words and images by mk swanson
Are You There?

Are You There?

My contribution to pandemic literature, circa 1992

When the first call came, the Island was horrified. The radio was their joy, and the people they met over it were like stars in the sky. Of course, some traveled to and from the Island, but that was only monthly, and this—this— was real; to talk, hear the news of places never seen.

Usually, there were several people gathered in the radio room to listen to the far-off voice, but today Lora, the Island’s operator, was alone. The radio hadn’t spoken in many days and this call was unexpected.

The mainland’s chief radio operator was named Jeremiah. He had the voice of a storyteller, soft and sure, but now it was shaking like that of an old man. Lora listened anxiously.

“… so many. So many to die in one week. The people call it a plague. City after city after city is begging for relief, hospitals, a vaccine, or even just a painless way for the victims to die. Many who know they are stricken are dead before their time, and no priest asks why…it is…I cannot say what it is. I am afraid and angry. Why have we been cursed? The whole world suffers and dies, it seems, the good with the rest.”

The sound of his voice fell like rain.

Lora said, “The whole world? Everyone? Are you sure?” She shivered, seeing in her mind the sickened millions.

“All the places we can reach.” He paused. “You have not been touched?” He sounded wistful, like a child.

“No one. It gave no warning?”

“No warning. We believe, that is, the scientists believe, it is airborne. It is virulent and quick. It spread over the world in just one week.”

“But we are not affected.”


So, too, agreed the Island Council. The Chairman rose at last and said, “We are not affected,” and the whole room nodded grave heads. They talked for an hour, considering how it was they had been spared, and they decided that it was their unique solitude, their quiet withdrawn place in the middle of an inhospitable ocean, that allowed the disease to destroy others and leave the Island clean. By the grace of their solitude, the Island was not affected.


Jeremiah called every day, an old man still, but as scientists worked toward a solution, his voice gained strength and timbre. “Lora, we we are close,” he said on the fifth day after. “The world is dying, but perhaps it can rise from its deathbed. The doctors agree that a virus is present, a mutated one, they know it attacks the walls of the arteries, but they haven’t pinned it down. They are close, though, Lora, they are close.”

“I hope so, Jeremiah.” Lora looked at the picture of him, received in exchange for her own, long after the connection was broken.

The Council gathered again, but as nothing had yet happened on the Island, nothing was done except to agree that condolences should be sent to the world and its suffering people. A letter was drawn up with much solemnity by the secretary and signed as they left the chamber by the Council members. They sent it by courier to Lora.

Lora read the letter in a dark voice.

“‘We, the Island Council, extend our heartfelt condolences on this sad occasion. The Island peoples wish only the best for you in this terrible time. You have been our window and our dream. How else to express what you have been to us? We would be sad to lose you. We want you to know of our sympathy, and that we mourn for you in this great grief.'”

Jeremiah was silent a long time, until he laughed. “Tell them, thanks. I’ll send on the message.” His tone was harsh, and Lora heard him prepare to tune out.

“I’m sorry, Jeremiah!”

“You, too?”

“I’m sorry they said it.”

“They said nothing wrong, only what was proper,” Irony seeped through the line like a corrosion, so that Lora winced.

“Nothing wrong, but nothing right. I cannot feel what you feel, Jeremiah. But I can feel for you.” She sounded like she was trying to send her emotion to him, and it must have worked a little because he continued to talk.

“No one but you has come to the radio since it happened. Where are all the others?”

“I don’t know,” she lied, then the dam bent. She tried to explain, “They are afraid. They draw back as if death could reach through the radio waves. No one wants to feel fear, so they don’t listen. They don’t come to talk anymore.’

“You have to.”

“I do. But I would anyway.”


Another week passed, slow like a dirge, but fast like a breath. Lora and Jeremiah talked when he could, and in the hours between she stayed close to the radio. No one else came, and only a few wanted to know what was happening. The mainland scientists worked, but said nothing. The Island asked no questions.

On the seventh day of that week, Jeremiah burst over the line, his voce filled with hope and excitement.

“Lora, Lora, we have it! Well, we think we do. A few have been treated, and it makes you feel like hell, but they don’t know for sure. I got my shot last night, as I speak to the Island. They hope—they believe—it will stop the death. All we need is more of that ugly, (no, blessed!), fern that grows on every hill of your home. Believe it or not, that’s where the answer was found. We had a sample growing here, and they tested it by chance.”

“On the Island? Jeremiah, I am so happy! How much do you need? How will we get it to you?”

“We’ll come on the usual boat, and we’ll need as much as you can spare. Please, hurry!”

“I will!”

The council gathered and listened quietly as Lora explained. Her joy was such that she did not see their expressions remain stern. She ended, “We can have harvesters out today! The boat will come soon.” Her eyes flew over her audience, bright with hope. Her vision focused on the Chairman.

He did not speak. He glanced to his right. The Council Second, thus delegated, cleared his throat and began, “We’re so glad they’re on the verge of a cure…”

The councilwoman next to him continued ingratiatingly, “And any advice we can give will surely…” her voice wavered in the face of Lora’s look of incredulity.

The Chairman took it up firmly, “But no boat. We cannot risk contact. This island is well-defended, they will not be able to approach us. We will blow their boat to hell before we let it disease our Island.” The council, at first stunned by his bluntness, soon made noises of agreement.

After a quarter of an hour of fruitless argument, Lora was forcibly removed.

She called Jeremiah.

He swore.

They took the radio away from her and said that communication was banned until the situation was resolved. No one said how they would try.

Lora sat for three hours at her station. After the third hour, she took the picture that sat on her desk, and left.


A few days later, the Chairman thought to wonder where the unnecessary radiowoman was. A search was made, her apartment was found disordered, and she was traced to a village where the people said they had been paid by a kind but impatient woman to gather fern. They had no idea why, it was ugly and scratchy, but she gave them a lot of money to do it.
Later, a fishing vessel was reported missing, and a few other people were gone from their homes. The search was abandoned, and a public eulogy was said for Lora and her friends.


A month passed. The Island inhabitants were peaceful. No disease ate away at their bodies and their consciences felt no pinch because they had protected their own. The outside world had been a dream, and now they were truly awake.

Curiosity, though, was not lulled. The Second found the radio, and clumsily tuned it up and down the dial. “Anyone there? Are you there? We want to know if you made it. Tell us how you are. Is there any news?”

He asked that for an hour, at every tuning, and his answer was silence and static. He quivered with the realization that all must have perished, and was thankful that providence and good judgement had spared the Island.

People sometimes wondered, as the years passed, if anyone had survived; they called on the radio, they listened, but no answer came. Sometimes it made them afraid. More and more they felt chained to their Paradise. No boats left the coastal waters, and if a few did, unofficially, they were not heard from again. No strangers ever hailed them.


“Lora, are you there?”

“Yes, Jeremiah.”

“Did you put the kids to bed?”

“Yes, love.”

My grandfather John “Fox” Mayfield’s leatherleaf fern, standing in for a cure.