Across the Sudd, the animals are migrating – white-eared kob, antelope, gazelle – and so, too, the plague moves in its cycle. From its reservoir, the virus broke out to kill many and leave some few of us survivors immune, and now its tide of death recedes. The government declares the epidemic at an end. No more do quarantine transports deliver to us new patients. Our doctor deems all our patients recovered. And we all of us are ordered to shutter our quarantine camp.
Our narcotics are audited, our medical supplies are crated, our equipment is loaded onto trucks. Emptying of septic tanks is accomplished. Waste is burned. Measures to preserve the borehole and well are implemented. Our people are dispersed. Our camp director and pharmacy manager are in Juba, in conference with our colleagues at the country headquarters of our organization. Our head of security is overseeing the safe transport of our inventory. Our doctor is treating patients at her new assignment.
I have some small tasks to complete before I join the diaspora. The ward is empty except for sunlight. I am crossing the room when a ward tech, clad in street clothes – so different from the isolation precautions of gown, face mask and gloves! – enters with a broom and dustpan. The sound of bristles against the floor is loud. The sound of my flip-flops slapping my soles is loud. The sound of laughter from the pediatric ward is loud.
I stand in the doorway of the pediatric ward. The triage tech, also in street clothes, is laughing and clapping. Another ward tech, the one we all of us call, “Angel,” is smiling widely. The focus of their attention is a little girl performing cartwheels.
Our last patient. Our lost patient.
Ann Noni Mini. Christian name. Tribal name. Pet name.
She came to us without family or papers. We think she is perhaps five. We assume her entire family is dead. She arrived limp as a swath of linen cloth and so hot to the touch. Blood fever made her first insensible, then wiped away her memory. When a person holding her medical chart asks her name, she say, “Ann.” Ann only. She squints, thoughtful, when pressed for her family name.
Where do you live? Are your parents alive? What languages do you speak? Is English your first language? Have you been to school? Are you a Christian? To all these questions, she squints.
When her hemorrhagic fever subsides, she runs around the pediatric ward. So happy, so vitalized! She is unbothered being without family, tribe, nation; without information about who she is.
The triage tech takes her outside to teach her the names and properties of the plants. To give her something to remember. He says, “The baobab tree is the world’s largest succulent plant, Ann,” and she replies, “Uncle. Call Ann ‘Noni.’”
We all of us scrutinized this clue. Is “Noni” short for “Muthoni”? Are you Kikuyu? Is your family from Kenya? She squints in reply.
With no one to take her, the camp director enrolls her in boarding school. He registers her giving his last name for her own. I know he pays her school fees himself.
While Noni remains at the camp before the session start, Angel is tasked with schooling her. Noni with a book in her hands is overjoyed. Before they open it, Angel asks, “What letter is first in, ‘Noni’?” “Auntie, you call me, ‘Mini’!” the child directs, laughing and opening the book to a page featuring an aardvark beside the letter, “A.” “Mini starts with ‘M’!”
A little angel.
“Noni,” I say to her now, “Cook has made you pudding. Go and eat it, so he can close the kitchen.” I look at Angel and the triage tech. “There is boxed lunch for us for the road.” They nod.
While Angel and the triage tech take Noni to the canteen, I retrieve a shovel from the utilities shed and walk out to the graveyard beyond the garage. Seventeen graves there are, all unmarked. We did not know their names. They were ambushers: men who lay in wait for the convoys delivering our supplies. They died of fright the night the convoy brought our doctor. Their bodies were carted to us, along with the lone survivor, the one of their number who told us their tale, and then, once here, and penitent, trained to be our triage tech. His hand that once raised weapons to hurt us now guides Noni to the canteen for pudding.
Seventeen graves. And one furrow. This furrow resulted from the trench collapse of a grave I dug. A visitor to our camp, a European, a grieving man, had asked me to dig the grave. I shake my head remembering him. “Some things can be explained,” he had said. But many things remain unknowable.
I had covered the furrow and surrounding piles of earth with a tarp, secured in place with bricks. Now that we know we would not bury another, the camp director tasked me to refill this grave completely.
I stack the bricks. I fold the tarp. The redness of the earth in the scoop of my shovel gleams in the sunlight. It is the wrong time of day for this work. Too hot. Sweat soaks me before I have begun. But, before tea-time, I too must vacate this camp for my new assignment. So, in the heat of the day, I dig.
“Uncle, what are you doing?”
Noni circles me, running with her arms held out, like she is an aeroplane. She is smiling and energetic with sugar, stickiness glinting around her mouth.
I straighten my back, grateful for the break, and wipe sweat out of my eyes. “Uncle is filling a grave.”
“Whose grave?” she sing-songs.
I shake my head. “I dug this grave for an unknown person.”
“Then it is my grave.” She stops. She looks up at me with earnest eyes.
I am taken with surprise. It rips me from my body. I completely forget that I am drenched in sweat. In fact, I feel breeze on my cheekbones and armpits. I notice the thickness that arose in my throat only after. “What?”
“Ann-Noni-Mini – unknown person is my name,” she laughs, her eyes sparkling.
Could such a young child make such a clever pun? I am uncomfortable, unsure if I am in the presence of something uncommon. A big thing working through a little person, like a miracle. “You are not anonymous,” I say with an uncertain smile.
“No, a mouse is small. I am even more mini.” Her face is without self-pity. She is simply sincere.
“This grave is not for you,” I say quietly, urgently.
“Uncle,” she corrects me, “it is the only thing that is mine.” She is so excited to have something of her own.
I kneel now, so that her brown eyes may be on direct level with my pupils. “Noni,” I ask, “will you let Uncle fill this grave now? If you need it later, Friend Aardvark will dig it again for you. Is that ok?”
She nods seriously. Then she giggles ebulliently.
“Miiiinnniii!” calls Angel from the distance of the canteen. I can see the box lunch in Angel’s hands, ready for the matutu ride to Juba, the next stop before everything else – Angel’s next assignment, Noni’s schooling.
Noni smiles at me, claps her hands, and runs away.
I return to my task. I will obliterate all trace of this grave. Make smooth the earth so no possibility exists that this gravesite may be found again.
It is not three shovelfuls of earth, though, before I feel the fear. My arms are trembling. I grip the shovel with frustration. She is safe and getting an education, and nothing in my material conditions has changed. What should I fear?
But Noni’s words make me feel I have brushed against the unfathomable.
I comfort myself with a thought: it is just the end. Endings are frightening. Even happy endings contain the terrifying seed of the unknown next.
When I next saw the camp director, it was some many months later. Our organization had sent me to the refugee camp in Jonglei, him to the camp in Doro, for our next assignments, but I obtained leave when he called.
He had gone to the boarding school to claim her body. Her school records somehow included a note about her “ownership” of a grave plot at the old quarantine campsite: her land, the only place that was hers. When he saw the note, the camp director knew it was right to bury her there, where we all of us had found her, among others of the unknowns. Would I, he asked me on the phone, re-dig the grave?
I had told her I would do so. It was right to keep my word.
The boarding school had declined to furnish the students with mosquito nets for their beds. She had contracted dengue fever. Coming so soon after her bout of hemorrhagic fever, the dengue virus was fatal.
We both of us stood together at the edge of the grave looking down at the body bag. It was too small and limp as a swath of linen cloth against the red earth.
I was glad of the shovel now. Its handle was a tiller with which I could navigate these next moments. I bury her.
Shoveling dirt is a physical act that requires no thought and no feeling. It is satisfying exertion at a time when no effort can be of avail – satisfying because it is not effort, but acceptance.
“We have no stone,” the camp director said heavily. Then he became agitated. “After the indignity of a life with no name, no family, she cannot be left with no grave marker!”
I pause, securing the shovel head in a pile of earth, and look at him.
“How will anyone know she existed?” he asks, anguished.
I reach out my arm and hold tightly to his shoulder. “There is no indignity in truth,” I say.
I think he understands. He calms.
I return to burial. Whether anyone knows she existed does not matter. Whether she actually existed does not matter. Her function was so basic; many waste their overcomplicated lives in hopeless pursuit of her effortless success. Now she is a story the camp director will recount, a story I will tell, Angel will tell, we all of us tell; and it matters not if she was always a story and never a little girl at all. Ann Noni Mini, like we all of us, was a structure to conduct love. A conduit. She arose out of love, stayed for some time, giving and receiving love, and then dissipated, scattering her love to be conducted through some other conduit.
This is truth. She embraced it. In that, there is only dignity.
# # #
Maya Alexandri is the author of the novel, The Celebration Husband (TSL Publications 2015). Her short fiction has appeared in The Stockholm Review of Literature, The Light Ekphrastic, Boston Accent Lit, Thrice Fiction, and others. She is one of the founding organizers of the Amplified Cactus inter-disciplinary arts-event series. A former resident of China, India, and Kenya, she is now a medical student at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine. For more information, see www.mayaalexandri.com.
Photo: Ray Hennessy