© 2023 Beverley Hanna
Sunlight shattered as the glass splintered the shadows at her feet.
“NO!” cried Jeri, dropping to her knees, desperate to halt the inevitable, but despite her frantic efforts, the precious medicine vanished into the thirsty soil, its only remnant a sharp, medicinal smell.
Around her, the cacophony of the camp continued, muted because of the illness, though off in the distance soared the treble voices of those few children as yet untouched by the plague.
A slight woman, Jeri had bribed her way into the encampment. She sought one of the ramshackle hovels along the main thoroughfare, hoping to discover the facts behind the preposterous tales she’d heard from some of the encampment’s leaders and the politicians who demanded the community be levelled. Tales about a legendary spiritual leader for the people, one who could slow or halt, even turn back the relentless avalanche of disease and destruction that was the plague.
Of all the pitiable souls surrounding her, mostly refugees from the cities, she’d wanted to ensure that this one healer, at least, might be saved.
But now, what was the point? The single vial of vaccine she’d been able to smuggle out of the clinic lay in glistening shards on the dampened earth, the sun-sparkle of its shining fragments mocking her high-minded intentions.
Still on her knees, she collected the pieces of glass, if for no other reason than to prevent the barefoot children from cutting their feet. They had enough to handle without that.
Jeri contemplated the soiled handful of chips and splinters, but not a single drop of vaccine remained. Sighing, she wrapped them in a handkerchief and tucked it carefully in the right hip pocket of her scrubs.
She got to her feet and gazed despondently around her at the refugee encampment, trying not to breathe in the stench of disease and concentrated humanity. People sat or lay listlessly, many of them gazing the thousand-yard stare of hopelessness. The majority, she knew, would not make it past the next day or two without help — without the vaccines being held in two climate-controlled warehouses not five miles away, destined for those who could pay for them. Not for these poor wretches, thousands of them crammed into a square mile of packed earth, hemmed in by barbed wire, with no trees for shade, no clean water and only open pits for a latrine. Mocked and derided by the callous high-rise politicians who decided their fate.
As a nurse assigned to vaccine detail, she’d been one of the lucky few who’d received the shot early on. As a result, she felt she had to give back in some small way. Back home, the news reports had told of refugees fleeing the cities to avoid the plague, countless children orphaned and dying. She wanted to help, needed to help, so she’d signed on with the Red Cross, who urgently required qualified nurses. Filled with altruism, compassion and hope, she’d volunteered to come here, to this oh-so-foreign land, where even the language was different.
But the reality beggared description. The television reports had only scratched the surface of the refugees’ desperate predicament. Deprivation didn’t begin to describe it.
Only a small percentage of the supplies shipped from home ever made it to the internment camps, and even those had to be smuggled in little by little. With thousands still to be vaccinated, it was an impossible job. Jeri had managed to snag a single vial when an elderly interpreter at the clinic had refused to accept his shot, his fear making him hysterical. He’d kept telling her, “Fix! Fix!” which she understood to mean he thought she was trying to drug him. She’d backed away, and he’d left, still shouting, “Fix!”
Later, she’d heard stories of a healer, a “fixer”, who, it was rumoured, could prevent or even cure the plague by the laying-on of hands. The small troop of medics at the clinic ridiculed the idea, but Jeri wondered if there might be something to it.
She decided she must find out. The old fellow’s paperwork had already been filled in, so no-one would even know the vial was missing. If there were anything to the story, maybe she could give the shot to one who actually wanted to help — one good person who put others first. One who shared her own need to serve. If she could find them.
The precious vial had been tucked under her watchband, but she’d used the watch to bribe one of the guards to let her into the camp. She’d hidden it in her sleeve, and when she stumbled over a mound of trash, it had slipped out and shattered. Now she had no idea how to reach the healer. She didn’t speak the language and didn’t even know what the healer looked like. And, in her clean, coloured scrubs printed with cartoon penguins, she stood out from these pathetic refugees, conspicuous, someone who didn’t belong.
Jeri never saw the stone that hit her.
* * *
She woke up in one of the larger tin-roofed tents, lying on her left side. Her shoes were gone, as was her bag. Wincing, she lifted a hand to touch the sizeable lump on the back of her head. Her hand came away wet, her short blonde hair sticky with blood.
In the hovel’s darkness, an accented voice said, “So, you are awake now.”
“What happened?” Jeri mumbled.
“The gang. The mens think you rich woman. They take your papers, your shoes. Sell for food. Others bring you here to me.”
“Who are you? Are you the healer?”
“I am one who decides.”
“What to do with you.”
Jeri thought about that for a moment. If this was the person she’d been seeking, the meeting wasn’t going at all the way she’d expected.
She tried to get up, surprised when nothing prevented her from doing so. Nothing restricted her, though a vicious headache remained.
The murky darkness inside the hut was stifling. She couldn’t make out much of the other’s appearance. Just that the person was small. The voice sounded childlike but seemed much older, with a powerful sense of command and authority.
“What happens now?” Jeri asked. “When can I leave?”
“You no have papers. You cannot leave. Why I must decide you.”
“Look,” said Jeri. “I’m trying to find the healer. At the clinic, there was a man who talked about her — him — you? Anyway, he was terrified of the vaccine. Said he didn’t need it. Other people mocked him. They scoffed and said this so-called healer person pretended to have some kind of special power to combat the plague with no medicine, no medical training, and that this person was going to do more harm than good. This healer was supposed to be ‘fixing’ people, but they believed it was a scam.
“Look, I can help,” she pleaded. “I’m a nurse. I’m vaccinated and can’t catch the plague. Nobody at the clinic’s concerned about the people here. They’re either overworked and exhausted, like the doctors, or they just don’t care because there’s a lot of money to be made. I just want to help. I brought a vaccine to make sure the healer was protected. But it’s gone now.” Tears welled as she pulled the handkerchief out of her pocket and offered it to the other.
The boy, for so it was, pulled back the ragged curtain. Bright sunlight glanced off the broken pieces of the vial. Jeri raised her gaze to the child’s face, covered with the plague’s distinctive pockmarks. The little body was bent and bruised, open lesions evident across the twisted torso. Her heart went out to him. Oh! That a child should have to endure so much!
The boy lifted the largest piece of glass and hesitated for a moment. He glanced at Jeri, then deliberately pricked his finger. She gasped as a bright bead of blood welled, a ruby jewel on the small fingertip.
Jeri stretched to touch the boy’s hand, intending to blot the blood. He evaded her and instead reached toward her head-wound. Blood from the vial-pierced finger mixed with hers.
She cried out as the hut vanished, a brilliant light exploding in her mind.
* * *
Everywhere, people fled screaming, though she knew not what they feared. Like a video documentary, she watched as people were imprisoned, tortured, enslaved. Vision after vision assaulted her mind. Every evil thing that people had done to each other across the centuries, every nightmare that people had suffered throughout history, all tormented her with their unendurable pain and anguish.
And yet, she did endure. Gradually, the images slowed to a trickle as understanding emerged. These were the child’s memories. This child, appearing in many guises throughout the history of mankind, had done its best to alleviate the pain of others. This boy’s body was merely the latest incarnation. Compassion made manifest. The opposite face of evil. The indomitable spirit of love that could be found in all people, even the most reprehensible.
By taking the pain and disease of others unto itself, the child had saved them. “Fixed” them. By the laying-on of hands, it healed them of the desire to do harm. Not all of them. Never all of them. But enough that hope remained for the rest.
But there was a cost. Always, there would be a cost because there must be balance. For every action, there must be an equal and opposite reaction. That is the law.
And now it was Jeri’s turn.
For how long, she wondered, had this child had carried the burden? Perhaps days, perhaps centuries. There had always been uncounted stories of the martyrs, the ones who took on the evils of the world to spare the innocent. The responsible ones. The ones who saw man’s problems and tried to fix them, knowing all the while that the chance of success was infinitesimally small.
Jeri could refuse. There would be no recrimination, no judgment, no blame. She could turn from this geas and let the child continue to endure, its broken body a graphic illustration of mankind betrayed. The current plague and the avarice of the “penthouse politicians” were none of her doing. The torment of the people wasn’t her fault. It’s just how things have always been. Way of the world. Not her problem. She had the option to refuse the responsibility, just as we all do.
But in accepting, she would take on all the world’s agony for as long as she could manage, or until she could find another pure soul, one with the courage to keep trying in the face of impossible odds.
* * *
Once again, she found herself in the hut, the child’s hand slipping to her shoulder.
Gingerly, she touched the back of her head. There was no bump, nor even blood to show the place of injury.
“Oh!” she breathed.
The boy smiled, took her hand and turned to go.
As they stepped into the blazing sunlight, the child stood straight and tall, his skin unmarked by the open sores so conspicuous mere moments before. All evidence of the plague was gone.
He led Jeri to a ragged shelter, tattered blankets stretched over a framework of branches barely tall enough to clear the body lying inside.
The man had once been powerful, a leader of his people. Even now, a subtle impression of strength and purpose remained, much diminished by weakness and disease, the telltale lesions of pestilence covering his body, and a subtle dark aura surrounding him. Without help, he would die, and soon.
The child dropped Jeri’s hand, his gaze on her face intent. She heard his unasked question as clearly as if he had shouted it aloud.
Nodding once, she dropped to her knees and held the man’s face in her hands, drawing the pain and illness from him by the sheer power of her will, extending him the protection of her own health, immunity and vitality. When the dark aura around him cleared, she sat back on her heels, drained, exhausted, but knowing the leader would mend now. He would rise and do the work for which he was born, and he would bring his people out of this place.
She turned to speak to the child, but the boy was gone. In his place stood a slight blonde woman wearing a stunned expression and clean, brightly coloured scrubs printed with cartoon penguins.
“You wait,” Jeri said to the woman and stood, turning to speak to the man who was struggling to rise, “Take this good woman to the gate,” she told him. “Guard will listen to you. Will let her out.”
“Yes, Healer,” he said.
The nurse’s eyes filled with tears. “Thank you,” she whispered. And placing her hands together, she bowed her gratitude.
The leader escorted the woman away as Jeri turned back to the encampment.
There was much work to be done.