Saturday, September 6, 2014
Something warm touched his ear. Eliot looked up. The blue overhead was unbroken by clouds. A nearby tree rustled in the faint, dry breeze. Moisture trickled from his ear down his cheek. Eliot looked down at the pavement of his driveway. The cement was unmarked and white in the sunlight. The houses nearby lifted their bare shingle roofs toward the sky; tin flashing glinted around stove and furnace vents. There were no birds close enough for him to see them.
Odd to have a drop of water fall from a completely blue and empty sky.
Eliot thought he felt the impact of another drop on his brow. He touched a spot above his glasses on his forehead and thought that he felt moisture, but he couldn’t be sure.
The weeds growing at the side of the alley were brown and withered. Although Eliot had been gone for most of the summer, he saw that the grass on the lawns did not need mowing. It had been very dry for the past month. Rain would be welcome. But there were no clouds in the sky.
For twenty years, Eliot had spent part of each summer in an African country. He was a veterinarian and had first gone to Africa to help the people with their animal husbandry practices. He traveled in a remote and mountainous land with a delegation of veterinarians from his state, meeting the local farmers and herdsmen, listening to their questions, and offering them assistance. At that time, the country was rural and the roads were very bad, but the people were gentle and welcoming. The mud villages reminded Eliot of pictures that he had seen in Sunday School when he was a little boy. After his third or fourth trip, Eliot presented a slide show to the Men’s Brotherhood at his church. Introducing his slides, Eliot said: "In the country, the villages are like places from the old Bible times." There were wells where women gathered to fill clay jugs and plastic jerry-cans with water. In the hills, shepherds watched over flocks. Bandits came down from the mountains to steal from the peasants. At night people gathered around bonfires to sing and dance and tell stories.
It amazed Eliot that simple things could make a great difference in the life of the people living on the great, dusty plain beneath the chocolate-colored cones of the volcanos. Nets that his church congregation purchased prevented malaria. Water purification tablets saved children who might have died from diarrhea. Penicillin prevented infection and DEET killed blackflies that spread river-blindness. Eliot brought refrigerated semen from his veterinary practice to improve the genetics in local cattle. He also carried several suitcases full of anti-parasite medications and antibiotics to treat illness in domestic animals. During the first decade, Eliot lost much of this medication to corrupt officials at the airport and, later, paid bribes to customs agents so that they would overlook the pharmaceuticals that he brought into the country. But, as he became better known to local authorities, Eliot found that a couple of bottles of good scotch whiskey offered as a gift was all that was required to import fifty or, even, a hundred pounds of veterinary medicine. Drugs that helped human beings were more problematic since they were in higher demand and, after several failed attempts at importing these medications, Eliot abandoned that effort and let the formal missionary organizations manage negotiations necessary to get antibiotics and similar drugs through customs.
Eliot was good friends with a number of the headmen in the villages to which he traveled. The people were happy to see him come, first with his wife, and, then, his two sons, and when he arrived in a town, there was usually a feast offered in his honor. Although the people were very skinny, Eliot was always amazed at how much they could eat at a banquet. When his boys were in High School, Eliot hosted foreign exchange students from the country where he was active each summer. This ended when one of the exchange students got drunk one night and crashed Eliot’s pick-up truck into a telephone pole. The African boy was killed and, although Eliot was not at fault, he paid reparations established by the elders in the village from which the exchange student had come. The reparations were in an amount less than five-thousand dollars and it grieved Eliot to think that the life of promising, young African boy was worth so little.
After fifteen years of slow, but incremental success with his African endeavors, Eliot sensed that a kind of apogee had been reached and that affairs in the small country were beginning to deteriorate. The roads were better and there were bridges crossing streams that Eliot had once had to churn through in his Landrover, but better transportation seemed to make the villagers more insular and suspicious. Many of the small villages were hollowed-out, most of the men working in the big pestilential cities on the scalding coastline and the women seemed forlorn and angry. Barricades of wrecked vehicles sometimes closed blacktop highways and travelers had to pay tolls to local chieftains. Guerillas with machine guns had replaced the bandits armed with knives and axes. Once, Eliot came to farm to which he had supplied good quality bull semen only to find that all of the fine, white cattle had been shot by local rebels. It was enough to bring tears to your eyes, although Eliot was an active man, who liked fixing things, and someone who didn’t have time for self-pity.
In the last two seasons, there was pestilence. The government authorities, unable to contain the contagion, claimed that the sickness was the result of CIA intervention and sinister experiments in the bush. The boss of one of the insurgent groups told villagers that the antibiotics and other drugs supplied by Eliot’s mission (and by the other NGO agencies) were vectors of infection. Eliot saw dying patients pulled from a hospital in one of the small cities where, previously, he had helped with veterinary services and, even, administered anti-diarrheal drugs to children. The sick people were set in the shade of a brick and tin Jehovah’s Witness church and Eliot saw armed men raping the nurses. An old friend saved his life by picking him up on his Vespa and driving the veterinarian to a small village several miles away. But there was fighting in the fields around the village and, at last, a government helicopter came to airlift Eliot and several other trapped air workers, mostly Germans and Norwegians, away from the combat. Some rich local landowners had bribed the authorities in the capitol to allow them to escape the fighting as well and those people, carrying heavy suitcases crowded into the helicopter. It seemed at first that the helicopter was too heavy to take-off but, at last, it lifted into the air, and, tilting on its rotor like an unsteady cable-car, the aircraft rose up over the savannah and the parched plain. Eliot had eaten something that was contaminated and he was sick and it was surprising to him how the helicopter jolted and lunged in the air – it was like riding in the back of an old pick-up truck rattling across a freshly furrowed field.
At the airport in the capitol, there was only one jetway and it was mounted on wheels and dragged by a man operating a front-end loader. Either the skid-loader was broken or the wheels of the jetway were flat or, perhaps, something else was wrong. But the jetway was not available when Eliot’s plane was ready for boarding and so the passengers, mostly worried-looking Europeans with a smattering of Americans, had to walk across the blistering tarmac to reach the the aircraft. As he hiked across the runway, Eliot felt two warm and heavy drops fall on him – one drop splashed his forearm; the other moistened his throat. He looked up into the clear and vast African sky but saw no clouds, no aircraft, only several big black fowl, possibly vultures, circling a half-mile away. Eliot thought that he was sweating and that the sickness, which made his joints ache, was the cause of the drops of liquid that had fallen on him. He mopped at his brow which was suspiciously warm and dry.
When Eliot felt the tepid, greasy drop of water on his ear and cheek, he wondered if he was getting sick again. Sometimes, a tropical illness might come and go, symptoms flaring and, then, diminishing unpredictably. He had been sick before after returning from Africa and, certainly, this last trip had been particularly difficult and taxing.
In his kitchen, Eliot encountered his wife. She was boiling something on the stove. A cheerful bouquet of steam rose over the pot that she was tending. "I’m too old to go to Africa," Eliot said. "It’s an awful place," she replied. "You know I never liked it there." Eliot and his wife had disagreed about his work in Africa for many years and there was no point in arguing about it with her. "I think I’m getting sick again," Eliot said. She shrugged. "I keep feeling big drops of rain falling on me, but when I look up in the sky, there’s no cloud, no rain at all." Eliot’s wife turned to face him. "You know," she said, "I thought I felt rain falling on me a couple of times when you were in Africa. But there were no clouds anywhere in sight. Once, I even thought I saw a rainbow, just the ghost of a rainbow and for just a moment." "That’s odd," Eliot said.
He went into the living room and slumped in his easy chair to watch the news. The plague in Africa was spreading and, in the Congo, sickness was blamed on witchcraft and several hundred suspected sorcerers were thought to have been stoned to death. An army of terrorists had captured a city somewhere near the foothills of the Caucasus mountains and the river that flowed through that town was clogged with corpses for a dozen miles. A plane full of tourists had been shot down over a war-zone in eastern Europe and another aircraft with almost 300 people aboard had simply vanished. Fires were burning out of control in northwestern Canada with the result that people in Chicago and, even, St. Louis experienced gorgeous, livid sunsets. There were so many wars and insurrections and massacres underway that it was impossible for the newscasters to list them all.
"I can’t tell you how old and worn-out I feel," Eliot said. His wife told him to shut off the television. "Why do you watch that crap?" she asked. "It just makes you feel lousy."
The next day Eliot was working. On his way home, he encountered a car accident. He had come from a dairy farm were several top-grade Holstein’s had fallen ill with mastitis. One of the animals had developed a bad staphylococcus infection. Eliot was concerned that bacterial infections seemed to be growing in virulence. He had read about infections that even the most powerful antibiotics were unable to control. At the farm, Eliot had said to the farmer: "I don’t think this is one of those super-bugs. I just hope that I’m dead and gone when those things start attacking."
Two cars had collided in an uncontrolled intersection about six blocks from Eliot’s house. Both vehicles must have been moving with significant speed when they crashed because there was extensive damage to both of them. An old black Cadillac, pitted with rust, sat with its right front wheel on top of the curb in one corner of the cross-roads. A woman sat in the passenger side of the Cadillac cradling her head in her hands. A young man stood next to the car bellowing across the intersection toward a small foreign-built pickup truck. Two Latino men sat in the pickup truck staring at the boy who was shouting at them. They had blood on their lips and chins and sat motionlessly, stoic and impassive. The pickup truck had been spun around violently and three of its four tires were off their rims. Glass was flung in wide arcs across the crossroads and there was a small white dog bleeding from its ear and muzzle lying in the center of the intersection. Eliot pulled up to the curb several car-lengths from the intersection. People stood on their porches or peered through their windows at the scene. In the distance, sirens sounded.
Eliot’s first impulse was to ignore the people and tend to the dog thrown like a rag-doll onto the pavement. But he restrained that impulse and hurried to side of the pickup truck. The men inside seemed dazed and both of them seemed to have broken noses, but Eliot didn’t detect any obvious injuries. The men nodded to him when he asked if they were all right. He wasn’t sure if they understood his words. One of them even attempted a haphazard smile. Eliot said that help was coming and he walked across the intersection, stepping over the dead dog, to the Cadillac. The young man leaning against the Cadillac was screaming obscenities and his face was bright purple.
"Are you okay?" Eliot asked. The man ignored him and shrieked at the Latinos in their wrecked pickup. He took a step forward, but something was wrong with his ankle and he fell forward. The Cadillac’s side windows were blown out and Eliot leaned into the car. The woman had grey hair and she rocked back and forth in the seat. The airbag had punched her in the face and Eliot could see that her jaw and forehead were bruised. "Help is on the way," Eliot said. "Calm my son down," the woman whispered. "He has a very bad temper."
A squad car stopped about a half-block from the intersection and a policeman loped down the sidewalk to the crash scene. The young man had crawled a few feet into the road and was howling with rage. The cop was very young and he looked frightened. He stopped a half-dozen feet from the young man. The young man groped in the roadway and picked up a rock. He flung the rock toward the pick-up truck but his aim was poor and the stone almost struck the police-man. Eliot felt a drop of water splash on the top of his head. At the same time, several other big, heavy and warm drops hit his wrist and the knuckles of his right hand. The cop cried out with alarm and hesitantly lifted his revolver. More drops fell dotting the pavement and Eliot heard the rain rustling in the leaves of the trees arched over the crossroads.
The sky was an incomparable blue, brilliant like nothing on earth. The warm rain moistened everything. Eliot felt his face running with it and the grass and shrubbery shimmered with the droplets that caught the sunlight. All around him, the world seemed to blur. A luminous mist made it impossible to Eliot to focus his eyes. The young man on the ground had stopped screaming and the police officer’s revolver was back in its holster. The cop knelt to help the injured boy. An ambulance veered into the intersection, slick and greasy with the water materializing in the air. At the end of the leafy street, where the country began with fields of amber-colored corn, a rainbow arched upward.
Eliot had the presence of mind of reach into his breast-pocket and remove a specimen vial. He unscrewed the vial’s cap and held it up to catch the fat, glistening droplets of water oozing out of the sky. As the strange rain ended, butterflies emerged from the hedges, fluttering through the bright air. The air smelled like the sea, a faint fishy odor mingled with salt. The butterflies were feasting on the nectar that had materialized on the leaves and flowers and the pebbles in the street. They covered the dead dog with shimmering iridescence.
An EMT squatted near the injured boy. It looked as if the boy had been injected with morphine – a vacant smile spread across his face. The cop’s shoulders were wet. "It’s raining out of a clear sky," he said. The EMT glanced away from the injured kid: "It’s been doing that. Must be something related to global warming." The windshield wipers on the ambulance were still flopping back and forth, but the rain had stopped and the glass was dry and the motion of the wipers served only to disarrange the butterflies sipping at the droplets on the chrome edges of the windows.
The next day, Eliot called a friend who worked in the veterinary medicine laboratories at the university. He told him that he had a peculiar fluid bottled in specimen jar and that he wondered if the lab could analyze the substance. Eliot’s friend was accommodating and told him to send the sample with the other specimens, mostly blood and semen, that the diagnostic lab’s courier collected each day.
Results weren’t reported to Eliot for several days. During that time, rain fell from clear skies several times and Eliot went outside to bathe in the droplets emerging from the air. He felt a curious sense of peace and well-being, as if there were something calming in moisture that brightened the earth.
After a week, a technician called Eliot at this clinic. "We have the results on the droplets you sent us," the technician said.
"What is it?" Eliot asked.
"Tell me first that you’re not joking with us. You know, the resources of this lab are valuable and –"
"Why would I be joking?"
The technician said: "Okay, it’s a saline solution but with complex proteins."
"What are the proteins?" Eliot asked.
"They’re all exocrine proteins," the technician said.
"Yep," the technician said. "That’s why we’re puzzled. You’ve got prolactin, adrenocorticotropic hormone, leucine enkephalin."
"I don’t know those substances."
"Natural painkillers, stuff secreted by the parasympathetic system."
"So what is it?
The technician paused: "Tears, human tears."