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February 19, 2024

In the Land of Zim, Part 7

By Robert Earle

Part VII

The next day Kerry awakened to feel her spine prickling. She was lying very still, closely monitoring the burning sensations up and down her vertebral column. "It's the pressure. I can't stop thinking about Mrs. Kahiya. I bet she sent that doctor out there to hound us. She hates us being there. We're doing exactly what they should be doing themselves, but no, they're in denial; they just don't want these poor people to exist." Her voice was small.

Suzanne came over to her bed and felt her forehead. "Maybe you should stay here today and just go down by the pool."

Kerry said, "No," and turned her face away. She didn't want the others to know how she was feeling. "Just don't let me sit when we get out there. If you see me sit, ask me to do something. Let me come in and help you, or ask me to take a walk. I have to keep moving. I can't let this set."

"What if you really have an attack?"

"Robert can bring me back here. I'll be all right." The two of them looked around their hotel room, imagining Kerry lying there, immobilized by pain. "Why did they have to steal our bedpan?" Kerry asked.

She kept her problem from Emmy and Michelle throughout the morning, but to Suzanne it was obvious that she was having a hard time. Every movement she made required a sequence of adjustments to minimize her pain. The simple act of concentrating so hard on not flinching or wincing was wearing her down. Suzanne asked her to come into the rear room to help two cholera patients sip ORS.

One woman was too weak to raise her head. For the first time since Robert's wife, it appeared there might be another death. Emmy and Michelle came back to look at her. That's when they realized Kerry was in trouble. She had dropped a bottle of ORS and was unable to pick it up.

"My God, Kerry, you've got to lie down!" Emmy cried.

Michelle eased Kerry onto an empty pallet. "Suzanne, how long has this been going on?"

Kerry said, "It's not Suzanne's fault. I'm trying to get past it."

"Oh, bullshit," Emmy said. "Suzanne, don't ever listen to her about this again. It's not fair."

"Are you taking anything?" Michelle asked.

"Yes," Kerry said.


"You know."

"No, I don't know. What is it?"

"Some Oxy."

"Kerry, you're not supposed to have that!" Suzanne said.

"Where did you get it?" Michelle asked.

Kerry closed her eyes. "Please, leave me alone, will you?"

"Where did you get it?"

"I'm not telling you."

"I bet she hit the hospital pharmacy," Emmy said.

"I couldn't come here without something strong."

"Oh, my God," Michelle said.

"Give it to me," Emmy said. "We'll slam you with ibuprofen when it wears off."

"Leave me alone."

"Is it in your pocket?"

"Please, don't touch her," Suzanne said. "Can't you see she's in pain?"

Michelle said she had worried this would happen. "But if you give us the bottle, I promise we'll keep giving you what you need. Just give us the bottle. Tell us where it is and how much you took and when you took it."

Kerry said she didn't trust them. This, Suzanne knew, was the first phase of the pain -- Kerry withdrawing so she could be alone with it. Emmy said that was appalling. Here they were in fucking Africa, and Kerry didn't trust them?

"Then we'd better just give up, hadn't we?"

In reply Kerry moaned, "Just take care of that woman." Her voice had an aimless quality, as if the woman to whom she referred were some distant being, not the woman lying a yard away from her, the woman they were ignoring.

"We can't get her to drink enough," Suzanne said. "She's failing."

"Don't say that!" Michelle scolded her, transferring her alarm about Kerry to the almost comatose cholera victim. She swiveled and picked up an ORS bottle. "Here, do this." She demonstrated to Suzanne how to graze her fingertips over the woman's throat as she poured very small amounts of ORS into her mouth, stimulating her to swallow.

Suzanne took Michelle's place. At first Michelle's technique worked; then it didn't. The woman vomited. She began gasping. Nearby, the other patient looked, it seemed to Suzanne, exactly like the dying woman: the same chorded tautness in his throat and chest, the same emergence of the skull accompanied by the recession of the eyes and cheeks, the same protuberance of the upper teeth as the lips drew back. This would be, she realized, the model for her man in the dust. He was almost childlike, his mouth small, his cheekbones prominent. Would he die, too? She asked Emmy to help him while she tended to the woman. Emmy snapped that she had to keep looking after Kerry. Michelle, who had gone into the front room, returned and began tending to the man. Her loose hair covered her face as she looked down at him.

"He's taking it fine," she said of his ability to swallow. "What about yours?"

Suzanne looked at the woman Michelle called "yours" and realized that in a strangely spacious instant, an instant as great as the sky, she was dying -- not dying, died, died right before her eyes, died with her head in Suzanne's hand, died with an intake of breath and then no breath, no exhalation, nothing.

"She's gone."

"Gone?" Michelle reached past Suzanne and picked up the woman's wrist, feeling for her pulse.

"Do we do CPR?" Suzanne asked.

"With a cholera victim? What are you thinking?"

Suzanne wasn't thinking. As the woman vacated her life, Suzanne momentarily seemed to vacate hers. She was everywhere in time from before her conception to this moment of perfect stillness. She had never once had a sensation like this, not in life, not in art, never.

They collaborated to get the body out of the tent and into Robert's taxi so he could drive it to the free cemetery.

Kerry then asked Emmy and Michelle to go back to nursing and let Suzanne take care of her. "She knows what's been going on with me. She's been doing this for years."

"Not until you turn over the bottle," Emmy said. "We're not letting you keep it."

"It's in my right leg pocket."

Emmy fished the plastic bottle out of Kerry's cargo pants and gave it to Suzanne. "Not more than two pills every four hours. You've got to keep track."

"She knows!" Kerry said.

"We've got to get you back to the hotel as soon as Robert's back," Michelle said.

"She can't be moved when this happens," Suzanne said.

"Are we going to keep her here all night?" Emmy asked.

"We'll have to. I'll stay with her."

"Oh, my God," Michelle said softly, taking them all in. "What about this guy?"

"Maybe we better put him in first class," Suzanne said, meaning the front room.

That night Sarah and Robert took turns tending to the cholera patient in the front room. In the rear room, the OxyContin drugged Kerry into unconsciousness for two or three hours at a stretch until it began to wear off. Then she wanted more right away, but Suzanne held to the schedule. Two pills every four hours on the dot. She hated doing this. How much OxyContin could Kerry take before she wanted more just to have more?

Unable to sleep, Suzanne slipped outside from time to time. The air wasn't fresh -- it smelled -- but it was cool and plentiful. A heavy, yellow moon indistinctly illuminated the somnolent rubble, a few smudges of firelight reciprocating its glow. Sarah came out to join her once and asked if Kerry would be all right.

"We do not want to lose that little girl. She is the boss. We all know that. We cannot lose her now."

Without believing it, Suzanne said of course, Kerry would be all right. They stood side by side, taking in the night and the moon and the vague suggestion of the encampment, held in place and bandaged by the darkness. Beyond this curve of wash there would be the ridge; beyond the ridge, more wash, then bush, and somewhere -- she couldn't see it from where she stood -- Harare, and beyond that Salisbury, and in Salisbury her mother and father, and Amadika and her mother and father, Margaret and Reynolds, and their mothers and fathers, and on and on. Everyone black, black as this night.

When she felt Michelle's long brown hair brushing her face, she opened her eyes but had no idea where she was.

"Are you okay?" Michelle asked.

Suzanne said she didn't know, but she must be. She said how ironic it was that she ended up in this tent instead of a Zimbabwean.

Michelle said, "But you are a Zimbabwean."

They whispered back and forth so as to not disturb Kerry. Every so often they would pause to study her. Her back was arched and she seemed uncomfortable in her sleep, but Suzanne told Michelle that she had had a good night.

"Sometimes she cries it hurts so much. Last night she didn't cry at all."

"Because you gave her more medication than we told you?" Michelle asked.

Suzanne said no. Michelle didn't believe her.

A short while later Mrs. Kahiya appeared. Two men in jeans and sports shirts followed her car and driver in a three-wheeled truck. She was wearing large sunglasses with thick black frames and announced that she had returned "for purposes of inspecting and reauthorizing" the clinic's temporary operations. Her driver hovered at her side, amplifying and somehow glorifying her.

"Where is the chief nurse?" she asked.

Emmy said, "She's lying down. She had a hard night."

"We kept a patient with us," Michelle said.

Mrs. Kahiya received this news with displeasure. "You are providing in-patient care now?"

Emmy said, "No, no, it was too late to send him anywhere. He only needed rest."

Mrs. Kahiya removed her sunglasses. "He could not rest in his home?"

"His home?" Emmy said. "Are you kidding? Look at where we are. Where do you see a home?"

Mrs. Kahiya declined to survey the encampment, which was wreathed with the smoke of breakfast fires. She and her driver stepped past Emmy and Michelle to the rear room where Kerry lay on her mat beside the male cholera patient who had been returned there for a few more hours of recovery. Suzanne was sitting cross-legged against the tent wall, a position from which she could tend to both of them. She had a water bottle and Kerry's orange pill bottle next to her left knee and two bottles of ORS next to her right knee and a towel and rubber gloves in her lap. She'd removed the gloves so that she could stroke Kerry's hair. She was startled when Mrs. Kahiya and her driver pushed their way into the small room. Mrs. Kahiya's face was a geography of swollen displeasure. Her driver had an almost aquiline nose set off center, creating the effect of two very different faces, one crowded, the other spare, depending on the angle from which he was viewed. Both of them looked huge and menacing to Suzanne.

"This woman is sick!" Mrs. Kahiya said loudly, pointing down at Kerry, who struggled to pull herself up.

"I'm feeling better," she said.

Suzanne said, "She's had an attack of ankylosing spondylitis, but it's passing now."

"Ankylosing spondylitis! Look at her, she should be in hospital," Mrs. Kahiya said. "Have you taken her temperature? What medications are prescribed?"

Emmy nudged her way into the room. "She took a few OxyContin."

"Who prescribed OxyContin? Does ICFC give you OxyContin?"

"I brought it with me from Connecticut," Kerry said.

Mrs. Kahiya opened her mouth wide in apparent amazement. "Transporting that kind of medication into Zimbabwe is improper. You could be arrested at the airport for that offense." She pointed to the cholera victim. "What's wrong with him? Is it cholera?"

"There's no cholera in Zimbabwe," Emmy said. "According to your president, it's all gone."

"Our president receives the best medical advice in Africa."

"Really? We've done nothing important here except deal with cholera. When are you people going to wake up?"

Mrs. Kahiya erupted. Her voice was loud and shocking, all the more so for being raised in a tent, which clearly could not prevent the people waiting outside from hearing what she was saying. "Didn't I tell you what you were to do with cases like this? Didn't I tell you your role: immediate primary care not requiring a doctor's attention?"

Kerry tried to take control of the discussion. Her voice was a labored variation of the voice she used at night in the hotel room, trying to lure the ICFC staff into seeing things her way. She explained that they had sent the first suspicious case to the address they'd been given, even though they worried the patient was too weak to tolerate the journey. But there was no clinic there. Robert had to bring the patient back. That's when they began administering ORS to people in need instead of sending them away.

"Please don't think we're being insubordinate. That's not our intention."

Mrs. Kahiya said Kerry's tale was preposterous. Kerry said she was sorry, but that is what had happened. Mrs. Kahiya said she was sorry, too, but this clinic was to be closed immediately. There would be discussions with ICFC. The ministry would not tolerate the unauthorized provision of medical services and certainly not by foreign medical personnel.

With that, Mrs. Kahiya instructed her driver to tell the truck crew to remove the clinic's supplies and knock down the tent. She then marched back outside along the line of people waiting to be treated and began shooing them. "There is no more clinic here! This clinic is closed! Go elsewhere!"

Some people in line shambled away, as they had done when the doctor had chased off the man with HIV, but most stood their ground, offended by this second disruption.

"We have nowhere else to go!" a woman shouted.

"What happens to the sick?" an elderly man asked.

With Suzanne's help, Kerry had joined Emmy and Michelle at the front door. All of them were nudged aside by the two-man truck crew, one tall and young and the other short and old, who were beginning to carry out boxes of medications, bandages and ORS.

Sarah grew very agitated. "You must not do this! We have had deaths here! Is that what you want, for all of us to die?" Other women ululated to support her. The sound of their voices was sharp and jarring, a summons and a threat. People emerged from their hovels and huts and tents. Within a minute, a crowd of thirty or forty had gathered, surrounding Mrs. Kahiya and her driver. Mrs. Kahiya took out a cell phone to call for help. A man knocked it from her hand and stepped on it. Other men blocked her truck crew's way to the three-wheeler. Then they began rocking it. It didn't take much to flip the odd little vehicle on its side.

Mrs. Kahiya skittered toward her car but couldn't get in before it was surrounded and received the same treatment as the truck. The car was pushed up off two wheels, seemed to hang there a moment as if racing around a sharp curve, and then rolled onto its roof.

Cries of "Soldiers! Soldiers!" were sounded. People scattered in all directions, quickly disappearing into the morass of shelters and enclosures.

"You cannot stay here," Robert told Kerry, pulling her away from trying to calm Mrs. Kahiya. "It's too dangerous. Come, come! Get into my car. All of you! Sarah, be quick!"

They squeezed into the old Peugeot, and Robert drove away in the only direction available -- deeper into the encampment, around the ridge, and onto a thin track that led into the bush, speckled with spindly trees and strange configurations of boulders.

Article © Robert Earle. All rights reserved.
Published on 2014-03-31
Image(s) © Rosemary Feit Covey. All rights reserved.
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