I myself became a gravedigger to avoid the pitfalls of the sex act. It is a good act. But it captured me.
Digging graves was the instruction of an elder from another village. He said: “Return to the earth flesh free of its souls. That is the cure for your ill.” This old man I had not met before. What he saw, when he looked, was more than I knew of myself. That is why we need strangers.
We many of us find the body in its shroud disgusting or fearful. To me, it invites tenderness. Life is too hard to be tender to the living. I found that every shovelful of soil upturned to make place for a corpse in the womb of rebirth is a proper subject of tenderness.
We all of us at the camp came to contribute and stay despite hardship for this same reason. We in the camp, the staff and the epidemic patients both, are protected from every harshness, save one. We all of us have food enough and clean water. We have work and rest, and the health of everyone in the camp is tended to. In our mission to care for all those with plague, we have purpose. No harshness do we know, but one: we all of us are beside death. And it focuses the mind.
Today there are no graves to dig, but the borehole needs maintenance. I retrieve the tool box, tarp and air compressor from the utility shed and load them onto the electric cart. I drive through the camp, past the baobab tree that rises beside the patients’ ward, to the well.
The well stands within view of the camp entrance: a welcome. A proffer to visitors to sate their thirst.
The hand-pump rising from the circle of the concrete apron looks like a shadow clock. The hour is eight a.m., the heat is at 90 degrees, and the hand-pump casts its shadow to the West and North. It is only a matter of time before we all of us run out of water.
I unfold the tarp on the ground and open the tool box. Using a spanner, I loosen the hand-pump’s bolts, nuts and pins and place these parts one-by-one on the tarp. I remove the hand-pump cover and the counterweighted handle, and I lay them out on the tarp. I am sweating. I inspect the various parts for rust and debris and rub disinfectant on them with a cloth.
In my peripheral vision, I see an epidemic patient at the threshold of the ward. The patient is in street clothes. This patient has recovered well enough to leave the camp.
On some days, a matatu comes to camp to pick up passengers. But most matatu drivers, like many of our country kin, fear the epidemic patients. Perhaps a person who has recovered from such a plague has been compromised by a demon. We all of us have heard tales of matatu drivers abandoning passengers who had been epidemic patients in the bush, or extorting money or visiting violence upon them. Many patients walk home.
I turn to the exposed pump stand. With care, I lift the pump-rod hanger and begin to pull up. This work requires fine calibration. Like a magician pulling scarf upon scarf from the spectator’s ear, I draw rod after rod from the ground, and I draw them out gently. The rods are fiberglass-reinforced plastic and threaded together. They are bulky. To bend, break, or damage them risks disaster for lack of replacement parts.
No harshness do we know, but one: we all of us are beside death. And it focuses the mind.
Paying close attention, I fold the threaded rods at their joints and continue to pull up, extracting these limbs from the deep. Holding so many rods is a big exertion. I grab the plunger as it emerges. The pump-rod system in my arms is a heavy weakness. Laying it out on the tarp is like arranging a spindly patient on a bed: almost a skeleton and too limp to move on its own.
“Effendi, I ask your pardon.”
The voice is soft and melodious. But it is near when I thought myself alone, and so I feel some startle. Looking over my shoulder, I see the patient. She has crossed from the ward to the well. On her head, she wears a bright pink scarf with green embroidery at the border. The effect is to frame her face and make its symmetrical proportions and oval eyes more prominent. “Begum, you are welcome,” I answer quietly.
She looks down as if stricken with shyness.
I remain kneeling at the edge of the tarp, but I angle my body in her direction. “Are you in need of water for your journey?” I ask. I am prepared to bring her a liter from the staff quarters. The well will not be operational for some hours yet.
She nods. I begin to rise, but sink again to my knees when she says, “Succor. Not water. I need succor. For my journey.”
She opens her mouth as if she has not completed her thought, but no sound comes out. I stop and wait on my knees.
“I –” she stammers, after opening and closing her mouth. “You –” Her lips tremble. “Know,” she murmurs. “To leave here is to die.”
I sit back on my heels and reflect on the ways she is correct. A plague survivor is a person without family. It is the nature of plague to kill the whole household it invades. The survivor is against nature. A person against nature and without family is to be shunned by all. And such a person will die by violence, though perhaps it be the violence of loneliness in exile.
But this epidemic victim will die by the other sort of violence. She is not of the local tribes. Her facial features look of the North. She is dislocated here. The customs of the Northern people are punitive towards dislocated females. And, of course, she is female.
She watches my thoughts blooming behind my eyes and animating the small muscles of my face, and she is transformed. The shy, stammering, trembling woman relaxes into a column of liquid confidence. “I do not mind to die,” she says, “but I like to know the pleasure of sex again before I do.” She speaks straightforwardly, without apology. “That was the clarity of my hemorrhagic fever,” she adds. She casts her eyes back towards the ward. “When I lay on that bed, like a seeping Venus, red with blood and hot to the touch,” she clears her throat, “my thoughts came to focus. Do you,” now she pauses to meet my eyes, and finding whatever approval she sought, continues, “know what a clitoris is?”