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"Virus"– an essay by Bex E Brian

By: Bex E Brian

My father was terribly British. Not high born, but definitely of that class where information was imparted with a droll sense of humour and a puckish grin. You never quite knew whether to believe what he was saying. But doubting him seemed impossible. The day he told me that there were millions of microscopic bugs living in my eyelashes, I felt particularly torn. Why would a loving father lie to a five-year-old about such a terrifying thing? It had to be true. It was then that I suddenly felt the hordes of bugs on my eyelashes. Panicking, I started running from room to room, as if you can outrun such a thing.

My father, never patient with displays of hysteria, swooped me up as I went haring past.

“Stop being such a bloody fool,” he said, plunking me back down on the chair opposite. “Your eyelashes are nothing. Microscopic little buggers. Nothing compared to the beasts that live in your gut. We are,” and here came that puckish grin, “you, me, your mother mostly made up of bugs. Not like earthworms, though little ones live in you too, not like spiders but tiny, tiny, bugs with no eyes, though some, I believe, do have teeth…”

I don’t know what happened next. My brain probably went into survival mode and shut down.

By the time I was ten, I was the one doling out the mind-blowing facts and figures about the unseen who reside in our bodies. This being the sixties, I was roundly vilified.

Where are those doubters today?

Now, we can’t fall in love, commit murder, make money, lose money, lean toward obesity, or be a skinny as a rail, feel wonderfully good, or suicidally bad, write a gripping book or an unreadable piece of crap without turning to our microbiome, the presumptive source for all the wonders and the woes.

This brings me to another seminal moment in my education about who and what we are. I was in bed with my husband, before I begin, you should know that he has this incredibly annoying habit of saying the most interesting things of the day as I am being dragged into sleep.

On this night, he had just come back from covering an astrobiology conference. I had rolled over, plumped my pillow, moved the dog, so she wasn’t creating a heat force on my feet, when Charles said, “The Vatican Astronomer is investigating the possibility that all life on earth began with a comet carrying a virus that smashed into Australia.”

Charles might not have said Australia, this conversation happened over twenty years ago. However, having been to the great continent down under where life from the macro to the micro is otherworldly, it makes sense to me that the comet would have hit there, knowing perfectly well that there didn’t exist all those billions of years ago.

Naturally, I had to pull myself back from the brink of oblivion and ask the obvious question. “If the Vatican Astronomer believes life on earth began with a comet, how the hell does he jive the Adam and Eve story, hell, any story in the bible?”

In the dark, I felt Charles shrug. “Faith is one thing. Facts are another.”

I guess. Still.

This wasn’t the only virus bombshell that Charles dragged home. It must have been ten or twelve years after the astrobiology conference, while we were living in London, a city with its own storied history of virus’ wreaking havoc. That day, he interviewed a man who might have found the largest known virus—in a cooling tower of all places. This thing was so big that there was talk, among those who know about such matters, that Mimi, so dubbed, might be the mother of us all.

Again, I was falling asleep, breathing deep the ineffable coal smell of London, a scent I love beyond all else, when he reported this news.

“What do you mean, the mother of us all?”

“A single common ancestor.”

“If that’s true, shouldn’t it have a more august name? I mean, Mimi sounds like someone who invented the green bean casserole.

Charles turned over in a huff.

A couple of minutes later, I heard him snore. But I was now wide awake, my thoughts churning. Not only did I have bugs living in my eyelashes, and my moods were being controlled by bacteria, but now I had to absorb that all of life on earth was probably spawned by a virus. I was fascinated and in awe.

In the years since, I’ve become a little virus obsessed and am always on the lookout for a telling tidbit. For instance, the Herpes Simplex virus, when taken into space, grows like nobodies business. Do not get a cold sore in space. It really will be an alien invasion, and on your lips no less!

I even wrote a screenplay about sentient virus’—brought down on a comet, natch—taking over a rat population on an Arctic research vessel.

When I first heard about the Corona Virus, I was, believe it or not, cooking a Chinese feast: Mapo tofu, Singapore noodles, cumin lamb. Charles came into the kitchen and said it looks like there had been another zoonotic leap of a virus from possibly bats or pangolins to humans. This one looked bad. I remember having the thought: A virus that young and virulent will burn itself out quickly.

Shows what I know.

Here we are. In the midst of a worldwide pandemic.

Do I feel betrayed? Damn straight I do. The object of my fascination and curiosity has become a rampaging monster.

Am I scared? Absolutely.

But my father and his damn sayings keeps popping into my head. Knowledge is Power. I can just see him asking me, “Doesn’t it help, darling, knowing that we wouldn’t be here at all to be terrified if not for life giving virus’?”

Does it help? I don’t know. Maybe? A little?


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