Week 24

Snigdha Manickavel | Updated on October 30, 2020

Gasp! You find yourself growing afraid. Every day it becomes harder to sit still, to breathe normally   -  REUTERS/ FRANCIS MASCARENHAS

Anxiety comes home in the shape of a virus and leaps out from behind a mask

The virus changed everything. You could no longer afford to be picky, could no longer scratch deep and find out where people had come from, who they were. These were days tinged with desperation. Under a spell, you piled up mountains of biscuits beneath your bed and walked in circles around your apartment building, over and over again.

In theory, you know you are strong and invincible, you laugh loudly at viruses but also struggle to keep yourself clothed and fed. A layer of scum forms beneath unwashed dishes. Something about the broom handle makes your back ache, you resent the dust that accumulates in this stilled world.

You do not question where this woman has come from, where she last worked. She was willing to stay with you and cook for you. Sweep and wipe down the floors. Wash the dishes, run the washing machine, dry but not fold clothes. You do not ask where she is from, you ask when she will start.

She tells you what she needs for the house — a broom, a bucket, an old newspaper. You like how she is quiet. You do not like how she seems to appear and disappear without warning. You like leaving behind the tedium of knowing all your food intimately — you no longer buy anything, or wash anything or cook anything. You like the fact that you don’t have to bend down any more and your fingernails are always clean. You like that she wears a mask without you having to tell her to. You do not think it odd that she never takes it off.

She sits on the floor of the balcony, a dark hunched shape and you move to the other room. The smudge she makes along the edge of your peripheral vision makes you uneasy. Whenever you look up, she is staring back at you over her mask. You pick up your phone and stare down hard.

You could wonder about many things, like what colour was the soil under her feet when she was a child. If she had a husband and if he hit her hard and unexpectedly. Instead you wonder where she got that mask from. Did she steal it, perhaps? Is it the same one or is she washing it and drying it in some unknown realm of the apartment you no longer feel is yours. The mask is the light green of this pandemic. She stands back when you come near and sometimes you wonder if she is breathing at all.

As the days blur into each other, you cannot remember what it is you are supposed to do or why you are here, in this city, in this life, within this block of light stacked upon identical blocks of light. You read emails and answer the phone and still it remains unclear what you are doing and why. You reply to most messages you receive with a single yellow thumbs up. It is never clear who the people in your phone are, how you came to know them or why they are showing you things — cats, children, loaves of bread.

You find yourself growing afraid. Every day it becomes harder to sit still, to breathe normally. You hear people cough but they stop as you draw near. It is unclear if they are wearing masks or not. At night you are plagued by dreams. You shout at the woman, your skin vibrates with rage. You know she is taking something from you but you do not know what. You wake up convinced she is a thief but it is unclear what she has stolen.

Your shoulders sink lower and the days slide over you. Sometimes you wonder what you are living with, why you let it in, why you won’t send it away. The woman stands at the kitchen sink, staring out of the window. Her back is to you but there, under the hem of her frayed underskirt — her dry brown toes, nails inexpertly covered with chipped pink polish. You look again, she is gone. You stare into your laptop, your own frowning face reflected back. She leans close, her eyes bright over the stolen mask and whispers into your ear, “you are a disappointment to everyone you know”. You do not argue. You serve yourself the food she has cooked and you watch as it twists, squeals on your plate. You stare straight ahead and put it in your mouth, bite down. It tastes like everything else you have ever eaten.

There comes a time when you can no longer stop yourself. You reach out and pull down her mask. Where her mouth should be, there is only a deep, black chasm. She throws her head back and swallows you whole.

Snigdha Manickavel is a writer based in Chennai

Published on October 30, 2020

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