John Briggs authored and co-authored several mass market books on chaos, fractals and creativity. For 25 years he taught at Western Connecticut State University. He is the former senior editor of Connecticut Review. Briggs’ fiction and poetry has appeared widely. His collection of stories, Trickster Tales, was put out by Fine Tooth Press in 2005
The Coronavirus Game
During the early days of the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic, a group of 10 graduate students began a curious journey across a dreamlike landscape. Before this journey the 10 had been meeting informally on Saturday and Wednesday nights at the Babylon Bar near their city university campus. The day after the university administration announced it would be shuttering the big and diverse metropolitan campus and directing its students to return to their homes to shelter during the contagion, the group gathered once more at the Babylon. Before leaving the bar they decided they would continue to meet in the future, but online.
So on the last Saturday of March the 10 faces appeared in little video boxes on each other’s computer screens. After they’d recounted their adventures in arriving at their lock-down destinations, Lori, a young woman pursuing her PhD in classical literature, suggested a group activity. Lori’s video box displayed her in her parents’ house in a rural village in western Massachusetts, her old bed crowded with childhood stuffed toys. The pandemic had wrenched Lori from her new companion, Susan, who was sheltering with a maternal grandfather in Oregon.
Lori told the group she had begun rereading The Decameron, a book that Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio wrote in 1348 about a group of young people trying to escape the horrors of the Black Plague. Boccaccio depicts the young people as fleeing the disease-infested city of Florence for a country estate where they gathered to exchange stories for 10 days. Maybe that was something their Babylon group could do to pass the time and lift their spirits while escaping the virus.
“Not so sure we can escape it,” Marisol remarked acidly from her video box in Florida where the beach near her grandparents’ old bungalow was left stupidly still open to half-naked and inebriated spring breakers, making it a breeding ground for so-called virus super-spreaders.
“What kind of stories, mate?” Randy’s engaging British accent came from his small video rectangle in Sussex, England. When he spoke, the conferencing program expanded his rectangle to full screen, showing his lank blond hair and ruddy face. A cheerful business student, Randy told them he’d had a wretched time reaching home through virus-infested airports and was now in a two-week quarantine in the refinished attic—recently a sewing and crafts room—of his older sister’s house.
The idea of telling stories to each other kindled enthusiasm and the friends went back and forth. Maybe they could each write a story about the virus. Or they could write stories about what life would be like in the dystopian world after the virus and its mutations had depopulated humans from the planet. Or stories about first love affairs. They cast up a slew of options. None seemed particularly engrossing.
Then Jennifer, transmitting from a suburb outside of Detroit, put in, “How about everybody tells a story about the thing that most concerns her in life?”
“Humm, pretty vague,” Jane said from her virus lock-down condominium in San Francisco.
“God, wouldn’t that just be an excuse for us to preach about some subject?, which we do like to do,” added Michael from his apartment near the now-empty campus that he shared with two roommates. Michael was a PhD physics candidate who looked incongruously like a football player.
Jennifer, a PhD anthropology student, was in her brother-in-law’s basement rec room in Detroit, her laptop open on a plastic table. “I mean make it a fiction story and let’s stipulate that you’re not allowed say flat out what your big concern is. You have to let the characters and situation convey that. Then we can all try to analyze what the writer’s concern is. I’m thinking of something like the Iroquois dream guessing where the person who’s had a dream goes from lodge to lodge and tells the dream, then people try to guess what the dream means. The dreamer herself might not know the meaning until someone suggests it.”
“You mean stories that are like dreams?” Nisha spoke from her home on a usually very busy main road outside of Mumbai, India. She was studying to be a physician’s assistant and in a few hours would be taking a shift at her local hospital treating virus patients.
“Beats playing video games all day.”
“Or streaming Netflix.”
So as the deadly virus invaded every part of the human world, the 10 friends settled as well as they could into their individual circumstances with the assignment to imagine dream stories that would convey what most concerned them in their still young lives. Jane agreed to narrate the first story. A few days later the group was back online to start their game.
1st Story A theater major in college, Jane had recently decided on a career in the hospitality industry and was taking a one-year certificate course at the university that forced her to live away from her husband. Now she was back home in San Francisco. Her husband was an engineer managing a food processing plant in the Central Valley; with the pandemic it had become a dangerous occupation.
The first story was told on April 1. In a quiet voice, Jane read a dream story she called Ocean Window. As she began to speak, a large long-haired, pearl-gray pussy cat jumped heavily into her lap and peered drowsily at the computer camera. Jane stopped, adjusted the cat’s position, and began reading again from the beginning.
Our first full night out at sea, I found myself below decks in the passenger liner’s stern. I followed the hostess through the candlelit dining area to my table. Elegant parties of diners filled the other tables. I didn't know anyone in the room, but the pleasant discord of tinkling silverware and glass, the guests’ discreet voices, the dark spaces between them, and a band playing softly in the background induced a sense of comfort. On every side faces glowed in the shadows from the candles set on the tables. Waiters and waitresses glided and bent, carrying silver trays crowded with plates and tureens of food.
My table faced the room’s vast window. The glass extended from floor to a ceiling several decks tall. The ship must have been especially designed to accommodate that window. The view of the darkling ocean outside was breathtaking. It surprised me that no one seemed to notice it. Across a rippling, seemingly endless reach of ocean a huge moon loomed above the barely visible line of the horizon. The moon’s light glimmered on the tips of the waves, revealing glossy black hollows. The ocean’s wrinkled surface seemed motionless and yet the more one watched, the more one noticed how it changed with ceaseless activity.
A waitress left the menu, but I didn’t look at it, unable to take my eyes from that view. Serene swirls of clouds rolled and streamed off the moon to the west, as if literally blown from the planetoid’s edge. As the clouds shifted, large irregular regions of the furrowed ocean slowly brightened and darkened, gleaming in places with the melted remains of icebergs. I adjusted my eyes to the room, hearing the band behind me sprinkling an amiable tune randomly blended with the dining room noise and companionably conversing voices. I looked back through the window at the view. Yes. There was no question. This was the end of the world.
The group took a few silent minutes to reread the story on he text file Jane provided. The discussion that followed ranged from exposing the obvious sub-theme of the pandemic to details of Jane’s life: her childhood growing up in the inner city, her experiences of racial discrimination and her feelings watching old Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies on TV with her grandmother. Her grandmother loved those movies, typically brainless, bright shipboard romances with fantastical song and dance numbers. This led the 10 friends to emphasize with people trapped on the huge luxury liners barred from docking in ports because they had become infested with countless microscopic orbs of the crown-jeweled Coronavirus—as if a Depression era elegant cruise flipped suddenly from elegant comic adventures into a climate change horror film. Jane’s cat was purring loud enough for the others to hear.
There was a long tangled exchange about what the phrase “the end of the world” conjured up for each of them. Axochiti, who was studying to become an international environmental lawyer, spoke from her Otomi village in the Central highlands of Mexico. She said her people viewed the current plague as the fulfillment of ancient Toltec prophesies. The Toltec/Myan calendar foretold that the next 13 years would witness the end of a reality that had existed for the 500 years after the Europeans arrived, and the beginning of a dramatic, unprecedented new reality flowering from the ruins.
2nd Story Saturday, at the scheduled meeting time (coordinated across several time zones) the digital presences of the 10 friends appeared on each other’s screens. Marisol said she had been inspired in her contribution by Jane’s story. She called her dream The Last Robin.
The robins came every year. For many of those years one pair—perhaps always the same pair—poked for worms in the front lawn outside the bay window and made a nest in the brambles near the house. The pair could be seen darting in and out of the thicket first with bits of straw, twigs and grass, and then with larvae and insects in their beaks. He found flakes of blue eggshell in the grass. Faint cheeps echoed against the house siding. From his windows he could watch the flight instruction, accompanied by enthusiastic calls.
But then some virus occurred, bred by the changes in the climate. In two quick years all robins on Earth were reported dead. On his lawn there were no sightings. Years went by. Then one spring a single robin appeared in the grass outside the bay window. It pecked vigorously at the moist ground and came up with a worm. He thought the robin must be a female. He heard her liquid rising and falling melody and her preoccupied “yeep” when she darted into the brambles as if she remembered them. But this robin clearly had no mate and didn’t start a nest. She inspected the rotted remnant of an old nest and pecked around on the ground underneath.
He hadn’t fully come to terms with how hollow and meaningless his springtime had become without the robins. He felt this single robin, perhaps the last robin, burning a hole in his heart.
He notified the authorities. They came to the house, trapped his robin and put it in a zoo where it became an attraction along with several other last examples of their species from around the world.
He visited his robin once in the zoo and thought to ask her for forgiveness. The robin gave him a glossy look and hopped listlessly to a food bowl. Above the zoo’s nicely designed walkways featuring cafés and interactive informational placards, spring clouds swept swiftly across a bright blue sky.
The group had a hard time focusing on Marisol’s concern about her own life; instead, the discussion branched off into many directions about climate change, mass extinctions of plants and animals, and the selling of bats in the Chinese wet markets where the virus supposedly jumped from a wild animal population into the human population.
Nisha argued that humans are a relatively new species to the planet and not yet integrated enough into the primordial biological environment that the viruses evolved in.
Michael, the doctoral physics student, thought virus’s emergence might be a sign that the feedback loops holding the planet’s climate system together in homeostasis were hitting tipping points, invisible thresholds past which natural systems topple suddenly and irreversibly into new states. Lori wondered if plants and animals like the bats might consider humanity as a virus. Randy asked why Marisol had made her human protagonist male.
Marisol confided during the conversation that she and her boyfriend of five years had been intending to split up before the pandemic struck. Now circumstances had forced them together into the small living quarters of the bungalow, maintaining a separation for non-viral reasons. “But the sex is great,” she added dryly.
3rd Story Gianna volunteered her story for the Wednesday session at the place they now dubbed Babylon Online. A cello student at the University’s School of the Performing Arts, she had made her way by plane and train from the big city campus to her home in Pari, a tiny village perched on top of a lovely hill outside of Florence, surrounded by vineyards and olive orchards. This was the same beautiful countryside where Boccaccio’s fictional narrators (nine young women and three young men) had retreated to tell their Decameron stories. Gianna acknowledged that it was probably very foolish of her to shelter in a place so near the Italian hot zone where many old people were dying of the plague. This included her grandfather, who was very ill and on a ventilator in an intensive care ward; nurses were turning him every couple of hours on the bed to relieve the pressure on his lungs. Her grandfather had taught her so many things about life. He had taught her the cello. Now she could only see his hand and part of his arm through a dusty window at the Grosetto infirmary where he lay suffering.
“My story is short,” she told the others before she read in a terse voice, made lyrical and liquid by her Italian accent. She called the story Carry On:
Bang. Bang. Bang.
Bang, bang… The sound arouses her… persistent banging trying to get the attention of someone… as from a distant enclosure, a person pounding on a tough glass wall with a metal object.
It takes her a moment to realize it is herself out there banging. Ugh. She must reach herself somehow. The banging continues. She makes a focused effort but discovers she can no longer walk. She begins to crawl, dragging her dead legs. Bang, bang… Shuffling forward, she feels her legs now dissolving. Evaporating. The room grows larger. Its distances expand. With each movement forward everything seems further away. She must span these distances to reach the banging, which continues. Is it growing more desperate? Soon, the lower half of her body having entirely vanished, she advances, wobbling upside down on elbows and shoulders.
Soon even her shoulders, neck, and head have dissolved—leaving only a vain, invisible effort of straining forward to reach the relentless banging.
Setting aside Gianna’s stricken love for her grandfather, her dream story quickly became occasion for the variously quarantined friends—especially those from the U.S.— to blow off steam about the fatally flawed governmental response to the pandemic. These hyper-educated Americans felt powerless and hopeless. Medical workers didn’t have basic equipment to protect themselves from infection by their patients. There were not enough ventilators for patients who couldn’t breathe, and the U.S. President was pretending they all lived in a different reality from the reality of the actual virus. He was blaming his gross mistakes on everyone else, whining like an infant, denying science, making up outlandish fables about almost everything, as if the pandemic were only about his own fears and inadequacies and everyone was against him. “He’s foaming and frothing everyday on television like a contagious madness we can’t do anything about,” opined Michael. “The whole democracy is unraveling.” Nisha said something similar was happening in the newly vicious democratic dictatorship in India.
Ambition, love, the desire to answer the call for help—the group considered these as the prominent concerns of Gianna’s dream story, but it was the overarching feeling of the dream that most impressed itself on them—a sinking feeling, as if the specter rapping at the window was a new species of grief.
4th Story In mid-April the friends’ television and smart phone screens flickered with grim images. One video posted by a hospital custodian showed corpses in black body bags heaped into blue plastic carts reminiscent of the big wooden carts that held victims of the Black Death. The carts were shown jammed into hospital corridors; body bags spilling over the sides while other black bags lay strewn in the hallways and piled in closets. Inside the bags were mothers, fathers, grandfathers, grandmothers, children. For most, death had come at the hand of their own immune systems attacking the countless particles of virus that infested them and igniting inflammation and clotting so severe that it suffocated their ability to breathe. Others died from heart attack, stroke, or organ failure.
Jason, an older grad student, usually didn’t say much when the friends convened their biweekly meetings at the Babylon. A year ago he’d left his moderately promising but thoroughly unfulfilling career in business and was pursuing a life sciences degree with intention of becoming a high school teacher. Recently divorced, with no family, he was isolated in a small apartment in partially gentrified borough of the city. He give his story the title, Salvation.
She is walking through a field in wintry country. Weathered sillions, crackling stalks underfoot. Long ice crystals crunch in the frozen earth. The field is edged by woods, which she enters, scuffling dead leaves along the ground.
Over a rise and into a depression she comes upon a stand of Christmas trees planted in neat rows: pine trees with long needles and the light green candles of newer growth. Some of the rows have gaps without stumps in them. Standing near the trees she feels them speak to her. Without words, they tell her they are not native to this soil. Years ago they were planted beside a road, where they grew. Then some were taken. All they could think to do to save themselves was retreat to this spot in the woods and hide. So for one inconceivable moment they made that effort. Now they fear being found out in this refuge and cut down. They know they will never be able to escape as they did that one time. She understands their story but also that she is missing vital parts of it. She wants to save the trees from being discovered but knows it’s impossible; nothing she can do will free them. The impossibility expands. To free them would mean altering the very nature of what holds them to the earth. In the slanting winter light coming through the bare high branches of the forest, their long needles shine and are silent.
My wife wept quietly telling this dream as we drove along the highway. A sunny bare winter day. Alongside of the roadway, the winter light spun a sheen upon a crust of frozen snow. I saw her eyes gazing out the window at the distant landscape of ice-white trees upon rolling hills. She was on her way north to live in the house we had built in the woods, while I would return to the city.
Jason confessed he wasn’t sure what most concerned him in this story. He said it was his ex-wife’s actual dream; it had haunted him and in writing his version of it, the story had become his dream. His ex was very much connected to the land and the organic world and he was connected to the city, its pleasures, distractions, and that exciting urban energy now cut off from him by the pandemic. That city-country division was one of the reasons they had divorced. Since the lockdown started, they had exchanged texts on the phone. She was okay, and he confessed he found now that he really missed her. He also missed going down the street to a favorite place where he could get a finely brewed latte and read a book.
Lori said the story brought several different thoughts together for her. As she negotiated the new regimes for being with other people—the masks and disinfectant, the social distancing, she was reminded that anthropologists had long puzzled over why ancient civilizations like the Maya and the Anasazi suddenly abandoned their great cities. Was it something like this virus that had happened? Droughts? Crop failures? Was it something in the perpetual tension between the needs of a city and the needs of the wild landscape that led to a fatal disruption in those societies’ relationship with the natural world?
Axochiti said she thought that in those cases Mother Earth probably instructed the people in the cities that it was time to leave. The people had forgotten they were inseparable from nature. They became preoccupied with trying to manipulate nature. “We can’t imagine abandoning our cities, our lifestyles, but what if that is what is necessary now, not for just us but because he need to restore the planet’s harmony?”
Michael offered that he felt totally fed up with all the disorderly human thoughts piled high and deep on the planet. “Mine included, of course.”
5th Story Wednesday, the middle of the month and Nisha, from her village on the outskirts of Mumbai, told a dream story that she entitled Conversation at an Oasis.
At a time closer to the beginning of the world than our current time, three people coming from different directions through the wide desert found themselves at a small oasis. The two men were wayfarers on journeys of commerce from different kingdoms. The woman was a slave whose master she had just buried in the sand. The three were marked by different features, slants of eyes, color of skin, shape of frame. One of the men in his narrowness resembled a snake; the second man a pack animal. The slave woman resembled a woman.
The three drank from the oasis to refresh themselves, and when night came the snake man built a dung fire out of chips left behind by caravans that had stopped here in years past. The fire burned with bright yellow flames. From horizon to horizon the heavens stretched like the dome of a black silk tent studded with crystals and gems more opulent than the treasure chests of prior empires.
As they lounged by the fire, the vile, acid-pungent, fried-urine smell of the burning dung mingled with the savory odors of wine-tinctured hashish from a hookah the snake-man had brought and the tart, intestinal aroma of the intoxicating fermented beast milk being swilled by the man who resembled a pack animal.
Ignoring the woman, who sat within the reach of shadows, the two men spoke with a friendliness and competing authority about the desert and its vast distances; they discoursed on the puzzling value of trade goods; eventually they came to the topic of religion. By that time both men were drunk.
The snake-man, inhaling a long draft of his mind-altering vapors, declared, “Every culture has its own gods. My god is a giant being with the head of a jackal and the body of a lion. He is more fierce and powerful than anything on earth.”
The pack-animal-man belched and farted with a fermented, evidently contented air. “My friend, my god is not on this earth. He is everywhere and nowhere and he is all the more powerful because he is an invisible; he is an idea that can take possession of a man’s mind.”
From her place in the tangle of shadows the slave woman watched the two men lolling in their exalted inebriation. To rouse their attention she let her scarf fall open to reveal her bare breasts; after a while she languorously covered up before observing: “I will remind you two desert rats of something you know very well but do not seem at this moment to know at all. I am your god. For you there is no other. In me you find both the visible and the invisible. It is through my womb that your illusions continue.”
Nisha explained: “My roommate in my undergraduate years was from Jordan and told me many stories about the desert.” Nisha’s good friends in the group, Lori and Yawen, knew that as a pre-teen she had been molested by her brother-in-law. They didn’t want to bring it up, but Nisha divulged it as they discussed her dream story. So gender issues took center stage. In India, 50 percent of men think that every woman occasionally needs a good beating.
The three males in the group were experienced feminists and listened respectfully as the seven women drew from a large store of anecdotes of male sexism, domination, and violations. Randy wondered about the debate between the two oasis men over their gods, then he asked, “So what do you think is Nisha’s real concern in this story?” “A woman speaking her voice,” several replied. The three men in the group didn’t argue with this, but to a man they felt something that could not be said, a menace being ignored, as if the story touched on some long-ago distortion of human thought that was responsible for the deformed relationships many were now experiencing.
6th Story The Saturday session at the Babylon Online began with shared anecdotes about their life under the stay-at-home regime: how preparing for outings to the supermarket in head coverings, face masks, and rubber gloves, they felt like astronauts disebarking onto an alien planet’s surface; Yawen, cooped up with her parents and two teenage sisters trying to pass the time with card games and home schooling; the endless hours of watching coverage on TV about the pandemic; the amazing anger-pain of watching a President who lies about everything. Axochiti said she knew a medicine elder from Canada who had explained that a white men’s lies and truth are shadows of each other. “That’s deep, Axa,” Michael kidded. She laughed, “That’s just because you gringos have constructed the illusion that we native people are Yodas.”
Lori reported that Doug, the man who oversees the village transfer station where they take their recyclables and trash, had started a book club with some of the residents shut in by their new virus reality. Residents agreed to read the same book, and when they dropped off their garbage, they could spend a few minutes behind their masks discussing it with Doug. Their first book was Thinking Like a Mountain by pioneer environmentalist Aldo Leopold.
Randy told the group he was sleeping a lot during his lock-down. He had developed a fever and a dry cough, early signs he might have caught the virus. He brushed aside the group’s anxiety about this. “Bollocks. If I’m cocked up, I’m cocked up,” he said. “Or might be tickety-boo, as you will see from my dream story.”
Randy explained that his grandfather, a London bus driver and a very well read man had regularly gone to southern France with his wife, Randy’s grandmother, for holiday. Grandfather was American and grandmother British, both now dead. Randy’s grandfather had been deployed to London during World War II, which was how he met his wife. Growing up, Randy had heard many stories from the old man, and many seemed to have a dreamlike quality. He called this recollected story Point of View (Point de Vue). He said he wrote it as if his grandfather was telling it.
I’m drinking a glass of wine outside a stone house in France, a place where we stay. I put the wine glass down for a bit to turn the page of the book I’m reading. When I pick the wineglass up again there’s a very tiny bug in it. Very tiny. A French bug with tiny, tiny transparent wings and a tiny, tiny luminous blue body. Une très petitebête avecun corps en bleu. No, azure. Azure. That’s a better French word. I’m telling you about it being France and all that, not to impress you, but to emphasize that this is a French insect, une bête, they would call it, and I don’t know its common or its scientific name. We’d call it a gnat, but our gnats don’t have azure bodies that I know of. Anyway, he or she bête is dead and I’m sorry about that; I don’t like any creature to die even if it is soaking up my wine.
So I put my index finger into the wineglass and the bug adheres to my skin along with a maroon drop of merlot. I look at it closely as best I can with my bad eyesight and reading glasses. All at once I see the little fly drawing itself out of the drop of wine and standing out on my finger vibrating its wings—to dry them off it would seem. It appears to look around, then zooms away.
Leaving me behind with this question. From that azure-bodied fly’s point of view, what on earth had just happened?
The group relished the lighter tone of this story compared to the others they had told each other so far. The ensuing conversation about French culture and French wines turned a little serious only when they considered what an animal’s point of view might be. Axochiti, in her video box, was sitting on the ground, her laptop in front of her, underneath a tree. Her face was in partial shadow: “We could also say a rock’s point of view, or the point of view of water or the stars. Those are living beings as well. Think of them all as Yodas,” she said referring again to the pint-sized panda-like sage in the movie Star Wars.
“How about the corona virus?” Yawen put in. “Is the little virus happy to be enjoying us as it expands its empire?” Said Jason, “I’ve started imagining the virus as like an extraterrestrial invading force, and we’re in a war of the worlds.” Lori pointed out how horrible it was that some people didn’t even realize they had the sickness and sometimes unwittingly brought it home, consigning their loved ones to a grotesque death. Then there was that fear—resembling loathing—when you were out in public where anyone, even an innocent, cute little baby, might be a disease vector. “Like Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
In no time at all the group moved far beyond the little French gnat rising like the phoenix from a red-blue drop of wine.
7th Story It was Lori’s turn. Thin and elegant Lori. Her suggestion had invented the game. She said that by this point she had rewritten her dream—it started as an actual dream—so many times that now she didn’t know if it made any sense, not even to speak of whether it conveyed what concerned her. She called it Conveyor Belt Story.
Lacy, feature writer for the city newspaper, tried to convey to her husband what she’d learned in the distressing interview. The subject of the story was a middle-aged woman who had gone with her 18-month-old daughter on a tour of the new computer operated baby-food factory. The woman told her that the huge high-speed blenders—largest in the world—simply fascinated her. They could purée tons of peas and chicken, broccoli and beef into complete meals in seconds. She had never seen anything like it. Somehow her daughter fell in.
An instant later a big red bubble appeared on the surface of the pale green foam. In the next instant her daughter’s bones, face, and fingernails blended imperceptibly into the mixture which was sucked out by sterile vacuum pipettes and deposited in measured squirts from glass nipples into a marching line of jars on a conveyor belt; then air was evacuated from the jars and her daughter’s remains hermetically sealed with rotating childproof lids. The assembly line slid forward so quickly it could be halted by its human operators only moments before the labels were put on. The authorities had seized all the cartons of jars containing her daughter as evidence.
Brad listened to this wrenching tale with no expression on his face, not even commenting as he sometimes did with stories involving travesties and kids, that it was a good thing they didn’t have children. Lacy tried to convey the bottomlessness of the woman’s sorrow. But how could even the most artful metaphor express the absence of that tiny face, those little fingernails and eyes. The mother’s mind had taken orbit around the fact that the machine went so fast there was no time to stop it. If only she had taken her daughter to the factory across town which was less up-to-date.
When Lacy finished the story, Brad said simply, “It’s a dream.”
“I see why you would think that, but it can’t be. It’s real. They’ve filed papers in court.” Brad smiled the smile, which meant he refused to indulge her, “It’s a dream.” “But how can she have dreamed it, if they’re scheduled for trial?”
He replied by repeating his assertion. She grew confused. Perhaps he meant that the whole thing was a hoax, a fabrication, but she didn’t see how that was possible. She had talked to the lawyers, to the public relations officer at the factory. The story checked out. “It’s a dream,” he said once more with his characteristic patient intolerance. She looked at her husband and realized as she never had before that he was insubstantial. Wasn’t he the dream, really? Was that what this was all about? But she didn’t dare say this to him because she didn’t feel that she could. “I really don’t understand you,” she said instead. Speaking the words made her appreciate that she felt dizzy and couldn’t breathe without effort. “Brad, which part is the dream?”
He stared out the window. “It’s all a dream,” he said flatly.
A strange, far-flung feeling blended with her confusion. She couldn’t tell whether he kept insisting it was all a dream in order to reassure her that everything would be okay, she needn’t feel bad, or to criticize her for failing once again to see the obvious reality. But perhaps he meant that she’d made all this up. Whatever his meaning, she knew now, as if for certain, that he was a dream, though a dream more efficient and real than she. She tried to reach out to touch him.
At this point she noticed that the air in the room seem to thicken and tighten around her. When her thoughts tried to escape from this feeling, they couldn’t and she regretted and appreciated more than ever before the exhilarating sensation of unseen forces chopping her into pieces, blending the pieces, and sealing her off from him as completely as the contents of a bottle beneath a tamper-proof cap.
“Some of you don’t know I helped put myself through college writing features in the summer for our small town newspaper,” Lori told them with her old stuffed toys on the bed behind her. They included a big fat cuddly teddy bear and the Smurf dolls Greedy and Jokey as well as a pillow stitched with an image of the Parthenon. The group was a bit stunned by Lori’s dream.
Randy: “Brilliantly gruesome.” Jane: “Really, worthy of Euripides.” “Worthy of Boccaccio himself.”
After several weeks of confinement, people were sensitive to their claustrophobic conditions, which the story put front of mind. Marisol described the sensation of her imprisonment as “like bees swarming in my chest.” Lori’s story reminded them too directly of the dark, quotidian dream of poisonous surfaces and potentially contaminated air that they were each experiencing uniquely. Jane asked, “Why doesn’t her husband believe what happened to her?” They all sensed there was much, much more to Lori’s story.
8th Story Yawen, the anthropology student, marooned by the virus in a suburb outside of Detroit, said her doctoral fieldwork at an ancient Hopi village was now indefinitely postponed. This week she had been reading the Hopi prophesies about the apocalyptic end of the current Fourth World and the beginning of a Fifth World. A Hopi elder had told her last summer, “It’s up to us if we build the new world.” She called her little dream story The Death of the Cloud God.
He lived alone in the high desert of red buttes and sand colored rocks, rocks balanced precariously on top of each other, canyons spreading out all directions. In the terrible heat of the summer days he squatted in the sandy washes along the bottoms of the canyons, shaded by the shadows of the canyon walls and watched the sky. At the appropriate time as a cloud passed above the steep canyon rim, he poured a few drops of water from a clay bowl into the sand and sang phrases in his language. As far as he knew, he was the last worshipper of the Cloud God.
Going back for generations, whole tribes on the great desolate desert plains had worshipped the Cloud God and had maintained a variety of rituals to celebrate their deity’s existence. Mostly the shamans petitioned the Cloud God for the proper understanding of the beauty of life, and those prayers were answered at sunrises and sunsets when the peoples’ minds were illuminated with gold and vermillion. Among his own people, when that happened, they danced.
Now the old shamans had died and evaporated into the clouds themselves, and the man’s people were gone. In one generation the young people journeyed to distant places where they became trapped in great cities and temples and, so it was said, hardly ever saw the clouds. Many now worshipped a presumably unitary God that was all powerful and invisible, a God that lived only in people’s minds.
One day as the man watched a shinny, oblong cloud floating over the canyon rim, a voice spoke to him.
“You are the last of my people,” the Cloud said. “When you die, my reign as the Cloud god will be over.”
The man was fearstruck. “How can a god die? Would the clouds cease to exist in the sky?”
“No,” the Cloud voice said. “I will be there, but none will recognize me as you do.” “None!” the shaman said aghast.
“Perhaps some young child will feel the power my presence,” the Cloud God said wistfully, “But then as she grows, she will lose that insight. Without such insight a world can cease to exist as humans know it. Its unknowable existence remains hidden. When you have seen me rolling in the sky at dusk or dawn or noon above the canyons, your insight and the wisdom of your ancestors has allowed you to participate in my unknowable existence. Henceforth I will cease to be unknowable and will become known only as a cloud with whatever name or explanation humans assign. I will be an everyday phenomenon in the sky. I will be a pretty background for artists, or a portent for scientists and weather forecasters; I may even be a symbol to represent some other god. But I will not be that unknowable presence that your people have acknowledged with gratitude.”
The next morning the man awoke to find the canyon he was staying in filled with mist, tatters of gossamer streaming across the desert floor, clinging to the base of the canyon walls, rising up to stream across the tops of the mesas and buttes.
He understood that the Cloud God was giving him a sign.
When the man died, clouds formed in the western sky, turning violet red gold in the dusk, then sweeping the moon all night. There was no one to know or even wonder at this. The god who assumed these shapes had departed from the consciousness of humans. In turn, human consciousness had become like water evaporated from a hollow in a desert stone, a shrinking reflection of a cloudless sky.
After Yawen read her story, Randy let out that he was feeling sicker and had applied to take the virus test. The two teenage sisters who were part of Yawen’s sequestered group were running back and forth in the room behind her. shrieking with hysterical play—the family dog barking. Randy, coughing dryly, said he had to leave to take his test. The friends, concerned, broke off the day’s discussion, and so wasn’t able to consider how Yawen’s story reflected her life’s concern.
9th Story At this point, while the sequestered Babylon Online friends met there were protests taking place in various U.S. cities, prodded by the President panicked about is re-election and paid for by business interests eager to get back to making profits and lattes for the corporate overlords. People were being incited to carry banners rejecting the stay-at-home orders and demanding a restart of economic activity. Many protestors had been propagandized into believing that they were too tough to be taken down by some ‘scary’ invisible pathogen, comparing themselves heroically to the citified, soft , weak, easily terrified liberals who went limp at the thought that they, their grandmothers, or their children might die from the virus. “The economy is what’s important.” (The economy, as Marisol reminded them, being the primary instrument for destruction of the planet.) Michael argued the protests were signs of a coalescing U.S. Fascist state.
At some places, like Quito, Ecuador, bodies of people who died of the virus were now being left to rot in the streets. All over the world, unrecorded virus victims were decaying in their beds at home.
As the group convened, Randy was back on screen in his video box with his parents’ kitchen behind him. When he expanded to full screen, he said he was feeling a little better, but still had a temperature and was waiting for his test results. Yawen caught attention by appearing in her video rectangle with a digital background; it showed a distant city skyline beneath an expansive empty blue. At the top of the screen was the caption: “Where the Cloud Has God Gone.” The group bantered about what backgrounds they might create to advertize their own dream stories. For hers, Nisha imagined a chiseled woman’s face in closeup, eyes staring furiously at the viewer accompanied by the words: “Tell Me Everything You Know About Domination, Objectification, and God.”
For almost a month Nisha had been working at her local dispensary near Mumbai taking care of Covid-19 patients. She described their horrible agony trying to breathe, the awful sense of suffocation in the air. Because of forced isolation, her patients were dying without the presence of loved ones.
“Mother Earth’s lungs are sick and now we humans are feeling that sickness in us,” Axochiti observed somberly. She said her dream story spoke directly to this point. She read in an incisive, almost lawyerly voice; she called the story Intelligent Life.
The planet from which the distress call came is encrusted with structures and swarming with activities generated by beings calling themselves humans. A minor and recent form of intelligence, the humans are posing a grave danger to the many other intelligences on the planet. We learned from the originator of the distress call that humans have ceased to communicate or even acknowledge the intelligence of the other beings that exist in their surroundings such as plants, stones, and rivers and so on. Instead, the humans convert all different beings into material that they can control and even enslave, proceeding on the assumption that they, the humans, are the planet’s supreme beings. We encountered an impressive variety of intelligences on the planet, each with a unique perspective of consciousness and with countless entanglements to the other perspectives of consciousnesses. These many different intelligences manifest themselves swimming in the oceans, teaming in the soil, soaring in the air. The intelligent phenomenon that the humans have categorized as trees reached out to contact us.
Trees constitute a multidimensional consciousness much like ourselves. One difference is that this intelligence does not make use of concepts. So to convey the situation here we are very cautiously translating concepts generated by humans. We note that the conceptual facet of our own consciousness is one characteristic we share with humans and our visit to this planet should alert us to the inherent danger in our own limited ability to conceptualize. We observe that human consciousness is so consumed by concepts that it ignores almost everything that cannot be conceptualized.
The tree consciousness draws on the water brought long ago to the Earth (as the humans call this planet) by comets from deep space. They recycle the comet water throughout the Earth. They constantly reformulate the composition of the air that other beings breathe. They stabilize the soil on the planet’s moving crust; they provide a home and nourishment for many of the planet’s intelligent forms. Individual trees, each displaying its unique pattern of limbs, leaves or needles, prosper within a vast mycelial network that webs through the soil such that each individual tree is generated by, and, in turn, generates the trees’ consciousness.
We have learned from the tree consciousness that concept-laden human intelligence has been relentlessly attacking them. It cuts them down, burns them, divides them into tranches to build their structures, smashes them into pulp to make their endless packages and books.
To better understand the situation, we examined the humans. They regard our arrival on their planet in a curious way. Their intelligence construes us as space aliens and delusionally thinks we are beings like themselves though more evolutionarily or technologically advanced, and that we are wise. They believe we can save them from themselves. Some of them see us as gray fungi and plant-like growths. While this is not wholly dissimilar from a perspective we could take on ourselves, it is, of course, fundamentally mistaken. The concept-and-category-driven intelligence of humans has created obeisance to an idea they call time. Also, most of their societies are organized around some version of insupportable concept that the world is made up of separate individuals and that both consciousness and intelligence are characteristics of these separated individuals.
These features made it difficult for us to communicate with human intelligence. The tree being and the other intelligences of the Earth like the stones and the winds and the many species of animals and plants have enlisted the aid of a community of microorganisms to make the humans sick, but the human intelligence seems not to have understood this message. The trees’ being and the many other intelligent allies seek no action from us, only the perspective of the stars, so to speak. Our perspective is little different from the wisdom that stems from their own knowledge that all beings and all consciousnesses in the universe make up a single consciousness.
The trees intelligence lift up their branches from the valleys of their planet; they rise in forests along the slopes of the mountains; they tangle in the shallows of shorelines and wetlands, and they surround the roadways and remain in the parks made by humans. The tree ancestors burn and flare in human smokestacks; their living forms incinerate in global forest fires caused by humans; they are cut down everywhere by humans to make furniture or palettes or farmland to feed a spiraling out human population. The Indigenous Peoples, who have learned to balance, both their human intelligence and the intelligence of the trees and other beings, have tried to help, but their numbers are small. We’ve departed from this afflicted planet and are in deep space, passing across the glittering gleam of the galactic arm, returning home. During our journey we discerned that the tree beings who sent out their call are our kindred spirit. We have communed with them and understood that they know what to do.
*FOOTNOTE: This report has been translated by us into a human language called English and transmitted to the location known by human intelligence as New York. We don’t know if any humans received it. The trees have communicated to us that since our visit, both the city and its library are in ruins.
“Axa,” Jason broke in before anyone else could speak, “Your story reminded me that when I was around seven and eight we lived in a housing development that was on the edge of a woods. I used to spend every hour I could that place, hiding in the rock caverns and splashing in the brooks. There were really tall trees with thick trunks. They towered over the big boulders and rock ledges left by the last ice age.
“In one of the ravines was an immense old pine tree. Whenever I was in the woods, I visited that tree. I would lie back on the bed of soft pine needles, my back against the tree’s trunk, resting my arms on the brown roots rising above the ground. The trunk was twisted, with big burls; most of the lower limbs had been broken by ice storms. The dead limbs were covered with pale green lichens; there were sockets where big limbs had fallen off and woodpeckers had deepened the holes to reach insects.
“I loved that old tree. It felt that that tree understood me and would protect me as I was growing up into my inevitable life full of concepts, as you say in your story. One summer after I graduated from college I was passing through my old hometown, and went to find that tree. It was gone. Where it had been was a sawn stump many years old with three young pine shoots coming out of it. I remembered reading that scientists have discovered that sometimes when an old tree dies, falls, or is cut down, the other trees in the area will keep the elder stump alive through an underground network of roots and mycelia. I know if I was a tree that lived in that ravine I would have done everything I could to keep that wise old elder alive.”
Many in the group felt hopeful hearing Axochiti’s story, though they couldn’t say why.
10th Story It was May 2, five weeks since they had started their Coronavirus game. Today, when they logged in, Randy’s video box wasn’t on their screens. Jane knew why. She and Randy had become close friends prior to formation of the Babylon group, and had come to feel like brother and sister. She telephoned and talked to Randy’s mother. He had been sent to accident and emergency with difficulty breathing. Jane’s gray cat rubbed against her hand as she sat on her couch. Her husband walked through the room behind her, waving at her computer screen. Jane’s worrisome news about Randy set the conditions for the final dream story, Michael’s. He called it The Dune People.
They first saw it in the distance atop one of the interminable succession of dunes they were crossing. Silhouetted against the dark blue sky: a vast, labyrinthine city, surrounded by high walls.
The array of dunes behind and ahead of them were immense curling cliffs of sand, like towering lines of breakers, each individual wave thousands of feet high. It was hard to imagine the colossal windstorms that had caused this formation.
The small party of travelers had been slogging down and up these dunes, through the sliding, slithering sand for a duration that had drained their vital energies, disconnected them from the place they came from, and imprisoned them in a situation that seemed longer than time.
The sun rose from the desert horizon five times before the exhausted travelers finally reached the dune that supported the unknown structure.
Toward evening—the cloudless sky darkening and the first alien stars appearing—they wandered through the deserted city, if that’s what it was. What had first appeared to be a single vast edifice turned out to be a squalid collection of interconnected, half-finished warrens––not the ruin of a civilization but a ramshackle failure to complete a civilization by a species that had clearly abandoned their efforts. The dusky air blew through the spaces of the fortress beneath the fading blue sky.
After several days of exploring, some of the party began to feel an uncanny sensation, as if they themselves might have once lived in this place.
The structure seemed alive with shadows that bred festering reminders of the collective activity of these creatures. One sensed that their institutions had been warped by dreams; hideous corruption infected them in the very moments of deepest community and love. The rooms and passageways they tried to build turned into deformed and shabby growths. The beings that lived here had been like the cells of an embryo that could not migrate into their proper places to create a coherent entity. This failure left behind it the walled city as residue, a form, amorphous and unviable. The ramshackle edifice was like a discarded placenta of a stillborn world.
I’ll end the narrative here. I’m unable to maintain this fiction of objectivity about our journey. That night, I rallied the team. We gathered on the sand outside the edifice around a mighty fire made of scavenged scantlings and broken furniture from the tattered city. We would set out with the morning sun to cross the dunes to found our own future. Joyously, we sang and danced together. We swore a bond to our noble purpose. Deep into the night, as we slept, some of us felt the ghosts of the edifice emerge from its rooms and alleyways, taking shape from the shadows (shapes of beings we could not define), gazing quizzically at our sleeping forms.
While the group readily embraced Michael’s story and declared it affecting, nobody felt much like commenting on it. In some sense its meaning seemed obvious for their situation. Michael apologized that he had meant to appear for his reading with his background image: “Picture tall dunes stretching to the horizon with the caption, Now What?” But what that question might mean for Michael didn’t get posed.
As the group met, some U.S. state governments were actually “opening up the economy,” including restaurants, exercise gyms, and nail salons—encouraging people to mingle in groups in a lethal environment without adequate testing to track down and quarantine those who might have contracted the disease. The growing, invisible contagion still stalked the streets. Many wishfully assumed the plague was over simply because they could declare it was over. Many others were anticipating that such hubris and bravado would bring a second, more deadly, wave.
Game Over On the first Wednesday in May, the group held its last meeting for the dream story game, and learned from Jane that their friend Randy had died the previous day. She was devastated. Gianna told them that Sunday her grandfather had also succumbed. From Detroit, Yawen reported that the virus was turning her sisters and other adolescents into bats. She meant that many adolescents were switching their activities from day to night, huddling under blankets or in darkened rooms with the glowing screens of their smart phones or ipads. One parent said her son had retreated to his bat-cave closet where communications took place in hushed voices accompanied by the occasional spooky whisperings of music. “Maybe now other viruses will come and shapeshift these children’s parents into insects and frogs,” suggested Axochiti.
In Brooklyn, New York, neighbors around a funeral parlor reported smelling a terrible stench. Police found a tractor trailer with several dozen decomposing bodies leaking fluids. The funeral director said he was overwhelmed with the demands for his services.
“So, what most concerns us about our lives?” Jason asked in a somber, possibly ironic, tone. “I don’t know—that our reality is breaking down?” ventured Lori. Reality. “That would be a good thing or a bad thing?”
Lori: “The German novelist Robert Musil says that what we call reality is only pseudo-reality. If that helps.”
“If you think about reality as a chaotic system,” Michael said. “Stress the system hard enough and at any moment it can shoot off in another direction. I’m reading a book by a cognitive scientist who says we can never know what real reality is because all we experience is what our sensory apparatus plucks out from whatever mystery is really going on. We take the little bits we can pluck out and build up imaginary scenes that we call reality.
“My grandmothers say Mother Earth makes reality, and we are the reality she is.” “We’re steeped in mystery, surrounded by mystery. That’s the reality the classical writers knew,” affirmed Lori.
“Poor Randy. That’s where he is now, steeped in mystery.”
They remembered Randy’s light-hearted anecdotes and his endearing accent. The group shifted to talk about the University opening up again in the fall. “What if we can’t go back?” After five weeks shut in, they rehearsed wishful fantasies about getting back to the routines that defined who they were, including Saturday and Wednesday nights at the Babylon.
“How much education can people actually absorb online locked inside our separate fishbowls?”
“We need to give up all this talk and think like the trees, without concepts,” declared Gianna, lifting her bow like a wand and drawing a deep, haunting note from her cello. Ensemble, they remembered festive nights at The Babylon, the big table with chairs crowded around it, the multiple TV screens ranged above the long bar with various sports competitions playing out on them, the waiters and waitresses adroitly balancing trays of glasses as they serpentined through the crowd to the tables, the room humming with an undertone of frivolous talk and laughter. Without Randy, they felt the Babylon group could no longer exist with its love of life and lively conversations. In their separate locations they lifted their separate glasses of red wine in salute to their departed friend (and to his father). “Check your glass for brilliant little insects,” Jane cautioned. They did, then drank.
After a digitally mediated silence, Jason wondered, “So how did we do on the dream-guessing part of this game?” The verdict was mixed. There were many interesting ideas but the authors of the stories generally agreed that they didn’t feel satisfied with the meanings they heard. “The Buddhists believe that root of suffering is not feeling satisfied with what you have,” said Yawen, herself a Buddhist. Gianna observed that their dream stories seemed to have been bred in some fetid and dark caves of their feelings like the bat caves that purportedly gave birth to the virus.
“The bat comes from the underworld, from death, but it is also a sacred being,” Axochiti advised them. “My elders say the little virus spirit is the bat’s gift calling humans back to the ceremonies of their primordial ancestors. It is the ceremonies that connect us to the Earth and allow us to feel our relationship with all other beings, both animate and inanimate. The virus is telling us we are not separate or superior to these other beings. We anthropocentric humans think of the virus as a mystery to solve and then we can get back to normal, meaning a normal where we are in control. But what if we can’t solve this mystery and have to live with it and even thank it for returning us to our roots in Mother Earth?”
There were signs of what the Axochiti was talking about, or at least you could see it that way if you wanted to: Peoples around the globe had shut down their economies and isolated themselves to save their elders; animals once banished to small parcels of natural landscape were reappearing. Wild boar trotted along the streets of Barcelona; endangered sea turtles were nesting undisturbed on Brazil’s beaches for the first time in decades; a mountain lion had been photographed dozing in a tree on a Boulder Colorado street normally teaming with shoppers and restaurant goers; whale pods were breaching again in Mediterranean shipping lanes; bird songs were filling the streets of New York, and the air in cities around the world was clearing. “It was a surreal sensation,” one environmental scientist said (from a link sent to the group by Marisol).
Yawen reported that the forsythia was blooming in the yard outside her house.
On they talked as they always had on Babylon nights. Their dream stories now seemed to color their perceptions. What if all the conveyor belts of our society stopped? A good thing or a disaster? Would cities be abandoned and great ocean liners like the one Jane depicted in her dream at the start of their game, sink where they would never be found? Could the old primordial gods, like Yawen’s cloud god, return? Would the trees, unable to migrate, die out or somehow struggle on? Would the robins still exist? Would human gender alternatives proliferate?
Lori cautioned, “We’ve said lots of interesting things about the little dream stories we invented, but I’m wondering if we’re not missing our own point. I’m thinking they’re like the old classical stories, metaphors; they’re like doorways opening…” “…into the abyss,” Michael interjected. “Yes. Or into something that isn’t an abyss.”
As the nine talked, they felt themselves trying to answer a call being issued to them—possibly the call Axochiti proposed that the virus was making—and they felt inadequate to answer that call. Their way was blocked by concept-heavy gods, authoritarian abstractions, and multi-dimensional illusions of all kinds.
In the end, they each intuited that what most concerned them as individuals was something that they shared but could not say to each other. Between all the concepts borne from their thoughts, they felt their lives enveloped by a great invisible and mysterious current that was rapidly metamorphosing them into a reality as strange and unreal as their dreams.