The Medicine Child by Nick Kennedy is the fifth and final in this year’s series of short stories written by students of the Science Communication Unit at Imperial College London.
“This story came to me in a dream (as a fully-fledged, brain-encapsulated baby). I chose to set it in an exotic place and inject it with a sense of mystery & loss. And I wanted to give it a happyish, redemptive ending.”
A single storey above the Euston Road – the afternoon rush hour calming now – a surgeon sneezes and mutters, “Dust mites.” He adjusts his mask and, once again, raises his scalpel. Camera shutters click in quick succession. Reporters with microphones clear their throats. In the corridor someone is whistling Vivaldi’s Spring.
In the ward the ECG beeps faithfully on. The surgeon cuts into a blue line drawn across Léna’s swollen abdomen. Her dark skin and a layer of yellow fat suddenly slip open like sliced breadfruit. Her broad nose dilates and relaxes, her closed purplish lids flicker. A wet sac bulges out of the incision. Yet her heart beat remains the same; oblivious she seethes with life.
Quickly the baby is lifted out of the dormant mother. Quickly its life line is clamped and cut. Dark blood splatters the surgeon’s paper boots.
A journalist burps into his fist. He glimpses the child for just a few seconds before it is whisked away. He has never seen a person – any creature – quite like it before. It has no limbs, no obvious body at all. But it does have, he notices, two perfectly formed eyes, two ears, a soft covering of dark hair.
“They say,” says a man with enormous cheeks of broken veins, “that with the help of medicine the baby will live.” He hands the journalist a paper slip marked with a 3. “They also say you know where she’s from.”
A mile or so inland from the port at Libreville, beyond the Owendo timber factory and Centre Culturel Français, a great shoulder of land rises sheer from the ground. A grim slum clings to its south-western face. L’île du Diable – as it is locally known – sprung up, like something fungal, in a single, notorious night of 1848. But now, with the original settlers long dead, their simple shacks of cedar and tin have multiplied and clatter down the hillside into the surrounding suburbs, leaving no space for the kapok trees and bare rock that, the Bantu say, would glow at sunset like mercury and blood. Nonetheless, it was in this slum where the four Europeans first recorded the case of the bodiless child.
Early one Sunday, Cecilia Beauchene from Lille rubbed a cold gel into the stretched tumescence of Léna, a local lady whose eyes rolled white with fear. An image appeared on the ultrasound, an ultrasonic spectre. Silence settled upon the monitor like dust. A lemon dove cooed in a nearby tree. Children silently gathered. Cecilia reapplied the scanner to the soft, black skin. Her three companions, accustomed to the familiar foetal curl, a beating comma, leaned forward perplexed.
Cecelia asked for the lady to be taken home. She phoned a consultant back in Lille. (He was away hill-walking in Geneva.) Two Belgian technicians spoke mutedly in a tin roof’s purple shade. A dog grew uninterested and collapsed on its side in the sun. And a British journalist slipped away to the Methodist church where the four of them slept. His fingers danced over the sticky keyboard. The newspaper replied within an hour. They wanted more.
The following day the group reconvened at Léna’s home. She winced as the gel was applied, and her eyes, once again, showed white with fright, and, once again, a thick silence settled upon them. The foetus consisted of a single, large-domed head. A fragile heart pulsing within its distended skull.
Later, Léna slipped on a bright yellow dress and insisted the group – the doctor, the technicians, the journalist – stay for a meal. She set a charred pot to boil and apologised for two days of mistrust. It is, she said, too deeply ingrained. ‘As you will know,’ she said, ‘my ancestors were slaves liberated from the slave ship, L’Elizia. Trust,’ she said, ‘has been bred from my blood.’
‘Let’s go outside,’ said Cecilia, taking her by the elbow, ‘to talk the situation through.’ She led her outside and – as great white clouds drifted silently above – they watched chickens strut through shadows of cassava and maize. A kitten dragged itself from under a wheel barrow, mewled, and retreated.
‘They all have names, the chickens,’ says Léna, ‘and go to sleep up there when our good God darkens the sky.’ She pointed to a small almond tree, its leaves quickly flickering silver and green. A small tyre hanging down from the tree slowly rotated on its rope. Cecilia explained Léna’s predicament and, as she spoke, Léna looked moodily downward and dug a yellowish toe into the mud. Beneath the almond tree, pushed into the ground, were four white crosses.
Sunset. The red sky bled into the valley. A cockerel crowed. In the distance a pillar of smoke rose straight up, stopped, hovered, spread out like oil on water. The journalist received another reply.
‘The poor thing is surely doomed,’ said one of the Belgians.
‘I’ve never seen anything like it before. She’ll abort it soon.’
Few jokes were made, which was unusual for them, drinking at the end of the day as the sun fell quickly into the sea. Perplexity and pity left little space for humour. A woman in a white habit placed a bowl of mutton stew before each of them. They put their hands together and pretended to pray.
‘Listen,’ said the journalist, ‘my newspaper can help. They will pay for her to be taken to the UK. They will support her, in every way.’ A coil of palosanto slowly burned. ‘They are offering to give her and her family money. A lot of money.’ The journalist pulled a strand of cassava from his teeth. ‘There are benefits to be had. For the paper, for her, for all of you, for me.’ Far off down the valley a cockerel shrieked.
‘Number three!’ The journalist leaves. The child lies in an incubator. A small machine inhales and exhales into her (for it is soon decided she’s female). Tubes bite into her delicate skin. Beside her a bag fills with nacreous fluid. Vernix, a creamy substance like cottage cheese, still clings to her ears that are slightly impressed into her skull like seashells fossils.
Another number is called. A presenter enters and stands before the incubator. He smiles into a camera, sweeps a hand through his hair, glances irritably at people jostling behind the door. He speaks quickly, working hard to imbue his words with enthusiasm. His eyebrows leap as he speaks.
As Léna’s eyelids slide open, she speaks loudly in a language no-one can understand. She tries to sit up but is too weak. She glances around but all she sees are gaping lenses that click in rapid fire. She shrieks and a masked nurse bustles in. The sedatives make her eyelids grow heavy and one can only hope that she dreams of distant lands: an almond tree swaying to an onshore breeze; tilapia turning yellow in the sun; egrets, white as cirrus, poised and motionless beside a slow meander of the Kono River.
The man with enormous cheeks shakes the journalist’s hand as they gaze at the sleeping woman. ‘I’d interview him now,’ he says. The journalist finds the surgeon flossing his teeth. He has changed his tie. ‘A miracle,’ he says, ‘a true miracle of the times. We’re keeping that thing alive, right there.’
The journalist has not left the hospital for six nights, since the baby was born. In the mornings he tries to talk to Léna, who refuses to look at her child. She wants it dead. ‘Make them kill her,’ she says, her breath tired and sour, ‘can you see what they’ve done? She should have been born naturally in her homeland, and if God so wished, she should never have been born at all.’
The child’s cranium is too soft to support her tiny lungs and jumble of organs that faithfully work away inside. Each of her ten operations is reported with fervour in the press. Then public interest begins to wane. Headlines shift onto other events shocking enough to appease an insatiable hunger for news that scares. On the sixth night the journalist stares out at a square of gray sky. He wanders down the corridor towards the room where Léna sleeps. Her bed is empty.
The next morning he finds the surgeon, worn, pink-eyed, attempting to open a door with a coffee in one hand and a small heater in the other. Eventually the surgeon lays both on the bleach-wet floor, and opens the door, knocking over his coffee as he does so. He seems vulnerable out of scrubs. ‘I don’t understand it,’ he says to the journalist. ‘the valves we put into her heart and lungs, they’re all blocked. She died in the night.’
The journalist wanders the many corridors that bud off into scenes of private grief. A gray-haired man gazing out through a rain-streaked window. A young mother crying into her sleeve. Their world suddenly bereft of logic, of meaning. Another room, another incubator, another baby. Its tiny face, purple and wizened. Its chest bandaged. The surgeon’s instruments must somehow be too big for such delicate hearts. Perhaps, if they could, they would choose to die. He watches a cluster of medics pounding on the chest of a lady with reddish hair. He hears her ribs crack.
Two days later, a nurse tells Léna about her child’s death. She looks moodily downward, and digs a yellowish toe into the white sheets. She asks for the body. ‘But you agreed in the contract,’ explains the nurse, ‘that the child would be handed over to medical science.’ (The big-cheeked man plans an anatomical exploration of the dead child.) And then, unexpectedly, Léna refuses to eat. She sickens, grows thin, passes blood. The journalist contacts The Human Tissue Authority and promises Léna she will soon have the body of her child.
Up on the fourteenth floor the wind beats the windows. The journalist gazes at the corpse, slightly swollen in alcoholic solution, glass replacing the safety of the womb. He thinks of the peculiar misfortune that deprived her of limbs, working lungs, of life. He thinks of cruelty, and four white wooden crosses driven into the ground. He thinks of death – that soft syllable that starts behind the teeth and ends between them. He thinks of the peculiarity of beginning and ending life in such a strange, sterilised world.
He returns to the hospital and runs into the surgeon. He looks efficient in his gown. ‘But she’s gone,’ he says, ‘A priest came and flew her back to Gabon.’
The journalist is walking past the timber factory – now pouring out great plumes of ochre-tinged smoke – and a calmness spreads through him as he glances at the small, pine box that feels light in his hands.
Nick Kennedy is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College.