My first day in Topo village is hectic. It doesn’t begin with a welcoming party or dancing group of villagers, just a drowning void of reality. I’ve been assigned by Doctors Without Borders, along with two local nurses: the three of us are to assist a Doctor Okur at a hospital in this forgotten part of the world.
Upon arrival a man wearing a wrinkled silk shirt comes storming out of an old Victorian two-story building. His colorful necklace of beads swings around his black neck as he runs: crimson.
He nearly tramples me making his way across the dirt road toward a jeep; without even as much as a single glance. He does calls back to the group.
“Dr. Serra! Come with me!” The roar of the engine cuts off his words.
I sit in the passenger seat as the jeep screams through the countryside. The Doctor explains himself over the loud rushing of wind, “Some of the farmers around here have lost livestock. . . Even sent out hunting parties,” he points to a bright green patch in the distance: banana fields. “After the last dead animal the villagers took action. One party went into the jungle, through the bananas, while the others went toward open country.” The Doctor points to a barren mirage on the opposite horizon. “Lions like the shade of small trees out there.”
“Are we looking for them now Doctor?”
“No. We have something worse on our hands.”
“A dead kid.”
Upon visiting the farm with Dr. Okur we are greeted by two armed porters from the village. The Good Doctor attempts to console the devastated family—the girl leaves behind two grieving parents and a younger brother, all of whom have faces stained with tears on our arrival.
What we can gather from the family is that she had set out in the morning to lead cattle to a nearby grazing field, about fifty yards from the home. At the time her father had ventured to the edge of the forest, gathering firewood for his family. He kept his eye on his daughter as he worked; only looking away to cut some branches. The sun was low at that part of the morning but he could see the outlines of his girl wandering through the fields with the herd. When he returns home with the wood he is surprised she is not there. His wife has been tending to the infant all morning and had not seen her daughter since she left.
The farmer stepped outside. He called to his daughter in the field; no response. He could see his cattle grazing in the distance though. He runs through the pasture looking for her—across the field, between the cows: there isn’t a trace. He frantically darts back and forth, through the tall grass, even running into the jungle, all while screaming her name.
It is on his return home that he stumbles over a mound in the earth, a hard lump under the grass: a child’s leg. The farmer cannot bear the thought. He ran home, raging with emotion.
His cry for help eventually leads to Doctor Okur.
“Female. Thirteen years-old.” Click. An audible click of Dr. Okur’s voice recorder is the only noise in the room other than his voice. “Lives on family farm.” Click. “Approximately one mile outside of village.” Click. “Cause of death.” Click. “ . . .” Click.
Several cigars lay lit around the room—the smell of decay is overwhelming. The poor girl has been in the hot grass for most of the day and is already showing signs of decomposing. The odors are unbearable.
In the center of the room the child lies on the operating table; smoke wafts around her body, making the autopsy look more like a sacrifice than a procedure. She is tall, nearly six feet—long and slender; her face: fragile, innocent, porcelain—shattered.
Upon investigating the body we encounter a great many mysteries. To begin with there doesn’t appear to be any actual bite marks. Her throat has been torn; a brutal gash, like a great fishhook caught the trachea and pulled her esophagus straight out of her neck. A gruesome sight amplified by the severed leg positioned next to the body.
There are no puncture wounds anywhere on the girl either, only several more large tears of the flesh. Doctor Okur begins pointing to trauma, indicators of cause of death; all I can see is carnage.
“See how the wounds of the neck and body match the damaged tissue of the leg?” He inquires of me over the brim of his glasses.
“I see that. But it looks like this girl fell into a meat grinder.” I reply with thoughts of my residency in med-school. I had seen industrial workers fall into machinery before, torn apart and crushed; there is an eerie sense of de-ja-vu. “Perhaps it was a tool? That did all this damage?”
“Even if farm tools did do this, it wouldn’t make sense,” the Doctor replies. “Machetes don’t cut like this. Hand-tools can’t rip a person apart; not this quickly at least.” He points to the severed leg. “The girl would have to have been driven over with a plow, or hacked apart by several men with what? Spades? Shovels? There isn’t any of the large farm equipment here that you’re used to. There isn’t a plow or tractor for fifty miles . . .”
“Even if farm tools did do this, it wouldn’t make sense,” the Doctor replies. “Machetes don’t cut like this. Hand-tools can’t rip a person apart; not this quickly at least.” He points to the severed leg. “The girl would have to have been driven over with a plow, or hacked apart by several men with what? Spades? Shovels? There isn’t any of the large farm equipment here that you’re used to. There isn’t a plow or tractor for fifty miles . . .”
“Then what killed her?”
“Sure. A big cat, maybe leopard. Only way she would have been attacked without knowing . . . Ambushed.”
We both see the same thing, the same brutality; how can we differ so much? I can’t shake the feeling that this girl has been run over by some type of machine.
“Why aren’t there any bite marks?” I began with the most obvious observation.
“There may not be any apparent bites on the exposed parts of the body,” he begins saying, “but there is enough of her missing that leads me to believe she was eaten.” He points to gaping wounds which cannot be sewn shut, as though large chunks of flesh, along with a few missing organs, had been removed. I assumed the heap of remains included organs but I am pointed to several which are missing: namely the liver, kidneys, and even parts of the lungs.
“They could still be in the grass?”
“I would have seen them” is his reply. “They would have been strewn around the corpse, but they weren’t. They’re missing.”
“What about the leg?” I choke on my reply. A putrid stank of rotting flesh mixes with the smoke; I stop myself in a dry heave.
“That part makes sense.” Dr. Okur remarks while taking a drag from one of the cigars. “Predators will often eat the organs and carry away part of the carcass. A pride of lions will sit and feast, but a lone lion, perhaps sick or fearful, will take part of the kill with him.”
“Then why is the leg still here?”
“That’s part of the mystery. Why was it spooked? Furthermore, why hadn’t the cattle been scared?” He asked with a hint of enigma.
“What do you mean?”
“When there is a predator around the animals know. They can smell the death; they become uneasy, fearful. That’s what I don’t understand. The farmer said everything was calm . . . even as he tripped over the body. As if the cattle didn’t know the girl was dead.”
After the autopsy I take a bath, anything to try and scrub the scent of death away; it lingers in my hair, in my sinuses. Every breath smells like stale smoke.
I feel caged in my room—claustrophobic.
Need to walk.
I descend the stairwell from my room on the second floor, passing the Doctor as he works with the nurses in updating charts. No bath for him, no change of clothes; he even finishes smoking one of the cigars. A different breed of animal, that’s for sure.
Summer near the equator is brutal. Even with all of the sweltering heat outside indoors is much worse. Every room bakes. Walking through town I pass by the few shops and rooms: a mix of shopkeepers, vendors, women—all of whom stand with half of their body sticking through an open doorway or window.
The street, though, is buzzing with activity. Children and chickens dart freely across the road; men sit in the shade of the low-roofed houses while colorful women are seen carrying clothes and food about. Everybody is talking. Even with the dusty road there is a brilliant vibrancy to the people, to the village.
My presence does draw attention. These people don’t see a foreigner walking through town every day, the appearance of a lanky light-skinned is especially something to talk about. My arrival, however, is not the oddest happening of the town.
In the strange case of Topo, where goats and cattle begin dying in the night, and the people become sick with fever, hope is sought through their doctors. The hospital sends for help from the outside world, but the people, they put their faith into tradition. Fear, ignorance, paranoia—flames all stoked by the babbling village medicine-man, the old hermit recluse, begin to spread through the superstitious locals like wildfire.
On my walk through town I pass this Witchdoctor on the road. He is half naked save for a strip of fabric around his gaunt waist. His hair matted, eyes sunken, with the corners of his chapped lips twisted by age. I would confuse him for a beggar if not for his intricately carved staff, the handle of which is carved into the face of a lion.
As one of the last outposts before the immense rainforest of the Congo the village of Topo nearly falls off the map. Once I reach the edge of town I can see exactly why. Rolling hills and green pastures seem to encircle the place; farmers, huts, cattle, can all be seen in the distance. Half of the scenery is peaceful farmland, with young men tending to fields of grain. On the other side of town, in dark contrast, is a thick curtain of trees.
Looming tree trunks, dense in foliage, stand draped in a web of twisting vines. Leaves sprout from every level; from the ground all the way to the tree-tops. So thick is this canopy that hardly any light reaches the ground at all. In this mixture of damp darkness, dripping wet humidity, an ever present wisp of fog lingers on the jungle floor.
I stand and gaze at this immense steaming world. The only break from the monotony of green hues is the occasional bright flash of red—a parrot fluttering through the frothing sea of leaves. It is not hard to imagine treasure hunters venturing through this jungle, chopping through the undergrowth with machetes, tripping over forgotten ruins swallowed by the forest. An entire country could be draped in foliage—lost to the world forever.
As I approach the hospital on my return I find myself making a mental note of the stark contrast the building has to its surroundings. The renovated hotel-turned hospital is the odd building sticking out of the bunch. Older than the others, and one of the only two-story buildings, the hospital is both the largest and most overgrown structure.
The hospital consists of several rooms on the first floor—the largest being the infirmary. An open area with about two dozen beds, freshly made with white sheets, each draped in mesh netting—for mosquitos. This is really the first time I can absorb my surroundings, even if only for a moment. As I step through the front entrance Malia, the head nurse, tells me that Doctor Okur has been looking for me: dress for the OR.
I can hear the Doctor on the other side of the door as I change into scrubs. My stomach churns at the thought of the smoking room I’m about to enter: smoldering rot. But, he is speaking—to a soft voice. The child’s mother is in the room when I enter; some poor kid has vomited—on the floor, on himself, and on Dr. Okur’s lap. Another nurse in scrubs cleans the mess with a mop.
Over the next six-seven hours I assist the Doctor with new patients. I quickly became used to the vomiting; a common occurrence during my stay. There has been an influx of patients over the past months, the Doctor later tells me, of people suffering from various symptoms of nausea. Malaria and other jungle diseases flare up during these warmer seasons. He constantly reminds me of the lovely local living conditions with his toothy smile.
At nearly ten-o’clock I am finally free to leave.
Voices carry in the breeze as I walk down the road—groups of people dot the road in both directions like an enormous block party. An array of music can be heard lingering in the air; everybody is enjoying the only cool time of day.
As the restaurant comes into view I see the friendly doctor eating alone. I join him for dinner; we drink and talk in-between smoking—exactly the thing to ease our minds, even if all we do is discuss the matters at hand.
In this briefing of incidents from the past several weeks I receive lectures on: snake bites, jungle fever, chiggers, malaria, mosquitos, and of course dead livestock. It is when Dr. Okur begins explaining the recent increase of hospital patients, displaying similar symptoms of a possible endemic crisis that I take the opportunity to inquire about the nature of transmission.
“How can we be positive these two things aren’t related? The Doctors Without Borders needs to determine how this disease is transmitted; these cases do sound like a disease jumping from animals to people.”
The Doctor chuckles his reply, “Are you serious? A correlation between dead animals and a viral outbreak?” He grins at the idea. “It isn’t rabies Dr. Serra, nobody is eating these dead things.” It is not the occasional dead livestock which disturbs the town but this odd sickness during the same time which does. Even Doctor Okur can’t escape this fact, even though he mocks the very notion.
“We have to be dealing with bacteria. The symptoms are there: loss of bowel control, loss of urinary control; vomiting, fever, tremors, obvious irritability, anxiety. All of these symptoms overlap for most of the patients in the past few weeks, according to your own account. Hell, even the little boy from this morning showed the same symptoms . . . If not the dead animals then maybe a disease from the predator. Perhaps it’s drinking stagnant water, or has a transmittable virus . . . If not, then why such a flare-up during this specific time? What else could be the outlier?”
“Good suggestion Doctor,” the resident physician flashes his white grin. “But being alone out here, without a medical team, you and I are the extent of modern medicine. There is simply no time to grow any of the bacteria, hardly a laboratory setting, and definitely not enough resources. It is our job to identify the best form of care, not to diagnose every patient.” He sighs at the thought of our limitations. “I would love to figure out what the outbreak is, but being isolated from so many modern resources; we must simply provide care.”
“There has to be a way to identify the pathogen. Otherwise, everyone will be seeking answers from him.” I gesture toward the old hunch-back dancing in the road.
“Yes Dr. Serra, you’re not wrong . . . I have sent samples to a lab. A university in South Africa has the lab-equipment to help with identifying the disease. And I do agree: if we can’t contain the panic of the villagers then we have a problem. There are a lot of old superstitions in this part of the world: fantasies and falsehoods—enough to drive some of these men to eat each other in times of dispute.” Dr. Okur’s nose wrinkles in disgust as he speaks. “Cannibalism, famine, genocide: all around us . . . Some of these kids will die before their teens, like the girl we found this morning, and it makes none the difference whether or not you and I are here.”
“I’ve seen poverty in my country as well. Hurricanes, death, destruction. Capable people do nothing—or take advantage. Suffering persists.”
“Then you understand. We must be capable, at all times, in order to help the weak.” The Doctor’s bloodshot eyes meet mine. “Out here there is only madness. Like the old man chanting in the street. Old ways and madness, mixed with all of the diseases and predators of the wild. . . It is an ugly truth, that which lives freely in these parts of the world: the heart of darkness.” He massages his temples before speaking. “Be careful not to be caught up in your ideals out here, or to buy into the macabre; not when we are supposed to be the men of reason.”
“How do we fight this outbreak?” I begin to feel my surroundings weigh on me.
“We do what we can, and nothing more.”
Our conversation is interrupted by a roar of engines. A caravan of jeeps and large trucks ride by, through the middle of town, kicking up a large cloud of dust. Military vehicles, filled with stone faced soldiers in dark fatigues. These men are not African but foreigners. A security force protecting large investments deep in the jungle: rich mines, precious metals, and of course oil. These soldiers drive through town occasionally, usually escorted by a Black general in uniform. They drive through the single dirt road of town, into the rainforest, where they are swallowed by the rolling tide of trees.
It is one morning in which I am tending to the filling infirmary that Dr. Okur pulls me aside. “We have a problem.” The phrase is startling enough but the tone in which the Doctor conveys the message, along with the flash of panic in his eyes, unsettles me to the core.
We don’t say anymore. I follow, he leads. Out of the hospital and down the street, to another two-story building on the edge of town. A crowd has formed at the steps of the building. They aren’t talking, just staring—silently, fearfully. This group of people parts for the Doctor and I to enter the house where we encounter an even more somber looking group. They stand as still as statues, each with a different continence of mourning plastered on their faces.
A lady materializes from the group. She wears a long black skirt, cut off at the ankle, with a starch white blouse. In our small exchange of words she identifies herself as the maid of the house, belonging to a Mr. Maroukou. As we walk up the staircase toward the second floor I notice a painting of this Mr. Maroukou lining the wall; a powerful man in a suit, sitting tall in a grand chair.
The ceilings are vaulted, with wood flooring; the echoing hum of voices resonates to the second floor. Everything in this home is grand, with the shine of wealth, perfectly fit for the prestigious man in the painting—the same man whom I notice to be absent from the crowd downstairs. I uncomfortably predict I am about to find out why.
The lady takes us to a closed door on the second floor, at the end of the house, overlooking a patio. Only the Doctor and I enter while the distraught looking housekeeper retreats downstairs. I am not prepared for the sight I see.
Doctor Okur is the first to step into the room. As I step beside him the scene comes into full view. The double pane window is open, overlooking both the back yard and the great stretch of tree-line in the distance. The light is dim at this early hour, with the open window facing Westward. Dr. Okur switches on the overhead light, illuminating the scene.
A desk, piled with papers, sits against the window sill: blood splattered. Red gore sprayed across the room, dripping from the ceiling, the light, over the desk full of papers, splashed on all four walls of the office. The carpet is soaked. The corpse of the man lay supine in the center of the room, facing the ceiling, with a contorted expression of death forced upon his face.
His eyes are still open. The entrails of Mr. Marouko are missing, mostly. Some of his intestines have been strewn about the room with the rest of the gore, but for the most part have been eaten, along with the majority of his vital organs. Even the heart is missing from the ribcage.
Flies buzz in the small office, swarming the raw meat on the floor. Similar tears or gashes that marked the little girl found the previous week are seen all over this body as well. The legs, arms, skull, all have long rips in the flesh.
“Sometimes,” Dr. Okur begins to speak, more out of discomfort rather than to address me. “Sometimes you have to wear many hats in this profession. Today . . . today we are investigators.” He finishes his remarks without taking his eyes off of the dead.
I begin scanning the room as a reaction to the word ‘investigator.’ I hadn’t noticed the complete destruction, only the carnage. Picture frames are shattered; ornaments on the wall have fallen; a standing mirror is broken and the two of us are standing on the broken bits. I hadn’t noticed.
A large section of plaster broke off from one of the walls, with a large crack fissuring from the place of impact, about mid-height. Something else screams at me from the disarray: claw marks. Claws have scratched the carpet, leaving long trails of torn rug. A few spots on the walls have similar long streaks. I’ve never seen such huge scratches, like a bear marking a tree. And fur everywhere. Clumps of brown curls lay matted in blood while the deceased himself is found with tufts of hair in both hands.
“What the hell happened?” I couldn’t, nay still can’t, find words to describe the horror, the animalistic ferocity, of what I saw. It is terrifying.
Dr. Okur is too occupied in taking photos with his digital camera to acknowledge me. I don’t even think he hears me in such a chaotic room.
“Help me flip the body” is his only response.
I grab a hold of the legs while the Doctor grabs a hold of the shoulders; with one quick heave we turn the body over. I can see clear through the abdomen, to the man’s spine, as we flip his carcass. The floor underneath this poor soul is stained in blood. I later find out there is something peculiar about this body which I failed to notice. Having lived in Africa for several years, and practicing medicine in the bush, Dr. Okur is familiar with animal attacks. He did not seem as interested in the overall mess as I had, since he has seen several incidents of big cats trapped in a bedroom. What is most peculiar to the Doctor about this scene, about this animal attack, is the lack of puncture marks. What the Doctor later explains to me is the fact that he isn’t too mystified by the lack of bite marks or puncture wounds on the body, per say, but specifically puncture wounds to the neck.
“You see, big cats kill with a single bite. They attack the throat, try to sever the spinal cord.” Dr. Okur explains to me. “Hyenas will eat their prey alive, from any piece that comes off in their mouth: like land sharks . . . The little girl didn’t have bite marks either, but her throat was ripped out—perhaps in the nature of big cat predation.” He shifts uneasily in his seat, bowing his head for the rest of his remark. “But what is so peculiar about this case is the lack of a puncture wound to the neck. Mr. Maroukou was alive during the struggle.”
“What are we dealing with?”
The Doctor’s response is low and grave. “A man-eater.”
After the killing of Mr. Maruokou the grip of fear on the town of Topo becomes a stranglehold. Safety does not exist within the village. This blanket of fear cripples the evening nightlife: now, only a handful of people stay on the street after dark—even the music stops playing.
The streets are practically vacant, even before the sun even sets; most people stay indoors as much as possible. Farmers don’t tend to their fields as much, neither do the banana harvesters. Work, and life, around the village grind to a halt.
The Doctor and I maintain our obligations in the midst of this uncertainty.
Talk of the town becomes solely about Mr. Maruoko. The young girl who died is all but forgotten in the minds of the villagers. Not to me though; I make a mental note of every happening. The stress is wiring me this way.
Several letters are sent by Dr. Okur to old friends and acquaintances on one of these miserable days, imploring specifically about hunting parties in the area. We agreed on two things from the past night’s dinner: the disease can be stopped, and, we need a hunter.
Nights pass without incidence. Days linger afterwards, tension grows ever more. Even the column of soldiers is hailed one night on their routine drives, though they are too busy to be bothered with tales of some wild animal. With each passing day the village grows just a little more tense, a little more uneasy, just as any town would with a predator lurking in their shadow.
After nearly a week of this routine most assume the danger has passed. I had kept busy with the Doctor in controlling the outbreak of whatever virus seems to be infecting the people. A small fever, barely touching 100 degrees, seems to be afflicting a diverse group of the population. The hospital has filled with patients over the past few days; much to my intuition, something is starting to spread quickly.
Our largest issue is differentiating between early stages of known tropical disease, like malaria or yellow fever, and the onset of some mystery illness. Symptoms always seem harmless enough: light fever, bed-wetting, anxiety, loss of appetite, and some with a slight tremor. Without treatment these symptoms can worsen, to the point of cardiac-arrest. Only a few patients deteriorate to this condition.
We could not resuscitate.
If we cannot find a suitable cure, some system of treatment, than I fear this virus will flare into a full-blown epidemic.
The following day brings better fortune: our Great White Hunter arrives just after breakfast. Coming downstairs from my room I notice a tan truck parked outside of the hospital. Enormous tires with fresh treads give away its owner.
After tending to the hospital’s patients I decide to escape for a walk around town. In passing the diner a few buildings down I hear a familiar voice—Dr. Okur is having a drink with the hunter and his porter. I venture over to speak with the men.
They are deep in discussion. From their hunched-over appearance, staring at each other from under stiff brows, they look as though they are about to come to blows. All I can think to do is interject some civility. “Hello gentlemen.”
“Ah, Dr. Serra, please take a seat. I’d like you to meet Mr. Oliver.” Dr. Okur speaks through grit teeth. “He is just saying how much better my Falcons of Jediane are to his Bafana Bafana.” The Doctor lets out a good natured laugh with the other two. It’s impossible to say such silly names with a serious face. The tension breaks.
“Ah, Dr. Serra, please take a seat. I’d like you to meet Mr. Oliver.” Dr. Okur speaks through grit teeth. “He is just saying how much better my Falcons of Jediane are to his Bafana Bafana.” The Doctor lets out a good natured laugh with the other two. It’s impossible to say such silly names with a serious face. The tension breaks.
“The what now?” Gibberish.
“Football, Dr. Serra, football. South Africa is my new home . . . Pleased to meet you,” says the man with a heavy Russian accent, extending his hand toward mine.
“Hello sir, nice to meet you too.” We shake hands. I have the same exchange with his African porter, Claude.
“Dr. Serra here is brand new to the country. Here only a week before shit really hit the fan” and the head doctor chuckles again.
“Yes, that’s right. Bearer of bad luck you are Dr. Serra” the Russian jokes with a twinkle in his eye; hinting at just how unlucky I seem to be. “Where are you from Doctor? The States?”
“Puerto Rico actually; the fifty first.”
“Do you like soccer?”
“Just baseball. Played short stop but never had much of a swing.”
The Russian smirks at this but maintains his topic. Hooligans only like discussing soccer. “See this here” Oliver opens his jaw wide. He taps at the left side of his molars. “All new. Head-butt to the jaw . . . “And here,” he rolls his pant leg to the knee, “compound fracture. Still have shin splints on a cold night. I love Africa for the heat alone.” Oliver chuckles to his own amusement. He lifts his right hand to the light, a gold ring on his finger: the outline of a tiger. “My team when I was young. Our games were in the street; no cleats, no grass. But quick money.” Oliver smiles with his crooked grin again. “So, I hear from Okur that you investigated the bodies too.”
“Yes sir. I’ve seen every gruesome detail of the report, firsthand.”
Oliver’s demeanor changes with this new discussion. He leans forward, resting his elbows on the table; his chin on his fists. “Okur says you two don’t know what to think. Don’t know what animal you’re looking for.”
“That’s right. We haven’t ruled any out. The Doctor says it could be a lion or leopard . . .”
“What do you think it is?” His focused eyes meet mine.
“What do you think it is?” His focused eyes meet mine.
My response is flat and direct. “I think it’s a man. Maybe a group of them, armed with some type of tool.”
“Savages huh?” The hunter replies.
“Something to that nature.”
“Yes, Dr. Serra seems to think we have a few wild men on our hands. Using knives or farm tools,” Dr. Okur chimes in, “I honestly can’t disagree; we haven’t ruled out anything. That stands for big cats as well.”
The Russian eyes us both intently. After a few moments thinking he clears his throat to speak. “How do you know it’s not some type of chimp? An ape from the mountain?” He gestures toward the looming ocean of foliage in the distant view. Faraway mountains become dark and menacing at the hunter’s words.
“Gorillas don’t do this. And if it were somehow chimps there would have been a hell of lot more noise. These attacks are quiet, too quiet, even for a stealth predator,” Doctor Okur acknowledges.
“It’s happened before. Usually children are taken . . . and you say this last attack was on the second floor? Came through a window?” Oliver asks, very curiously.
“Yes. Tore the poor fellow apart.” Dr. Okur remarks. “A full-grown man . . . Did a number on the room too.”
“Very strange. And the livestock? What of them?”
“Those occurred over the last few weeks. All we can do is assume they are related. A few lion prints were found nearby one of the kills, a cow. But those cases seem to be more natural killings, with puncture wounds to the neck—something the two victims don’t have.” Okur recalls his previous findings.
The hunter looks at his porter. “What do you have to say?”
The strong-jawed African replies indifferently. “Witchcraft.”
We all sit anxiously for a moment, without saying a word. The break lasts long enough for each man to finish our drinks—collect our thoughts. The Russian speaks at last.
“I will track it. I will kill it . . . But, I will keep it.” And with these words an agreement is sealed.
After meeting with the white hunter I walk directly back to the hospital. I can’t help but watch the old shaman parading in the street without a flare of accusation. The Porter’s words burn in my mind as I become suspicious of every fallen shadow on my path.
I retreat to the safety of the hospital for the next several days as Oliver and his porter drift in and out of town. The mornings seem to have a similar routine with the Hunters racing the truck out of the village before daybreak, only to return on a large cloud of dust close to evening.
On the third day the town awakes to screaming. Before the morning’s routine hunt there is commotion coming from the residential part of town—the small homes on the outskirts where the laborers live.
I had been too busy to leave the hospital in the past few days, but now, with a growing crowd around me, I find myself sprinting toward the sounds of terrified screams. I am joined by Dr. Okur, the Hunters, and even a few patients from the infirmary. Some of the other towns-people are already in the street, lighting torches and brandishing weapons: garden hoes, guns, hammers, machetes, sheers. Oliver carries a large double-barreled rifle, himself mounted with a headlamp, and leads our group through the black streets.
Doctor Okur carries a flashlight and tells me to stay near him at all times.
Our destination is a dwelling in the last row of buildings. There are several men with guns and lamps outside the house of a screaming lady. They scour the ground for something, as if she is warning of snakes slithering in the dark at our feet.
Dr. Okur speaks to the woman in her native tongue. We all watch as she hysterically mimes the event, her eyes wide with fear. She makes wild gestures, clawing at her breast, and points to the inside of her room.
The Doctor and I step inside while the Russian and his porter run around back. The small room is sectioned by furniture; kitchen accessories on one half, clothes and a bed to the other. The only window opens above the bed, with a view of the tree-line beyond. I can see through the shattered window pane, to the back, where several lights of men reflect their search.
Doctor Okur shines his light on the bits of broken glass. He tears a strip of cloth from his shirt and dabs at a small splatter of blood. He scoops up a bit of glass and hair with a paper from his pocket, folds the pieces over, and stuffs all of the evidence into his shirt pocket. “Let’s go back to the hospital. Oliver can take care of things here.”
We bring the frantic woman, whose husband was just torn through the window by an enormous paw, back to the hospital. By this point in time the beds in the infirmary have been filled again and every makeshift spot is nearly taken as well.
Dr. Okur and I see a swell of patients this night. Anxious and stressed, some injured in the chaos; I begin to see these events connect like some unfortunate curse on this place.
We put more women in nursing positions and distribute anything to ease the nerves of these people. A stiff shot of Rum becomes the main prescription.
Along with the doctor I help in comforting this influx of people throughout the night. It is just after day-break, I had retreated to my quarters for only an hour-worth of sleep, when I am awakened by a rapid knock on my door. A familiar voice calls to me, barely audible over his thick Russian accent. “Come, Dr. Serra. Today you join the hunt.”
I sit in the bed of the truck alongside the porter as Dr. Okur occupies the passenger seat. Oliver has opened the rear window for the four of us to speak but he and Dr. Okur are in deep conversation which I cannot hear on account of the wind. “What did you find?” I consult with the only company I have.
“We followed fresh tracks; lost them in the trees.” The Porter points sternly to the jungle adjacent to us.
“Where are we going?” I ask over the howl of wind, since we are obviously not heading into the bush.
“Oly needs dogs. We head to Kapuki, get dogs, then we hunt.”
Kapuki is the nearest village, connected by the single dirt road running through Topo. After an hour or so driving we arrive at the large gates of the city. Armed soldiers wheel the barricade aside when they see the two men in the cab. Oliver has been to all of the villages in this part of Africa, a renowned hunter, and Dr. Okur is the former director of this city’s hospital.
I notice the more modern aspects of the city as we drive through, nestled in the beautiful valley North of Topo. The roads are paved with several large intersections. I can tell at least a few thousand people occupy this town—so big I wouldn’t doubt a steady stream of tourists to visit these streets. Dozens of shops, some displaying exotic fabrics and furs, others with hanging bush meat smoking over coals, line the avenue. It is a great feeling to be in a living city again, away from the dread of my new residency in the country.
Just before reaching the district of hotels we drive through an area of complete despair. Beggars shamble through traffic forcing drivers to stop suddenly; a stretch of roadway notorious for gangs, thieves. Large droves of people walk through the street here, along with cars, taxis, mules, bicycles: chaos.
Walking, I’m told, is not smart in much of this city.
Our truck stops in front of a large building, three-stories tall, with a ring of servants and security orbiting around. Oliver and his porter hop out and disappear through a doorway along with a man wearing a felt red uniform. The three men return after a few minutes, each pushing a wheeled carrier. Two large cages are on each cart, six total. It is only when the cages are loaded onto the bed of the truck that I can see they are occupied.
Six sets of slobbering jowls drip in these crates, splashing me with drool every time one of these hounds shakes their head. I watch their droopy faces sniff the air along the ride back; their lips, ears, chins, all flapping in the wind. Even their blood-red eye flaps agree with mine: Oliver is driving fast.
It takes about half as long to drive back to our part of the jungle, the place Oliver intends to begin the hunt. As soon as he parks the car the hounds begin howling. Barking and excited, they rock their cages around the bed of the truck. Oliver hushes them with a stern whistle.
As the Hunters begin checking their rifles at the tailgate I notice a cloud of dust billowing from the distance. An old jeep, rusted with age, rolls down the road to eventually park next to us. Three Black men hop out, not with hunting rifles but with Kalashnikovs. They grin as they come over; everyone but me seems to be grinning.
It is plain to see that each man before me is very familiar with their weapons, even the Good Doctor himself. He retrieves his own rifle, an M-14, which according to him, “This baby lets me control a big bull, control anything for that matter—I’d say, oh, out to about 600 yards.” He and Oliver chuckle. Dr. Okur at some point had mentioned he first came to Africa as a ‘medic’, staying after his tour was complete. I never imagined him a soldier-medic, not until now.
I am handed a shotgun and reminded to be careful of the kick. I wouldn’t mind a hunt, under normal conditions, but after this, this most dangerous game: my fear pools at my feet in a puddle of urine.
After the hunting party prepares the hounds are given a scent: the rag Dr. Okur dabbed in blood the previous night is presented to them. They sniff deeply. Wildly. After a minute or two, after each dog inhales the smell, the pack is released. Oliver and his porter run ahead with the dogs.
The Doctor and I try to keep up but trail just behind the new group of men, the reinforcements. The men with machine guns are given a walkie-talkie, the theory being the two of us doctors stick with one group or the other, always in communication. Things don’t work as planned.
I expect the jungle to be dense, and it is, but the deeper we trek into the heart of darkness, with twisting branches and tangled roots, the more I notice the vegetation to creep higher above our heads. We run between enormous tree trunks wrapped in vines to their base. Leaves clutter on the muddy ground, hiding all types of snakes and bugs that hiss when stepped on.
We follow the distant barking for nearly an hour until we come close enough to finally see the hunters we are following. The blood-hounds lead us to a scattered remains of bones.
The Hunters have found the missing man, what’s left of him at least: tattered rags, bones, some rotting bits of flesh covered in ants. There is no way to continue the hunt.
The jungle has eaten him.
The two trucks return to Topo, our entire hunting party re-convening over a table of food and drinks. Dr. Okur is familiar with the three new men, each of whom belongs to a tribe from another part of the country—somewhere from the tall grass savannas. I could determine at least one thing from the new party members: they are killers. They each walk tall, briskly, always eyeing the country side. A battle hardened demeanor echoes through everything these men do.
Our group talks and jokes well into the evening. I stand for a cigarette, smoking under the veranda of the open-style diner. As the old group of friends continues to reminisce about the past I think I hear a familiar echo in the distance. I hush the table to be sure.
The men looked at me for a moment, their conversation halted. Our ears twitch to the sound we all hear: a faint echo once more.
We all pile into our vehicles, with the porter and I in the bed of the barking truck. Spotlights beam to life as our trucks storm into the darkness.
Our convoy heads in the direction of the last shot, with the jeep full of killers behind us. We end up at a small hut, similar to the first farm we investigated, with a large bonfire roaring before it.
Oliver calls out in an African language, hoarse with his Russian accent. A man emerges holding a rifle. He aims at our group as he steps into the firelight, his eyes wide with panic.
Shouting comes from behind as our three backups emerge from their jeep. Moments pass. The man with the rifle stares unwaveringly down the sights of his gun toward us.
Oliver speaks again, so does Dr. Okur.
The reinforcements appear, weapons drawn, houting.
Now everybody is shouting.
The farmer stares, unwaveringly, at our group. He eventually points to a direction in the dark and lowers the barrel toward the ground. Oliver and his porter begin unloading the hounds—he shouts a few orders to the other three poachers while Dr. Okur continues speaking with the man; his family now slowly beginning to peek through the doorway.
Weapons cock, hounds start barking. Everything is a blur around me, quick in action. All I can manage to do is stand here, watching our silhouettes flicker against the backdrop of a roaring flame.
Oliver and his porter are both wearing headlamps while the other three men use flashlights attached to their barrels—busy scanning the ground for tracks. As soon as the White Hunter is ready with his dogs one of the other men hails from the dark. They all spur into the wilderness.
Dr. Okur and I watch their bobbing lights shrink away.
Some time passes before the Doctor and I hear from the Hunters, which comes in the form of several bursts of machine gun fire. We are hopeful this ordeal is over.
Our optimism rises when we hear static coming from the remaining walkie-talkie. It is the porter requesting the Doctor and I for a pickup.
Dr. Okur and I determine that the farming family is safe, for the time being.
We load the truck and drive into the darkness. Our headlights shine upon something enormous, then another, and another; with dozens of eyes reflecting in the night. Okur slows to a crawl.
Cows. Cattle everywhere, huddled together just out of the fire’s light. With all of this commotion—the yelling, the hunters running through, now our truck driving by; but these cattle all stand around, mooing, with their doltish stares; unfazed by the commotion of humans.
After speeding through the country hills a while our headlights shine on the trunks of trees: we reach the edge of the forest. Several beams of light indicate where the hunters are coming from within the bush—they emerge into the blinding glare of the trucks. Claude is first, carrying something draped in his arms—two of the dogs.
Ultimately unable to corner the beast, the hounds continued their chase too deep into the brush; it became too dark, disorienting, and Oliver was forced to whistle for his pack. In their frenzy the dogs chased their prey even deeper into undergrowth where two of them are fatally wounded by the beast.
All of us wait for daybreak at this entrance to the jungle. In the clear morning light Oliver pulls the Doctor and me aside.
“We were so close last night. Right on his tail,” the White hunter drips with excitement as he recounts the night’s events. He walked us to the edge of the trees where the men had followed the beast. “Do you see these marks here?” He asks, pointing to a patch of soggy earth. “The small pattern just here?”
Both of us squint to discern some type of small shapes in the mud. It is after our eyes focus a bit and our tracker traces the outline with the barrel of his gun that we see the meaning of the shapes: a print. “Our boy was moving, very quick. The imprint isn’t the best but you can see the mark in the ground. Now, look over here . . .”
We follow the hunter several feet back toward the trucks. “Do you see anything here?”
The Doctor’s eye is more keen to these animal tracks than mine, and easily spots the same outline of a track as in the mud behind us. “Correct. This is another one. Only six feet from the one in the mud. And six feet this way, next to the tire?” The Russian motions to the spot where the vehicles are parked.
Sure enough, on a dusty patch of ground, the same outline appears.
“It was difficult tracking in the dark. This spacing is so great. If it weren’t for the dogs . . . I did not expect to find every track, but it seems there are so few.”
Doctor Okur looks a bit puzzled, questioning what the hunter means by his statement.
“The spacing is about correct for a big cat, a body length with each step. Perhaps his paws land on the same track, running sure-footed, quiet. But the spacing would still be odd.”
“How so?” the Doctor inquires.
“Tracks are six feet apart, but twelve-feet along the same side.” The hunter’s face scrunches into a perplexed frown as he finishes his point. “Either the cat is running in a zig-zag pattern, from side to side, or it is running on two, very long, legs.”
Between all the odd hours of hunting and tending to the patients of the hospital Dr. Okur and I are exhausted. I sleep through most of the next day, waking just at dusk. With the sun dipping behind the mountains to the West I look out of my window to a scorching red sky above the long black shadows of the village.
I notice the trucks are missing from the street outside; it seems the Hunters haven’t returned from the bush yet.
After splashing my face with water I walk downstairs. Standing in the lobby for a few moments, gathering my thoughts, I nonchalantly wait for one of the nurses or the Doctor to pass by. I take a step into the infirmary, looking for one of the nurses on hand; nobody is at the front desk.
I am surprised to see a great many empty beds. The few still in their cots are either sleeping or curled-up into their sheets. I find it a bit odd not to see any staff in the room so I peak into the closet.
The opposite door is open and the operating table is visible on the other side. I see the light of the recovery room is on—a small space on the far end of the surgery room. Shadows pass through its glass door.
I walk into the OR, closing the door behind me. When I’m in the operating room, illuminated only by the glow from the recovery room door, I notice the side exit is open. It’s very out of place: we are to keep this back door locked at all times.
I can see the starry sky outside as this entrance leads to the back lot of the building: the moon a glowing white circle.
I grab the handle and pull the door shut.
As I have the brass handle in my hand I notice it wiggle, like it’s loose. As the door closes it appears ajar, warped out of frame. The wood is splintered around the handle as I can now see both lock and handle are broken. Somebody has rammed the door open—from the inside.
A flash of panic strikes me with a tingling sensation; hairs on my neck rise. I cautiously inch toward the lit recovery room, trying not to make a sound. I scan the room for anything out of place, anything broken. Aside from the busted back door nothing seems off.
I peek through the glass part of the recovery room door. The overhanging light is on in the small room and I can clearly see the bed: unmade, sheets sprawled on the floor. I look from one wall to the other of the small space but don’t see anybody. I knew I saw a shadow a moment ago but there isn’t anybody here. I look down, beneath the window of the door, and I can just barely discern a pair of feet. I quickly fling the door open, bending down in one motion to the body on the floor.
As the door swings open the body falls toward me, leaning its weight against the door. I recognize the white cloth, clothes we give to admitted patients, but something about the way the man falls, something odd, shoots me back a few steps.
While the body spills out of the doorway it lurches, unnaturally; a spastic flail. The man writhes on the floor, crawling with his hands toward me. Only his back illuminated by the overhanging light, the body heaves itself out of the room, its face nothing more than complete darkness.
I freeze a moment, watching the man drag himself on the floor, as though his legs are, paralyzed? I catch a glimpse of the lifeless limbs being pulled along; the entire being twitches and seizes violently as it crawls. My eyes focus on some glaring abnormality, in my sudden fear, I nearly miss.
When I can clearly see the legs they seem to be slithering behind the body, though appear much too long. Looking as though somebody grabbed the man’s ankles, stretching his calves an extra foot—through some medieval torture, the strangely long ankles and calves drag behind like broken legs. Thinly stretched, emaciated, the legs slide lifelessly behind this squirming torso.
In the dim light I can see the hands of the crawling man: unnatural, elongated, with boney fingers and overgrown nails—curling under with neglect.
I run away from this horrible apparition, bursting through the door in which I came.
I slam the closet door shut, then the next, as I try putting as much distance as I can between me and that thing. I’m now in the infirmary where I begin to hear the patients stirring in their sheets. I feel vulnerable in this lit part of the building. My uneasiness grows as I begin suspiciously eyeing the lumps in their sheets. I cannot see any faces; nobody seems to move at the sound of slamming doors either. All I see are several breathing mounds of bedsheets.
As I slowly back away from the door, cautiously stepping in-between beds, I hear groaning from the far end of the room. I don’t want to stay here any longer but I can’t just leave these patients in any type of danger. I hurriedly move toward the groans, passing each row of beds till reaching the last. Nearly slipping in the final row of cots, I catch myself falling against an empty bed. I look down and see my shoes leave a streak in something black, something wet—blood.
Panic. My eyes trace the ground. Against the opposite wall, slumping on the floor, a black puddle swells beneath a body. I know it’s a nurse based on her clothes, even though the dead has no face.
Groaning continues from the nearby bed.
My heart pounds in my throat as I reach toward the sheets. All I can envision is that thing from the other room.
Cautiously reaching for an edge of the blanket, before I can touch it I sense something out of the corner of my eye; movement. A shape leans into the doorway leading to the lobby, a dark shape.
I think I recognize one of the nurses, Malia, with her bushy hair thickly braided to her shoulders. As I focus to see more clearly the person standing in the doorway the sheets next to me begin to move. A hand lazily sticks out from underneath. It has long, boney fingers, with black veins throbbing to each digit. The nails have grown so long as to curve, looking like claws, and turning from their usual pink to a sickly shade of yellow.
Another blur of motion from my periphery—the person at the door drops out of sight, below the long line of beds between me and them. I back against the wall, craning my neck to see above and around the mesh nettings draped over the cots.
I begin panicking, eyes darting around the room, to each isle of the infirmary. I hear the scraping and quick shuffling of something moving. I look under the beds, toward the entrance of the room. The person is darting under them, on all fours, heaving wildly forward with her hands and legs. With her violent motions, flailing long hair, the figure scurries toward me a wild animal.
I can’t help but shriek. I burst forward with full speed, darting straight through the isle to the doorway. A grotesque hand, like the other two, snatches at me from beneath the box-frames.
In passing through the doorway I take one glimpse back, to be sure the monster isn’t chasing. Everyone is sitting up in their beds, their blood-shot eyes glaring at me. Each figure is disturbingly emaciated, ribs poking through, with contorting and twisting limbs; all of them raging toward me.
I run into the street. Even being in the dusty road, alone, surrounded by the dark, I feel safer than being inside with those . . . those things. Before yelling out for help I catch my tongue, having the vivid flashback of the red-eyed fiends in the hospital. Looking at the outside of the building I notice a gaping blackness above the balcony, where Dr. Okur’s patio door should be: it’s open.
I begin running down the road, watching every window and door that I pass. Thoughts of abandonment, hopelessness, drift into my mind as I begin drowning in the eerie silence. The word ‘Witchcraft’ blazes in my thoughts.
Doubling back through town seems my only option after finding it abandoned. But, in staring down the single street, I can clearly see the hospital entrance, with several dark shapes violently crawling down its steps.
All I can do is run, away, out toward the countryside. I stay on the road and sprint through the darkness.
I feel eyes upon me as I move. In my sub-conscious I am running to the next town, Kapuki, but if I stop to think I would realize that’s insane. There could be any number of predators in the dark that will eat me. The hair down my back stands to attention with the thought of an enormous lion dragging me deeper into the dark.
My imagination starts playing tricks. The darkness plays with my mind, making me think I see movement all around me. I feel like I am hallucinating: sets of eyes seem to be glistening along either side of my path.
Honestly I do not know, I just tell myself this is my imagination.
After running through the dark for an eternity I see something bright ahead of me: truck lights. They aren’t moving but I had seen the hunter’s truck enough this past week to recognize the strip of lights above the cab; this truck has none. It must belong to the mercenaries.
There is no other hope: I shout with the little breath I have left. My voice is hoarse and weak from the run but I hope it carries in the wind. There is no response, just the shadow of a figure walking into the light.
My lungs are on fire when I reach the pale glow in the haze of the headlights. The engine is off as I approach, the figure standing a silent black statue against the beams of light. I begin to cry out again, nearly weeping from joy. “Doctor! Oliver! Help!” I reach toward my savior.
His hand reaches out to grab mine. I hug this figure, the only shred of humanity left in this world. As I embrace him I feel an odd curvature of his back, like a hump in the center. I stand back, aghast; the Witchdoctor.
I still cannot see his face in the dark, only a blurred outline against the headlights. My eyes adjust to what I can see: his bare feet—cracked and warped, visible from beneath his tattered robes dusting the ground. I had never been so close to the man: he smells like the jungle.
I nearly run at the sight but he holds me firm with his hand. He points in the dark, to a distant speck moving quickly: light. The yellow ball skips across the earth, the only illumination on the black horizon—like a falling star the hunter’s beaming truck crisscrosses the wild terrain in the darkest hour. As I stand, watching, the Shaman places a small object in my hand. It feels cold, solid like a rock—a small idol the size of my palm.
The Witchdoctor begins walking away, evaporating into the blackness from which he appeared. I reach out for him, pleading him to stay, to tell me what is happening, why he is here—why am I here? He half turns, just out of reach, before fully consumed in the dark. I can only see a faint outline on his black face, a thin white crescent: a smile. He rattles his string of bones and melts into the night.
I lock myself inside the truck that night, clutching the little rock in my hand. There are no keys in the ignition. The headlights I discover are operated by a switch, draining the battery. I flip them off.
In searching through the seats of the mercenaries’ four-wheel drive I only discover one potentially useful item: a knife.
Waiting for daybreak is excruciating. I keep picturing those horrible monsters surrounding me in the night, breaking through glass with their clawed hands, tearing me apart.
In the dim light of sunrise I take in my surrounding. My neck a periscope, looking 360 degrees, I mentally note my environment. The truck is parked a few yards from the jungle and I can see the faint outline of Topo in the distance, perhaps two or three miles away. I seem to be on a small hill with several large rocks dotting the ground nearby. As the sun illuminates the area even more I can see these rocks are actually something else: bodies.
I creep out of my seat, still cautious of everything.
After leaping from the cab, dodging the imagined creature lurking under the axel, I begin exploring who exactly the dead are. In a moment I discern the malevolent looking creatures, lying dead in the grass. Their appendages are twisted as the others are, like double-jointed gymnasts. They slump into crumpled heaps—bullet holes riddling their beastly bodies, giving me hope in killing them.
Near them are shapes I also recognize, human shapes. Two of the hired men lay face-down on the hill, still clutching their rifles. Bite marks and scratches from the mutant beasts, dead next to them, tell of the events that transpired.
There is a trail of disturbed dirt leading to the tree line. Looking as though the third man was dragged into the brush I take one of the Kalashnikovs and cautiously follow the trail.
Making my way through overgrown ferns I come across the dead man’s body. He is entangled with some roots growing from the ground, with two of those things still feasting on his corpse. The monsters are less mangled than their counterparts, with normal use of their arms—human like, though they still drag their limp hind-quarters behind them. They hadn’t noticed me, too busy gorging themselves on last night’s kill.
I aligned the iron sights, taking aim at the back of the skull. These creatures have a shaggy head of hair, with the same matted fur draped over their shoulders, like a buffalo. Their emaciated ribs still poke through the skin but pouched bellies have formed, fat with human flesh.
Breathing slowed, calming down. I steady my aim, gently squeeze the trigger. CLICK. Nothing, only an audible CLICK from the firing pin. I pull the trigger again, and again. CLICK, CLICK. No bullets.
The monsters whirl around, snarling their dripping red faces at me. I burst backward, drop the gun, and dead-sprint out of the jungle. I break into the clearing, back into daylight. From my position coming out of the jungle I see the dead bodies from a new angle—one of them has something shining on his belt: keys.
I start to move toward them again when I see movement on the ground. Lurching near the dead is another one of those things, alive, with a dead animal in its claws. The monster is still misshapen, contorted more than the beasts in the woods—raw and starved, just like the ones in the hospital.
These things appear to be growing, filling out and getting bigger as they eat—I shudder at the thought.
By now the creature is between me and the keys. It rolls toward me, still clutching and consuming its prey. The snout tapers to a point, bare bone like the beak of bird, snapping rabidly. It clutches the animal, some type of pheasant, and is pulling chunks of feathers and flesh from the dead thing. I notice something else strange about the beast, besides the contorted limbs in which it scurries along the ground: feathers. Feathers seem to line the neck of it, like a lion’s mane; they shake about with each wild jerk of its head. Nearly hairless, with a naked ribcage jutting out, only the shoulders and upper back of this deformation are covered in a patchy plumage of feathers and hair.
The monster has the terrifying aspect of a mutant: the beak and feathers of a bird, the build of a man. Abnormally pieced together, seething with ferocity, rage, the beast lunges toward me, still picking apart the corpse of the bird.
It is between me and the truck. I fear to be too close to this thing, with the unpredictable and erratic thrashes of its elongated limbs, looking as though it would wrap me into a hold and feast on my bones.
I brandish the knife, my only defense. I charge the apparition, screaming out my hate to its vile existence. Its eyes grow large as I close in, reflecting my whole image in its glassy pupil. In one motion I stomp my foot on the creature’s spine while stabbing into its skull. I repeatedly jab the blade deeper into its temple, watching my mad reflection in its soulless orb. It tries snapping at my hand, biting at the air. The monster grabs for me, swinging its arms and legs wildly upward, but I only strike the beast more viciously with each blow.
It finally lay motionless, dead under my heel, as I clutch the knife dripping with blood.
I drive away from town, trying to escape once again. A few minutes onto the road and I see a familiar looking truck. Oliver and Dr. Okur slam on the brakes as I pull alongside them.
“Dr. Serra, what are you doing out here?” Dr. Okur asks with great surprise. “We’ve been looking for that truck all night. The lights were turned off. Where are the porters?” I could hear the accusation in his tone. Oliver just stares at me blankly.
“Those things,” and this is all I could stammer before bursting into tears. I choke through the details of the night, reliving as much of the graphic horror I wish to speak. With every word I say the two men only look at me more perplexed. At first their faces are awash with surprise, then they begin to look at me like some sort of psychotic: an expression of both disgust and sorrow.
They don’t seem to believe me. I don’t believe me. Dr. Okur drives me back to town, with Oliver leading the way in his own truck. I didn’t mention the rock in my pocket, tor my encounter with that wild-haired Shaman. I feel nauseous the more I reminisce, deciding to close my eyes on the bumpy ride back.
The closer our vehicles come to town the more I panic. I nearly burst from the cab—my colleague has to restrain me from jumping out.
I’m a sweaty mess as we park outside of the hospital. I feel hot but won’t stop fighting, straining, against the prying hands. Dr. Okur and Oliver wrestle me, calling to the lobby for assistance.
I notice a bushy haired figure appear in the double door.
The two men look over at Malia, the nurse with bushy hair, as she wheels an empty wheelchair toward us. I’m terrified, confused, exhausted. Looking around me I thought we were in a ghost-town, but something happened. Like a mirage lifting my eyes begin to focus on familiar shapes moving about. People. The village is alive, people are walking all about. Everything seems normal.
As I’m distracted the nurse gives me an injection and I start slipping into a comfortable darkness, a semi-conscious sleep. I let the Good Doctor carry me to the chair and I let my companions wheel me into the hospital. I rest my head back, taking one last lazy glance toward town. My eyes lock with somebody’s in the road, a natural habit. These eyes capture me in my fleeting moment of consciousness, unfriendly: the glaring eyes of the Witchdoctor.
More nightmares flood my mind this night. It feels like something is chasing me, a horrible presence from above. Yet, I cannot see it. I must hide in the bushes, like prey, watch my footing, anything to try and escape this swooping death. That is the most unsettling part of the dream, the looming shadow—an ominous dark threat, from something even darker, circling unseen above.
I wake in my room; the overhanging light casting shadows all around. The ceiling fan slowly spins.
The window is cracked and Dr. Okur sits in a chair next to it reading a moth-eaten book. We talk for a few moments about the story. I’m happy to hear about anything, especially something as far away as the sea, and happily lose myself in his tale about the one-legged Captain chasing that white whale.
The Doctor gives me several pills to take, chased with a shot of Rum for good measure.
“Bananas?” I had never actually drank the Rum before.
“Made from bananas . . .” Doctor Okur tells me. “Any extra from harvest season make their way into each batch. I have boxes of the stuff.”
My head begins to clear and the general fuzziness I feel from sleeping wears off, replaced now with a warm buzz. I remember where I am, what’s below me, around me.
I squirm in my sheets, anxiously questioning the Doctor. He tries to calm me down.
“You’re safe Miguel. Nothing is wrong with the hospital. The nurses are hear, the patients are ok. You’re safe.”
“But the door! The monsters!” I wail in agony. I feel trapped.
“Nothing is wrong with the door. I checked everything myself. Nobody is chasing you.” Dr. Okur keeps calm and collected. His tone never changes. He speaks gently, reassuringly.
I feel a wave of emotions swell inside. My face flushes with heat and my stomach tightens. Vomit spills onto my sheets.
After the nurses leave, my bedding fresh, the taste of bile still in my mouth, I resume my chat with the Doctor.
“Why is it that the water here tastes so metallic?” I ask the Doctor.
“That’s from the filters on the tap. Copper-silver, kills MRSA and a number of other little nasties.” Doctor Okur proclaims proudly. “But don’t drink too much. Wouldn’t want you to develop Argyria.” Okur laughs for a spell. “You’d turn blue and still be breathing. Wouldn’t want that now would we.” And he wails some more. Doctors have the driest sense of humor.
“Is that why we give out so much Rum?”
“Bingo. Plus it helps liven up the place—after all I’m not running a morgue here.” He elbows me jovially; I think I still have a bruise.
I keep the Doctor on topic; I’m not feeling in the mood for any jokes. “You checked the recovery room?”
“Yes Miguel. There haven’t been any patients in the recovery room. Do you remember us sending anyone there?” Dr. Okur studies my eyes as I respond.
I think for a moment, recalling what patients I had cared for. “Well, I guess not.” I honestly don’t remember a patient ever actually going to recovery. The only memory is of the deformed person, which I repeat several times to Dr. Okur. “And the lock, the door was broken. Wouldn’t even. . . And I ran through town. Where was everyone?”
“I’m not surprised the town was empty, everybody is worried about the damn lion.”
I scoff at his remark. “There is no damn lion! They were people! They were monsters! Crawling on the ground!”
The Doctor didn’t say anything for a moment, only smiled down at my bed. “There are no monsters. You’re sick Miguel. The nurse in the lobby saw you run out of here last night. She said you were mumbling: incoherent, frantic. Even Malia, the nurse that wheeled you in? She tried calming you in the lobby, even tried laying you down in the infirmary. You were hallucinating.”
“Did I hallucinate this?” I pulled the object from my pocket and present the figure to the Doctor, and myself, for the first time.
It’s a small idol; in the shape of a woman, with many intricate details carved into her. Odd symbols wrap the entire charm, they resemble: animals, plants, possibly letters. I felt its weight in my pocket, now in my hand: like a solid piece of metal. So ornate, mysterious, the tiny figure starts whispering to our imaginations.
“Where did you find this?” Dr. Okur watches the light sheen on the metal.
“In my dream.”
Dr. Okur intently watches the Witchdoctor in the street, every day, after I reveal the talisman. The Hunters carry a cone of silence from then on too, meeting privately in the Doctor’s room next to mine. I awake one morning to the sound of boots passing my door, voices could be faintly heard in the room next to mine. After a moment there is a knock on my door.
“Miguel, are you awake?” It’s Dr. Okur.
“Yes Doctor,” he is already opening the door as I answer. Accompanying him is Oliver, who is wearing a pair of the muddiest boots I’ve ever seen.
“How are you feeling friend?” The balding Russian asks.
“Better now. Just can’t shake the sweats.” I really couldn’t decide if I had been so hot from the humid air or from some chill. It didn’t take me long to guess the same sickness afflicting the locals is now infecting me, though none of them had hallucinations as bad as I did. The worse any of the patients complain about are visions of bugs crawling up their arms; nothing like my dream.
“Vodka is best medicine!” Oliver laughs from his belly as he places a half-empty bottle on my nightstand.
My stomach grumbles at the idea and I lay back on my pillow. After a few more minutes of exchanging friendly conversation the Doctor asks a request.
“Remember that little statue you have? The silver one?”
Visions from the other night flash a warning. “Yeah, right here.” I still keep it in my pocket.
“Great. Do you mind if I show Oliver here?” Dr. Okur stretches his arm to receive the object. I hand him the thing and the two of them eye the piece intently. Flipping over the idol woman, and feeling the many inscriptions with their fingers, the two mutter between themselves in one of the African dialects.
I can’t discern what the two men are saying but I watch them read the inscriptions on the charm. They seem to understand the markings. They hold the piece with a new found value, handling it like a fragile ornament. Neither of them speaks to me in English; they leave me guessing at their conversation. Only by their wide eyes can I interpret the importance of what they will not say.
“I’ve been meaning to ask something, to the two of you . . . Where did the porters go the other night? When you found me I was driving their truck; where did they go?”
The two don’t even look up from the ornament, only Oliver offers a response. “They followed tracks into the jungle and you stole their truck . . . It is a lovely piece.” He changes the subject, making friendly eye contact as he speaks. “Keep it with you. A gift from Africa.” Oliver hands me the tiny figure. “I must be going. There is a hunt to continue.” The Russian leaves with a friendly smile and nod.
“Yes, I must be going too. Thank you Doctor Serra. Sorry to disturb you.” Dr. Okur remarks as he follows the hunter through the door.
And the two men leave me to my thoughts.
The Hunters do not return until late in the evening, nearly midnight. I decide to join the town’s nightlife which still hasn’t fully come back to life. Some of the people are tired of living in fear, and so am I.
Just before twelve I see the trucks park near the hospital. The Hunters, as well as the three hired guns, have been staying overnight in the remaining rooms, down the hall from me. Their routine has become my alarm clock since their procession of heavy boots wakes me before sunrise.
Tonight, the five men drink in the dark next to their trunks. I see wafts of smoke billow upward; burning cigars glow in a circle. They resemble red-faced devils, their expressions lit by the glowing orange embers of their cigars. The Doctor emerges from the double-doors, warmly greeting the party beneath his steps with open arms.
I stay at the bar, drinking alone, watching the group of killers socializing. By their laughter, their animated conversation, I could see their pompous spirits rising into the night sky. Something died; otherwise they wouldn’t be in such a good mood.
Groups of people trickle back to their homes. It grows late, long after two. I walk the short distance to the hospital by myself. The hunting party had retired long ago. A few lamps still burn along the lone street of Topo, but the village is asleep.
As I ascend the steps to the hospital building I nearly stop in my tracks—a faint rattling of bones echoes somewhere in the dark.
I awake later than usual: the hunting party did not leave at daybreak. Feeling well enough to care for patients I work a few hours downstairs, losing myself in the constant needs of the people. Dr. Okur is not here but rather the nurses tend to patients as usual.
The storage closet opens as I am in the infirmary and to my surprise there is one of the hunting porters enthusiastically beckoning to me with his hand. He does not speak English but encourages me to follow. Upon entering the operating room behind him I see the side door is open. The porter has a roll of paper towels under his arm as he leads the way.
When we are outside I can see the rest of the Hunters, and Dr. Okur, sitting at a table. The small table of the back patio is used by the nurses during breaks. Today, however, there is a large spread of food: smoked meats, fresh fruits, vegetables, rice, bread; the Hunters are eating like kings.
“Hola, Doctor Serra” the Russian cheerfully greets me. “Come, grab a plate. Join us.” There is grill set up nearby, racks of meat sizzle over hot coals.
“Hola amigos, the food smells muy bueno.” It truly does. The smell of roasting food, fat crackling in the heat, teases my appetite. I gladly join the group, happily helping myself to their feast.
“Today is a celebration. We eat to good times and drink to better,” Dr. Okur lifts his glass of Rum to complete the toast.
“Yes, good times,” the Russian chimes in with a toast from the rib in his hand rather than from his drink. He is wearing a thin necklace today, with a simple leather rope. Attached to this, dangling atop his exposed chest hair, is an enormous brown claw. I transfix on the swaying ornament, about four inches long, as it menacingly hangs beneath his jugular.
“That definitely has intimidation factor.” I point to the talon just below the hunter’s neck.
The White Hunter beams with pride as he speaks, “Thank you Doctor. I thought it tied my image together nicely too.” He holds the hooked claw in his hand a moment; a faint vision plays across his eyes. After a moment of day-dreaming the Russian speaks again from beneath his bristly mustache. “We got him.”
“Got who?” I asked, a little caught off guard by his statement.
“The Beast. We got him last night.” The Hunter smiles widely with success.
“What? Where? How?” It almost seems surreal. The faceless phantom, the monstrous vision attacking my dreams, how could it be dead?
“This big guy. Shot in the woods.” Oliver lifts his necklace again so the whole table could revel in his trophy.
A cloud of flies buzz around the two muddied trucks.
I stand next to the bed of the truck I had ridden several times, now with a beige tarp covering its bed. There is a decaying smell enveloping the area. “We’re taking them to Kapuki to get cleaned.” Oliver proudly boasts next to me. He lifts the tarp. A large maned lion, burnt orange, lies still in the bed; his fur matted with blood. I’m joined by the hunting party and their lingering cloud of cigar smoke. Lovely.
“Beautiful animal, even for a man-eater—just like my ex-wife.” Dr. Okur chimes in.
Next to the body are several large poles wrapped in a colorful blanket. It isn’t until I focus on their shape that even I could distinguish what they are: tusks. Ivory trade is big business, highly illicit. I quickly glance away.
The second truck has a bloodied tarp covering its cargo as well—I dare not peak, nor ask, what is underneath. Knowing about the workings of one criminal poacher is enough for me; I’d rather not know what business these other men dabble in.
“Come, there is much to celebrate Doctor!” Oliver hooks me under the arm and leads me back to his well-deserved barbecue.
Good fortune from the hunt doesn’t last longer than lunch.
Dr. Okur and I see a swell of patients this day, displaying the same levels of hyper-tension and stress as the flow of sickly patients over the past several weeks; as well as a new type of rash. Flush red skin, itchy, covers the ribcage of a half dozen new patients. Perhaps there is a sort of viral infection spreading, with everybody keeping inside; then again, maybe these symptoms only reflect the grim circumstances of these people.
I begin to see these unfortunate events connect: first the animals, then the attacks, this lingering sickness—will it end?
Dr. Okur reminds me that times are good. After all, the lion is dead. “We must remind these people of their fortune . . . Let them have a drink, socialize; they usually leave quickly like you’ve seen.”
“I agree Doctor, but we can’t just keep lifting the patients’ spirits . . . Malia mentioned we are running low on several ointments: specifically aloe for this rash. There’s also a list of specific food for the kitchen. I’ve never heard of half these things . . .” I hand the Doctor a hand-written list from her.
Dr. Okur scans the paper. He glances about his hospital, looking over his flock of patients. “Meet me out-front, we have to drive into the jungle. Still enough daylight left, hurry.”
As we make our way through Topo I can see the devastation recent events is having on people. Life is simply a motion. Nobody lingers on the road to talk. Doors and windows are still open but they are nothing more than empty black eye-sockets of the buildings.
Women aren’t as colorful. The men still sit in the shade but now they sit in an air of silence and stillness as well. The town is quiet. Kids don’t even run through the street anymore, only the occasional dust devil. Topo is painted with portrait stillness.
We pass the diner I have been frequenting so much during my time here: empty. Only the cook leans against the bar. In the evening I remember him as a happy smile behind the counter, in the daylight he is a black skeleton balancing to stand.
I watch the dreary village shrink in my side mirror.
This journey takes the Doctor and I deep into the jungle—we must park and hike the rest of our way. Dr. Okur slings his rifle over one shoulder and a large bag over the other. “The path will be clearer up ahead. Across this canyon is a village . . . Keep your eye on the monkeys.” Okur points toward the treetops. “Anything out of place and they’ll let us know.”
Clearings begin to open up in the dense jungle. Trees are cut down, the ground has been leveled. Small crops appear from some of this cleared land, scattered on either side of the path.
There is finally a larger clearing, where the trees grow less sparse, and a native village emerges from the shadows.
Red veins strangle the iris, the whites of their eyes tainted a jungle yellow; and they all stare, without blinking, at my every move. Dr. Okur is the only one permitted an audience with the tribe; I stand on the outskirts of the huts, among the entangled roots of the forest floor. At least I can wait with the rifle.
“They don’t like outsiders. Especially after what happened” the Doctor points to some damaged huts, scorched black by fire. I think I see bullet holes. “Apparently it’s recent. ‘Bad luck,’ probably brought by outsiders.” He pauses to step over a patch of mud. “Today you’re the outsider, they blame you; but don’t worry. Tomorrow it will be somebody else—unless you actually did do it.” He focuses one eye upon me while squinting the other; a mad-dog frown.
Before I can respond he is already walking to a small crowd forming in the village. I stand, thinking and waiting, next to the bug-infested vines.
The Doctor is right about superstitions in this remoteness of the world. I watch as the tribe’s medicine-man wafts smoke about the shoulders of Dr. Okur, then swats his chest and back with a bouquet of dry leaves. Dr. Okur is finally permitted entrance after the ritual and disappears through a dark opening of one of the huts.
Swarms of gnats choke the air here, which smells like a mix of pig manure and tree sap. Green snakes, yellow snakes, boas and vipers, tarantulas, beetles, roaches; the steamy jungle floor crawls beneath my feet while the branches rustle to life above.
I despise this place. I despise Dr. Okur even more for making me wait nearly a half hour in this misery.
For my trouble I only see a flash of the pagan king as he bids farewell to the Doctor. He stands short, his naked barrel chest draped with the spotted furs of a jungle cat. He wears a crown of feathers around his skull, like the ornamental headdress of a Native American, which stands a bright, tall, contrast to his stout strength. And around his neck, dangling from a thin cord of twine, is a shining silver pennant.
Neither of us speak for a while, listening only to the constant hum of the rainforest.
“The Chief. . . Did you see his necklace? Ask about my mine?”
“I did.” Okur replies without looking back. The two of us silently trek through the forest, the Doctor leading the way with his gun. “All he said about the necklace is that it’s old; a gift made of silver . . . If nothing else they are valuable.”
“And the figure I have? The symbols, engravings? What about those?”
“Not much to them. Like most things they lose their relevance over time; just an old relic.” The Doctor helps me over a small creek before he continues speaking of his meeting; I nearly step on a snake wading in the water. “It’s jewelry.”
“That’s true. I’m surprised the old nut gave it to me in the first place, especially if it’s worth something.”
The two of us continue for a while without speaking. I’m lost in the jungle without a guide, each shade of green blurs with the next. And everything is in shadow, in the shade of a much larger canopy of leaves. I am getting bogged down in a muddy patch of earth when Dr. Occur speaks again.
“The Chief also mentions news from his village. There haven’t been any outbreaks of sickness, per-say, but many of them do show signs of some type of jungle fever.”
“Yeah? What signs?” My head is stuck in the mud with my boots.
“Oh, the usual. Fever, aches, sweats . . . vomiting, delusion. Nightmares.”
I stop struggling and stand for a moment, my thoughts running ahead. “The central-nervous-system . . . This has to be some sort of bacteria—from the water, food; something here is tainted.”
The Doctor shrugs off my comment. “Treatment, Doctor Serra, treatment. I sold him medicine. Let nature take her course.”
“What did you sell him?”
Dr. Occur smiles. “Rum. I sold him a few bottles, said it would help with his villagers.”
“Is that all? Some liquor? Selling liquor to the natives?”
“No, Dr. Serra,” Okur turns to speak squarely to me. “We did not sell them liquor. We traded: for goods and information. Now we have the aloe, the herbs, roots—everything on the list. One stop shop.” He smiles at his own cleverness.
“Then why do they live in such squalor?”
“Outsiders Dr. Serra. Others; they take what they want. . . These people live off of the jungle; they know a great many things about this land. Do not let such politics muddy your perception of them.”
“Liquor? That’s all you give these people?”
“Hope, Dr. Serra, I give them hope. They can ease symptoms with Rum, or just get shit-faced. Their choice . . . The point is they have something now.” Okur continues ahead. “Treat the symptoms and then find the problem . . . They don’t much trust medicine, and have nothing helpful to say about our dilemma.”
“Our dilemma? The fever?”
“Exactly . . . The Chief thinks we are dealing with something different, something out of this world; supernatural: the Chief warns of a ‘bad-spirit.’ A little liquor will do them some good.”
The Doctor looks at me puzzled. “El what?”
“Never heard of it. But the Chief did explain this entity as a spirit of sorts. His words translate to some type of possession, like an entity possessing a man, or animal. Hell, maybe even the water.”
“A possession?” I lose just a bit of respect for my mentor.
“It’s an African wendigo, ‘bad-spirit,’ which causes the afflicted to turn horribly abnormal. Just more tribal mumbo jumbo if you ask me.” Doctor Okur snickers at the idea. “Sometimes this manifests in a sick animal that attacks people, or a person who goes mad . . . The point is this thing comes from the environment. Any number of parasites or diseases from the jungle can cause these problems, these tribes simply belief this is an entity which can come and go—a bad entity.”
“So we do have an outbreak.”
“Something is out of place, I can’t figure it out.” Dr. Okur gazes into the distance as he speaks. “If these people are going to die let them die drunk . . . I’m not saying we have a real monster here, or outbreak, but maybe your theory of a man isn’t that far off: somebody very sick and desperate.”
As the two of us return to Topo the sun is slipping under the horizon—the sky burns a deep crimson.
Dr. Okur retreats to his office. I can’t help but sense his anxiety; he’s already been a ghost within the hospital for the past several weeks, especially since the death of Mr. Marouko. Most of the daily duties are performed by nurses but in my time in the village I seem to be the primary caregiver, the Doctor occupies himself solely with the hunt.
I make it a point to meet with the head nurse at least once a day for a summary, as well as a checkup. I find her sitting at the front desk this night.
“Hello Malia. How are you tonight?”
“Well, thank you Dr. Serra.” She flashes her pearl white teeth. “Have you and the Doctor had any luck today?”
“Other than a few bug-bites we managed to find everything on the list,” I reply while noticing several itchy spots along my arms and legs. Damn mosquitos bit through my clothes. “Here you are.” I hand her the bag of herbs while rubbing my wounds.
She laughs at my misfortune. Malia pats the stool next to her, “Have a seat.” First she checks my temperature; she rustles my hair as she places the thermometer under my tongue, “Cute curls.” I blush a bit, even if she is just checking for ticks.
Next she listens to my pulse with a stethoscope, then to my breathing. Blood pressure is last. She records my vitals into a little black book, separate from the other patients, and updates daily since my bout of fever.
Next she tears a piece of fresh aloe and rubs over the red bites—along the back of my neck, down the length of my arms. I sigh a bit of relief.
“Thank you . . . The Doctor and I visited a tribe today. They wouldn’t let me in the village; that’s why I’m so chewed up. They had me stand in the damn bushes.”
Her smile beams to life again. “When I was a little girl there were always large gatherings, around a fire,” Malia says. “Everybody would share stories. There were songs, dances, music, instruments.” She lightly taps a rhythm on the desk with the palms of her hand, “It is so exciting Doctor Serra. With all of the dancing, the beating drums. So much fun you can’t help but dance . . . Us Bantu people do not exclude outsiders, we welcome them.” She grasps my hand as she starts to dance in her seat.
An ember of excitement glows on Malia’s face. She becomes animated as she speaks: re-living memories; whipping her braids about, flashing her smile in-between a tangle of hair. Her beauty spurs to life as she twists and turns before me.
I lose track of time talking to her, rooted to my seat; I can’t take my eyes off of this lovely creature. Her white teeth, bare neck—she plays with my attention, telling me all sorts of stories with dramatic emphasis. She is breathy, excited, lively; sexy. I bite my lip without noticing.
Her painted nails shimmer with color as she mimes the various dances from her childhood. “Women are all painted—their naked bodies colored bright by the orange flames.” Her almond eyes begin to sparkle. “Bracelets, necklaces, beads, pearls—ah! The jewelry dances with us ladies . . . While the men encircle us,” Malia’s flirting eyes glance to mine. “. . . Sometimes they wear furs, antlers—men are always wild during a festival.” She bubbles with energy.
I’m intoxicated by her words, her smell—like lavender. But something snags at my thoughts, something she says. ‘Wild.’ My composure returns. I stand upright, no longer leaning in a trance—I take my hand from hers.
“Thank you, Malia. I should really be going. . .” My words make me cough. “Goodnight.” I somehow pull myself away from the sight of this beautiful creature.
She laughs innocently. “Feel better Doctor.” She bids me a goodnight from behind her temptingly radiant smile.
I have never been in Dr. Okur’s office. The following morning I knock on his door, shortly before 8 o’clock. A voice calls me inside.
In walking through the doorway I behold the grand contrast of the Doctor’s personal space compared to the rest of the building. There is a bed like mine, in simple sheets, covered with mosquito net like all the rest of the hospital—but the room its-self is completely different: still retaining the luster of a grand hotel from times past. The wallpaper is pristine, with blooming red flowers scrolling across the borders in neat trim.
All of the furniture a dark wood, lofty ceiling, French doors—a balcony patio: the penthouse suite.
A large desk, also made of the same deep color wood as the rest of the furniture, pushes against the grand window looking out to the balcony. Malia is leaning against this table, looking at papers over Doctor Okur’s shoulder; both have their back to me—using the morning light on the table to read.
“Good morning Miguel.” Dr. Okur talks with his back still turned to me.
“Hello Doctor. Perhaps this is a bad time, we can talk later . . .”
“Please, Miguel—have a seat. Malia is just leaving.”
“That’s right. Good morning Doctor Serra . . . Coffee?” She asks while walking by.
“No thank you Malia.” I reply. She cheerfully winks in response.
“So, Doctor Serra,” Dr. Okur finally speaks after turning around. By the look of his stubble, the purple bags under his eyes, I’d say he hasn’t slept last night. “What would you like to discuss? But before you do I want to thank you for all of you have contributed to this hospital.”
“Oh . . . Thank you, sir. This experience is not at all what I’ve prepared for . . . I don’t even know what to think . . .” A knock at the door interrupts my words. Doctor Okur doesn’t even have time to respond; Oliver bursts in.
“Okur, Dr. Serra, hello friends!” Oliver’s cheerful voice echoes off of the ceiling.
“Oly, hello” Dr. Okur doesn’t sound very thrilled at the sudden burst of energy, nor does he look it.
“What, too early for you? A hospital that doesn’t open until noon? What sort of sheep-fucking business you running here man?”
“Take the damn seat and shut-up. Better yet, stand outside, Dr. Serra and I have business here.”
“No, please, sit. There is no business, only a discussion.” I wave Oliver to sit down. Maybe he can help.
“Well, if you insist,” he drags an overstuffed armchair from one end of the room next to me; plops onto the cushion. Now the two of us are facing Doctor Okur, with the blazing sun at his back; lighting the room through the window while casting an impenetrable shadow upon the Doctor’s expression.
“The only topic I wish to agree on is the fact that this situation is man-made,” I start right where the Doctor and I left off discussing the previous night. “You have a point with the bad-spirit idea, you should know more about these things—you live here. Malia, she mentioned her tribe’s festivals, the men wearing horns and the women painting their bodies?”
“Ah yes, the dancing around here is quiet exotic. I fell in love with Africa, but the women, the women made me stay.” Dr. Okur happily declares.
“That’s great and all but what about any other gatherings?”
“My favorite is during the Summer—Banana Rum with a topless native,” Oliver chimes in. He mimes a female silhouette with his hands.
“Not the damn dancing—the ritual!” I wait for these two to quit foaming at the mouth until continuing. “What other practices do these local tribes have? Doctor Okur, you mention this ‘spirit’. . . Have you told Oliver what you told me?”
Dr. Okur and Oliver share an ambiguous glance. “I do have something to show from our trip Dr. Serra.”
“Back to the headshrinkers I see,” Oliver remarks with a snort.
“Yes, back to them. They always have a few treasures stowed away.” Okur’s smile widens as he produces a small box from one of the drawers within his desk. He opens the hinged lid. “A silver star.” He lifts the five-point star centered in a circle silver ring.
“Why didn’t you mention the necklace before?” Okur never spoke of the mystery box to me, especially during our ordeal through the jungle.
“I wanted to explain its content to the both of you.” Skepticism creeps across the Doctor’s brow, a shadow cast from within. He is wrestling with something unseen.
“Four point two ounces—pure silver.” The Doctor’s words make me think of the town Shaman. Could my pendant be this valuable? “Pygmies live in the mountains, in the thickest parts of the rainforest.” Dr. Okur continues. “The Chief claims these silver medallions come from trade with one of those remote peoples. He didn’t know exactly where, but he thinks they came from the Virunga, near the heart of the Congo.”
“Ah yes, the industrious pygmies of the jungle.” Oliver snickers at the thought. “The only thing those savages are good for is mining. They can fit they’re little damn bodies into those tight spots . . . Hell, even look at the inscriptions.” Okur hands the star to Oliver at his request who stares intently at the engravings in a ray of light. “This one in particular has inscriptions of what looks to be Arabic . . . though a different version—so many of these tribes speak a mix of Arabic and Bantu, it is difficult to keep order of them all.”
“That’s as much as I can conclude as well,” Dr. Okur offers.
“Well then you know that whoever made this star, the people that etched these words, are not fucking pygmies. The only thing they are used for is digging the damn Silver out of the ground.” Oliver laughs heartily as he makes his point. “Pygmies speaking Arabic? Pygmies writing? Too funny Doctor.”
Dr. Okur stiffens in his seat. His face a black circle; he turns his neck toward Oliver. I can still only see his dark profile as he speaks pointedly to the Russian. “That’s exactly right Oliver. I would love to know its true origin . . . Your contact.” Doctor Okur hands a paper from his desk to Oliver. “0400 tomorrow, South on the Old Road here. They will take you.”
The Doctor sort of hisses these words to Oliver; it makes me very uncomfortable.
Oliver stands. “Ok Chief . . . Dr. Serra.” With a final courteous smile and nod the hunter leaves.
“What exactly happened? Between you and Oliver, talking about the village. Did I miss-understand something?”
“No. Oliver is just being himself; a brute.” Okur replies while reading.
“Where is he to go? To see more tribes?” My tone begins reflecting my suspicion.
“You see, Doctor Serra,” my mentor puts down his work. “This land belongs to Mr. Maroukou; did belong to Mr. Maroukou. He owes money to the State of Sudan . . . The hospital, all of the modern buildings of the village, were his. The banana fields turn some profit, but even those are assets of the deceased . . . We are living on borrowed time Dr. Serra. As far as the villagers are concerned they can move to another place and Topo will become just another ghost town.”
“Would that be such a bad thing?”
Okur smirks. “You saw the city—Kapuki. Sure, there are luxuries, business is booming; but you saw the squalor . . . How many of these villagers, with no formal education, no trade other than manual labor; will the life they live there be any better than here?”
I think for a moment. My whole time in Topo I only envisioned the hospital I would be completing my residency in. The modern, high-tech amenities: ambulances, cat-scans, emergency rooms, surgery—I’m barely able to treat patients here in the sticks. But the way the Doctor phrases his question; surely these villagers can manage an existence in some other city.
“Isn’t it likely their lives would be worse?” Doctor Okur continues speaking. “Life may be harder somewhere else. Ask any of the droves of refugees that are spilling across some nearby border how life is treating them.” The Doctor’s face is still a black circle with his back to the light. I can only consider these words spoken by the expressionless outline of a man in front of me.
“Help the patients here.” Dr. Okur turns back toward his table again.
I can say nothing more.
Doctor Okur takes charge of the hospital once again—my incident being his call to action. I am finally making my presence around the infirmary once again as well. The Doctor has given a few of the nurses the night off, only fair seeing as how both of us have been spending so much time away from the hospital, with me being sick and all.
Doctor Okur schedules himself and I for evening shift, along with another nurse to maintain the lobby or to assist if need be.
I am preparing the operating room for surgery: one of the patients is in need of an appendix removal. At first his symptoms match the familiar string of patients, Dr. Okur prescribing him Rum and a night in one of the beds. But when his condition worsens and his skin turns yellow both Doctor Okur and I re-evaluate the man: Appendicitis. I look at the Doctor with the same embarrassed glance that’s on his face—we had miss-diagnosed.
The procedure is simple enough: make a few small incisions, inflate a cavity near the colon, and out comes the enflamed organ. A few staples, couple of stiches, and the procedure should be over.
Just as I am finishing the layout of surgical instruments: anesthesia, antiseptic, bandages, scalpel, sterile sheets, there is a sudden clambering at the side door.
Hysterically the person shouts on the other side—a woman. Quickly I unlock and push against the door. Frantically her screams pierce through the wood, along with her fiendish pounding on the door. I push again but the door won’t budge. “Move back! It won’t open!” I cry out, now shouldering the door with the brunt of my weight.
It flings open.
I tumble into the moonlight of the back patio; Malia locks eyes with me as I fall to the ground. She jumps through the doorway, still staring at me anxiously. Her face frozen in a gasp, eyes wide: a silently screaming face. Movement near the alleyway catches my eyes—shadows scurry just out of reach from the light.
I stand and bound for the doorway in a second. The door slams shut behind me. I lock the bolt, pull firm against the handle to check.
I follow Malia to the closet, my eyes still locked on the door—the frame, now warped from me shouldering through; and the handle, hangs loose—broken in the scramble.
Oliver and his porter are staying in the hospital again; his dogs should have been stabled on the back patio. With all of the commotion from Malia and myself the four hounds would have howled to life, but outside is completely silent; and the two Hunters, as well as their dogs, are nowhere to be seen.
Patients start panicking. I bark out orders to the other nurse to settle everyone down. “Doctor!” I yell out for my colleague.
Dr. Okur appears from the lobby a moment later, glancing quickly from Malia to me and back again. He calls out as he runs toward us. “Are you alright?! What happened?!”
The nurse’s eyes bulge in her sockets at the sight of the Doctor. She begins weeping hysterically.
As Dr. Okur comforts Malia I rush toward the front entrance. There is a flashlight on the counter of the lobby; before I realize what I am doing I am off running through the street.
I am alone in the road. Chirping insects jolt me to my senses. I suddenly feel aware of my surroundings like I hadn’t before.
Still, humid air hangs around me—overcast, a slight drizzle of rain drips from the swollen clouds. The roadway a mix of bleak shades of grey, I feel like I am standing on the fringe of existence.
Only about ten feet ahead of me is visible, anything beyond is simply an indiscernible shape. As I sweep the light across a wide area in-front I notice something shine. Two pairs eyes, like four glinting jewels, hang in the air, only reflecting back when I move the light from left to right—back again. The pair drops, stops, and hovers just a few inches above the ground.
I take another step forward and aim the light directly at this mystery. Jewels turn to eyes in the glaring light. The pair stares at me, burning in the darkness. A burst of fire erupts from behind.
The animals scatter, leaving behind a pile of gore—the body of whatever they were eating lies mangled in the road. A few villagers who fired the shot run ahead from behind me, I check the corpse: the Shaman.
It’s twenty after four in the afternoon; the clock overhanging my nightstand says so. A rumbling noise parks in-front of the hospital: Oliver is back from his mission. I look out of my window to see a black car, European, park alongside the hospital as well. Two small flags fly on the hood reminiscent of a government motorcade. I cannot see the men from my position; only hear their vaguely audible voices from the sidewalk below.
Dr. Okur emerges from his room the same time as I do, a lady runs out first; she wears a white blouse with a nurse apron over her hair—she heads down the hall to another door. One of the nurses I can only assume.
“Hello Dr. Serra,” Okur pretends as though nobody runs between us. “I figured you would have been in the infirmary.” He gives me a friendly pat on the shoulder as he walks downstairs. “I was just completing my file on patient X: our Shaman John Doe . . . Not a single record of his actual name is in the hospital. Most people around here would call him something of a spirit leader . . . Sort of a dead end there.” He smirks at the pun.
I’m caught a bit off guard by the sudden conversation. My head is swirling between the black car, the running lady, now the dead Shaman. Either way, there is no time to reply as the big Russian gallivants into the lobby, an enormous grin stitched to his face. He waves enthusiastically a crisp white envelope toward the Doctor.
“Hello my friends! Dr. Okur, please, come with me.” Oliver hands the Doctor the envelope while wrapping one arm around his friend at the shoulder. The two walk down to the pair of waiting men.
The two strangers stand next to their luxury car, both wearing expensive looking suits. They produce Silver pens with which Doctor Okur and themselves use to sign several documents, including the sealed envelope which Doctor Okur possesses.
As quickly as they appear the unfamiliar men in suits leave. Doctor Okur returns with Oliver—both panting with anticipation.
Okur hurries back to his room while Oliver and his porter tend to their dogs. Normally the Hunters work silently but this afternoon they hum with each step.
“Dr. Serra, come with me.” Dr. Okur waves me up-stairs with him. When we enter his room Okur places the envelope into a safe built into the wall next to his bed. “Well Dr. Serra, have a seat,” he points to the same chair I sat in during my last visit; his eyes wild with excitement. He sits across from me, his back to the sun again. “The deceased; John Doe: our medicine man—perhaps he is responsible for attracting all of these recent incidents. His filthy habits, obvious unsanitary nature . . . It’s all written into our file on the man.” Dr. Okur hands me the case file from earlier. “There wasn’t much to the autopsy, just listed as another animal attack . . . All that’s needed is your initial and final signature on the bottom of the final page.”
“Were those lions that killed him?”
“It’s too difficult to tell Dr. Serra. You didn’t happen to have a good look at the thing did you?”
“No . . . The villagers shot right over my shoulder. I closed my eyes during the flash.”
“That’s why cause of death is listed as a generic animal attack. No need to go into great detail—sometimes nature herself is the culprit.”
“So what will we do about these rogue predators?”
“Oliver is still leading his hunt.” Okur shuffles a few papers on his desk and hands me the patient’s chart. “With regards to the Shaman, those chicken bones he likes to wear around his neck? They seem to have drawn in something hungry. And they’re fresh too—probably from his dinner.” Okur bends down to a drawer in his desk, reaches in, and withdraws a crude chain of yellow bones. “To be exact, these look more like pheasant bones than chicken.” The Doctor stretches his black arm into the sunlight. I take the necklace in my hand. “Have you ever seen one of the pheasants around here? Too many species to count, but they’re all delicious—beautiful feathers too.”
“Is this why those men in suits were here?”
“No, that’s just other business,” The Doctor keeps on subject. “With this file complete; your name also on the reports for Mr. Maroukou, and the young girl from your first day here . . .” Okur produces a manila folder with copies of each file. “This should be more than enough to grant you residence at any hospital of your choice.” Dr. Okur excitedly reveals another envelope from his shirt pocket, the seal already broken. “I even took the liberty of forwarding my letter of recommendation to your assigning supervisor, from Doctors Without Borders. Their reply says you have met the requirements for one term of service. You can report to HQ and leave anytime you’d like.”
“But it’s barely even three weeks in. I’m scheduled for a month at the minimum.” How could my term possibly be over? “I think I should stay until we discover this illness. Let me take something back, a sample, with me to the capital . . . I haven’t even written anything for my personal report.”
“That doesn’t matter Dr. Serra. All the notes you will need are in here.” He pats the folder of files. “In fact, I have a ride scheduled for you tomorrow morning . . . Thank you so much for all of your effort Doctor. It has been an honor working beside you.”
“Just like that? Nothing else for me here?” This change is so sudden.
“That’s right Doctor. Thank you again for everything you have helped with, but, your services are no longer needed.” Dr. Okur rises to shake my hand. He stands over me a moment before realizing I’m not going to stand. “Is there anything else Dr. Serra?” The man sits down, annoyed.
“Well . . .” I smirk from discomfort. “Would you be inclined to explain my sudden eviction?”
“You are not being evicted Dr. Serra.”
“Then what the hell is happening then? In the middle of everything I am to be suddenly dismissed? Without even identifying or isolating our disease causing pathogen? With no written report of my own? Is this what I am to understand, Doctor Okur?” I start to feel very hot.
The outline of the man before me waits before speaking. Calculated, he answers, “You are being dismissed, Dr. Serra, with an excellent letter of recommendation, experience, and a complete tour of charitable service—there is nothing more for you to complete here . . . I even took the liberty of omitting your bout of jungle fever in my letter . . . Go home Doctor.” With that Okur grasps me firmly by the shoulder and escorts me to the door.
I open my mouth to speak; I want to say something so bad—anything at all. But the man is right; there is nothing else for me here. I did everything I could; and nothing more. “Thank you Doctor.”
I pack my belongings for the remainder of the day. Doctor Okur made it pretty obvious he doesn’t want me around; for whatever reason it does not matter. I take solace in the fact that I cared for everybody that came to the hospital, more than Okur himself. He may have a better hand at surgery, even experience managing the hospital, but he makes mistakes too. My teeth grind as I reminisce about the misdiagnosed Appendicitis. The constant shooting down of my opinions: about collecting samples, finding a source of infection. He won’t let me do my fucking job!
My bag of luggage throws itself across the room, exploding into a pile of wrinkled laundry.
“This idiot!” I kick the bed in frustration. “And the fucking bunch of murderers for hire! A bunch of goons with guns!” Not one of them acts like they know a damn. All they can do is shoot at whatever they’re fucking told. “Ugh!” I am steaming at this point. Fists clenched, I pace my room, brooding over all of my frustration.
Episodes of anger repeat throughout the packing process. All I can do to occupy my thoughts is to re-play these memories over and over again. By nightfall I am exhausted, tired of this whole ordeal. I just want a saving grace, anything at all. This reminds me of my ride in the morning, my ticket out. Sleep welcomes me, the bed is so inviting. I lie down; ready to drift into the night.
A quick flash, perhaps from headlights along the road, or from my subconscious, somehow, some way I remember one thing I didn’t pack: the Silver lady.
It’s still early in the evening, just after nine o’clock. I run down stairs to the front entrance; I really don’t want to see the Doctor or any of his nurses. I think Malia tries to say hello from behind the desk but I keep moving.
As I step into the sticky wet air outside I catch Oliver and his porter still working in the back of their truck. The dogs have all been put away for the night. “Hello Oliver.” I wave to the Russian as I step down from the double doors.
“Dr. Serra, I am glad to see you still here” the hunter wraps his arms around me in a bear-hug. “We drink when I finish . . . No, we drink now!” He laughs jovially.
I laugh. “I do have a quick question, Oliver. Have you seen my statue? In your truck maybe? I am going to check in Okur’s.”
He looks at me confused for a moment. “I don’t believe so Dr. Serra . . . Ask the Doctor; he should have enough Silver to make a couple more.” He rolls with laughter. “Here, take this though.” Oliver hands me a small flashlight for my search.
“Thanks.” I think Oliver has been celebrating already.
“I’m sorry to hear about your departure tomorrow Doctor Serra. It has been a pleasure knowing you.” The Russian remarks as I walk away. I don’t like his comment; pretend I don’t hear him. How does he know I’m leaving?
I cross the road without looking only to be nearly run over by the jeep-load of mercenaries. They are forced to stop short; I wave my apology. One man rides shotgun while the third is in the backseat. I only see their empty faces for a moment as they speed off into the distance. An unusual cloud of dust billows from behind as they drive. Extra dust kicked into the air from something dragged behind their jeep, wearing a very familiar crown of feathers: the lifeless body of the village Chief.
I visibly shudder as I run to the Doctor’s jeep parked across the street. Unlocked. I don’t know why I even bother looking through it, he keeps the thing spotless. All I can visualize is the corpse being dragged through dirt.
I lose myself in the search. A spare flashlight and first aid kit are all I manage to find. I lie on the floorboard, look under both seats, slip my hand through the cushion: nothing. After a few punches to the seat I regain composure and continue. I’m sitting in the passenger spot reaching into the side pocket of the door when I notice something from the corner of my eye.
I could feel it watching me before anything. I focus on a pair of glowing eyes circling the truck. They creep along the ground, hovering about six inches. They move silently, along the entire length of the truck; my head stays swiveled to this pair of glowing circles.
The burning eyes come closer, still low to the earth. They disappear beneath the passenger window. I flip the lock and sit frozen in my seat.
A tense moment passes, then another: nothing in sight. Oliver is just across the street with his porter, I try to get their attention. I wave and mime to them but they cannot see me. The keys are nowhere to be found, I cannot simply roll the window down . . . the headlights. I flash the high beams in quick succession.
The beast creeps into view from beneath the driver side; I can see it crawling in the side mirror. Something abnormal about this animal draws my attention. The movement is disturbing. The hind quarters are raised high at the hip, with long legs bent at the knee, like a runner at the start, while the beast centers its weight on two front arms: ape-like. Its next move terrifies me even more than it’s stalking: the beast stands upright.
And the Monster takes its first step into the moonlight.
The face is flat, bearded, with two deeply sunken black sockets. Steam from its breath fogs the window: I can smell the wild. A twisted expression contorts its hideous face foaming wet with saliva. A guttural howl erupts from the thing’s throat.
I am nearly deafened by the sound of this crying banshee.
An explosion from across the road.
There is a flash of fire, then a second—somebody shoots upon the beast. Buckshot shatters my window; pieces of shrapnel strike my face. There is a horrible gargle from the thing as it vanishes into the dark of night.
Notwithstanding my own fear I kneel under the glovebox. Another echoing boom comes from across the street. I am ducking in the furthest corner of the truck, glass raining on my head. There is a torrent of noise: barking, gunshots, scrambling bodies, yelling men, wailing beasts—action rages around me.
“Dr. Serra!” I think somebody hollers out my name.
“What the hell was that?!” I cry out.
I peek up from beneath the dash. Oliver reloads and steps forward, his eyes glued to the road ahead. Looking through the windshield everything is either black or grey tonight in the silver moonlight flooding town. I open the driver side door and leap out. The hunter is in the road, cautiously moving forward.
“Dr. Serra! Into the hospital!” Dr. Okur waves to me from his balcony. I take another glance toward Oliver. He is following long streaks that glisten on the ground, a shining liquid reflecting black in the moonlight: blood.
There is no body of the beast to be found, just a trail of blood gushed from its wounds. Dust and sand bite at my exposed skin, the wind ominously spurs to life. Oliver follows the tracks of that horrid animal. Hounds bark hysterically from their makeshift pen behind the hospital. The hunter whistles loudly but what responds is that thing, that abomination: the horror.
A low rumble of snorts can be heard, like an angry bull before its charge. I could not see it approach in the dark but I could feel it; its breathy wheeze traveling in the wind. The monster has a most horrible bark, a gurgling cough mixed with phlegm and pain.
As I strain to see an outline in the dark floodlights from a truck turn on: the surrounding area is awash with light. I can clearly see the back of Oliver, the outline of his double barrel Nitro—I follow his line of sight to the moving mass of fur. The monster runs on all fours. It pushes forward with small leaps, like a chimp running on all-fours: dipping one shoulder down with each stride.
In full charge the beast aligns itself with the hunter in the road. Oliver steadies his aim, leads the path of his target, and fires. An echoing thud emits from the hot round striking dirt; the beast changes direction. The wild animal deviates from its course, arcing into a tight circle around Oliver. The hunter swings the rifle around his body, torqueing his hips, following his shot—BLAM!!!
The monster is upon him.
A fury of movement distorts the action. Horrible cries pierce the air: they belong to the hunter. CRACK! CRACK, CRACK, CRACK! Bullets thunder down from the hospital balcony. A second burst of light erupts across the street—Dr. Okur shoots down upon the creature.
The beast scrambles away, falling over itself as it tries to run. This commotion of howling, gunshots echoing—the sleeping town is startled to life.
Claude the porter starts his engine and speeds down the road after the beast. His truck bumps over a lump in the road: Oliver, his head crushed, body mutilated—dead.
Doctor Okur hails to me from the balcony again. This time I rush inside. There is commotion all around me, people shining lights, rushing by. None of this matters to me; I only run inside and slam the double doors behind.
Windows shut, locks latch. Children cry. Patients are inconsolable. All these people know are that gunshots woke them. The calamity of the situation, the firefight, guttural cries, roaring engines, insanity—panic boils over.
“Upstairs Doctor Serra!” Okur calls for me from atop the stairwell.
I scramble to his room. Heat radiates from the open door. As I step inside I can see some small machine on Doctor Okur’s desk: a glowing orange cylinder. “Be careful Doctor Serra. Stand back. I’m almost finished.” Okur slips a pair of leather gloves on as he stands before his desk. In one hand the Doctor holds the silver pentagram, in the other a pair of steel forceps. Doctor Okur gently lowers the spinning star into his miniature cauldron: a boiling molten mix hisses as it consumes the falling piece.
Doctor Okur gently pours the liquid metal into hallow portions of forceps and several other surgical instruments. “Anything made with stainless steel or titanium works well,” the Alchemist Doctor speaks over his shoulder. It’s confusing at first but once I see the opened shotgun shells his plan makes sense. “Mix these silver pellets with buckshot,” Okur speaks while chiseling out his shards of forged metal, “and we have ourselves a supernatural killer . . . Whatever the fuck it is, silver buckshot through the chest ought to put it down.” A menacing frown ripples across the Doctor’s forehead as he works.
In the half-hollowed shells he places his chunks of shrapnel. Neither of us says a word.
After all of the pieces are neatly arranged, the custom ammo sealed at the top, Dr. Okur finally growls his order, “In the closet there, left-hand side: the shotgun.” I look where he says and hand it to him. He loads the breech with his custom shells, pumps the slide-action. Six custom shells, filled with jagged bits of silver—ready to kill. He turns off his machine, switches the light. We stand in the sweltering hot room, pitch black, listening to Hell rise around us.
The first screams we hear raise the hair of my neck. Yelping yowls echo from the street; whether the beast or the dogs, I do not know. Chilling human shrieks also fill the air—a hot rush of adrenaline webs through my nerve endings.
I run to the balcony and stand next to Dr. Okur. We look down at the brewing anarchy below.
Packs of people run down the street, torches and flashlights bob along their sea of heads. Most are screaming; all are frantic. I see a shadow moving between the masses, a great swooping presence. The beast clambers through the mob, slashing and gnawing at random. Some people try to swing machetes, shovels—anything at the tormenting presence, but they only strike one another. Panicking, tearing at itself, the mob scatters through the street: a great heard of prey steered by the jaws of death.
In the chaos of clambering bodies, flailing limbs and weapons, the weak fall and become trampled. These victims, crawling on all fours, through a road of gore, are swooped upon by the monster on its return.
The Hunter’s porter, Claude, comes barreling down the road in the four-wheel drive. He is trying to run the beast over but only manages to crush a half dozen people as they try scrambling away from the scene. Okur levels his shotgun at the windshield, cursing the man as he speeds by. He would have shot if not for the custom ammo. The Doctor and I immediately run to the hospital entrance.
Okur sweeps the street, side-stepping like a cat to avoid the piles of dead and dying as he makes his way to the other side of the road. I’m holding the Doctor’s hunting rifle, the semi-automatic M-14. I’m trying to cover Dr. Okur as he crosses over the butchered remains but my body trembles uncontrollably. The barrel of the gun shakes in my hands while my teeth rattle in chatter.
The truck is still giving chase to the creature around the corner and I can hear the roar of its engine as it encircles the village. I trace the glow of its lights across the backdrop of town.
A sudden crash booms in the air. Okur begins running in the direction of the accident.
So do I.
I follow cautiously as Dr. Okur passes each doorway. We become aware of some luminous radiance in the distance. Fire. The Porter’s truck sparks a blaze which is now spreading to the line of huts. Everything in the town is made of wood, most dwellings have straw roofs—streets fill with smoke.
It’s more difficult searching against the backdrop of this inferno, with shadows twisting and dancing across every building, as the night burns away—into a red glow. I almost shoot at several shadows thinking they are the beast. Its cries can be heard reverberating through the empty buildings.
Something moves quickly in the streets. Okur and I follow this figure as it darts erratically through town. I can’t believe the Doctor actually fires a shot at the shape, not even knowing what, or who, it is.
The body shrinks into the dark opening of a doorway.
We approach cautiously, Dr. Okur taking point with his headlamp. Blood is smeared across the doorjamb. As we make our way into the building, some type of store that’s been destroyed in the chaos, we can only see disarray. Tables and chairs flipped over with bloody handprints. Debris covers the floor.
Okur calls out in one of the local dialects.
Slowly, a bloody hand rises from the disarray.
The man has a horrible wound on his leg, about mid-calf, with a shattered tibia. Several other wounds blead from the man’s torso; he is partially burned on one side of his face and there are pieces of metal dug into his flesh. At first I thought this to be the Porter, Claude, having survived the car explosion. The man is not him but obviously did witness the blast—there are scorches on his face, body, hands; but no gunshot. I can’t believe he’s alive.
Scurrying behind a closed door draws our attention away from the injured man. Okur and I point our barrels at the doorway, mine still shaking, as the Doctor kicks it open.
I nearly shoot at the sudden movement.
Several people hunker on the ground, holding each other, sobbing violently. One of the children screams as the door bursts open, giving us just enough pause not to shoot. These are the only survivors we find.
Coming to our better judgment Dr. Okur and I decide to bring the people back to the hospital: bunker down for the night, seek help in daylight. Our wild goose chase luckily brings us survivors rather than an encounter with the beast in that small store.
After arming the survivors with anything we can find our group makes the short journey back to the hospital.
Dr. Okur walks to the outside with his gun while I, along with a few survivors, shoulder the injured man—he has gone unconscious from blood loss.
The only noise is the howling of wind, trade winds: enough to drown the roar of the flames and the whaling of that injured beast somewhere in the distance. A powerful gust sends our troop up the steps and through the swinging double-doors.
I cry out to anybody inside, to any nurse or patient that could be stowed away: silence. Clambering can be heard upstairs and a voice eventually calls down, “We’re up here!” It’s one of the nurses. Dr. Okur tells me to settle the new patients in the infirmary. He disappears upstairs.
The lights come on with a switch, power faithfully being supplied by a generator in the back. I barricade the main door. The survivors help me to take the injured man to the operating room. As we gather supplies Dr. Okur reappears with Malia. He then takes command, ordering everybody to task.
I check the lock on the door of the operating room—still broken. The Doctor operates quickly, extracting as many pieces of shrapnel that he can find. Lucky for the man most of the foreign objects do not strike any organs: it looks as though he’s been in a blast. A large splinter of wood causes internal bleeding, along with the nasty leg that has been crushed. Dr. Okur assigns Malia to watch over the man in recovery; there is a possibility of internal hemorrhaging.
The operation last well over an hour.
With the survivors safe, and fairly healthy, the Doctor and I take position by the entrance of the room.
As the two of us sit at our post we begin to hear the animal crying in the dark. The vocalizations are more like whoops now, mixed with short, sharp howls. There seems to be more than one, like a set of calls being answered by another. We use a bed to barricade the door, a mattress turned on its end to block the entrance. Sliding this to the side Dr. Okur peers through an opening. “Look at this.” He nods toward his makeshift porthole.
Looking through the gap I see the empty lobby, double doors wide-open, with the full moon hanging above the street. There are shapes in the road, most likely dead bodies or debris from the earlier rampage. Creeping over these obstacles, like a wisp of fog, is a four legged shadow. I can barely see the outline of a body as it rummages through corpses, seemingly biting off pieces of the dead: scavenging. As my eyes strain to focus on the thing I notice a blur of motion: a second black shape. The longer I watch the more seem to appear. I count four, maybe five.
“There’s more of them!” I whisper harshly to the Doctor.
The black shapes are all hunched, their snouts kicking dust up from the road. I can hear their yelping and growling: they feast barbarically on the dead. The Doctor slides the bed over a bit more and slips through the gap. I watch as he creeps to the double-doorway, peering stealthily through the main entrance. Seconds tick; I anxiously await a gun blast.
Instead, Okur re-appears, whispering through the barricade gap. “Hyenas.”
The Doctor takes a seat behind the empty lobby desk. “Ghosts of the Savanna,” he is interrupted by the mischievous laughing cackle. “Hyenas bring bad luck wherever they are . . . Their yelps and howls are bad omens to the local people.” We listen to their wicked calls for some time.
Eventually the scavengers dissipate into the night.
Doctor Okur and I sit in the dead silence of the lobby. Minutes pass; the dogs are not barking, the spirits are not wailing; an eerie silence entombs us. Dr. Okur steps to the double doors once again, peering out behind the barrel of his shotgun.
“Have you seen my idol?”
“What the Shaman gave me. Do you know where it is?”
“I used it for the bullets.”
“You used it?”
“I needed silver to make the buckshot. My necklace wasn’t enough.” Okur looks back; his eyes shimmer in the dark.
“Why did you take it? What’s with the stupid bullets anyways?” Anger courses through my veins again.
“You saw that thing. How are we going to kill it? It’s already been hit by Oliver and me . . . How the fuck are we supposed to take it down?” Okur sets his gaze on the road again.
“Who the hell told you to take my stuff?! Silver bullets?! What the fuck Doctor.”
My aggression is met with his. “Do you think I like this shit?! The fucking Chief said to use the damn silver! That’s it! Crazy bastard speaking in fucking riddles! That’s what we have to go off of!”
“What crazy bastard?!”
“The fucking Chief! Said to use the fucking silver!”
“What else did he say?”
Dr. Okur scoffs at my words. “He told me where to get a whole lot more fucking silver, that’s for sure.”
“Is that why those men met today? You sold them something . . . My necklace.”
“Drop the fucking necklace Serra. It’s in here!” Okur shakes his gun violently. “I own this fucking place now. We kill this thing tonight, you leave tomorrow . . .”
“I don’t want anything in this Hell hole; I just want out.”
“Good . . . Take your way out, there may not be another.”
Silence stands between us. I think of the three mercenaries Oliver hired. “And those three men Oliver brought?”
Okur’s nose wrinkles. “Let’s check the patients, Dr. Serra.”
I slide the mattress over to make a small space for the Doctor and I to squeeze through.
Upon entering we both noticed something askew. The people, nurses, are all gone. Okur makes for the closet door immediately, me in tail, but stops with his hand on the doorknob. He looks to a cluster of beds on his left pushed against the wall. In the farthest corner, hidden from us as we enter the room, is a cluttered pile. Several of the cots are flipped over, with a pile of sheets, bedding, clothes—bodies. The dark mound moves.
It looks up from the clustered heap, its face stained red. The monster lunges forward, bursting through the line of beds separating us from It. I’m knocked to the ground by the weight of a mattress lobbed by the beast.
A shot rings out as Okur is slammed by a piece of furniture himself: he is sent tumbling to the floor with the heap of material. The monster bulls through everything in its way, snapping its rabid jaws violently. Its claws scratch across the wooden floor, propelling its raging momentum toward us.
I crawl on my knees, narrowly dodging one of the flailing claws. The monster bucks uncontrollably in the entangling sheets and mosquito netting. Dr. Okur gets to his feet, backing himself to the far wall. A pile of bodies remain where the thing was feeding, their eyes open. Children cower in the far corner. Watching. Paralyzed.
BLAM! BLAM! Two fiery flashes erupt from the shotgun. Okur shoots out of desperation, out of fear. Hot metal sprays the mattress heaved by the monster, as well as the small bodies in the corner. Before Okur can pump for a third shot the abomination grabs hold of his foot, pulling the screaming Doctor to a set of yellow chomping teeth. The crunching of bone sends shivers down my spine.
With all of the clutter, the overturned beds, the entangled Monster feeding on Dr. Okur, my quickest route is through the closet door ahead. If I run for the infirmary entrance, where the mattress half blocks the door, the beast would be on me in a heartbeat.
I high-step over the entangling mix of debris—the monster’s back to me; straight for the door: slam shut behind me. I am nearly knocked to the ground by the sudden thud of that thing slamming against it—the beast snarls and claws on the other side.
There are no locks to the closet doors so I quickly slam the second shut. I press my bodyweight against it; the abominable creature thrashes inside the stock-room closet.
I glance to the dark operating room I now stand in, the glass door of the recovery room is open—glass shattered, blood splattered. I can see an outstretched arm; death plastered on the woman’s face. Malia looks to be the first victim of the bloody rampage: now only a half-eaten corpse like the rest of the people in the building.
A powerful heave from the other side of the door nearly sends me to the ground. I have a tight grasp of the handle but the hinges of the door rattle with weakness. That thing presses down on the handle, pushing with its body weight against the door. I feel my grasp weakening.
With a sudden bound I leap as far from the door as possible, in the direction of the operating room’s side exit. At the same time the place I was standing bursts into splinters.
Flying half-across the room the black blur crashes to the ground. In one fluid motion I am on my feet, opening the door and sprinting through. The last fleeting image I have while slamming my escape behind me is that set of ravenous jaws foaming with rage.
My adrenaline rush spurs my feet into action. I sprint along the pitch-black alleyway behind the hospital, taking the turn leading me back to the main road. As I stand alone in the body-strewn street I must make a decision: run or hide. An echoing howl emits from the alley I just emerged, propelling me into a mad dash away from the hospital.
The town is ghostly quiet, draped in black, with countless corpses under my feet. I live a new nightmare as I find myself running through gore into the pitch black of night. Out of the burning town and through the country I sprint.
Grunting wheezes haunt my every step—I’m not sure if it is me or the Beast giving chase. The more I run the louder it becomes.
Footsteps pound behind me. I am certainly being chased . . .
I continue to run. My chest burns, my sides begin to cramp. I don’t know how much longer I can make it; I can smell the Beast behind me. The panting grows louder; I can sense a presence coming from behind.
Panic saturates my body with adrenaline. I begin to see lights. I must be fainting, running myself into shock . . . No. A glowing pair of lights does reflect in the distance: my beacon of hope.
The more I run the larger the lights become.
I can hear the pounding steps behind me. The thing is so close I can feel its hot breath on my neck. It’s heaving breaths gain on me; with every step my lungs burn in my chest. Light is upon me, illuminating my path—headlights.
Ahead somebody begins yelling, furiously.
A shot echoes; dirt sprays from the ground in-front of me. I try to duck and lose balance, toppling face-first into the road. As I tumble into a face-plant I see a glimpse of the Beast charging from behind. Its wild yellow eyes lock to mine.
A chain of gunfire erupts.
The soldiers have a hold of me in seconds, dragging me by the arms toward their truck. I glance back at the furry body, oozing a black pool of blood.
Zip-ties bound my hands to the truck grill. Heat radiates around me.
A man walks past. His footsteps heavy, like hooves.
His boots stomp with each step.
I watch as this hulking figure makes his way toward the carcass, looking down at the dead thing. He unsheathes his blade, a machete. With a flash of metal the blade swings down, striking the corpse. I shudder to the fleshy slap of steel.
The head of that thing rolls into the light: the head of a man.
The uniformed man comes to me next, standing over with the blade dripping red. As he leans down I catch a glimpse of the intricate patchworks and ribbons on his breast . . . I look up to his face. There is only a faint white crescent; a sharp smile nestled within an immensely bushy beard, and nothing else but blackness—every feature swallowed by his shadow.
He wipes the blade clean against my shirt, laughing as he disappears back into the truck.
The soldiers begin moving again, this time producing a large white tarp. They roll the body, and head, into the tarp; seal it shut with zip-ties; drag it to the side of the road and douse the object in gasoline. They ignite a flame with a match.
One of the men is barking orders to the rest. He could be speaking Chinese for all I know; I’m terrified.
He comes to me and says a few words—I can’t understand him. He becomes angry, pulls a knife. I raise my hands for mercy. I choke.
Zip-ties around my wrist are cut. The convoy of trucks drives into the dark.
I am left sitting in the road, next to that corpse inferno, watching the dim pair of red lights shrinking into the dark.
When you travel abroad, to one of those dark spots on the map,
On your travel beware; beware of the beast that lingers like a cat,
Look down in the gulch, where bones mingle with the mulch,
For it resembles a furry man on all four, though it is neither beast nor man—but something much more.