a Gram-negative romance 

(in six chapters)


    It was a dull day, and very little to look forward to tomorrow.  The snow from the last blizzard was taking its time to clear off, and the sky was gray and otherwise formless.
    I didn't need a boyfriend: the last three boyfriends I'd had were washouts. I couldn't keep a cat – the apartment's lease prohibited them. “Fish, birds...” my landlady said. “But no cats...they're sneaky.” I'm middle-aged, no kids, work for Wyvern University Library. You'd hardly know I was there, though, unless you need something from the Stacks. Then, you'd probably see me walk up to the desk, drop off your book, and go back through the Employees Only door. It's calm, steady work, and just the kind of thing for people who have a high IQ and a rich inner life: it keeps me in a crappy apartment, eating the very finest of budget cuisine, and buying books now and then, which took me to the University Bookstore.
    Feeling somewhat lonesome, I decided to buy a stuffed animal, and plunged my hand into a bin of marked-down Valentine's/Easter specials. Something kept butting my hand at the bottom of the bin.
    Pulling it out from the bottom of the pile, I found a strange creature, looking very much like a large black bean with fur similar to that of a Siamese cat. Further, he had large bright blue eyes. “No?” he said, in a puppetlike voice. “Um, don't have any cuts do you? Open sores?”
    “I'm sorry, but I'm not into that kind of relationship. Not with strangers, at least. But who are you?”
    “Um, I'm Yersinia pestis, the Bubonic Plague, the Black Death! Fear me!” He looked at me with the ferocity of a hostile kitten.
    I remained unfazed.
    “Can't I infect you – just a little?”
    “Please – I wouldn't eat...much.” He looked sad.
    “If I let you in, you'd get fat and split in two. And soon there'd be a lot of you, but no me.”   
    He thought this over for a bit. “I would not get fat. I like you.”
    “That is, if you're lucky. I'm resistant.”
    “Resistant?” This seemed to worry him. “So, I can't drink any of you? I'm hungry.”
    “No. My white blood cells wouldn't like you. You'd get eaten.”
    “Eaten?” He was genuinely worried now, blending into scared. “What if I could make them like me? I could ride around inside you, and see the world!” He brightened, though he still looked desperate. “Then, I could figure out how to be useful, and I could be a commensal, or even a symbiote!”
    “Well, I might catch a a sore throat, and take tetracycline. You'd be poisoned.”
    “Poisoned? Eaten?” It- he shivered. “Tell me that you'll never do any of these terrible things. Please?” He rolled on his back. “Pretty please?”
    “What if I take you home and you sleep on my bed during the day? Then, at night, I could keep you warm and we could talk.”
    “But I wanted to go out and see the world! It's boring living in a dirty old flea! On a rat! And I'm hungry!”
    “Well, right now you can have a ride in my briefcase. It's safe, and you can poke your...head out and take a look around.”

    “Are you sure you're going to be OK?”  It was two hours later.
    “I've never eaten tomato soup before. Is this like people?”
    “I can remember it's been used as a substitute for agar, which is what people feed microbes. It also has milk, which has fat in it from an animal. What I mean is, is this going to mess up your fur?”
“I stayed clean inside a cargo hold. Now lower me in. I'm hungry.”

    We were at the Sandwich Box, where one (and with luck, two) of us was eating lunch. Truthfully, I couldn't figure out what a 10^6 magnified bacillus ate – it had no mouth, rear end, or for that matter, any features whatsoever other than large blue eyes and fur. It could move – slightly, and a little faster than a snail, by shimmying its fur like a bristlebot. No indication how he could have eyes, a knowledge of English, or a charming voice.

    The clerk had charged me $10 for him...a bit stiff, I thought, for his size, and he'd obligingly stayed limp all through the operation. Aside of the fur, he felt like a water balloon full of jelly.
    He was, however, somewhat forthcoming in biography. Scion of a rather dull colony in the stomach of an Asian rat flea, he'd spent a rather dull formative period until he'd found himself inside a rat. It was then that he'd conceived of the plan to emigrate to a higher life-form.  “I love humans.” he said somewhat mistily, turning over in his tomato soup.  “They're...I just can't say enough about them. You're so big, so clever...and you smell wonderful...”
    “So why are you – or at least your relatives – so intent on killing us all?”
    “We're not. Or at least I'm not. I'm just trying to get by. Most of us don't even like humans. They like squirrel blood, and other animals.”
    “And you kill those, too.”
    “Not all the time. Most of us live really dull lives, inside our little fleas, eating whatever comes through...bits of squirrel and rat, mostly.... getting fat, dividing...Just minding our own business. It's bad if the flea dies, because then we all die, unless we can move to the squirrel. Fleas don't live long.  Now, if I could move to a human...”
    “Humans don't live very long, either. Not with you around.”
    “That's true, but I wish it weren't that way...we could get along...if only we were commmensal.”    
    “What's that?”
    “Let's say that we had all kinds of food to eat. Rat, soup...all kinds. Now say I like rat and you like soup. If we just ate what we liked, there'd be enough for both of us. That's being a commensal.”
    “But what if I'm paying for both the rats and the soup? Or you were riding around on me and eating me eating soup?”
    “That's a parasite. But what if I helped you get these things? That's symbiosis. That's what I want to do.”
    “I can't see how.”
    “Maybe we can both figure it out.”

    And that's how I came to have the Plague.


Chapter 2 – Getting to Know You


I took him home. At first, I let him sleep on my bed during the day – but he got thirsty easily, so I took to putting wet rags over him. Then the chlorine made him uncomfortable, so I used spring water. It also turned out that agar wasn't the best thing to feed a giant microbe, since agar was used to slow down microbes enough to make them visible. Since Y. was already quite visible, the problem wasn't slowing him down, it was getting enough nutrient into his skin. The Internet was not forthcoming on the subject of pet bacteria, only bacteria on pets, which was not at all the same thing.

“So, does he hate himself for doing what he did? Or is this just a case of 'This is how God made me'?” I was talking to James, a friend at work. He was a militant conservative Christian, 'for cultural reasons', which included being a Creationist.
“Well, actually, this is evolution in action. I mean, I'm only immune because I'm a kind of mutant. Lord knows what his story is. He wants to be a symbiote – about the best he's gotten is benign parasite.”
“It's disgusting. Listen, he traveled on a flea – “
“Inside a flea.”
“On a rat, in a cargo container. Doesn't that tell you anything? He killed a lot of people –”
“Not personally. Besides, if he infects someone, he divides, and no more Y-the-individual. Instead, there are another two Y's that are – not him. Most Y's are simple, dull bacteria that live completely boring lives far away from anyone. They live on marmots, for Pete's sake – all you can say is that he had some ancestors that killed some people – “
“A lot of people – “
“Which is about what you can say about anyone's ancestors.”
“At least mine were human.”
“Some of them. We are related, you know.”
“Not to you.”

I'd gotten back a response from BioPunk. Mostly, they were interested to know exactly what I'd captured. Apparently, the field of microbiology wasn't quite as complete as I'd hoped: all I could say is to hint that it was rod-shaped, with hair, dark in color, and off a flea found in a shipment of stuffed animals from China. Oh, yes, it was also very large. Finally, I got a tweet from someone named #simak:

@simak: it wouldn't be something like a plague bacteria, would it?
@catlvr: Um, maybe.
@simak: Care to have coffee at the Sandwich Box?


Dr. Simak was a nice guy, about my age.
“Well, it's possible you may have gotten a harmless mutant, or perhaps a variant.” He began to sketch on a napkin. “Bacterial chromosomes are interesting since they only have one, joined to its end to form a circle. But Yersiniae are especially interesting, because they can scavenge chromosomes from other bacteria, and therefore may be altogether individual...How large did you say this specimen was?”
I brought Yersinia out of my briefcase.
“Are you sure it's unicellular?” he asked. “It has eyes...”
“I'm not sure exactly what it is.”
Yersinia shimmied across the table, and looked curiously at Dr. Simak.
“...and it's clearly intelligent. It also moves. Yersinia pestis is not motile.”
Y looked distinctly annoyed.
“So what is it, then?”
“I don't really know. If we could take a sample...”
“I don't think so.” Y said. Dr. Simic's restraint was admirable.
“The question is, can I keep it in my apartment? And what can I feed him? He kind of likes tomato soup, but I'm worried it might be too acid.”
“Have you tried spirulina? He would seem to need a lot of iron. And broth...ever make homemade stock?”
“I love to cook.”
“Well, here's a few websites, but he really belongs in a lab...”


Chapter 3- Doin' the Unicellular Bop

Soon, my kitchen was beginning to look like the lab of a benign Frankenstein. Spirulina tanks covered the available counterspace, bubbling happily. Y's home tank was in a spot that got just enough Sun, and we always had dinner together, before we both went to bed.

And I found he could dance! Somewhen I was bathing him, the radio began to play a set of vintage Clapton. I started to boogie in place, and he began to shake, and –
We danced through “I Feel Free” and “SWABR” with him zooming around the tank with his cilia, with shouts of “Unicellular Bop!” and “Trans-Eukaryote Love!” from both of us. We listened in awe to “Tales of Brave Ulysses” and made plans to go to the beach.
“An ocean of unchlorinated water!” I said.
“Maybe I could pick up some one of those wild aquatic bacteria. I heard about them in the cargo hold.”
“I thought you were asexual.”
“All life seeks company, now and then. When you're in bed, I'll tell you a story.”


“Once upon a time, the Earth was new, and the land was an unknown country. The sea, however, was warm and shallow, and all the Small Kind, lived in peace, in a huge colony, floating on the water, which was as luscious as soup. There were all kinds – light-sensors, who could see the beautiful sky, and motiles, who scouted the Earthsea and helped move the colony towards new sources of food, and even more wondrous beings, living on the waters...There was so much more sunshine back then, and ever so many more stars in the sky, and we lived happily, in joy at the new Earth and the Sky from which all good things came.”

“You can't say you could think!” I said

“Oh, with enough of us, we could. We were as smart as you are, but we didn't make things, because we had everything we wanted. But one day, a volcano threw a rock in the middle of all of us. “


“It took a long time for us to get together again, and a longer time to get back to our usual numbers. But things were never quite the same. The new Small Folk were different, and had met Old Ones in the mud...Old Ones who didn't breathe regular air...they were creepy...and there were others, too...They didn't even recognize us anymore...”

“The Tower of Babel.”

“What was that?”

“Oh, it's an old story. Not as old as yours, though. Go on.”

“There were things that weren't even properly alive, that fed on the Small folks, bending them to their will...poisons...” He shivered. “Some of us banded together...Some tried to fight them on their own...And then, some decided to join the Big Folk.”


“Big, multicellular...?”

“Oh, not nearly so big. But...big.” His voice became dreamy again. “They became...part of the Big Folk. One creature, sharing...yet still creatures together. But it wasn't the same.”

“Not big enough?”

“It wasn't like the Colony. But you are. You're big and wonderful and you can do things the Colony could never do!” His eyes shone. “You have bones, you have hands, and you can move around fast.”

“So why do you hate us so?”

“Well, we're not used to you. We're from way out in Siberia, where it's cold, and there's barely enough to eat for squirrels, or fleas, or even us. Squirrel blood is very thin, and human fluid is very, very rich and smells heavenly.” He sighed. “It's just too much. We never knew that the world could be warm and rich again, and we're just...we get...greedy? Is that a good word?”

“Yeah. Greedy. People are like that, too.”


“Poor people are always the fattest, when they get enough to eat.”

“But you...there's never going to be an end to your good soup.”

“Not as long as we're both together.”

“Can you try it with pig bones next? Pig smells nice. I'd like to try some.”

“My next pig bone goes in your soup.”

“Someday I hope all life will live at peace. One life, one planet.”

“Good night, Yersinia. I love you.”

“I love you, too. Good-night.”

Chapter 4 – Some problems...



“Yersinia? He couldn't say boo to a goose. He's got the feelings of a three-month-old child: everyone's his friend, he startles easily, he frets when I don't change his water or I'm late with a feeding...He's amazed if I take him out to see the cherry trees in bloom, and gets mixed up when he watches cartoons.” I told James.

“Still, I'd wonder. Ever since you got that scratch on your side...You look like hell.”


It was true. I'd been feeling run down the last couple of days, ever since I'd fallen against a shelf, though I couldn't tell why.

I went home, changed the water in Y's tank, put on some dinner, gave Y a quick rub, and started eating. In order to give Y some intellectual stimulation, I'd taken to keeping the radio or TV on (to mostly innocuous material – why disillusion him too soon?) but over dinner, I found myself answering such questions as “Why does Phineus have a head like a triangle?”, questions that soon had me all over laughing.

Tonight, though, I ignored him until he butted my hand. “Later, Y. I'm tired.”

“Be sure to rinse well after your bath.”


Soap. That's what this was all about – the place was getting, not messy, but certainly kind of grungy. Nothing awful – it wasn't dirty in the sense of visible grime, or dust, but it didn't quite smell like an antiseptic, artificially flowery 21st century apartment. Instead, it smelled like pickles, or cheese – there was something not quite right there.


Sleep, however, was not an easy thing. I kept feeling like turning over. And when I did sleep, I kept getting crazy dreams.


The Lymphocyte had on mirrored shades, and moved slowly from side to side, like a cop trying to subtly underline the fact that he was the one with testicles to a woman driver.

“We've been told you've been harassed by certain – undesirables.”

“Um, I don't remember any – I'm cool.”

“Well, just remember, we're on your side. We did a really bang-up job during your cystitis, I can recall....and that bum tooth...lost a few on that one....and during your recent surgery. Many a brave cell died in that fight...and yet I'm glad I got to see it...


“And remember, our biggest project yet: CCR5-δ32. Keeping you safe through repeated, and I say repeated exposures to the HIV virus, we intend to keep you safe.” He banged at his chest, which rang with armor.

I woke up.


It was then, I saw him, lying next to the wound. He was sticky. And he looked, as much as a black tubular furry glob could look, satisfied. Satiated, even.

“You – parasite!” I fumed. “I should have bought Lysol. A prescription for tetracycline. A wooden stake for your nonexistent heart!”

“I was just – experimenting.” He looked up at me, frightened for the first time since I met him. “And you smell – “
“Delicious.” I said. “You couldn't help yourself, could you? I smelled delicious, and you just had to have a taste. No telling what you've got yourself – viruses, prions – I should call Hazmat and have the whole place fumigated.“
“I didn't do anything...much. I'm afraid of being eaten, myself, you know.”
“I'm going to have to put you in the tank for good, now.”
“Please don't do that.”
“I'm going to have to...How can I trust you?”
“Please don't.”
“And no television.” I said. “I'm spending enough on electricity keeping all these tanks going.”
I shut the kitchen door.


Chapter 5-A Day in the Park

I didn't sleep too well afterwards, either.

“The truth is, we're perfectly able and within our rights to kill each other pretty much any time we want to.”

“But you'd eat me.”

“Maybe. I don't know whether that white-cell thing actually works. I've never had to use it.”

“I don't want to kill you.” He looked down.

“But sometimes, things happen anyway. What would happen if you divided – maybe not on purpose, but it just happened, maybe without you knowing it? Maybe the two of you would just be ordinary Plague, and kill me, and maybe others too.”

“Please don't don't kill me.” He looked at me.

“I don't want to kill you, either. But we're going to have to come up with some way to live together.” I took the cover off. “OK, you're out of the tank.”


“Sure. But I'm going to put a bandage on my belly. And I wasn't kidding about the electrical bill.”

“I could listen to the radio in the daytime. That would give me more time to practice dancing.”

And so, daffodil-time passed to tulip-time, and then, to iris-time. Yersinia was beginning to change – his fur grew longer and he became thin and serpent-like. “Maybe I might be getting ready to divide.” he said.

“Perhaps.” I said.


Dr. Simak wasn't surprised. “Yersinia is getting older, and there's a chance he might become more aggressive. After all, regular plague is the result when ordinary bacilli are sick, and no longer able to survive normally. I don't want to alarm you unduly, but we may have to...” He looked away. “...put him down.”

We went far to the edge of town on the bus. He needed to be kept wet more often these days, so I wrapped him in a cloth, and we talked about the view out of the window. Then, I put him in the basket. “It's a surprise.” I said.

I walked to the spot where the roses grew. They were warm sunny yellow, little roses, hardly larger than a coin, but abundant on their bushes, and put down my blanket. Aside from a few fruits, the foods I'd chosen were all the work of Small Kind: cheeses, and pate, and pickles and wine. I lay everything out with care and poured a little soup into a large pretty bowl.

I put him in the bowl and took away the cloth.

“Surprise!” I said. “Roses!”

“They're beautiful!” he said.

“They're Siberian roses, very rare, from along the Silk Road, where the marmots live.”

“Ooh! They smell so wonderfully...Let's pretend we're in Siberia, watching the sky...Is the sky in Siberia this blue, I wonder?”

“I'm sure it is.” We lay for a long time, watching the roses against the sky.


“Do the marmots like the roses?”

“I think they eat them. Many fruits are a kind of rose. And the skins of rose pods are fun to eat.”

We both ate some of the picnic.

“I think I hear a caravan coming.” Yersinia said.

“Maybe if we're very quiet, they'll go someplace else.” I said.

“No, we should warn them. Shoo! Go away!”

“ The Plague is here!”

“My brothers are hungry!”

“Go away! Pick another meadow!” I called. We both dissolved into giggles.

“I think we just saved Europe.” I poured myself some more wine.

“What are you up to?” James looked down.

I covered the bowl. “Having lunch. What are you doing in the Rose Garden?”
“My cousin is having her wedding in the Conservatory in two weeks. I'm helping scout the area. Are you still obsessed with that – bug?”
“Y is not a bug. Bugs have six legs. Y has none.”
“I think you really ought to get out more – see real people.”

“Little Y is better than most people. Besides, I've got friends.”
“He's a germ – what have they ever done? Killed people, made them sick...”
“Made cheese, wine and pickles – and help you digest them too. Do you know there are more bacteria on and in your body than you have cells of your own?”
“Not me. I use hand sanitizer.”
“You couldn't even think to use it if it weren't for mitochondria.”
“He's evil! He feels absolutely nothing for you! He's only trying to --”
“That's not true! I love her very much!” He angrily butted off the cloth, and slithered out of the bowl, staring menacingly. “You, on the other hand....”
“ Look at him! Disgusting, slimy...”
“Oh, you brave little guy...” I poured some water on his cloth. “You should see how he looks when I've --” I rubbed his fur happily. Y began to make gentle small sounds.
“I think I'm going to be sick. Where's my – “ He started to search his pockets.
“I think it would be a very good idea to leave.” I said, holding Y protectively. Y just glared at him.
“You – you're the one who's sick!” he said, taking several steps back, before running.

“Where were we?” I said. “Oh, yes....apples are a form of rose, too. What were you trying to do? You could have gotten yourself killed.”

“Oh, I'm just protecting the Colony.” he said.

With no mouth, I could see him smile. And I was not happy, at all.

Chapter 6 – It had to end somewhere...



Spring abruptly changed to summer. The warmth of Spring, with its ever-changing flowers and foliage changed to a muggy adolescence of the year, when the fully grown leaves lay limp on the trees. It would seem to be fine weather for Small Kind, but Yersinia was also listless – even staying in his tank for most of the day, he dozed or watched TV, except for our time at dinner together.


And then one morning...there was a man with a uniform knocking on my door.

“We're told you're keeping a dangerous animal in here, an --” he looked at his notes “--Australian Sea Worm. You're also – keeping a...culture of plague bacteria, which is a felony without a permit, and...” Two policemen elbowed their way in.
“He is not dangerous, and we're unsure what kind of animal he actually is. As you can see, he is able to move by himself, and plague bacteria can't move. Besides, have you ever seen a bacterium without a microscope?””
“I also see that you have been corresponding with a Mr. Simak, perhaps you could tell me..?”

Dr. Simak showed up. So did some guys in Hazmat suits. An argument broke out over whether the spirulina tank should be taken or not. A crowd began to gather below our window. Meanwhile, Y. was looking at me with blue, blue eyes. “Sorry,” he said. “But it's for the good of the Colony.”
“Please don't do that.” I said.
“I'm not well.” he said.
“I know.” I said. “But there's got to be another way...Let Dr. Simak take you. We'll PCR some of you...”
“Sorry.” he said, and jumped out the window.


And then, he died.


There was nothing left, no eyes, no fur – just a small mass of jelly? mucus? soaking into the ground.
“Don't touch it.” Dr. Simak said. “You don't know – viruses, prions...”
“I'm immune.” I said, feeling nothing much at all. I tried, and got a tiny gobbet on my fingertips. I touched my fingers to my lips, before anyone could notice I was doing it, and walked to the side as the crowds dispersed.

“It wasn't no piranha.” some kid said. “Shit. Just some little wuzzyworm.”


They took me to the hospital anyway. When they couldn't find anything wrong with me, they wanted to transfer me to the mental ward. When all they could get out of me was that I had an odd-looking fish in a saltwater tank, they let me go.


I had to move. I got a new place where they let me keep a cat, and I got one: a dark Siamese, who yowls and purrs, and gets in the way of the TV. Sometimes, I pet him and he looks at me with eyes like Yersinia's. But he's only a cat.


Dr. Simak also scooped up a little of the jelly. He's making a virus that will change Y's brothers happy and healthy, and no trouble to anyone. They're already talking Nobel on this one, and he's splitting the credit.

I'm going to buy a cottage for myself with the money, and plant lots and lots of roses...and a stone with some of Y's genetic sequence in a circle.


I hear Stockholm is beautiful right before Christmas.


All he wanted to do was be a part of me.

He is, yes, he is.


  Tiny philosopher, music-maker
The world, flesh, and devil
Accost thee so little
It's as if you were a God....

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