Sarah came rushing over, clasping her hand over her mouth in shock when she saw Amina lying curdled up in agony, half-on, half-off the mattress and burning with fever. The vomiting paused. A figure appeared in the doorway, Amina’s dad. All the children crowded in after him. All except one. ‘David? Where’s David?’ They looked around. There was no sign of him. Hadn’t he ran off to tell someone? Where was he now?
Deep in the forest, David opened his eyes. His head hurt. He had taken a risk in leaving the path but he figured he could spring through the thickets of bushes, saving time with the short cut. He bounded easily over several of the bushes but the next one caught his trailing leg in a bramble, wrapping itself around. Twisting, he fell heavily, walloping his head.
He caught the eye of the moon and shivered. Something crawled over his face. He tried to brush it off but his arms were tied in bramble knots. He shifted and grimaced. Something, he’d done something to his leg. It seared and another ant traced its path across his forehead until he passed out again.
The whole village was out looking for him. It wasn’t far from where the pond to the village and yet off the path, the thickets of dense brambles could conceal a body for days, for months, forever. They called his name until it became too dark and were forced to give up for the night.
Early the next day, everyone resumed their search. In the pale morning light, one of them detected a print in the path, which might be David’s. They panned the bush with brushes and switches in its direction. Fifty paces on, one of the villagers cried out, ’Over here. He’s here!’ They rushed to the spot where David, covered in crimson spots, head limp in a pool of vomit, lay lifeless. One of the villagers checked his pulse. He’s breathing. ‘Come quickly, help me lift him, then.’ And a group of them cut the binds and raised the groaning boy, his leg dangling in two. They carried him as best they could back to the village.
Sarah had set about organising the sick. Amina had to go into a tent all by herself to keep her away from the other villagers. She put another mattress in for David. He revived slightly after sipping a few drops of water, mixed with lemon and vanilla essence. But, overnight, all the other children in the group came out in the same blotches and they were all moved in together. The families feared for their future, for their children. Of all the group, only Ella remained apparently healthy. No-one knew why.
Time passed and all they could do was keep them clean and feed them water and nourishing soups. None of them could keep down solids. Sarah and Nighat worked tirelessly applying compresses and poultices, all they knew, but the children seemed to be drifting away from them. Nighat was at her wit’s end. She walked out into the fields and screamed,
‘I want to smell the flowers.
I want to see the trees.
To kneel down on the earth
and breathe, mother, breathe.’
But her child’s health showed no sign of getting better. If anything, it was worse. She could only wait.
The next day, a young woman came to he village, a doctor. She said she’d heard about the case of the sick children and wanted to help. ‘My name’s Rehana. Just passing through on my way home. Maybe, I can do something.’
Sarah had been up all night and was sleeping. Nighat and Fatima pointed out the tent holding the children. ‘First rate care but they need medicine. It looks like an allergic reaction. We can save them, if we can act in time.’ It had been three days, since Amina had fallen ill. Biswas, Nathan, David , Julie as well as Amina had all succumbed to the mysterious sickness. All bar Ella.
‘I must speak to her, ‘said the doctor. Ella described everything she remembered doing on that day in the forest. The food they’d eaten. She’d not had any of the sweetcorn and had stayed on the bank watching the others. ‘You sure about that, Ella?’ ‘Yes, I was too full of berries. ‘sides, mum had warned us not to eat anything from that field.’ ‘And you didn’t.’
The doctor had rang someone and later a van drove into the village, a colleague of hers, Ben. They carried boxes into the tent and quickly set about setting up drips. ‘Will this help them?’ ‘We can only try. If I’m right, then this will at least hold the spread of the illness.’ On David, who was doubly affected by the illness and the ant bites on his eye lids, she applied a healing salve and quietly said a prayer.
‘Thank you, Rehana, thank you for coming.’ Nighat looked at the doctor. ‘We feel so afraid, so isolated here. This isn’t the first case of young people falling ill. No, not at all. We’re sick of it but who can we complain to. The farmer laughs it off and is protected by the company he sells his crop to. We know this. They’ve been here and nobody likes to talk about it. We think last time they gave one of the families some money not to say anything.’ ‘I see, but your elected councillors..?’ ‘Them? It’s hopeless. They are just one voice, if they care at all. Most of them don’t seem interested.’ ‘I see,’ said the doctor. ‘Well, I’d like to do some tests.’ ‘On the children?’ ‘No, I was thinking about on the sweetcorn and the water, where they were swimming. Do you think we might do that?’ ‘Well, Julie’s the star at getting sweetcorn but she can’t help us at the moment. But yes, if you think it might help, she’s not the only one who can climb under fences. How many do you need?’
So, while Nighat set about getting the half dozen cobs, Sarah’s husband, Sam, took Rehana to the water hole, where the kids had been bathing. She swept up some of the water into a pan and poured it into vials and sealed them.
The next day, Rehana’s friend, Ben, arrived back in the van. ‘I’ll just be away for a few days.’ she told the families waiting. The children in the tent were showing some signs of recovery but Rehana knew they had a long way to do. He had to fetch fresh supplies of medicine and arrange for testing the samples.
Another van appeared in the square. It was the police. They were looking at the gathering. And one of the officers came across. ‘What’s happening here?’ ‘We are saying goodbye to our friend.’
And the officer questioned Rehana. Who was she? What was she doing here? Where was she going? There had been some reported break-ins at the local farm. Did they know anything about that? Rehana spoke up, ‘I was just passing through and saw that children here were in need and I could help. I’m a doctor, you see.’ ‘You, a doctor? Doctors are very young these days.’ ‘Well, it’s true. I’ve only just completed my training. I was at a placement at the refugee camp…I saw some terrible sights there…and I’m on my way home on leave…’
The families stared at the officers, who shifted. ‘Well, looking after children is good. But make sure that’s all you do. And the officer went back to his van and drove off. ‘I have a friend, who works for a local paper. He might be interested in what’s going on here. I’ll give him a call’. Ben said, ‘We’d better go before that officer comes back and starts looking inside our van.’
‘Thank you, Rehana and Ben, for all you’re doing for us. We still have hope.’ ‘I’ll be back as quick as I can. Remember, take care to look after those children. You’re doing all the right things. Keep going and don’t lose heart.’
They watched the van disappear up along the dusty road. ‘Bye, Rehana. ‘Bye, Ben. Go well, friends.’ And they sang they traditional song of farewell of the village,
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face.
May the rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you
In the hollow of his hand.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you
In the hollow of her hand.
Part three of four