They put me in this room, a room for me and me only. I’ve kept the curtains shut for days. Outside might be the forever overcast British sky, under which butterburs prostrate on limestone flowerbeds. Or an AC unit hanging outside an old Chinese high-rise, black dust stuck on the grids. It may as well be the sparse darkness of space, with distant, cold stars floating afar. Usually, when you are confined indoor for too long, you ache for the slightest drought of air coming in. Not me. My case is one of gradual accommodation with this stillness, even a fondness of it. It’s like a Brain in the Vat.
Have you heard of that thought experiment? You are a disembodied brain submerged in a jar of liquid nutrients, while a mad scientist shocks you with electric impulses to make you believe you are doing all sorts of things, like sunbathing, kissing, licking an ice cream, or sleeping on a soft mattress. No, what I’m fond of is not the being-manipulated part. If anyone is going to trick me, it has be myself. I’ll set the parameters so that I don’t get colds, toothaches, pneumonia, cancers, paper cuts. Or trip on a cracked slab, have birds shit on my head, get choked up by a gust of wind. I will also make sure I communicate with a selected few of other brains. Don’t take me as anti-social, alright? I do like a bit of exchanges with other people. Fresh ideas. Quaint emotionality. But I’m tired of “friends” telling me they miss me when they don’t, and resent even more that I have to say it back. I’m also tired of all the vitriol on the internet. Foreigners call me “Chinese virus”; the Chinese wish me suffer abroad, never to return, because I’m an unpatriotic rich snob studying in a foreign university.
This room is the closest substitute to the Vat—given that I don’t want to dissect myself. With a bed, a desk, a white-tiled en-suite bathroom, some books, a laptop connected to Wi-Fi, and three meals delivered everyday, although I don’t always eat them, this is the simplest and most controllable habitat I’m ever going to have. I can get by with the least attention to my body and immerse myself in the fictional worlds of novels, films and video games. Those worlds have narratives, purposes, like shooting enemy soldiers in Call of Duty, like being loyal to your lords in Romance of the Three Kingdoms. I wish the real world was simple as that. I wish I had a script for my role.
I did have a script written for myself, or I thought I did, until the pandemic tore the world apart. University and home used to be two points on a line, and I glided in between without friction. Now they have become two points on two parallel lines that never meet each other, and hopping between the lines requires a portal that consumes as much energy as a black hole, causing an explosion each time it opens. This room, sometimes my university dorm, sometimes a Chinese hotel, is part of the package. A limbo for the traveler’s soul to rest, insulated from the capricious weather and turbulent human psyche.
Sometimes I imagine this room floating in space, light-years away from anyone, anything, like a star whose light is never observed. Perhaps I’ll be transformed into the cosmic fetus like in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and spectate all the tragedies happen around the world from a higher plane of existence. Perhaps I’ll go supernova, stage a breathtaking exit, the universe being my only audience.
I look through the curtains. It’s pitch black outside, except dim shimmers on the far horizon.
It’s space, a melancholy peace.
I climb into bed, hug a cushion with a smiley face on it, a birthday present from a happier time. Since there is no telling of day and night, you can’t judge me for sleeping at unearthly hours. I close my eyes, hearing pulsing waves in my ears.
When I wake up, the view outside has changed. There is only one star. It seems to be moving unusually fast, but not darting straightforward like meteors. Rather, it makes a slowly curving path. I realize: there lies the stirring darkness of the deep ocean. Creatures play their hunger games. That light, the bait of an anglerfish, leads to nutrition as well as death.
I shudder. Space is one thing. The sea is another. In the former, I’m facing forces so tremendous, and I have no problem with being atomized in a nanosecond. In the latter, however, I would be forced to co-exist with whatever else lurking in the fluid. How do you self-isolate in the sea? Suppose a fish has to do it. Does it worm into a cracked stone? Or go into voluntary exile, swim until no one else is around? Either way, it’s not as neat as space. The water carries everything with it. Virus. Bacteria. Life.
I put on my headphones and start to watch The Walking Dead on my laptop. I see zombies, people running around with guns, people embracing. I hear wailing. I hear roars. Only as the ending music starts to play do I realize an episode has finished and I haven’t understood a thing. The water outside is calling to me like a lullaby. My thoughts stray into the gentle, flowing darkenss. Perhaps being a fish that can’t self-isolate is not so bad, after all. My head feels heavy.
The room shakes. A vortex? A whale? No, it’s my phone in the pocket of my dressing gown, vibrating against my thigh. I take it out and unlock it. The little red circle on the upper right corner of the Wechat icon has an astronomical “403” in it, the number of messages piled up after days of shying away from families, friends and acquaintance, from the Chinese side. The number on Messenger is smaller, “127”, but equally if not more overwhelming. I dare not click these icons. One light touch of the finger will break the dam. I cannot bear telling my parents for the sixteenth time that I’m fine I haven’t been infected. Or apologizing to my British friends, who have already got it and recovered, for being too cautious to join them for dinner after my quarantine ends.
I throw the phone onto the yoga mat which I’ve laid out but never exercised on. On second thoughts, I pick it up and turn it off. Under the mattress is where I’m going to bury it. But the next thing I know, I’m sobbing on the floor in the middle of the room. The water-like darkness behind the screen is beckoning for me. I want to plunge in, to be a part of an organic whole, but I’m too scared of drowning.
Something pounds on the window. I raise my head and see a skate fish, a big smile on its white belly. When I visited the aquarium as a kid, I rode on Dad’s shoulders and poked my finger at the skate’s “mouth” behind the glass. When I was still seeing my ex-boyfriend, he said I smiled like a skate fish and I said he was like a Shiba Inu. We poked each other’s noses. I turn my back to the window. The skate fish flaps its wings.
Perhaps I am like a skate fish, always having a “smile” ready when I face people. Now I can’t pull up that smile, so I bury myself in the sand.
The skate fish is gone, and the outside has changed. No star light or bioluminescence. No sign of any activity. It’s the impenetrable darkness of the earth, deep, deep, deep underground. I’m afraid I have sunk too far.
I suddenly feel how stuffy the room is. Each breath I take becomes shallower. Each expansion of the chest inflames my ribs. I spray some alcohol around, but mixed with the drain stink, it makes the air even thicker. Even my eyes sting, but now they are too dry to afford the luxury of tears. The warmth under my dressing gown has disappeared like the skate fish. I wrap my arms around my body but my teeth still chatter.
I stick a cotton swab into my nostrils, perform the ritual of “swirl, squeeze, wait”, and pray that my sacrifice of mucus may sooth the demon.
Do not manifest. Do not manifest.
The two red lines manifest.
I slowly tuck myself into bed and hug my knees under the quilt. The face on the cushion smiles at me. I flip it over.
The subterranean darkness is waiting quietly and patiently outside for this room to dissolve with me in it. No one will know how I hugged the cushion, how I collapsed on the floor, how I trembled under the covers. No one will know about the stars that glowed and the skate fish that visited. Maybe that’s ok. Maybe this is it. I will be one with the dark phone screen, dark window, dark space, dark ocean and dark underworld. Now that I’m sick, you can’t judge me for having dark thoughts. I’m tired. I close my eyes.
I don’t know if I’m awake when I open my eyes and can’t see anything. There is a weight on me, so dense and still pressing in, like a mountain, like a shroud. I try to break free but I’m petrified. The darkness fills the air I breathe in and wraps around my face. Clammy. Cold. Crawling, seeping, muffling everything in its way.
I don’t want to die.
I spring up, sweat-soaked pajamas stuck on my skin. Every part of my body aches. Swallowing saliva is the worst. A blade churns inside my throat. I moan as I lift up my arm to pinch my blocked nose.
But I gasp in rapture knowing I’m alive, able to feel and move. I curse the pain ebulliently like cursing an annoying cousin.
Sitting in the murky room, I’m filled with gratitude to my body. It’s been fighting to wrestle me from dirt and mud. Not by order of my feeble brain, but out of the robustness of life. The sweat, the snot and the phlegm—the first things I’d get rid off if I were a Brain in a Vat—are the unappreciated products of my immune system warding off infection. My body is fighting this thing that’s invaded my respiratory tract, that’s taken the lives of millions including my grandfather, that’s roamed around the world without resistance. They put me in this room, because there is no way to contain it except cutting people off from each other. No medicine to cure it. No social system to patch up the rent it’s torn between communities. But now my body is fighting it, however strenuous each inhale and exhale.
You have to admire our bodies, how they struggle towards life.
If I do not deserve love and care, maybe my cells do. If I cannot pull up a smile, maybe I can let the hoarse voice cry for help, and let the bleary eyes be nourished by the light in other people’s eyes.
The curtains are glowing. It must be the sunrise out there.
About the author
Yuqing Weng writes in English and Chinese. Her short story “A Journey Home” won the Oxford Review of Books Short Fiction Competition in Trinity Term, 2019. "Across the Ocean" was published by The Selkie in 2023, and nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology and the Pushcart Prize.
Did you enjoy the story? Would you like to shout us a coffee? Half of what you pay goes to the writers and half towards supporting the project (web site maintenance, preparing the next Best of book etc.)