The Children of Corona
My younger cousin-sister pulls at my sleeve as I enter her home, her awestruck eyes looking up at me like I was her world.
"What's up, Kavya?" I ask her, crouching down to her level. I just came into her home, having met her only once before when she was just a six-month-old baby.
"Mask...?" she says, pulling at the fabric on my face.
"Yes, baby. Corona Monster's on the street, right?"I tell her, stroking her hair.
"No mask, please," she whines, pulling at the fabric again, bearing my nose to the air. I let her pull the mask down with her chubby hands, and I remove it from my ears. She takes a step towards me, carefully touching my nose, my mouth, and then, my chin. She giggles playfully, wrapping her arms around my neck. "You are really pretty," she says, and I laugh, "Not prettier than you, Princess Kavya."
Kavya was born in the January of 2020. She hasn't seen a mask-less world, where she could see people smiling and laughing in the markets, where she could tease her friends with her tongue out 'cause someone took her doll away, where she knew what different expressions meant with different people: not just her parents. She just turned 2. A small toddler capable of talking, walking, and imagining new worlds.
I wonder about her thoughts. Do her dreams feature masked people? Does she indulge in the guilty pleasure of pulling her mask down when she plays in the park? Does she know how satisfying it is to breathe in a gulp of air after running?
Can she imagine a world without COVID?
A pull on my hand brings me back to the real world as she leads me to her bedroom, the pink walls and curtains adorning her personality. She crouches down under her bed, puts a bag full of dolls on the bed, "Sit on the bed, didi, I'll show you all my toys!" she says, shrieking in joy, jumping as she pulls out a basket filled with toy cars, kitchen sets, and plastic toys.
"These are my barbies," she sings out, opening the bag and emptying it on the bed. "They don't wear masks because we stay at home, but when she goes out, I make her wear this," she says, putting on a colored tape on the face of the doll. I laugh, but my heart clenches in my chest. I wish she knew that dolls didn't need masks.
And there would be a day when she wouldn't either.
Traditionally, these kids are ideal citizens of the country. Never leaving home without a mask on, not knowing that they can pull down their masks in public, breathing the confined air without the thought of freedom from masks. They don't know it. They don't know that world
Sometimes, I wish I knew nothing else but the masked world, too. Perhaps then, I wouldn't be too hopeful for the post-COVID world.
I giggle at my thought, making Kavya giggle with me. She jumps on the bed, her dolls fighting each other over a pair of shoes. I smile, playing along with her charade.
After having dinner at her home, I realize it's time to leave. She grabs my hand tightly as I make my way towards the door, her big eyes welled with tears as she begs me to not leave.
"I'll be back, honey," I say, kneeling in front of her and wiping away a tear from her cheek. "We can get both your dolls different shoes then, alright?"
She nods enthusiastically, kissing my cheek. "I'll miss you, didi," she says, wrapping her arms around my neck. "I'll miss you, too."
"Here's your mask!" she says, clutching a new, pink surgical mask.
"Is this a gift, Princess Kavya?" I ask her and she nods, spinning around with the mask swaying in her hand.
"It has magic, it'll protect you everywhere!"