Arcis, 319 E.V., Cent. 15 - Five years earlier
“They will come sooner if you stand there waiting,” Father calls from the kitchen. I step back from the front window, leaving two handprints on the glass. The sun is low in the sky; warm rays have yet to reach over the walls and warm the pavement.
“Maybe they forgot me,” I say, crossing my arms to still my shaking hands. A cleansing truck turns down our street and one worker stands aloft, wielding a blue hose and spraying the street with a milky blue chemical. As soon as the sun peeks over the wall, the liquid will be baked into the pavement and noxious steam will rise from the ground for a full hour. If you are caught outside during cleansing, the chemical will burn your lungs.
“They have a roster, Zafirah,” Father says. The cleansing truck stops at the end of our street and three workers exit the cabin, all laden with portable sprayers. Each wall is cleansed, each path, each door handle.
“I know!” I call, watching one of the workers walk up our path. His face is swathed in a plasticized fabric, secured to his head by a pair of goggles. I could not possibly distinguish him from any of the other men. Each one of them is clothed in the putrescent green fabric worn by all city workers.
“They will be here,” Father says.
“They could have skipped the A’s,” I reply. The officer stops at my mother’s stone and drenches it with the chemical until it glistens. It makes the stone resemble a tooth sticking out of the ground. Almost every house has a tooth or two, as if Arcis is not a city, but an animal with row after row of teeth.
Our front door is next to be cleansed, and then the window before me. The blue liquid drips down the glass, covering it in a film, which blurs the figure of the man cleansing it. His form ripples, blurring into a green haze.
Father sticks his head out of the kitchen doorway and says something, but I am not listening. The window glows as the sun rises higher over the wall, and bubbles form on the milky film. As they pop, the film breaks and the glass clears. The cleansing worker stands at our gate with his back to the house. Wisps of steam rise from the pavement and the officer turns and regards me over his shoulder. He removes his goggles and my heart lurches. He will be poisoned. I step up to the window and watch helplessly as the officer unfastens a clasp on the side of his head covering, exposing his mouth. Never breaking eye contact, he rips the covering from his head. The man’s eyes are as green as the suit he wears and they glow like they are on fire. The steam folds around his body in a shroud, but he presses a finger to his forehead, and then points that finger at me.
“Zafirah, please?” Father says, and I jump, turning to face him. He is annoyed.
“What did you say?” I ask.
“I asked you to come help me.”
“Sorry. I will be in shortly,” I say.
“Now, please.” He crosses his arms, a sign I will not get out of helping him.
I sigh. “Fine.”
“Thank you. Wash your hands,” he says, disappearing into his domain again.
I turn back to the window. The cleansing worker is gone, and the front path is empty. Surely he is around the corner spraying the next house. He is probably accustomed to the chemicals, resistant even. I am sure he was not sickened by a moment’s exposure. I turn from the window, crossing my arms to still my shaking hands. I join Father in the kitchen, taking short steps. It is my birthday and I may walk at the pace I choose. I steal one last glance out the front window, but the worker is not there.
“What are you making?” I ask, pumping a quick burst of water from the faucet onto my hands. I wipe them on my skirt and stand beside Father, observing his arrangement on the stove. He has a pot on each burner and he dances from one to the other as he tends to them.
“A surprise,” he says. “Will you prepare the table, please?”
“Did you get me a present?” I ask, pulling two serving packs from the drawer. I unwrap the plastic protectors and deposit them in the recycling chute beneath the sink.
Father shakes his head and stirs the contents of the sauce pot. “Perhaps you should have given me a present instead, for putting up with you for fourteen years!”
I separate the plastic utensils from the plate and arrange my father’s place setting from the inside out: plate first, fork and spoon on either side, knife above. “But I deserve a present, do I not?” I ask.
“Fourteen years old and already spoiled,” he says, removing the sauce pot from the stove and placing it on the counter. He stills and turns toward me. “Have you practiced?”
I finish the second place setting. “I do not need to—”
“Zafirah,” he warns.
I sigh and turn away from him. “My eyes do not hurt. They are just a cloudy,” I recite. “It is been like this for less than a year, I can see out of my right eye, and it is not getting worse.”
“Good,” he says. “Do you go out in the sun?”
“I never go out in the sun.”
“Do you put anything in your eyes to help your condition?” he asks.
“I use the eye drops given to me by Doctor Hasim.”
“Have the drops been helping?” he asks.
I turn to him and shake my head. He nods. “I know. What will you tell them?”
“It helps,” I say.
He nods and turns back to the stove, removing each pot from the heat. Father is scared. His left eyelid twitches when he is scared and it will not stop shuddering. He presses a hand to his eye and rubs it. “I might have to borrow some of those eye drops, Zafre,” he says.
“They work,” I remind him.
We both know the worst could happen today. I cannot pretend I am not frightened for my eye to be examined, but it is so insignificant compared to what others have contracted. Compared to some, nothing is much wrong with me. My vision is blurry in one eye; that is all. It is nothing.
But if it is nothing, why am I so scared?
I sit at my place and fold my hands in my lap as Father dishes out my surprise meal. He has made my favorite: golden potatoes with noodles, carrots, and cabbage. We have not had decadent food on our plates in years.
“When did they start selling golden potatoes at market again?” I ask, spearing one with my fork. The potato melts the moment it touches my tongue and I relish it.
Father starts on the noodles first, curling his fork around and around his plate and chasing several carrots off the edge. “Happy birthday,” he says, stuffing a heaping forkful of noodles into his mouth.
“Thank you.” I hold up a fork full of potatoes in toast, and he returns the gesture with his empty fork.