— Sumita Mukherji
Content warning: this story includes descriptions of a global pandemic.
The children’s hallucinations bloomed at night: abandoned skyscrapers and derelict hulls of ships and wildfires wrecking villages. All of us, not knowing what the sickness was, called it the midnight virus. All of the parents said, We will win against this fever, this endless pandemic.
Though the town knew my ten-year-old daughter, I did not mention her. I did not mention that she lived without fever, even when parents of the dying stared at her as she skipped across our back lawn. I did not mention that against my wishes, she kissed her ill friends’ cheeks and as they slumbered, pilfered old teddy bears, diaries, necklaces, games. How she glued their toys and trinkets, wet with fever, into a pyramid. How she laid on her rug and embraced its triangular base in her sleep.
In imagined conversations with neighbors, I said, The stealing has kept her whole, reanimated her synapses, enlivened her, so that she rises while it’s morning. See the baby-fine wisps growing once more on her scalp, the bald spots a memento of her pulling her hair out when the midnight virus first set in. Watch how nimble her fingers are as she presses the keys of her flute. Look at the two of us playing old favorites again: Palm over palm for slapjack; hands interlacing for cat’s cradle. Her mouth laughing into my ear.
I stroked the forehead of our neighbor’s febrile son, and sweat stained like squid ink leaked down my wrist.
Outside the empty children’s library, dogs keened. My daughter laced my favorite shawls around their shoulders, waved unused tennis balls at their chattering lips. She led them to her friends’ houses, believing that the dogs’ cold tongues would relieve the illness.
Every week, paramedics carried rigid children beneath pale sheets out of their homes, so many children that the undertakers ran out of coffins and buried them in shipping crates instead. What lingered in deserted bedrooms: lavender and lemon oil. Sable-dotted pillows. Ebony specks of vomit. Smoky games of hangman traced on fogged glass.
At each memorial service, my daughter flashed her hand like a gun at fever-less portraits of the dead. Last night she told me her birthday wish: Leading the children in a victory parade, triumphant over the virus. And in the future, leading the children as captain of the volleyball team and class president.
One day all of us flooded town hall, the early half-moon a beacon, ebbing and flowing against the door until it burst, and said, We demand more scientists. We demand faster research. My daughter said, Let them poke me. Let them study me again. So the town councilors sent distant scientists a thousand emails and then sat astonished, as if seeing their pleas swirl like a starling murmuration. But no scientists came. They did not want our plague. We said, Then all of the children will disappear soon. And all of our hearts will follow.
And soon, my daughter will have no friends. Soon my daughter will rend her hair, trample her flute, sleep in her closet. And soon, we will move to New York or Ontario or India and wait for the virus to come, so that she can enfold more dying friends and build another pyramid.
On another day, we perched on the steps of a barren town hall. I want the fever to become a fairy tale, my daughter said, something retold with an ending so happy the truth is left behind.
How I wanted to rewrite our story, to save her flute and spin her locks of hair. How I wanted to thieve a town of thriving children to make her mine again.
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