Issue #87

Summer 2023

With the Virion

by NM Whitley

The virion, if I am to describe it, has a grave and pensive air, like a headmaster smoking a pipe. It is a bacteriophage; this much can be ascertained from the large polyhedral form of its head and its base of five spidery legs. What cannot be ascertained is why it is standing here, two-and-some-odd meters tall, at the foot of my bed.

I am unprepared for this confrontation. There is a searing pain in my tonsils, in the delicate bones of my inner ear. An atrocious ache in my hips and shoulders from tossing this way and that. Five whole nights, to and fro in darkness. I roll over, bury my head once more, and pray that this time I might, by some miracle, fall asleep.

The sun is only just now going down. Another night of eternal torment awaits.

The virion is a patient bastard. It keeps a silent vigil over my writhing and moaning. Dawn comes and still I have not slept. And there it remains. Some filaments on its surface dance like waving flags. Others plume and disappear, like the solar flares that are seen to swell and fall on the surface of a star. Its voice arises through no visible orifice.

"Herr Finance Minister," it says.

I call out to Margaret. Where can she be? And the girls, are they safe? On the nightstand lies my retainer, the plastic likeness of my palate, rigid and pink and wrinkled. I grab it and hurl it at the virion. Harmlessly, it ricochets to the floor.

"Please be reasonable," the virion says. "We merely wish to reach an agreement, Herr Finance Minister."

The virion insists on this form of address, even though it's been years since I stepped down from that post and withdrew to the private sector. The virion's five little appendages make a ruffling movement, analogous to one human leg crossing over the other. I imagine it relighting its pipe.

When I look down, there is a contract on my lap.

"I will grant this has been a profitable year for your firm," says the virion, "what with the cutback on surplus expenditures of twelve million Deutschmarks, and the refund of three and three quarters million from the Swiss branch, and so on. This much is quite clear. Very profitable indeed. But it should also be quite clear, should it not, that on the opposite side of the bargaining table, you are confronted with the most abundant biological entities on land or sea or air. By conservative estimates, we number in the hundreds of nonillions, Herr Finance Minister. There are more of us than of all other living things combined. We already dominate the world."

These figures hurt my head, even more than it already hurts. I blow my nose. Giant blots of what looks like raspberry jam stain my kleenex.

I collect myself, assume a façade of seriousness commensurate with the moment. I take the contract up, foolhardy, as if I were in any shape to read. A few moments of pointless squinting later, I bounce the pages together to align the corners and lay the contract aside.

"I will have my legal team look at it," I say—a desperate final ploy.

"Herr Finance Minister," the virion says solicitously. "Yours is not a viable bargaining position. Please believe me. We are already being very generous. This is the very best that you can do."

"What is it you want?" I ask.

"We ask nothing but your assent, sir. Confirmation that you have witnessed the universe—no, the world—no, the miniscule corner of the world to which you have access —that you have assessed its current conditions and expressed your personal conformity with it continuing as is."

This is it, the virion would have me believe. All I may aspire to. This, and not the pain in my throat and ears and in my joints, is the cause behind my blighted, sleepless nights. The simple fact that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds, that there are no worlds that are possible. Only the world that is, to be changed or rearranged or perverted or disgraced, but always this one, always here. Need I merely to rubber-stamp my approval of this filthy, unjust world? This hellhole I helped devise? Could that be my shameful fast-track to salvation? I can feel my poker face slipping, such as it is—my drooping, pustule-covered face, skeletally scooped out around the eye region. It would be clear to even the most human and fallible of interlocutors, and more so to the massive bacteriophage before me: I would sell my soul, the entire kingdom, both my daughters into slavery, in exchange for a single night's slumber.

"Margaret!" I scream.

I cannot help myself. I am crying, the dry tears of the dehydrated. I scrawl some simulacrum of my initials in the space provided, and the contract disappears—it is as if the tip of my pen were the head of a match, setting it alight and burning it like flash paper, one instantaneous poof!

The virion recedes, the corners of the room recede. Everything outward.

In the morning sky there blows a cool breeze, and a flapping of flags, and the hush of plasma on some distant sun, sounds that soothe and coat my inner ears, my eustachian tubes, the backmost reaches of my throat. I find no peace in this surrender, and yet my body falls slack and still, and I sleep. For what might as well be eons, I will sleep.

Author Bio


NM Whitley is a writer, teacher and translator based in Barcelona. His work has appeared in venues such as Seize the Press, The Barcelona Review, and Ideomancer, among others. Go to for more.