Story-Less: A Forethought

January 14, 2021

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Usman T. Malik is a Pakistani-American writer and doctor. His fiction has been reprinted in several year’s best anthologies including the Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy series and has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, the Million Writers Award, and twice for the Nebula. He has won the Bram Stoker and the British Fantasy awards. Usman’s debut collection Midnight Doorways: Fables from Pakistan has garnered praise from writers such as Joe Hill, Paul Tremblay, and Karen Joy Fowler and will be out in early 2021. You can find him on Twitter @usmantm.

Five days ago, on Tuesday, I fell ill. I know the day because I had dinner with a group of doctor friends in Orlando whom I hadn’t seen in a year. Due to the pandemic I’d been living in Pakistan for nine months and had missed my home in Florida, my running trails, and the clean air (Lahore, a concrete jungle, isn’t the most nature-friendly city), so the chance to spend a few weeks in Florida, albeit without the family, was welcome.

Only, I got sick. The story of my sickness began with pain in my heels. 

As a distance runner, I’ve learned to read my body reasonably well. Runners are known to pick up bugs because we rarely stop running, even when tired and achy. If my muscles bother me during an easy run, that’s usually a red flag: a bug has infiltrated the system. Hard drive crash imminent.

This, though, was no ordinary bug.

The morning after the dinner the pain in my heels and calf spread to my neck followed by a scratchy throat, a dry cough, and monstrous fatigue. I developed chills, dry mouth, cold intolerance, lethargy, and red eyes. I dragged myself from room to empty room, wondering if I needed to go to the hospital, eventually settling on taking a couple of Tylenols and crawling into bed. 

The text came in the evening: a colleague I’d met at a business meeting four days before my symptoms started had tested positive for COVID-19. 

“You better get checked out too, bud.”

Caught the plague, I remember thinking, at first calmly. Literally caught the plague, bud

My second thought was, Thank goodness the kids are back in Pakistan. 

One by one I called the friends I’d had dinner with the night my symptoms started, told them I’d been exposed to COVID-19, and recommended they consider getting screened. Thankfully, none of them had any symptoms—I’d been careful to mask up and maintain a reasonable distance—and never would.

My quarantine clock thus began with a story I narrated to myself: I came, I fell ill, and now I must go through this. 

Either I will survive this, or I won’t.

§

I have an early memory of mesmerizing others. I was ten, perhaps, but I have a feeling there were remoter instances that have since been lost.

My two younger siblings and I shared a king-sized bed, while our parents slept in a smaller bed in the adjacent room. Lights out at 9PM was unacceptable to us and we often stayed up for an hour or so, whispering and giggling. I must have been four years into my Enid Blyton phase and had likely finished all volumes of The Famous Five and The Secret Seven series. So I began to make up my own stories. Night after night I spun fantastic tales: four kids on a visit to their grandparents’ farm find a secret tunnel … a boy falls inside a mountain cave and finds himself in infinite space … I remember the elevator pitch of these two distinctly, and isn’t it wondrous that ten-year-old me was fabulous at such enticing pitches when the nearly forty-year-old me is not? Kids tend to go for the jugular when it comes to stories. The artifices of language and languorous literature come only later. 

And why was I telling stories? Why were my siblings mesmerized? Why the pleasure or the necessity and the fading away of either with age? For centuries, if not millennia, most of us who consider ourselves storytellers have grappled with these questions in fiction or personal narratives and have found our answers in … more stories. Tales we tell each other about the world or ourselves in an attempt to anticipate the end. 

The entire thing is a thought experiment in self-preservation.

§

Do your ablutions for twenty seconds. Reverentially wipe down everything. Put on your mask and don it properly. No crowds, no close contact, no closed indoors. You must not break quarantine. Follow all the rituals. Fear it, reject it, hypothesize, argue, spin stories about its origin and its movement. 

It is a silent thing until it roars, invisible, wrathful, omnipresent. It is a new religion, a new god, and like all gods, it demands sacrifice. Like Scheherazade, it brings new stories: I hear he was getting better before he crashed, and only thirty-two! I heard their girl died in her sleep; no, she was perfectly healthy before all this. 

It is the splitter of timelines and a prophet for our age. It wants to live and in its living is the death of millions—every death a story glittering briefly before it’s extinguished.

§

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about stories and how they break up the passage of time into tolerable, understandable chunks. There’s the story of the sun’s rise and of its settling in the west. The story of birth, life, and death. The story of those before and after us. Like the softest of breezes, people stream in and waft out. The world comes to a child, a tall, shiny, sword-bearing stranger at the door and the only way the child understands it is through tales told by a caretaker. 

Stories are the only lexicon available to the child. Without this lexicon, the child is lost.

§

The fever’s mostly gone, the cough is now the worst of it. It comes from deep inside, hacking its way through collapsed alveoli and bronchioles. I can imagine fluffy cotton-like spots on my lungs. Every doctor who’s dealt with it recognizes that hallmark finding. Would I see it on my own lungs if I went for an X-ray? Would it matter? Thankfully, I have never been significantly short of breath. Afraid of blood clots and ‘COVID toes’, I walk daily for a couple miles, and when I do I listen to audiobooks. Currently, I am listening to Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. Admiring the prose, the setting, the intensity of the narrator’s experience when she meets Mr. “Maxim” de Winter for the first time. So alive, she feels so alive. Panting, I stumble up the hill near my house, crushing wild grass and weeds under my sneakers. Will I be able to run again? Will I survive this? You never know with this disease. Will others tell my story or will I be able to tell it myself? Will I heal, will I heal, will I heal?

Like the nameless narrator of Rebecca, I, too, am becoming a ghost walking the green hills with a haunting looming in the background. My daily walks have become a pilgrimage, an homage to life, and the desire to hang to it.

The thought occurs to me, At last, I am rendered speechless: I am mesmerized by the story this haunting has made of me. 

And I have no power to end this story of my own accord.

Finished writing on Saturday, Oct 24th, 2020.

© Usman T. Malik

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