With the door shut, neighbours, those who are still alive, can believe that this is an ordinary house…
By Chourouq Nasri
I am delirious with exhaustion. My face is aflame. Rivulets of sweat are running down my back. I am not well, but no one is. I am doped up on tranquilizers. The virus is fierce and unpredictable. The unceasing awareness of the persistent peril has ruined everybody’s life. The virus is like an animal, a rat, a repugnant rat scuttling in and out of a stack of empty grocery cartons. My eyes are teary, my nose red and swollen from uncontrollable fits of sneezing, my upper lip chapped. Luckily, I wear a thick, black mask. I wish I could hide my red, watery eyes. But I cannot wear glasses; it is forbidden by the disaster law. I splashed water in my sore eyes before going out in a desperate attempt to ease some of the tearing, but in vain. Now that masks are an integral part of our lives, the virus police inspect peoples eyes to make sure they do not have the disease. Either you are sick or not; there is no room for in between.
The journey to the supermarket is far too perilous, but I have nothing to eat; and I have to bury my mother before her body starts decomposing. She caught the virus two months after I graduated from high school during the largest outbreak of the disease ever reported. Continuous advice about staying indoors and avoiding crowded places did not save her. I need to dig a pit in the garden to hide her body. I wont let them burn it. I will bury my mom in the part of the garden away from the main road, under an old tree whose branches spread over the houses backyard.
Even before my mother got it, I knew that the virus was the divide between a before and an after. My mother died three or four days ago. I am crushed by grief and seized by a loneliness I never felt before. I lost both my parents to the mysterious disease. Dad caught the virus in April, the month the disease was acknowledged as an epidemic by the Ministry of Health. He was shot on a Monday afternoon while queuing at a pharmacy. I spent those last couple of days lying in my bed, drifting in and out of sleep, waiting for a phone call or a knock on the door. But since people do not understand the virus, and all they know is that it is highly contagious, they are suspicious of almost anything and prefer to stay away even from their closest friends and relatives.
One thing restored my interest in life, though. I dragged myself out of bed because of the smell. I had to shut it out. I went this morning to my mother’s room. I looked at her for the last time. In the dim light from the single bulb, she seemed to be sleeping. I stood next to her bed and forced myself to look at her, my throat stiff with tears, thinking that my gaze might have the power to make her look back at me. Her eyes were neither open nor closed but half-open, half-closed. Her face was gaunt and purplish, with grey hair sticking out around it. I wept a little, aloud, snuffling and gulping as I stood watching her. I went on crying while I put the thick woven carpet near her bed on her alien, mutating body. Then I covered the windows that were thickly coated with dust and cobwebs, with blankets, leaving not a chink of light enter the room. Unable to bear the beating of my heart, I was suddenly out of energy, and collapsed on the cold floor crying, little gusts of breathless sobs, my eyes fixed on my mother’s bed.
I finally forced myself to get up and leave the house which stank of sweaty clothing and stale human breath and death. It was just after ten in the morning and the day lay ahead, and it would be filled every minute, with the preparation for burial. With the door shut, neighbours, those who are still alive, can believe that this is an ordinary house. A thin cat watched from the top of an apple tree, its eyes on me. Some apples had fallen off and were rotting on the ground. I stared sadly at them, and then walked towards the supermarket, carrying my big backpack and controlling my heaving stomach, in a sickening miasma that hangs all over the place. An invisible film of stench assaults all my senses at once.
This must be the smell of burned human flesh.
For a fleeting instant, I feel relieved to walk out into the sunlight, although air has been sucked out of the city. The supermarket is half a mile from my place, but the street looks very long and very drab. I walk past abandoned houses occupied by cats and dogs and encircled with enormous razor-wire-lined fences.
An army of policemen brandishing weapons fills the streets. The policemen stand like enormous, blurry pillars; yet they seem unreal. I try not to make eye contact with them. I suddenly have a painful pang of realisation: Oujda is a huge prison, cut off from other worlds and other people.
I am bitter, and angry, and frightened. My heart is pounding in distress. The thought of my mother is hanging around my neck like an invisible animal. The most precious thing she bequeathed to me is a photograph, taken when she was in her early twenties, with her hair piled on top of her head. I spent many hours in those last terrible days looking at it, yearning for the security and contentment of a normal life, lived in normal times. But this did not help numb the pain twisting through my ravaged heart. The woman in the picture is only a ghost in a frame now.
The supermarket is surrounded by police vans. As I get inside the store, I can feel my body changing, hardening, although I am making sure my eyes look impartial. The store is nearly empty; its busy time will not start for another two hours, when shoppers, masked men and women, will come in. The few people in the store look unhealthy. They have pallid, greasy looks. They all wear shapeless trousers, blouses, and coats and carry heavy shopping bags. The sight of a mother and her little daughter stirs up powerful and troubling memories. I feel tears rushing down my face, thinking of all the hours that mom and I spent in the various sections of the store. I miss my mom and I feel disoriented, a bit at a loss without her. I wander around helplessly, staring blankly at the supermarket display stands until I finally remember why I am here. I need a spade, a shovel, a fork and a lot of food. I fill my shopping cart with every canned soup and good I find. I will never have the energy to cook. I will feed myself with canned food until the virus kills me. There is no escape into a possible future.
I finally get to the cashier. I stand by the cash register, the cashier scanning my cans and my garden tools. The cashier is a thin, sour-looking woman with false blond hair. Her eyes flit nervously from my moms credit card to me, and back again. My heart sinks. I take a breath or two to compose myself.
Salam, I say in a trembling, painful, little voice.
Carte de fidélité. Loyalty card?
Yes, my voice vibrates with what I am suppressing. I cannot help feeling a twinge of panic.
I walk back along the street with my mouth slightly open, drooling a little, my head down. I am dragging my backpack by its strap. I am like a sleepwalker. I am no longer surged with the adrenaline that gave me the impetus to go out. The street seems to stretch for miles. I am vulnerable under the meticulous inspection of the virus police. I am feeling sick. I am going to vomit if I am not careful.
I suddenly hear someone cough, a long uncontrollable cough which fills the street with a sense of urgency and danger. I do not turn to see who he or she is. I hurry up, my heart galloping and my breath stopping. My thoughts whirl about wildly. I trip. I fall over my feet, on my knee. My dark-blue jeans are torn and the skin is barked. I get up again. I run uselessly in the street, but a loud and explosive noise forces me to stop. A gunshot. I stand panting in a dazzle of shock. I try not to sneak looks in the direction of the scene but I can’t. A man with dusty clothes lie curled on the side of the road in a puddle of blood. I suddenly realise that the policeman who shot him stares at me from the short distance of our sudden intimacy.
I am swollen with tears and hostility. The image of my mom covered with a woolen carpet comes back to me so vividly. I resume my walk back home and cry, my eyes fixed on the road ahead of me. I walk quickly, sobbing violently, my pounding heart sending the blood hissing through my ears. The daylight shrinks under the clouds and the sky blasts forth a piercing clap of thunder. The sky darkens, and before long, the rain begins to fall, hitting the ground with large, accelerated drops. It is the first of the autumn storms after weeks of torrid temperatures and no rain.
My clothes are soaked through. I feel very cold. I am shaking uncontrollably, and my teeth are chattering. Tears are rolling down my cheeks. The rain stops abruptly as my house looms at the end of the street, dark, silent, small. As I get inside the bleak house that had once been a warm, safe and unfailing home, I hear the calls to the dohr prayers from the neighbouring mosque. With a painful mixture of emotions, I close my eyes and wait for a picture of mom.
Chourouq Nasri is an associate professor in the department of English Studies at Mohammed Premier University –Oujda, Morocco. She authored numerous publications on topics related to literature, media and visual culture. She has recently started publishing fiction and literary nonfiction in international anthologies and magazines. She is the author of “Anna” in ID. New Short Fiction from Africa (2018), “Outside Riyad Dahab” in Hotel Africa: New Short Fiction from Africa (2019), “A Bus Ride to Ouad Nachef” in Kohl Journal in 2019, “Wheat Thief” in Tint Journal in 2021 and “Love, a Lens to See the World Through” in Brittle Paper in 2022.