by Laura Baber
There were twelve robins on the roof today. I saw them outside my window, huddled against each other with orange colored breasts still bundled in winter’s down feathers. Fluffed up in defense of their tender heads and alert, hopping feet; pecking at berries hidden in the black flaps and folds of the roof tiles. I did not know that robins flocked. I think usually they do not, but were together this morning only to protect themselves against the bitter wind. Or the loneliness of a sudden springtime birthing.
I turn my head to ask you, but you are not there. The fact of it was 15 years ago, but I still forget and turn my head to talk to you. To tell you stories. To ask you questions about the daytime habits of robins.
It was your fingernails that first told us something was wrong. Where we were, deep in the jungle, no one was whole. There were always stomach revulsions, skin lesions, something that grew red and itchy against the crook of an elbow. We did not pay attention to these minor annoyances. We put up with them for faith, you and I. For belief in the work that we did.
The days were long and hot and wet. Even before the rainy season, before the floods, my hair grew mold in it. My belt, the one with the copper buckle that I’d brought from back home, turned a green patina that would never turn back again. I felt the same way, being there. Patinaed with a hue that wouldn’t turn back again.
Sometimes I’d complain. ‘There’s no aid work in Paris,’ you’d say then, wiping sweat from your face with the red bandana you kept shoved in your back pocket. ‘These are the conditions. This is the work.’
I believed you because I believed in you, in the work we did. I trusted your face, whole and proud, shining in the dying light of a jungle afternoon.
We called them tube wells. Long, six-inch pipes inserted deep into the heart of the earth, bringing up fresh, clean water to those who’d never had it before. For those who had lost child after child to diarrhea, to waterborne pathogens, to poverty. Thinking back on it, I should have seen that nothing was so easy. Nothing, all the way good. But youth has no room for pragmatism.
‘Almost ready,’ I said to the experts, come in to evaluate. On the first day their large-boned white skin shone bright against the dark smallness of the population. By the second, they’d turned red and puffy, burned uncomfortable by a long day in the sun. Still, we pressed on. We measured and scienced, clipboards clutched in hands. These were the conditions, this was the work.
‘The rainy season will come soon,’ they said to me though I knew this. I knew it better than they. I was no stranger with red puffy skin.
‘We’ll be ready.’ I pointed to dates on my clipboard. Calendar rows marked in red. Monsoons that could swing in and out of dates and time, ruining everything. ‘They’ll be dug,’ I said.
The diesel engines, the ones that create the long holes down to the heart of the earth, they don’t work in the rain. They get clogged and rusted, sometimes carried away by rising water. With the monsoon threat barreling down on us, circled in red just weeks away, perhaps we went too quickly. Did not do all the sciencing we should have done. I can look back now and ask: Did we go too fast? Now that I have the luxury of pragmatism, but not of you.
All day I listened to the sounds of that diesel engine, fitting and drilling. The electricity of it took something precious away from my days, blanketed them with a constant buzzing and whirring. I tried not to mind that I could no longer hear the wind ruffling thatched roofs or clanking tin tops. That I lost the rustle of the giant palm fronds waving their old, primeval arms. But I noted it, this sign that something was not right.
Too much was still good. I could feel the wind blow cool against my skin. I could taste fresh coconut from shoreline trees and drink beer smuggled in on military ships. I could lose myself in the endless varieties of green or nap under a bright white mosquito net. I could stand against you, shoulders together, doing the work.
Fingernails do not lie. Their ridges and lumps and colored marks indicate very specific traumas. This is where that drawer closed on my ring finger. This is where I cut into my thumb bed too deeply. This is where I hit myself with that hammer, turning the index fingernail a blue-black-purple before I lost it altogether.
Back in Connecticut, we noticed your fingernails had gone wrong. There had been other signs of course: headaches, stomach aches, dizziness. Days spent in sterile rooms where doctors spoke of Lyme disease and vertigo. One said that sometimes people don’t adjust to coming home. Sometimes it’s in your mind. You laughed at him, that one.
Because it wasn’t in your mind. It was in your fingernails. Long white streaks, small round dots. Classic signs of arsenic, they’d say later. But not classic enough to catch the cancer before it spread.
The clipboards measured and scienced. ‘Mass poisoning,’ they said. ‘Whole villages succumbed.’ Arsenic from deep in the earth brought up by tube wells.
I cried when I heard it. Cried for you, and your fallen-out hair and your pancreas that had turned against you. Cried for the fingernail streaks and the skin lesions and the day your shoulders slumped against the world and I knew you had given up hope.
I sat by your bedside and I held your hand.
‘We killed them,’ you whispered and I shushed you. I had no answer for that.
– Laura Baber is a humanitarian aid worker and writer who has lived and worked in Central America, Eastern Europe and Asia. She currently resides in New York City and has just finished work on her first novel.