The Moving Sickness: A Pandemic Parable
The Adults and the Children
Long before anyone living was born, four people gathered in the centre of the world. Two were adults, and two were children. Two were male, and two were female. Whether they knew one another, and why they had come together, nobody now remembers.
What is known is that the man was strong and hungry. His eyes were never far from the horizon, watching it as if seeing there some promise no one else could. The woman was smart and resourceful. She was skilled at finding hidden things, her eyes forever searching for opportunity in the world at her feet.
The girl was curious and compassionate and fearless. She had a habit of twisting her hair in her fingers when she asked the adults questions, which was often. The boy was serious, cautious and intent. He spoke rarely. He smiled often, especially when climbing trees and digging holes in the ground to see what lay beneath.
The children loved being in the centre of the world. The trees, the animals, the cloud-flecked sky spoke to them in a language only they could understand. It told them secrets, and it consoled them. It tricked them in the most delicious ways and held them safe as they slept. The adults seemed not to notice these voices. The wind rustled their hair and in it they heard no stories. The animals fell to their spears and gave no counsel as they died.
After many seasons, the man and the woman, for very different reasons, decided the time had come to leave the centre of the world. What they were seeking they did not know, but they knew they must find it. The man believed it would be found beyond the horizon, and the woman that it lay hidden in the world around them. They argued, and the children held hands as they watched and felt afraid.
After much screaming and shouting the woman grabbed the boy by the wrist and told the man in no uncertain terms that they were leaving. Seeing this, the man lifted the girl off her feet and stalked to the horizon. The children wailed, reached for one another but the adults were too strong.
When they reached the edge of the centre of the world, the man put the girl down. She crossed her arms and stamped her feet and told him she would not go with him. The man glanced at her, then to the horizon. Without another word he walked past the threshold of their world and into the vast desert beyond. The girl stood among the trees and watched him go. She was determined not to follow. Soon, he was on the lip of a high dune. Just a speck against the sky. For the first time, the girl was alone. She felt suddenly afraid, and as frustrated as she was, she knew she needed the man to survive and so she ran after him.
As the desert spread before her she heard its quiet song. So different to one she knew. From dark holes, scorpions tempted her with impossible promises. The hardy, spiked trees watched her dourly, warned her to stay away as she caught up with the man.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
He shaded his eyes and looked out over the desert. When at last he spoke, his voice was hoarse and distant.
“Why?” she asked.
He grunted, swatting the air as if she were a fly.
She asked again. “Why are we moving forward?”
The man turned to her and spat on the ground.
“To make progress.”
The girl looked into the man’s eyes and saw his hunger like a wild thing trapped. She wondered about the trees and the rocks and the way they spoke to her and whether they might help him if he could listen but she said nothing. The man had a temper, she knew, and she’d have to be clever to get around it. She thought of running away, but the sun whispered that she could never survive here on her own.
Far from the desert, the boy watched as the woman rummaged in the bushes. She plucked a bright blue berry, inspected it closely, and dropped it into the basket at her side.
“What are you looking for?’ the boy asked.
“Growth,” said the woman.
The boy listened to the forest around him, so thick with noise and sensation. He could feel the gentle rumble as trees spoke to one another through the roots beneath his feet. The birds were laughing at the woman, but he thought better than to tell her.
She pulled a sling from her waist, placed a rock inside it and swung until it hummed. She narrowed her eyes, slung the rock into the canopy. A burst of feathers. A bird hit the ground with a thud. The woman stuffed it in the basket with the berries and squatted to look for mushrooms among the roots of a nearby tree.
The boy peered into the basket and felt his stomach twist. There was more food in there than they needed; so much that surely the berries would go bad before they could finish them. He opened his mouth to ask the woman why this was, then thought better of it. He felt lost and alone, and he didn’t know what words would make that feeling stop.
“I’m not hungry,” he tried.
The woman glanced at him and moved to the next bush, ripping another handful of berries. She dropped them into the basket.
“Without food, we can’t grow,” she said.
“Grow into what?” he asked.
The woman smirked and searched for more things to place in her basket.
The girl knew the man was sick before he did. She could see it in his walk, the way his left foot dragged ever so slightly as he moved. She noticed, too, the sheen of sweat on his skin. One night, after they had climbed a rocky outcrop to see farther into the distance, the man could not catch his breath for a long time. The girl asked him if he wanted her to fetch some water so that he might rest, but he ignored her and climbed back down by the light of the moon.
The girl looked into the stars and asked them why the man would not stop. She asked a great many questions that had been bubbling inside her since they left. The stars listened to all, and after she was finished, they told her to be ready. For what, they did not say.
The next day, the man began to cough. Still he kept moving, and something dawned on the girl. The man had a moving sickness. The more he moved, the worse it got. But he would not stop moving, no matter how much she pleaded. Then, one day, they came upon a tree-lined shore of a vast lake. The man’s eyes were bloodshot, his hair matted with sweat. He crouched by the shore and scooped some water into his hands and drank deeply.
“We could rest here, in the shade of the trees,” she said hopefully.
The man stood, water dripping down his chest. He stumbled to the nearest tree and grasped a branch to steady himself. The girl watched, her heart pounding. The man closed his eyes and took a ragged breath and ripped the branch from the tree. He dug it into the ground and leaned against it to support his weight and walked on.
Weeks later, the boy looked at that same tree, wondering what had torn the branch free. The woman lay sleeping beside the lake. She was surrounded by basket upon basket of rotting berries, freshly caught fish, flax and pelts and a thousand other things she had gathered. Even as she slept, she coughed. Her skin was hot to touch, her body writhing in pain.
She had been sick for some time. The boy had asked every rock and tree how he might help her and all the voices of the world had told him of the moving sickness. The boy did not know whether the woman was sick because she was moving, or she was moving because she was sick. He thought about it often, but had decided it didn’t matter. What he needed was to make her stop. But he was sure that when she woke, she would wade into the lake and catch more fish and scoop up handfuls of crayfish and ask him to weave another basket for her.
The boy was very tired. He wanted desperately to stop and rest. He thought often of the girl and where she was. He sat by the side of the lake and watched the flying geese reflected on the water. As he watched, he saw other things. Dreams that had become trapped in the lake, leaking from the woman as she slept and the man as he had drunk from it weeks before.
In the still waters he saw many more men and women, more than he could count, each struck down by the moving sickness. He saw civilisations built on restless hunger crumbling in the blink of an eye. He saw fire and anguish and children like him driven by hunger and need. He felt the fear of the adults as they fell coughing all the while deaf to the voices of the rocks and trees. He knew a terrible dread, and as it pressed into his chest the screams grew louder and from deep inside him a fearsome, sorrowful rage arose. The boy roared. He roared so loud his voice sent ripples through the lake and broke the vision. The woman, deep in the slumber of her moving sickness, did not stir.
The Girl and the Man
One day, the man could move no more. He sank to his knees, his eyes fixed with more hunger than ever on the horizon. He coughed and the girl tried to help him as he doubled over.
“Girl,” he said. “You have to keep going.”
The girl held back her tears and her voice shook.
“Go where? And what for?”
The man sucked in a breath and tried to answer but could only cough. The girl wept, for she knew that his sickness was so great that he would try to keep moving through her even when he could not.
She wondered where the boy was now, and wished she could ask him what he would do. She sat beside the man and took a deep breath and thought. She thought for a long time. She asked a small stream for advice, and listened very carefully as it answered. She listened to her heart, and her head, and she let them talk to one another. And after all of this, she came to a decision.
She would take the man to the end of the world, where he could move no more. There, perhaps, his illness would fade. She built the man a litter, and a sling so that she could drag him, and then she asked the stream to ask an owl for directions, for owls knew such things.
It took her many months to reach her destination. The man coughed all the while, twisting and turning in his fever. Sometimes he muttered words she didn’t understand, but always his eyes darted left and right, trying to crane his head to the horizon. He had no strength to do so, so gazed half-seeing at the indigo sky, watching it darken as the girl dragged him on.
The Edge of the World
The boy sat on the edge of the world and looked out at the abyss. He turned to the woman. She was thin, exhausted, deep in her fever, her hands padding the ground around her looking for the baskets he had left back at the lake before carrying her here.
He wondered if he had done the right thing, and asked the abyss whether this would cure her. The abyss said nothing. He kicked a rock and watched as it fell forever.
A voice called his name. He sprung to his feet and turned to see the girl standing on the cliff behind him. His heart sang and he ran toward her and they embraced and laughed with relief. When they broke apart, the girl saw the woman and ran to her, her heart aching to see her afflicted by that same moving sickness. Behind her, the boy crouched beside the man, rested a hand on his shoulder and stroked his hair.
The children came together between the adults and looked out at the end of the world. They sat and spoke for a long time about what they had seen. The girl told the boy about the desert, and the boy told her about the vision in the lake. They watched the adults convulsing. Not knowing what else to do, they waited.
The man knew he must keep moving. He knew it in his bones, in every beat of his heart and every cough that wracked him. He opened his eyes. Ahead of him, the infinite abyss. His breath caught in his throat. His thoughts ceased. There was no horizon for his eyes to fix on. No forward, and no backward. There was no up, and no down. There was ahead of him only a nothingness so profound it drenched his soul until he wept.
The woman clawed the empty ground beside her, gritting her teeth with frustration. She needed her baskets, because without them she could not grow. She needed to grow. Everything needed to grow, always. She knew this in her belly and in her blood. After a long time, she opened her eyes. Ahead of her, the infinite abyss. She forgot about her baskets. She forgot about all things hidden, for what lay before her contained them. A secret that held no secrets. Seeing this, the woman shook and wept and longed for nothing.
As the adults gazed into the abyss they understood. In their wisdom, they felt for the first time the aching longing of all things that truly live. They felt the secrets of wind. The history of rock. They heard the jokes made by owls and the mysteries of soil. They saw that these things were always ending, and in ending, beginning. For the first time, they saw the children. They saw their beauty and their courage. They saw their aliveness, their curiosity that was never sated but knew nothing of hunger.
They allowed their grip on the world to loosen, and they joined the abyss. The man shut his eyes and bade farewell to the horizon. The woman let go of holding on. The man reached out and took the woman’s hand, she with her last strength she placed her head on his chest. Very soon, they were dead.
The children wept for the adults. After they had wept, they wrapped their bodies in a shawl and committed them to the abyss. In the silence that followed they sat together on the edge of the world and gazed into the emptiness. The girl could hear behind her the vibrant chatter of the living world, and ahead of her the silence of the void. She felt very still between these things, and knew all was as it should be if she didn’t move a muscle. The boy, as he looked over the abyss, felt a depth that he couldn’t put into thought. Behind him, he felt all the hidden things that longed to disappear and knew that one day they would. He knew, too, that no part of him would be hidden standing where he was.
They stood together and considered all these things. And after a long time, in which they both moved from childhood into something else, they turned to one another. They knew that they could not stay here at the edge of things. And they saw the wisdom of the adults in leaving the centre of the world, and knew too that their own wisdom must be hidden in plain sight waiting for them to find it. They knew they must move, but knew that moving without purpose would end them.
The world spoke to them, telling them with a thousand voices that the time had come to step past the threshold of their own world. They knew, with what little wisdom they had, that as they did they should look not for the horizon or to the ground at their feet, but into the abyss. They would move, but they would carry the abyss with them as they did. They would carry the memory of the adults, and with those two spirits, perhaps they could go where the adults never could.
“We will seek what lies beyond the horizon,” said the girl.
“And listen to the world along the way,” said the boy.
“All the owls and all the rivers.”
“All the rocks and all the trees.”
“And though we know not where we’re going.”
“Or what lies along the way.”
“We will walk there hand in hand.”
“For we may die here on this day.”