Unseen Fiction - Episode 2
Welcome dear sojourner to our little space in the void- Unseen Fiction.
We are attempting to fill the void with speculative fiction from South Asia. In our second episode, we present two stories of wonder and dread discovered on walks and in PPE.
Between the pandemic and our lives, time is short, and so are our stories.
Stay awhile, and read.
You can also download this episode as a PDF.
Age of Truth
BY SWARNA RAJAGOPALAN
I step out and am pleasantly surprised. Mid-May temperatures have never been this gentle and this breeze… this breeze is fragrant with jasmine and sea-salt and something I cannot name but want to call… the smell of pure cleanliness?
Weren’t these potted plants wilted yesterday when I returned from my walk? All I can now see are dancing blossoms.
My eyes dart from one surprise to another, and I stumble.
A hand reaches out to steady me.
“I should look where I am going,” I say.
“No, I am sorry, it’s my fault. I should have checked that nothing spilled out of the garbage bag I took out a few minutes ago. I did not clean up after myself. My apologies. Also for touching you without stopping to use sanitizer.”
A familiar little bottle is whipped out and is shared. There is very little in the bottle when it emerges but somehow, enough sanitizer pours out to clean our two pairs of hands and also two others that have shown up to express concern.
A bottle of water is produced—out of nowhere, I am sure… in fact, who are all these people? My neighbours? I intend to take just a polite sip but as the first drop touches my tongue, I taste a pristine Himalayan waterfall (or what I think that must taste like) and I cannot stop taking large gulps. I force myself to stop and share and am about to apologise, when I see the bottle is still full. My companions wait patiently with a serene smile.
We stand there smiling at each other while the bottle makes the rounds. I notice that as each one drinks, the water seems to cascade to a different tune. The Blue Danube, for one. Old Man River, for another. Yellow River, for the person who steadied me as I stumbled.
No one comments.
I wonder if anyone else can hear this music. And I wonder what they heard when I was drinking.
I am struck by the fact that we are just standing around, calmly, and no one seems to be going anywhere. Nor am I, actually.
From a very great distance, something prods me to say, “I guess we should move on.”
“Not really,” my friend says—and now these are my friends, “I want to be here for you.”
“I am fine now.” I add, “I am always fine. But thank you.”
“You? Me? Are we different from each other? I begin in your heart and dwell in all theirs.” I am not sure I understand. But yes, of course, we are not four people but something in motion. If we were emojis we would be hearts in a circle, or stars, or actually just a gently whooshy flow. No beginning, no end.
A flow of what. I am scarcely equipped to name this thing-that-is. I have learned nothing. And yet, it seems I now know everything. I am everything.
Clink. Clatter. Movement.
About the author: Swarna Rajagopalan is a displaced Bombayite who loves to write.
Contact: @swarraj [twitter], swarnar [gmail]
Love in the times of PPE
BY PRANAVI AR
When someone is in full PPE, all you can see is their eyes.
I first met her (How did I know it was a her? One just knows, I suppose) on the day I took over the COVID suspects ward on the third floor. She was standing at the end of the corridor, fully suited up, waiting for someone to come in. That someone had to be me.
I apologised for being late, and asked her where the donning room was.
She (?) gave me a look and quickly disabused me of the notion that the suspects ward meant full PPE for the whole shift. That apparently was only for when you had to closely examine a patient; the rest of the time, you got to hang out in scrubs, a mask, and a prayer, at some distance from where the patients sat. She had just been examining a new patient, hence the full suit.
I took over from her and buried myself in the paperwork. As I was writing the fifteenth progress note of the day, a glorified repeat all, my mind wandered absently thinking about her voice. Like wind chimes, but with a husky undertone.
What would she look like?
I brought myself back to reality. It was really too much, the way I’d begun to have a crush on anything that seemed female. ‘Her voice’ it seems . I didn’t even know what she looked like!
The next day, I showed up a wee bit early for my shift, and that earned me a crinkly eyed smile from her. That was enough to set my feels train running full steam. Tomorrow, I swore to myself, I was gonna ask her her name and the department she was from. Get her number, maybe, so she could give me a handover over whatsapp - yep.
She wasn’t there the next day. I was told that the team had changed and that they were all posted in the COVID positives ward now, one floor below.
That shift sucked for me. I didn’t know nearly enough to find out more about her. It was gonna have to be one of those dumb, unrealised crushes I’d get over in a day or two.
Only, I couldn’t.
Two days later, I saw her in the common elevator as the doors were closing shut, in street clothes. I recognised her from the eyes, and from the way she held herself - the only two things I had been able to make out while she'd been in full PPE. She was gorgeous. I tried converting my ajar mouth into a smile that came out constipated. I didn't know which creepy part of my reaction she saw, if she saw me at all.
I ran into her again the next morning. She broke into a full smile and waved at me. She waved at me! But before I could go up and talk to her, my supervisor called me in and began discussing work. I had to contend myself with sending a grin her way. I’m sure patients saw me that shift and wondered why their doctor was smiling like a crazy lady.
A week passed, and I didn't see her. My posting changed too, and I was now posted in the COVID ICU. Being posted there meant that high-risk, aerosol-generating procedures were a routine, so we were required to be in full PPE gear throughout the shift.
I was grappling with a flurry of critical care protocols being thrown at me, while clad in multiple layers of PPE , when my senior announced that a high-priority case was being brought in. The patient had collapsed suddenly in the corridor, and would require immediate intubation. The crash cart was ready, everyone was on their toes. The stretcher was wheeled in.
The patient- it was her.
I froze as my senior rushed around to intubate her as her saturation fell dangerously low. I wanted to tell her something, anything, to reassure her, but couldn’t find the words.
She stared wild-eyed, seeing, but not really, at a room full of strangers in head-to-toe blue suits. Her roving eyeballs locked onto mine. I saw something like a flicker of recognition, but couldn’t be sure.
When someone is in full PPE, all you can see is their eyes.
About the author: When not slaving away in the bowels of a dystopian bio-punk hospital, the author likes to read SFF, queer fiction, poetry and romance. She hopes that whatever the future brings, it also brings good food.
Contact: @_drongo [Twitter] pranavi.ar [gmail]
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Image Credit: SEM alveoli in the lung, close-up.. Credit: David Gregory & Debbie Marshall.
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