At first we knew what to do, because we had done it all before. We scoured our hands, reciting the ABCs (or, for the more cultured of us, the opening voiceover to Star Trek: The Next Generation) to achieve the requisite twenty seconds. We plotted careful courses around each other on sidewalks and in grocery stores, smiles unseen behind masks. We shared memes to every corner of the internet: women yelling at cats, distracted boyfriends, ancient aliens, more cowbells, sad Dawsons, philosophizing velociraptors, baby Yodas, math ladies, Ricks and Mortys and Wonkas and Picards. We shared and reshared, chuckling over the mundanity of it all and over our expertise when it came to these things. We knowingly accepted the children home from school, sliding backpacks into drawers instead of onto hooks in the entryway. We deservingly, repeatedly, ordered takeout, mentally congratulating ourselves for supporting the local economy.
It wasn’t until we watched the doors of our meetinghouse close behind us—thick, windowless metal things that the Jameson boys had helped Brother Tam install in place of the glass—that we finally acknowledged that this time might be different. What little power we had garnered for ourselves in the sharing of memes and washing of hands shrank as the light streaming through the doorway contracted from luminous pillars to thinning wedges to slim bars and then to nothing, and we were left in the foyer, fluorescent bulbs buzzing overhead. Familiarity transitioned to alienness too quickly for us to recognize, until everything, it seemed, had changed. In a matter of days, the First Presidency issued a statement on the recent news reports: because H9N9 was indeed airborne, and in order to reduce the dangers of isolation, we were told this time to shelter together. Not in homes, but in public buildings, where we could obtain and stockpile necessary resources. Our own chapels and meeting houses, the statement admonished, would be ideal for this turbulent time.
Obediently, we retrofitted our local stake center as best we could, and then shut our doors and windows, not to be opened except in the most necessary of circumstances until further notice. We did not expect our communication network to collapse as quickly as it did, but almost immediately, we found ourselves in the dark. Our power grid failed (thanks to Brother Tam, our solar panels kept the fluorescent lights and thermostat running), and while we still miraculously enjoyed running water, we found ourselves utterly disconnected, severed from the outside world and from other sheltered groups. None of our devices could find an internet connection. Cellular data disappeared. The numerous radios we’d accumulated hissed a melancholy static on every bandwidth, every channel.
Only our Bishop kept us together and kept us sane in those early times. He believed this was a test, he told us, that Heavenly Father required our faith, and this was His barometer to gauge it. The Bishop acknowledged that he, too, wanted to leave, to check on the wellbeing of his family members who had sheltered elsewhere, and to see what had happened to everyone else. But, unlike the previous pandemic, H9N9’s data was clear. We could no longer go outside, not until we knew it was safe. He cited the witness we would receive, after our faith trial, and we hoped he was right.
With the virus reaching critical mass outside and no way to know what was happening with anyone else, we only had each other inside the meetinghouse. We kept track of our time together like prisoners scratching tallies into a stone wall. We etched our lines on whitewashed concrete in jest, ironically, chuckling as we did so, because we didn’t want everyone else to feel as trapped as we did. We counted our days all the same, most of us doubting we’d get far into the double digits. But double digits did not last long, and triple digits passed slowly. We sought balance between normalcy and mundanity. The cultural hall became the beating heart of our community. Sister Brown taught exercise classes in the mornings; we held school and children’s activities during the day; Brother Jameson and his sons organized basketball games and board games in the evenings; we gathered for communal meals, food measured from storage and cooked with care and shared across collapsible circular tables.
Classrooms became bedrooms for families. One of the Relief Society rooms became our library; a Primary room became our theater. And if the cultural hall was our beating heart, then the chapel became our community’s head, reminiscent of Paul’s admonitions to the Ephesians and Corinthians. Just as Christ was the head of our church, and we its members, so was the Chapel, where Christ was most present, the head of our community, and the rest of the meetinghouse its body. We faithfully met there every Sunday, speaking and bearing testimony. The Spirit burned, warm and comforting, week after week. Together we prayed, we sang, we cried, and we sought for joy.
Our little town had been ninety percent Mormon already, and we were all of us believers when we first moved into the meetinghouse together. Young Men’s and Young Women’s presidents, scoutmasters and Beehive advisors, seminary teachers and gospel doctrine teachers and former bishops and high counselors.
We learned and uplifted, mourned with and comforted. We gathered close around Sister Rigby when her husband passed away only eighteen days into our quarantine. We fidgeted, unsure, outside the Rigby’s designated room after he did not wake in the morning. He’d been eighty-two years old, but we grieved with Sister Rigby that her children and grandchildren could not know of her husband’s death, let alone attend a funeral of any kind. We raged with her that it happened in such a moment, and that all we could do was hold a meager memorial and then watch through the sprinkler-stained windows of the Relief Society room as Brother Tam and Brother Hinderoga, protected in our only two CDC-distributed hazmat suits, dug a hole in the ground, lowered Brother Rigby into it, and then filled it back up with the soil they’d just unearthed. Watching from inside, we didn’t hear Brother Rigby’s body thud at the bottom of the grave. We saw him fall into the hole, and then disappear, and for some of us it feels like he is still falling, deeper and deeper into the earth.
After Brother Rigby’s burial, Brothers Tam and Hinderoga stopped between the austere metal doors they had installed and a set of glass inner doors we had sealed and caulked, making airtight. Before we lost contact with the outside world, scientific consensus claimed that the virus could not live for more than twenty-four hours without finding a way to replicate. We wondered at the arbitrary rules of pandemics, but complied anyway, and Brothers Tam and Hinderoga waited in the sealed entryway for thirty-six hours (just to be safe), dressed in full hazmat suits, unable to eat or drink or get comfortable rest.
When they both re-entered, they were healthy, and so were we. Brother Tam even joked that it was the best fast he’d ever done, and asked when the testimony meeting would be.
On Sundays, we did our best to reminded one another that we weren’t alone. “Fear thou not; for I am with thee,” we read, and “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” We took comfort in scripture and in the words of the prophets. We discussed the last days, and pondered the second coming of the Savior.
During one fast and testimony meeting, on the two-hundred seventy-second day of quarantine, Anita Artseryan approached the pulpit. At first, we nodded along with her words, felt them in our hearts. Then her tone shifted, and she asked a question, the sound of it like a whip’s echoing crack. Each of our heads tilted up to regard Anita, microphone raised to her mouth despite the sound system no longer functional nor necessary in such a small gathering.
“Where is God?” She asked. And, after a pause, her question reverberating through the room, “Where is our Prophet? Where is the Quorum of the Twelve? Are they alive? The disease may have taken them, for all we know. We might be the only Mormons left. We might be the only people left. What if that’s true? What do we do then?”
The successive questions washed over us, each one progressively disrupting our comfort. We no longer nodded, but looked on her with hard eyes, our hearts chilled. We had enough to deal with, all things considered. It was not necessary to ask such questions, not in public.
We couldn’t help but look on Anita differently, after that. But she was one of us, no matter her flaws, and we pressed forward as best we could together. Our devotionals, and scripture study, and prayers together continued, along with our daily communal meals. Before quarantine, the Jameson boys had constructed a small greenhouse off the door that had once connected the kitchen to the outside world, under Sister Rigby’s tutelage, and on occasion we saw fresh vegetables in our meals. Fresh tomatoes and zucchini tasted better than we ever remembered, complimenting canned beans and pasta. The Bishop, who had taken our supplies under his stewardship, claimed we had enough to last us for at least twenty-four months—perhaps more, with the greenhouse. Each of us had brought what food storage we had when we received the call to shelter together. Some had brought years’ worth; others, essentially nothing. The fable of the ants and the grasshoppers certainly came to mind. But we figured we were living the law of consecration, even if none of our leaders said those words exactly, so we did our best to quell any resentments that might distract us.
Our resentment usually found easier targets than one another, anyway. The quarantine had bothered some of us from the very beginning, and the longer it continued, the more we questioned its necessity. The previous pandemic overshadowed this attitude (like it did so many things): with COVID-19, our government had asked us to stay at home, and not wear masks, and then wear masks, and then go back to school, but not out to eat, and then not back to school, and then out to eat but not inside, and then chastened us for wanting the vaccine immediately, and then berated us for not getting it soon enough.
But this time, there was a clear difference: our directive to stay inside and shelter together had come from our Prophet first. Not contradicting mandates from a mortal institution, but simple, clear instruction from a man who spoke with the voice of God. And, later, the government also issued the same directive. Receiving the mandates in that order made them much easier to obey, but even so, the natural man grew restless.
We noted, with little surprise, that Anita Artseryan was once again the first to question, asking loudly why we still needed to shelter inside. At that point, we had been living healthy lives in quarantine for more than three hundred days.
“What if they’re all out there, living their lives like normal, and we’re here, isolating ourselves for no reason?” She asked. We refrained from pointing out that, if people had continued life as normal, surely we would be able to access the internet by now, or hear someone on the radio. Perhaps someone would have even passed through our town.
Instead, we gently reminded Anita that the Prophet had told us to stay inside. She nodded, considering this, and for a moment we thought we might have helped her come to her senses, but then she shook her head sharply, her eyes glinting in the solar-powered light.
“There must be people out there,” she said indignantly. “They might have created a vaccine, or the virus might have dissipated. They could have all gathered to major metropolitan areas. You’ve all heard the figures. The virus can’t kill everyone.”
None of us nodded, but that did not mean we disagreed. We did know the numbers. H1N1 in 1918, one to three percent mortality. COVID-19, under 1 percent. Our virus, H9N9, thirty to forty percent mortality. Worse than the Black Death—considering that percentage was for treated cases—and far more contagious.
We steadied ourselves against walls and one another, silent for a moment, imagining not for the first time a world without a third of the population. H9N9 had already claimed tens of millions of lives by the time we went into shelter; unchecked, billions of lives lost were not out of the question.
We imagined, cautiously, what options humanity had if several billion people died in relatively quick succession. Some of us asked ourselves where God, and our religion, fit in a world of so much death.
But Anita was not finished. “And how are we supposed to know if our Prophet has instructed us any differently?” she asked, her voice threaded with fear. “We have no contact with the outside world. If our Prophet were to tell us to go back outside, how would we know?”
Our Bishop, bless his heart, finally stepped in.
God has asked us to stay here, in our meetinghouse, he said, the sound of his deep, baritone voice clearing our thoughts like soap in pepper water. We have not received instruction otherwise. We must have faith that if God wants us to leave, He will tell us. Otherwise we must stay here, acting in faith, until we receive word from the Prophet, or God Himself.
The rest of us mulled these words over. Some of us attempted to visualize what it might be like if the Lord told us to venture back out into the world. Would He speak with the still small voice of the Spirit? Or more directly, in a pillar of light, or a voice from the heavens? Or perhaps some other sign altogether?
How would we know? We wondered.
But we did not ask. Instead, we nodded, taking our Bishop’s words into our hearts, while at the same time wondering how much he believed them himself.
On the five hundred first day, two of us left the meetinghouse.
We couldn’t let them take the biohazard suits—they never asked—and we knew, without protection, they would not last long. But no amount of discouragement, begging, or demonstrations of love and worry could convince them to stay. After opening the metal doors that led outside, they both turned back, each pressing a palm to the sealed glass doors between us. They mouthed something, but we disagree on what. Some of us thought they said “I love you.” Others saw “I’m sorry.” Perhaps, “God be with you ’til we meet again.” They disappeared from view, metal doors closing in their wake, and they did not return. We sent the Jameson boys out a few days later, both wearing our biohazard suits, to search the immediate area. The boys found nothing.
We tried not to think of the two who left, their bodies rotting on the side of the road or in an abandoned house. We shut our eyes to block out the image of desiccated, eyeless sockets staring up at the sky or a billboard or a solitary, unmoving ceiling fan. We wondered, too, whether they might have found civilization, after all, but for some reason could not return to us to let us know. We imagined ourselves both forgiving and asking forgiveness when they returned, unsure which of us was the prodigal. At times, we caught ourselves fantasizing that, as they walked away, they stepped into a pillar of light, and were taken up to heaven like the city of Enoch. Perhaps, if we left, we might be taken up, too.
Or, perhaps, staying was the only way to pass the test and show our faith.
Anita, we should mention, was one of those who left us. We all struggled with polarized feelings in her absence. We mourned her loss, genuinely hurting that she was no longer with us, truly worried at what might have befallen her. At the same time, we went to great lengths to hide intermittent moments of relief. At least, we told ourselves, her questions had left with her.
It did not take us long to realize that they hadn’t.
Anita was gone, but her questions were not. They had taken root inside us, or perhaps exposed what had been there all along. Most of us recognized doubt for what it was, but others were not so quick to cull the germinating seeds. That lurking uncertainty bore fruit about five hundred thirty days into our isolation.
On a bright autumn Sunday morning, several did not enter the chapel with the rest of us. They did not claim to be sick, nor did they have urgent community responsibilities. Instead, they walked right up to the chapel doors with us, and then turned back.
At first, we did not know what to think. Some sort of demonstration, perhaps? Did they want something? Were they going to leave us, too? We could not understand why they would not at least come into the chapel to sing and pray with us, but every attempt we made to talk about it ended with frustration on both sides. The next week, the same few made the same decision, walking to the doors with us, and then refusing to walk inside. We whispered in council with the Bishop, wondering what to do, but before we could reach a decision, several more joined the few, and before we realized what had happened, an entire third of our congregation—our community—refused to enter the chapel to worship.
We fashioned ourselves detectives, digging for clues, searching for who might doubt next. We shared scripture and testimony and all the kindness we could muster to shore up their faith to make them stay. We saw them as the one, and ourselves as the shepherd. In the parable, the lost always wanted to be found; the straying always needed retrieving. It took a great deal of time to realize that with our flock, at least, those who wandered were completely content to do so.
But behind closed doors, we worried about our lost—our wandering—sheep. We were the body of Christ, after all, and He our head. How could one hand turn against another, or ignore the head entirely? It was not possible, we reasoned. They would return to us. It was the way of things, the natural order.
Instead, their ambivalence toward our way of life, our Sunday worship and our prayers before meals and our scripture study in the mornings and meetinghouse devotionals at night, only increased.
We did not want to bring Satan into things—who does, after all?—but how could we not wonder? Our Bishop had said this was a test, the trial of our faith. But what if our promised witness was contingent on all of us believing together? Enoch’s city became one in heart and mind, and then were lifted up. What if we had to do the same?
The impossibility of our task weighed on us as the more we convinced them, the less they were convinced. In retaliation, they escalated their ambivalence to avoidance. Our own children, our own parents, our own friends and siblings and spouses took refuge in the unused Relief Society room, spending most of their time with each other rather than with us. We nodded to them curtly in the corridor around the building. We made polite small talk as our knees knocked against retractable table legs during meals. But, despite our efforts to befriend and help them, they wanted less and less to do with us.
Knowing what was on the line, we reached our limit. As the majority, we voted to make Sunday services mandatory. We could not make them believe, we reasoned. We would not remove their agency. But we felt compelled to give them every opportunity. How could we not?
That decision lasted one week before the apostates voted themselves into a separate colony within our meetinghouse. They would take their ration of food, they said, and we would have to split time in the kitchen and bathrooms, but other than that we would live completely separately. If that was how we were going to treat them, then they did not want anything to do with us.
Our shock vibrated through the hollowness of our bodies. Did they really expect to live separately from us, while we sheltered together under a single roof? We were the majority, after all. They could not leave unless we said they could leave.
We retired to our rooms on the six hundred thirty-third night of quarantine, hearts alight with anger and betrayal. Sleepless, we wondered if those who didn’t believe felt the inevitability of our plight as much as we did. We couldn’t help it; the weight pressed us down, past our bedrolls and the carpets and the concrete floors beneath and deep into the earth. We must have fallen asleep at some point, because we dreamed of Brother Rigby’s body falling into his grave, though with growing horror we realized we were not watching his body fall, but we were falling ourselves into infinite blackness.
An incredible crash shattered the silence of night in our meetinghouse, startling us out of our nightmare.Clattering windows and doors rattling against hinges slowly faded as we stumbled from our classrooms, bleary-eyed and sweat-soaked, some of us still feeling like we were falling down into an infinite, bottomless pit.
What now? We wondered. How much worse could things possibly get?
We moved through the meetinghouse. Classrooms remained intact. The Relief Society and Primary rooms, the High Council room and stake and ward offices, the cultural hall and bathrooms, everything appeared normal.
The chapel we checked last. At the wooden double doors, we realized we were all of us together: believers and doubters, members and the severed. We met one another’s eyes for a long moment, and we wondered if that same third of us would turn away from the chapel this time, too.
But they did not. For a brief, blessed moment, the third blended back into us, and we opened the doors to the chapel together.
We had grown used to the stale, dusty air of our meetinghouse, recycled and refined over and over again by our filters and circulation systems. We had forgotten the smell of the outside world. We had forgotten—perhaps, we realized, as a cool, crisp wind washed over us, we had never realized at all—how green the outside air smelled, how it tasted on our tongues and between our lips. We stumbled back together, each of us shocked into inaction by the sudden nostalgia of hiking a mountain trail early on a spring morning, or sunbathing at the community pool, or walking through the city after a light rain. We embraced that moment, we sucked that air in through our noses, breathed it in through our mouths, tasted it and let it fill our lungs in a moment of euphoric duality, a moment of remembering what had once been, and forgetting what had brought us here.
As we exhaled, the duality ceased, and we quickly remembered the danger of the outside air. Several of us fainted right away. We caught one another, easing the light-headed down to the carpet, fanning brows dewed with sweat. The rest of us turned and moved into the chapel, knowing we had to find the source of contamination, knowing it was already too late.
A jagged maw of crumbling plaster, fractured framing, and demolished layers of insulation yawned down at us from the roof of the chapel, through which we glimpsed stars pulsing in the night sky. A clear, cloudless darkness, spangled with millions of bright, gleaming flecks, untarnished by panes of glass or hazmat face shields for the first time in nearly two years. Light from the moon and stars filtered down through the gaping tear in the ceiling. Several of us recalled Joseph Smith in his grove of trees and the pillar of light that appeared to him there. We knew this was different, of course; this light was faint, that light brighter than the sun. Ours was quiet, unassuming; his accompanied by axiomatic proclamations, and impossible to ignore.
The luminous pillar shone down like a spotlight onto a crater, roughly ten feet in diameter, amongst the middle row of pews in the chapel. At the concave center of blackened dirt, a meteorite illuminated the shattered wooden benches around the crater with ethereal violet light.
The rest of the chapel remained intact. Only the single rupture in the roof above and the small diameter of pews and floor below had been destroyed.
We looked at the hole in the ceiling, and then down at the meteorite, back and forth for some time, until our eyes finally rested on one another.
What do we do now? We wanted to ask.
But, in truth, there was nothing to be done. If the virus was still as airborne as the experts had warned, then we were already exposed. We could not prevent it, could not fight it. We could not repair the ceiling in time to save ourselves.
All we could do was wait, and see if we got sick.
Exhaustion settled deep into us, soaking into our marrow. Exhaustion of the past six hundred thirty-three days of quarantine, of seeing the same faces and doing the same things over and over again. The soul-deep exhaustion of belief, and the relentless exhaustion of doubt. The exhaustion of finding a meteorite on the floor of your home, and not knowing the first thing to do about it. Weary, we all returned to our beds, and slept without dreams or nightmares.
The next morning, everything was different.
Knowing we each might be sick—that we all might be sick—somehow changed what had happened over the past week. We told the wandering third that we had not meant what we’d said about forcing them to attend Sunday worship services. They, in turn, told us that they did not want to secede from us, after all. It was too drastic an action, and they needed to think things over. We both agreed that it was prudent to remain together, for now.
In truth, we realized we needed one another. Not in the way we thought; we did not need those who wandered to conform to our standards. They did not need us to change our beliefs. We did not need anything at all from each other—except each other, just as we were. The body needed every part to function fully, and we learned to accept every part as it was. We needed our faith. But, we realized, we needed our doubt, too.
In what we can only describe as a miracle, we all remained healthy. We breathed outside air, and no one fell ill. We could not explain why. We did not make any attempt.
You might think we would have rushed out immediately, seeking others. But while Adam and Eve had been cast out of their garden, we still had ours, as imperfect as it was, and desired to linger for a time. But the longer we lived with the gaping hole in our ceiling, the bolder we became. Perhaps a month or so after the meteor struck, the first of us emerged from the metal doors and into the daylight. We felt the sun and the breeze and listened to the quiet noise of outside.
One became two, and soon each of us had taken a stroll to see what we could see, and take the fresh air into our lungs.
It did not take long to find the bodies of the two who had ventured out months before. Both dead, just as we had envisioned in our nightmares, contorted in the throes of disease, their desiccated, decayed faces staring up at the textured ceiling of a long-abandoned town home by the river.
They had died of H9N9 only months before, we thought to ourselves. Why hadn’t we?
None of us could answer that question, nor the question of why we had yet to find anyone else living. Eventually, a contingent ventured all the way up to Salt Lake City, sure we would find signs of life and finally receive the direction we had long thirsted for from our Prophet.
Instead, we found a deserted, lifeless city.
We thought our leaders might be hunkered down in a bunker somewhere, but if that was so, we could not find them.
We sent out regular search parties, venturing farther and farther away from our meetinghouse, where we still sheltered together. We cultivated reliable access to water and food in the form of ground wells and gardens and some domesticated animals a few of us had managed to wrangle from nearby overgrown pastures.
After the meteorite struck, we no longer used the chapel for worship. We cultivated a garden there, instead. It started in that ten-foot crater, but soon we removed the flooring and unearthed more and more of the surrounding dirt, finding the soil exceedingly rich and easy for growing things. Whether it had always been that way, hidden just beneath the surface, or whether the meteorite had somehow changed it, we could not say.
Many of us still worshipped, of course. But we met wherever was convenient, wherever felt right in the moment. Sometimes that was the Relief Society room; other times it was on the grass outside the building. Sometimes it was in the cultural hall, and others in a clearing on the nearest mountain. We expressed our faith in God and gratitude for what He had given us, and for one another. For our survival, for the lessons we had learned, for the unity we felt with one another, with each other, all under the same roof. We expressed gratitude for faith, and gratitude for doubt.
Many of us did not worship. Instead, we found meaning in the sublimity of nature, or the power of connection, or the acts that we had once considered godly, but now saw as astonishingly, beautifully human: patience, guidance, creation, forgiveness, and so much more.
Oddly, as we all went about our lives, in the very center of the crater where the meteorite had landed, a new flower grew. Violet, pointed petals bloomed, petals none of us could recognize. We wondered, too, where that flower had come from, and why it bloomed now. But we were also content with not knowing. We were grateful for its beauty, as the centerpiece of the garden that sustained us.
Thus we press onward. Our search for others continues. We do not know if we are alone in this world. We cannot know.
But we believe we are not.