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Permission

“He came back into camp again last night,” I said to Dr. Michel as we sat in the supply tent, counting the hypodermic needles and brushing the ants off our legs if they began a scurrying ascent.  The din of the songbirds in the canopy of treetops outside made it necessary that I raise my voice just to be heard, but we’d been living in the valley for more than 8 months now and had all gotten pretty adapt at reading lips. When we first set up base camp, we assumed that the birds were mating and would quiet once they were done. We were wrong.

“I know, Amy. I still don’t believe that he’s as serious a threat as you make him out to be,” replied Dr. Michel. We call him Doc for short, mostly because it’s weird trying to pronounce “Micheal” without an “a”. He’s about 6’2” with a shock of black hair, though it’s starting to show flecks of gray. I teased him once about it, saying that, in the villages, the ladies might like a silver fox. He wasn’t amused.

I looked over my left shoulder at the back wall of the tent and could see the contrast of the Red Cross on the other side, significant against the setting sun.

“The Snake Man tried to do genuine damage this time. He set fire to the food tent, and you’re telling me that he’s not a serious threat? We’re sitting at a Red Cross base camp in a valley of the Andes Mountains. Look around, Doc. We’re the only Americans for hundreds of miles. If one of us got hurt, we’d have to be helicoptered out. He came with snakes wrapped around his arms and shoulders and threatened Nurse Beth with them. All of what I’m saying is true, but you’re telling me that it’s fine if some disgruntled villager wants to light camp on fire because Small Pox immunizations are the work of the Devil? And, and, it’s not bad that we’re doing the Devil’s work, only that we didn’t get his permission? And you’re genuinely not worried?” I sat back, breathless after my speech.

“He’s a product of his culture. These people aren’t like us; they’re isolated and simple. They have norms and customs that we can’t even begin to understand, and it’s not our job to. Our job, may I remind you, is to get in to the villages, administer the vaccinations, aid with any immediate births and deaths, and then get out. You need to make a conscious effort to stop placing importance where it isn’t warranted, Nurse Amy.”

His tone told me that the discussion was over. Fine, I thought. But I’m sleeping with my knife tonight. If you wake up in some anaconda’s chokehold, don’t use your last breath yelling for me.

Retrospectively, Doc did handle the situation well last night. He barked out orders as soon as we realized what was happening, then took the Snake Man down himself. We had the fire put out pretty quickly. The air is so thin at this elevation, even in the valley, that it’s hard for things to get a good burn going.

We used some of the grass rope that we made a bridge out of last week to tie Snake Man to a tree just outside of camp. He struggled and spat the entire time. I think he was one of the native Nanti people; a group that has, by Western standards, been left behind by modern society. Fortunately, after seven years with this Red Cross gig as a nurse in the Andes, I was able to understand enough of what he was yelling at us to assess how dangerous he was.

He yelled a lot about Satan and his might and power. He yelled that our dark magic wasn’t welcome, and that we were not worthy of representing his work here on the “Next Layer”. He made eye contact with me more than anyone else, I guess because I was the main translator. He said that if we didn’t leave, “el Lucifable” (Luficer, I think) was coming. It sounded like he said that Lucifable was coming in, but I’ve never been very good with prepositions.

He was screaming at us by the end, the whites of his eyes shining in almost disturbing contrast with the darkness of his skin. We let him go when we didn’t feel justified in holding him any longer, even going so far as to give him three pepino fruits and a skin of water. After we had untied him and turned back to camp, he threw them back at us. He hit me squarely in the back of the head with the skin of water and it burst. It was more embarrassing than painful, but I knew right then and there that something was terribly wrong with him. I couldn’t find an open wound on my head once we were back in the supply tent, but the water had a reddish tinge. It was almost like blood and it wouldn’t wash off for days.

I finished the inventory on medium hypodermic syringes and stood up, brushing dirt from the back of my khakis. I wished Doc a stiff “good night” before heading to the nurses’ tent to get ready for bed.

The impression of the knife’s sheath was firmly embedded in my hand by morning from being held so tightly throughout the night.

I’ve been weird the past few weeks, since Snake Man came to camp. I’ve got a clear head, but I’m running a consistent 103 temperature. Drinking water has been giving me a stomach ache, so I’ve stopped. I know that something is wrong with me, but it’s like some veil is separating the nurse part of my mind that knows and the other part of my mind that should be worried about it. I haven’t told anyone, either. I don’t trust the other nurses or Doc. I can feel them talking about me when I turn away, and no one asked me to play cards last night. I don’t sleep and I don’t feel tired. I picked up snake when I was walking to the river and talked to it, but it didn’t answer me. Three days ago, Nurse Sam told me that I had a piece of leaf in my teeth and I was so mad at him that my vision actually ringed with red. Seven days ago I woke up and my hands smelled like blood. I had some under my nails, but I don’t have any idea where it came from. I didn’t tell anyone, though. I feel fine. There’s no problem. I’m getting angry again.

It’s an hour before dawn. A runner came into camp early this morning and said that one of the women from the last village was having an adverse reaction to the vaccination. We have to leave at sunrise to monitor her. I guess we’ll be back in camp by tomorrow night, but night and day don’t mean a lot to me anymore. I don’t sleep. The horses are packed with our equipment and I’ve got a clean pair of woolen socks on. There isn’t anything left to do except wait for sunrise. I’m still not thirsty.

“Are you alright, Amy? Your eyes are a little bit blood shot. Have you lost weight?”

I watched realization dawn over Doc. It was just the two of us, and we were four and a half hours from camp, walking a ridge line to get to the village. The sun was setting behind me and he had to squint his eyes against the rays as he looked at my face. He spoke to me like I was a scared animal, slowly and gently saying one word before moving on to the next.

“Amy, could I take your pulse? Can you tell me the last time you ate?”

I didn’t want to open my mouth, so that he couldn’t see the chicken blood staining my teeth. I shook my head and went back to feeding the horses. He grabbed his flashlight and tried to shine it in my eyes, but I turned away.

“Don’t,” I whispered. “You really don’t want to.”

The dehydration and lack of sleep became too much, and I felt the world go dark.

Doc woke up with his arms tied over his head. He couldn’t move, but he wasn’t supposed to.

“I told you,” Amy’s mouth said. “I said that you needed permission to do my work, and you didn’t listen. I said that I was coming in, but you didn’t listen. And now it’s just the two of us, Doc.”

“Amy?” he whispered, his mouth dry. He could hear the birds in the canopy and felt an ant crawling up his left leg, but he couldn’t move. The clearing was light by firelight, but the fire was burning brighter than it should be able to do at that altitude, and the color was redder than blood.

Amy stood on the other side of the fire, watching him. She pulled a knife out of her belt and ran her index finger along it, staring at him meaningfully.

“I said that you needed permission, and I’m about to give it to you.”

She walked through the fire, knife raised over her head.

“I warned you.”

 

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