For my parents, who showed me the bluebottles.
I’ll tell you a thing I learnt about bluebottles.
I learnt that the bluebottle, or Portuguese Man O’ War if that’s a term you prefer, is not a creature at all but rather a collection of colonies, a universe, a coming together. If you want a name for this kind of thing, it’s siphonophore. That’s what a bluebottle is. Not to be confused with a jellyfish, a bluebottle is a kind of unity, made up of zooids. You see, zooids cannot survive on their own so they band together. They have to.
Coming together is good for the zooids. They get to make a bluebottle.
But don’t think for a moment that this is cute. Those Portuguese Man O’ War, those sneaky colonies, are predators. That collection of colonies sure can sting.
Graffitied onto the walls of my understanding, a memory thrives—translucent—of a collapsed bluebottle being devoured by infantry of sea slugs. These wingless vultures, the sea slugs, marched their way towards the pregnable blue siphonophore. The bluebottle, while never having been a creature, was now carrion and the sea slugs were feasting, moving into its insides and taking it internally like a secret a person has kept too long, like a thing someone has needed to say and couldn’t.
This memory preys urgently on my attention as we look into the soul of this virus that’s become our everything.
A virus is a thing that is alive and is not.
A virus is a grey area.
A virus is invisible but can do a trick of being seen.
This virus can be seen as cancelled playgrounds, cancelled hugs, cancelled pinkies timidly reaching for that first hold of a hand. (One hopes, one hopes, this virus can also be seen as cancelled slaps, cancelled punches, cancelled grips too tight. One hopes, one hopes, but we all know that kind of touch thrives in isolation.)
This virus can be seen in aborted visits to the loved, to the lonely. It is seen in private deaths where those closest to the dying are barred from feeling that final seep of life through that final squeeze.
This virus can be seen when sunsets are privileges and ceilings become the sky. It looks like theatres cocooning, libraries hermitting, basketballs on the unemployed line.
It is seen as a stark revelation of privilege while some hibernate feather-lined, and others scramble for a sleep spot six feet away from death.
This virus looks like leaders scrambling, trying, hoping they can try to be the adult in the room.
A virus, this virus, is a sweep through the vulnerable who, let’s be honest, should not be dealing with yet another sweep of anything—a virus where sanitation was already an issue, feeding in the shadows of HIV and old age and addiction and and and.
The virus is seen in the hands of hospital workers stretched to extremity who have to make choices that surely were not part of the deal.
This virus looks like American senators dumping their stocks into the pockets of the already drowning, while innumerable bags pile up containing this person’s lover and that person’s mother and all those persons’ whole damn physical selves.
If you want to know how to see the invisible, these are the ways you see this virus. Just add human beings and voila.
Just look at this virus using society as an avatar, and while it’s got us, why not give us a grotesque makeover that exposes all our sins?
So now let’s return to the bluebottles:
Those zooids just can’t alone, so together they must. This is not idealistic whimsy. It’s a siphonophore kind of survival.