Esteban waded waist-deep into the water, holding the boat steady as Dr. Lazaro and Ben stepped on board. In the darkness, with the opposite bank like the far rise of an island, Dr. Lazaro had a moment’s tremor of fear as the boat slid out of the black waters; below prowled the deadly currents; to drown here in the depths of night… But it took less than a minute to cross the river. “We’re here doctor,” Esteban said, and they padded up a stretch of sand to a clump of trees: a dog started to bark, the shadows of kerosene lamp wavered at a window. Unsteady on a steep ladder, Dr. Lazaro entered the cave of Esteban’s hut. The single room contained the odors he often encountered but had remained alien to stirring an impersonal disgust: the sourish decay, the smells of unaired sick. The old man greeted him, lisping incoherently; a woman, the grandmother, sat crouched in a corner, beneath a framed print of the Mother of Perpetual Help; a boy, about ten, slept on, sprawled on a mat; Esteban’s wife, pale and thin, lay on the floor with the sick child beside her. Motionless, its tiny blue tinged face drawn away from its chest in a fixed wrinkled grimace, the infant seemed to be straining to express some terrible ancient wisdom. Dr. Lazaro made a cursory check skin – dry, turning cold; breathing shallow; heartbeat, fast and irregular. And in that moment, only the child existed before him; only the child and his own mind probing now like a hard gleaming instrument; how strange that it should still live, his mind said, as it considered the spark that persisted with the rigid and tortured body. He was alone with the child, his whole being focused on it, in those intense minutes shaped into a habit now by so many similar instances; his physician’s knowledge trying to keep the heart beating, life rising again. Dr. Lazaro removed the blankets that bundled the child and injected a whole ampule to check the tonic spasms, the needle piercing neatly into a sparse flesh; he broke another ampule, with deft precise movements, and emptied the syringe, while the infant lay stiff as wood beneath his hands. He wiped off the sweat running into his eyes, then holding the rigid body with one hand, he tried to draw air into the faltering lungs, pressing and releasing the chest; but even as he worked to rescue the child, the bluish color of its face began to turn grey. Dr. Lazaro rose from his crouch on the floor, a cramp ache in his shoulders, his mouth dry. The lamplight glistened on his pale, hollow face as he confronted the room again, the stale heat, the poverty. Esteban met his gaze; all of their eyes were upon him, Ben at the door, the old man, the woman in the corner, and Esteban’s wife, in the trembling shadows. 30
Esteban said, “Doctor…” He shook his head, and replaced the syringe case in his bag, slowly and deliberately, and fastened the clasp. There was a murmuring behind him, a rustle across the bamboo floor, and when turned, Ben was kneeling beside the child. As he watched, with a tired detached surprise, the boy poured a trickle of water from a coconut shell on the infant’s brow. He caught the words half- whispered in the quietness: “…in the name of the Father… Son… the Holy
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