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?”
Her question is not embarrassing to me. I, too, have lain seeping, red with blood and hot to the touch. I, too, recovered. But by virtue of grace, by the grace of good fortune, by the good fortune to have the profession of grave digging at a time when a grave digger is needed at this epidemic quarantine camp, I live in this camp. I do not live in the world. The world will shame this woman before it kills her. So long as she remains in this camp, she will be without shame. And any question is permitted at the precipice of death.
“Yes,” I answer her. The uncircumcised women were most beautiful to me always.
She exhales audibly, and I see that she has been holding her breath. “I have all my parts,” she says with satisfaction that bleeds a little pride. “I do not mind men, but I prefer women.” Her shyness returns and her face flushes. At first, I mistake it for fear of disapproval. I think to assure her that we all of us at the camp make no such judgments. Then I realize that she is recoiling from the possibility of insult to me. “So you understand what I like,” she explains.
I have not the words.
I have not even the dead body.
To grab her wrists and thrust her hands into the red earth, manipulating her fingers into claws; to scrape away until a warm crease emerges and to curl, curl her body into the crease – no! To show her my body curled into that crease, to instruct her in covering me, quilting me with the earth – would that teach her? Impart to her the wisdom I gained burying the dead?
That I could take her with me to a morgue! Drag her after me through the cemetery! That I could leave her sentry over stacks of bodies! Task her with upturning dirt for a thousand graves! How else can she understand? How else could I have understood?
I look down and shake my head. “Dear one,” I whisper, “I am the addict you recognize. But I no longer use.”
She does not argue with me. She continues to stand before me. I do not lift my head. I stay kneeling, gazing on her feet. She wears thin-soled sandals with a leather thong between the first two toes and an ankle strap. I feel the heat of the sun on the back of my head and neck. I decide to rise, to fetch a liter of water for her – water at least she will certainly need, to give her what succor I have to give – when the blare of a matatu horn prompts her to turn.
She takes two small steps as she twists her torso to see the matatu at the camp gate, the driver barking for passengers to board. She pauses. The driver shouts directly at her now. Like we all of us, insensible to the tender, responsive to the brutal, she follows his order. She crosses from the well to the camp gate and steps from the light of the day into the tinted darkness of the matutu. Within it, I cannot see her. And as it drives away, a cloud of agitated red dust obscures even my view of the vehicle’s black windows.
I look down and shake my head. “Dear one,” I whisper, “I am the addict you recognize. But I no longer use.”
The sweat runs from my brow into my eyes, from my neck and armpits down my trunk. My shirt is wet with sweat. The soles of my feet slip on the sweat puddling on my flipflops. My whole body is crying for this woman.
I stand, shade my eyes with my hand, and peer beside the patient’s ward at the baobab tree rising defiantly like an inverse taproot out of the ground. Its every root is a well drawing water up from the earth. Because of this tree, we all of us knew the ground on this site bore enough water for our quarantine camp. For the example of this tree, we situated the patient’s ward beneath the protective penumbra of its branches, that the patients, too, might draw vitality up through their roots in defiance of their conditions.
I turn and squint down the borehole. It is blackness. In that blackness is some clog, a deposit or incrustation.
Today it is my work to unblock and clean the borehole inner casing. This work is without special meaning. It is work necessary for the inhabitants of this quarantine camp, but it is the job of a gravedigger without a grave to dig. Neither healer nor elder nor shaman, I am merely helpless to do anything but work, and eat, and rest, and die. A one without glory, what victory I know is only over my own urges. I have neither protection nor succor to offer.
And this hopelessness, too, is an urge, a temptation, an addiction.
With this recognition, I see that my work will serve. It is ordinary work, but it will carry a special meaning. Of this work, I will make a ritual. A lay rite that a poor man may do to make of his labour an offering. I will go to the depths for her.
I unfurl the line on the air compressor and lower it through the pump-stand into the borehole, pushing it down, down past the pumping water level. I turn the valve on the line and flip the machine’s switch. The line bucks in my hand like a striking snake as the compressed air surges into the borehole. I struggle with the line to push it in farther still. The water shoots up the borehole and I reverse the valve, cutting the injection of compressed air, just at the moment the foaming brown water is poised to erupt from the pump stand. The water sinks away, down the borehole, and I repeat the process again and again: surging and sinking the water piston to power this de-sediment-ing engine.
After eighteen cycles, I open the valve and let the compressed air flow uninterrupted. The brown water rockets up, ejecting the dislodged sediment in a projectile fountain that coats me in a rain of red soil sludge. I push against the line to keep it at its depth, all my strength against this uprush of defilement, until the geyser runs clean, the aquifer finally liberated from the obstacles to its expression, to its power – the airborne pure water refracting the sunlight like a transient chandelier, an explosion of sunlit diamond drops at its pinnacle, and the waterfall a slapping shower of cooling, stinging sparkles.
I close the valve. The jetting spring subsides. I look at the concrete apron, dark with wet and steaming already in the burgeoning heat. I feel the water beading and evaporating off my arms, the residual minerals and sediment sticking and tight on my skin.
It is only a matter of time before we all of us run out of water. May she know time enough.
Maya Alexandri’s novel, The Celebration Husband, was published in the UK in 2015. Her short story collection, The Plague Cycle, is forthcoming from publisher Spuyten Duyvil. Her stories have appeared internationally, including in The Stockholm Review of Literature, Adelaide, and The Scarlet Leaf Review. Maya has lived in China and Kenya. She is currently a medical student. For more information, see www.mayaalexandri.com.