When is devotion stronger than disease?

By Karen Harrland

But Ashit, you know we are not supposed to gather in large crowds. Syeda clutched her husband’s robes from the floor as she spoke, her pleading face turned to her husband. He looked down on her, his beautiful young bride. She was still as stunning as the day of their marriage with her dark kohl eyes painted on and red wedding shawl framing her flawless skin.

A flicker of unease crossed his face as he looked at the infant in her arms, then at his mother, sitting in the corner of the room sewing with a dark shawl flecked with gold thread modestly over her head. She glanced at him steadily under her shawl but then looked away without a word.

A voice called out from outside his little house, ‘Ashit, are you coming? We are waiting.’

‘Yes, yes, just wait.’ Ashit looked at his young wife, resolve steeled his heart. I am going Syeda. It is my duty and is only right.’

Syeda opened her mouth but a gentle cough from her mother-in-law silenced her. She dropped her hand and hugged her baby to her breast. Ashit spun and nodded at his mother, ‘take care Mama, see you soon.’

The old woman Purbita nodded, her eyes watchful but mouth set firm as her son pushed the door open to a cheer from the man outside.

Syeda laid her baby on a rug then rose from the floor, crossing the room until she could peer from the curtained window. She watched as her husband joined a long line of men in colourful robes, their taqiyah headwear white against the cement buildings around them. The men walked somberly but in clusters of friends, some with arms around each other or hand in hand. She saw the line of men blend into a large crowd before they turned the corner, a sea of manhood.

Her baby let out a cry and she turned to him, her eyes filled with tears. When her husband returned to them tonight, would he bring with him a hidden unwelcome guest? There was a hospital nearby but she knew that it would not support even a fraction of the immense population around them if the covid-19 hit them. As she thought this, her mother-in-law coughed, a deep racking cough that hacked out phlegm into a little bowl she had by her side.

Syeda leapt to her and rubbed her back, helping the old woman to eject what was blocking her lungs. When Purbita had stilled, she rested her head for a moment against Syeda’s hand clutching her sari for support. Syeda stroked the old woman’s head, then looked out the window at the endless line of men still snaking past. She had no money, had never left the village, was pregnant again, and her only friend and ally was an old woman who was already sick. Syeda had not gone to school, she had helped her mother with her siblings until she was old enough to marry. Outside her door lay an open sewer in which rats and pigs feasted.

Every year her city flooded in the monsoonal rains. She would lift all their possessions off the floor and hang them from hooks, including the baby’s sling, while sludge crept up her ankles and calves, turning her beautiful sari brown.

Syeda had heard of Covid-19. There were soldiers in the market who had put signs up, and it’s all the stall holders talked of when she purchased her small selection of vegetables. They had screamed at her to stand away from them, to not touch the produce. The soldiers had shown their guns and their pictures of the coronavirus with its red nobbly arms. She had nightmares of her baby getting sick, or Purbita, or her husband, on whom she depended.

Maulana Jubayer Ahmed Ansari was an amir, a teacher and a muslim. But in the back corner of her mind she allowed herself the thought, how did he deserve the funeral that could make so many so sick. Was it really the right thing to do, to risk so many? The men had been speaking of this funeral for days. The women whispering of the danger, but the men taking their devoutness as a mark of manhood, of being a good muslim. Would God protect them? she whispered.

Purbita looked at her sharply, she hadn’t realised she spoke aloud. She hid her face behind her shawl and dropped to her baby’s side, holding him to her tight. Tears dripped down her face and she rocked forwards and backwards, her shawl draping over their faces as if she could keep her baby safe in here, protect him with sheer force of will.

In Guayaquil, Ecuador, bodies are left outside homes for days before being collected.

By Karen Harrland

Arsenio took his father Alejandro to the hospital before he died. He had driven for four hours and tried nine hospitals already before he carried his father through this doorway. At the other nine hospitals he had been told there were no beds for the patients and that they would call security if he waited.

At this last hospital, a young woman in scrubs had held the door open for him as she left but she had avoided his eyes. By that time Alehandro had been unable to walk and Arsenio could hear him gasp for air.  With his father laying across his arms he walked up the hospital corridor. Once Arsenio had to step around a body lying on the floor of the hallway. There were people in masks and scrubs rushing in and out of swinging doors, their eyes glazed. He couldn’t get their attention but at the end of the hallway he found a counter. A woman with a a mask hiding her face called an orderly who then took his father away on a stretcher.

The hospital told him he couldn’t stay, then when he drove home he had to drive past dead people wrapped in plastic with a piece of cardboard overtop of them. There was a whole row of them at the end of his street. That night he sat in his chair smoking his cigarettes. When one went out, he lit another. His wife made him his favourite empanadas and his four children raced around the room as usual, but he sat still. He thought of his father and then of his mother who had died a few weeks earlier. They had been able to bury her, she was one of the first to die in their area of the city so they still had space in the burial ground.

He had stayed in the family home after he began his own family, so had never lived apart from his parents. His father had ironically worked as a technician in a factory making surgical supplies including face masks. He would come home after working until after sunset, sink into his chair and wait for his meal to be brought to him by his wife. She worked as a domestic cleaner and travelled for an hour on the bus each way to and from work. Arsenio thought she got sick from her employers. That they had brought it back with them from Spain where they had been on holiday.

Sometimes on a Sunday Arsenio would go for a walk with his father, winding through the maze of laneways around the city, climbing up until they could see above the squalid tin rooftops and look across a sea of colours all the way to the ocean under the smudge of smoke that filled the air. Those times were his favourites, and as an adult, they continued to do this, with his own young son sometimes joining them.

His father would talk about his own childhood, tending maize in the Ecuadorean hills with his own family before he grew up and moved to the city to get work. How they would all gather together to harvest the maize, pull off the ears and make giant piles in baskets to take to market. How the women would wear bright colours and sing together, and the men would stop under a tree and smoke from pipes.

Arsenio walked back to the hospital the next morning. It took him about two hours now that the buses weren’t running but he was in no hurry. He felt the dread grow heavier in his belly the closer he got. When he opened the hospital door it could have been any time of the day or night. The corridor was dimly lit and the fluorescent light on the roof flickered. He heard the jangle of a curtain being pulled to one side in the distance. He noticed that there were two bodies now lying on the ground in the hallway. They had plastic sheets fastened over them with black tape around them just like the ones he had walked past on the street. He stood over the new body and looked down onto it but the plastic was so thick he couldn’t see through it.

He walked to the end of the corridor and found the same woman behind the counter. Her grey streaked hair was pulled back from her face and a blue mask covered everything but her eyes, which looked tired and sad. As he stood before her he found that his voice creaked like an old mans when he said his father’s name. The woman flicked through papers on the desk before she paused and glanced up at him. ‘I am sorry’ she said to him. ‘Your father Alehandro passed last night.’ Her eyes flicked up at him briefly in sympathy before she turned her face away.

Arsenio felt his whole body ache. It was as if he could feel every cell throb. His eyes filled with tears and his mind carried him to that place at the top of the city that he and his father would walk to. He felt his lips form the words, ‘where is he?’ and heard them as if it were somebody near to him asking.

The nurse was replying and he concentrated hard to hear what she was saying. ‘…the back of the hospital, we are waiting for the pathology team to take the bodies to the mortuary.’

But didn’t Arsenio know that the mortuary was full? Hadn’t he seen the bodies with his own eyes lining the streets?

The nurse was talking again, ‘there’s nothing more we can do, I’m sorry.’ She was now looking behind him at a teenage girl supporting an older woman on her shoulder. They were approaching the counter. The woman was gasping for breath and her lips were tinged in blue.

Arsenio stumbled back out of their way and headed up the corridors, past a maze of rooms with beeping alarms and urgent voices until he reached an exit sign on a heavy door. He pushed it open and blinked into the bright sun. There was a large carpark surrounded by high cement walls of neighbouring buildings. They had a splash of faded graffiti painted across them. At one point, Arsenio thought, the hospital must have found some money to create some street art. Crinkled eyed doctors in white scrubs linked hands with small children while they leant over a hospital bed with a smiling patient under the white sheets. Arsenio turned his eyes from the pictures.

At the base of the wall lay a shipping container with the door wide open. Inside lay a large pile of plastic. He stared at it a while before it began to take the shape of individual bodies. There must have been a dozen bodies on the pile. He walked towards it and nudged the bottom plastic clad body with his toe. It gave way as if he was pushing into cooked rice. A fragment of smell must have escaped the plastic and he leaned over, dry retching. Stumbling back, Arsenio looked again at the pile. He took a small knife from his trouser pocket. He leaned over and at the very top up the pile, he seized the plastic at the head and made a small incision. An old woman’s lips and then face was exposed and, saying a prayer under his breath, he pulled the plastic back over her face. Reaching for the next body, he cut again. The plastic fell away to expose his father’s angular cheeks and mop of black hair that he had been so proud of.

Arsenio dragged his father from the pile, picked him up just as he had carried him the day before. He sat on the ground against the wall with his father’s head on his lap. He took out his cigarette packet, turned it upside down and tapped out a smoke. He lit the end then breathed out, watching the curls of smoke drift away above them.

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