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The numbers of wounded pouring across the border had grown steadily for a week, coming with the regularity of the tides, the ebb and flow of crippled, ruined bodies numbing in its monotony. Once again, civil war gripped the nation of Bongavi, fueled by the same irreconcilable tribal hatreds that had numerous times before reduced the country’s population by horrific percentages. This time, though, was the worst. Warfare became synonymous with genocide, an “ethnic cleansing” of the land, the initial quarrel being lost somewhere along the way, amidst the welter of blood. Those who managed to make it into neighboring Burundi were often dead men already, stubborn and defiant of their mortality, seeking perhaps a safe haven wherein to pass from the world in peace. In Gale Merrick’s experience, few of them found it.

She’d seen women and children, hobbling old men and young warriors drown in their own vomit, their screams of pain choked out. She had watched their pleading eyes turn to glass. She had dug bullets, shrapnel, and splintered bone out of gangrenous flesh, used alcohol to purge maggots from wounds already rotted, stuffed coils of intestines back inside gaping stomachs, assisted in amputations performed with a machete. Even outside the tents, she couldn’t escape the stench of mingled suffering.

Drifting across the border, smoke from burning towns and villages hung suspended over the sky and sun. Nomadic breezes carried the foulness of decomposing corpses from where they had been piled in mounds to glut village streets.

“You okay, little sister?” A young black woman with the voice of a songbird made her way to where Gale sat on a discarded cooler. Dr. Sanura Orva had called Gale “sister” since the day they’d been introduced.

“Daydreaming,” Gale replied.

“You should lie down,” Sanura said. “Get some rest while there’s a lull.”

“It’s too hot to sleep,” Gale said.

“You should try. You can’t hold up without food or sleep.”

“I’m fine.”

“You’re a liar.”

Gale chuckled. “Yeah, I am.” She rubbed her eyes and gazed out towards the east, where the smoke had yet to reach. A tear she had fought to prevent slipped from the corner of her eye, washing a streak down her dirty face. Sanura clasped her shoulder.

“Sorry.” Gale sniffed.

“For what? Being human? I was starting to worry because I hadn’t seen you cry.”

“Didn’t they teach you in medical school never to become emotionally involved?” Gale asked, wiping at her nose. The first tear had battered down her resolve; now the rest came with ease.

“Nothing they teach in medical school is applicable here,” Sanura said. “Are you okay, little sister?”

“Yeah,” Gale said. “This…this just isn’t what I expected, you know? I didn’t think…” She left the thought unfinished.

“You are never really prepared for it,” Sanura said. “Even if you’ve experienced it before.”

“I was so stupid. So naive.” Gale leaned forward, burying her face in her hands.

“Doctor!” A shout carried over the camp. Gale looked up to see a dark face, glistening with sweat, protruding out from the parted flap of the tent. “Doctor, come quick!”

“Coming!” Sanura shouted in reply.

Gale got to her feet, sprinting behind Sanura back to the tent. She tensed for what awaited them there.

Gale had been on the border of Bongavi, caring for the wounded and dying, the flotsam of war, for over a month. She thought that she had seen the worst of humanity’s
degradations. She thought nothing else could shock her. Now, the sight before her froze her in her steps, forcing a gasp from her throat. She pressed her hand to her mouth.

The being laid out on the table before them resembled a woman, though Gale couldn’t immediately be certain. From the crown of the head to the soles of the feet, the body had been skinned, a mass of quivering flesh, wet and raw. Only the mounds of breasts remained to hint at gender. The woman’s eyes bulged, their whiteness incongruous with what had been her face. The dilated black pupils rolled towards them. The woman whimpered, trying to speak.

“Morphine!” Sanura screamed.

Seizing the syringe brought by an assistant, Sanura filled it with a large dose, a lethal dose. The woman could not survive. She had no chance. Gale knew the most they could do would be to ease the woman’s agony. Sanura bent low, the needle poised. The woman began to convulse, limbs flailing.

“Gale, help me,” Sanura said.

Gale had pulled on her latex gloves out of habit, a habit for which she gave thanks as she grabbed a thrashing arm, struggling to keep it from slipping from her grip. She tried to look away, to avoid those bulging eyes while Sanura administered the needle.

“Sssssssss…” the woman hissed.

“This will help,” Sanura said.

“Don’t try to talk,” Gale said.

“Ssssaaaaa..!” The woman forced her voice to obey. “Ssssaaa…Ssssaaaaa..! ”

“What?” Sanura whispered.

“Ssssssaaaaaaa…Sssaaaaaa…leee…vaaaaaa…nnnooooooff!” The woman spat out the syllables. Her body spasmed one last time and lay still, her voice lost in her last breath.

“What do you think she was trying to say?” Sanura asked, gazing over the limp form.

Gale shook her head. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

“What doesn’t?”

“Selivanov,” Gale said. “I think she said ‘Selivanov.'”

TheCheezman • March 4, 2020

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