Days of the Virus: COVID-19 and its Consequences
first heard about the orchid police she pictured brightly-coloured
uniforms, green armbands, and trowels instead of guns. They would
step smartly to a door where an orchid transgression had taken
place, and begin their investigation by laying out bedding soil
and spraying a fine watery mist over the apartment. She told Mommy
her impression, and her mother laughed.
a great imagination," her mother said. "Don't ever stop."
that she wasn't being taken seriously, Jasleen went into her room
to check on her orchid. She'd been given it for her birthday,
and she felt responsible for its wellbeing. She dipped her finger
into the bowl, which was a cute ceramic duck, and the soil felt
a little bit dry. She poured a dribble of water from her drinking
glass, and then watched the orchid to see if the gift was appreciated.
what it was like to be a plant, when the only thing they needed
was water. Would that be like her, when she didn't have time
for breakfast because Mommy had woken her late? Then she
would only have juice, and by lunch she would be starving and
ready to eat. Did the orchid live in a perpetual state of starvation?
She tipped more water into the bowl and then rubbed the duck's
Once the lockdown
happened, and her school closed, Jasleen began to wish for a sister.
She was an only child. That meant when her friends disappeared
into their various homes, she was alone. Her mother was on the
phone with her job, and her father was far away on the farm. She
tried to be good, but she couldn't resist being bratty just to
get her mother's attention. She was used to being home in the
evenings after school. Then her mother's attention was entirely
hers, so the shift to the phone mother was estranging.
reminded her that she had a bedroom full of toys, but as lively
as some of them seemed at night, during the day they were inert.
She'd seen Toy Story, as well as the sequels, but even with her
imagination she couldn't get the toys to walk around. Instead,
it was her in the bedroom with a bunch of dead toys. She crept
into her parents' room when her mother was busy, but anything
that was within reach, such as the dresser, was as boring as old
clothes, or as worthy of a punishment as makeup. She had to be
satisfied with looking at the bottles and tubes on her mother's
dresser top, and that was just as boring as dead toys.
The only thing
that seemed animate was her orchid. She'd had it for a month,
and in that time it had dropped a leaf-that was a bad day as she
imagined what it would be like to have her arm fall off-and bloomed.
The bloom was delicate and beautiful, and she had the hardest
time to keep from touching it. Her mother was serious. She wasn't
to put her fingers into the middle where the internal part of
the blossom seemed to go on for metres, so she merely looked into
the tiny abyss. The delicate purple of the outer petals became
more and more dark until it changed into black. She was reminded
of the book about the elephant who knew about a tiny village that
no one else could hear. She wanted a microscope, or a telescope,
so she could scope the impenetrable trench which could hold all
kinds of mysteries.
She had touched
one of the petals, but, as if it knew about her mother's admonition,
it turned brown and began to wither. Jasleen watered the plant
more, making sure a few drops went right where they were most
needed, but that didn't seem to make any difference. She turned
the orchid away from the window so that passing authorities wouldn't
be able to see what she'd done.
The rest of
that day she was able to put it from her mind, but when she overheard
Mommy talking to her father, a chill went over her limbs. People
were breaking the quarantine, and the authorities were attacking
them. The police had shot a girl for driving, apparently; even
though the vehicle was crashed and she wasn't driving any more.
They shot her anyway. The moral of the story was clear. It wasn't
just what someone is caught doing, even past transgressions were
punished under the new laws.
Jasleen spent over an hour looking at her orchid, willing it back
to health. "I didn't know you were so delicate," she whispered,
"so it's not really a crime that I touched you."
She gave it
a bit of water just so it felt better, standing well back from
the plant to observe social distancing. As if she were acting
a role for a hidden camera, Jasleen showed how much she cared
about the plant by petting the duck's ceramic head afterward.
The next morning
the bloom looked even worse, and Jasleen was torn between wanting
to ask her mother if blooms naturally died after a few days and
worrying that she'd killed it. She waited for the perfect moment
over breakfast, when her mother's mouth moved from a straight
line to the fuller lips of relaxation as she glanced through the
do you think my orchid will live?" She had decided finally on
a full frontal attack.
lips pursed a bit. "Years, probably. If you take care of it."
the qualifier. Had she taken care of it? "What if it doesn't
get enough light? You said it's unhealthy to stay inside all the
I say that?"
"I heard you.
Talking to Father. You said we should be outside."
is going to cause more problems than it solves."
the cryptic comment while drops of milk left her spoon and landed
on her cereal. "Like what? What kind of problems?" Did her
you to worry about. But there are people who don't have a place
to go. And they will really be suffering through this."
people in prison?" Jasleen thought about the orchid police and
"Some of them
are being let out."
good thing, right?"
mother shook the paper, folded it, and slid it back into the plastic
bag it had arrived in. She used the tips of her fingers, and then
washed her hands afterward. She saw Jasleen watching. "It's the
ink. Gets on your fingers."
at her own fingers. What if the ink from the orchid got on
me and that's how the police find out?
touch it, dear. Don't worry." Her mother rubbed Jasleen's head
as she leaned over to pick up her mug.
Jasleen said dutifully, knowing full well that she lied.
the orchid away from the window, just to keep its drooping blossom
from the view, but she'd seen enough police shows to know that
they could set up people with binoculars in other apartments and
see everything in her room. Pulling the curtains would be suspicious,
and the orchid would die without light. She went to the window
under the guise of looking at the view, and trying to appear casual,
she scanned the apartments in the block opposite theirs.
Most of the
blinds were closed, but in the uncovered ones, she could see children
playing, televisions on, and older people at tables with puzzles.
When she'd asked her mother about the snitch line, and found out
it meant people were being encouraged to tattle on one another,
she knew that any of the people who lived across from her were
potential snitches. None of them seemed particularly interested
in her, but she knew from kids at school that such feigned indifference
meant little when it came to actual malice.
the orchid back into view, hoping their telescopes were strong
enough to see that the bloom was drooping noticeably. She dribbled
a bit of water into the duck's back to make up for moving it.
Even the leaves were starting to lose their waxy appearance. She
leaned over to see the plant better, but a siren rising and falling
in the distance made her step back. Once they burst in with their
trowels at the ready, she couldn't be caught standing over the
plant. That would give everything away.
her mother's voice in the living room, treating their house like
an office. She'd wandered into view once and people had made nice
comments about her cuteness, but the next time she did it they
ignored her and her mother gave her a look that drove her from
the room. Her mother could call the orchid police too. She seemed
to know a lot about them. Would she tell on me though?
passed their building and continued north, and Jasleen imagined
other children, rougher than her or with more delicate plants.
They'd been caught, so that might mean the police would be too
busy to bother with her. She checked the soil again, carefully
not touching the duck's sides in case she left fingerprints. It
seemed moist, but not as much as when she first watered it. She
dribbled a little more water, bracing her arm on the dresser so
she didn't slip and damage the plant further.
She was tense
at lunch. Her mother's frown didn't seem to be directed at her,
but Jasleen couldn't enjoy her roti and sabzi while her orchid
was dying in her room. She glanced at her mother. "Mommy?"
about that girl the police shot."
mother's gaze turned on her and Jasleen felt her stomach clench.
"How did you hear about that?"
talking to Daddy."
meant for you. You don't worry about that. She was in the wrong
place at the wrong time."
the physical and temporal placement of shootings. "So if she wasn't
there, then the police wouldn't have killed her."
be thinking about this." Her mother kissed the top of her head.
"Now finish up, Mommy has to get back to work."
"Is she going
to be OK?"
mouth softened. "Don't you worry about her. She'll be OK."
find the answer satisfactory, but she couldn't ask about the orchid
without giving away the whole game. The orchid looked worse, and
Jasleen walked back and forth in her room. The stuffed animals
looked at her accusingly, and the laughing dog picture on her
wall seemed sinister. I could tell Mommy. She would help me.
into bed and when her mother passed by the door on her way back
from the bathroom she asked how she felt.
"I'm OK. Just
felt her forehead and then looked briefly at the orchid on the
dresser before leaving the room. When Jasleen heard her on the
phone again, she leapt from bed and went to the hall to listen.
It seemed like a regular work conversation, all numbers and letters
and dates and times, but she crept closer to make sure. If her
mother was calling the orchid police she needed to know.
you doing?" Her mother held her hand over her phone and looked
pointedly at her.
to ask you something." Jasleen looked away and dug her big toe
into the carpet.
dear. I'm on a call."
voice was tender enough, but Jasleen had seen her I've-been-interrupted-too-many-times
sure when she began to cry. The orchid was leaning and the bloom
was nearly completely wilted. The tunnel which led to the secret
hidden village was closing up and the villagers were dying. It
was all her fault. The accusing eyes of her stuffed animals glared
at her from the floor where she threw them when they crowded in
too close to her misery on the bed.
She was still
sobbing, trying to keep quiet so her mother couldn't come to check
on her, when she heard the door. Every muscle tensed, she listened
to the muffled voices.
"Put it over
here. There. Thanks. Difficult times."
The door closed
and her mother was talking to herself. Jasleen felt like she had
to pee, and while her mother was distracted with the orchid police
she slipped into the bathroom. She locked the door with relief.
They would never come in while she was peeing. All she needed
to do was stay in the bathroom.
her feet so that her toes hit the floor as she moved her legs
back and forth. She could stay in the bathroom all day. Her mother
was still negotiating with the orchid police. Their voices were
low enough she couldn't hear them, but her mother's voice was
It felt like
an hour passed before her mother called. She'd made dinner and
was standing outside Jasleen's bedroom by the sounds of it.
"I'm not hungry,"
Jasleen yelled. Her stomach was taut with the view her mother
would have of the orchid. She shouldn't have left the stuffies
on the floor. Her mother would lean down to pick them up and then
she'd see the murder scene. Jasleen knew from police shows that
her mother would back out of the room and close the door, preserve
the scene as much as possible while she called the police.
burst out of the bathroom crying, her mother was about to knock.
She ran into her mother's stomach and instinctually clutched her.
"Don't tell them," she wailed into her mother's shirt.
Her mother lifted her chin. "You're crying. Are you hurt?"
mother felt her body for bruises Jasleen explained. Her sentences
broken by sobs, she told about touching the orchid bloom. She
described the tiny village and how she didn't mean to kill it.
dear." Her mother sat against the wall and pulled Jasleen onto
her lap. "That was just a joke I made so that you would take care
of the orchid. There are no orchid police. They don't exist."
about that girl they killed?"
the orchid police, believe me." Her mother's face had hardened
and Jasleen hugged her harder. "If the orchid dies, we'll get
another one. You don't worry about it. The blossoms don't last
forever, so yours just wilted. I'll bring it into the living room
and take care of it."
if it dies? You'll be blamed."
dear. And sometimes it's no one's fault. OK?" Her mother touched
the side of her face.
"I hope it
When the orchid
was set up on its own shelf in the living room-for Jasleen had
insisted that none of the other plants were close enough to share
its fate-she felt much better. Her mommy had taken over the job,
and if she couldn't keep it alive, no one could. Jasleen cleaned
up her room, refilled her water glass, and then sat on her bed.
She was bored, and her mother was back on the phone.