Sabrina Orah Mark’s column, Happily, focuses on fairy tales and motherhood.
Paulus Fürst, Plague Doctor, c. 1656
Once upon a time a Virus With A Crown On Its Head swept across the land. An invisible reign. A new government. “Go into your homes,” said the Virus, “or I will eat your lungs for my breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The city that never sleeps shall fall into a profound slumber, your gold shall turn to dust, and your face shall be pressed against the windowpane.”
“And the elders, for fear of death, shall not embrace the young.”
The Virus was colorless and cruel. Some believed it to be the child of a bat, but no one knew its origin for sure. Some said it reminded them of a dead, gray sun.
The fairy tale I will write about this time is this one. The one we’re inside.
All night I dream of buying a chicken. I am scared of us all getting sick, so I need to make jars and jars of bone broth to freeze, but there are no chickens left in the poultry section of our supermarket. Instead, just cold, empty shelves. They glow white like hospital beds. If I can’t find a chicken I should at least sew my sons’ birth certificates into their wool coats, but it’s springtime and there is pink dogwood blooming everywhere and where are we going? We are going nowhere.
I don’t know when I’ll be able to see my mother again.
“What day is it?” asks Noah, my eight-year-old. He wanders away before I can even answer.
It is almost Passover, which, like a fairy tale and a virus, depends on repetition. Every year, on the fifteenth of Nisan, we retell the story of the exodus from Egypt. We dip our pinkies into a full glass of red wine and for every plague brought upon the Egyptians we make a stain: one for blood, one for frogs, one for lice, one for a maelstrom of beasts, one for pestilence, one for boils, one for hail, one for locusts, one for darkness, and one for the killing of the firstborn. For $14.99 on Amazon you can buy a bag of plagues that includes plastic frogs and insects, white balls for hail, a sticky hand with white dots for boils, red ink for blood, a plush cow, and a finger puppet of a dead boy. “Delight the kids,” reads the advertisement, “with a bag of plagues. Fun and educational.” I think we’ll skip the plagues this year.
A friend of mine texts me that her neighbor wants to know what our plans are for Passover. “Tell her we’re already inside it,” I write. “Tell her we don’t need to celebrate it. It’s celebrating us.” She writes back, “I’m telling her I’m putting blood on my gate and waiting for death to pass over my house.” “Even better,” I write.
This is the problem with metaphor and ritual and fairy tales. Sometimes they start leaking into reality, and no one knows how to sew up the tear. And even if we did know how to sew it up, all the stores are out of needle and thread.
For a story to live it must attach, enter, replicate, biosynthesize, assemble, and release. Fairy tales, like a virus that blooms into a global pandemic, cross borders and enter us. The storyteller is the infector. The storyteller retells their body’s story in the body of another.
I keep thinking about the bat, the rumored mother of this Virus With A Crown On Its Head. I wonder what her fur smelled like, and what it felt like when she wrapped her wings around her thin body like a cloak. Did she swoop? Was she frightened? Was her tongue long? What must it be like, I wonder, to be the bat that started this cavalcade of coughing that shook a whole entire planet. But then I remember every story begins with a bat. If not for your mother there would be no you. So your mother is a bat, and my mother is a bat. I am a bat. You are a bat. My sons are bats. Every action we’ve ever taken is a bat. Every wildflower we ever picked is a bat. Sex is a bat and the soup you’ll eat tonight is a bat. This virus is a bat, and one day its cure will be a bat. Poems, even their crossed-out lines, are bats. Our lungs are bats. Death is a bat, and birth is a bat. The moon, the sun, and the stars in the sky are all bats. And when you cannot sleep at night that, too, is a bat. And when the president’s words fatten out of his mouth, those words are bats. And when you are afraid, your fear is a bat. And God, who created all the bats, is also a bat. And not believing in God is a bat, too.
I listen to my old rabbi on Zoom speak about lessons in times of crisis. He looks tired, and his eye twitches.
On the eleventh day of sheltering-in-place, Noah tells me he had a dream he was drawing and his drawings were drawing drawings and those drawings were drawing, too. My son understands what we reap is what we sow, that what we bat is what we bat. Maybe that is the moral of this unending fairy tale. Maybe the moral is that what’s outside us is what’s inside us, too.
“What’s your favorite day of the coronavirus so far?” asks Eli, my six-year-old. His happiness might be the best bat of all.
This Passover our exodus will not be made by wandering a desert, but by a desert—a desertion—wandering through us. “Do not feel lonely,” says The Virus With A Crown On Its Head, “the entire universe is inside you.” The Virus is quoting Rumi, who meant this as a blessing, but the Virus means it as a curse.
The reason why fairy tales exist and thrive is because our bodies recognize them like they are our own. Our same blood type. Because we recognize wolf, witch, forest, kiss, curse, spell, mother, the stories latch. If the image blurs as it crosses cultural borders, its latch will thin and possibly vanish. Each spike on the Virus’s crown is like a key that unlocks a cell. Each image in a fairy tale is like a key that opens us up, too. We are its host. The virus and the fairy tale leave little messages inside our cells to replicate. What the Virus whispered to the bat is the same story the Virus is whispering to us. It’s a message that brings us closer to each other than we’ve ever been.
On our honeymoon, my husband bought me a plague doctor. I saw him gazing out a frosted shop window in Barcelona on a street which today, I’m certain, is completely deserted. He stood twelve inches tall. He looked me dead in the eye, like a warning from the past, and I wanted him immediately. He wore a ruffled collar, a long brown cape, and a porcelain beak which in the seventeenth century would’ve been filled with juniper berries, roses, mint leaves, camphor, cloves, and myrrh. If I remember right, the doctor was only $62, which seemed like a bargain. I was pregnant with Noah at the time and glowing with hope. As it turns out, plague doctors rarely cured their patients. Instead, they served to make a public record of the infected and the dead. They could not heal, only witness. To the dying, they must have appeared nightmarish: half-doctor, half-animal. Their long beaks heavy with medicine and herbs they’d never dispense, only inhale. The sticks they carried were used not to fix, but to keep a distance. Why did I want the plague doctor? I am not sure. Maybe I wanted him because he reminded me of me, writing down things that are happening or have happened. Like this fairy tale. I can’t find the ending. I’m scared. I’m sorry.
Read earlier installments of Happily here.
Sabrina Orah Mark is the author of the poetry collections The Babies and Tsim Tsum. Wild Milk, her first book of fiction, is recently out from Dorothy, a publishing project. She lives, writes, and teaches in Athens, Georgia.
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