THE LANGUAGE OF THE DEAD
“Those are my best days, when I shake with feare.”
– Sonnet 19
Freetown, Sierra Leone
“Uman mebbe dead. If uman dead, I kam back quick quick,” Moses said, wiping his face with a towel stained with what Harper hoped was merely mud. Moses grabbed the hood of his biohazard suit from the ambulance’s floorboard and started to slip it over his head.
“After this we’re done for the day? Right?” Harper asked.
“Yes, Mum. Mebbe so.” He shrugged. “If no one calls, my shift is then over,” he added. Much to her bemusement, Moses’ dialect inexplicably slipped back and forth between the local Krio patois and what passed for American grade school English. Moses, Nigerian by birth, had spent two years at a Bible college in Indiana before returning home, disenchanted with both America and the Bible. How he had ended up driving an ambulance in Sierra Leone during an Ebola epidemic remained a mystery in spite of Harper’s relentless inquiries.
“Ok, a de go naw os,” he said, slipping the hood over his head before disappearing through a copse of withered looking banana trees that encircled the low slung, ramshackle hut. Harper barely caught the meaning. It sounded like he said he was going to the house now.
That had been almost a half hour ago. Harper checked the luminous dial of her watch again. In that span of time the dusk had abruptly collapsed into darkness so complete she could no longer make out the contours of the hut. Quick quick, Moses had said. Unlikely, as nothing ever went quick quick in Sierra Leone. If the woman was truly dead it would only be a matter of extracting the woman from her house and loading her into the ambulance; a routine they had repeated that day more times than she cared to remember.
Harper shifted her buttocks ever so slightly, careful to avoid any unnecessary movement. The first time she had been in country, she quickly learned the thick, suffocating African heat encouraged a practiced stillness. Some long forgotten formula from high school chemistry class briefly bubbled into her consciousness. Something about expending X amount of energy produced Y amount of heat. She slowly exhaled and with two fingers, lifted up the front of her blouse. A stream of sweat trickled down beneath her breasts and onto her belly. She again contemplated the open window, remembering Moses’ admonition about leaving the windows rolled down once darkness fell. Careful, he would say. You no want mosquito bite.
Throwing caution to the wind, she raised her right arm and extended it out the window in the misplaced hope of an errant breeze. Come and get it, she thought to herself. She assumed she had enough malaria medication in her system to withstand any major assault short of Dengue or yellow fever.
With the darkness came the maniac trilling of insects, the only other sounds the bark of the occasional dog and the flatulent cough of a generator starting up from somewhere in the valley below. Something about the stifling heat, the cacophony of night sounds and the interminable and discomfiting act of waiting begat a long forgotten memory of a hot August night in her mother’s pickup truck.
She was perhaps thirteen; on the cusp of realizing life was not always what it seemed. Her mother had left her there while she disappeared into a clutch of white clapboard shanties, ostensibly to procure a bushel of okra. Harper had sat there for perhaps two hours, juggling worry and irritation. When her mother finally returned empty handed, she sat silently behind the wheel for a good minute. Harper sensed more than saw the sullen regret on her mother’s fine featured face. After a while, her mother clicked her tongue and started to reach for the ignition, but instead paused and turned to Harper.
“One of these days, we needin’ to be talkin’ about men.” She shook her head in apparent disgust. “You gotta be prepared to bleed, child, and I ain’t meanin’ just the first time. You understan’ what I’m saying? You stay wit a man, or you just knows him. Make no difference. You gonna bleed.” She started up the truck and drove off without saying more.
Another one of life’s lessons her mother never got around to expounding upon, Harper thought ruefully. Perhaps if she would have, Harper wouldn’t have had to grope her way through one failed marriage and more than her share of ill-fated love affairs. She winced at the thought, for it had been almost seven years since she had allowed herself to have any serious feelings for someone, Sonny being the last. And in all that time, the only word from Sonny, a couple of cursory, two line post cards mailed from his self-imposed exile in Nicaragua. That had been over two years ago. She hadn’t bothered to reply, the wound of that debacle still far too raw.
In the past, she had often found herself seeking out assignments such as this one as recompense for the failure of one of these failed liaisons. This time, she wasn’t fleeing disappointment as much as the nagging shadow of her mortality and the endlessly irritating but well intentioned empathy of friends. When she announced her intention of going to Sierra Leone, both her agent and friends were aghast. One of her friends had blamed Harper’s delusion on the radiation therapy. It’s obviously done something harmful to your frontal lobe, her friend had said in all earnestness, disregarding the fact the deadly rays had targeted nothing north of her breast. The friend, a regular contributor to an alternative weekly known mostly for its promotion of bizarre colonic remedies, offered to put Harper in touch with a faddishly popular brain wave therapist. You just need a simple resetting of your cerebral cortex, she had assured her. Harper had bitingly replied that was what martinis were for.
And so here she was. In one month’s time she had shot a good five hundred photos of the living, the dead, and the near dead, filled three notebooks with her observations, and had dutifully recorded at least a hundred interviews. At first she had been content with the daily press briefings followed by aimless foraging through the increasingly deserted streets of the city. As the man on the street encounters became fewer and far in between, she took to roaming the grim and chaotic wards of the overburdened and hopelessly inadequate hospitals and clinics in search of some lodestone that might spark her inspiration, which was where she first met Moses.
She had observed him on more than one occasion unloading the cachectic victims of the Ebola. Something in his demeanor, a curious mix of restrained compassion and brusque efficiency finally led her one afternoon to seek him out as he rested beneath the meager shade of a coconut palm. He watched her approach with the stoic resignation of a prey too weary to flee the predations of yet another journalist seeking a gruesome anecdote. At first, he feigned an inability to understand her rudimentary inquiries in English, then her French and finally her crude attempts at pidgin. It was only when she reached into her pack and retrieved a handful of small plastic packets of the local alcoholic cocktail of moonshine vodka and mango juice that he offered up a smile. They sat in the midday heat silently sipping the cloyingly sweet but potent concoction for several minutes before he began an impromptu soliloquy relating his day. Harper listened in silence to his litany of tragedy before relating her own take on the state of humankind. And thus, their unlikely bond was born.
Still, it required persistent cajoling and eventually outright bribery, before he agreed to allow her to accompany him on his daily rounds through the city. His twelve hour shifts mostly entailed transporting the sick and far too often, the dying, to a hospital that half the time declined to accept the patient, pleading overcrowding and the obvious poor prognosis. More often than not, they ended up depositing their wasted passengers at what were referred to as the houses of death, threadbare hospices run by an order of stoic Belgian nuns. The dead they abandoned at the makeshift cemeteries that were often little more than a slit trench in an empty field on the city’s gritty outskirts.
Two weeks of this mind numbing and dismal routine had become almost too much to bear. All she seemed to have acquired was the raw material for a horror novel and thanks to the mosquitoes, a raging case of impetigo on one of her legs. Defeated, she had resolved to give it another day before flying home to a self-imposed quarantine to brood in her apartment and obsess about her temperature.
She flicked on the dome light and studied her image in the mirror of the dangling sun visor. She should’ve cut her hair before coming, she thought, bunching up her thick red locks and retightening the rubber band she used as a scrunchie. The cheap shampoo she had been able to procure in the local shops left her hair dry and lifeless. At least the moisture had been charitable to her skin. She turned her face, inspecting it for any new blemishes. At fifty-five, she still turned more than her share of heads. She had inherited her caramel complexion, intense eyes and wide, sensual mouth from her mother, a woman whose physical attributes had secured for her the clear title to a farm and the attentions of an injurious amount of suitors. In that respect, Harper was much like her mother, she thought bitterly. She wondered though if she would share her mother’s fate of spending the last years of her life alone.
During the months after the lumpectomy and radiation, Harper had ample time to perseverate and feel sorry for herself. She had also mastered the art of solitude, losing herself in mystery novels and television reruns, anything to avoid cataloging her photographs for a retrospective book her agent had insisted she undertake to avoid her dwelling on her health. The prognosis her oncologist had offered seemed overly sunny and optimistic. Whether this takeaway impression was due to Harper’s generally pessimistic worldview, or the initial seriousness of her staging, she couldn’t be sure. In the end, her doctor had reassured her she was cancer-free. At least for the foreseeable future, he had grudgingly equivocated.
When the Ebola epidemic had first erupted, she had struggled with the prospect of returning to Sierra Leone, balancing the professional opportunity it presented with her memories of her previous visit when she found herself on a far different undertaking. The denouement of that misadventure had taken place at Koindu, at a remote jungle hospital that from all accounts was now at the epicenter of the outbreak, or the Red Zone as it was aptly referred to. Quite by accident, she had encountered the Australian physician who occasionally worked at the hospital. To Harper’s dismay, she learned Assumpta, the African nurse who founded and ran the hospital, had died in the initial onslaught. Her son had survived and was now attending school in Sydney. Hopefully, Assumpta had been buried beside Jack Xantis, the subject of the whole misbegotten previous journey, the memory of which produced less rancor with each passing month.
The sudden screeching complaint of the ambulance’s rear door interrupted her thoughts. She turned and parted the heavy canvas partition separating the cab from the rear cabin. In the dim light, she could just make out Moses in his bright yellow biohazard suit. He seemed to pause a moment before half lifting, half guiding a woman enshrouded in a threadbare floral sheet that managed to conceal everything but her drawn, emaciated face. Crawling on all fours, the woman collapsed onto the rubber sheeted stretcher. As Moses closed the door, Harper thought she saw another figure hovering behind him in the shadows.
A moment later, Moses opened the driver’s side door and in the reflection of the dome light began to painstakingly strip off his protective gear and stuff it into a black garbage bag which he casually tossed onto the roof rack. Reaching beneath the front seat, he retrieved a towel and began mopping the sweat from his bare, muscular torso.
“Come. We are going now,” he said, stepping aside. From the darkness appeared a young girl wearing a simple cotton shift and carrying a small battered valise in one hand, in the other, a plastic jug of water. As Moses gently nudged her forwards, she hesitated, perhaps surprised to see Harper sitting in the cab. Her thin cotton shift and her closely cropped hair both appeared wet, the shift soaked to the point where her pointy, pubertal breasts poked through the thin fabric.
“Dis titi her name is Funanya,” Moses said, pulling a T-shirt over his head. “Her mama,” he said, tilting his head to the rear of the ambulance in explanation.
The girl met Harper’s gaze before sliding in and perching awkwardly on the console between them.
“Don worry, she is not ill. No fever. She has washed,” he added, sensing Harper’s uneasiness.
Nonetheless, Harper shifted as close to the door as possible. In the close confines of the cab Harper could now smell a heady mix of sweat, soap and fear.
Moses turned the ignition key and the starter ground away for a good ten seconds without catching. He tried again but the engine failed to start. Muttering under his breath, he turned on the dome light and leaned in to stare at the dashboard.
“What’s wrong? Harper asked.
He tapped the gas gauge with his finger. “No petrol, I think. The gauge not work. Dey suppose to fill tanks every morning. Mebbe dey forget. Mebbe petrol not problem. I do not know.”
“Fuck,” Harper muttered. She glanced at the girl. “Does she speak English?”
Moses stared at her mutely, his mind obviously still focused on his dead ambulance.
“I speak English. I learn at mission school,” the girl murmured. Her voice had the melodious rhythm Harper had come to associate with the local populace.
Moses tried the ignition again to no avail. No one spoke for a long moment, the silence finally broken by the violent retching of the woman in the cargo hold behind them. Moses reached behind the girl and adjusted the canvas curtain before retrieving his cell phone from his trouser pocket. He punched in a number, waited a moment and then tried again.
“No work here. Look, I go back. There is petrol station down de road only few kilometers. Please lock the doors and close window. If God grie I will be back quick quick.”
She heard him utter a curse as he dragged a petrol can from the roof rack. They sat there for a long moment in the dim light of the dome light, the only sound the muted whimpering of Funaya’s mother and the mechanical ticking of the small clock that someone had fastened onto the dash with duct tape. Harper reached into her pocket and retrieved the small bottle of hand sanitizer. She offered it to Funaya who simply stared at it as if unsure what it was. Harper squirted some into her hand as if to demonstrate but the girl looked away.
“How long has your mother been sick?” Harper asked, compulsively slathering the soapy liquid onto her hands.
Funaya looked at her. “She sick three days.”
“Did you care for her?”
The girl nodded, her eyes fixed forward.
“And you weren’t afraid?”
“She is my mother,” Funaya offered in explanation. A moment went by before she said anything more. “Everyone in my family dead. Neighbors no come. My mother will die.”
Harper couldn’t tell if this was a statement or a question.
“You are from America?”
“I wish to go there someday. I want to be a queen. Like Latifah.”
Harper smiled. “Sure. Queen Funaya. Your name. What does it mean?”
“Di nuns dey say it mean songbird. In English, yes?”
They both turned at the sound of Funaya’s mother vomiting, a violent heaving explosion that made Harper’s stomach roll. Funaya dropped her head.
“I’m sorry about your mother.”
The young girl seemed to nod stoically before reaching for the jug of water. She offered it to Harper.
“No, thank you,” Harper said almost too quickly. The stifling air of the cab suddenly seemed too much to bear. She rolled down the window an inch and listened for a moment to the incessant sawing of the insects before turning to the girl. She reached for her hand. It felt oddly scabrous, like some animal’s paw.
“My name is Harper.”
Before she could say more, there was a sudden thumping on the side of the ambulance that at first Harper thought might be Moses returning with the fuel. But then she heard voices. Funaya stiffened and edged closer to Harper. A face suddenly appeared pressed against the driver’s side window. Startled, Harper instinctively reached across to ensure the door was locked. The man seemed to smile and then turned to say something to an unseen companion. A heated conversation ensued as a second face appeared at the window. Both of the men appeared young, their faces glistening with sweat.
“What are they saying? “ Harper asked.
Funaya hesitated before answering. “Dey say we have medicines. Drogs.”
“Shit.” Harper reached over and leaned on the horn.
A rock suddenly crashed against the driver’s window, shattering it. One of the men began pounding the window with the rock until he was able to break out a small opening. As he reached a hand inside and began groping for the handle, Harper grabbed the flashlight lying on the dash board and struck his hand. The man yelped and pulled his hand away before attempting again, but Harper smacked it again. The window suddenly gave way as another rock struck it. This time, Harper swung and struck the man’s face as he leaned inside. A howl of protest and shouting ensued. For a moment, the only sound was Funaya’s terrified sobs, then the passenger side window imploded in a cascade of glass shards.
Panicked, Harper searched the cab for something to use as a weapon. She remembered seeing a knife Moses kept in the glove box. Before she could retrieve it, one of the men’s hands snaked into the open window and popped the door latch
“Funaya! Get in back,” she yelled, snagging her camera bag from behind the seat and shoving the trembling Funaya through the canvas partition. As the door opened, she swung the flashlight again, striking the intruder on the head, momentarily stunning him. Before he could react, she tumbled through the partition after Funaya. Flicking on the flashlight, she saw Funaya’s mother half lying on the rubber sheet in a pool of vomit. The woman lifted her head weakly and stared up at Harper with dry, empty eyes. The stench in the tight confined space was overpowering. Harper fought back her nausea as she groped for Funaya’s hand in the fractured light.
“Go to the back. Hurry,” Harper shouted, shoving Funaya while picking her way carefully over the prostrate figure. They both huddled against the back door. Funaya clung tightly to her arm as Harper checked to make sure the back door was locked. She could hear the two men clambering into the cab. One of them drew back the curtain and started to climb through it. He raised his hand as Harper shone the flashlight in his face. A stream of blood poured down his face onto his bare chest. He grinned and muttered something unintelligible. As he began to move forward, Harper lowered the flashlight, illuminating the woman lying between them.
“Ebola! Ebola!” she shouted.
The man froze, his grin turning into a look of dismay, then fear. His companion in the cab shouted something and the man quickly withdrew. She could hear them rifling the glove box and the metal tool box in which Moses kept supplies. And then as abruptly as they had appeared, they were gone.
Harper allowed herself a deep breath and flicked off the flashlight. For a moment she couldn’t tell if the pounding in her chest was from her own heart or Funaya’s, who clung to Harper’s side.
“It’s okay,” she said, gently prying the girl’s arms from her waist.”They’re gone.”
After a long moment, Harper switched on the flashlight and shone the beam on Funaya’s mother. One filth-encrusted hand rose from the woman’s shroud, the fingers curled into a fist. The hand weaved back and forth snake like for a few seconds before dropping. Funaya started to clamber on her knees towards her mother but Harper pulled her back.
The girl wriggled from Harper’s grasp and crawled to her mother’s side. She hesitated for a moment before lying down, spooned against her mother’s back. The girl began to make a soft keening sound that Harper realized was a song of some sort, almost like a lullaby.
Harper pulled her blouse up over her nose and looked away. Did it make any difference? Any of it? Funaya would most likely come down with the virus soon enough anyway. Alone. Her family dead. Did it really make any difference, she asked herself again as her eyes welled with tears. She thought of the morning her own mother died, and how she had crawled into her mother’s bed to lay beside her, much like Funaya. No one gets out of here alive, her mother had told her soon after first receiving the terminal cancer diagnosis. No shit, Harper thought, glancing back up at the girl and her mother. She watched them for a moment longer before unlocking the door and stepping out into the night to wait for Moses.
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