Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, December 24, 2021

The Germ Theory of Disease

When you think of werewolves in the state of Washington (if you ever do), what probably comes to mind is a certain trilogy of books That Shall Not Be Named.  For this week's Fiction Friday, here's a different take on the idea of werewolves in general, not to mention love stories.


The Germ Theory of Disease

Olivia Tanner realized it wasn’t going to be an ordinary ride home from work when a middle-aged businessman turned into a werewolf on the #217 bus from downtown Seattle to Bellevue.

It was very late at night, one of the last bus runs of the evening, and there weren’t many people aboard – just herself, a nice-looking, well-built blond guy in jeans and a sweatshirt sitting across from her reading a Stephen King novel, a sleeping teenager in the back row, and one or two others.  Near the front was a suit-clad, overweight businessman, his balding head sporting a rather pathetic attempt at a combover.  He had a briefcase sitting on the seat next to him, and was looking at some papers in a manila folder.  There was no conversation, only the swish of the traffic, the whining of the bus engine, and the occasional burst of static and unintelligible talk from the bus driver’s intercom.

They were on the middle of the I-90 bridge when it happened, which was an atrocious place for a werewolf to appear suddenly.  Even if the bus had stopped, there was nowhere useful to run, and given that it was night the choices would have boiled down to being eaten by the werewolf or getting run over by a car.

She was staring out of the window into the darkness, thinking about how glad she’d be to get back to her apartment and her bed – when she heard a noise, like someone tearing a bedsheet.  She looked around, wondering what had happened, and that’s when she saw it.  Standing up from the seat where the businessman had been seated was a creature that was unmistakably a werewolf.  Its forehead was sloping, with dark, almond-shaped eyes and bristling brows.  It had a long, tapered snout, and as she stared at it, one side of the muzzle lifted, revealing a sharp yellow canine tooth.  Pointed ears, rimmed with coarse hair, stood up from the side of its head.  It gave a low snarl, and turned toward her.  Their gaze met, and the creature’s eyes narrowed.  As it turned, she saw that its body was still basically human, but muscled like no one she’d ever seen.  It was naked, its chest and back hairy, and was prodigiously male.  One hand came out – its nails were long, pointed claws, like an eagle’s talons – and it grasped the seat, steadying itself.  She heard the little popping sound as its hand closed on the headrest and the claws punctured the plastic lining.  Muscles in its abdomen and legs stood out, tensing, as it readied itself to jump at her.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

Through all of this, Olivia sat completely still, transfixed, like a mouse mesmerized by a snake.  She shrank back, never taking her eyes off the werewolf, and tried to push her body backwards against the seat.  A whimpering noise came from her open mouth, but she couldn’t speak, couldn’t scream, couldn’t do anything but sit and wait for the thing to spring.

Then she caught a second movement, from the blond man across the aisle, and she turned to see him rise from his seat.  But it wasn’t him – was it?  The man who now stood next to her, also mother-naked, muscles rippling, his face shining in its own light, had wings.  And a sword.  The sword was glowing so brightly in the dimly-lit bus that Olivia could hardly look at it.  The wings, huge, feathered wings, speckled brown like a hawk’s, arose from broad shoulders.  His eyes were fixed on the monster in the aisle.  The werewolf swiveled its horrid head away from Olivia, and looked at the angelic figure blocking its way.  It gave a rough, angry growl, almost like a cough, and leapt at the winged man.

As the werewolf passed Olivia, it made a sweeping pass at her face with one clawed hand.  She ducked, and felt the wind as it missed her by inches.  The winged man brought up his sword, and there was a swish and a thud, and the werewolf’s head flew backwards, landed in the aisle, and rolled under a seat.  Dark blood gouted up from the severed neck.  The werewolf’s clawed hands rose for a moment, as if to investigate this strange condition of being headless.  Then it realized it was dead, and tumbled forward with a crash.

The angel figure let his sword drop to his side.  His other hand came up, and smoothed back his blond hair. Olivia just stared, her eyes perfect circles of terror.  The man looked down at himself, seemed to realize that he was being watched by a strange woman while wearing nothing but an embarrassed smile.  He shrugged, and said, “Oops.”  Then he sat down in the seat, his wings giving a little rustling sound as they folded inward, and he once again became the tall, lean man with the Stephen King book, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt.  He looked over at her, smiled and shrugged again.  Olivia looked at the floor.  The body of the werewolf was gone.  Once more the businessman was sitting in his seat, his balding head shining a little in the light from the overhead fluorescents.  He seemed to be feeling ill.  He was sweating, and as she watched, he passed a hand across his face, and coughed.

There were still puncture marks in the seat headrest two rows up.

She looked back at the blond man, opened her mouth, and tried to think of something to say.  Nothing came out.

“Hey,” he finally said.  “You want to go to the Starbucks in Eastgate and talk?”
Olivia just nodded.  Afterwards, she was never sure why she acquiesced, but at the time, it seemed like the only possible thing to do.


The blond man, whose name was Nathan Hendrickson, sat across from Olivia in the Starbucks, drinking a mocha cappuccino with extra whipped cream and cinnamon sprinkles.  A raspberry danish, so far untouched, sat on a plate in front of him.  At first they engaged in small talk.  Nathan said that he worked as a manager at Chili’s downtown, and Olivia responded that she was a clerk in a clothing store.  Both of them lived in Bellevue, took the bus because they hated the traffic, and had a serious sweet tooth.

“But…” Olivia began, setting down her cup of vanilla chai and trying to think of how to phrase the question.

“What the fuck just happened on the bus?” Nathan said, in a conversational voice.

“Yeah,” Olivia said with some feeling.

Nathan took a bite of his raspberry danish. “It’s kind of hard to explain.”

“I thought it would be.  But you’re the one who suggested we come here.  I figured you wanted to explain it.”

“Well, let me just say this – check out the obituary columns in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer tomorrow.  The following day, at the latest.”

“Looking for who?”

“The bald guy.  He’ll be dead in twenty-four hours.”

Olivia frowned, looked down, shook her head.  “Can you tell me what happened?  It looked to me like you saved my life.  But… Jesus.  You had wings.  And no clothes on.”

Nathan blushed.  “Yeah, sorry about that.  It just happens.  I can’t take my clothes with me.”

“It’s okay. I mean, you…”  She stopped.  She’d been about to say, “You look just fine naked,” but decided that wasn’t something you said to someone you’d only met a half-hour ago, even if that person had just saved you from being ripped limb from limb by a werewolf.

“The issue is, you weren’t supposed to see all that.  Most people can’t.  Didn’t it strike you as a little weird that no one else said anything, screamed, nothing?  The kid in the back didn’t even wake up.  The bus driver didn’t slam on the brakes.”

“Of course.”  Truthfully, it hadn’t really registered with her until that moment.

“Most people can’t see these… events.  When they happen.  Which isn’t often.”

“So…that bald dude wasn’t really a werewolf?”

“Well, he was.  But not what you probably think of when you think of the word ‘werewolf.’  You know, some dude who turns into a wolf at the full moon, rips people up, and so on.”

“What is it, then?”

“Well, you know about the germ theory of disease, right?”

“It’s a theory?  I thought it was true.”

Nathan smiled.  “Well, back in the nineteenth century, it was just a theory.  People had this idea that these little things, these blobs you can only see under a microscope, caused things like scarlet fever and cholera and diphtheria.  Other people said, ‘Bullshit.  Little things like that, causing people to cough their lungs up?  Ridiculous.’  There was one Scottish doctor who was so contemptuous of the germ theory of disease that he used to sharpen his scalpel on the sole of his boot before surgery.”

“He must have had a hell of a lot of malpractice insurance.”

“No such thing, in those days.  But the point is, what you can’t see can kill you.  It just took a while for them to figure it out.”

“And this werewolf thing I saw…”  Olivia stopped, ending with an implied question mark.

“It’s a disease of the mind.  A fatal one, sadly.  When you’re infected, your spirit becomes the beast that you saw.  It’s transmitted by… well, I guess you could call it psychic bites.”

“Sort of like rabies.”

“Sort of.  If that guy’s werewolf had bitten you, or scratched you, you’d have turned as well.  But I killed it before it could.”

“And now he’s going to die?”

Nathan nodded, looked down.  “Yes.  You can’t live without your spirit, or at least not very long.  The werewolf is a diseased spirit, but you still die if it’s killed.  Even though it’s diseased, it’s somehow keeping you alive.  Without it, you die.”  He paused, then said, “It’s like with heart disease.  Heart disease can kill you, but taking out your heart would kill you a lot faster.”  His face became serious.  “The difference is, heart disease doesn’t try to jump to innocent people around you.”

“So the bald guy…”  Again she trailed off.

“Will be found dead.  Soon.  It’ll probably look like he had a heart attack or stroke.  His death will be attributed to natural causes.  But it’s one less werewolf out there, biting people and spreading the infection.”

“What would it have been like if I’d been bitten?”

Nathan’s eyes narrowed.  “I don’t know.  It’s weird.  You could see it, and you could see me… or at least me as I, um… really am.  Most people can’t.  Most people… if they’re bitten, they just have a sudden twinge – a pang of pain, it feels like a pulled muscle or a sore joint.  But then within two weeks, they turn, and they’re out there biting others and spreading the infection, without knowing it.”  He paused.  “How it would have been for you, I don’t know, given that you would have seen what the werewolf was really doing.”

Olivia didn’t answer for a moment.

“That’s horrifying,” she finally said.

“Yes.  That’s why I try to stop as many infected people as I can, before they can infect others.”

“They have no idea they’re doing it?”

“Not consciously.  But it does change their behavior, just like the rabies virus does.  Did you know that the rabies virus makes carnivores more aggressive, and herbivores more docile?  The virus does what it takes to spread – making a raccoon bite, or making a deer stand still and let itself be bitten – both of them serve to spread the virus to a new host.  In the case of this one, the person who’s been turned becomes more social.  They want to be around people.  They actually feel fit and energetic.  Their personalities become forward, pushy, extroverted.  You find a lot of ‘em in bars, dance clubs, at athletic events.  Eventually, they die – but it can take a year or two, and by that time they’ve usually infected hundreds of others.”

Olivia shuddered.  “And you?  What are you?  Some kind of guardian angel, or something?”

Nathan laughed.  “An angel?  Hardly.”

“You have wings.”

“Yeah.  So do sparrows.  That doesn’t make them angels.”

“Okay, if you’re not an angel, what are you?”

He grinned.  “I work for the Invisible Animal Control Department.  Or the Center for Psychic Disease Control.  However you want to look at it.”

“So… you’re, like, the Naked Winged Werewolf Avenger, or something?”

“I like that.  Can I use it?”

Olivia just stared at him for a moment.  “Look,” she finally said.  “Be straight with me.  Am I losing my mind?  Because if I am… fuck.  I just want to know, okay?”

“You’re not losing your mind.  What you saw was my spirit standing up and challenging the bald man’s werewolf spirit.  That’s why we were…. um, you know.  Naked.  No clothes allowed in the spirit world.”  He brightened.  “Your spirit is naked, too, you know.”

“I’ve never seen it,” Olivia said, dryly.

“Yeah, that’s a puzzler.  You weren’t supposed to see what you saw, and I honestly have no idea why you did.  But you’re not crazy.  You saw what was really happening.  It was the other people on the bus that didn’t.  All they would have seen is me and the bald dude, sitting there minding our own business.  No one else saw anything.”

“Including that sword of yours cutting the werewolf’s head off?”

“Yup.” He grinned.  “And by the way, that sword only hurts werewolves.  No worries about my being armed and dangerous.”

Olivia rolled her eyes.  “Trust me, at the moment that’s the least of my worries.”

Nathan just grinned at her.

“Now what do I do?  I mean, assuming that I actually believe all of this.”  And she suddenly realized that she did believe it.  There was no disputing what she’d seen, and Nathan’s explanation made as much sense as any other she could come up with.

“I guess, we finish our coffee and pastries, and we both go home.”

“And tomorrow, I just go to work, and you go back to… werewolf hunting?”

“I have to work, too.  Werewolf hunting doesn’t pay my rent.”

“Oh.”  She looked up at him.  “How do I avoid getting bitten?  I mean, you’re not going to be there next time, probably.”

“Given that you can see them, you’ll at least have more of an advantage than other people.  But honestly, not that many people are werewolves.  I kill maybe three, four a month.  Five in a good month.  And that’s with going out to look for them, hanging out in werewolf-friendly places.  I get at least one a month right in Chili’s.”

“Convenient for you.”
Nathan nodded.  “Yup.  But you shouldn’t worry.  Your likelihood of getting bitten, even if you couldn’t see them, is pretty small.”

She looked at him, one eyebrow raised.  “Any chance I could take out some extra insurance?  You want to have dinner together some time?”

Nathan gave her a dazzling smile.  “Sure.  I’m free tomorrow evening, in fact.  How about that new Japanese restaurant up in the University District?  I’ve been wanting to try it.”


Nathan stood, and then went over, and gave her a light kiss on the mouth.  Olivia felt a tingling sensation, like a static shock.

“You’re pretty forward yourself.”  She smiled up at him.

“Can’t let the werewolves have all the fun.”


Olivia found the bald man’s obituary in the Post-Intelligencer two days later.

It read:
Douglas J. Martin, 47, of Bellevue, died suddenly Tuesday morning.  He was a valued employee of Rush Life Insurance Agency of Seattle, where he had worked for fourteen years.  He was a graduate of Pacific Lutheran University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1985.  He was awarded an MBA in finance from the University of Washington in 1990.  Martin’s passing is mourned by a brother, Thomas, of Tacoma, and a sister, Mary McWilliams, of Tukwila.  He was preceded in death by his parents, Nelson and Denise (Trudell) Martin.
Olivia looked down at the photograph of the suit-clad man, with his neat wire-framed glasses and his combover.  A shiver ran through her frame as she remembered the rippling muscles and yellow fangs of the werewolf he’d become.  He could have bitten or scratched her, infected her.  If he had, in a week or two she'd be out partying at bars, looking for victims without even knowing it.

Or maybe she was losing her mind.  At the moment, those two possibilities seemed equally likely.


One date with Nathan became two, then three, and pretty soon Olivia’s roommate, Andrea, was asking when she’d get to meet this blond god that Olivia was so taken with.

“Soon,” Olivia said.  “I’ll have him over here for dinner some time.  Once we run out of new restaurants to try.”

“That could take years.”  Andrea wiggled her eyebrows.  “Maybe you’ll be having him come over for, you know.  Other reasons.  At some point.”

“Maybe at some point.”
“You certainly have been seeing him a lot.  When have you been one to run off after the night life?  I always thought of you as being more of the come home early, cuddle up with a nice book type.”

Olivia shrugged.  “I’m just having fun, that’s all.  Are you jealous?”

“Yeah.  A little.  And if he turns out to be as gorgeous as you say, I’m going to be a lot jealous.”


A little under three weeks later, she woke up on a Saturday morning with a sudden, stabbing pain, right behind both shoulder blades.  She yelped a little and reached back, but the pain was gone, as instantaneously as it had occurred.  After lying still for a moment, she wasn’t completely convinced that it’d been real, that she hadn’t dreamed it.

She tried to relax, to go back to sleep, but she felt restless, with a fiery energy that was completely unlike her usual reluctance to get up on her days off.  Finally, she stretched, yawning, and went into the bathroom, and turned on the shower.

As she was drying herself off, there it was, that jolt of pain again.  Once more she slid her hands over her bare shoulders.  Her skin felt normal, smooth, unmarked, and she massaged her shoulder muscles a little – but honestly, there was no reason to.  She felt fine.  Better than fine, actually.  She felt wonderful.  But why did she keep feeling that sudden twinge?

She glanced in the mirror.  And only for a moment – in a flash nearly as quick as the pain had been – she saw a reflection of herself, her face shining from its own light, and behind her a pair of long, tapered wings, streaked like a falcon’s.  She gasped, and looked again – and she was back to being herself, just regular Olivia.  The whole thing had taken less than a second.  She reached back, feeling behind her, but there was nothing there.

She leaned toward the mirror, mouth hanging open a little, and her image blurred, and there were the wings again, as if her body had hung back just for a little, had taken a while to catch up.  Then there was a shimmer as she became an ordinary human again.  Every time she moved, there was a quick image of a naked, shining, winged woman, who was clearly herself and yet so obviously not – and then like an image coming into focus, the vision would go away, and all she’d see was her own familiar form.

And that was when she remembered their first kiss, when she’d felt an electric zing as their lips touched.

Heart pounding, she turned off the shower, pulled on her bathrobe, and went into her bedroom, and picked up her cellphone and dialed it.

“Hello?” said a sleepy voice.

“It's Olivia.  Goddammit, I’ve… did you know you were contagious?”

He sounded genuinely mystified.  “I am?”

“Nathan, I’ve got wings.”

“You do?  How’s that possible?”

“Well, I think you’re the one who can tell me that.”  Olivia tried to keep the indignation out of her voice, with only marginal success.  “You’ve infected me.  With, I don’t know, Contagious Naked Winged Werewolf Avenger disease, or something.”

“I didn’t know it was contagious.”  He paused.  “Look, I’m sorry.  You already could see the werewolf, three weeks ago.  Maybe you were already infected somehow.”

“I don’t think so,” Olivia said.  “I’m sure that this came from you.”

“Sorry,” he said again.

“Look, I’m not mad at you.  It’s more that I’d at least have liked to have had a choice in the matter.”

“Germs don’t ask you if you want to be infected.  Remember the Germ Theory of Disease?”

Olivia felt her wings flex, rustle quietly, and then with a shiver she sensed her newly winged spirit reintegrating with her body.  Really, she felt remarkably well.  Well enough to fly.  Maybe well enough to hunt werewolves.

“Well,” she admitted, “I guess you have a point.”
“I gotta say it’s kinda cool.”  His voice rose with excitement, and she could virtually hear him smiling.  “I never thought I'd have a girlfriend who was... you know.  Like me.  Don’t you think this could be fun?”

“Fun,” she said, and was silent for a moment.  Then something in her seemed to shift, and she hoped it wasn’t just the wings.  “Okay, fine.  What the hell.  You know where I can get a sword?”


I remember when I first learned about the tragedy of how much classical literature has been lost.  Take, for example, Sophocles, which anyone who's taken a college lit class probably knows because of his plays Oedipus Rex, Antigone, and Oedipus at Colonus.  He was the author of at least 120 plays, of which only seven have survived.  While we consider him to be one of the most brilliant ancient Greek playwrights, we don't even have ten percent of the literature he wrote.  As Carl Sagan put it, it's as if all we had of Shakespeare was Timon of Athens, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Cymbeline, and were judging his talent based upon that.

The same is true of just about every classical Greek and Roman writer.  Little to nothing of their work survives; some are only known because of references to their writing in other authors.  Some of what we do have was saved by fortunate chance; this is the subject of Stephen Greenblatt's wonderful book The Swerve, which is about how a fifteenth-century book collector, Poggio Bracciolini, discovered in a monastic library what might well have been the sole remaining copy of Lucretius's masterwork De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), which was one of the first pieces of writing to take seriously Democritus's idea that all matter is made of atoms.

The Swerve looks at the history of Lucretius's work (and its origin in the philosophy of Epicurus) and the monastic tradition that allowed it to survive, as well as Poggio's own life and times and how his discovery altered the course of our pursuit of natural history.  (This is the "swerve" referenced in the title.)  It's a fascinating read for anyone who enjoys history or science (or the history of science).  His writing is clear, lucid, and quick-paced, about as far from the stereotype of historical writing being dry and boring as you could get.  You definitely need to put this one on your to-read list.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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