Aimon opened his eyes wearily and looked at the dark red liquid rising steadily in the plastic pouch. Are those dark specks floating in it? Could be! Specks of all those drugs ---antibodies pumped into him. No! No! They were just black spots dancing in front of his eyes. His eyes hurt in the brilliant sunlight streaming in through the bare windows. But the spots continued their cheery jumps even behind closed lids telling him that his body was ready to give up. Starvation had not been prescribed for his delicate physical state after the attack. Wait! Please wait! I am doing all I can to keep you alive. He pleaded with his adamant body.
He felt the sharp pinch as the needle was eased out. His eyes were thin slits yet he couldn’t help noticing the man on the far side of the room. Supine, his slight body was in a faded green shirt and cut-off black pants. Even through the sharply etched bones of his face, Aimon could discern that he was a mere teenager. Strangely his scanty hair was completely white in sharp contrast to his chocolate skin. A frizzy-haired, coal-black man stood near him unscrewing the needle of a syringe that he had just emptied into the man. Samson took the needle from him and attached it to the tube hanging from the stand beside Aimon. He then looked towards Aimon. Another one?Aimon was just able to manage a tiny nod. Samson instantly pushed the needle into his other arm. It felt like a sharp knife being dug in and an involuntary shriek rose in Aimon’s throat. But his cracked lips were glued together. The needle! At least sterilize it! He wanted to say the words but they choked in his dry throat. He could hardly even swallow his spittle. What can you expect from bandits! His eyes fixed fearfully on the needle sucking out his blood, turning the tubing bright red and a rosy line appeared in the next transparent pouch. Aimon closed his eyes.
He was back on the hillside. Sitting on a boulder; looking across the valley. The sky was lightening in the East but above him it was still inky blue. The valley below him was shrouded in gloom, the thick forest at its bottom showing up in a darker patch. A kind of steam was rising from it, invisible to the eyes but perceptible to the nose.
What shall I do? I have to go back. But how? Aimon held his head in his hands. Cracking a knuckle he knocked between his eyes. Think! Think! You have to get out! Besides, the rumbling and grumbling of his stomach wouldn’t let any thoughts through. O God! He was so hungry! His last meal was the gooey cereal porridge at the treatment centre yesterday morning before his discharge. His mind swept back to the times when meals came when expected; in a life he had lived eons ago.
Aimon was a freelance photojournalist specializing in unique photo features and personal narratives. He had worked with some renowned brands. Why, he had even had an international assignment with the Reuters. It was a good going till the run ended about three years back. Since then it had been the usual freelancer’s hard luck tale. Only a few stories with the local dailies yielding hardly enough to cover his internet monthly charges. In dire straits, he had no recourse but to fall back on his meager savings. Even those had dwindled to nothing and a month back, the bank had stopped his overdrafts. And then Lady Luck smiled and the Ebola swung her hatchet. It was a perfect story opportunity. But he had to reach Liberia to get his special first person narratives. No other way out but to reach for the begging bowl. Decision taken, he had walked down the busy main boulevard of Shillong towards his family home. His father had died a few years ago. His mother ran a small cigarette kiosk just under their old, wooden house where he had been born and raised. Aimon had left home the day he earned with his first cheque from a story sold to a national daily. He lived in a cottage clinging to green Garo hills just above Shillong. The owner was a Bengali lady from Kolkata who was now too old to negotiate Shillong’s winding, steep paths. So he took care of the cottage and the garden that encircled it and that was his rent.
Mom, its only for two weeks. I will zip down to Liberia---take my interviews and zoop! I am back here to you. Of course, I will sell my story in Kolkata. I have sent feelers to the Asian News and HT. They are interested and there is this one really snooty international magazine I want to approach. Your returns will be doubled. You know, just like an investment--- though nobody gives you 200% returns in 15 days! Aimon cajoled his mother.
More like I will never see a single paisa of it. His mother’s kind, wrinkled face creased into a smile. Take it, Son. But…. isn’t that the place where there is some sickness happening.
So that is why I want to be there.
All that’s fine, but what about you?
Me? What about me?
If you fall sick?
Oh no! Nothing will happen to me. I will be there hardly for ten days. Don’t worry, Mom. Aimon planted a kiss on the furrowed forehead and stepped out, the cheque safe in his pocket. And thank you, Mom. He smiled over his shoulder.
Within the next couple of days he bought the tickets. There were several of them. First he had to motor down to Gauhati from Shillong to catch the train to Kolkata. Once in the metro, he obtained US dollars by exchanging the rest of his mother’s loan. Lugging his DSLR, with his recorder safe in his haversack, Aimon boarded the flight to Capetown. He had to stay overnight at the airport to catch a dawn flight to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia.
When he had emerged from the plane, the humid heat enveloped him like a thick blanket. And it was only seven in the morning. The Monrovia airport was just a couple of flat-roofed, whitewashed buildings with a stunted control tower peeping out. Aimon walked off the tarmac directly on to the parking lot where a lone cab was idling. Just beyond were clumps of trees that dotted the surroundings. Their trunks as wide as a small room, they majestically soared upwards trying to touch the clouds. Aimon’s head snapped back as far as it could go to look at the spreading canopy of large waxy leaves. An azure blue sky stitched uneven patches of quilt work around them.
He approached the driver sleeping on a bent elbow sticking out of the open window of the battered Citroen. A few knocks on the door roused him. Licking the saliva from the corner of his mouth, he ran a hand through his short, white crinkly hair. His leathery face glistened like burned caramel. A thick black sausage of a finger with a pink belly poked upwards. Where?
Cheap hotel. Aimon was just as brief.
Take you, Suh. Gestured a thumb over his shoulder.Aimon opened the rear door, threw in his haversack and then settled himself cradling his camera. The car started with a loud thud and jerk and they were on their way in a cloud of dust. The road wound through the thick foliage and emerged into a wide four-lane road. As they puttered down the empty road, only a van emblazoned with the blue and white WHO logo passed them. The town came upon them suddenly, with wide storefronts, villas, wooden clapboard dwellings, and two-tiered hotels, cheek by jowl. It was pretty and picturesque with glimpses of the sea and beach beyond the buildings. Yet it looked like a ghost town. Aimon hardly saw anybody.
No people. Early morning, no? Aimon queried.
No people. The driver parroted. All sick.
Aimon nodded thinking. All? Soon they turned into an alley. Aimon could see the shimmering blue and white sandy beach at the far end. Half way down they stopped.
Hotel nice. You see? The driver had enough time to indulge Aimon’s choice of a hotel dishing up a fat bill at the end.
No, no. This will do fine. Aimon paid off the cab. He picked up the haversack, slung the camera and climbed the few steps into a wide verandah and entered the dark interiors. A young man in a white shirt took his particulars. A room with meals was about twenty dollars. Quite steep! About 1000 bucks for this small alcove. Aimon couldn’t help feeling somewhat cheated as he edged sideways through the doorway. The narrow bed just fitted in but the attached bathroom and a view of the beach from his hotel was the cheese that took the edge off the sour taste.
He showered and changed. As he eased out a fresh pair of shorts and T shirt from the haversack, a paper-wrapped packet fell out. Carefully he opened it to reveal a heap of dry neem leaves. When he had gone to say good bye to his mother, she had stuffed them in his hands. Keep them with you always. They will keep the sickness away.
He took a handful and patted them into his shirt pocket. Then with the camera and recorder, he went down for a bite. The same man who had been at the reception doubled as the waiter. The food was not bad. His hunger sated, Aimon walked out into the back porch. The sun-bleached beach looked inviting but Aimon knew that the hot sand would blister his feet. Pleasure could wait. Work first.
He asked the solitary receptionist cum waiter, who was wiping the tables, directions to the nearest treatment centre. The route didn’t seem very difficult and Aimon started walking. He passed houses that looked deserted. The doors and windows were tightly shut. Some were even boarded up as though people living there had left. Aimon clicked shots of a few. Following the boy’s instructions he took a several turns. Suddenly he was upon the centre. A few white tents flapping in a clearing; surrounded by a multitude of ebony-skinned men, women and children. They were standing, sitting, some stretched out on the ground, flies crawling on their still faces and closed lids. A few were holding bloody rags to their noses and mouths. The medical team, in their visored helmets and bulky, anti-contagion whites, weaved in and out. It almost looked like sci-fi film of aliens among earthlings. Only the earthlings’ response to the aliens was more robotic than human. But what deafened Aimon was the silence! People crowded reporting desks, queued up for checks and medicine but hardly a buzz. Only the softly spoken instructions or the queries of the medical attendants punctuated the thick, sweltering air.
Aimon first took a few long shots. Then he approached hesitantly. Suddenly he felt like a vulture. But just for a moment---until the professional kicked in. He went up to the nearest man standing languidly in a queue and asked his name. He had to speak twice and the second time, a tad loudly. The man raised his head and looked at him. The incomprehension in his eyes told Aimon that he direly needed an interpreter to start any kind of dialogue with the locals. So he restricted himself to his camera trying to capture in his frames the air of utter despondency permeating the camp. It almost seemed that these people were making a gesture by visiting the treatment centre. A farewell gesture to Life as they were waited--- counting the minutes to when Death would reach out with his long fingers to lead them away to their real destiny. The only eyes that flickered with any hope were those of the attendants, ringed by the dark circles of sleepless days and nights, as they raced to beat Ebola’s speedy onslaught.
Aimon was on one knee, trying get a shot of an emaciated mother holding her child of about six or seven years whose chest hardly rose with each achingly slow breath, when he heard a voice from just behind his head. Just what do you think you are doing? The local accent was thick with a hint of some American twang. Aimon turned. Facing him was a giant of a man. He wore a sleeveless vest and faded, tattered jeans but among that throng of thin, bent, and weak figures, his healthy, rippling mahogony muscles seemed almost vulgar. His shaved head shone with beads of sweat and a thick, silver ring in his left ear bounced off the rays of the setting sun. Who are you? You can’t take snaps. Not allowed. His tone was belligerent and a hand sprung towards the camera. Aimon took a couple of steps back to get out of reach and then dug in his back pocket for his wallet. Flicking it open he held up the blue passport and a Reuters ID, earned during his international assignment with the Bureau.
The giant’s expression changed though the brown eyes remained skeptical. Even so, you have to take permission of Dr Marriot, the centre supervisor.
Oh certainly. Where can I find him?
The giant pointed in the general direction of the largest tent and turning on his heel, walked away.
Aimon vended his way between the serpentine queues snaking from the several inspection desks set up outside the tents and manned by the harassed junior medics. He lifted the flap and bent his head to enter the tent and found himself facing a woman with a short, iron crop of hair, spectacles straddling an unmistakable Norman nose, studying a thick sheaf of printouts. She looked up with a frown. Yes?
A Parisian. The accent was a clean giveaway to Aimon who had spent a few weeks in the French capital attending a photographers’ fair last year.
Ma’am, I am a photojournalist and here to cover the epidemic. Fishing out his passport and ID, he put them on her desk. I need your permission for interviews and photos.
She turned the documents around, studied them for a second, and then nodded. From India? Aimon nodded. Go ahead. Tell the world. More aid and more medical help are welcome. God knows we need all we can get.
My work would be easier if I had an interpreter. Could you suggest someone?
Interpreter? Yes, of course you will need one. She looked at him for a while and then nodded. I will give you a good one. Not only will he interpret but also take you to the areas where the Ebola is rampant. And she raised her voice. Samson! Samson!
Turning expectantly towards the opening and Aimon was amazed to see the same giant, who had accosted him a little while back, stalk in.
Samson, this is Aimon Lalung. He is a correspondent. Please offer him all help. It is my personal request. She went on.
Samson simply nodded his assurance. Of course, Dr Marriot. Looking at me, he gestured outside. Come, Mr Lalung.
Thank you, Doctor. I felt I was in good hands.
She nodded, dismissing Aimon by turning back to her papers.
He picked up his documents and followed Samson. As he slipped out, he looked back. Her head bent over the table at a tired angle. Aimon made a mental note to add a section about the relentless and aggressive fight that these few caregivers were putting up against the monstrous disease.
The next five days were spent roaring from centre to centre in clouds of dust in an open four-wheel jeep commandeered by Samson from the local AIDS facility. Apparently, that is where he was a full-time volunteer, until Monrovia was hit by Ebola. Samson turned out to be a silent, taciturn man answering in monosyllables only when asked something. Yet his tone softened, was almost tender when he conveyed Aimon’s questions to his country people. After some prodding, Samson divulged that he came from a village not far from the capital. He had hardly attended the village school and had come to Monrovia as a teenager. He started off with odd jobs for the tourists who thronged the white beaches and surfed the frothing seas. Mostly French, Spanish and lots of Americans. He had picked up both French and English from them. He had also joined a local music band and played the drums at hotels. The pickings had always been lean but enough to get by. But now with the epidemic ravaging the city, both tourists and band had packed up. Some years ago an American doctor working for the WHO had persuaded him to volunteer at the AIDS facility. That accounted for his nasal American accent. Ever since Samson had surprised even himself to discover that he had natural skill in caring for the sick. Once Ebola struck he had been working ceaselessly alongside the medics as a health worker. When Aimon inquired how he managed without a regular income, he just gave a Gallic shrug. Yet he was very resourceful and guided Aimon albeit with a brevity of words on the best spots to shoot and collect his data. Early each morning he presented himself at the hotel. They made a striking pair, Aimon, slight and hung with camera, recorder, a notepad in hand, shadowed by big, muscled Samson.
As Aimon went around the treatment centre’s in the town, he heard tale after tale of ordinary people suddenly run over by the deadly disease, losing loved ones in quick succession even before fully understanding what had hit them, and hardly rallying after the buffeting doled out by grief before finding their own lives being sucked out by Death. It was difficult to stay composed, pragmatic, and clinical. Returning every evening, he would diligently mail his narratives and images to his own email account from the hotel’s computer. But at night, sleep wouldn’t come. Aimon would toss from side to side, pictures leaping behind his eyes. Blue flies crawling all over the skeletal figure, getting into bleeding nose cavities, sitting at the corners of the eyes of the unconscious ten-year old—the only remnant of a fourteen-member family, lying at the feet of the other milling patients. To Aimon it seemed the medics were purposely ignoring the child, knowing Death was imminent. In fact, they were waiting to shift him to a bed once it was emptied of its previous occupant, now dead. Another image was of a man propped up against a tree trunk, all skin and bones, his chest covered with his own vomit. Aimon sat on his haunches, gagging on the smell, but swallowing bile and shooting questions. The man lifted his red eyes, looked at him wildly and croaked in patois. Help! Help me! I don’t want to die! Aimon couldn’t say another word. He had hurriedly got up and rushed off, his throat choking.
He tried to divert himself by padding down the white beaches with surf pounding the rocks. He tried looking through his lenses at this tropical paradise with exotic birds flitting through the dense, verdant foliage and huge garish flowers exuding heavy scents. Poignancy touched the rich beauty as Death spread its shadow over it all. Walking around, Aimon discovered a hillock at one end of the town. From the top, which fell away sharply, one had the view of a valley overlaid with thick equatorial forests. Aimon would sit there often and listen to the far-off calls of wild animals hunting in the twilight.
On the sixth day, Samson took him to a village, a few hours’ drive from Monrovia. His brief explanation that it was one of the worst affected Ebola village, whetted Aimon’s curiosity. It was a sad row of ramshackle tenements straddling one main lane. There were a few sturdier villas behind them. But that was all. When the jeep stopped and the dust cleared, Aimon squinted down the single path but not a soul was in sight. Some pie dogs slunk around the shacks, emitting half-hearted barks at the visitors. Aimon, followed by Samson, slowly walked down the lane, looking at the doors. The first few were boarded up. When Aimon silently jerked his head in inquiry, Samson drew his index finger across his throat in the familiar gesture meaning cut down. Then Aimon came across an open door and stepped in. It was dark but sounds came from the inner room. He peeped inside. In the dimness, he could make out an unmade bed in the far corner. As he tried to peer through the half light, the bed clothes moved and the figure, a woman by looks of the thick curly hair that fell forward, turned and retched. The vomit sprayed across the room and splattered Aimon’s boots.
Samson pulled him back with a whisper. Come on. Come on. The infection! They walked out. Walking down the short lane, they found other dark doorways but the houses were not inhabited. Aimon realized that either the inmates were dead or dying. No living stories here other those told by the haunting voices of Ebola ghosts. He took a few shots of dark doorways and boarded windows and then they drove off.
That evening, after mailing off the village snaps, Aimon didn’t want any dinner. Just tired. Maybe tonight sleep will come. He reasoned as he stretched out on the narrow bed. And sleep did come---deep and paralyzing.
When Aimon awoke, the hot sun was already pouring in. Today, Samson had promised another foray, to a village further away. Hurriedly he swayed into the bathroom when a sharp rush of bile filled his mouth. He could hardly reach the pot before his stomach heaved up a yellowish jet of liquid. The retching continued even when nothing was left in him. When he finally stood up, his head spun. He held the wall for support and finding his way back to bed, tumbled into it.
Will just lie down till the room stops spinning. Then get up and brush. These, incidentally were his last coherent thoughts. The nausea returned but even though he attempted a trip to the bathroom, he didn’t make it. The floor was slippery with the vomit yet Aimon was only half conscious of anything at all. He did try to open his eyes some time later and glimpsed Samson filling the door. He didn’t know whether he was dreaming or the man had actually come and he no longer cared.
Next he was being shaken vigorously. It was the hotel boy.
Sir! Sir! Wake up! You have to go. We don’t keep ebola patients here. Sir! Pay up your bill. You have to go…. His voice trailed off as Aimon slipped away.
He came to when a fierce heat burned his skin. Opening his heavy lids a little, he found himself crouching on the pavement. How did I reach here? And he opened his eyes some more. The afternoon sun whitened the sand. His haversack was lying in the dust before him. There was nobody around. His camera was gone. When he managed to unzip his bag, his wallet was missing and so was his recorder. At least his passport peeped through the few clothes left in it. How dare they?! I paid for the room! And then a terrible lassitude overcame him. His head fell on to his chest and he didn’t have the energy to raise it, let alone find any to feed his indignation.
A screech and a roar painfully assailed his ears and a jeep swivelled to a stop. A huge form mercifully cut off the sunlight. Aimon found himself being hauled up by the collar of his shirt and dumped unceremoniously in the back seat. His haversack sailed over his head and thudded on the floorboards next to him. Another screeching of brakes and the jeep backed off into the main street. Soon after, muffled voices in different accents and languages broke through his daze. He became conscious of hands and fingers prodding him. But for the first time he felt assured that these were the right hands and fingers. Masked, white figures nearly dragged and dumped him into a hammock bed. Maybe God wanted him to survive. His angels dressed like aliens had come to save him. The thought brought him some succor and he gave himself up to the comforting darkness that was waiting to devour him.
For days and nights, Aimon travelled through one dark tunnel after another. Only once or twice did he break the surface and it was usually when a needle pricked or some scalding liquid was spooned into his dry throat. His skin was blistered red and burned with fever. In his deliriums, he ran down the green hills of Shillong hearing his mother’s calls to come home to dinner. He could smell her special chicken stew and hear her humming the old Khasi songs as she stirred the pot. A terrible longing rose in him---an infinite hunger for the feel of his own land.
Nearly twenty odd days and nights, Aimon floated in a dark sea, sometimes sinking down, down, down into a stupor where a tempting desire assailed him to give up to the painless oblivion. And then he would be yanked up into an agonizing consciousness of blinding lights, urgent voices and endless pokes and pricks. Eventually one evening, Aimon opened his eyes. Even in the half light, his eyes focused; he could see clearly. The wet sheets under him felt clammy. The fever had finally broken. He heard a groan. He looked at the bed next to him. Then he heard it again. My stomach! That is my stomach telling me it was hungry! He laughed out but only in his mind, not having the strength to part his lips, open his mouth and let it gurgle through.
So how are you today, Mr Lalung? There was a Parisian lilt in the voice and Dr Marriot’s kind face came into his view.
Good, Ma’am. Aimon squeaked. Strange! Is that my voice? He looked at her anxiously, expecting to be told that he would have to leave. The bed was needed badly, he knew.
You will need to stay here a few more days, Mr Lalung. Then you can leave----for your own country, I hope.
Yes, of course, Ma’am. His squeak ended in a whisper as Aimon recalled that he had no money and no means of buying an air ticket back to India.
The next few days, he was forced to focus on regaining sufficient strength to at least stand and walk without a shoulder or an arm for support. Very soon, one morning, as he was pushing down spoonfuls of a mushy porridge sitting on his hammock bed, the nurse passing out enamel mugs of steaming coffee made a casual remark. So, leaving us today, Aimon?
Am I? His heart gave a lurch.
That’s what I hear. He could just glimpse a smile behind the visor of her helmet.
Now what? Aimon could hear his heart thudding against his chest.
By mid day, clutching his knapsack filled with a few clothes, Aimon was slowly shuffling down the street towards his hotel. His mind was like a ball of cotton wool. Nothing penetrated, nothing emerged. Somehow he found himself on winding path to the hill top, which he used often visit---when? In another lifetime!
The walk tired him out and he wanted to lie down. Looking around he noticed a hut a few feet away. The doors and windows were boarded up but it boasted a small stoop. Aimon managed to stumble up to it and collapsed under the shade. I will rest for a while and then go on. He closed his eyes.
When Aimon opened his eyes, it was dark. The rough cemented floor was hard under his bony frame and there was a crick in his neck, but he remained there not knowing where to go, what to do. Nobody came up the path. Soon he slept again. When next he woke, the stars seemed far away. He crawled to the edge of the stoop and painfully stood up holding the walls. Slowly he started taking one step after another climbing the path to the top of the hillock. By the time, he reached the top, his chest rasped painfully and he could hardly breathe. He fell on a broad boulder and lay there gasping. Once his breathing returned to normal, he sat up. Looking at the stars above and the deep gloom-filled valley below, Aimon was trying to think but his half-formed thoughts would just float away. And his empty stomach kept intruding with rumbles and groans.
And then, a new sound penetrated. If not for the silence of the night, it would hardly have been audible. A rubber sole sliding on the gravel----and it came from behind him. Instantly, Aimon jumped off the far side of the boulder and crouched behind it. He held his breath but didn’t have to wait long. First hands appeared on the boulder’s edge and then a dark head was cautiously raised. Slowly the figure took shape until Aimon saw a giant looming above him standing on the rock his legs apart and holding aloft a hammer like the Thor of the Ancients. Am I hallucinating? And then the angle shifted. O God! It’s Samson! What is he doing? With a hammer? Was he hunting? Playing out some pagan rite? Or was it a weapon? Against whom? As the bottom of the boulder was in shadows, Aimon was still comparatively hidden.
A few seconds later, Samson saw Aimon and in the moment that their eyes met, he swung the hammer. It hit, with the force of the giant’s might, at the exact spot Aimon’s head was, a moment before. By a reflexive reaction, Aimon had rolled away. Scrabbling in the thick undergrowth, he half- crawled, half- slid away, moving as far as he could from his attacker. Eventually, he stood at a safe distance and shouted. Samson, why are you after me? What have I done?
You, Suhh? Nothing, Suhh.
Then why—why did you hit at me?
Because I want your blood, Suhh.
My blood? Why?
To sell, Suhh.
Aimon was nonplussed. Sell my blood? Why my blood, Samson?
Because, Suhh, your blood has the Ebola antibodies. People pay a lot for Ebola-fighting blood. Whatever you want, they pay for it.
My God! What crooks! But Aimon needed to stall him---to give himself time to get out of this latest mess.
But Samson, killing me will get you very little blood.
You will get my blood for just an hour, maybe a little more and then my dead body will stop bleeding. Don’t you know, blood freezes in a dead body.
Now it was Samson’s turn to be confused. I didn’t know, Suhh.
But I can give you my blood.
He chewed on that silently. Give your blood?
Yes. I will sell you my blood.
Ohhh! He paused as it sunk in. For how much?
For 1200 dollars. That would pay for an air ticket to Kolkata.
By then Samson had recovered. Okay, Suhh.
But how will you take my blood?
Leave that to me. I will take you to the old AIDS facility. Now, no doctors, no assistants, there. All gone to treatment centre or dead. Come, Suhh, I take you. And he stretched a hand.
Should I trust him? But do I have a choice? And this is a chance---even if it is a tiny one. Aimon took his killer-turned-saviour’s hand.
He strode down the hill and Aimon shuffled behind him. The eastern sky bloomed pink.
He was right. The AIDS facility was nearly deserted except for one man who seemed acquainted with Samson. They exchanged a few words in patois in a low voice. Anyway, Aimon was past caring, faint with fatigue, hunger and nerves that he was.
Samson pointed to a narrow bunk with dirty sheets. There, Suhh.
Aimon lay down and Samson wheeled over a stand with tubes and an empty plastic pouch on it. He proceeded to poke in a needle intravenously. What a metamorphosis! The caregiver becomes a murderer! The lure of the lucre! Aimon was still reeling, unable to come to terms with this new writ of the Fates. Under the layers of civilized refinement primitive conflicts rage constantly, raising their heads at the first opportunity. Rapacious Man strips Nature yet when Nature turns around and threatens the very existence of Man, the primordial urge kicks in. Then it is each to his own. The survival of the fittest. Such thoughts flitted in and out of Aimon’s half-conscious mind as his blood apparently enriched by Ebola antibodies filled the first pouch. Aimon was sinking. He struggled to stay conscious and forced open his eyes. During one of his periods of awareness, he again noticed the teenager, who also seemed to have tubes running into his arm. Oh God! That needle! The callousness! But, of course, to these bandits I am nothing more than a liquid gold mine. Thank God, they fell for my ruse and let me live. Aimon closed his eyes in weary resignation.
One pouch filled. Then two more…
Samson went off with the pouches of blood. As Aimon groggily sat up, he returned and upturned a black polybag on the bunk. A heap of notes and coins tumbled out. But they were local currency. Aimon pushed them away. Wont do. I want dollars. USD. Understand?
Samson looked at him for a while. Then sweeping the money back into the bag, he turned away towards the door. Just before slipping out, he gestured with a hand. Wait.
Aimon slowly got to his feet. He suddenly wanted to get outside; away from this suffocating room. He started towards the far door. His legs were jelly and he focused on getting to the door without falling. It was so far away. Holding on to a wall here, a pole there, he finally reached it dragging his haversack. Even that short walk had left him breathless and he sat down heavily on the footpath outside to wait. The wait was not a long one as he saw Samson was running down the road. When he reached Aimon, he took out wads of US dollars from inside his shirt. There were three wads of 500 dollar bills. More than what Aimon needed. Quickly he unzipped the bag and started stuffing the wads inside before anyone saw them. A hand clamped down on his shoulder. His heart leaping into his mouth, Aimon turned around.
Thanks, Man! My AIDS will kill me, of course, but at least I have beaten this damn Ebola. It was you…your blood that saved me. Thanks, Man.
It was the teenager. A few strands of white hair fluttered gently in the breezeless air, crowning his dark face with a half halo. The cheekbones jutted above hollow shadows. Aimon’s eyes raked his face. The boy smiled; the ominous grimace of a skull barring its teeth. Then he straightened and walked jauntily into the dazzling sunlight, bony hips undulating under the black cut-off pants. His shoulder blades stuck out, as though about to grow wings, through the faded, green shirt. Aimon stared after him, wide-eyed.
Airline office closes in an hour. Samson’s voice sliced through the dread fast filling Aimon’s heart. Better die at home. Right ,Suhh?
Aimon looked up with unseeing eyes, blinded momentarily by the bright light glancing off the silver ear ring. And then, he nodded slowly.