The Body and the Virus
The day came when we all of us sat down to die. We all of us working at the quarantine camp know that in the European countries, something like this condition is called "depression." But we all of us were struck together at once, like multi-organ failure in a body. We think the Europeans do not have a name for this group depression.
I myself awoke with the weight. The heart was thick with swamp water, like the Sudd had leaked into my chest. There was no reason to leave the bed. But fear. I was frightened to move, and also frightened to stay in the bed. Then some spasm of dread knocked me to the floor, as if a terrible afreet had risen before me, cane in claw to beat me from the bed.
I was not dissatisfied on the floor.
But we all of us were struck at once, so I made my way outside to the area under the overhang and sat on the packed red earth by the door. It was dark still, but the beams from the solar light tower by the ward were sharp.
In the knife light we all of us were apparent under the eaves of our living quarters. Eyes closed, the ward director sat limp like he was asleep, except that his appearance was not peaceful. The pharmacy manager stared vacant into space. Beneath the window, the triage tech was almost unrecognizable, hunched over and shirtless. The head of security, a man who knows no fear, was crying, silently, fat tears glinting runnels along his cheeks. Our camp director was curled in fetal position.
Our dream was this:
In the pathways within for blood and lymph and the spirits of our ancestors, the virus is shaped like a snake twisted around itself and prepared to strike. These pathways are crowded with cells and gasses and molecules jostling and bumping. The snake bites the passing macrophage immune cell. The cell membrane collapses around the snakebite, surrounding it like a balloon, pinching off from the membrane and falling inward into the cytoplasm, the snake fangs hooked into the bubble, the snake-virus breaching the barricade. The macrophage exists to eat invaders, but this snake vomits itself into the cytoplasm: a filament of RNA, a polymerase protein. These hijack the equipment innate to the cell. The macrophage's own ribosomes labor like slaves, manufacturing the virus proteins that assemble countless snake clones. The snake clones rupture out of the macrophage, which has traveled to the liver, gall bladder, pancreas, spleen, and so the snake bites organ after organ, and the cycle continues: breach, vomit, slave, rupture, breach, vomit, slave, rupture.
Wildly, the macrophages unleash their whiplashing cytokines — necrosis factors, inflammatory proteins, interleukins, chemokines, nitric oxide — and the cytokine tornado funnel rips through the walls of blood vessels. And still the snakes replicate. Blood seeps throughout the bag of the body, bacteria wash out of their areas of containment, edema drowns the organs, sepsis triggers shock; it is suicide. And still the snakes replicate.
The spirits of our ancestors, routed by this plague, pour forth from their channels in the body like indignant fog, and chastise: O dreamers! The red earth herself is the body! The virus is we all of us!
Thus we all of us had dreamed in the REM cycle before we woke to sit down to die.
The sun rose, and the solar light tower shut its lamps. The cook set mangoes in the canteen, but he had no motivation to make porridge. He, too, sat under the eaves, and we none of us ate. There was nothing to do but wait.
The delegation was coming today. For ten days, the camp director had bargained and pleaded and lied. He had rerouted our transport units and rescheduled our helicopter drops. He had run in-and-out of the ward to craft a statement from our doctor. He had called Geneva. He had called New York City. He had tasked we all of us to share his regular duties, while he fought like a cornered warthog to keep the delegation away.
We are a quarantine camp for patients with the plague of hemorrhagic fever. Isolation is our boon. For what do we need a lab? Why must we clear the protection of the surrounding bush to make way for more buildings — the living quarters for the scientists? Their recreation center? Their parking lot? More people is more waste, more pollution burden for the bush. More people need more water. Shall we run our aquifer dry? What water for the epidemic patients? A centrifuge, an autoclave, a cold chain require a generator, which needs petrol. Already our medicines and medical inventory must be dropped from helicopters to reach us in the bush. How so may petrol be supplied? All this development threatens the goals of quarantine. What will happen if these scientists fall ill?
And, of course, we object to the lying. We all of us are well-intentioned and hard working. We dwell here in the camp, on this periphery, and sacrifice that others may heal, that society may be free from an epidemic in its midst. The injury of underpayment for our labour is one we bear. The insult of lying we reject.
They told us it was a vaccine lab. We have had prior collaboration with vaccine scientists. We know their operations. They work transparently. They do not seek isolation. They need no regular supply of epidemic patients for experiment. They do not undermine quarantine. The camp director welcomes honest researchers.
He fought this delegation because it is military. Its mission is to weaponize the virus. To make a weapon of a lethal virus for which there is no vaccine and no cure.
We all of us sat down to die. There is nothing to do but wait.
The sun was high when the delegation arrived. A delegation of foreigners to our camp is a noteworthy event. But we none of us received them at the gate. The sounds of their vehicles and voices made their way to our ears. By their noise, we traced their path past triage, the ward, and the baobab tree that rises above it; past the borehole and the hand-pump; past the camp director's office, utility shed, facilities storeroom, garage, and the graveyard beyond them; past the canteen. When they arrived at the living quarters, they stopped. They stared at us, silent.
There they stood, tall, rigid, and gleaming. They gleamed with metal and with sweat. Their jaws were set, their eyes hidden behind black glasses. They were eighteen in their delegation, some many of them in uniform. They had traveled a long way, but they were ready, hungry for their work.
And we all of us reflected back to them the lassitude of those awaiting death.
After some minutes of this standoff, their readiness ebbed to confusion. We none of us met their black glasses or made motion to rise, until the camp director stirred from his fetal curl. With a heave, he lifted himself to sitting and then hoisted himself to stand. Our camp director is a man of dignity. His customary dress is a button-down shirt and slacks. Now, when he stood, he wore the t-shirt and shorts in which he had slept; his shoes were plastic slip-ons.
But his authority is internal. It is his spine. Even in the condition of group depression, our camp director stood before the delegation as a man of great authority.
They watched him like predatory birds. Then one of them said, "Is it siesta?"
We all of us speak at least three languages, but for none of us is English our first. This thing the man said we none of us understood. But this lack of comprehension was no dissuasion: "My friends," the camp director replied, "please. Accept my apologies. Come. I will show you first to the canteen. Come." He walked like a man carting his spirit behind him. "Have lunch. Drink some water." He offered his hand to the man who had spoken. The man's indifference was such that he accepted the handshake, and the camp director gestured that the delegation should follow. The men turned abruptly, their feet guided like by mechanical pivots.
As they walked away, the cook raised himself and trudged after the delegation to the canteen.
Today, we all of us make effort to live.
For three days after the delegation came to take its measurements and conduct its assessments, we all of us continued to suffer the group depression. That third night, I sat on the packed red earth under the eaves the whole of the night, so bogged was my heart that I was mired in place.
In the darkest hour on that third night, an aardvark showed itself. It trundled past, head down, snout snuffling the ground, its rabbit ears rotating like antennae. Despite my melancholia, I felt an opening, an interest: dear digger! Perfect creature. Solitary, the aardvark knows no loneliness. Its skin is impenetrable to termite bites; its ears are sensitive to a leopard paw-step beyond the range of sight. It emits no scent but the dirt that coats it. Each night it digs to eat the insects of the earth, sleeps in the burrow of its own creation, and the next night, digs again. By its work, it contributes shelter for the many ground-dwelling animals of the bush: hyena, porcupine, snake, and warthog. The aardvark is the foundation animal for the fauna ecology of the bush. As I myself know that termite mounds are scarce at this camp, this aardvark must travel farther still for its meal; its passage through here is simple grace. A reminder that the foundation is composed of the small and well-purposed.
On the fourth day, the ward director developed symptoms of hemorrhagic fever. His in-and-out of the ward to compose the written statement with the doctor seems to have been the mode of exposure. He did not touch the patients, and the doctor herself left the ward to converse with him, but in his haste and anxiety he had been neglectful. He had not worn the gown, facemask, and gloves that are required isolation precautions. The doctor had reprimanded him, and he had agreed with her that he must follow procedures. For what he did, he would have had to fire one of his staff. For himself, the consequences were plague.
He infected also the head of security, the pharmacy manager, and the cook during his period of incubation. The ward manager, ward techs, and triage tech, by virtue of their jobs, were wearing isolation precautions in their interactions with him, and so escaped infection. I myself am a survivor of this epidemic. I am immune.
As there is no camp, no place of safety, no space of healing, without we all of us — we all of us alive, and the spirits of our ancestors, together — we all of us today make efforts to live. The ward manager is doing most of the camp manager's work, and I am helping with the ward manager's job.
I am only the logistics manager, but on the ward, I supervise the ward techs and minister to the patients. I change the IV bags that hydrate the patients, and I prepare the narcotics injections for the doctor to administer.
The camp director, cook, pharmacy manager, and head of security know they are lucky. They are receiving treatment immediately upon presentation of symptoms. And our doctor has treated the virus with such wisdom that not one of our patients has succumbed yet to death. We all of us make efforts to live, but we none of us are waiting to die. When the camp director is lucid and his fever subsides, he blames himself for infecting the others. He complains of taking a bed from a patient who needs it.
The cook murmurs in his mother tongue of his longing for his family, his children whom he misses, his grandmother who died.
The pharmacy manager makes jokes at my expense about the upcoming narcotics audit.
And the head of security sings the praises of the camp director. "They'll not return now, those vaccinators," he says, the smile wide on his face even as his gums leak blood. Tears run from his eyes, but they are of laughter; it hurts him to laugh. "The virus supply they can harvest now from their own bodies."
The Body and the Virus
is part of a cycle of linked short stories about an epidemic quarantine camp in East Africa. The story cycle was inspired in part by the Ebola virus outbreak in 2014. Efforts by the Soviet Union to weaponize a related virus, Marburg virus, in the 1980's provided a point of departure for this story.
is a novelist and short story writer. Her novel, The Celebration Husband, was published in 2015. Her short fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Stockholm Review of Literature, Fabula Argentea, The Light Ekphrastic, Boston Accent Lit, Adelaide, Thrice Fiction, Loud Zoo
and The Mulberry Fork Review
. In addition, she is an organizer of the Amplified Cactus performance art series in Baltimore, Maryland. She has lived in China, India, and Kenya, and has worked as a lawyer, UN consultant, blues-rock singer, and EMT. Current writing projects include a novel and a cycle of linked short stories.