Fiction — February 15, 2012 13:17 — 3 Comments

The Shaman’s Eyes – Frank Scozzari

The chest wound was deep and Ben Gordon knew he had to stop the bleeding and stop it soon, or he’d lose yet another patient. After all he had been through in the past week with all the wounded and displaced refugees pouring in from the region north, the delayed shipment of medical supplies, and their water source going foul, losing another patient now would be more than he could bear.

The boy, barely sixteen, lay beneath a hanging fluorescent light. Beads of perspiration covered his dark black skin. The wound, caused by a single slash of a machete, split his chest diagonally from above his left breast down nearly to his waist.

“You are not going to die,” Gordon said. You are too young to die.

The boy’s eyes flashed up at Gordon then he turned his head away and fixed a gaze on the southeast corner of the tent. Squatted there was the old medicine man. He sat on a woven, reed mat with colorful ceremonial beads draped down from his neck, and he held a long spear upright in his hand.

“I have seen him before,” Gordon said.

Kairubu, Gordon’s young Tanzanian aide, looked over at the old medicine man. “Yes,” he replied.

“He’s been here several times this week,” Gordon said.

“Yes.”

“Why does he come?”

“He come for the dead.”

Gordon looked up at Kairubu. “What?”

“He come for the dead.”

“Is he an undertaker or something?”

“No, he is Malaika.”

Malaika?”

“Yes.”

“A witchdoctor?”

“He takes the dead to the High Place.”

The boy began to shake. His skin looked pale and clammy.

“He’s going into shock,” Gordon said.

Kairubu pulled the makeshift I.V. stand along side the stainless-steel operating table and opened the flow-bag wide. He then went to the end of the table and lifted the boy’s legs to his shoulders. Gordon, meanwhile, grabbed a handful of gauze and held it to the wound, but blood immediately oozed up through it.

“He’s hemorrhaging again,” Gordon said. He tossed the gauze to the floor, grabbed a fresh handful, and pushed it deeper into the wound. “Let his legs down.”

Kairubu promptly complied.

“Hold this!” Gordon said, grabbing Kairubu’s hand and placing it against the gauze. Gordon took a syringe, drew it full of medicine, and injected it into the boy’s arm. He held the boy steady waiting for the medicine to take effect. He could see the blood again oozing up through the gauze.

What’s happened to your magic? he asked himself. What’s become of your science to make people live? To repair what men have done?

Gordon knew, in a land where it was more economical to use machetes for killing than bullets, it was easy to lose faith. Surrounded by the daily carnage of man’s brutality against itself, and despite the World’s efforts to stop it, it seemed he and the other Red Cross volunteers were all destined to fail.

The boy’s eyes remained fixed on the old medicine man.

Gordon glanced over at the old man.

“Is he kin?” he asked Kairubu.

“No.”

“He’s upsetting the boy,” Gordon said.

“The boy would want him here.”

“Why?”

“He is special.”

“Is he kin?”

“I said no.”

“Then, he must leave.”

“But Mr. Ben, you don’t understand. It is a good thing he is here. It is African tradition.”

“You’re not convincing me, Kairubu.”

“He will ensure the boy’s safe passage to the spirit world.”

“What?”

Passage? Gordon thought. What passage? “Wait a minute… you aren’t saying…?” Gordon stopped, turned to Kairubu, and said firmly, “Unless he’s the boy’s grandfather or something, he must leave.”

“I tell you Mr. Ben. It is a good thing. The boy would want him here.”

“Sorry Kairubu, this boy isn’t going to die, not today, not on my table. Tell the old man he must leave.”

“But Mr. Ben…”

“Get him out of here please. Now!”

Kairubu’s white eyes flashed from his jet-black skin. He reluctantly motioned to the soldier at the doorway and said in Swahili, “Chukua mzee nje. Toke!” The soldier took the old man by his long, slender arm, and escorted him to the exit.

Gordon watched as the old man moved slowly toward the door, and as he did, the old man turned and looked back at Gordon and for the first time Gordon saw clearly his face. He had dark, sullen eyes which were sunken in his head. They appeared as black canker sores from beneath snow-white brows.

It dawned on Gordon that the old man’s presence coincided with the deaths of many of his patients. In the past week alone there was the elderly woman, the small girl with dysentery, and the man who had lost his arm to a machete. Each time the old man had been sitting there, like he was now, a buzzard waiting for the carrion.

As the tent flap closed behind him, Gordon looked over at Kairubu. “Is that you’re Dark Africa?”

Kairubu did not answer.

Gordon slowly lifted the gauze from the boy’s chest. The wound had stabilized. The blood had begun to coagulate. Gordon sighed.

“We’re getting it, Kairubu,” he said. He dabbed the wound with the gaze. “Yeah, that’s the way it should look.”

Kairubu broke a little smile.

“You are going to be fine,” Gordon said, wiping the young man’s forehead with his free hand.

The wound was deep, down to the sternum, and the tissue surrounding the lesion was blue and swollen. But it was a clean cut, as if it had been done with a surgical knife, which would make it easier to close. He took a nylon string from the tray, threaded it through a needle, and began to suture the wound. It is time to make your magic, Gordon thought, to use your hands to repair what man has done.

“He does not come for everyone,” Kairubu said, returning to the old medicine man, “only for special people, those with a pure heart. A heart must be pure.”

“Yes?” Gordon replied, sarcastically. “It must be real special to be dead with a pure heart.”

“It is African custom,” Kairubu assured. “It is part of life.”

“Okay, I’m sorry.”

“He takes them to Peponi,” Kairubu said, “a place way up in the mountain. It is a beautiful place, most beautiful place in all of Africa. You can see far out across the Savannah, and all the animal life is one and the same, and all the places you wish you could be are there, all in one. It is like your heaven, the dwelling place of God.”

Gordon looked skeptical. Being a man of medicine, trained in science, he had always been cynical about such things. He was not one to believe in something that was not supported by science, but he did not want to offend his young friend. “Is it like Arusha?” he asked.

“Is Arusha a place of peace and beauty for you?”

“Yes. It is my favorite spot in Africa.”

“Then it is like Arusha. It is beauty in its purest form; beauty of the natures, and beauty of the souls.”

Gordon smiled. He knew of this place; a place high in the mountains where his mind could go to rest; to find asylum from the horrors of this world. It was a place he wished he could be now. And now, as he sutured up the wound, he recalled a time he was in Arusha, especially beautiful after the long rains of March and April, although it was September now and the rains had not come yet. The rains are good, he thought. They wash away all the blood and horror of war; they cleanse what man has done and bring back to Africa what it has always been, a beautiful place of natural bounty.

“What did you call him?” Gordon asked.

Malaika.

Malaika?”

“Yes. It means Special One, touched by the spirit of the animal world, like an angel is touched by your God. It is a great honor if he comes for you.”

“Yesterday they were no one. Today they are the honored dead,” Gordon recited softly.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“We all die. We all do not go to Peponi.”

“If you don’t mind, I think I’ll pass on this Peponi for now.”

Peponi… heaven… no different, Mr. Ben, just called different things.”

“Heaven waits only for those who believe,” Gordon said. He looked down at the boy. “He believes, especially now,” he said. “Here, hold this.”

Kairubu held the gauze against the boy’s chest as Gordon tied off the last suture.

It finished nicely, Gordon thought. The sutures were well-spaced and pulled tightly together against the skin. He cleaned the wound with an antiseptic.

“You are well!” Gordon announced triumphantly to the boy.

As he smiled at the boy and then turned his head to Kairubu, a gush of wind outside whipped the roof canvas like a blanket. All those inside the surgical tent glanced skyward as if waiting for something. The militia had set up eighty-millimeter L´egers in the low-lying hills to the south and had been periodically bombarding the camp.

“Look at us!” Gordon said. “We’ve all lost our nerve.”

He dropped his eyes back down to the boy. The boy looked better. With Kairubu’s assistance, Gordon helped the boy upright. Together they dressed the wound with gauze and wrapped it completely with bandages around his chest.

“He will need plenty of rest and plenty of water,” Gordon said. “Water is best. The antibiotics must continue all night.” Gordon looked down at his youthful patient and smiled. “Take special care of this one for me. I will see him first thing in the morning.”

Gordon pulled the plastic surgical gloves from his hands and laid them on the tray. He grabbed Kairubu by the shoulders and shook him playfully. “You did well, Kairubu. We did well! I’ll be in my tent if you need me.”

Gordon exited the surgical tent still wearing his blood-covered apron. He was surprised to see the old medicine man seated across the dirt corridor, there in the long shadows of an old wooden cart with his legs crossed and his long spear held tall beside him. The cart, drawn by a single mule and oddly sporting car tires, was empty now, except for a single throw rug which lay flattened in the bed.

Gordon took off his apron and rolled it into a ball. “Sorry to disappoint you old man,” he said.

He glanced down the long corridor between the tents. There were thousands of white canvas tents, and smoke coming from many makeshift, cooking fires, and there were children playing, kicking up the African dust into the late afternoon light. The sun’s rays caught the dust and with the silhouetted children dancing beneath it, for a moment Gordon saw beauty. It was good to see beauty again, he thought.

Just beyond, in the hills below the fading light, he knew, the genocide continued under the hands of the Hutu militia.

As Gordon turned south heading toward his tent and passed the medicine man, he nodded and offered a smile. The old medicine man’s face was too dark to reveal an expression, but Gordon noticed the crown of his snow-white head turned and followed him.

Sorry to keep you waiting old man… Gordon thought, waiting for nothing. Today was not your day. But don’t worry old man. If it is the dead you seek, there’ll be plenty others for you.

 

***

Gordon lay back on his cot staring at the canvas-ceiling. At a quarter to six, the evening attendant came to spray the tent with mosquito repellant. When he finished, Gordon asked him to bring some beer. In several minutes the attendant returned with a bucket of river-drawn water with three bottles of Tusker beer in it. Gordon thanked the boy, tipped him the customary Swiss franc, and sent him on his way. He popped off the top of one of the beer bottles and took a long drink from it.

The smell of the insect repellant was still strong, so Gordon began opening the tent windows, rolling up the canvas of each and tying it off. When he reached the door, he pulled back the canvas and was startled to see the old Shaman’s cart parked across the way. Squatted in the shadow was the old medicine man. It was true! Gordon thought. The old medicine man had been there in the surgical room each time a patient had died that week. But today he was denied.

He lay down, took a long swig from the Tusker beer, and recommenced his long, thoughtful gaze at the ceiling. He considered now, how it was that he came to this wretched place, this indention in the earth where two rivers met where the Red Cross had pitched the first of three refugee camps closest to the war. Everyone coming out of Rwanda was a refugee in the strictest sense of the word, starved and wounded, desperate for shelter and food and medical care, some missing limbs, and if they could walk, they carried carrying all they could.

Gordon retraced his steps as though he were telling the story to someone. He remembered how there had been plenty of pilots at the hotel in Nyanza. Wherever there are U.N. people there are always plenty of pilots around looking to make a dollar. But none of them were willing to fly them to Ngara, even though a flight had been pre-arranged with the Red Cross. That should have been a sign in and of itself. Still, after an afternoon of searching, their team leader tracked one down, and because the money was good, they had been guaranteed a flight to their distant outpost. The following morning, they were led to a dirt tarmac where they all squeezed into a small, Spanish-built CASA. They made themselves comfortable among crates of medicine and food destined for the refugee camp. From the altitude of the plane over Lake Victoria, they could see tiny islands floating in the turquoise water. It was shocking to all of them when they realized there were bloated bodies floating in the water, turned white by the sun.

They landed on a dusty runway surrounded by a tent city that stretched for many miles. A fleet of Land Rovers arrived to collect their supplies and take them to the U.N. headquarters. The place was a conglomerate of relief organizations – the Red Cross, MSF, CARE, and the Red Crescent.

In the morning they headed out for the border, an hour to travel fifteen miles. They felt like salmon swimming upstream against a ferocious river. There were endless lines of Hutus and Tutsi, people carrying the last of their possessions; even children carried bundles. Old men carried firewood, now a valuable commodity. It took them all day to reach the Tanzanian border post on the eastern shore of the Kagera River. There was no longer a need for visas – there was not much of a government left. They were waved across with little fuss. They crossed the bridge high above the Kagera River. He could see bodies floating downstream. It is strange, he thought, having just a day earlier been in a St. Louis airport, and now seeing bodies in a river. There were clusters of children, newly orphaned and wandering around with blank expressions. He remembered being stopped by armed members of the RPF – Rwandese Patriotic Front. They were questioned and identified, and allowed to pass. Their Tutsi driver didn’t fare as well. The guards treated him like a deserter and question his ownership of the vehicle. He was escorted away to a nearby building and never seen again.

There was a group of four European Red Cross volunteers stranded on the roadside. The tires on their vehicle had been blown when they had run over sabotage spikes which had been laid across the road. They had continued on until their jeep had gone down to its undercarriage in the mud. They loaded as much of their medical supplies as they could into their Land Rover, and they had room for only one; a Swiss nurse who sat herself in the back among the supply crates, her knees cramped to her chest.

Finally they reached this godforsaken outpost; this place where streams of broken humanity poured down into a hollow in the earth. It had been five months now that he had been there, five months.

Now in his mind Gordon saw the children playing outside the surgical tent, taking time from their jobs as porters, guides. He saw the long columns of white dust they kicked up and how the afternoon sunlight filtered through it so nicely.

It is good to see the beauty again, he thought. It is good to find an island of beauty in a sea of war. There were times he thought he’d never see beauty again.

He took another drink from his beer and rested his head back on the pillow.

 

***

It came suddenly, a flap of wind against the tent canvas, a loud gusting sound, followed by that awful screeching. In his mind he knew what was coming, but he lay there hopelessly paralyzed. There was nothing he could do. The sound of splitting air was followed by a thunderous roar and a blinding flash. Then there was nothingness.

When he awoke, he found himself in the center of the rubble of what remained of his tent. The air was full of dust and smoke, and the smell of sulfur. His legs had no feeling, nor did his torso. He was not sure if he still had legs, or if they had been blown off by the blast.

I must check my body, completely as a physician would check it, he thought.

But his hands would not move.

There was a silhouette above him. He realized he was not alone. Slowly a face came into focus.

Kneeling above him was the old medicine man.

Gordon tried to move, restlessly, but could not manage even the slightest of movement. Fighting it, finally giving in, he eased back and looked up into the deep, dark canker-sores which were the old man’s eyes. In the second past, which seemed to be a millennium, he saw into another world altogether. Within the old man’s eyes was the accumulation of all the colors of the earth, of all the magnificent spirits of the animal kingdom, and of all the benevolence of humankind.

Gordon’s mind faded into darkness.

The next thing he knew, he was inside the back of a Land Rover racing swiftly across the Savannah. He could feel the ground rolling swiftly past beneath him. He was thankful that he was alive and had apparently survived the blast. But where was it that they were taking him?

He lifted himself up and looked out across the countryside. He was amazed to see the beautiful green hills of Arusha. It was strange, he thought, to see the grass so green in September. The rains must have come early.

He lowered his head back down in the bed and pictured the lovely green hills of Arusha rolling past. It was good to see beauty again, he thought. At last, he had returned to his favorite place in Africa.

Bio:

Frank Scozzari lives in Nipomo, California, a small town on the central coast. He is an avid traveler, and recently returned from another trip to Africa where he climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. His short stories have previously appeared in various literary journals including The South Dakota Review, Spindrift Magazine, The Licking River Review, Potpourri, Roanoke Review, Reed Magazine, Pangolin Papers, Eureka Literary Magazine, Limestone: A Literary Journal, Reader’s Break Short Story Anthology, and many others. He has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and has received various literary awards including the National Writers Association Annual Short Story Contest.

3 Comments

  1. Good story, well told and well crafted.

  2. Gene Harkins says:

    Great Story!

  3. Gina Simpson says:

    Enjoyed the Story!

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney