Notes on an Epidemic
Translated by Andrea Lingenfelter and excerpted from the book The Kite Family by Hon Lai-chu, first published in translation by East Slope Publishing Limited (Muse), Hong Kong.
Read the Chinese here.
The survivors awakened from their long bouts with the virus to find that the streets downtown had a completely new look.
“I can’t put my finger on what exactly has changed, but the dull eyes of the pedestrians seem different, though maybe it’s just that people aren’t walking at their old frenetic pace or that they’re smiling differently. Perhaps it’s just body language, I don’t know. But there’s something strange about the atmosphere out there.”
This is what the first person to stick his head out the window said; and very soon all the other patients had sat up, gotten out of their beds, and were taking turns standing at the window to survey the traffic-clogged street outside. But nobody was able to make any definitive pronouncements.
“Maybe it’s us who have changed.” The still, heavy air had sunk into our skin like mercury, and just as we were starting to feel ourselves suffocating, someone offered these words of comfort. There were a handful of responses, along with scattered laughter: “Yes, maybe it’s just us who have changed, no more than that.” Either we would recover our old selves, or else we would morph into something altogether different and merge with the outside world.
In fact, we’d changed even more than we knew. During the epidemic, the levels of pathogens in the air had gradually increased until they penetrated every corner of the city. They drifted from one town to the next, seeping into our saliva, our respiratory systems, bloodstreams, and even into our glandular secretions. Some people had died, while others were brought to this vile-smelling building. Many of the afflicted developed complications, while others responded to the massive doses of medication and somehow managed to stay alive, setting into motion their irreversible transformation. What people feared most may not have been death, but rather the prospect of undergoing changes that were beyond their control.
“Will the people we were close to still recognize us?” This question came from the man in the next bed. He had put into words the feeling of confusion that troubled us all, but no one had a good answer for him. Our disorientation had begun with the nurse. One afternoon, she had entered the ward, wearing a white facemask that covered half of her face so that only her eyes showed. She told us that we would all have to leave by noon the next day. Her tone was brusque, and it sounded like she was giving an order: “You’re well now.” A patient who had been asleep in a corner of the room called out: “Are we virus free? Can we cross back over the border and go back to where we came from?”
“There aren’t any spare beds here.” That was all the nurse had to say to us before she turned and left the room. The door shut behind her, and the room seemed gloomier than ever. That night, it was the uneasy atmosphere and not the pain that kept us awake. I thought about my family’s black cat, which had always liked to sleep on my bed. I’d lived alone in that apartment, with its predictably feeble lamplight and its dependably hard mattress. There were no superfluous sounds, no superfluous odors, and I don’t remember when it began, but at some point I realized I preferred to stay inside that room that reeked of disinfectant, and to sleep in the company of seven others with whom I had nothing to talk about.
“Maybe we’ve taken too much medication and used too much disinfectant, and it’s weakened our immune systems, and that’s why everything seems to have changed beyond recognition.” The patient in the bed opposite mine had offered this suggestion after a long pause. Somebody else put in: “Once we leave, we’ll recover our strength.”
Before I drifted off to sleep, I wondered whether the anxiety that nagged me was merely a common sequela of this mysterious virus.
“The etiology of the virus has been discovered—it’s not idiopathic,” intoned the attending physician from his chair in the ice-cold room.
The changes may have first emerged in the secluded corners of town that I’d noticed, hidden in countless gray buildings. On my last day of vacation, the persistent cough and dizziness that had been with me for several weeks began to evolve, and the rawness in my throat grew until it was even bigger than the world my body occupied. I hailed a cab, but I couldn’t begin to describe the location of the hospital, and I had to rely on the driver to take me where he thought I should go. They carried me into a room with only one window, removed my clothing, and stuck all kinds of tubes into me, until my skin was covered with purple and blue bruises. Every day, at set times, they fed me different colored medicines, rubbing my body in the particular way they did. Everything seemed to be going according to plan. There was nothing that wasn’t satisfactory, and in fact you could almost imagine that it would be impossible to find a better situation. This was clearly an effect of the drugs, as one glance at the attending physician’s square-shaped glasses confirmed.
“Solitary people are highly susceptible to these virulent influenzas,” the doctor explained. Even if they could bring the infection temporarily under control, that didn’t mean that the patient had recovered; and there was still a greater than 50% chance of relapse. Without lifestyle changes, a full recovery would be impossible.
“People who are often lonely have incompetent immune systems, and their bodies can harbor all manner of diseases.” As if he were reciting from a textbook, he gave a detailed description of various viruses. The snow white wall behind him was hung with gaudy posters, one of which depicted a in cross-section of the human body and featured the organs and their names. Another illustrated several ways of preventing disease, including hand washing, gargling, and the wearing of surgical masks. I had a vague feeling the doctor was right.
“Only by strengthening people’s social networks can we stop the spread of viruses.” The force of the doctor’s speech produced an unreal ringing in my ears. The nurse escorted me out of his office and into another room where I completed the discharge procedure. They returned the clothing I’d had on when I entered the hospital and stuffed a white envelope that hadn’t been mine into my hands.
“During the recovery period, infected individuals may not return to their original towns of residence, as there remains some uncertainty regarding the extent to which pathogens may be lying dormant in those places.” The nurse repeated what the doctor had sai, and pulled a key out of an envelope: “We’ve arranged new housing for you. In addition to basic furnishings, the unit is also equipped with a father, a grandma, a husband and a younger brother.” She wrote down the address and told me for the third time: “Go there and concentrate on getting better. Nothing is more important than health.”
Wearing a sweater that was permeated with the smell of the hospital and holding my plain white envelope, I walked down the long narrow corridor. At the very end of it there was a point of light. This came from an outdoor parking lot, beside which was a road that was filled with an endless stream of cars. This was the world outside the hospital.
I stood on the pedestrian island in the center of the road and looked back to see that the nurse who had brought my medications, the nurse in charge of discharge, the attending physician, and the custodian were all standing at the end of the corridor and waving goodbye. Their arms described similar arcs, their eyes flashed with the same slyness, and I suspected that they were related to each other.
If I’d given the doctor a false history that day, he wouldn’t have written so much on my medical chart, the nurse who brought medications wouldn’t have brought me that bottle of pink liquid, and I wouldn’t have found myself feeling increasingly drowsy.
“There are people who look like me, too.” Speaking these words in the frigid room, I suddenly felt a stranger to myself. The urge to leave welled up inside me, and I discovered the door was locked without having moved a muscle. “We lived in a run down apartment building in S.” Once I’d opened my mouth, I couldn’t call any of it back. I’d spent so long in the hospital that I developed the habit of sticking my arm out and waiting for someone to inject some fluid into my veins.
“But that was a long time ago. It was another time and place,” I told them.
It might as well have been before the great Ice Age; some things were simply lost to time. I often think about the last dinosaur on earth and wonder how it spent its last days. I once innocently asked my mother that very question, because before she left us, she took me to see a documentary.
She had tilted her head to one side, and her face was engulfed in a patch of deep shade. “I have to leave this place,” she explained patiently. “Before we run out of everything in the house.”
We were standing in the middle of the street and about to head to a distant supermarket. Mother had uncanny powers of perception when it came to the disappearance of material things. In the course of our family’s repeating cycle of eating, watching television, reading out of date periodicals, and attending meetings in last year’s clothes to attend meetings, she could always divine with great accuracy when we were getting low on shampoo in the shower, frozen meat in the freezer, fruit on the kitchen table, toilet paper and washcloths in the bathroom, and bottles of distilled water. Then, she would lead an expedition to the supermarket. The seeming inexhaustibility of these household supplies lent the impression that time stood still. For there we were, striking the same poses, in the company of the same people, in the same apartment, day after day.
The day I first had an inkling that this was an illusion, Mother was sitting at the other end of the table from me. After the television newscaster signed off with the words “Until next time!” Mother announced: “I need to leave this place.” I stared at her, and suddenly realized that she didn’t have any wrinkles or large pores, perhaps because of her faithful application of a plethora of skin creams.
“Where would you go?” Father was alone in questioning her. “You should go before everything in the house gets used up.” She said she didn’t know exactly where she was going: “It’s going to be a long process, because I need to buy a lot of things.” She added: “I have to go to different places to find all of the things this house is short on. I doubt I’ll be back until I’ve bought everything.”
My little sister said: “But we already have everything.”
Mother began reading her shopping list out loud. It was very long and included the walls that were cracking, the floors that were mildewing in the humidity, the grimy towels, the spider web covered ceiling, the yellowed books with missing pages, the refrigerator that wasn’t cold enough, the broken door lock, the washing machine that hadn’t worked in a long time, the cracked windowpanes, the dim lamps, the passbooks for bank accounts that had fallen below their minimum deposit amounts, and indoor temperatures that were too cold in the wintertime. She glanced at father’s forehead and said, and the hair that just keeps getting thinner, the voice that keeps getting more feeble, the phone that hasn’t rung in ages, and the disgust in those eyes. Her eyes swept over my younger sister’s face and then her gaze fell on me, but she didn’t say a word.
I started feeling hungry. The dishes of food on the table were glazed with a layer of congealed grease. Mother’s words hadn’t convinced us, but nobody raised further objections, maybe because hunger had sapped our energy, although it might also have been the unfamiliarity of everything in the room. In the end, I had no choice but to do what Mother said.
Mother was nothing if not very thorough. Without our knowledge, a month before she left, she had placed an advance order at the corner supermarket for a woman who could temporarily take her place. “She’s young and pretty, and newly arrived from a town in the south,” she said, staring at Father’s shiny forehead. Ever since they’d opened the borders here, there had been an increasing number of migrants from the south. We all knew that every Wednesday night, after his run, Father would slip into the corner store to admire those voluptuous girls with smooth, creamy skin.
“The price was surprisingly reasonable.” Mother said that she had signed a three-week contract, which provided that the woman would perform all of mother’s duties in her stead. “I’ve already told her where I keep things around the house, when the bills are due, and about each of your personalities, habits and tastes.” Mother offered us this reassurance: “Everything will be as usual. Nothing will change.” Although Mother’s voice sounded gravelly and not quite real, I took the document she gave me after dinner. It stated that if we became dissatisfied with the performance of the merchandise at any point during the warrantee period, we were entitled to replace the merchandise, at no extra cost.
I have no recollection of how we adjusted to the big empty space Mother left behind, but maybe there was no absence for us to experience. One day I walked into the kitchen to get myself a cup of hot water, and it struck me that the woman sitting on the couch, sporting Mother’s house clothes, hairstyle, and scarlet nail polish, and exuding the scent of Mother’s body wash, was different from Mother in one important way. She had a smile on her face, and at that moment everything connected with Mother’s pale gray shadow blew past me like sudden draft.
Mother never knew what her own talents were. “She was like the cork in a bottle,” my little sister observed, coining a new simile.
After Mother disappeared from our home, autumn began seeping into the house like little drafts. A long run of hot days had left us thinking that autumn would never arrive, so when the dry wind tickled our noses and skin and we smelled a freshness in the air, we saw new possibilities everywhere and felt we were about to turn a corner. Maybe it had nothing to do with the changing season, but Father had started to look at me anxiously.
He was often preoccupied, and to comfort him my little sister would say: “It’s normal for the eldest daughter to grow up and move out. It has to happen, sooner or later.” Her words brought him back, and he shifted his gaze from the endlessly proliferating spider webs on the ceiling to me.
And it may have had nothing to do with Father, but as I entered young adulthood, I experienced a periodic loss of control inside my body. When the clock started ticking, the smell of blood was pervasive. I didn’t like being close to people indoors to begin with, and the sound of the clock hand jumping forward had always made my head ache dully, and I felt even less like being around people.
While the replacement woman slept away the afternoons, the hands of my personal clock were pointing towards “Leave”. I offered my Father a deal. He sat mutely by the window as I told him my terms: He would cover my living expenses until I reached my majority, and I would pay him back in installments within ten years, with the interest calculated according to current banks rates. I doubted he would find any cause to refuse me, and indeed, all my taciturn father did was shift his gaze out the window, towards the big tower block across the way.
The tower was very tall and very narrow, and it blocked our view of the distant ocean. There were only two windows per storey, and in the rooms behind each window there lived a child, with no one to keep them company. I had long wondered what kind of world lay hidden behind those windows. Now, suitcase in hand, I entered the dark gray, ramrod straight cylindrical building across the street from the wholesale produce center, inserted a key into the lock of a huge door. Only then did I get a glimpse of what was perhaps an incomplete answer.
My flat was on the eighth floor. Each floor had three rectangular apartments. The neighbor on my right was three years younger than me, and when he was seven his father had said to him: “Go away. Far, far away.” The neighbor on my left was five years my junior and had only recently figured out how to take public transportation to the end of the line and how to buy things with money. His parents had dropped him off here with a key to his one-person flat, and his solitary life had formally begun. I can’t recall if it was the neighbor on the right or the one on the left who had offered this assessment: Only independent problem-solvers can weather the changing times.
I opened the door to find a tiny but light-filed apartment. I could paint the walls any color I wanted; I could tuck myself in a corner and not have to talk to anyone; and I didn’t have to let anyone in, even if they pounded on the door non-stop. But when I pressed my face against the window in the living room, I felt as though I were living inside a clear test tube, surrounded by lamps that burned too bright.
The dinosaur in the movie had been born long ago, in the Cretaceous Period, but it was here that I met it.
“You people need to trust the doctor,” the nurse said.
I’d expected the people who were pretending to be my father, my mother-in-law, my younger brother, and my husband to be there waiting for me when I set foot in the apartment, like objects decorating a model unit, sitting on the couch, turning their heads at the sound of my footsteps, displaying similar facial expressions.
But there was no one on the brown sofa, only four brown wooden doors, all shut tight. There was a door opposite the sofa, another door facing the wall, and yet another door in a hidden corner, right next to another small narrow door. The only open door was near the exit, and it gave onto a pair of grease-covered windows with a view of the neighbor’s pipes, along with a refrigerator and cook stove. The refrigerator was stocked with eggs, frozen meat and produce. A warm sensation started spreading in my stomach, and the cold, hard marble floor no longer seemed like an obstacle to sleep. When I brought my face closer to the grimy windows, I could see inside the windows of the neighboring apartment building. A woman was staring at me with wide eyes, and I felt like I was already back in S, in that familiar little apartment that was like a test tube.
I walked into the kitchen and closed the door, making it like all the others.
“Can you give me some eggs and lend me your wok for a little bit?” The thin and frail man standing outside my door offered a trade: he would let me lie on his bed and use his pillow and blankets. “You need a soft mattress to keep your back pain under control.” His piercing eyes seemed to see through everything, but his labored breathing betrayed the fact that he was extremely hungry.
I brought out some vegetables and quick noodles, and then I went over to the door that was tucked in the corner and knocked. I haggled with the middle-aged woman who occupied the bathroom: “If you let me have the bathroom to myself for just a half hour, and all of this is yours.” The woman shook her head coldly: “That’s not nearly enough.” She suggested I let her into the kitchen where she could choose the foods herself.
Fortunately, the young man who lived in the study was often dehydrated and needed to drink a lot of hot water. As long as I gave him unlimited access to clean drinking water, he would let me use the computer and phone in the study anytime I wanted.
There was just one person who wanted something from each of us, the old man who slept in the living room. His reasoning was hard to argue with: “Do you realize?” he said, “that all of your tromping in and out and going from one room to another make it impossible for me to concentrate and keep an accurate inventory of the things in this room.” If he knocked on your door, you couldn’t refuse him.
No matter what corner of the room I was in, if my kitchen came into view, I couldn’t help staring. Likewise, if I went to the study, the bedroom, the living room or bathroom and shut the solid door behind me, I still felt there were eyes watching me. Even if we locked our doors, the partitions separating us would be easy to knock down. There was nothing we could do about it.
In those days, if any one of us was harboring even the faintest of suspicions about the relationship between the doctors and the disease, we would join together and push the refrigerator, washing machine and wardrobe to block all of the entrances to the apartment, before a doctor could set foot in that apartment. Ultimately, this was a fruitless exercise, because of the hordes of doctors and nurses in this town. They were as numerous as the ubiquitous dust mites and mildew.
One day, the doctor let himself in the front door with a key. The smile plastered on his face was like the sunshine that gushed down outside stabbing our eyes like jets of liquid. He wasn’t wearing a white coat, but the smell of disinfectant still trailed him into the room, invading our brains with the blinding pallor of the sick ward.
He tossed his overcoat onto the sofa, stepped into the bathroom to wash his hands with soap and water, and then went directly to the kitchen where he helped himself to a cup of boiled water. “It’s really hot,” he observed, before proceeding to drink all the boiled water in the carafe. He knew the layout of the apartment, just as he knew where all the patients’ rooms were in the hospital; so when he sat down on a chair in the study, opened up his laptop and started to read our charts, the thin and hungry man, the sullen youth, the impatient middle-aged woman, and the short old man all came and sat on the couch, as if by some tacit agreement. They were like caged chickens awaiting their turns under the cleaver, too ennervated to speak. I could almost believe that this cluttered apartment was, in actual fact, a treatment room.
“Your progress is less than ideal.” After examining our eyes and tongues and listening to our breathing, he stuck needles in our arms and drew deep scarlet blood. He then announced: “You will begin a new course of treatment.” He continued in a warning tone: “If any of you still have pathogens remaining in your bodies, others in this apartment will soon become infected as well.”
It’s entirely possible that there was no connection between our viral counts and the doctor, but we who shared this flat habitually sat like wilted plants in parts of the room that the sun didn’t reach, letting the barred shadows cast by the window frames and furniture fall across our faces. No one’s expression conveyed any meaning; and only the face of the middle aged woman had a ruddy glow, like someone who’d never been sick a day in her life. Her eyes focused on the spot the doctor had recently occupied, and she urged us: “We should probably do what he says, and live more like blood relatives.” She looked each of us in the eye, one by one, and said: “This is the only way we can gain the trust of the inspectors.”
Nobody responded. Transfixed by the shadow of a passing bird, I kept waiting for someone to turn around, but everyone seemed glued to their seats.
Then a soft voice advanced on us like a breaking wave. The middle-aged woman said that if we wanted the treatment to be effective, each of us would need to be assigned a distinct character and role. “Nobody in this apartment has a clearer picture of how this works than me. After all, I’ve been sick the longest.” In a tone that brooked no questions, she told us that she had devised a different treatment program for each of us. The young man would play my younger brother, the short old man would play our father, I would play the thin man’s wife, and the thin man would play the middle-aged woman’s son. “From now on, we’ll address each another by our roles.” We didn’t need to know each other’s names, but we did need to address the old as “Dad”, and the young man who was lost in his computer games had to call me “Elder Sister”, while the man who was always hungry would call the middle aged woman “Mother”.
“I’m your mother-law-law,” she said as she turned to face me. The others seemed to be frozen in place, rigid as granite, and I couldn’t think of any other options besides copying them.
She insisted on sharing her case history. It was like opening a wardrobe and being forced to take a tour of someone’s collection of clothes. Since childhood she’d suffered from a sensitive respiratory system. She was one of those people who always seemed to have a cold, and her colds lingered. They were like crows flapping around her head and couldn’t be driven off. “Sometimes they’re minor, but usually they’re massive.” She held out her arms to demonstrate how big they were. She stressed that an illness could take you places you would never have imagined. Whenever her condition got bad enough, she would make her way to a quarantined area. “Those are the only places where you can get the latest anti-viral drugs.” She said that the happiest days of her life had been spent sick in bed. “Only someone with a rich experience of illness can know the feeling.”
I spent much too much time speculating about why none of the people on the couch had uttered so much as a peep while she was talking. Was it hope, borne of blind faith in good heath; or was it yearning for the joy of major illness? It was impossible to know.
One thing I did know: that day, I felt more determined to get out of that place than ever before. She tried to order me around, saying, “As one of the two females in this apartment, you have to do the shopping with me.” Powerless to resist, I nodded, and there was undoubtedly a docile and slow-witted expression on my face.
I regret following her retreating figure down the street. I had become gradually enmeshed in those slender filaments. Bit by bit, they had wound around me until I could no longer disentangle myself. It was a lost cause. Dark clouds had gathered on all sides, and they were closing in.
I walked with my head down. People were pressed so close to each other that they formed a mass like a dark cloud that all but overflowed the street. With all those feet tromping back and forth, nobody could get a clear view of where the road was leading, although perhaps that wasn’t the point. At length, I followed the middle-aged woman’s back into the shop where she’d wanted to go. When cars passed by, people stood beside the traffic lights as if by prior arrangement, congregating in distinct groups. There were groups to my right, behind me, and on the opposite side of the street, and not only were they composed of equal numbers, each person’s eyes were trained on the same point, their laughter had the same rhythm, and they even responded to the homeless men lying on the sidewalk with the same grimace of disgust. Clumped together into a soot black cloud, they offset each other’s less agreeable qualities and oozed like a dense medium into every corner of the road. When the cars stopped at the lights, these people walked forward en masse, and I heard what sounded like rain hitting the pavement.
“Everyone out there is currently undergoing treatment.” The middle-aged woman entered an air-conditioned produce market and quietly warned me: “Anyone walking around alone is probably infected.”
I began to suspect that the fug did not originate from dust or garbage: all of the available air had been exhaled from someone else’s mouth or nose. As the middle-aged woman was enthusiastically buying garlic chives and coriander greens at the vegetable stall, I thought ahead to the coming days when I would eat these foods with relish while simultaneously suppressing the urge to vomit.
I’d never seen anyone who loved to eat as much as the thin man, with his body like a spindly willow that seemed to be on the verge of toppling over. On orders from the woman who played the role of “Mother-in-Law” we had to assemble at the dining table in the living room every night at 8. “If we’re all to be treated together in this flat and want to regain our health like the people outside, then we need to live like a family and eat together on a regular basis. It’s absolutely essential.” Her strict tone held an implied threat.
In fact, the threat was meaningless, because the dispirited residents of the apartment had never shown the slightest tendency towards resistance. The short old man meticulously tabulated the number of dishes, saucers, bowls and chopsticks on the table and doled out everyone’s portions. The young man obediently took sips of piping hot soup, while the thin man kept avidly wolfing down his food until he had polished off every last bit of the sliced meat with Chinese chives, the tomatoes and eggs, and shrimp and coriander greens. Last but not least, he sent the remaining drops of tofu soup and the last grains of rice down his gullet. “Mother-in-Law” didn’t take her eyes off him the whole time. When he was through, a satisfied expression spread across her face. Much later it occurred to met that what made the atmosphere at the table that day so harmonious was the fact that while the man was devouring all those greasy, over-MSG’ed foods, he was also savoring the flavor of her fingers and fingernails, the strength of her palms, or maybe even a few flakes of skin or random bodily secretions that had fallen in inadvertently. This knowledge would surely have given her pleasure.
I believed that if I could only follow the treatment protocol, then I would be able to avoid the pain and conflict of the process by the same token that if you could scrunch yourself up into a tiny enough ball you could squeeze onto any overcrowded bus you wanted. But the side effects of the drugs included the feeling that our skin and bones were being crushed against a wall until the top layer of skin burst open.
“Mother-in-Law” called us together to give us our new room assignments. She would let the old man continue to sleep on the couch in the living room. That way it would be easier for him to conduct his ongoing inventory of the furniture, foodstuffs, and number of people in the apartment. Everyone knew that the sullen youth couldn’t tear himself away from his computer, and “Mother-in-Law” would stay by his side and sleep next to the computer in the study at night; but I had a hunch that she might also take advantage of the situation and have the young man do certain tasks for her on the computer. Lastly, she turned her attention to me. She looked at me for a long time, and when she spoke, she spoke slowly: “You two will need to sleep together. You need to do this because you’re a couple and the core of this household.” She added this requirement so that anyone peeking in the windows would believe that we were genuinely a close-knit family. According to her script, each Wednesday night the “wife” and “husband” would be required to have intercourse, and others were entitled to watch, including the other residents of the flat, their guests, and people who lived in the apartment block across the way.
“But I’m not used to being stared at by strangers,” said the thin man, who had just finished dinner. His face drained of color, he had said what I was thinking; but the resistance he encountered from the woman playing “Mother-in-Law” came as no surprise to me.
She instructed her “son” with a coaxing tone: “This a hoop that everyone who performs the roles of ‘wife’ or ‘husband’ has to jump through. And we don’t have secrets here, so why be shy? Besides, hasn’t everyone in this room taken off all their clothes and lain down on an examining table for diagnosis and treatment at some point in their lives?”
The old man lent his support to “Mother-in-Law” and tried to persuade us that our only hope for a cure was to forget ourselves: “Anyway, bodies are pretty much all alike.”
The thin man moved his but no sound came out. He was like a fish that had given up the struggle to escape. One by one, he studied each person’s face, saving me for last. Then he turned his head to the side and looked over towards the adjacent tower, through a picture window to the inky green wall behind it.
Nobody wanted to believe what “Mother-in-Law” and the old man said. Even after the epidemic had passed, those clueless people who had never been infected were skeptical. We still weren’t convinced when they pulled a fake marriage certificate out of a drawer, because they’d never truly possessed the power to bend others to their will. But the inky green wall reminded me of my grandmother’s clothing, and it had been much too long since I’d last seen her.
Perhaps I’d never taken a good enough look at my grandmother’s face or hair, because when I tried to conjure them up, it was always my mother who appeared in my mind’s eye. My sister and I feared that we would never be able to escape our father’s vision, and we were often forced to see things through his eyes. My mother, my sister, and I would try to picture her face while we waited for her and Father to come home. Sometimes, we would sit facing the door while we waited; sometimes we watched the sky; sometimes we sat at a table full of unfinished plates of food; and at other times we waited for them in our dreams.
“Grandmother and Father are lovers,” said my sister when she saw Father place his hand on Grandmother’s belly. I couldn’t forget that when Grandmother was in the kitchen cooking a meal, watching television, or walking down the street, Father’s always had an arm around her waist or shoulder. He berated us for entertaining such thoughts, saying that he did this only to protect her increasingly fragile bones: “If I let go of her, she’ll collapse like a pile of dominoes.”
Mother’s face resembled an eroded cliff, making it impossible to ascertain her original skin tone. One night, after the midnight news report, Mother noticed the time and mentioned that Grandmother grown quite frail: “Right about now, the two of them should be at that cheap hotel they frequent, lying down on a cramped double bed. She’ll rest her head on his shoulder, and he’ll wrap his arms around her waist.”
“He ought to be picking up all her loose bones,” my sister countered.
We never knew for sure whether Grandmother’s bone density was normal or not, but after she and Father got tired of going out, she abandoned herself to the pleasures of cooking, spending long days over the stove in the filth- and grease-coated kitchen, serving us undercooked fish, overcooked and faded greens, flavorless mushrooms, and hard rice, all heaped high on the round dining table. Only Father could bear to eat this unappetizing food. Weak with hunger, we watched as Father polished off the last bite of food and Grandmother broke into a smile. Whenever she felt happy she would pillow her head on Father’s shoulder, or else lie across his chest, but we couldn’t be certain that this merely proved that her bones were getting more porous.
Later, she took to her bed, and there were days that she didn’t get up even once; but we still didn’t know if it was because of her osteoporosis. , Father was constantly at her side, catering to her wishes, changing her dark green clothing. He painted the walls to match her clothes, bought dark green furniture, and installed new dark green flooring. Father said that this particular shade provided pain relief.
After Grandmother passed away, we found ourselves ensconced in a world of various shades of dark green. Mother told Father: “When Grandmother died, part of you died with her.” She refused to back down on this point, and the two of them would become embroiled in messy arguments. Father was invariably the first to clam up, and he would look away, focusing on some indeterminate spot in the distance. , but it was always Father who clammed up first. I’m almost certain that it was during these silent intervals that Mother took note of all of the defects in the house; and this was the genesis of her idea to go on a shopping expedition.
“It’s time for you to shut yourselves up in that room,” “Mother-in-Law” indicated when the hour hand and minute hand crossed. Looking out through the spotlessly clean windows, we saw a profusion of windows, all too close, and through them we saw an assortment of strangers, some watching TV, some playing mahjong, some just sitting and staring into space. In the beginning, when our eyes accidently met, we swiftly averted our gazes, pretending not to have seen each other. But as we lay on the bed, that mass of human figures took on an aggressive aspect.
Making matters worse, the room was far from completely dark, and the unlocked door was no obstacle to the self-appointed neighborhood watchdogs, who came and went as they pleased, while dusk fell and lamplight seeped in around the edges of the open door. At first I thought all of these voyeurs were leering at us; but when I looked into their eyes, I saw the thin man and me reflected back as a pair of plants about to be grafted. The short old man was muttering to himself as he counted up the number of people in the crowd of onlookers, the sullen youth let out a long yawn, and only “Mother-in-Law” was looking at the thin man’s eyes. Her look reminded me of the look Father gave Grandmother, anxious and unsteady. I stared back at her stonily, grafting myself onto the thin man’s jagged body.
My sister once asked me: “Do you think they’re lovers?” I said nothing, but I reflected that Mother and Father’s sole connection had disappeared along with Grandmother. Ever since I’d entered adolescence, I’d sensed there were many things on the verge of happening. They were all around me, concealed inside a thin membrane, and if just one person turned slightly to the side, those things would start welling up, and once they’d bubbled up they’d be impossible to bottle up again. Later, they inexplicably faded away, until no one could be sure that they’d ever truly existed. My sister and I didn’t talk about it again.
They shut the door and we adjusted to the light in the room. After the last daylight had retreated, everything seemed as peaceful as the bottom of the sea. We were enveloped in bone chilling air-conditioning, but neither of us moved a muscle. Throughout the time I was living in that apartment I tried not to exert myself and conserved what little energy I had, so that when the doctor came to call I would have the stamina to argue with him about his treatment plan and point out his errors in judgment. But at the appointed hour on the appointed day, the doctor did not show up. The thin man and I were counting the days until the end of our treatment, but nobody actually knew how long the treatment was supposed to last. We fell to reminiscing about the days before the epidemic. Nothing else was tangible.
I told him about the black cat. One of its legs had been chopped off by a cat-hater, and after that the cat and I got into the habit of snuggling up together to sleep, relying on each other’s bodily warmth to get us through the worst of the winter nights. “It’s been three months since I last saw it; and even though there’s not enough food in the house, it still has the know-how to scavenge outside.” I tried to convince him that the black cat could still be alive.
“It has to be dead by now,” he contradicted me. “It undoubtedly met the same end as all the other animals that were destroyed.” He pointed out that in the early days of the epidemic, people’s pets had been the first casualties. “Some researchers advanced the idea that animals are one of principal reasons that people to sink into solitary lives.” He explained that strays couldn’t escape the hygiene teams searched for them day and night, hunting them down and killing them. “It wasn’t the lice and micro-organisms that live on animal hosts that they were trying to eradicate. No, they wanted ensure that no animal could ever again be a human’s companion.” After the animals had been destroyed, the newly vacant pet began taking in abandoned babies and old people. The store owners also welcomed the unemployed and the homeless, as long as they were willing to be trained as companions who would be as docile and eager to please as pets, and they waited in the shops to be rented out. “The government implemented this policy in order to help out those whose livelihoods had depended on animals, but they never imagined they’d end up creating so many career opportunities.
“Furthermore, it was commonly believed that when there was no longer any animal hair floating around in the air, people’s allergies would clear up.” But the thin man said he’d never felt the presence or absence of animals would make any difference to this town. “As far as I’m concerned, things started changing around here when the single-occupant apartments were targeted for demolition.” He believed that it was the dust and particulates thrown into the air by the demolitions that brought on the severe coughing fits and the red rash that so many people experienced.
“There will never again be apartments where an individuals can go to hide,” he lamented. He went on to say that the only cure for the allergies caused by dust mites was for the sufferer to lie down in solitude and avoid contact with anyone. One evening, during the doctors extended absence, we speculated about our chances for recovery. The soft fur of my black cat floated in front of my eyes, until it covered the entire sky.
The thin man didn’t tell the woman playing “Mother-in-Law” that he wanted to go out for a stroll was that his skin was red and swollen. Instead, he said he had an upset stomach, brought on by unstable weather and overeating.
“How long has this been going on?” “Mother-in-Law” asked. The thin man said he wasn’t sure: “The sadness has been spreading, like something gooey stuck to my body.” An expression of disbelief flickered across “Mother-In-Law’s” face: “And what triggered this pesky sadness?”
The thin man said: “Maybe there’s too much indigestible food sitting in my stomach, and it’s releasing these worrisome toxins.”
I don’t know exactly what displeased “Mother-in-Law” so much, but she eyed the thin man with dissatisfaction from then on, as if he had been trying to extort something from her, something he’d never be able to get. “In that case,” she said, “you should go lie down and get some rest, and stay in bed until you’re stronger.” But the thin man shook his head over and over, insisting that walking was the one way to get his practically paralyzed stomach muscles moving again.
“Mother-in-Law” glared at him as though he were a traitor who had been plotting behind her back.
One morning, as he was on his way out the door, the thin man asked me to join him; but “Mother-in-Law” said she was about to go shopping and that carrying heavy sacks of foods would make the hump her back get worse. “Carrying things is your job,” she reminded us. Her accusatory gaze slowly traveled from my face to the thin man’s shriveled hands, as if transferring the weight that made her back ache onto us with her eyes.
When I got to the street, I realized that “Mother-In-Law’s” shadow covered the ground all around me. It seemed to stretch well beyond the winding road, confirming her presence.
But I suspected that I was the only person who felt the pressure of all that heaviness. The thin man walked along the bumpy road, talking to me about the intimate relationship between single-occupancy homes and his persistent cough.
The road twisted and turned, so we couldn’t see what was ahead of us, apart from other people’s bodies. The thin man suggested we follow the bus route: “That way, we’ll end up back where we started.” He said that razing one-person apartments was like removing mountains, but he believed that such places still existed somewhere, in remote stretches of road, or in forgotten corners. He was as incomprehensible as a single-occupancy flat. His pinched face contorted with anger. As a designer of one-person dwellings, he was convinced that his respiratory ailments had their origins in the churning dust of the demolitions; but nobody was willing to take responsibility, nor did anyone give him reasonable compensation—they had simply appropriated the place where he’d lived for seven years. “They destroyed my house just the way they destroyed the cats and dogs.” The thin man described the buildings, as densely symmetrical as the teeth on a fine comb, which had once been a source of considerable income for the city. “It’s hard to imagine now, but those neat and tidy rows of towers were like luxury storage lockers. They cropped up in high-priced residential areas and attracted single people from all over the world, people who wanted nothing more than to spend a week, or perhaps just a night, in an environment designed for one person alone.”
I happened to have been one of those single people who moved here from another place so I could live in one of those drawer-like rooms that were perfectly for human storage. My eyes had wandered over the surrounding buildings whose windows revealed the lofty ceilings, round tables, rectangular sofas, and televisions inside, and I’d seen the large number of people out on their balconies, but later I came to feel as though the cave-like dwellings of those solitary tenants were nothing but what I imagined of life before the epidemic.
When the thin man took me outside with him, it wasn’t so he could show me the few remaining single dwellings. He must have realized that there were ordinary-looking but sharp-eyed people could detect someone who was out on a solitary stroll. They would tell whoever they were with, and then slip away. Cafés, theaters, restaurants and metro entrances all had posted notices that read “Entry Prohibited to Unaccompanied Individuals”. We entered the metro station, and a tide of humanity surged all around us. After the people who monitored the platform had directed us onto one of the cars, we held onto or sat on the knees of fellow riders. “We are capturing ever more space, so that we can accommodate our inexhaustible stream of riders,” the attendants explained.
We were borne onto the metro car at the tail end of a large group, and the thin man helped me by letting me put my feet on top of his. The dark silhouettes of the other riders loomed over me. People were packed so tight I couldn’t’ tell where one person ended and the next began, and suddenly I felt I knew what the thin man was after.
“The sunlight has never looked so bright!” “Mother-in-Law” had turned away from the sun. We were facing the window, and with our eyes shut tight against the stabbing rays of light, we couldn’t see her expression. We could only hear her voice instructing everyone in the apartment that we were to gather in front of the full-length window at 3 pm, lie down on the floor, and give ourselves a good airing, like heavy quilts at the end of winter. She said she had got the idea from the previous day’s noon hour television program, “Healthy Day”, which had broadcast information about how to get rid of things associated with insect infestations and bacteria: “Sunlight kills germs and boosts immunity.” I suspected that the goal of having us sun ourselves had nothing to do with the TV show and was directed instead at the people in the building opposite us who liked to do morning calisthenics. First thing in the morning, they would line up by their windows and do exercises, which surely caused “Mother-in-Law”, who often stood mutely by the window, to be filled with longing.
The man who played “Younger Brother” got up from his computer, the man who played “Father” got up from the sofa and wandered over, the thin man stopped talking about going outside, and they all lay down together on the floor, facing that overwhelming brightness, stretching their limbs as far they could. “Brother” slept beside “Father”; and the thin man and “Mother-in-Law” lay on either side of them. They were all looking at me expectantly, waiting for me to fill in the remaining space with my body.
On cloudless days we lay by the window in silence, letting the aggressively toxic sunlight beat down on us until our skin hurt, and as the sunny days added up over time, our skin grew darker.
“Mother-in-Law” noticed this change, and at mealtime she told us that once our skin became the same color, we would be able to go out together without passersby being able to tell us apart. That would constitute final proof that our immune systems had prevailed over the harmful microbes. Her voice was filled with irrepressible joy.
With growing certainty, I realized that the doctor was not going to pay us any more visits. But anyone who’s experienced a prolonged illness becomes intimately acquainted with the state of their own body, and in the end, even the neighbors who passed by our windows and never spoke to us were better qualified to measure the progress of our recoveries than a man in a white coat.
The night sky slowly turned to sapphire, and the sound of distant cars drifted over, and I told the thin man that the doctor wouldn’t be coming around anymore, and if he could get the woman who played “Mother-in-Law” to give him permission to go for a walk, I would tell her I was accompanying him, and then I’d go back to S.
He stuck his head out the window, and the cold, sharp air set off one of his coughing fits. He said he had doubts about my chances of getting past the immigration inspectors at the border, but I pointed out that the chances of his finding a single occupancy apartment that hadn’t been demolished were extremely remote. The only thing we could be certain of was that when it got light out and the wake-up hour that all five of us had agreed upon arrived, we could get out of bed. Ever since we’d moved into this apartment, when night fell we felt compelled to lie down in bed; but nobody was clear whether this was our duty as invalids, or if it was simply a house rule.
It was the old man who played “Father” who forbade us from formally setting out together. “That will make less than five of us,” he said, by way of justification. “Younger Brother” emerged from his room, but there was no sign of “Mother-in-Law” and her flowered blouse.
“She’s still in bed and doesn’t want to get up. Out of all of us, she’s always been the earliest riser.” “Younger Brother” told how this morning, when he looked at “Mother-in-Law’s” closed eyes, he realized that her eyelids didn’t so much as flutter. “But she still feels warm,” he added, trying to comfort us.
An atmosphere of distress pervaded the room, and everyone knew that if someone suffered a relapse during the recovery period, the people who played their relatives had to stay by their side, round the clock. Common wisdom held that the only way to combat this illness was with companionship, a state of affairs guaranteed to please no one but “Mother-in-Law”.
“I’m sick.” The words came tumbling out of her mouth, and she blushed like young girl. She reported having the distinct sensation that the infection had entered her body and told us that, as a veteran of numerous illnesses, she could gauge the condition of her own health with great precision. She had also experienced a powerful sense of foreboding and felt that Death was close by, waiting for her.
“You need to eat better,” the thin man broke in, but she cut him off. Wearing a look of conviction, she said that being on the edge of death is like being at a wild party—it goes all night and into the dawn, and you don’t know when it will end.
“Younger Brother” and I believed that “Mother-in-Law’s” illness was a trick. “If she could pull off her masquerade as a mother and the lady of this house, then why couldn’t she fake a relapse?” But “Father” and the thin man said that her illness had reached the terminal stage. The thin man quickly dialed an emergency number and called for an ambulance. “There’s a woman here who’s having a relapse.” He begged and pleaded, but no ambulance ever came.
“They said they see worse cases of this virus every day, and it’s more than the ambulances can keep up with. Non emergency cases like this just have to wait till there’s a free ambulance,” the thin man relayed.
Adopting a dignified and resolute expression, “Father” announced his decision: “There’s else for it—we’re going to have to surround her with a party atmosphere until the ambulance arrives.”
“Mother-in-Law” managed to milk the situation even more than we could have imagined. “You can’t have a good wake without lots of tears.” She emphasized further: “In addition to the required guests, there has to be a long and drawn out display of grief.”
We had next to no money left. Stuck in this city for so many months, I hadn’t been able to work and earn money, and the thin man was in the same boat. “Younger Brother” was too young to work, and “Father” was well past retirement, so we had to get by on a tiny monthly subsidy.
The thin man insisted nonetheless that we pool our meager resources and engage the services of a professional mourner. “None of us has enough tears.” He attempted an explanation: “Even if we could cry on demand, non-stop, none of us has technique that can match a professional.”
The moment the older woman providing mourning services stepped into our apartment, she launched into a description of how she would be conducting herself from morning till night. “Ever since the epidemic broke out in this area, I’ve been out practically every day weeping on demand. Before this happened, I was convinced that the profession of mourning was in its final days. What with so many people living on their own, people weren’t giving much thought to ensure there’d be plenty of crying at their funerals.” She gushed to us about her good fortune: “But now, practically every ‘family’ hires a mourner at least once, and tears are a hot commodity. And the number of households just keeps growing. This epidemic has brought huge economic benefits to the area.”
“But you must know that the lady here isn’t dead,” the thin man explained. “She just likes the feeling the feeling of being surrounded by people and weeping.” The woman quickly put on her professional face and expressed her comprehension: “She needs tears of sympathy and compassion, rather than tears of bereavement.” He nodded, then added: “Remember, you have to keep crying until the ambulance arrives.”
The woman’s sole requirement was that she be allowed to speak with “Mother-in-Law”: “I need to have a certain degree of understanding with the object of my weeping in order to cry high quality tears.”
We led the woman to “Mother-in-Law’s” room. Taking “Mother-in-Law’s” hand in hers, she said: “Tell me whatever’s on your mind; I’ve prepared an endless supply of tears.” She sounded just like a mother gently coaxing her child.
“Mother-in-Law” opened her eyes. We had gathered around her bed so that she could see each of our faces. The mourner sat down beside her, and the thin man drew close and whispered in her ear: “The party has officially begun.” “Mother-in-Law” was as rosy cheeked as Sleeping Beauty after she’d eaten the poisoned apple. Although she’d been awake a log time, she hadn’t yet found a good enough reason to leave the room. We put on our most encouraging smiles for her.
She told the woman that she’d drifted around a lot, following the paths of various outbreaks. She’d been through three large scale epidemics, and each one had brought her to a different place. The first time, she’d met a man and fallen in love in the hospital where she was getting treated for asthma; but they’d lost touch when she changed hospitals. She had gotten married in the 1960s on a small island during an outbreak of dysentery; the marriage ended a month after he contracted tuberculosis. In a time of rampant cholera, she’d adopted three children she found outside a grocery store, but they abandoned her when she had her appendix removed.
Later she came to this apartment to recuperate from influenza. She had prepared meals and assigned chores to members of her “family,” but they’d insisted on conspiring to give her the slip and get as far away as they could. The thin man’s face clouded over.
Tears streamed from the corners of the mourner’s eyes and down her cheeks, flowing into the palms of “Mother-in-Law’s” hands. At first the tears were like a bubbling brook, but before long their tempo modulated along with the vagaries of “Mother-in-Law’s” illness. Her heaving shoulders had a particular cadence. Her tears would slow abruptly, and a choking sound would start brewing in her throat. Like a wild animal deep in its cave, gathering the strength to burst out, her heavy and muted growls grew in force until they were right next to us, and a massive flood of tears poured down onto the sheets and blankets. “Mother-in-Law” didn’t speak, but she closed her eyes contentedly and wallowed in the agony of those tears. The woman gradually regained her composure, and a whimper issued from her dry, scratchy throat, like the sound of a car dragging a half-dead dog down the street. The room was very humid, and when the mourner’s tears began streaming down once more, the heavy flow turned into an ocean that drowned us in its suffocating atmosphere.
By the time the ambulance finally arrived, the woman’s tears had soaked through the bedding, the carpet, our clothes, the walls and the books, and the salty smell of tears filled the air. The mourner lay limp on the sofa, and we brought her a fresh glass of water.
I’ve always had a hunch that it was the mourner’s tears that finally flushed the stonily unyielding “Mother-in-Law” out the door. As the medics lifted her onto a stretcher, I asked them if she was coming back. They shook their heads and said we’d have to wait and see. Never in my entire life had I felt so light and free. I’d be able to feel the breeze again. I felt as if I were about to float up into the sky. At last I had achieved a measure of happiness, but I nonetheless maintained a caring and sorrowful expression as I saw the medics out. In the days that followed, I had no other way to express my joy; and it wasn’t deception, that was just the way things had to be.
The morning after “Mother-in-Law” left us, the man who played “Father” was in a lather. “No matter how I calculate it, the numbers still don’t match the numbers we had at the beginning.” His face was trapped in the net of his wrinkles: “We’re short one person.”
“She’s in the hospital.” I tried to make him understand, but he insisted: “This change in the numbers could have serious consequences—it’s like the room suddenly losing one of its pillars.” His pleading eyes moved to the thin man’s face: “Believe me, this is real.”
He said that his old home had collapsed for precisely the same reason, right after his wife, two daughters and son had disappeared overnight. “Their clothing was still in their drawers, their computers were still on, and the mahjong set was still out on the table, but those four people were gone for good.” He ruefully related how he’d always been very conscientious, turning off the computer and gas and locking up the windows whenever he went out. “But I forgot to take a head count of my family that day, and I wasn’t paying attention to what color clothes they were wearing.” He was haunted by the fact that he’d been unable to answer practically every question the officer in charge of missing persons had asked him. He couldn’t provide anything relevant to his missing family members, and the investigation never went anywhere. In the end the officer sent him home: “Go home and wait for news; maybe they went on vacation and forgot to tell you.”
The thin man tried to soothe him: “‘Mother’ is just in the hospital, you can still count her.”
But “Father” shook his head and bitterly went on to say that he’d gone to the betting shop that day and that he would have remembered the numbers related to his family if only he hadn’t had the numbers of the horses lodged so firmly in his head. “A short count is a bad omen,” he said.
After the dejected “Father” had exhausted the subject of numbers, he began pacing back and forth in the cramped room, saying that the only way he could calm himself, even briefly, was by counting his footsteps.
Nobody could think of a reason to stop him, but on night after sleepless night, his arrhythmic footsteps rattled the air like sand and gravel, blocking every exit and leaving no room for us to breathe.
On nights like those, the thin man and I would lie in the dark, staring at the ceiling, each lost in our own thoughts. “How about this—how about we go to a pet store this weekend, pick out a docile old lady, and bring her home to live with us? That way, he’d at least be able to get the count he’s looking for each morning.” Then maybe he’d stop pacing.
But the thin man didn’t think it would work: “He’s bound to notice it’s a different person.”
“Why should it matter if they’re not the same person?” I said: “They can still have the exact same function.”
My little sister once used that very argument to try to convince our father to let her move out, but Father had just looked at her mournfully and hidden the one and only key, thus thwarting her. She got in touch with me and asked for help.
“Go to the store and rent an eight-year-old girl, and hurry. And remember to bring the house key—you still have one, right?” She’d phoned to tell me her predicament, and she was keeping her tense voice as low as it would go. She said her only hope was to find an eight-year-old girl to take her place. I thought back to the time many years before, when we were still very young, and she’d forgotten to wear her uniform tracksuit to school. She’d come into my classroom crying and pleaded with me to trade outfits with her. I’d felt I had no choice. After she’d sauntered off in my clothes, looking very pleased, I found myself surrounded by people who were staring daggers at me. Holding the receiver, that same feeling of having to do what she asked came back to me. “Why an eight-year-old girl? What sort of eight-year-old girl?” I asked her. This was a tough question for her, but she didn’t miss a beat: “Do you still remember what I was like at eight?” I had only the vaguest of impressions. She quoted Father: “I miss the girl you were at eight. You’ve become more and more distant as you’ve gotten older.”
On the ride to the store, I tried and failed to remember what she’d looked like at eight. Even though the children’s department in the store offered a colorful and lively selection of girls busily playing all kinds of games, I didn’t see even one who sparked a sense of recognition. Nonetheless, I picked out a girl with short hair, whose reluctant way of looking at me told me that this was the daughter my father had always wanted.
But he didn’t greet her with the eager expression I’d expected. Instead, he just glanced at her sideways and said: “Want something to eat?” The girl shook her head slightly. He shifted his gaze onto me: “You and your sister can leave, if that’s what you want to do.”
I took my sister to the station, dragging her suitcase for her. Suddenly, she piped up: “Will that girl be sad?” Sidestepping the more painful aspects of reality, I answered: “She might have some happy times as well.”
When my sister, now hauling her own heavy suitcase, said goodbye to me, it occurred to me that it had not been our father who had imprisoned her.
“Find a replacement.” I tried to get through to the thin man once again: “He’ll stop fretting about the change in numbers, and we can slip away.”
I yearned for the day that the fill-in “family member” would show up on our doorstep. When she finally arrived, I picked up my S passport and walked out of the building, but “Younger Brother” interrupted my plans.
“I’m moving out. Starting next month, I won’t be part of this household.” He lowered his head and handed me a white envelope.
“Do you have the doctor’s permission?” I suddenly thought of the people on the other side of the windows, whose fascinated stares made me shift uneasily. I felt a surge of surprise mixed with envy. I couldn’t keep the sullen expression off my face, but there was no way I could begin to explain, and his shamefaced expression made him appear even more like the innocent little brother.
He said he was over the infection, but that the shrinking economy had made impossible for him to find work, despite the fact that he was a college graduate. It was only through the help of a friend who worked in a hospital that he had at last found a new line of work as a “Little Brother” in a recovering “family”.
“This kind of opportunity doesn’t come along very often,” he enthused, but he looked pained. “You have to understand, ever since the epidemic started, new families have formed and demand for ‘Younger Brothers’ has been high. This glut of families was bound to create lots of unprecedented challenges.”
The big rectangular slab of the front door might as well have been the eye of a needle, as far as I was concerned. Other people passed through it freely, but for me it was like the gym class I’d been in many years ago. Time after time, I crashed into the hurdles that others cleared with such ease. I have no idea why this happened. Maybe there was no reason at all.
He begged me to write him a letter of recommendation that verified that not only had he performed the role of “Younger Brother” here, his performance had been exemplary, and he was well qualified to act as a “Younger Brother” in another household.
“Are you sure you want to keep doing this?” I asked him.
“Do I have any other options?”
I didn’t say anything, and he must have realized that an answer was too much to hope for.
“I’m lucky to find a job as a ‘Younger Brother’.” He spoke with downcast eyes as a familiar cloud passed over his face, like a dying butterfly at the end of spring. I had seen the same shadow cross the faces of many other people.
I stated in my letter that an accomplished “Younger Brother” like him was hard to find in this city. He had an accommodating nature and would comply with other’s wishes, almost unconditionally. He was soft spoken and never argued, and, better yet, he liked to spend most of his time in his room, so he wouldn’t encroach on anyone else’s space. He was an expert at the art of concealment, but he didn’t leave people with the impression that he was a phony.
“Younger Brother” stepped out the door and waved goodbye, the letter I’d given him in his hand. I realized he wasn’t carrying anything else besides that white envelope.
It was only after we’d watched him walk down the hallway and disappear around the corner that the thin man suggested we accompany him to the metro station: “A person leaving home should never have to leave by themselves. Besides, I clearly recall seeing a leaflet on a lamppost by the station that advertised apartments for rent. They highlighted the fact that all the units were suitable for solitary occupants.” His expression took on a sort of gravity: “Who knows, maybe all the units are belong to private collectors. Anyway, I want to jot down the contact information on the leaflet.”
After he left, I stared at the clock. At first, I thought I was calculating when he might return, but gradually I realized that what I was doing was more like waiting. The hands of the clock kept advancing, which I found quite soothing. The hands traveled farther and farther, and I was finally able to relax.
Darkness was about to fall, and a last sunbeam came in the window, crossed the floor, streamed past the doors of two rooms, at last reaching the front door, bathing me in gold. The old man was lying on the couch, but everyone else was gone. The apartment had never been this empty before, and it felt unreal, as if I were back in my apartment in S, except that this place was more spacious. I pictured myself moving freely from room to room, and I realized why the wooden front door seemed so narrow to me.
Our numbers had dwindled to the point that the old man stopped counting things, including his footsteps. I didn’t know if it was disappointment or exhaustion, but he liked to spend his days asleep on the sofa, curled up just like the black cat I used to own. It had loved to jump onto my bed and sleep beside me, but I would chase it back to the sofa. We did this over and over, and it was a game that neither of us ever tired of.
I imagined my black cat growing and growing, until it was bigger than I was, as tall as a small tree, so that I could take shelter in the cool shade of its soft belly. When the old man was sound asleep on the couch, it was as if the black cat had returned to me in a different form.
I decided to let the old man stay and then undertook a thorough housecleaning.
I adopted the habit of starting each day by scrubbing the ceiling, windows, floors, sinks, bathtub, toilet, stove and furniture with water and disinfectant, cleansing everything of any scent, stray hairs or other traces of those who had played “Mother-in-Law”, “Younger Brother”, and “Husband” that remained. I would keep going until I had forgotten they’d ever lived here.
At first, the smell of cleanser attracted neighbors I’d never met before. They stood by the window, suspiciously questioning me about what I was doing, and I told them that disinfectant could wipe out germs. This reassured them, and they went away, feeling better. It’s also possible they’d become accustomed to that faintly sweet odor, just as the cleanser always dulled my senses whenever I looked at the flimsy front door and started imagining it swinging open and the people playing the “Family” stepping inside as if nothing had ever happened.
Years later, long after the shadow of the last victim of the epidemic had faded away, people still treated survivors like us with curiousity. They asked me how I’d survived the violent onslaught of the disease, and I told them that, frankly, I hadn’t done anything but keep on living my life. Untrusting, they narrowed their eyes, which were like the bewildered eyes of foxes in the wild. I tried to get across to them the importance of numbness, but the more I tried to explain, the more I realized that they weren’t looking at me with the eyes of foxes, but rather with the eyes of someone who has just seen a monster. Only I knew that what stood before them was not some incomprehensibly alien creature, but an assemblage of extraordinarily faithful mirrors. It was they who lacked the clarity of vision to recognize that they were reflections.