Check out Glorious Plague by Karen Heuler, avaialble now from Permuted Press!
Hallie is missing—and so are thousands of others. Everywhere people are singing—climbing to the rooftops, to the bridges, to lamp post and road sign, steeple and water tower, singing gloriously, triumphantly, tirelessly—and dying.
And odd things happen—angels come to earth, Christ drags his crucifix around Rockefeller Center, the Indian god Ganesh runs for mayor—but it doesn’t seem remarkable to the survivors. A man falls in love with a mermaid and decides to throw in his fortunes with hers, only to be attacked by an animal liberated from the zoo. Politics begins to assert itself, as does real estate issues, and it matters what—and who—you believe. It’s time to choose sides.
Hallie was on her way to work but she stopped and stared, along with a growing crowd, at the church across the street. Fire engines, police cars, and an ambulance all flashed their lights and threw out sounds. She thought someone had a radio on, because there was music, but when she looked for it, she saw a man standing on the corner, his hands clasped in front of him, singing gospel. Behind her, a woman was softly humming along.
“Do you hear that?” the woman whispered. “Do you hear that glory?”
Hallie turned back to the church and finally saw a man standing absolutely still on the top of the bell tower. At first, she thought he was some kind of statue because he seemed frozen in place, but then there was a slight wind and she saw his tie lift up slightly and fall back.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Suicide,” a man said decisively.
“He’s not threatening to jump,” someone else said. “Been there all morning. Someone called it in and he hasn’t moved at all.”
The ladder was extended all the way up, and the little cage at the top of it was next to the man. There were people on the ground with a net to catch him if he jumped.
The firefighter on the platform was talking to the man. He held out his hand and touched him: his arm, then his face. He paused, and said something on his radio.
“He’s not coming down,” a man with a cap said. “And he’s not threatening to jump. Probably one of them cults. It was on the news last night. People on top of the Supreme Court building downtown. Singing ‘Age of Aquarius.’ Do you remember that?” He laughed to himself. “It’s been a while. Anyway, the news was saying it might be a cult, or a new religion.”
“It’s time for a new religion, maybe,” the humming woman said. “Don’t you just feel that?” She looked up at the man on the church. “It’s time for a whole new vision.”
The jumper was tied up and lowered down. He didn’t move at all. Once again, Hallie thought it might be a statue or a mannequin because it was so unnatural. People moved, after all; they moved all the time.
A murmur spread through the crowd.
“Why, he’s dead!” Hallie heard, and she felt the same sudden shock that made everyone take a little step, left or right, as if avoiding the impact.
With that, Hallie left. She started to speculate on how the dead man came to be where he was, but then she gave it up. The world was full of strange.
She got to the apartment a good ten minutes before her first set of clients arrived. She had picked up lilies and coffee on her way, and opened the coffee in the kitchen and put the lilies in the living room. It always helped to have some homely odors when she was showing real estate.
Hallie led the clients into the bedroom. “As you can see, you have an unobstructed view to the river.” It was a bright day. She thought the windows were a little too small, but there was, indeed, a view.
They were middle-aged, following her with polite but greedy faces. “Too bad the view isn’t from the living room,” the husband said.
“Well, the view from the living room isn’t bad,” Hallie said evenly. “You have good sightlines.”
“There is that one building that gets in the way,” the wife said. “I mean, it’s a little too close to be in the background.” She frowned, not sure she’d said it right. “It interrupts the sky.” Her voice got a little peevish. “Who would want to interrupt the sky?”
Hallie could tell that they wouldn’t take it, but she continued showing the apartment. They nodded patiently, accepting everything they saw without much enthusiasm. She let them go easily.
It really was a nice place, Hallie thought, looking out all the windows while she waited for her next appointment. Yes, the river view was lovely. There were two boats cutting a wake through the river right now, one large, one small.
There was, indeed, one building across the way that ended only a story below this floor, so that too much of the flat, tar-paper roof was visible. Unbeautiful, yes, and her second appointment felt the same way. They were a little sad about the good view being in the bedroom and they, too, were obviously not going to bite.
“We were going to move back to Ohio,” the husband said. “But you know—with all the things they’re saying now, that new Mad Cow outbreak in the Midwest—maybe now is not the time. The news says they think it might be contagious.”
“Oh look,” the wife said in the living room. “Someone’s on the roof. Can they see us, do you think?” She pointed down to the problematic building and indeed, there was a man down there. Hallie had seen workmen once, but this man was in a suit. He was walking around slowly, looking out in all directions. The couple watched him for a moment, then turned and walked to the door, Hallie following. She, too, knew the view was everything.
Back at the office, she looked through listings and marked the ones with good sightlines. She couldn’t blame them; she wanted to look out at the sky just as they did. She confirmed a few meetings for the next day and left work early. It was a relief to be outside.
A front had moved in overnight, pushing in some cool air that puffed lightly against Hallie’s face. She passed a few people who were complimenting the sky. “Such gorgeous weather,” one woman was saying. “And the sky is so clear.”
“We don’t look at the sky enough,” a man agreed with her. “The color today is extraordinary.”
Hallie glanced upwards. It was nice, she thought. Clear, clean, the kind of weather where you thought you could go on forever.
Her boyfriend was out of town, so she treated herself to a movie, a stop at the Barnes and Noble café for coffee and a browse through some magazines. She was a little restless. She missed Bruno, of course, but she was fairly used to his travel schedule. It was just one of those days when you longed for something. Hard to say what, exactly; something sharp and extraordinary.
She found a message from her mother on her phone when she got home and called her back. “What are you up to?” she asked as she opened the shades and looked up at the sky. “Are you still doing those livestock samples?”
“Not livestock samples,” Dale corrected her. “Forage samples. We’re checking the feed for the cows, for mold and fungus. I don’t go near the cows. Not that I would mind. I’m not afraid of cows,” she said and laughed.
“Is anyone, really?”
“They’re talking about culling in the Midwest. That’s what I mean. They kill them and don’t even use them, it goes against the grain with me. I think I might become a vegetarian. The cows I’ve met are nice enough. And maybe I could learn to like, what is it—tofu?”
Hallie laughed. “Tofu’s not so bad, Mom. But what’s happening with your cows?”
She could almost hear the shrug in her mother’s voice. “They think it’s just a variation of something that happens every so often. Something in the feed. I really like what I’m doing, Hallie,” Dale said. “I like being out and driving way back in the hills. There’s one road in particular that cheers me up whenever I get on it. It goes up a hill and then it slides right down into a valley that’s like a big green cup. And I like it anytime I get a new farm to check, because it’s a great excuse for me to drive down a lot of roads marked ‘Private.’”
Hallie smiled. It was the way she felt showing apartments: sneaking into other people’s lives. “Are the farmers nice to you?”
“Very nice. Very friendly, although they don’t talk much. I don’t know if they’re suspicious for some reason or just don’t like all the snooping.”
“You’re not snooping. You’re trying to help.”
“We’re checking the feed for mycotoxins—that’s a mold that can grow on the feed. It’s a common mold, but when it reaches a high concentration it’s poisonous and it can cause infertility. The cows get sick, they don’t conceive, they can even die. We did one round of testing, and there was just a normal amount of mold. That’s why we’re testing again, to see if there’s a variation. A lot of the farmers think we’re trying to blame it on them.”
“Who are they blaming it on?”
“They think it’s the feed. Most of them have been relying on government feed because of the drought. Usually they grow their own, but they lost the crops last year.”
“Could it be the feed?”
“It could be anything, Hallie. I’d be the last one to know.”
Dale filled in her report sheet with the name of the farm and got out of her car. She had learned that the best time to find the farmers was before noon. Some of them did construction or some other job in the afternoon, since farming barely paid a living wage. They farmed because that’s what they knew and they hoped, against all reason, that they could make it work. They were a little idealistic, a little bit out of their time, but she was glad they were still there, still keeping some land free of mansions and malls and used-auto lots. She sometimes felt a little guilty that she could get so much pleasure from her job, since it depended on the farmers’ bad luck. She loved the back roads and the mud and the lowing of the cattle, she loved the farm dogs and the fences and the feed.
There was no one in the milk barn, but she’d been at the farm before and besides, she now knew how to distinguish the bins, cribs and silos. She went to the storage trenches and put samples into the brown paper bags she carried, labeling them and sticking them in her sack. She always gave the farmer time to see her out in the open, before she went to find him or her. They had received their notices, they knew she was coming, but still it always felt a little sneaky when she didn’t see anyone.
Dale left the troughs and went to the other side of the house, where the barns and silos were. She had just rounded the corner when her eye caught something out of whack, and she looked up. There was a man standing on the very top of the silo, his hands by his sides and his chin in the air. She thought she could see his mouth moving, but she couldn’t hear anything.
She stopped, stared, and then slowly consulted her sheets to make sure she had the name of the owner right. “Fred?” she said in a soothing voice, as loud as she could make it without shouting. She didn’t want to startle him. “Mr. Lafayette?” she said again, coming up closer. She stood below, staring up at him, trying to see what was happening. She looked where he was looking, and saw nothing in the sky. She looked at the ground, and saw nothing to be loaded, unloaded, hiked up or down—nothing at all that would give her the start of an explanation. His dog was there, staring up. Fred didn’t look like he would fall; he didn’t look like he was in danger, but his stillness was unsettling. After calling him a few more times, she turned around, went back to the barn and picked up the phone that was there, and dialed 911. Her hands shook terribly.
Hallie was having a good morning; she showered, made her coffee, dressed and went to work with a feeling of heightened satisfaction. When she got to the street, she even skipped a little. It was something in the air, it was a beautiful day. She filled her lungs with the glorious day, closing her eyes to breathe in, raising her head and opening her eyes to breathe out. The sky! The sky was incredible! It was glowing with blueness, a saturated blue.
She felt a little restless when she took the subway. She wanted to look at the sky, so she got off the train a stop early.
The streets didn’t seem to be bustling in their usual way. Sure, some people still rushed past her, but she had to wonder at their lack of sanity—to rush on such a day! With such a sky! She felt like singing, like joining those two people on the other corner who were gently leaning together in a hymn she hadn’t heard since childhood. It had been years since she’d heard a hymn. It was a shame, because it was a beauty denied.
At the stoplight she overheard a nearby conversation. “Do you smell that?” a young woman asked. “I think I smell vanilla.” Hallie took a deep breath. The day was bright and specific. In contrast to all those other days that ran together, this one stood out. She would walk the rest of the way to her first appointment; she was glad she had left the subway. She walked rapidly, happily. She would get there and take the elevator up to the apartment she was showing, and she would see the sky from out each window. Radiant pieces of sky.
Dale stayed the whole time it took to bring Fred down from the silo. He was alive, but barely. Dehydration. When he was down on the stretcher, she could see that his mouth was moving, and she heard faint sounds of singing. He was losing his voice, though; she couldn’t tell what he was singing. They thought he’d been up there for less than a day. Dale called the nearest neighbors, who came to take care of the cows while Fred was hospitalized. Fred’s dog stayed near the silo.
“It’s the feed,” the neighbor, Ken Tuttle, said. “Something’s been wrong with the cows since we started the new feed the government gave us. I’m sure of it. We were getting together for a meeting. You from Ag?”
She explained how she was redoing the testing for mycotoxins.
The man tsked to Fred’s dog, who didn’t move. His hands were in his pockets and his body was stiff. He had trouble looking at Dale, as if she was forcing him into something. “You know, there’s others,” he said abruptly.
“No, I don’t know. What do you mean?” She felt drained and not up to the conversation.
“Two people fell off their roofs last week,” he said. “Supposedly repairing it. Someone was found electrocuted, at the bottom of a telephone pole. That was over in Pennsylvania, not here. But he must have been up in the wires and no one knows why. Mike at Boonton Acres went hiking a few days ago and didn’t come back. We’re told he’s camping. His wife had to hire some kids to do the milking.”
“What do you think it is?” Dale whispered.
He shifted on his feet and his eyes darted away and then back. “I think it’s aliens,” he said. “Slurping our souls out like soup.”
Dale took samples from the old feed and samples from the bags of new feed, and then brought them to the Extension office. Danny Beemer was her boss and she trusted his opinion.
“I don’t know what’s up,” he said, shrugging. “It’s something, obviously. That feed they’re talking about—well, there’s a lot of speculation that there was bioengineered corn in it. Nothing’s supposed to have it in unless it’s labeled that way. Problem is, even if the corn is bioengineered, the mycotoxins are the same old, same old. We’ve seen it before, we’ll see it again. So what’s different? Does that corn do something new to the cow’s immune system? I mean, we keep testing for the toxin that we know, but what if it’s one we don’t know?
“For instance,” he said. He sat back in his swivel chair and put his hands behind his head, a typical gesture when he was going off on a tangent. “The Salem witch hunts. You know what the current theory is? Ergot. It’s a mold on rye that can cause hallucinations. Let’s say a whole harvest of rye gets infested with ergot. The rye gets ground, the people eat the bread, and one by one they see devils, they see witches, they see fornication and trickery. Not just one person, but everyone who eats the bread. Now, if you were there, how would you think to check the rye? You’re hallucinating too, and you see what they see. And once that store of rye is gone, then the witches are gone too. It took hundreds of years for people to even start thinking that there may have been an actual physical reason for the witch hunts.
“So I wouldn’t rule anything out. It could be something usual, it could be something unusual. Where do you start looking?” He shook his head.
“This can’t be Mad Cow, can it?” she asked cautiously. “Someone brought that up.”
“We did some tests for that,” he said. “That was automatic. I don’t exactly know what’s going on in Iowa, but I don’t think that’s spongiform either. They’re just saying ‘neurological symptoms of uncertain origin.’ That isn’t helpful. I think they just needed a name, and everyone knows about Mad Cow.”
“Maybe it’s a combination of things?” Dale asked helpfully.
“Sure. Which combination?”
She shut up.
The next morning, Hallie found that the day was glowing. The sky was luminous; it even pulsed sometimes with a kind of flash, like a sun flare, only it was a sky flare and you didn’t have to blink, you could look right at it. In fact, if you didn’t look right at it, you became a little disoriented, as if your air wasn’t quite right and your lungs skipped a beat.
There was an undercurrent, a real current, a little buzz of electricity that ran along the ground and started seeping upwards. You wanted to lift along with it. It was the merest wind, the spirit of uplift.
She could tell who felt it and who didn’t. There, across the street, was a woman leaning out the window, her face upraised. She felt it. There, on the corner, waiting for a light, three people were singing; one of them even had a good voice. There was a child climbing up a lamppost, he felt it. There was a mother wheeling her child; she did not. There was a policeman in the middle of the street, waving the traffic forward. He was beginning to feel it; his arms were raising up too often and confusing the flow.
There were groups emerging from the crowds on the street. These groups felt the sun on the right side of their faces and they moved to the right. They saw a stairway and they took it. They came out of the subways as if they had reached heaven.
Over in the park they were climbing on the rocks. A group was singing “Your Love is Lifting Me Higher.” On each repeated phrase of “higher”, another person joined in, pushing the group a step up the rock, compressing them. She watched their mouths move, saw their eyes raised.
She could see people on the tops of the low buildings now, they were lined up with more lines behind them. On top of one building they were singing the Ave Maria. They brought a terrible passion to it, raising their arms on the most splendid notes. There was a camera van and a reporter, but the reporter was starting to sing.
Hallie’s heart was amazed at the sounds. She would love to sing; each song appealed to her until she heard another song. She wavered at each group, wanting to blend with the sounds, to feel her heart ache upwards into joy. It wasn’t overwhelming, it was pleasant and euphoric, a yearning mixed with anticipation. Like a woman on her way to her lover.
She listened to the songs with her head tilted, her eyes half-closed. She had never felt such pleasure before, such good will; but the upshot was that she was late. She didn’t really care about that. She went to the window to see the rooftops and there, right across from her, were people standing together, faces up and singing. She could hear them through the closed windows. There were men and women and a few children. The children were raised in their parents’ arms, looking upward. They were singing “O Happy Day.” As soon as they finished they began again. Hallie looked and listened and thought that never, never had there been anything so mystical, so supreme, so complex and spiritual. How had the world gotten so good so suddenly? How had the spirit risen so high? How had God graced them, so generously and exquisitely?
She ignored the buzzer and the knock on the door, but someone came in anyway, came up behind her and started speaking.
“I was here earlier,” the woman said. “I waited. Henry was supposed to meet me, but he didn’t show up. I tried his cell phone. No answer. I tried his office and it took so many rings before anyone answered.” The woman’s voice was sad. “They said half the people didn’t show up, and Henry was one of the ones who didn’t. Why doesn’t anyone know what’s happening?”
She stood beside Hallie, looking out the window. “I heard it on the news,” the woman said. “They’re saying it’s all over the city. People are lining the rooftops, they’re climbing the bridges. But I don’t know why.” Her voice trembled. Hallie could see no reason for a voice to tremble, except in exaltation. The world was filled with exaltation; it came floating everywhere as motes in the air, motes made golden by the sun, motes swept up again to rise, to rise splendidly, ornately, making delicate kaleidoscope-like patterns, like tiny jewels in the air.
When Danny failed to show up at the Extension two days in a row, Dale started picking through his desk. She called him, of course, but there was no answer. She even went to his house, which wasn’t far away, but he wasn’t there. The paper that morning said that there were spontaneous religious uprisings going on in major cities throughout the country. Dale was startled by the word “uprising.” The commentator went on to note that there were over two hundred deaths attributed to the neurological disease in the Midwest, which was no longer being called Mad Cow.
On the local radio news, the commentator reported that two girls had been forcibly removed from a tree, and two men had fallen from a ladder they were both occupying. There had been a family on top of their garage, chanting, the neighbors said, without stop. They had been forcibly removed. Some school bus drivers were found on top of their buses. A doctor had left the operating room right before surgery and never come back. There was a sound bite from the sheriff telling the listeners to tie their family members down if they started acting funny. Tie them down hard.
The country music station had started playing spiritual music; no announcements of any kind, no talk, no advertising, just hymns. Although she herself was an atheist, Dale had nothing against spiritual music, she just didn’t know why they were doing it. It made her uneasy. She was a steady thinker; she accrued knowledge, thinking about a problem and then thinking about it again, getting a handle on it over the course of time. She didn’t leap intuitively ahead; she plodded along, collecting evidence. And Dale was beginning to think that this wasn’t just the usual recall of beef, the typical network headline, the quotidian minor tragedy—it no longer seemed to be just a news event. No one knew exactly what was happening. The Midwest thought there was something wrong with the meat, and now there was something wrong with the people. And no one recognized it—that made her stomach clench. The ones who knew things couldn’t settle on what was wrong.
Dale couldn’t solve this and she didn’t have any clear idea about what she should do, so she got in her car and started driving.
She drove the hilly back roads, which were beautiful that day, as they were always beautiful. The world still looked the same. She loved the hills and the fields; it was why she lived in the country anyway. She passed fields of corn, fields of hay, fallow fields of clover. The corn stretched out in tended rows, the hay bent with the breeze, changing shade as she passed by.
She pulled over, rolled down the window, and breathed in. It was a clean smell, green and hot. The farmers felt that the feed they were given by the government was affecting the animals. But what was happening to the people? Mass hypnosis, mass hysteria? There was speculation about a biological attack from abroad, and the newspaper had run a list of all the kinds that were known, and all the symptoms. Nothing matched.
Although they had spoken only the day before, she called Hallie, just to hear her voice, and Hallie had sounded well and happy. “Hi, it’s just me,” she said when she got Hallie’s voicemail. “Just riding around and worrying about things—you know, that farmer I told you about and all the awful news on the radio. Call me when you can.”
Just leaving a message soothed her, until she remembered her boss—why did thinking of Hallie remind her of Danny?—and she left him yet another message.
Hallucinogens in the water supply? The farmer up on the silo had his own well. Most farmers did, and it was hitting urban and rural populations equally. There were too many different water supplies; she doubted the water was making people act strangely. But was it, as one doctor had theorized, a new recreational drug making the rounds? Someone slipping drugs into food and drink at community events? That could do it. A terrorist group had poisoned a whole town by slipping e. coli into a salad bar at a big party. It could be something like that. One person on the radio said it might be in the air itself, because the air was different.
Dale’s car slipped along the roads, down the hills. Everything looked so perfectly right. She pulled down a dirt access road through some fields, slowing down so the bumps wouldn’t damage the car. She stopped and rolled down her window to listen to the birds. Her eyes drifted over the fields as she sat inside her car, just looking and thinking.
She got out of the car and started walking through the fields. She waded slowly, lifting her feet up deliberately and setting them down carefully so she wouldn’t do much damage. The hay was up to her hips, and little bits of it stuck to her as she made her way through.
The day was warm and the sun was hot so she left the field for some shade under the windbreak of oak and sassafras. She started picking off the chaff that had stuck to her jeans and her shirt. But it wasn’t chaff, exactly. She found a few seeds and tips of leaves, but most of what clung to her was the desiccated bodies of insects. She brushed them off, then stopped and thought for a moment. Dale had walked in many fields but she couldn’t recall ever seeing so many dead insects. In the high heat she could hear the electric whine of cicadas in the trees, and there was a flitting haze of bugs above the field, spinning up and settling down. She brushed dried bugs off her legs and into the palm of her hand. She saw skinny and fat husks, small and big insects, dried brittle shells of numerous species.
She went back into the fields and started looking more closely at the stalks.
She bent over, tucking her arms in so she wouldn’t brush against the plants. She just looked for a while, studying and noting. She saw ladybugs and spiders and some inchworms and larvae of some kind climbing up the stalks. But on the top of almost every stalk were insects that were just waiting there, just paused, many of them obviously dead and dried out. She moved to another part of the field and found the same thing. She stood up, looking over the grasses around her and as far as she could tell, each was topped with these brittle corpses. She didn’t have x-ray vision; she couldn’t actually see each one, but wherever she walked, wherever she stooped and pulled a tip of hay towards her—there was another collection of bugs, dead or waiting to die.
Perhaps it was a natural event; there were many natural events that she knew nothing about. But many strange things were happening in the world and she was alert.
She went back to the car and got one of the brown paper bags she used to collect samples, and then got her red magic marker and labeled it: Field. Sunrise Valley. She plucked off the tops of the grasses and stuffed them inside, and went back to town in search of Danny, or Danny’s rolodex, to find somewhere to send it for testing.
Danny was still missing when she got to his office, but he was, luckily, very organized. He kept business cards in his top drawer, and kept notations on his rolodex of anyone he’d spoken to. Dale began under “L” for “Labs,” and found the Trenton lab where the farm samples had been sent, and a few other labs that weren’t specifically identified. She went through the business cards and found one for an entomologist and one for a chemist at a feed company that one of the farmers had mentioned.
She called the entomologist, Omar Salceda, and got a recorded message that he was generally out of the office in the mornings. It was barely noon, so Dale left a message and put the card in her pocket.
She called the chemist, who told her he had a song in his head that he couldn’t get rid of. “That always happens,” she said guardedly, and asked if he knew the ingredients in the feed.
“I can almost get the words,” the chemist said. “Let me hum it for you. Maybe you know the words.”
Dale hung up the phone and put her head between her hands. She had no talent for this. She didn’t know how to search things out, she didn’t know what she was looking for. And she was feeling alarmed. She indulged herself in a fit of fury at Danny for disappearing. She didn’t know his personal life at all, so she couldn’t figure out where he would be if he wasn’t here. She could only hope that he wasn’t up on a roof somewhere.
As soon as she got the image of Danny on the roof, Dale thought of Hallie. She reached for her cell phone again, and then held it, debating. Hallie would call when she was finished with whatever she was doing; leaving another message would just be annoying. Dale wasn’t one of those overbearing worriers. Hallie would call. She forced herself to put the phone back down. She had spoken to her yesterday; Hallie was fine.
She called a few more numbers on Danny’s Rolodex; got a machine on one and a person on the other, but that one turned out to be a lab for people, not plants.
She would go to the entomologist. She left another message on his machine, telling him she was on the way, and got back in the car. One radio station seemed to be off the air, two others were devoted to choral music. Finally, she found an upstate New York station, just barely within range, where someone was actually talking. But as she listened, she felt grim.
The Midwest was under a desperate assault. Emergency workers were bringing in as many people as they could to the hospitals, but the hospitals were overwhelmed and were losing doctors and nurses too. Some shifts began with only a quarter of their personnel. Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin and Ohio were recording deaths in the thousands, with no end in sight. The Red Cross was setting up shelters for abandoned children and elderly survivors. Michigan had called in the National Guard.
Canada and Mexico were talking about a quarantine; no one would be allowed to cross the border from the United States. Outbound flights were cancelled, and only special flights coming in were allowed. The Coast Guard was calling up reservists.
Pennsylvania and Ohio were advising people to stay home unless they were essential personnel, which included anyone working in medicine, agriculture, pest control or any industry examining the cause of the epidemic. New Jersey had just confirmed it was dealing with a widespread disease. In immediate response, New York declared that no shipments of any kind would be allowed to cross state borders, and New York City was in the process of posting guards at the bridges and tunnels.
Her car lurched; she had to snap herself back to attention. Hallie. If they sealed her in, kept her safe—wouldn’t the quarantine be a good thing? Dale’s mouth was dry. Her hand reached out for the cell phone in her purse, picked it up, then put it down again.
She switched off the radio; she couldn’t listen any more. Had someone made a terrible mistake? Was this sabotage? Or was it natural—one of those pandemics that swept the globe rarely but swiftly? It was hopeless. She just didn’t know how any of it worked. It was just like Danny said: if you don’t know what to look for, how will you find it?
Dale drove hunched over her steering wheel. All her life, in times of distress, she had found her head buzzing with just such internal conversations. Discussions of things she knew nothing about, speculations she couldn’t possibly evaluate, quarrels with herself over things she wasn’t responsible for, the endless, irritated chatter of her brain.
She was scared to death.
Hallie walked along the streets with her head raised, looking at people’s faces, listening to their sounds. A great joy was starting to shine out everywhere. She could see it in their eyes, she could feel it in the breaths of the people singing. And more and more people were singing. They would be walking along, moving forward, unmoored, and then all of a sudden—you could see it happening, but more importantly, you could feel it happening—all of a sudden a man would step forward with a longer, deeper stride, scooping himself forward, his mouth would open, and he would join in song. Most often, he would join the song he heard from the sides, from above, he would fall right into the soaring notes of the Hallelujah chorus or some pop song, or a song from his background, he would come in on a word and a note as if he had found his soul. The connection was as perfect as the right key for the right lock, a suitability as divine as it was musical. The song would reach him, he would hear it, he would connect, and he would follow the song to his people, whether they were on the street, on a rooftop, climbing stairs or climbing mountains. He would fit right in, like the iron filing to a magnet, irresistibly called, singing with a look of triumph on his face.
But there were songs, too, that stayed on their own—one voice only, waiting for the chorus to find its way to it. A woman sang something in Chinese in front of a store on Seventh Avenue, a child sang a rhyme in a foreign language from a fire escape on a side street.
Hallie was marveling at the sounds around her, at the hum of glory that kept her feet moving forward. The people who didn’t feel it became a background, became bricks and cars and puddles on the street, as if they were not yet a life force and could be overlooked.
She walked along West Street, where people climbed on top of the vents for the tunnels, where they stood on the piers, on the low rooftops along the waterfront. She walked tirelessly, not even knowing that she was searching, just wanting to go on and on, to feel blessed by the number of people who were singing, by the number of people who were now her people, her chosen land, who understood the depth and carrying power of beauty.
Then, finally, Hallie found her song. It was the trio from “Der Rosenkavalier.” She had loved the opera when she was younger, she had listened to it for days on end. The sound of it gave her energy. She had been walking for hours, heading uptown, her head arcing up and down, her vision magnified by the voices that filled Manhattan. She walked up West Street to 10th Avenue, to 12th Avenue, seeing people climb the overpasses, seeing them climb the billboards, the fences, and finally she turned into Riverside Park, and heard the drift of words that drew her forward. There were people singing, the famous trio, “Tranquilazio mundo ad nostri desir.”
Hallie’s mouth grinned and then opened. She knew the words vaguely, not even correctly, but it hardly mattered. She began to sing what she could remember, her unmusical voice straining, but her heart was buoyant and her soul was radiant and she had found the thing she was looking for, the thing she had needed and had hoped for. It was a song and it was a height and when she found the source of it—nine people climbing up the monument at 101st Street and the Park—she folded herself into the part of her life that would continue eternally.
Hallie was home.
By the time Dale reached the entomologist’s office with her bag of grass and bugs, her nerves were fraying. She had driven for two hours, pulling over to let emergency vehicles pass, detouring to side roads and then side streets. She felt compelled to turn the radio on every half hour or so, and the news—when she could find a station with news—got grimmer. Facts were being replaced by rumors: A cloud of radioactive dust had started the plague; a glowing meteorite had broken up over Missouri; barrels of an unidentified chemical had been abandoned on a highway in West Virginia. Listeners kept calling in with more rumors, and each one seemed potentially true.
Two stations reported that there were now roadblocks around Manhattan and Jersey City. Long Island had shut itself off, refusing to allow anyone in, though it wasn’t clear if they had an epidemic or merely hoped to protect themselves against one.
She pulled over and called Hallie. Again. She was becoming insane about not hearing from her. Surely Hallie checked her messages more often than this? She calmed herself down and called Hallie’s office; she spoke to someone who said Hallie was out showing an apartment. The girl she was talking to began to hum and Dale hung up.
She pulled into the parking lot of ViviTrends Inc, the company that the bug guy worked for. The parking lot was less than a quarter full. There was no receptionist at the front desk, but she browsed through the alphabetical personnel list near the phone, located Omar Salceda’s name, and called him to get directions to his office in the rear of the building.
Dale knocked on the door, opened it, and stood in the doorway. Omar sat at a desk at one corner of a small lab. He looked over his shoulder at her, then stood up, reached out his hand, and came forward.
He had a pleasant voice, a nice smile, and was wearing clear plastic glasses. He was a little taller than she was, had dark wiry hair, warm brown eyes, a low forehead and a small chin.
“Hi, I brought something.” She suddenly ran out of breath, holding the brown bag in front of her.
“Okay. Come on in. Would you like some cookies? I have a terrible sweet tooth.” He gestured to a bag of chocolate macadamia nut cookies. Dale took one, realizing that she was terribly hungry.
“I went into a field,” she said between bites. “I was just trying to clear my head so I could think. Danny Beemer has disappeared, and I can’t reach my daughter, and there’s this epidemic—”
“I don’t know if epidemic is the right word,” Omar said.
“Whatever it is, I just had to stop and think, and I like the valley. There were fields all around me, and I just went for a walk in one of them. When I got back to my car I was covered in what I thought were seeds. Then I noticed they were dead bugs.”
He nodded, paying close attention.
“I went back in and looked around, and I found them at the tops of all the plants.”
“At the top?” he asked. He looked interested.
“They were dead, too. At the top and dead.” She took a breath. He had a smart face; surely he knew about these things. Finally, she had gotten to the right place.
“Well, that’s easy,” Omar said, leaning back. “Nucleopolyhedrovirus. NPV. It’s a naturally occurring pathogen that attacks certain insects, Lepidoptera mostly. I know, the beautiful butterflies. But when they’re caterpillars they pig out and destroy a lot of crops. NPV affects the brain and yes, the bugs all go to the highest point of the plant and just hang there until they die.”
“It sounds like what’s happening to people.”
Omar shrugged. “I thought of that too, but people don’t contract the virus. Never been a recorded case. Did you know the people are all singing? Or most of them, anyway; I suppose they can’t sing all the way to the end. Now, if we knew the bugs were singing. . . .” He picked up a coffee cup and looked up into the corner of the room. “Still, you know, the brains aren’t the same so they wouldn’t necessarily produce the same symptoms.”
Dale took a deep breath. “Are you saying that it could be the same virus?”
“No. I really doubt it. We can get diseases from bugs that carry parasites, but then the bugs only carry it, they’re not affected by it. Viruses don’t really pass from bugs to humans. When we get malaria or sleeping sickness or stuff like that, the insect is just the host; the disease is a hitchhiker. Never had a record of a human developing a bug’s illness.” He sipped his coffee, made a face, and put it down. “Although, in my own opinion, as soon as someone proves the first case of insect to human transference, we’re suddenly going to come across a ton of them. Always happens that way.” He cocked his head and made his voice singsong. “No, no, never gonna happen. Oh, it happened? I always knew it could.”
“Do you want to take a look at the bugs?” Dale held the bag to him, trying to keep him more firmly on track.
“Sure.” He took the bag from her and brought it to the counter, sweeping aside some papers and setting it down. “But it would take a few weeks to get all the tests done to confirm that it’s NPV.” He spread out a small sample on a white sheet of paper and took some large tweezers to sift through them. “You got these off your clothes? It’s quite a sample, lots of different bugs,” he said, impressed. “High kill rate. Usually it’s relatively small. You said the dead bugs were all over the field?”
He sat back. “A few places were talking about improving the NPV, engineering it so it would be a bit more lethal, but I think they were just kicking around ideas.” Again, his eyes trailed off to the ceiling. “I could call around,” he said, “though I don’t know…I’m just a lab tech.” He looked a little embarrassed. “Going for my degree. I took my time, you know, moving around until I found what I liked.”
“I understand,” she said. “I just started what I’m doing this year. It doesn’t matter.”
He turned away, picked up the phone, and dialed a number. “Matters to them,” he said. “Why should they talk to every idiot who calls?” Omar waited, listening to the rings. “Let me try someone else,” he muttered, when he received no answer, and dialed another number. He straightened up in excitement. “Hi! This is Omar Salceda at ViviTrends.” He listened. “So who is there? I’ll talk to anyone.” He swiveled around to nod at Dale, his eyebrows raised. She moved away a little, trying to be polite. But of course he knew she was listening. He explained who he was, what he was calling about, but she could tell that he wasn’t talking to someone in charge. In the end, he left his name and number.
“God that was stupid,” he said, exasperated. “There’s a conference in DC, which I did know because most of the heads here went to it. Last I heard from my boss was yesterday, and he said he was going to a concert. So the person I just spoke to said most of the office was in DC, and the rest were disappearing one by one. And she said she was disappearing next, going to the mountains where everything was clean. I don’t know if there’s a good way to get in touch with people right now. Until things settle down, I think I’m it.” He shrugged modestly, looked around the room thoughtfully, then leaned back over the bugs Dale had brought. “We studied NPV when I was in school, that’s why I mentioned it. Just means I’ve heard of it, not necessarily that that’s what it is. Do you understand?”
“Okay,” she said. “Could that NPV be causing the epidemic?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I’d keep it in mind, maybe, because it’s an interesting theory.” He thought for a second. “But even if that’s not what it is, you know, it’ll probably take the same course. Some people won’t be affected, no matter what’s out there, or they’ll be affected and survive. You figure some have natural immunity. And if it’s in the food—well, there are all kinds of people with food allergies who won’t be eating whatever’s carrying it. If it’s in the grains, maybe it’s only affecting corn, or wheat, or soybeans, and the people who don’t eat that are safe.”
“And the cure?” she asked.
He blinked at her and his mouth hung open just a little. “How can we even think of a cure until we know what we’re curing?”
Dale’s back tightened; her mouth was stretched hard. “Then I think you should get started, don’t you?”
Omar laughed. “I’ll take a look, but . . . I just like to poke around and find out what makes bugs do what they do. I’m not the kind of specialist you want.”
Dale slapped her hand on the counter near her, causing Omar to jump. “You have to do something!” she said tensely. “My daughter Hallie’s in New York, she lives in the city. I haven’t heard from her and I’ve been calling all day. Danny’s missing now, and I can’t reach my daughter. And so many people out on the farms have been affected. Someone has to do something!” She took a deep breath, trying to control herself. “I’m so afraid,” she said softly.
He stood up uncertainly, as if considering whether he should put a hand on her shoulder. “It doesn’t have to mean anything. About your daughter, I mean,” he said gently. “She’s probably just busy. And it’s normal for her not to call so often, isn’t it? She’s just doing her normal day. That’s all it is.” He smiled gently at her.
He’s trying to console me, she thought. He’s doing it because he doubts Hallie’s okay. That realization hit her hard; she’d been steeling against it herself. “I have to know if Hallie’s okay,” she said, straightening up. “I have to find her. I have to go.” She smiled weakly at him, then turned to leave.
“Maybe she’s safe somewhere else,” he said.
She cocked her head, listening.
“There’s always a safe place. In every book I’ve ever read there’s one place you want to get to when everything goes wrong.” He motioned to the side, and Dale saw a few dog-eared paperbacks on a shelf. In another time, she would have gone over to see their titles and judge him by them. “Even in reports on disasters, it seems that there’s always one place that managed to escape whatever the catastrophe is. So maybe Hallie’s there.”
She shook her head. “Hallie’s in Manhattan, and that’s where I’ll be. I don’t care if it’s safe or not.”
“That’s what characters always say in books,” Omar said agreeably. “Then something terrible happens.”
“Something terrible already happened.” Her voice started sharp but had an unnerving crack at the end.
Omar studied her for a moment, then bent down to his desk, rifling through the drawers. “Wait. If it’s in the food, then the best thing would be to eat old food. Eat imported food.” He handed her a fist full of packaged snacks. “I’ve had these in here forever. I’m sure the sell-by dates all expired long ago. Take some. If it’s in the food, these’ll be safe.”
Dale grabbed a bunch of them, things she would normally never eat, filled with chemicals and additives and fake food substances. “Look,” she said, “you’re the only one I can actually talk to right now. I think I’ll go crazy if I can’t talk to someone. See if you can find out anything. And keep in touch with me, okay? I can see you’re all right, and you can see I’m all right. Maybe we can help each other.”
She wrote her number down and gave it to him, and as an afterthought, added Hallie’s address. And then, very quickly, as if she wasn’t even paying attention, she kissed him on the cheek and left.
The music blazed out in all directions. Hallie stood on the roof, her chin lifted. She sang over and over again. They never rested. At first she felt immortally strong, incapable of stopping. The sun blazed on, making everything sharp and glorious. She closed her eyes sometimes so she could see the sun more cleanly, without globes of red or orange or blue appearing in her sight. There were dozens of people singing along with her, and she was aware when a new person joined, aware by the swelling of their communal breaths, the new burst of force. Aware, too, when a voice gave way, when a parched mouth moved in silence, determined to hold on to its joy. To her left, a man slumped against a brick wall, his mouth hanging slack but still occasionally moving. When the evening came in, spilling at them with clouds that leaked across the sky like a divine palette, their voices rose with a newer strength. They didn’t care about the heat, but their bodies noticed it and their mouths were dry and their lips began to crack at the edges. These shells of theirs, these heavy fortresses, no longer took foremost attention, it was all just a means of reaching the song. With the evening, a breeze sprung up and this seemed, as everything seemed, another particular glory. Even as one voice fell silent, another voice climbed up to add to the song, cannoning their beliefs into the magnificent sky. All over the city, their voices rose, and even from across the river, they could be heard as one incessant, sublime shout.
Dale took the interstate to get to the bridge. As she got closer to the city, she could see people standing on the noise-abatement walls that the DOT had put up along the highway the last time they widened the road. There were people standing on the overpasses, and on the roofs of houses and hotels. A few tractor-trailers had pulled halfway off the road, their doors open, their drivers gone, and she could see that there were abandoned cars on the median, on the ramps, even on the glimpses of street when the sound barriers ended. She saw some families clutching hands, she saw people gathering in the street. She had the radio and the AC on with the windows rolled up, so she didn’t hear the singing. She looked out at a bizarre world, no longer safe. She had found her true home in the country and she hated being away from it. If Hallie hadn’t moved to Manhattan, Dale would never have set foot outside her own spot of earth. She didn’t need the city, she didn’t like the city.
Traffic slowed when she was miles away from the bridge. The one radio station that she trusted said there were roadblocks and checkpoints at the entrance. She decided to get off and take the side streets. She pulled over and tried reaching Hallie again. No answer. She called Omar, who picked the phone up promptly. She felt relieved that someone answered somewhere.
“Did you find anything?” she asked, even though it had been less than two hours.
“Not really. It’s hard to reach people. I talked to someone in Missouri who said they were shooting cattle; she said they were pretty sure the cattle had caused it. I don’t think she actually worked there, or at least I can’t imagine anyone in a lab saying to go shoot the cows until we find out what’s up.”
He laughed in disbelief, but Dale simply asked, “What else?”
“Nothing else. I can’t get a good picture of what’s going on. I called the best people I knew. I wasn’t able to talk to anyone who knew anything.”
He sounded matter-of-fact, and Dale found the tone of his voice intolerable. Surely he wasn’t going to accept it all? “You’ve got to do something!” she said, clutching the phone.
They were both silent for a moment, and then Omar said, “I will. I’ll do what I can, Dale. I’ll do everything I can.”
He promised he would make some more calls, and Dale disconnected. Her mouth was dry and her palms were sweating. There was no magic bullet and she didn’t know what she could do. But she had to find Hallie, no matter what happened. It was a physical need: she wanted to see her, hear her, touch her. It was just like those times when Hallie was a small child and she’d lost track of her for a second. That plunging heart, that agony, that need to turn a corner and see her again. She relived it, the moment when she saw Hallie’s face turned towards her, the child’s cries turning into a smile. She changed the image of a child into the adult version, turning to her, surprised she had driven all the way to Manhattan to find her. “Mom,” she would say, in that slightly chiding voice she used when she thought her mother was overdoing it. “Mom.”
Dale took the sides streets of Fort Lee, heading for the bridge. Traffic was slow. There were trucks everywhere, it seemed; she assumed they were trying to make their way to Manhattan for deliveries. Weren’t trucks allowed through? Wasn’t food allowed through?
Finally it was obvious that driving was pointless. It took longer and longer to get to a corner, and at each corner, prospects looked dim. She gave up and turned down a street to go back a little way, which ended up taking her over an hour. She pulled over and parked.
The streets were comparatively empty, but she saw small groups on porches, and she began to hear the singing. She thought it was a radio at first, then maybe a church choir rehearsing; she even thought at one point that a group of men on the corner were singing a capella, as boys did when she was a teenager.
She passed a school. There were children on the monkey bars, singing the theme from Sesame Street. Where were the parents? She looked up and saw adults on the school’s roof; she didn’t recognize what they were singing.
She passed a woman with her head thrown back, looking up at the sun. “Praise the Lord! Praise the sky! Praise the sun!” the woman cried. Dale was afraid she’d go blind, looking at the sun that way, but she supposed blindness was the least of the woman’s worries.
She got to the ramps to the bridge, where crowds of people were pressing forward. They chanted, they sang, their voices mixed with a perpetual slow pace. At the toll booths, she could see flashing lights and a line of police, and cars stopped all the way across. The police, their batons up, were trying to move the people back. Some were taken to ambulances, to a makeshift emergency station over to the right. Dale was amazed that they thought it would do any good She supposed that there was only one way to face the unfamiliar—by following procedures.
The lightboard that normally warned of traffic conditions ahead now read simply: NO ENTRANCE. BRIDGE CLOSED.
She watched the crowd for a minute, identifying how the police chose which people to separate out. There were too many people to collect all of them, but it was their obligation to collect some, and this they did. They took the easy ones, thin, old, or very young. Two cops would come forward, grab an arm, and take him or her away. This took some time, so Dale was able to calculate when to advance. To keep from attracting attention, she began to sing with the nearest group, “We Are the Champions.”
She moved forward, past the tool booths, onto the span.
Along the bridge, some people divided off and stood on the siderails, looking up. There was a great line of people singing “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” and it horrified Dale, made her want to stop them violently. Who had orchestrated this joke? Was it absolutely necessary to sing about a bridge when choosing a bridge to die on? She didn’t know. But she felt the power of these huge songs as hundreds of people gathered to sing them, climbing the struts or support pieces of the bridge, singing almost on top of each other in one place, strung out like amplifiers as she walked among the abandoned cars. These had been left behind by drivers who had come to sing, or by drivers who couldn’t move anyway, and who had left. She passed an infant crying in a back seat, a dog barking at the side window, an old woman and a man weeping and leaning against their doors. Had they been abandoned? Had someone gone for help? She checked the infant, who seemed all right, and checked two children who said their father had left hours ago. Dale doubted he would come back.
She saw a police officer ahead and went up to him. She had written down the license plate numbers and where she saw the cars, and she held her notepad up, reciting the information, relieved that she could pass it along to someone who could do something. Then she looked at the officer, at the grin on his face, the uplifted eyes. He wasn’t singing, but he reeked of glory. She shook him and he didn’t notice. She yelled at him. She raised her hand and slapped him. It was then that he began to sing the spiritual hymn, “How I Got Over.” He had a good voice.
Dale stepped back, panting and miserable.
As he sang the second line a woman behind Dale joined him. From farther ahead on the bridge, a man came towards them with a child in his arms and he, too, joined in. Dale walked on, people swirling around her, some heading towards Manhattan, some heading towards New Jersey. Ahead of her, she heard another voice singing “How I Got Over,” as all around her people continued with “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.”
She stopped in the middle of the bridge and looked around. The singing rose dramatically, and she looked back the way she had come and saw that all along the rock wall of the Palisades were even more people. The cliffs rose up a hundred feet, forming the coast of Fort Lee where it met the bridge, and the craggy face of it, with its niches and rock ledges, was crowded with people, like statues in a line of grottos. She saw one person fall, and another slowly climbed to take her place.
Dale’s head was filling up with the sounds. Sometimes the singing struck her as beautiful, sometimes it overwhelmed her with its sheer relentlessness. It made her feel frantic. She passed a man who had slipped while climbing a strut and fallen to the surface of the bridge. His legs were twisted and broken, so he raised himself on his arms to sing in a whisper. A woman’s body hung from the upper level, caught in some wire roping that looked like it had broken off from repair work. Another woman slumped against the barrier between the lanes of traffic; Dale couldn’t tell what had happened to her. She saw people who sagged, who leaned on girders for support. But still the singing went on, and she found that she was breathing hard, her heart racing, her mouth hanging open, as if she was herself threatened. She had never felt so incapable, so completely without hope. The scale was beyond her; she could do nothing.
A burned-out car, a bus on its side, a police cruiser flashing lights with no one in it. More dogs barking, people crying, some moaning. More songs. Dale found that her own head was now filling up with songs, with the repetition of songs, so it seemed like there was less and less room for anything else. The choruses were taking residence in her head. She had the impression that they were swelling and adjusting to the particular shapes of her brain, filling in a curve here, slipping into a crevice there. A flood of sound, that’s what it was, creeping into her body, saturating it.
She got to the off-ramp on the New York side and found that the sounds, incredibly, were increasing. There was all the singing on the bridge, certainly, although it had to be getting fainter—but then she saw that the rooftops had singers, the fire escapes were loaded with singers, there were people on the lightpoles, on top of trucks, on top of the traffic signs, their arms raised, all of them looking across the river.
On ramps and off ramps, overpasses and hilltops, New York was singing, beating the air with the sounds of it.
It was sunset now. The sky was ablaze and it had given renewal to all the songs, to all the voices. The singers raised their arms, they lifted their eyes, their mouths kept moving, their souls spilled out into the air like a burst of fireworks that, once started, would run forever.
Dale looked at it, at the ranks of citizens who were singing, as far as she could tell, to their deaths. There were helicopters in the sky but they seemed indifferent. And with the sight of those helicopters—which did nothing to help, nothing to change the situation, whose sole responsibility was obviously to look, and note, and move on—Dale despaired. Wherever she looked, the people sang, their faces lifted up to beauty, mercilessly singing. And where was Hallie in all of this?
Dale sat on the little hill near 177th Street, covered her head with her arms, and wept. How many millions of places were there to look for Hallie in New York City? How many millions of people would block her view, so that she had to walk behind and between each one of them? How could she recognize her own daughter’s voice in all that blissful, deadly noise? Where should she start? How should she continue? What logic would guide her? What instinct would have any power here?
She wept as the sky blazed out and then deepened, as the chorus around her swelled and then settled down to its steady hypnotic wind.
Finally, she wiped her eyes, stood up, and began to walk south, picking her way through the bodies that had already crumpled and the ones that had just begun to feel the touch of bliss. She would search until she found Hallie. She would continue until every voice was still and the sky, which now was soft and deep blue and as beautiful as the first touch of love—until the sky stopped calling out the way it did, to come forward and be lifted.
Glorious Plague © Karen Heuler, 2014