Every day the disease crawls closer.
At first it nibbled on the edges of the town, taking a bite out of the slums here, licking at a street there. For a time it stopped at the river, baffled by the water barrier, unable to cross the bridges guarded by police with barricades. But, in the end, it found a way to get across.
Now it slithers along the streets, each day coming closer. Sometimes it leaps whole sections of the town, as though it were a fire carried by the wind. At night one can almost hear it growling.
Each day, the city is emptying out. Those who the disease hasn’t killed are leaving, ignoring the government’s orders to stay. At first, the police blocked the roads out, and then it was the army. But the disease has moved closer, and the police and the army have broken and fled as well. And it has been many days since anyone has heard anything from the government.
I would leave if I could. At night I lie in bed, staring up at the ceiling, waiting to feel the disease touch me, too, my limbs rigid with fear, until I manage to fall asleep. And then I have dreams so awful that lying awake would have been better.
I am afraid to stay awake, and I am afraid to dream.
Yesterday, I had risked going out to find food, for there was none left in the house. The night before, the horizon had glowed red, and there was a pillar of smoke still rising. The smoke had come from the old part of the city, near the river. What it meant, I had no idea. Perhaps a fire had run out of control because the fire services no longer exist. Maybe there was looting and rioting, though what the point of that would be at this stage I couldn’t say. As long as the fire wasn’t coming my way, that was all I was concerned about.
There was a mad old man standing at the end of the street, slashing at the air with a walking stick and muttering to himself. I’d known him for years without ever talking to him, and thought I’d be able to get past this time without drawing his attention, either. I’d been mistaken.
“You, boy,” he’d called. “Can you hear it?”
“Hear what?” I’d asked.
He’d peered at me, thrusting his face forward like an elderly vulture. “Teeth, boy.” He’d dropped the stick and clawed his fingers to demonstrate. “Teeth, eating the town. Eating the world. Can’t you hear them?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. He looked really bad, older and frailer than I’d ever known him to look, but it wasn’t the illness. I knew he didn’t live alone, that his daughter stayed with him and looked after him. I’d seen her many times, a dumpy woman of early middle age who’d come hurrying to chivvy him back home, but there was no sign of her. “Shouldn’t you go home? It’s cold out.”
He’d ignored what I’d said. “Another day, two days, and this town will all be eaten. You’ll see.” He’d bent to pick up his stick, and I’d hurried past.
There was a corpse lying by the roadside outside the market. It had been there long enough to swell up and turn grey, flies buzzing in clouds over it. I averted my face as I walked past. It wasn’t the first corpse I’d seen lying in the streets since the disease started, and it would likely not be the last. Not all of them were killed by the illness, either. After the police had disappeared, there had been days when nobody had been safe outside, where a man could be killed for his shoes or a woman for the gold-plated chain around her neck.
The market had been deserted, the rows of stalls empty. I wasn’t surprised, of course. If anyone had been foolhardy enough to try and sell anything, he’d have been stripped by looters long before he’d even reach the market. And how many still remained in the city to buy anything, anyway?
Still, the market was the one place I could expect to be able to find something, unless I was willing to break and enter houses, not knowing what I’d find. I went through the stalls, peering under counters and behind curtains, and in the end I’d found a few dusty cabbages, a bag of withered carrots, and a small sack of wheat. It was better than nothing. It would keep us going for a few days.
I saw the pack almost too late. They came around the corner of a row of stalls, about six or seven of them, armed with machetes and iron rods. They were young, all of them probably still in their teens, and they were thin and ragged, but that didn’t matter. They were simply dangerous.
They had a woman with them, pushing her ahead. Her head was hanging, the hair falling over her face. She was almost naked, her hands tied with a nylon rope, and it was only because they were all looking at her that they didn’t see me.
I just had time to push myself into the narrow space between two stalls, crunching myself down into the tiny space available as they passed. They came almost within touching distance. I could hear them, the chatter of the pack and the dry rasp of the woman’s breath. I could smell them, too; the stink of dried sweat of the pack, and their excitement. I could smell something else, though, from the woman. It was the smell of death.
The rash had already appeared, the first reddish patches visible on the pale skin on her legs. Soon, if the pack left her alive that long, they’d darken and begin to spread. Of course, they’d have got it too, by then, though they wouldn’t know it. By the time they’d discover they were ill, it would be far too late.
It had taken me a long time to nerve myself up to come out from between the stalls after the pack, and their victim, had gone. Even then, I’d found it hard to make myself walk the way they’d come, as though the germs could have migrated into the earth from the soles of her feet and then through my shoes into my blood.
But then perhaps they could. Nobody really knows much about how the disease spreads anyway. There have only been rumours – so many rumours – but nothing more.
At first there had been doctors, and scientists. I saw some of them myself, in white suits like astronauts, their faces covered by transparent plastic sheets. They seemed to be extremely conscious of their own safety, I’d thought, though not much about ours. They poked and prodded at us, and then went away to their mobile laboratories, big white vans with their own police escorts. What they found, we never learnt.
And then one day they were gone, but we were still there, and so was the disease.
When I’d got home from the market – the old crazy man was gone, I’d no idea where – I’d taken my shoes off and left them outside, at the foot of the stairs, taking the chance that they could be stolen. I’d had an almost irresistible urge to throw the food away, too, but somehow I’d fought it down. We needed the food.
She’d been waiting when I entered, sitting in the big old chair which had been her husband’s once upon a time, her eyes anxiously fixed on the door. She’d heaved a sigh of relief.
“What are you doing out of bed?” I’d asked. It was surprising enough that she’d got out of bed, but that she’d dragged the big chair to where she could watch the door was so astonishing that I didn’t mention it. “Are you crazy?”
“I was so worried,” she said. “I was sure something would happen to you.” Her face, pale as porcelain, had relaxed a little, the lines smoothening out. “If something had happened to you I couldn’t have forgiven myself.”
“What do you mean? How could it be your fault?”
She’d sighed, watching as I’d dumped the food I’d found on the table. “If it weren’t for me, you’d have been able to leave long ago. I’m tying you down here.”
“Don’t be silly.” The cabbages were tough and leathery, but I couldn't afford to throw away even the outermost leaves, so I washed them the best I could. “You aren’t tying me down.”
“I am. Every day I want to tell you, forget about me and go away. I’m old, I don’t have long to live anyway. You still have a life ahead of you.”
“Don’t be silly, grandma,” I’d repeated. “I’m here with you.”
“It’s just that I’m selfish,” she’d replied. “I’ve watched you grow up...I’ve taken care of you after your parents, you know...” She’d paused for a minute. “I just don’t want to spend the last little bit of my life without you beside me, that’s all. Otherwise I’d ask you to go.”
I’d stopped washing the cabbages and kissed her. It was like kissing a doll, her cheek fragile under my lips. “I’m not going anywhere,” I’d told her. “Don’t worry.”
Now, though, the first light of dawn filters through the window, and I lie in bed, looking up at the ceiling, and I’m scared. I’m terrified. How much longer can we stay like this? How much longer can I find food? What happens when it all runs out?
I get up and go to the bathroom, wiping myself down with a wet towel instead of having a bath. The water in the pipes has stopped, and all we have is what’s left in the tank on the roof. Once that’s gone, I don’t know what we’ll do.
There’s a sound in the distance, an engine, growing closer. For one wild moment I’m hopeful, thinking it’s perhaps the army or the police, back again. But from the bathroom window I catch a glimpse – a dull red car, windows gone, an arm waving an iron rod out of the window. It vanishes round the corner.
It’s not cold, but by the time I get dressed again, I’m shivering.
Somehow, I must get through this. I try a smile in the mirror before going to her. It looks like a rictus. No smile, then.
She’s sitting up in bed, and I know something’s wrong the moment I see her. Her face is drawn in lines of pain.
“I’ll be all right,” she says, when I ask. “It’s just a little twinge in my back.”
The damned chair, the one she dragged yesterday so she could keep an eye on the door. I want to smash that chair. Swallowing hard, I fight down my anger.
“I’ll get you a painkiller.” I have no idea how I’m going to manage for medicine, either. She needs medicines for her diabetes, for her blood pressure, blood thinners to keep her arteries from clogging, calcium to keep the brittleness from eating away her bones. Maybe I can raid a chemists’. Surely all the stock can’t be gone.
And even if I do find the medicine, how am I going to feed and find water for us both? The question jumps up like a grinning monster, and, behind it, another, larger monster, one I don’t want to see.
“I’ll do what I can,” I mutter, addressing the smaller monster.
“What?” my grandmother asks.
I run my fingers through her hair, so thin and grey, and she rests her head against my hand. “Nothing.”
We’ve just finished our breakfast of boiled cabbage when there’s a knock at the door. It isn’t a hard knock, just a diffident tapping. I twitch aside the corner of the curtain cautiously.
I’m surprised. It’s the crazy old man’s daughter on the steps, her hand raised to knock again. When I open the door she looks at me warily, as though I were a wild animal.
“Hello. Could I come in? I won’t take much of your time.”
I stand aside to let her enter, and look over her shoulder. The street is empty; there’s no sign of the old man, her father. I’ve never talked to her before, and I don’t even know her name, but it doesn’t seem to matter now. “I thought you’d left.”
She swallows. “I did. But I had to come back. The army’s set up barricades on the highway. You can’t get through without a permit.”
“A permit from whom?”
“I didn’t ask.” She shrugs. “Does it matter? There’s nobody left to issue permits anyway.”
I wait for her to tell me what she really wants.
“I heard there are boats to get across the river,” she says. “The bridge’s been demolished, but if we can get across, we might be able to move across country to somewhere safe. There must be somewhere safe, mustn’t there?”
“You want to get across the river by boat?”
“Will you come with me? With us?” She blinks, remembering her old father, whom she’d left behind earlier. “I can’t manage a boat by myself. Once we’ve got across...” She looks at me, her eyes wide and fearful. “I’ll give you whatever you want,” she says desperately. “My money, whatever I have...my body, if you want it.” Her fingers fly to the buttons of her shirt, undoing them to expose the pasty flesh of her breasts. “You haven’t had a woman yet, have you?”
The larger monster, the one that I’d been trying to ignore, pushes forward, like the red rash crawling along her skin. Can she have not seen it, realised she had the illness? Can she have simply hoped it was something else? My throat is dry. The walls seem to be squeezing in. “Go away,” I tell her. “I’ll have to get ready. Come back in a few hours.”
I can’t stay here. I can’t stay here one more instant.
My mind races. If I can find a car, if I can get my grandmother into it, and we can get to the river, and if I can find and use a boat, get across...
Who am I fooling? I can never do it, not with my grandmother along.
If I am going to leave, this is the last chance I’m going to get. And if I’m going to leave, I have to do it alone.
My grandmother calls from her bedroom. “Are you going?” Somehow, she knows. “Come and say goodbye before you go. Hold me one last time. That’s all I ask.”
The room spins around me, my heart beating so loudly that it thunders in my ears. My hand reaches out, picks up the heavy brass vase on the end table.
I do not know what I will do. Will I stay? Will I go? Will I set her free?
The bedroom door is a hungry mouth, waiting to swallow me.
One wooden step at a time, I move towards it.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016