“If Hercules had thought of danger as a deterrent, would he have gone on any of his quests? I think not. Courage is akin to stupidity, not bravery, in my book. Only thing is that by the time I set off on my venture, I hadn’t yet learned to read. Anyway, I was up for the challenge, up for anything as long as it got me out of the dark tunnel I’d been holed up in, my entire life.
Before all that happened, I’d lived, as only a young, independent, single-celled organism, such as myself, could do. Life was simple: feasting, preparing for battle, thrusting erotic poses and admiring ourselves. We may have been terribly narcissistic but that was just how things were done there. The basis of my youth was spent, short as it was, learning to master the technicalities of using the propulsion system of my tail. The right kind of whip would propel me forward, just a couple of centimetres or so I admit, but in my dimensions that was seen as quite a feat and I was proud of my accomplishments, for I wasn’t the largest sperm in the sack.
Compatriots came and went, some decamped out on the hero’s river to seek fame and fortune; if it didn’t flow in one’s lifetime then Death took them slowly, sucking their juice until they shrivelled and died. I tried not to watch, but it was morbidly fascinating. I don’t remember the exact day when Death started speaking to me. It’s funny how memory can be so temperamental. But one day he was there and then after that always seemed to be around, until he was part of everyday life; get up, exercise, eat, rest, eat, spend time talking with Death, exercise, eat, rest. He was a solid presence, a kind of father figure, and wanted me to do my best; at least he did in the beginning until we both realized what that success would mean. I tried to prepare for my quest, The Quest. I prayed the river would flow in my lifetime. Death seemed to think there was a pretty good chance. The river was often flowing these days, something to do with getting a leg over.
Then, the moment we’d been waiting all for, finally arrived. A whole platoon of us hurtled out on the River of Life, through the thin tube, then out into the rich Cave of Life. Legends are told of this place. It is called, ‘The Place of No Return,’ because once you are here your quest has started and well, as the name suggests, you can’t go back, this is it. Some of us thought of it as myth, stuff to tell the little ones, so they keep on wiggling and practising their tail exercises. But it was just as the story said it would be: dark, opulent, inviting, and dangerous. It smelled like a new day, of damp earth and moss, like the wind in my hair at the beginning of an adventure, of flowers and yeast. It was unknown, yet strangely familiar.
We passed through the sacred gates of life, smelt the fertile valley opening. Yet the air was also tinged with the scent of the unknown and Death lingered in the folds of the valley. I saw his hat, he insisted on wearing it even though it gave him a slightly old-fashioned air.
‘People have certain expectations,’ he said, as way of explanation. ‘Likewise the scythe is a mere prop; I never actually use it to chop people. They normally collapse just by seeing it.’ The empty eye pits looked at me, but he wasn’t scary, not to me, just misunderstood.
Today however, I wanted to avoid him at all costs, because today was all about me finding life and he wouldn’t like that. I wanted to win, to be the champion of the day, to travel the contours of the valley, find the opening to the cave and dive in. She was there, waiting, somewhere. Her smell was everywhere, intoxicating and alluring. I tasted her ripeness, which wasn’t as acidic as I had feared. That was a good sign. The alkaline juice felt so sweet to my lips. Yet doubts swam around my head, fogging up my vision like early morning mist on a windscreen. Miles of dark passageways lay ahead, full of unknown dangers. Not that I knew the meaning of dark, never having seen the light. But shadows and risks, I understood alright. Those thoughts could slow down a sperm on a mission. I flicked them away, with the glorious tail propelling me forward, towards my goal, flick by flick.
The first obstacle on the path was the mucus plug. They’d said if she was ripe, then it would be thin enough for us to get though. I mean, I’m sure she did want us to get through, where would she be without us? But it was a trap. Millions of fellow river swimmers were lost, as thick, fibrous cells ensnared them and the air filled with wild laughter. Those long-haired cells sung like sirens, from distant seas luring sailors to their doom. I kept my eyes dead ahead and with some spare mucus found floating around, I plugged my ears closed, like Odysseus tied to the mast. My Penelope was waiting, and I would travel oceans and fight demons to get to her. She was in the uterus, lush with promise, and thick with potential, luring us on. I kicked and moved swiftly onward with my tail behind. I ignored Death, as he collected the unfortunate that had fallen. He kept glancing in my direction. Was he glad I’d gotten through? There wasn’t a lot of time to think about him, I had to concentrate.
Up ahead came the big decision. The one I’d been thinking of, or trying not to think about, ever since I’d learned about it: turn left or turn right? It was a life and death decision, any way you looked at it. One way meant finding an empty grave with my name on it. It was a way of no hope, just a few days swimming in the empty tunnels before the long sleep claimed me with the man in black waiting with a grin on his bony face.
The other way, (but which way was it?) meant a chance to make something of life. Of course, nothing was certain. Death could be waiting anywhere along the way, he liked to hide around corners, thinking it was funny, even though I’d told him it was a bad joke.
They, (how did ‘they’ know?) said if you chose the way of no hope at least it is a quiet way to go. But if you end up in the tunnel of chance, then the worst dangers are yet to come. I felt like Hercules, trying to fulfil twelve impossible tasks before being able to claim my prize. The irony being, that I didn’t even know if there was one. Maybe she wasn’t yet ripe; maybe the smells were all wrong. The gateway to the uterus hadn’t been as open as I would have liked. It all seemed like a battle, just to get to this point and look at how many millions had already died in this quest. Our number had been diminished, but there was still a cornucopia of sperm seeking the Holy Grail, about three hundred million of us, at a rough guess. I tried to forget that they had been my playmates when I was a little whipper, and kept swimming.
The crossroads sneaked up on me in the end. In my own mind, I’d planned about how I was going to stop for a moment, take it all in, then dig deep down and use my intuitive voice, to find the right direction. It felt that would be an appropriate, and mature way to choose my way to die; quickly, or slowly with lots of adventures along the way. As it happened, I was rushed and the moment passed by, so I can’t claim that the decision was mine one way or another. I saw the crossroads coming, put my head down to keep on swimming, then when I looked up again the tunnel had narrowed and I was too busy trying to stay alive, to regret not paying an active part in the decision making process.
The once smooth walls had sprouted waving arms, millions of cilia that reached out to grab at anything they could. If they caught you, then it was adiós amigo, a deadly game of tag. They were the legendary army of Leukocytes, the white cells, and notoriously vicious. An inborn hatred of intruders, they saw no difference between us, and the common cold virus. Their abundant army was specifically designed to locate, and terminate pathogens. Be you bacteria, fungi or any type of single or multi-cellular parasite they search and destroy. Wish someone had told them that we were not the enemy.
But they didn’t even seem to speak the same language, just, ‘morietur, morietur.’ Which I’m pretty sure didn’t mean, ‘please come in and have some tea and cake with us this fine afternoon.’
I tried not to take it personally, as I dodged the cilia. Some of them looked suspiciously familiar and I suspect Death was helping. I was not amused. There’s no reasoning with their single-mindedness. We’re all just antigens to them. They aren’t educated in the art of hosting. Antigenicity was not one of my desired characteristics, but it just came along with the role I was playing at that moment.
The Leukocytes were one big family. I’d already met some of them when we’d first arrived. The Lysozymes were all over the vagina like a rash, acting as gatekeepers, throwing their weight around like hired hooligans and somebody, acting in their highest level of stupidity, had decided it would be a good idea to give them some hardware. Their method of attack was to destroy our personal sugar stores, you know, the ones we each carry to sustain us on our long journey. Once they got rid of our stores, they’d move in to finish us off. Even if we escaped, we’d die of starvation, nice. I kept my stores close, and got through. I hadn’t seen Death, maybe he’d been hanging back, not wanting me to know which way he was hoping this would go. No doubt now though, it’s clear that he’d like some company, mine specifically, during the long eternity that awaits him. But I’m not about to give up on my quest so easily.
There were more bruisers waiting further up the tunnel of chance. They were the Macrophages, the big guys, the hungry ones and they slurped on sperm like seafood. I always knew it would be like this, in our race there would only be one winner. Still I didn’t realize how sad I would feel to see so many of my compatriots die. Their little ghosts littering the pathway which we’d swum together. Only when they’d gone did I realize how much love I’d had for them. Well, sometimes it is easier to love what you no longer have.
Then we saw it, the Sangréal, the magnificent orb, up ahead, and like a magnet it drew us in, the few thousand of us that were left. The zona pellucida, the outer shell, of that gigantic egg seemed to be an invisible force field for some of the swimmers. I only noticed because suddenly we were less and a quick glance over my shoulder confirmed it. An army diminished in size, millions of casualties lost along the way. I never was going to be a captain; everyone was on their own in this war.
The inner membrane was in my grasp. I held on as if my life depended on it, and of course it did. If I let go I was dead, and Death would have another companion. I had come so far, passed so many obstacles and not been deterred from this: my glorious goal.
I tapped out a love song with my nose; it was the only part of me that was free to move as I hung on. She was the size of a planet, but I willed her to hear me. There was so much noise and confusion all around just then; guys shouted or fought among themselves, others tried to use force to gain entry past this final barrier. There would only be one of us that would make it through this; only one. Focusing on the tip of my nose, I tried to tap out my feelings, to express the depth of my love. I had to trust that she could hear me, feel me, and know I was there, waiting to come in. The other sounds faded into the background as I sang of the beauty of the world that awaited new life, a world that would be born the moment we came together and began our journey. I sang of sacred union between the masculine and the feminine, as we came together to dance our chromosome dance. I sang of partnership, of desire, of passion, of unity and commitment. The song came from the very pit of my soul, and touched something older than any of this. We were just two single cells, in a primordial sea, bumping into each other, but the sum of our parts would be so much greater. We could create the Garden of Eden, paradise on earth, birthing future generations. It was what we had been longing for, dreaming of. She was my yin and I her yang. I sang and I sang losing myself and becoming one with the energy that flowed through me. There was only the song and I surrendered to its power. It might have been overly romantic for some, but as I said, it was what was happening at the time.
Then the texture beneath my nose changed. It softened and yielded to me. To me! It opened as I opened my heart. It heard me, she had listened and she had heard. Aware of the possibility of life that this opening gave me, I closed my eyes allowing the sensation of acceptance to wash over me.
I slipped inside, suddenly aware of sadness, my glorious tail had to be left behind! No one had told me about this, I felt cheated, it had got me where I needed to be, been my engine and my driving force. With it I left my mitochondria, there was plenty to be had inside. And so I accepted my fate. The doors closed behind me and the chemical blocking mechanism meant permanent closure. I noticed Death slipped in behind me, my constant companion it seemed, yet there was no way another sperm could come in and no way for me to get out. The future unknown…”
Campbell, J. (1972) Myths to live by. Penguin, Harmondsworth.
Weldon, F. (1994) Puffball. Sceptre, London.
Zusak, M. (2007) The Black Swan, London.
The Open University (2006) Human Biology, SK277