some parents will use their children to leverage their own happiness. But out of this I got a nifty model and a lifelong fascination with the natural sciences; all they got was a couple of divorces and a legacy of pain given and received. Fair to say I came out on the winning end of that deal.

My Pteranodon was an ungainly thing, ready to take wing but far, far too heavy in the torso for any creature hoping to take flight. I loved it. It occupied a place on honor on my bedside shelf for years. I’ve no idea what’s become of it. It’s possible, I suppose, that it’s in a box somewhere, locked up in storage with my few remaining childhood things. More likely it’s succumbed to the ravages of time, the paint and paper of its body crumbled to dust, existing now only as another fossilized fragment of memory.