Arts, Ethics, Fiction, Heart, Heresies, Literature
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The Mask of the Blue Death

Blue Hydrangea, the Blue Death flower

The burden of cancellation levied on the infected shall not be abridged on account of race, gender, or degree of victimhood.

Amendment I, Permanent Safety Code

The “Blue Death” had finally ravaged the country by the third or fifth year of lockdown. No virus in human history had ever been so contagious, or so depressing. Boredom was its nature and its course—the blueness and the monotony of boredom. During the first several waves of mass infection, there were sore throats, runny noses, fever, fatigue; some vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach aches; and then a few deaths—mostly the elderly and infirm—followed by collective hysteria, nation-wide safer-at-home orders, and the economic devastation of mass unemployment with attendant bankruptcies, declining mental and physical health due to a steep rise in poverty, domestic abuse, drug abuse, depression, suicide; and an acute scarcity of toilet paper. Many in the cities, convinced that the strictness of the confinement measures far exceeded the dangers posed by the pestilence, chose to live as normally, or as recklessly, as possible, congregating at parks and backyard barbecue parties, where they didn’t wear masks or socially distance, and in extreme cases, touched and kissed each other. Such heartless, selfish behaviour was the pest ban which cancelled them from the culture of their fellow settlers—even before the catastrophic mutations the virus underwent in subsequent waves necessitated even sterner security measures than the ones originally put in place.

These horrifying mutations brought about the Age of Permanent Safety, when the Blue Death was, the health experts informed us, still very little understood. They arranged their data to present, nonetheless, a frightening image of a steadily rising mortality rate, which helped persuade the public that the virus had evolved to attack not the immune system anymore, but the emotional and reasoning centers of the brain. New symptoms appeared first among those who still had friends and families, when they gathered illegally inside each other’s homes to eat and socialize. They used the same utensil to dole out food to one another, and they laughed. Laughter had been prohibited because it spread contagious droplets over unacceptably long distances and with such force that they easily penetrated the protective layers of a mask.

But even more pernicious symptoms arose among the infected in the form of public outbursts of virulent rage, in which they dismissed the pandemic as a “hoax.” They disseminated wildly delusional conspiracy theories about the secret motives of the state and its corporate administrators in Big Tech, Big Pharma, and the Mass Media, conveying the naive belief that, instead of protecting the public health, our leaders sought only to stoke fear so as to keep the masses cowed and compliant—all to increase their own power and wealth. The virus was, above all, a shrewd adversary, a skilled organizer—brilliant, even diabolical—for somehow it convinced people that it didn’t exist, and that was when they became the most contagious. Around this time, Prime Minister Kim Jong Laurendeau signed his highly popular Permanent Safety Code into law, and in doing so, he saved countless millions of lives. He was a great leader. Under his aggressively progressive system, when the infected organized public demonstrations or took to social media to claim that their righteous anger wasn’t a symptom of the virus itself, but of what they deemed the state’s disproportionately extreme, authoritarian response to it, they were confined in remote Safe Spaces overseen by the Disease Rehabilitation Council—in accordance with the second amendment of the PSC.

So, while at first the virus infected mostly the old and frail, and yet killed a mere fraction of one percent of them, soon the most vulnerable became the young and healthy, and a mere fraction of one percent of them survived. Those who had robust immune systems and, curiously, those most enamoured with the idea of freedom—the most critical, so-called “free-thinking” minds in society—became the most susceptible to an infection almost certain to be fatal. The health experts, a team of doctors drawn from the humanities and social sciences departments of the country’s most distinguished universities—not medical doctors, mind you, most of whom had by then succumbed, regrettably, to the Blue Death—emphasized that due in large part to neocolonialism, white supremacy, racism, sexism, transphobia, and The Patriarchy—though mostly due to anthropogenic climate change—more and more pandemics, and more unpredictable, even deadlier ones, would be an inevitable consequence.

It was, in fact, within these DRC Safe Spaces where the latest, most ominous mutation of the virus occurred, which from there soon after spread across the country. Within a few months of their forcible but necessary confinement of indeterminate length, the infected began their rapid descent into the bluest depression verging on catatonia—they became rigid and unresponsive, seemed to give up on life, and only on occasion, usually during their weekly bath, when, watching the ripples of water expand and vanish, they could be heard to mutter, “But I don’t feel blue… But I don’t feel blue…” Actually, during the final seizure and termination of the disease, which were the incidents of a few minutes before dissolution, the skin all over their bodies—but especially around their mouths, concealed by the masks they were required to wear at all times—turned dry and brittle as parchment, then cracked open in lesions from head to foot, through which their flesh, which had partially liquefied, oozed out in streams of livid pus.

It was said a long time ago by some dead white man of the Western canon that ignorance was the nutriment that helped evil to flourish, but in truth an excessive preoccupation with freedom was the true cause of malevolence. Freedom was a quaint idea, but that’s all it was—an idea, and a childish one at that—for in the real world of responsible grown-ups, one’s freedom necessarily ended where the safety of society began. So many, however, still wanted to be free, as if the human brain wasn’t little more than a data processing machine through which the unconscious expressions of various social and economic inputs—rather than conscious expressions of an autonomous will—were transmitted. The pathology of the virus, then, wasn’t mysterious at all, but of their own making. Clearly the greatest obstacle to permanent safety was an elitist, cultish obsession with individual sovereignty, promoted by legions of fascists who, caring only about themselves, never considered the superior moral virtue of being a good neighbour. The virus wasn’t to blame; the infected were. An abiding faith in “free will” was the true contagion. There was something really wrong with them that needed immediate correction. I was excited, I must admit, that the Blue Death, though at great cost, might finally rid the world of these people.

I might have ended up as one of them had it not been for Rachel, my beloved ex-wife. I still missed her very much, and the child we had lost. She was incredibly smart and beautiful. She always explained to me with such eloquent precision how wrong I was in all my opinions—and yet her calm grey eyes appeared magnanimous above her bold, prominent mouth shaped like the trumpet of a wild daffodil. Her beauty seemed all the more vivid to me because I knew I wasn’t especially attractive. True, I was tall and lean and, despite being middle-aged, had a full head of hair, but my head was too large for my body, with a rounded cranium flattened at the temples; I wore square-shaped glasses that magnified my beady eyes. At the time I would have never admitted to nurturing the narcissistic desire that I had always wanted to be a father, and to raise a family. Then as the years of the pandemic blended together, I came not only to repudiate my former longing, but to resent it, both in myself and perhaps a little more so in others. Still, I found my enduring affection for the family I would never have both touching and pathetic, for in the very heart of the plague, the solipsism of love had enabled me to preserve a sense of indifference that cushioned me somewhat against the general distress. It also hardened me to the difficulties of my latest career. Working as a security operative for the Disease Cancellation Directorate, I gradually became inured to observing the infected scream with their last gasp, “I’m not a disease!” They left me feeling a kind of bemused incredulity. There was nothing I could do for them, resistant as they were to the virtue that their sacrifice for the public good was signaling, so when I left their homes, though I could still hear their screaming in my ears, I felt a certain inner peace.

At the same time, the nature of my work helped to change the way I regarded my fellow human beings, especially white people like me. Reduced to abstractions, they became dearer to me than ever. I wanted to save them from themselves. So that’s why—shortly after the virus had evolved to corrupt the mind before the body—I was grateful to be called on by the Ministry of Radical Health and Well-Being to redeem myself by adding my exceptional inculcative skills to the nation-wide effort underway to re-engineer society into one exponentially more diverse in every component but speech and thought. I was given the choice of either having my divorce sentence upgraded to the maximum penalty—a permanent marriage ban with installment of an internet-enabled ‘smart’ chastity cage—or becoming a DCD agent; and if I chose the latter, my alimony would be reduced to 50% of the income earned in my new profession. I understood almost immediately that it would be foolish of me to refuse the ministry’s offer.

My life had come full-circle—my future no longer a terminus, but the start of a personal revolution in the wider context of the cultural revolution accelerated by the Blue Death. Living in a permanent state of emergency in which the city was sealed off and movement restricted to one’s neighbourhood, I had never felt safer or more in my proper place. This new Great Depression would go on forever, an epic struggle against calamity that every generation had to suffer through. It proved to the survivors that the infected were dead wrong when they had earlier insisted that public acquiescence to the state’s so-called “draconian safety rules” during the initial outbreak was evidence that we were a weak, coddled society that hadn’t been through the kind of suffering people in earlier ages had, like those in the last century who endured the barbarism and privation of two world wars. At last the survivors understood that if they wanted to stay alive—but more importantly, if they would just wash away their petty egos and consent to merging with something far greater and purer than themselves—then all they had to do was obey the PSC amendments and submit to the New Normal. 

Long ago, it seemed, during the Old Normal, I had worked as a high school history teacher. I taught postcolonialism, and served as Head of the Right Side of History Department. Then, about a year before the media started reporting the first cases of infection, I was fired for what amounted to a hideous misunderstanding, which, though a reasonable decision on the part of the administration given the circumstances, had banished me forever from the teaching profession. That only made matters worse, for I was already penniless, lonely, and utterly bereft of hope. I mean, I still had hope for the future of the country which, I believed, was making some progress toward greater justice and equality for its historically oppressed and systemically marginalized peoples; but my personal future I had all but given up on. You see, I had recently gone through a divorce. According to Section 16-C of the Diversity Code, the Extraordinary Tribunal for Struggle Against Heteronormativity had awarded Rachel an alimony allowance that equaled 75% of my annual income. They based their judgment on the truthiness of her accusation that, because of me, she had developed severe gender dysphoria. The emotional trauma I was guilty of subjecting her to, furthermore, had left her no choice but to get an abortion. Her affidavit detailed the psychological abuse I inflicted on her during the long process of my silent accretion of new beliefs in which my sense of the role I played as a cisgender white male in the subjugation of women, for example, had finally revealed to me that when I thought I was “making love with” my wife, in fact I was raping her. I thought that I had become what she always wanted me to be, but instead I gave her posttraumatic stress disorder, or at least that’s how the tribunal judges interpreted her closing statement: “Having sex with my husband made me feel like a lesbian.” This was ironic, of course. Our politics couldn’t have been more different when we first started dating, but the reasons why eventually I brought mine into accord with hers, I believed in retrospect, pertained not only to the white guilt that she slowly proved to me I should beat myself up over during the many political arguments we had had over the years—but also to my enduring love for her. I couldn’t wait to help bring someone else like Rachel into the world.

So, what happened on the day I got fired was, as I said, simply a grievous mix-up. My error hadn’t emerged as a result of, and wasn’t directed toward, any one particular student of the thirty or so seated before me at the time. That morning I had a terrible hangover, and hangovers, for some reason, had always raised my libido. Standing in front of all those students perched at their desks in rows, their heads at my waist level, I held my arms akimbo as I usually did while reciting the same lesson I had given so many times that I could do it in my sleep—and I was, in fact, half-asleep—lecturing them on the urgent need for every non-aboriginal settler to immigrate to their ancestral countries and return to their rightful owners the unceded First Nations territories that constituted the whole of our illegitimate country—all the while absorbed in a day-dream about raping my ex-wife. Only one student filed an anonymous complaint about the bulge, but that was enough to bar me from ever teaching again. I fell into a morbid depression, had nightly drunken fantasies about hanging myself, and bought a dog.

It was on an evening toward the close of the thirtieth or sixtieth month of confinement, shortly before curfew, and while the Blue Death continued its rampage across the country, that I took Onco, my toy poodle, for a walk under a moonlit sky with a halo of blue radiance around the moon. Before the lockdown, I had never taken much notice of the moon, or the sun or the sky for that matter, and I wondered if the blue halo wasn’t a phantasm, a symptom of my servitude to the vast indifference of the plague. That night the moon beamed over the rooftops, and everything in the neighbourhood lay naked to the dazzling impact of its light. It turned Onco’s curly brown fur a pale yellow, and as he proudly trotted along beside me, his head held high with its bobbed hairstyle resembled a sheaf of freshly cut wheat. The moonlight stalked us along every sidewalk, and crept into every silent, empty nook of the listless houses. Here in the suburbs little was left of the usual animation between the long, narrow streets and invariable rows of circa-fifties, red-brick, semi-detached homes. Ordinarily at this time of year in late spring, back in the days of the Old Normal, my neighbours would spend the evening chatting on their front lawns and imbibing the warm, fragrant air, while their children chased each other up and down the sidewalks, screaming with joy; but now every door was shut, no one was to be seen, even the blinds and drapes stayed down, and I couldn’t tell if it was the moonlight or the virus they were trying to shut out. The soft noise of distant traffic from the highway, already surprising given the economy had long been ground to a halt, startled the otherwise silent spaces that Onco and I traversed, so that even the slightest sound—be it a woodpecker nearby or the far-away honk of a horn—had a heightened significance. The unvarying brightness of the moonlight, the very smells rising from the soil that signal the change of season, had the same sinister import in my thoughts as the Blue Death itself. The virtual extinction of all movement around me might have been due as much to the fierce moonlight as to the pestilence, and there was no knowing if the air had grown heavy with menace or merely gotten warmer. The trees and hedges along the street all shimmered, and the rustle of leaves sounded like water streaming over pebbles. The balmy, lucid air made the sidewalk underfoot feel oddly supple—though perhaps what added to the ground’s suppleness were the draggled rubber gloves and cotton masks which had covered over every lawn, street, and sidewalk.

In such a soothing lunar ambiance, I had an eerily outrageous encounter with one of my neighbours, a woman in her early thirties whom I hadn’t seen since the start of the outbreak, but before that, we would occasionally run into each other on the street, though I never asked her name. She had a dry sense of humour, and was graceful and genial once; but now she looked unwashed, haggard, perhaps a little dead-looking, and she very nearly came upon me just as Onco was evacuating his bowels under the hedge that lined the front of her property. Her liquid eyes trembled nervously; her pale skin looked ashy grey and her shiny black hair metallic. I had been so lost in reverie that it seemed she had come out of the blue, so to speak, taking short, shuffling steps as though in no hurry to get home before the curfew minutes away. She carried in her arms a carton of milk, a loaf of bread, and several rolls of toilet paper. Wondering where she had acquired the toilet paper, since for many months there had been next to none available in state-approved corporate retail outlets, I noticed too that the mask she wore was like one I had never seen before. It was of a design so ludicrous—so extraordinarily improbable—that it seemed to have come from another world. In fact, it didn’t look real at all. It looked like a 3D image projected onto her lower face from some invisible realm. Considerably larger and thicker than the latest 12-layer mask authorized in the forty-third amendment of the PSC, her mask protruded bulbously from her face, had a grey surface marked with yellow speckles and orange clumps, around which stood a cluster of sharp red spikes that formed a sort of halo—or corona. I gazed at it in astonishment, though only momentarily, for then she had the audacity to pass me at a dangerous distance of exactly four-and-a-half metres—and I was an acute judge of such matters because my work required me to know precisely how far anything short of the amended nine-metre safe distance measured. Her mask was enormous but I could still hear the ragged wheeze of her laboured breathing, and then a vague odour of grave soil came drifting into my nostrils. She may be infected, I thought. Seized with terror, I reached inside my coat, lurched backward into Onco, who yelped, and stepped on his pile of turds. Though it had become almost impossible to hear what people were saying through steadily thickening masks with layers corresponding in number to the latest wave of infection—and so conversation, the sound of human words, had all but vanished from the public sphere—I felt so triggered by her reckless contravention of several PSC amendments that I stabbed a finger at my shoe. “Look what you’ve done!” Then I waggled my finger at her. “Don’t you understand? For your own health and safety, keep nine metres away!”

She stopped in her tracks—exactly nine metres from me. Dropping the milk, bread, and rolls of toilet paper on the ground, she turned and stared straight into my eyes. Her moist, glaring eyes outshone her greasy forehead in a way that reminded me of a circus sideshow freak. She raised her bony, rubber-gloved fists in the air like a boxer ready to fight, her face blanched as if to the point of fainting, her skull damp with fever. “My health and safety? What about yours?” Her voice groaned and rattled like the hiss of a startled serpent, and it seemed to emanate not from her mouth hidden behind that ridiculous mask, but from either side of me. I shuddered and felt my skin crawl. Inside my coat, I tightened my grip on my state-issued, life-saving weapon holstered there. “Miss!” I started backing away from her, Onco pressed against my leg, barking and trembling. She kept pace with my steps, however, moving forward at just the same speed that I was stepping backward, maintaining always nine metres distance between us.

Then she placed one hand on top of the other over her heart and, chuckling, her voice a gravelly rasp, said, “I was only kidding.” This time I heard her voice directly behind me. I turned around. Nobody was there. I turned back and she had shortened the distance between us by half. She stood there erect and motionless—a deadly four-and-a-half metres away—her hands now raised over her head, as though she were waiting to be arrested; and her mask was gone. I gasped in inexpressible horror. Her lower face resembled the inflorescence of some kind of blighted hydrangea: a cluster of tiny sores, reminiscent of buboes, bloomed around her mouth like the interior of a flowerhead, in the middle of which her teeth were glimmering white in a rictus grin, the lips rotted away except for a few tatters of flesh. On her nose, chin, and cheeks were huge blisters shaped like petals. The ghastly blossom on her face seemed to pull at my consciousness—just as the moonlight seemed to pull the sounds from the air and bury them within its warm, bright softness. “I’m not a disease!” She screamed, but what was left of her mouth didn’t move, and I heard her voice come out of mine.

I pulled my taser gun out of its holster—set by DCD engineers to a voltage at which the heart was guaranteed to fibrillate, causing sudden cardiac arrest—and fired two electrode darts into her chest. Her body convulsed and wriggled, and the look in her eyes changed from one of defiant mockery to an expression mingled with shock, disappointment, and a profound sense of betrayal—which reminded me a lot of the look in Rachel’s eyes that I had made the mistake of noticing on the rare occasions when we still made love in the late stages of our marriage. Finally it collapsed backward to the ground, and though it continued twitching for a few moments, that feeling of being sucked toward it went away. Its eyes stared blankly at the moon, the white grinning teeth all agleam, around which a viscous, livid discharge dribbled from every swelling onto its bed of moonlit rubber gloves and cotton masks. Onco whimpered and took a few small, cautious steps toward it, until I yanked him hard by his leash back to my side. I regretted making him gag and choke like that. He was my only family.

I notified Disease Sanitation Services about sending a truck to pick up the body, and to unlock the door of its house, since one of my duties involved inspecting the former homes of the cancelled to determine whether any useful goods remained there to be expropriated, disinfected, and redistributed by the state to those who belonged to identity groups that had been most oppressed through history by white supremacy. I carried Onco home, which was a few blocks away, put on my hazmat suit, and returned to the house of my former neighbour, all the while feeling depressed again because the penultimate look in its eyes had conjured up that memory of Rachel.   

Once I had entered the house, though, to my surprise I heard the soft, nasally sound of a sleeping child, and the hum of its slow, regular breathing quenched my whole being. I tiptoed through the hallway but the wooden floor crackled so loudly that the child woke up and started crying. A gloss of moonlight gave the air in its bedroom a gauzy whiteness, the window stained with fingerprints and dried saliva. It was a girl no older than four, perhaps a little younger, I recalled, than our child would have been if Rachel hadn’t cancelled it. The girl was sitting on her bed, curled up in a ball, shaking, clutching her stuffed rabbit. She was trying to swallow her sobs. She had a little, fresh, round face with green eyes and long, blond hair curling at the end, like a golden playground slide. Remarkably, my presence as a total stranger—dressed, no less, in an aluminized hazmat suit that made me look like a martian—didn’t seem to frighten her. Quite the opposite, in fact. She stopped crying and stared at me curiously, as though I might be someone familiar. Instead of fear, her eyes conveyed wonder, perhaps even a bit of hope. “Daddy?” She said.

Transported by a sudden feeling of being outside myself, I thought I heard someone else instead of me reply, “Hello, my name is Gordan.” 

“Where did you went? Mommy say you never come back.” Almost unconsciously, I felt as if I were observing myself huddle beside her on the bed and stroke her back. With her chubby little index finger, she pressed on my hazmat suit, its outer plastic crinkling. “Daddy, did you came from the moon?”

“Sshh, little girl. Go back to sleep.”

Her thin eyebrows fluttered like wings, her lips quivered, her glance trembled. “But…,” she muttered, “but…I want to sleep with Mommy.”

“Mommy’s asleep, sweetheart,” I said, stroking her chest, and as she resumed her weeping, I stretched straight out on the bed. “I’ll stay for a moment.” She begged a second time for her mother to no avail and lay down next to me, sniffling. “Sshh,” I whispered. Soon enough her tears had ended and she stared at the ceiling, scratching the marble eye of her tattered rabbit cradled in her arms. I listened to her softening breath and, somehow through the layers of rubber and plastic, felt her heartbeat relaxing. I watched the moon turn her hair and face entirely white, wondering instead if the light emerged from within her by the touch of my gloved hand. Then a sudden joy seemed to carry me away to the frontier of a vast, uncharted realm beyond the physical. I found myself in a deeper state of unreality where it felt as though I could remove my mind from my body. I had been gazing into the girl’s eyes, and sensed that I was being pulled outward toward them, when suddenly I thought I had entered into a dream she was just beginning to have as her eyes glazed over and her heavy eyelids began to droop. In the dream we were lying in her bed, facing each other. There was pale morning sunlight, a breeze whispering through her open window, and the steady patter of someone showering. The little girl wrapped her arms around my neck and pressed her forehead against mine, rubbing them together until her hair was thickly curtained between our faces. “Daddy,” she said, “I can’t see you!”

“Well,” I said, “that’s because you’ve got all your pretty hair in my face!” She laughed at my reply with such insouciant delight that I started laughing along with her. Amid the smell of urine rising from her diaper and the sound of Rachel taking a shower, for a while our daughter and I laughed and laughed, blowing the scalloped curtain of her hair between our bright crimson faces.      

And then, without warning, the scene became itself again. I was back in my hazmat suit, lying next to the little girl who had since closed her eyes and appeared to be asleep. With a strangely reluctant sense of relief, I got up off the bed, but then she woke up again and pressed her finger into the rabbit’s eye. Gazing drowsily at me, she murmured, “Thank you for sleeping with me, Daddy.” I stood in the doorway a few moments longer, until she drifted back to sleep. And before I went away to inspect the contents of the house, I called a friendly associate in the Children’s Disinfection Society.

Marko Sijan co-founded and co-edits The Secular Heretic. His novel, Mongrel (Mansfield Press), was named among the “Best First Books” of 2011 by The Globe and Mail. His stories and essays have appeared in journals including Canadian Notes & Queries, Maisonneuve, Geist, and This Magazine. Sijan lives in Montreal, where he is writing another novel.

1 Comment

  1. Nik says:

    Many a true word said in jest!

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