at this point in the story, the character is watching time catch up with him like it was an elastic that just snapped off of a finger. in an instant, it will be upon him, and in an instant more, hurtling past, pulling him at full speed into the future.
but for now, in that vacuum before the instant, before it all starts to rush towards the end, things are calm. it is dusk. the swallows are sitting on the rafters of my tukul, warbling round words. a bat just brushed past my face, keenly swerving at the last second. through the thin grass wall that separates the compound from our neighbours, someone is playing the same tape they have played every night for months. last night, we took turns standing on chairs, trying to take pictures of Saturn in the cup of the moon. did you see it?
the hospital is busy, but i don't think this is news anymore. we are full. all we can do is make more room. there are no other places for people to go. the vacancy sign is painted on.
this morning, i saw a pregnant woman who had severe eclampsia, and whose blood pressure, despite delivery of the baby, continued to climb. drugs that i would normally give only when a patient was attached to every monitor i could think of are infusing a few hundred metres away with only "30 drops per minute" written on the clear bag. she bit her tongue so severely during a convulsion that she can neither drink, nor talk, nor properly breathe. on her heels, a child who would not stop seizing. on his, a pregnant woman with deep jaundice, drowsy and confused.
my field coordinator and i finished the latest round of quarterly statistics. we poured over our monthly collection of indicators. how many admissions, how many of them with measles, with diarrhea, the number whose parents left before we could finish treatment. the ones i couldn't stop from dying, the dead ones. ghosts.
"and in april, james, how many maternal deaths."
"are you sure?"
of course i am. it was like my graduation. or like the birth of my child will be. there are bits of it that sit in my memory like pieces of stained glass, frozen moments, unforgettable. the seconds were like jewels, precious, expensive.
"ok. deaths from diarrhea.,….five. wow. is that right? it seems too many."
"yes, that's right. five."
and yes, too many. five times too many that feeling where i don't know what else to do. ten staring eyes too many. it is my job to go through these statistics every month, to tally the numbers, balance our admissions, to glean something from the numbers. i do it by going through the charts. many are familiar to me, their stories that i have written on the front of it are often mine. so too the scribbles inside. i handled them, started at them, thought over what to write next, what twist i might add to change the plot for the better. they are like a living thing, a paper memory. i divided them into two piles. the living, and the dead. i tally the living first. there are more. then i turn to the other pile. it is like a reverse role call. john deng, 5 years old, diarrhea? absent. miriam kuol, 23 year old woman, possible brain abscess? absent. atoch matem, 3 year old girl, malnutrition? absent.
when you sit on this side, with the chart in your hand, you seem to have only answers. on the other side, with the chart in your hand, when you looked around, all you saw were questions.
so, now we have done it for the time i have been here. february through june. the cured and the absent are now pressed into numbers, their charts pressed into boxes, these pressed into a corner of the pharmacy. a memory mine.
when i traveled through africa last time, writing about HIV, i was determined to tell the story using as few numbers as possible. what does 40 million living with HIV mean anyway? would another zero make us act? 400 million? would 4 million make us feel better? numbers numb us, they lose their meaning. watch an audience glaze when they hear them. nowhere in the zeroes is a human face.
we sent our numbers today, and i don't know who will read them next, or what story they will tell someone who never got a chance to see the faces.