Sean Sam, excerpt from
"Figure Balancing Over Rushing Water"

It’s the bat. Has to be. Always a reservoir of death. Ebola, Marburg, SARS—the most lethal contagions wait in its blood.

The bat’s speed deceives the eye. If you spot one in the dark, it may become many metaphors. One might see a plague doctor, cocooned in an overcoat, using his cane like a witch’s broomstick, the beak of his mask guiding him. Squint and the shape might become a body bag—full, floating. So, it’s easy to claim: This is the reason we live as fugitives.

Near my childhood neighborhood, the edge of a yard ended suddenly, and a wall of trees began to tumble downward. The woods rolled on for an unknown distance, far enough that it was difficult to see the white house, surrounded by silver maples, painted in the green on the opposite side.

An adult could have driven around the problem. As a child, I only saw mystery—metaphor’s precursor. Inside the half-hidden, white house, something dreamlike and romantic sat waiting. I was sure.

No one knows when they first appeared. Viruses scarcely leave a trace of themselves outside their hosts. However, we’ve learned how to approximate their age through their genetic shadows.

Sometimes, after a virus finishes hijacking the machinery inside our cells, not all of it exits. The genome of the virus assimilates within our bodies like a memory.

Scientists can examine those markers in two animals. If they find that both organisms possess the same viral DNA sequence, then it began in a common ancestor, often one that existed millions of years ago, a living fossil shapeshifting through time.

If you’re thinking I’ll tell you that I went up to the white house, that maybe an angry neighbor emerged and yelled at me, that I had my romantic illusions shattered and I grew up, nothing of the sort happened.

What I remember is the river and the ladder.




From The Malahat Review's summer issue #215