There seems to be a strange new disease spreading around the world. People are getting stuck in the past in mostly happy memories. They are straddling the line between now and then. Although the disease ends in death, the infected seem to go willingly. The epidemiologist seeks the answers to this viral mystery while she is falling in love and yet trying not to get infected.
I was among the first group of epidemiologists to be called. Wearing the white contamination suit—what has since become a second skin—I walked into Patient Zero’s quarantined hospital room, slipped into the sterilized tent surrounding her bed, and saw a beautiful, distracted, wide-eyed contentedness.
Patient Zero was a seventy-two-year-old woman who had been polishing a coffee table when she heard children loudly singing an old Russian lullaby she hadn’t heard since her own childhood. It was called “Bayu Bayushki Bayu.” It sounded so perfect that she first walked to the radio, thinking that somehow it had turned on by itself. But her radio was off. She unplugged it for good measure.
“Do you hear that singing?” she asked her cat, playfully.
The cat, often skittish, seemed undisturbed.
She walked out onto the balcony of her apartment on the sixteenth floor. It was winter but she wore no coat. This was too urgent. She expected a children’s chorus of some sort. She didn’t live far from an elementary school. In fact, she could see the playground from the balcony. She thought perhaps this was part of some kind of multi-cultural presentation.
But no. The playground was empty.
The song had terrifying lyrics. In her hospital bed, she sang them for us and then translated.
Sleep, sleep, sleep
Don’t lie too close to the edge of the bed
Or little gray wolf will come
And grab you by the flank,
Drag you into the woods
Underneath the willow root.
But she added, “The song didn’t scare me as a child. It was a comfort. I can’t explain it but, while in my living room, I could reach out and hold my mother’s hand. My mother has been dead for a long time.”
My own mother would die two months later. There would be no funeral. My father and I were only allowed to talk on the phone; the virus was making travel dangerous. I wanted to ask my father what had come to my mother from the past but he was too broken by grief. He could barely speak.
After Patient Zero’s moment on the balcony, she put on her coat and walked to the elementary school. The school was closed. She hadn’t known that it was a holiday.
This was when she realized that the song was very loud—consistently so. It grew no louder and no fainter. So she wasn’t moving closer or farther away from its source.
She looked up at the gray sky and knew that the song was in her head. “And suddenly,” she said, “I could smell Voronezh, the city I grew up in—sugar refineries, meat factories, flour and groats mills, chemical and aluminum plants. It smelled of work.” She remembered a town gathering that she’d attended with her mother in Lenin Square, near the statue of Lenin giving a speech, much like the one in St. Petersburg except that he’s not positioned on the turret of an armored car.
On the walk home it began to snow. People were bustling past her. She felt unsteady, and her upper body jagged a little to the left.
A man reached out and held her up. She gripped his coat sleeve, but again she felt her mother’s hand in hers, not the man’s coat sleeve at all.
“You okay?” he asked, a few snowflakes glistening in his dark beard.
She started to tell him what was wrong, but then stopped because she knew it sounded crazy. She shook her head. “I’ll be fine. I’m close to home.” She could make out her own mother’s voice now, singing along with the children.
The man gently released her and she walked on.
Once inside her apartment, she got into bed while still completely dressed, shoes and all. She was sure something was wrong with her and, if she had to call 911, she didn’t want the crew to find her in her nightgown. She wondered if she’d inhaled too much wood polish. She worried she was having a stroke. She sang the song loudly as if, by joining it, she would give it permission to leave her. Eventually, she felt tired and hoarse and fell asleep.
When she woke up the next morning, the song was still there. In fact, she was sure that she’d dreamed with the song in a constant loop.
She ate breakfast, but her oatmeal tasted like the red currant kissel her mother always made for her birthdays. Her coffee was more like sbiten, sweet with honey.
She called a taxi and went to her doctor. Sitting on his examination table, she could barely hear the doctor. “I am living in two worlds at once!” she shouted over the noise in her head. “I see you in the present. But I’m hearing the past, smelling, tasting, and touching the past.”
All of this was explicable. Mental diplopia was rare, and Patient Zero’s case might have been extreme, but it was not unheard of. J. Hughlings Jackson was discussing it in the late 1800s. And, in the 1900s, Wilder Penfield was able to create experiential hallucinations by probing the cerebral cortex of fully conscious patients with electrical stimulation during surgery. An acclaimed neurologist wrote of two such cases in a book titled The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, published in 1985.
Although the doctor sent the patient to a neurologist, a blood test revealed a foreign trace of a virus that neither had seen before. This trace mimicked certain strains of biological warfare. So that’s why, when I was called in with a wave of specialists, we were all suited up for contamination.
But what enemy would contaminate us with the effect of, well, what? Overbearing nostalgia? Incontinent reminiscence?
All in all, Patient Zero wanted to be left alone and enjoy the past. Her mother had died young, and this time with her—through touch and taste and sound and smell—was precious.
Then one day, a small explosive aneurysm—sparked by a pathology we didn’t understand and couldn’t avoid—went off in her brain. She died quickly and painlessly.
Within three weeks, all the attending doctors, nurses, and staff who had come into contact with her before we started wearing protective suits were also dead, having gone down a similar path—listening to old pop songs, tasting candy, petting guinea pigs, smelling marshmallows burning in campfires. One man got to lose his virginity in the backseat of a Subaru hatchback in all ways except visually. One woman listened to her parents argue in a distant room while sitting—forgotten—in a bubble bath. Some ran on clipped fields, replaying soccer matches so lifelike they sweated through their shirts, breathless, their hearts pounding. Some overheard the news and could pinpoint the exact day and year they were stuck in. Meanwhile, all were also interactive in the present, though distractedly so.
The bearded man on the street who’d asked the woman if she was okay was dead. Her neighbor who’d talked to her one morning at the mailboxes was dead. Her doorman, dead.
The taxi driver was still alive. But he died by another exposure within a month.
Her cat died, too.
And it was said that the cat, who’d been put in a shelter, had become disoriented, with a dreamy-eyed stare, before his end.
That shelter is now empty, as is the elementary school, the woman’s apartment building, the hospital, most of the city, other cities, continents . . .
I was falling in love at the time.
Unlike predictions of suicides during a super virus of this magnitude, suicides were far lower than projected. The deaths were that beautiful; people opted to die on the virus’s terms and timetable.
Except not all the mental diplopiacs’ experiences were objectively beautiful. (There is no such thing as objective beauty, of course, but I have no time to mince around.) Some were forced to relive a day of war or horror or trauma. One woman reported the repetitive noise of a bomb going off in a railway station, the feel of glass splintering her skin, the taste and smell of smoke and burning flesh. But, even then, she seemed to believe—especially the more times it returned—that there was some underlying joy. She’d been fifteen and she’d been in love with a boy. And she felt youth and love in that small, brief moment.
Duly noted: So many reported hearing their mothers singing to them, in some form or another, that we speculated that perhaps a voice singing an infant and/or child to sleep infiltrates our wiring so deeply that it permeates the brain.
His name was Oliver, the man I was in love with. We were scared, of course. Our falling in love was a kind of extra terror. We’d both been in love before, with other people, briefly or damningly or both. So the better our love felt, the harder it was to face the fact that it wouldn’t last. We wouldn’t last, as individuals.
Or did that make it better?
Lying in bed together, within the confines of one of the major survival bunkers, having taken off our white hazmat suits—which was illegal but privately everyone was doing it—we talked about these things.
“It’s the eternal return,” Oliver said. “Did you take philosophy in college?”
“I speak pidgin philosophy,” I said. “Enough to cover my ass at a cocktail party. Nietzsche?” We were still sweaty and lightly breathless from sex.
“Right.” He lay back on the pillow, cupping the back of his head with one hand, exposing the pale underside of his cocked arm. How vulnerable that skin, I thought. So many things were striking me those days—about the body, life, humanity, and our fragility was chief among them. “The eternal return, everything has always happened and will keep happening.”
“Every second recurring, constantly,” I said. “My philosophy professor was young and really good-looking. I took two of his classes, back to back. Or should I say that I’m still taking every moment of his class?”
“Exactly. So what if our brains have tapped into an eternal return moment and are reliving it, on some plane of consciousness?”
“There’s a neurological explanation for the mental diplopia,” I said, ready to launch into ganglia and such.
“Yes, yes. I know, but what if the neurological explanation is only the neurological explanation?”
“Like seeing God in the aura produced by a migraine that is neurologically explicable is still seeing God. The arguments are all there, on every side.” I didn’t like to bring up God. For a while, people had tried to line up the dead bodies in the streets, taping their IDs to their shirts, so they could be retrieved by family members. But that couldn’t last.
“Do you ever want to walk out into it?” he asked me, staring up at the ceiling.
And it felt like a man asking if I believed in marriage. Not a proposal but just seeing where I stood on the whole thing.
“It’s crossed my mind.”
I didn’t get a call when my father died. I assumed he was dead. There weren’t people left to make calls. I loved my father. I wondered if I walked out into it if I would hear his voice again, reading stories aloud from the children’s book with the bright blue chicken wearing a crown on the cover. I longed for his voice. He had the gentleness of a pediatrician, though he practiced law. He rode his bike a lot and forgot to uncuff his pant leg and would walk around like that for hours.