Microbiota and the Masses: A Love Story

Moena lives in a world of her own making, sealed off from the deadly pathogens of Bangalore in her own personal biome. But when she meets Rahul, a beautiful man working to clean up his city, her need for him draws her into danger. She will risk her health and her work to satisfy her lust for Rahul, and may find love along the way.

 

The scents of earth—loam, pollen, compost, the exhalation of leaves—permeated the inside of Moena Sivaram’s airtight home. She stood near the southeast corner and misted the novice bromeliads. The epiphytes clutched the trunk of an elephant ear tree, its canopy stretching up to the clear, SmartWindow-paned roof and shading everything below.

Moena whispered to the plants: “Amma’s here, little babies. You’re safe with me, but you must grow those roots.” With her isolated life, these would be her only children.

She walked barefoot to the sunny citrus grove in the western side of the house. The soil beneath her feet changed from cool and moist to hard and gritty. eBees buzzed among the flowers. She hummed in harmony, a Carnatic song about love birds that was a century old. The heady perfume of orange and lime blossoms filled her up and made her blood sing along. This was home; this, and not the traditional jasmine and rose gardens of Bangalore; this, where her eyes didn’t water nor her nose itch.

Diffuse sunlight shone through the SmartWindows paneling the walls. One rectangle stuck out like a cloudy diamond in an otherwise glittering pendant. Moena pulled her tablet from her pocket, brought up the diagnostic software. Red letters delivered bad news: faults in the air and light filters.

The latter mattered little. The plants would get enough sun from the functional panes. The former, though, meant that outside air had infiltrated the house.

Moena’s throat closed. Her heart raced. Stay calm! But her hands wouldn’t listen, clutching each other, fingers twisting like vines around branches. She couldn’t breathe! All those microbes: she imagined them invading her sanctum, those wriggly, single-celled prokaryotes.

She shuddered, dropped to the ground, lay prone. Her cheek touched beloved dirt. Safe dirt. Inhale! Exhale! Again! She tilted her face, lowered her tongue, and licked. The potent esters of her domestic biome worked their magic, taking over the hamster-wheels in her brain and applying the brakes.

Her hands unclenched. Shoulder blades fell back. Heart slowed. Stupid brain. We can deal with this.

The eBees agreed. “Yes, yes, yes,” they sang.

Moena went to her supply closet. The air-filter mask inside looked like an insectoid alien: tinted plastic across the eyes, and three jutting cylinders over the mouth and nose areas. Moena pulled it on. The clean air lacked the comforting odors of home, but at least she was protected.

She sealed the offending window pane with heavy plastic and duct tape, then rolled the sensor cart over. Good! All air now flowed from the inside out, as it should. She sent a message to SmartWindows Incorporated, requesting a repair person and marking the issue urgent.

 

Rahul the repairman arrived looking like Moena’s favorite porn star: faded jeans, tight white t-shirt, cinnamon-bark skin, boyish black curls. She admired the image on her tablet, fed from the door camera. Too bad she couldn’t touch him. Her face flushed. The space between her legs tightened. Not now, and not him, idiot body. Not any man or woman infested with outside microbiota.

She slapped her cheeks lightly and blew out a hot breath.

Syed—her outside man—was away at his second cousin’s wedding in Mysore. She would have to deal with Rahul herself.

“Please wait there,” she said, a delayed audio reply to his intercom buzz.

Moena opened the supply closet and grimaced at the gray isolation suit hanging in the back. It reeked of industrial plastic and factory esters. She grabbed a handful of soil from the floor and sprinkled it into the suit. Then she pulled it and the air mask on.

She stepped into the foyer/airlock, clinched the inner door seals, and walked out the front. To his credit, Rahul only took a half-step back. His dark eyes widened like a bud opening to rain. Questions sprouted and withered on his lips—parted to show endearingly crooked teeth—until he said, “Miss … Sivaram?”

“Yes. Follow me, please,” Moena said.

She led him across the weedy, barren dirt of her lot. They walked around the thick clay walls of the house to arrive at the faulty SmartWindow. Rahul attached his computer to it via a long cable, vine-like but for its gray color. He sat on the dirt and began typing.

“The light and air filters are set to opposite extremes,” he said. He spoke English in the well-rounded tones of an educated, middle-class Indian. “Most people use these windows to reduce the ultraviolet while permitting air circulation into the house.”

I am not most people. Out loud: “You don’t talk like a repairman.”

Rahul smiled. “I’m an F.A.E.—a field applications engineer. We repair but we also have technical backgrounds.” He paused, squinted up at her. “Tell me, are you the Moena Sivaram?”

Tendrils of anxiety coiled in Moena’s stomach. The plane crash that killed her parents had been well publicized, but the story had faded from the news years ago. Why would this man jab her with a question about it?

“I am.”

“Your thesis on fresh water bioremediation was incredible. How come you haven’t published any papers since then?”

Moena gaped behind the mask. “Just who are you?”

“Sorry, I should have explained. I’m a volunteer with Hariharan Ecological Group. They’ve taken your design and used it for local water pollution. It’s been a great success. You’re famous among us. I thought, perhaps, you might be running a laboratory in the house, what with these window settings.”

Moena reeled at the orthogonality of the question and stared at her reflection in the SmartWindow. Her suit resembled the spent husk of a chrysalis. If only she could emerge a gorgeous butterfly, she could stun Rahul into silence as well.

“I am conducting experiments in the house,” she admitted. “I wear this suit to keep the environment as isolated as I can.”

“Could I—I mean, if it’s not too much trouble—could I see what you’re doing?”

Moena shook her head like a leaf frenzied by the wind. Rahul … inside her house? Inside her? Possibilities tumbled in her mind, gorgeous and terrifying. Impossible!

“No, of course not.” He turned back to his computer. “Sorry for asking.”

Moena reached out to him, drew her hand back. She had no right to his body.

The afternoon sun blazed from high in the summer sky as the silence stretched. Heat built inside Moena’s isolation suit. Her shirt clung to her torso. Rivulets of sweat trickled down her neck and collected at the waistband of her shorts. She sat still, channeling the atman of a tree stump.

“Aha!” Rahul said at last.

The window cleared to perfect transparency. Rahul reinstalled it and stowed his computer. He handed her a memory cube.

“You’ll want to update all of the windows with this version of software. The problem is that your filter settings are below virus size. The old software kept getting stuck in an interrupt routine and eventually hanging. This version should prevent that from happening.”

“Thank you,” Moena said. Part of her wished every window would fail, once a week, so Rahul would come again.

“The company will bill you directly. Best of luck with the research.”

Moena nodded. The mask bobbled. Rahul walked out of the front gate, latching it closed behind him. She was alone.

The sterilization wash in her foyer had never felt so tedious. Once she was fully inside, Moena yanked off the mask and took several deep, relieving breaths. She peeled away the sweaty suit, let it crumple to the floor.

Soil wormed into the gaps between her bare toes. Leaves and fronds brushed her hands as she walked—nearly ran—to her bedroom. It looked much as it had when her parents were alive: a single bed, a narrow wardrobe painted yellow, a matching desk with shelves above it. The coffin was the exception.

The adult-sized container lay between the bed and the room’s boarded-up window. The device’s actual name was “Virtual Reality Recumbent Booth,” but the world had decided that was too unwieldy. Moena agreed.

She browsed the preset visuals under “male.” This one had beetle brows. That one was too pale. Dozens had overlays with blue eyes and blond hair. She stopped at a face that was close enough to Rahul’s. The hair needed more curl and the eyes wanted to be smaller, but she could adjust those when her body wasn’t pulsing with need.

The coffin’s interior walls cozied up to her, running its—his—hands over her body, blowing warm breath against her neck, pressing itself—himself!—into her empty spaces.

Tension wanted release, but Moena’s mind refused to fall into the illusion. She cut the session short.

What would a lover feel like, for real? She shivered. Think of the microflora! The exchange of so much more than fluid. And where would it happen? Here, in her bed? In the sanctum of her home? The biome would be corrupted, and her hard work set back by years. Idiot! Forget him!

 

But Rahul persisted in her thoughts, like a splinter that wormed deeper the more she tried to pry it out. Moena called the only friend left from her outside days: her fellow graduate student, now Professor Das.

Ananya’s broad brown face appeared on the tablet screen accompanied by the clamor of children.

“Let me get somewhere quiet.”

“You have to save me,” Moena said, after her friend relocated.

Ananya cocked an eyebrow. “Do you need some new cultures?”

“No. Bacteria can’t help me. I’ve been infected by a man, a glorious specimen of male Homo sapiens!”

“Infected? What? Did you have sex with someone?”

Moena laughed at her friend’s horrified expression. “No. I haven’t touched him. Mmmmm … but I want to. Am I selfish for staying in here? For using my research to benefit myself and not the world?”

“What? Mo, you’re not making any sense. Are you okay? How’s your biome?”

“The verdant lovelies are fine. Creepy crawlies and microbiota are good. My blood results came back in normal ranges last month. But my heart—my heart is parched for company! He said I’m famous. They’re using my thesis. Should I be out there, helping? Fighting the good fight?”

“First: you’re not selfish for keeping yourself from chronic illness. Second: you are brilliant, and you should be publishing your results. Third: who is this chap and how has he gotten under your skin?”

“His name is Rahul. Window repairman and eco-warrior supreme, with skin like creamy cocoa-butter.”

Her friend rolled her eyes. “Get a grip. You haven’t touched another human being in over five years. You want to risk everything for him?” Her expression softened. “If you get sick again, you’ll have to give him up.”

“Bridges, crossings, et cetera, dear Professor. Besides, I can’t be myself with him so this love affair won’t last. Short, torrid, over!”

“What do you mean?”

“He won’t want to date Moena Sivaram, wealthy eccentric and victim of tragic circumstance. I’ll have to invent a mundane secret identity, someone matched to his station in life.”

“A lie isn’t a good foundation for love.”

“I’ll keep it to romance, not love. Then can I have your blessing?”

“No. Yes. I don’t know,” Ananya sputtered. “Just … check in with me, okay? I’m worried about you.”

Moena agreed and ended the call. Her fingers approached the keyboard then curled away, like the leaves of a Mimosa pudica: touch-me-not. Her mother’s words from a decade ago haunted her.

“When you’re of age, Moena, we’ll find you a nice boy to marry. Or you’ll find one on your own, but keep this in mind: men desire women who can stand up to them and still remain short. They don’t want women who are smarter or wealthier or more famous. Better that you forget boys and marriage until you have your own measure.”

Smarter. Wealthier. More famous. Rahul lacked a doctorate. Rahul worked for a living. Rahul’s name had never scorched news headlines.

Moena invented a fitting girl for Rahul to love. Meena Sivaraman (close enough that Moena would answer to it): middle class, moderately educated, modestly dressed. A proper, earnest, sane young woman with a black braid and a bindi.

Breath came easy. Fingers pattered on the keyboard. Two days later, “Meena” had a coffee-shop date with Rahul to discuss volunteer opportunities.

 

On the day of their meeting, Moena rejected three different outfits: a traditional sari (too stuffy), a salwar-kameez from a distant aunt (too gaudy), and a dress from her university days in London (too Western). Clad in jeans and a short-sleeved cotton kurti, she stepped out of the house.

She wasn’t sure whose eyes were wider, hers or Syed’s, as she bolted into the back seat of the car.

“Are you sure, madam?” he asked for the tenth time, peering at her from the driver’s seat.

Heart racing, palms sweating, and breath shallow, she said, “Yes. Drive, please.”

They drove down tree-lined streets, past skyscraping beehives of apartments and claustrophobic rows of shops. The car’s fan was set to recirculate, but the scents of Bangalore crept in through imperfect seals. Moena’s throat closed. She gripped the sprigs of holy basil she had brought, crushing the tender leaves. They released a pungent, soothing aroma. She plucked two of them and pressed them into her nostrils. Better.

The car lurched to the right, came up to the curb, and stopped.

“This is the place,” Syed said. “But we can go home, madam. Your health is more important than anything.”

“Thank you, Syed. I’ll be okay. I promise I’ll call you if I’m not.”

Moena stepped out and drew her first breath of raw city air in five years. Dust assailed her nostrils, drying the tiny hairs and making her sneeze. Rumbling diesel trucks spewed black exhaust. A current of decaying refuse and putrid sewage ran through it all. She gagged.

Bodies moved past her along the uneven slabs of the sidewalk. They stank of hot oil, sweat, sandalwood, fish, jasmine, sex. A stray dog trotted from a cluster of trash to a half-eaten banana. A fly fizzed into Moena’s ear, tickling it before moving on.

How did anyone live like this? How had she, for the first twenty-three years of her life? She could almost sense the effluvia penetrating her lungs, polluting her bloodstream. She forced herself to inhale a second time. Stand straight! Shoulders back, chin high, hands unclenched: face the city like everyone else.

Advertisements plastered the low cinderblock wall to her right, their poster colors faded by rain, their edges frayed and torn. On the other side, gulmohar trees bordered the courtyard, shading the café patrons within. She scanned the crowd. Where was Rahul?

Moena threaded her way between the tables, careful not to touch any thing or person or plant. She spotted Rahul’s curly hair and white t-shirt (did he wear nothing else?) in the back corner, at a table sprinkled with pollen from the blossoms above. She pinched her nose against a sneeze.

“Rahul Madhavan?” She tried to sound as if she’d never seen him before.

“Yes. You must be Meena. Please, sit. Shall I order you some coffee?”

Moena swallowed repulsion—non-homemade coffee!—and forced a smile. “Thanks.”

“You’d like to volunteer for H.E.G. and do some ecological work, yes? Let me tell you about what we do.”

Rahul entered a fifteen-minute monologue with words that felt as much like home as the scent of damp humus. He spoke of water pollution, remediation, plant and bacterial seeding; of community effort and citizen science; of working with the earth and not against it. His hands moved in organic shapes—no sharp edges—and his fingertips came together and burst apart like a ripe seedpod.

Moena watched, listened, sneezed. She swiped at her drippy nostrils with a bleached white handkerchief and sneezed again. Nodded. Smiled. Sneezed. Her coffee arrived and cooled. It stayed untouched but so did his.

“How does that sound? Like something you can commit to?”

“Absolutely. Once a week. No problem.”

Problems tangled her thoughts faster than she could prune them away.

“Great! I’ll send you the information for next week’s action.”

“Why aren’t you a biologist?”

“Sorry?”

You’re not supposed to know that! “I mean, why are you a volunteer and not working for H.E.G.? You seem so knowledgeable about this.”

“I’m too old?” He flashed his crooked smile. “I already had an engineering degree when I got interested in remediation. I’m over thirty now. I can’t possibly compete in entrance exams. What about you? What brought you to this?”

“I have … a friend. She was sick for a long time, and some of that was because of our water and air. I want to do something for her—for everyone—to improve that.”

“Wonderful! Then I’ll see you next week.”

He held out his hand.

Shake it! Moena thrust out her own, let him wrap his fingers around hers. His palm felt warm and smooth, like eucalyptus bark in sunlight. The thrill of contact traveled through her arm and spread, tingling, throughout the rest of her body. All of him, now! Her heart raced, mouth dried. Desire gathered force, whipping from a zephyr to a tornado. Her cheeks flushed. Could he tell? Did he sense her tumult?

Rahul let go.

They exited the café together.

Syed picked her up.

The ride home dragged on, an interminable torture of snarled traffic, gaunt beggars, and enough rain to streak the dusty windows.

 

Moena met Rahul and the handful of other volunteers at an oblong lake situated southeast of the city. She felt naked without her isolation suit as she approached the slime-ridden banks. Bone-white tree trunks dotted the waterline. A quarter kilometer to the left, a rusting hulk of metal heaved a piston up and down. The thrum of its motor drowned the buzzing clouds of insects.

A wave of fetid air blew across Moena. She stumbled back, knelt, and heaved her lunch into a cluster of spindly bushes.

“Sorry. I should have warned you.” Rahul stood next to her. He held out a sky-blue paper mask. “Wear this. It’s coated with menthol.”

Moena accepted it with shaking hands. The astringent scent choked her, squeezing tears from the corners of her eyes, but her stomach settled.

“What is this place?”

“Agara Lake,” Rahul said. “Rife with industrial metals, plastics, and animal waste.”

Moena stood and caressed a leaf. The bush was a fledgling neem tree, spotted with brown, yellow, and black.

“Poor thing,” she whispered. “You need help.”

Rahul’s pupils dilated. His brow quirked.

Moena shrugged. “I’ve always felt more comfortable with plants than people.”

Sunlight glinted, turning Rahul’s irises to honey brown. “Me, too.”

He guided her to the lakeside, his hand light against the small of her back, intimate and yet not.

The volunteers worked in separate domains. Moena’s assignment was simple: to collect soil and water samples for analysis.

White foam floated in Rorschach blotches on the surface of the water. Centimeter-high waves lapped at yellowish brown mud. A dead fish bulged at the surface a few meters in.

Guilt constricted her chest with weedy roots. Isolation had restored her health, but at what cost? When had the state of the world become so rotten?

Moena pinched a test tube between thumb and forefinger as if it were a wriggling insect. Gloves. Boots. Rubber coveralls. All were standard issue protection they’d used in graduate school, but ecological vigilantes—especially here in India—had no such resources. Do it! Dip your hand in!

She inched into the lake. Its lukewarm water soaked through her shoes and socks and up along her pants. Moena swallowed a sob. She rooted herself and leaned down. Muscles trembled. Reach in! Half the water spilled from the test tube on her first try. Again! The second attempt went better, and the fifth held most of the intended sample.

She straightened, looked across the muddy banks. Rahul nodded in approval. Pride sprouted in her heart, tiny and bursting with life.

Two hours later, the veteran volunteers departed. Moena stood beside Rahul as he stored her samples in the trunk of his car. He, too, was stained with lake scum. Sweat matted his curls. Dirt caked his fingernails and cuticles. He handed her a bottle of water from a cooler.

Moena gulped half of it in seconds. It did little to ease the ache growing behind her eyes. Her sinuses throbbed.

Rahul frowned. “Are you okay?” He gestured toward Moena’s arms.

Patches of red blossomed everywhere that lake water had spattered on her.

“Allergies,” she said. “I’ll be fine.” Liar, liar!

“Then I’ll thank you twice for helping. Not many people can handle this kind of work, and even fewer would sacrifice their health for it. Will I—will we, that is—see you next time?”

“Yes.”

Moena waited until she was in her car to blow her nose.

Syed glanced at her reflection in the rearview mirror. “Madam, why are you doing this to yourself?”

“Guilt, Syed! And love. Love for my people, the verdant ones and the fleshy ones and the ones you can only see under a microscope. Guilt that I’ve kept myself away for too long.”

 

The next week, Moena brought her own vials—empty and sterile—tucked in her jeans pockets. She wore a light cotton kameez with long sleeves. Scabbed patches decorated her skin, the after-effects of the previous session. While she worked, she collected her own samples of water and soil. Rahul might have been the catalyst for this madness, but the biota were the reactant that kept it fed.

She watched Rahul as he worked the nutrient tanks and pumps. His dark brow wrinkled in concentration, his jaw slack and lips parted, just enough for a peek of pink tongue. Green slime spattered his boots and the lower half of his jeans. Brave, lovely man.

He glanced up from his handheld—caught her staring. Moena’s cheeks warmed as he smiled, tiny and knowing. Concentrate! The memory of his expression trickled down through her belly, lower, heating her, an exothermic reactor of her very own.

Once again, she and Rahul finished their work last. Syed had not yet returned from his tea break. She was about to message him to when Rahul spoke seven magic words: “Would you like to get some coffee?”

Moena’s inner fifteen-year-old jumped for joy, did cartwheels, crowed to the world. A fit of coughing prevented her adult self from answering.

Gasping for breath, she said, “Yes.”

She left the coffee untouched again. If Rahul noticed, he didn’t comment, but he did ask her out to dinner. Dinner—hurrah! And yet not. Idiot! He would notice if she left an entire meal uneaten. The food would be crawling with microflora, with all the variety of Bangalore’s citizens. Her stomach roiled at the thought. But she would do it—for Rahul, for the chance to fertilize the seeds of their relationship—anything for that.

 

“How was the date?” Ananya asked, smirking.

“Great! I spent the rest of the night on the toilet,” Moena said. “But it was worth every minute. Rahul’s so passionate about this work. Imagine what he’s like in bed!”

The smile vanished from her friend’s face. “Don’t joke! You can’t keep risking your health for this. You should tell him the truth.”

“But he wants to see me again.”

“Stop stringing him along!”

“I can’t. Besides, he’s wrapped me in his own string package.”

“Oh, Mo, you’ve fallen for him?”

“I’m still falling, drifting, like leaves in a Cambridge autumn. He can’t ever know who I really am or he would grind me into the dirt.”

“You’re not giving him enough credit. Either that or he’s an ass who doesn’t deserve you.”

“You should see the cultures I’m getting from the lake.”

“What? Don’t change the subject!”

“I think I’ve figured out a way to improve the breakdown of the polycarbonates. We need to change the nitrogen levels in the nutrient mix. Oh, and I spliced some enzyme sequences from Geotrichum candidum into the flavobacterium that’s worked best so far.”

“Really? You were able to splice in fungal genes and the bacteria survived? Show me the data.”

They spent the rest of the conversation arguing over organic chemistry and whether a different strain or a second strain would make for a better solution. Moena went to bed dreaming of curing Bangalore’s water ailments. What better token of love could she offer to Rahul?

 

The baby bromeliads drooped. Their once dark green leaves faded, their tips browned. The house soil smelled like rotting cabbage in its shadier pockets. Two of the eBees kept crashing into the SmartWindows like drunks with frenetic wings.

Moena extracted samples from the surface and subsoil, ran them through the DNA sequencer. The lake bacteria had infiltrated her cultivated sanctum. They were winning.

She coughed over her shoulder and turned back to the scope. Her nose hadn’t stopped dripping for weeks. At night, her joints ached. The coffin’s masseuse software did little to relieve the pain.

But. But! Last night, five weeks after their first date and many a rendezvous since, she and Rahul had kissed. Wet, bacteria-saliva-swapping glory! Her last boyfriend at Cambridge was a decade past. She’d forgotten how exquisite the dance of lips and tongue could be.

Rahul had whispered of his germinating passion: There’s no one in the world like you. The way you move, the way you talk—you’re exquisite. You’re my glorious once-blooming orchid.

Those words! That metaphor!

The skin on the inside of her thighs burned, chafed from her numerous sessions with virtual-coffin-Rahul. Ten times ten times ten … the order of magnitude didn’t matter. Ersatz satisfaction would never be enough. She needed the real thing.

Moena danced her gloved fingertips against the sterile tile countertop. Petri dishes and bottles of reagents crowded the glass-fronted refrigerator to her left. A jumble of live cultures and test tube racks littered the surface on her right, cozying up to the CRISPR-based gene editor.

She needed a solution to remediate the lake into health but also to heal her own biome. Every foray into the outside world—every handhold and kiss with Rahul—allowed new single-celled adversaries into the house.

To cut off contact with him? The idea was a nasty fly tiptoeing through the hairs of Dionaea muscipula. Snap, trap, digest! Banish it to nonexistence.

She exited her laboratory and padded to the southern side of the house. The sun-warmed grit under her bare feet helped her think. Never mind the arthritic curl bending her toes. Fix the house, fix yourself. She swabbed the leaves of a dwarf orange tree that was mottled with yellow and black spots.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong,” hummed the bees.

Years to achieve balance. Weeks to fall apart. So unfair! Moena’s inner five-year-old stomped and stormed and kicked up an unholy tantrum. Tears trickled. She wiped them away, catching some on the swab, contaminating it. Idiot!

She stumbled to her towering Dieffenbachia grove and curled up under the shade of their broad, variegated leaves. Her cheek sunk into the cool, soft loam. She extended her tongue—wait! How much beneficial microflora did the soil still have? Was it friend or foe?

To lick or not to lick? That is the question! Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the filth and rot of exterior living, or to take—antibiotics, but that had too many syllables—against a sea of—damn. She lost the analogy.

Moena giggled.

She beat her head against the ground. Madness. Her old friend had arrived for a visit. Let’s catch up over chai. Plain or masala?

 

Ananya had left three messages, one for each call that Moena had ignored.

Soon. Soon she would return them. Close! She was so close to the answer. Her scalp itched. When had she last bathed? Not important. Focus! There! That snippet would turn her engineered bacteria into oxygen-devouring microbeasts. Bye-bye, plastics! Nitrates as a byproduct? Pretty please with citric acid on top, but only a dollop. Too much would be toxic.

Moena dumped the design into the artificial-life simulator. Crunch away! Tell me some good news! Please, please, let this combination be the magical one, the stable one.

The phone sang to her, that old Carnatic song about love birds. She’d assigned the tune to Rahul’s caller ID. She had to answer.

“Meena, hi. Where are you? We’re at the lake.”

“Oh.” She checked the calendar. Oh! Focus! Be Meena again. “Sorry. I lost track of time.”

His image frowned on the tiny screen. Moena wanted to plant kisses in the adorable furrow between his brows.

“Are you okay? You don’t look well.”

Damn. She hadn’t meant to leave the camera on. Distract him!

“Hey, you’re my boyfriend. You shouldn’t say such things!”

Rahul’s lips curved, frond-like. “Am I your boyfriend now?”

Moena nodded, licked her lips. Promises, promises. “I’ll come soon. Will you be there in another hour?”

“The others won’t, but I’ll wait for you. I miss you.”

She returned to the simulation. Go faster! Numbers scrolled. Protein triplets sprinkled the results with alphabetic seeds. The probability of success ticked into the nineties. Good enough! Nothing yet had transcended the sixties. She kissed the screen, then transferred the design into the splicer.

Ten minutes later, Moena decanted half of her custom bacterial solution into a sterile test tube. The solution is the solution! She snickered. She pocketed that tube and took the remainder to the water feeder tank for the house. Be fruitful and multiply, my little beasties! You will save the soil, the house, me.

 

The sun’s glare reflected from the lake, stabbing through Moena’s eyes and into her frontal cortex like an illuminated knife. Light sensitivity! Another symptom of her degrading health. Never mind! Salvation lay in her pocket. She slipped a finger in, caressed the glass tube. Her mind wandered to another cylindrical object, one that wasn’t so cold and brittle.

Rahul stood by the pump. Sweat beaded on his forehead, dewdrops on buttery leather. He motioned her over. He’d already taught her how to work the injection well and nutrient tank. All she had to do today was pour in her vial when he wasn’t looking.

The single-celled lovelies would digest the iron and polycarbonates in the water, then make their way into the locals. The guts of Bangalore—human and animal—would shit out more of Moena’s microbabies. They would infect the sewage runoff and restore the water to livable purity.

She stumbled over the slight rise of the concrete pad. Fire blazed up from her rheumatic toes to her swollen knees. Rahul caught her before she fell. She gasped as his hands crushed the weeping sores under her sleeves. Bite your tongue! Don’t scream!

“What’s the matter?”

Spin a lie, quick! Before he can think.

“Sprained my ankle, that’s all.”

She plucked her arm from his grasp, staggered to the nutrient tank, pried off the lid.

“What are you doing?”

No more time for subterfuge. No time to talk. Her body would give out soon.

The stench from the fomenting cultures flowed into Moena’s nostrils, triggered the nausea-inducing portion of her brain. Her stomach contracted. No time!

She yanked the vial from her pocket. Splash! In went her microbes.

Uncontrolled experiment! Her advisor’s voice rang in her head. Unpublished! Unverified! Dangerous!

Sorry, Professor.

Concrete bashed Moena’s knees as she knelt and vomited. War raged in her gut. Which side would prevail? Red and black streaked the mess that splattered across the dull gray cement.

“Meena!”

Rahul’s head blocked the sun. Golden light haloed his black curls.

“Surya,” she whispered. Sun God. Beautiful.

She heaved again. Tremors coursed through her major muscle groups. She was a tree in a storm, her core rotted through by maggots. She toppled.

Rahul/Surya scooped her up, carried her to the car. Syed’s voice and his swirled with frantic concern. Her own protests joined in admixture, dilute and ineffective.

Stop! You can’t bring him home!

Blackness overtook Moena’s vision.

 

Blurs of light. Sticky eyelids. Puffy tongue. Somewhere, an incessant annoying beep beep beep.

Moena shifted her arm. Warning pain: a needle. She blinked. The world resolved, focused, magnified—like looking through a giant drop of water. A bag of clear fluid fed into a tube.

Intravenous drip. She inclined her head. She was in her bedroom, alone, and being fed by this device. Contamination. Who had been in her house? What miserable microbes crawled in with them? What were they feeding her?

Antibiotics. The label confirmed it. They were poisoning her, killing her microscopic friends, the colonies she’d worked so long to build.

Moena extracted the needle. She licked at the pearl of blood that formed, pressed on the hole with her thumb. Beep. Beep. There: her tablet bleated from her desk. The world spun and swayed as she walked and dropped into the chair.

Low battery. She silenced the alarm, sucked away another drop of blood, plugged the device in. An indicator light flashed in the upper corner: Rahul had left her a message. Video. She played it.

His face appeared on the screen. Drooping, but lovely. Kissable lips that moved with care. “They wouldn’t let me in. Syed called your physician. She took care of you, said you had to be isolated in your home or you wouldn’t get well. Meena—sorry, Moena—I don’t know what else to say. I always suspected that you were hiding something, but this? It’s too much. I don’t understand you. What do you want with someone like me? Sex? A lower class boy to toy with until you find someone in your own circles? Did you think I wouldn’t mind because I’m a guy? Well, you were wrong. You broke my heart.”

Anger, disappointment, betrayal—the lines of his face grew harder, twisted, a tree grown without enough water.

“I changed my mind,” she whispered at the screen. “I wanted everything about you, in the end.”

She brushed away a tear and traced his image with the wet finger, blurring his features, softening them. You don’t understand what I am. She pressed record, to explain, to rip out the lies and plant the truth in his ears, but no sound emerged. How could words be enough?

The silence crushed Moena. Tears slipped, spattered, diluted the blood welling on the back of her hand. She stumbled from the bedroom into the glaring sunshine of the main house.

“Your fault. Your fault,” droned the eBees.

She headed for the Dieffenbachia grove. The test plants stood straight, verdant and white, not a patch of yellow or brown. Translucent pink worms writhed away from her curling toes. The earth under Moena’s feet felt crumbly and cool, and the sweet scent of compost filled the air.

“At least I saved you,” she said. She caressed the waxy leaves with her fingertips. “My darlings, you still love me, don’t you? You’ll help me.”

Moena lay down, wiped the bloody smear on the back of one hand into the dirt, wiped her cheeks with the other. She licked the dark streak of loam from her skin. The bitterness of blood mixed with rich manganese and the tang of humic acid. She pinched the soil between her fingertips. She needed to analyze it. If this grove was thriving, she could help the other parts of the house.

And Rahul? How to remediate a polluted relationship? His love had wrapped Moena with its brambles, dug into her flesh, held tight. Pulling them out would leave her riddled with holes. Did he hurt this much, too? My heart is broken, he’d said. She didn’t have the strength to think it through. First, she had to heal herself.

 

One week fell away, then another, then a third. The house became a safe haven rather than hostile territory. Leaves returned to verdurous states. The eBees whirled in sober coordination. Moena’s thoughts became as clear as her SmartWindows.

“You need to make a peace offering, a gift,” Ananya said. “But then what? Will he be willing to live on your terms? I’m sorry, Mo. I wish you could find that kind of happiness, but maybe Rahul isn’t the right one.”

A gift—a token of love. What mattered most to Rahul? This city. Its water. Its land. Moena could give him the health of Bangalore, but only if she knew whether her experiment had worked.

This time she wore the isolation suit to the lake. She avoided the volunteer hours. The water stretched like gray glass, rippled by the occasional crow’s feet. Her breath rasped through the filters. Strange, not to smell anything. Moena scooped samples from the water and the lake bed, carried them back to the car where Syed waited, his face wrinkled with concern.

The results were gorgeous. The polycarbonate levels had dropped well below the previous curve. She needed more data over time to measure the new rate, but this was enough for an initial publication. Her hands quivered like stamens in a breeze. She typed for ten hours, loaded the draft onto a data cube. Gene sequences and a vial of live cultures completed the package.

Moena sat in the citrus grove. She inhaled the aroma of orange blossoms and traced curlicues in the sandy soil. A tablet lay by her feet. It displayed the feed from the door camera. Syed picked up the padded envelope and disappeared.

Would Rahul answer? Would he understand? Would he forgive?

The draft paper described her life down to its deepest roots. The seeds of health—for her, for everyone—were sown throughout the dry, technical paragraphs. She sent a second copy to Ananya. Let Professor Das lend it credibility. Let their ideas infect the world. Let Rahul come back to her life.

 

Moena waited three days. Nothing. Not a call or message or note. He had pruned her away like a rotten branch. Poison. That’s what her actions had brought to his life and her own. She deserved to be cut off.

Moena took a kitchen knife to the coffin. She drew it through the supple fabric lining, parting it like the skin of a ripe tomato. Wires, actuators, and pressure sensors burst forth in an overgrown tangle. Begone, temptation!

She drew the blade through it once more the next day and the day after. For each twenty-four hours that Rahul didn’t answer, she slashed another reminder of what she was: moron, idiot, lunatic. Never again!

 

Rahul arrived on the day she made the fourteenth stroke. He looked nothing like a repairman. He wore a loose kurta and baggy cotton pants. His curls had grown, and they blew like errant wood shavings around his face. A nylon bag rested by his feet.

“Miss … Sivaram?” he said through the intercom. He flashed his crooked smile.

Moena buried a rising sob. “I’m coming.”

She ran through sunlight and shade, leaves and fronds caressing her bare arms, urging her forward. Go! Faster! She stopped at the inner threshold of the foyer.

“I’m so sorry, Rahul. About all of it. I didn’t know how else—“

“It’s okay. I read your paper. I understood enough, I think. I had H.E.G. do the lab analysis on your samples and the lake. My God, Moena, the water there is incredible! What a transformation! The work you’ve done—it could change everything.” He paused. “Can I come in?”

Unshed tears suffused Moena’s face, filled the cavities, pushed her into action. She opened the outer door as her answer. Rahul removed his shoes and walked in. She set the sterilizing wash to a simple soap solution.

“Close your eyes,” she said.

Water drenched Rahul like a personal cloudburst. Rivulets of brown ran into the drain, washing away dust and oil and the hostility of Bangalore. Wet cloth delineated the contours of his body.

Moena retrieved a towel from her bedroom. The mutilated coffin sat to one side, an eyesore. Shame rooted her feet. Cover it up? No. No more secrets. She returned to Rahul as the wash ended.

“I’m sorry I was silent for so long,” he said. “At first I was waiting for the lab results, and then I had to make some arrangements in case … ”

“Of what?” she prompted.

“In case you’ll have me to stay.”

“You mean … in here, with me?”

He nodded. Crystal clear droplets fell from his hair.

“I’m not normal, Rahul. I never will be. That’s why I didn’t tell you who I was. It wasn’t about the money or your caste. How could I ask you to fall in love with the insanity of my house, my life? I can’t offer a wedding or children or happy occasions with the whole family. All I have is money and isolation.”

“And the beauty of your intellect. Your generous spirit. Your passion for the earth.” Rahul’s eyes glistened. “Moena, you are the strangest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known. How could I not be hopelessly in love with you? I don’t care about weddings and children. You have the power to change the world, and I want to be part of that, to be part of your life.”

“You’ll have to stay inside for a long time.”

“I know.”

“It could be months or even years until I can stabilize the biome for both of us.”

“I can accept that.”

“And your family?”

He laughed, crooked teeth flashing. “They’ve given up on me. Over thirty, unmarried, and volunteering in cesspools—they think I’m crazy.”

The Carnatic love birds crooned.

“Then let’s be lunatics together,” she said.

She opened the inner door. It closed behind Rahul with a slight sucking noise, not unlike a kiss. Hush! Be patient! She took him by the hand and led him to the elephant ear tree. Their bare feet left two sets of prints in the rich, dark soil. Rahul gazed up into the canopy. Sunshine and wonderment dappled his face.

“Meet your father,” Moena whispered to the baby bromeliads.

She crouched and ran a finger through the soil. He knelt beside her.

“Open your mouth,” she said.

Rahul’s brow quirked in puzzlement. His lips parted. Moena’s finger hovered, then darted between like a hummingbird’s beak, depositing its microbial pollen on his waiting tongue. His eyes opened wide and white as forbidden jasmine.

“Your first inoculation,” she whispered.

His mouth surrounded her finger, sucking gently. His teeth tickled her skin.

The eBees hummed, “Kiss him! Kiss him!”

The leaves rustled in agreement. Now!

Moena freed her hand and twined her arms around Rahul’s neck. She pressed her trunk into his, then her lips. The damp heat of his body soaked into hers. His flavors purled across her tongue. Lingering grit. Chile powder. Kernels of salt. Their microbiota swirled, integrated, danced into each other, merged into one biomass. What’s yours is mine. What’s mine is yours.

“Welcome home,” Moena said.

 

“Microbiota and the Masses: A Love Story” copyright © 2017 by S.B. Divya

Art copyright © 2017 by Jasu Hu

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