I am not the woman I once was.
None of us are. Epidemics are the fire and we are the candle wax. When the fire burns out, we are melted and reshaped.
When I was in college, I read a book about the influence of the Black Death on the ecclesiastical art of Europe. Golden icons of the Madonna and the child before. Frescoes of dancing skeletons led by the grinning Death after. The Danse Macabre. As if they could possibly know …
But the bubonic plague had been eradicated decades before I was born, in that sunny interval between pandemics when science promised that the horrors of the past were … well, in the past. I grew up with vaccinations, and antibiotics, and the belief that every disease had a cure. I still remember the TV ads of my childhood where smiling couples lounging on the beach offered a medicine for bad mood, and loss of love, and unhappiness. At the time I watched them with detached curiosity because, of course, nothing like that could ever happen to me.
The cracks had been there all along, but the illusion collapsed on the eve of my departure to Berkeley for my senior year, when my mother announced that she and my father were divorcing. I yelled at her, accusing her of selfishness. Why would she do that to me? We were happy, weren’t we? Every time this scene flashes before my eyes—which is every day—I feel a hot wave of shame like the first symptom of MHF. What I meant was that I was happy in the shelter of my deliberate ignorance about my parents’ hollow relationship. And the worst thing was that I did not really care whether my father was around. I needed my mother, and I should have known she would be there for me, no matter what. But I was stung by what I perceived as her betrayal and I said cruel, stupid, unmeant things that buzzed in the charged air between us like a cloud of hornets.
That was the last time I had seen her. She moved back to the UK the next week—and disappeared, along with the entire population of that country.
My husband’s voice. I winced. Nick does not often address me when I am in the niddah. It is considered bad form, and he is a stickler for propriety. When we met, I often joked that he was more British than me, even though he was born in Outer Richmond, a suburb of San Francisco, while my birth certificate said London. But the faint traces of my British accent had dissipated long ago, and nowadays I never brought up the subject of my foreign birth. There was a stigma attached to your origin in the graveyard of the world.
“What?” I stood, stretching my stiff muscles. We have a big house, so there was no need to make my niddah shelter so cramped. It was bad enough that it had to be windowless. But there were unspoken assumptions about how comfortable—or rather, uncomfortable—a woman had to be made during her dangerous time of impurity. And did I say Nick was a stickler for rules, especially unwritten ones?
“The police are here.”
“They want to see you.”
“What?!” It felt like I’d been punched in the face. I grabbed the edge of my narrow cot to steady myself. “They can’t! I’m …”
“I know what you are!” Nick growled from behind the locked door—the door that was always locked for five days every month and to which only he had the key. “But it is urgent. Put on your restraint!”
The golden era of global health was shattered by COVID-19. There had been epidemics before, of course, but since they had all taken place in the Third World, they did not disturb the placid assumption of the developed countries that the Danse Macabre of ages past had been stopped for good. Then the coronavirus had opened the door and ancient nightmares came pouring in. Even though a vaccine was soon mass-produced, the complacency was gone, never to return. There were some years of fragile and uncertain calm before the Kashmir ebolavirus. Before MHF, and my mother’s disappearance. That was when I went to college, majoring in Art History but eyeing law school. Women could be lawyers at the time. Now, paradoxically, my formerly useless Art History degree brought in a trickle of income as I taught online courses to bored, secluded housewives.
I turned off my computer and stood in the dimly lit room, blinking like an owl about to venture into daylight. It was strange how quickly we adapted to the new conditions. Viruses are better teachers than Sunday schools or madrasas. What countless generations of misogyny could not accomplish, a pandemic did. I, who used to wear skinny jeans and a tank top everywhere, was now feverishly pulling on my veil, my arms snagging on the rough fabric.
The sack-like garment covered everything, but my face, pale and unwashed, remained exposed. It was like an inversion of one of my fondest memories. During COVID-19, people had to wear face masks. Every time we went out, my mother would put on her designer red mask and hand me an identical smaller one. She would kneel by my side and we would look together in the mirror: a woman and a girl, our red-veiled faces clustered together like a flower and a bud. It made me feel secure, that mask.
No mask could protect against Mutational Hemorrhaging Fever.
Nick knocked again, and I realized I did not have time to apply makeup. How long before they insisted that we should cover our faces, too, like the pious women had done in India and the Middle East for ages? I had seen those pictures in my studies: burkas, abayas, chadors … Only eyes were showing and sometimes even they were shadowed by a net or a fold of gauze. To preserve female purity and chastity, they said. Women still covered up the old-fashioned way in Saudi Arabia—what was left of it.
I tugged down the black fabric that fell down onto my sneakers and grasping the ties, managed to manacle my own wrists. Some women also hobbled their ankles, but I refused to do so, much to Nick’s displeasure. Speaking of which, I heard his impatient tapping on the door once again.
“Ready!” I yelled and the door opened.
I emerged into the crystalline light of Californian summer. Sitting in niddah, your time-sense is scrambled. Even though I knew it was 3PM, the glorious sunshine streaming through our glass wall caught me by surprise. My eyes watered, as I tried to make out the figures in the living room. They kept their distance from me, nobody more so than Nick who was standing by the open front door as if ready to bolt at the first inkling of danger. Ridiculous, of course: you could not outrun a virus. But I focused on the two people standing slightly closer. A man in a suit and a covered woman. She was not wearing her restraints—those were only for those few, like me, who, for whatever reason, had to break their niddah. But the veil had become compulsory for all females, even though there was no real reason for it.
The woman was older than me, with strong features and a dark complexion. In times past, we would call her East Asian. Now Asia was as remote as Mars.
I stood by the open door to my niddah quarters, feeling mildly agoraphobic. I saw that the man’s hand was resting on his gun. There had been cases of women killed by vigilantes on the mere suspicion of being impure.
“Gemma Drennan?” the woman asked.
“That’s my maiden name. I’m Gemma Russell now.”
“Was your mother Nina Drennan?”
“Yes. What is this all about?”
“Your mother is alive,” the woman said.
MHF … A dry scientific nomenclature trying—and failing—to dispel the horror. They had more imagination in the Middle Ages, not afraid to call plagues by their proper names: the Black Death, St. Vitus Dance … There had been some spooky labels circulating on social media at the beginning when the pandemic appeared to be just another flash-in-the-pan scare, jangling the planet’s frayed nerves. The Scarlet Plague, the Bleeding Contagion, even the New Ebola. Only that last one had even a smidgeon of scientific validity. The virus that caused it was a mutation of the Ebola virus. Unfortunately, while the traditional Ebola had a vaccine, there was none for the Kashmir ebolavirus that caused MHF.
The first reports of a strange affliction coming from India were met with a heightened sense of foreboding—the aftereffects of COVD-19. But the reports were so bizarre that it took the medical community, still reeling from the coronavirus, a lot of time to figure out what was really going on. And when they did, it was too late.
MHF began with fever, fatigue, muscle ache: the generic symptoms of just about any disease. What happened next, however, was unique. Some people recovered. Some died of internal bleeding or raging fever that could not be brought down.
And some—very specifically—changed. The Danse Macabre coming back with a vengeance.
“What do you mean, my mother is alive?” I asked stupidly.
“We received an email from her,” the woman said. “Addressed to USCIS. Asking that her American citizenship be reinstated, and she be issued a new passport.”
United States Citizenship and Immigration Service. I was sure the agency had been disbanded. It was not like they had anything to do.
“But my mother was in London!”
“The email was sent from the American Embassy in London. What used to be the American Embassy.”
MHF is spread by exposure to blood. The virus is in everybody by now. I had seen it swimming in my own blood—a spiky sphere like a miniature hedgehog. But it is dormant. It does nothing.
However, if exposed to even a small amount of someone else’s fresh blood, whether via a scratch, transfusion, or absorbed through the skin, it wakes up. It takes you over. And then you are either burning in fever, go into a coma, recover—or …
Of course, the social consequences of that are incalculable. Crash victims are left to bleed on the pavement or dispatched with a sniper’s bullet through the head—authorized by an act of Congress empowering sheriffs and cops to perform sanitary triage. Children are restrained to prevent them from scratching or injuring themselves until they are old enough to be shown videos of Dancers. Training by trauma. Transfusions are outlawed and so are most surgeries. Childbirth is attended by midwives in full protective gear who are either suicidal or saintly. And menstruating women are put in seclusion, away from their partners and families. The ancient tradition of niddah, a menstruating hut, has been resurrected.
The East Asian woman’s name was Radha. She and I sat together at the kitchen table while the men—Nick and her partner—hovered uneasily in the background. It was not that women were less deadly to each other than we were to men. A drop of my blood on Radha and she would join the damned. But women trusted each other. And men no longer trusted us—if they ever did.
She showed me a printout of the email. It was an ordinary request for the reissue of a passport. It was as ancient and brittle in my hands as an object from the Titanic.
“Did you try to contact the Embassy?”
Satellite pictures of London showed squares being reclaimed by weeds and Regent Park drowning in vines. The Thames flowed clear. There was movement in the countryside, but nobody was sure what it signified. All transatlantic flights and most domestic flights were grounded: too much danger of an accidental injury in a confined space where droplets of blood could travel from one passenger to another. MHF had neither cure nor vaccine.
“But there must be electricity in the Embassy if the computers are running! Wi-Fi, servers …”
Radha shook her head.
“The email was not sent from there. We traced it. It was rerouted several times, sent from a private computer in Felton.”
The name sounded familiar, but I could not place it. And suddenly it clicked.
Felton was a tiny town in the Santa Cruz Mountains, twenty miles away.
“Are you saying …?”
“Yes, Gemma. Your mother is here.”
The emergence from niddah involved humiliating tests to prove to your partner and the medical authorities online that you were no longer polluted. Normally I resented the tests. This time I went through the whole rigmarole absentmindedly, thinking of what Radha had said in that first meeting.
After the MHF’s massive and simultaneous global outbreak, after the grounding of all flights, and the internet being flooded with terrible videos of Dancers, I desperately tried to reach my mother. My father had moved to a small town in Indiana that later became known as the Scarlet Ballroom. I knew he was dead, and it was a sort of detached comfort to me; we had never been close but at least I could bury him in my mind by delegating him to the precious memories of childhood. My mother, on the other hand … I kept waking up at night and talking to her: apologizing, explaining, justifying myself. She did not know what was happening to me. She did not know I had married Nick after her disappearance. She had never met him. We had been dating for a couple of months when he proposed during the height of the pandemic. At the time, I saw it as proof of his devotion—he was willing to expose himself to the danger of blood contagion for my sake. Later I realized he had simply been prescient. The strict marriage rules of traditional societies that we, Westerners, had scoffed at for so long came into fashion as the dating scene dried up and Tinder went out of business. You could control and monitor your wife in a way you could not control and monitor a stranger.
“How did she come back?” I had asked Radha. “Are there flights between the US and Europe?”
“Actually, yes. Military, commercial, cargo. Life goes on.”
“If you call it a life,” I muttered.
Radha shrugged. There were dark circles under her dark eyes that made them appear larger. I noticed that she had applied some thick eyeliner and mauve lipstick. I liked it.
“Anyway,” she continued, “these flights are strictly monitored. Your mother did not arrive on any of them.”
“So, either she slipped on the last passenger flight from Heathrow under an assumed name and has been living here ever since, or there are some unauthorized, unknown flights that have kept going. In any case, we need to find out.”
“You are not really the police, are you?” I asked.
“What does it matter?”
“I want to know what law enforcement agency still employs women.”
Radha smiled. Her teeth were a little too big, a smidgeon of lipstick on their whiteness.
My mother put on her makeup every day before going to the university, even when she was not teaching, only working in the lab. She taught me that beauty is a matter of self-respect.
Nick told me I was a good cook. He told me I would be a good mother. He never told me I was beautiful.
Recently he had started talking about family purity. He hinted that a face veil would be a great idea. I scoffed; he sulked.
He and Radha’s unnamed partner were sitting in the kitchen and drinking beer. Nick did not offer us any.
“But why to write a letter to USCIS? This is ridiculous.”
“Not unless she wanted to get in touch with you and didn’t know how.”
I frowned. This made sense. My mother did not know my marriage name. She did not know where I lived. There were still ways to find out such things but only if one was a real computer pro—an increasingly rare breed in these days of the dwindling and fragmented internet. My mother had been a biology professor; her knowledge of computers was no better than mine.
“OK, you found me. Now what?”
“We want you to meet her.”
“Wearing a wire?” Recently I had become addicted to pre-pandemic thrillers. Their quaint plots of free-wheeling assassins, plane-hopping around the world, gave me a nostalgic thrill. Some of those assassins were female.
“Something like that.”
“But why? If you know she is in Felton, why don’t you just bring her out?”
“We don’t know where she is. We hope she’ll come out of hiding to meet you.”
The protective suit I wore was incredibly awkward. I looked like a Michelin Man with a face shield.
Nick pointedly refused to see me off when the sleek, black car pulled into our driveway. He had threatened to prevent me from going, only to find out that he had no legal power to do so. Laws lagged behind the growing societal support of the purdah and the gynaeceum, so the pre-pandemic laws still gave legal autonomy to married women.
Radha was in the back seat of the car, driven by a glum-faced man who brought down the plexiglass partition the moment I stepped inside. I looked back at our large, glass-walled home, searching out the bricked-up window in the back—the window of my niddah room.
I fidgeted, trying to find comfort inside a suit whose rough seams chafed my inner thighs. The tiny recorder had been so cleverly concealed that even I did not know exactly where it was.
“How many are there?” I asked.
“About a hundred.”
“All immune?” I asked incredulously. Some people were immune to MHF, but they were rare. Scientists still could not identify genetic markers for immunity. To have a whole colony of them would be astonishing.
Radha did not respond, staring fixedly ahead. I persisted.
“If my mother is immune, maybe I’m immune too.”
The driver must have heard our conversation despite the plexiglass. He snorted.
Then it all clicked. The pieces of the puzzle shifted in my brain and suddenly everything became different—and dangerously clear.
“They are not immune,” I said slowly. “They are Dancers. Felton is a Ballroom.”
Such a fanciful name! But seals have their rookeries and gulls their colonies. Why not a ballroom?
“How is my mother surviving there?”
“This is what we want you to find out.”
A suicide mission, in other words.
I jiggled the door handle. The door was locked, of course.
I lowered my hand and sat up as straight as the suit allowed. The pieces kept shifting in my brain, the skeins of knowledge and understanding, straightening out despite being constantly tangled by fear of the disease. Nick. Theniddah room. The blinking screen of my computer, channels of information drying up, my life narrowing to a vanishing dot …
“I will find her,” I said.
Something red flashed ahead, a gleam of scarlet disappearing into the woods so quickly that I could make out nothing. The driver swore and hit the brakes so hard that the car fishtailed, and Radha and I were thrown against our seatbelts.
“That’s it!” the driver yelled. “I’m not going any further!”
Radha told him we needed to be closer.
“I’m not taking orders from bleeders!” he snarled.
“I will walk from here,” I said.
The driver reluctantly unlocked the door. I pushed it open and clambered out.
Radha put a gun in my hand.
“You might need it,” she said.
The driver snorted again but said nothing.
“Thank you,” I told Radha.
She leaned close and whispered something so shocking that I was left wondering whether I had heard her correctly. As I walked along the grassy verge, heading into town, I still wondered.
When I was seven, I wandered into my mother’s office. At first, I did not see her. The computer was blinking on the desk but her ergonomic chair was empty.
She was curled on the floor, a pile of yellowing paperbacks in front of her. The smell of paper dust mingled with her Vetiver perfume. She beckoned to me without lifting her face from the disintegrating book she was reading. On the book’s cover, a snarling, poorly drawn dinosaur stomped a car.
“A kaiju,” she said. “Do you want me to read it to you?”
I made a face. I was not crazy about giant monsters. My father often made fun of the fact that my mother was a nerd, cramming her bookcases with old sci-fi paperbacks, dog-eared pages spreading the musty odor of old adventures, while I was partial to Disney princesses. We disregarded his jokes, and eventually he stopped making them.
“Mum,” I said, “I want to study ballet.”
Putting her paperback aside, she stood up in one graceful, fluid motion, her swanky blue dress, the color of her eyes, creased from sitting on the floor. She stretched her arms to me.
“I wanted to be a dancer too,” she said. “But I was too tall. So, I became a biologist instead.”
I cuddled up to her. She did not feel too tall to me—just right.
“Can I be a dancer?”
“You can be whatever you want, Gemma.”
Now, twenty years later, it sounded like a curse.
Only women become Dancers.
Men get sick, infected by blood. They burn with fever, they recover, or they die. Women get sick, infected by blood. They burn with fever, they recover, some of them die. And some … change.
The redwoods’ feathered tops swayed gently in the cloudless sky. A bird chirped in the undergrowth. It was so peaceful that I stopped thinking about my mother, Nick, Radha’s words. I was just enjoying a walk. It had been a long time since I had hiked or even walked on my own. Solitary women, even fully veiled, were often attacked.
The protective suit was heavy and uncomfortable. Leaning against a tree trunk, I unzipped the suit and stepped out. I was wearing a T-shirt and leggings underneath and for a moment I stood there, enjoying the warm caress of the verdant air on my face and arms. I left the suit behind, but I took Radha’s gun.
When I turned around, a Dancer watched me no more than fifteen feet away.
The Kashmir ebolavirus rewires your DNA. All viruses do that but none other so radically. The end result, should the infected woman survive, is something inhuman.
The stick figure danced toward me on clawed feet. It resembled a giant praying mantis, a seven-foot-tall skeleton covered with incarnadine leathery skin. A Day of the Dead reveler bearing a skull-like mask marked by scarlet swirls. It was every nightmare that made you cry for mommy when you were a child.
The Dancer was mercury-swift and dragonfly-graceful as it navigated the forest floor, the long, thorny spurs on its back-bent ankles jutting and quivering. My mother, a biologist, would have been fascinated by its strange anatomy—the tapering thorax ending in the sexless bulge of a narrow abdomen, the still-human teeth set in a lipless mouth, the unnervingly mammalian eyes protruding from the bony, lidless sockets. She would have studied how the creature fed; followed the knots of its stringy musculature; puzzled over its strangely articulated bones. Perhaps she would have been able to answer the question that still baffled scientists: why did Dancers attack? Normally they kept away from people. Even though they were not supposed to retain any trace of human intelligence, they were wary of men with guns. But, occasionally, they would congregate in giant flocks and run through towns and cities, biting and scratching, spreading the infection through their diseased blood.
Maybe my mother did know; she was here, after all, and she was immune. I would ask her if I survived this encounter. Meanwhile, I was spellbound by the creature: the graceful fluidity of its movement; the many hues of scarlet, red, and crimson that dappled its hide; the white teeth in the skull-like face. It was as beautiful as it was abhorrent.
I drew my gun. The Dancer moved closer.
Radha’s words rang in my ears.
I slipped the gun in my waistband and lifted my hands, palms up.
The consensus was that the extreme physical modifications induced by MHF damaged the brain, rendering Dancers mindless. Scientists claimed that Dancers’ reactions were as reflexive as the contractions of a severed lizard tail.
The Dancer stopped, its head swaying hypnotically. Its forelimbs were no longer remotely human. Scissor-like with ragged edges, folded like the forelimbs of a praying mantis, they looked unsuitable for any activity I could imagine. But then I realized that what I took for sawtooth protrusions were actually folded fingers distributed in clumps along the entire length of the forearm. So, they could manipulate objects, after all. I felt inordinately pleased with myself for figuring out a tiny piece of the Dancer’s biological puzzle. My mother would be proud.
The Dancer suddenly darted into a stand of tan oaks and disappeared within their dappled shade. I stood, shaking, before finally moving on.
Finding my way into Felton was not hard. I followed Route 17 along the verge of the woods. Soon enough, I found the abandoned gas station, pipes snaking on the splintered pavement. Clumps of weeds pushed through the cracks. Beyond it was Felton’s downtown: a couple of mom-and-pop grocery stores, a tiny antiques mall, a church, and a café decorated with an inexpertly painted mural of a cluster of hands reaching up from the ground and the inscription “Together we rise” which struck me as unintentionally ominous. The stores were locked and shuttered. A dusty Ford Corolla rested in the middle of the sidewalk.
It was tranquil. I lifted my face to the sun, luxuriating in its warmth. The fear drained out of me like the blood I shed in my niddah.
I started down the street, trying to figure out where my mother could possibly be hiding. Probably not downtown. I knew there were secluded homes among the redwoods—Felton had been famous for its streak of surly independence. On the other hand, if she had deliberately sent the email to bring me here, surely, she would hang around.
A torrent of red, glistening bodies burst into the street. Their insectoid arms flailing, whipping around; their clawed feet drumming on the pavement; their heads bobbing on skinny necks, teeth bared, skeletal masks thrust forward … It was not a dance but a stampede, an unstoppable wild charge, a frenzy. They would have trampled me, bitten me to pieces. I was too shocked to move.
Someone grasped a handful of my T-shirt and pulled me through a doorway. I fell onto the floor, gasping. I stood, frantically examining myself for open wounds. Public health requirements had trained us like Pavlovian dogs. I didn’t see any blood, but that didn’t mean I was safe.
I turned to face my savior.
The red leathery mask bobbed above my head.
I could have run away but the rest of them were outside, milling around, darting, pirouetting like a school of fish. Still, I could have pulled my gun, put a bullet in its head. Or, at least, screamed.
I did nothing. I waited as it studied me with its bright blue eyes. Its skin was soft and slightly wrinkled, the texture of human skin despite its lobster coloring.
It turned and went deeper into the house which, I realized, must have been a flower shop. Broken pots littered the floor. In the back, there was an office cubicle with some cabinets and a laptop on a desk. The laptop was plugged in and humming.
The Dancer stooped over the table and bent down, folded itself. It started typing with its distributed fingers.
“Gemma,” the screen said.
My mother had never left the US.
She had given her passport to a friend who, naively, hoped that Europe would be safer. It did not matter; in those days of chaos nobody studied travel documents closely as immigration services collapsed with every other governmental agency. My mother had been staying with another female friend in Felton, unsure what to do. She wanted to be close to me, close to Berkeley where I studied at the time. But she knew how angry I was with her for breaking up what I, in my adolescent egotism, imagined to be our perfect family. So she waited and bided her time.
Her friend had her period. A tiny speck of blood on the washbasin, perhaps.
My mother became sick. Her friend took care of her for a while but when the terrible news took over the internet, she ran away, leaving my mother alone, shivering with bouts of fever that threatened to fry her brain. She survived the fever, the thirst, the shakes, the vomiting. But she was too weak to call 911. And when she managed to crawl out of bed, she had started to change.
“Does it really make you dance?” I asked her.
She nodded—such a human gesture. The spines on her backbone crackled as she leaned forward to type. Her anatomy was not suited for office equipment.
“Yes. It is a side effect,” she typed. “Like St. Vitus Dance. Sydenham’s chorea.”
Neurological damage, in other words.
The Kashmir ebolavirus was not a benevolent intruder. The rewiring probably came with a host of problems I knew nothing about. Not to mention the strong possibility of death.
“Can you talk?” I asked hopefully, even though I knew she would have already if she could. She opened her mouth: her tongue was fused to the roof.
“So … what are you?”
I hoped she would type:
I am superhuman. I am an alien life-form. I will take over and make the Earth into a paradise.
She typed nothing.
She was evolving. They all were, the Dancers. The virus had shaken the evolutionary mechanism loose and rattled the strands of DNA, and made … this. A new species. Some of them were wild. Some of them were sick. Some of them were dying.
And some were becoming. Something new, something different. How could she possibly know what? Ask a tadpole how it feels to be a frog.
The blood that flowed from my mother to me and from her mother to her … all the way back to the primordial ocean. Thalassa, the mother of all living.
In what was left of civilization, men were trying to dam the flow. Building barriers and partitions. Seclusion, separation, quarantine.
I remembered Radha’s words:
They are going to put all women in the niddah. Permanently.
I wondered briefly if it had happened before, in the ancient sands of the Near East or in the Hindus Valley. The practice of seclusion must have come from somewhere.
But what difference did it make? I was here. With my mother.
“Mom …” I said.
She lifted her inhuman limb and I could envision the flesh flowing, rearranging itself. She was a process, not the end result.
She picked up a shard of a broken flowerpot and dragged it along her forearm. A bead formed: red on red, almost invisible.
I touched my finger to it, feeling my mother’s blood flow gently into my veins.