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The power is out again. Above the ward, the ceiling fans have click-shush-ticked into stillness, letting a stifling miasma of sweat, stress and sickness settle down over salt-stained skin. The patients shuffle stoically but nobody stops work or passes comment.

Inside the tiny treatment room, a single bulb has faded, leaving only dust-strung twilight. The atmosphere is hotter than my blood - as thick and moist - yet the boy on the gurney looks strangely dry, his limbs an ashy umber in the half-dark. Around his neck, three jujus on their greasy leather thongs point baldly at his nakedness. He moans and convulses, his eyes squirming backwards in their sockets. Ebako grips his wrist to stop the needle jerking free. Anaemia has failed to thin his blood: the sample tube is still half-empty. Time and biology seem to slow down under pressure of heat; under pressure of unwelcome scrutiny.

Ebako didn’t ask you ‘Can we watch this?’ ‘Do you mind?’ Here in The Gambia, doctors are rarer than good scotch or good plumbing; mothers are cheaper than palm wine. A nice bedside manner is just one of many things you do not know you can’t afford.

Ebako, in any case, doesn’t speak Mandinka.

The child, in any case, is not his son.

Now, glancing away from the tube with its glacial ebb of malarial blood, I catch your eyes as you crouch down beside the gurney. Beneath the bright headscarf, your face is shut up and impassive but I realize my own is not so guarded. Reflected in it, all this looks obscene and you have seen this: you have seen me see this. You reach across your child’s naked penis with a fold of cotton sheet.

What - if I had language - could I say now? What possible apology could cover all the complicated things for which I’m sorry? What sympathy could slice through all the sedimented strata of our difference to the small, hot core of motherhood we share?

Perhaps – if I had language - I would ask your name and his name; perhaps I would offer my own in return, and my futile, desperate wish for your son to recover. Perhaps I would offer, absurdly, to sew up my doctorate, book-smarts and best-of-intentions into a little leather bag to bless and save your child. ‘Look, the dusty magic of your tribe is old and feeble: it cannot keep your children safe from sickness. Take my articles of faith instead.’

But you’d have as little use for such a juju as I’d have for one of yours.

Your child stirs again, eyes fixed on phantoms. The cotton sheet falls open and this time you do not reach to re-adjust it.

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The following comments are for "Articles of faith"
by MobiusSoul

Great work. Gripping and poignant. I feel like I should cry for this poor mother: she's doing everything she can to help her child. It's so sad that she can do so little.

( Posted by: Scaph [Member] On: August 24, 2010 )

This is quite good
Nice work. I wonder about the word "stoically" in the first 'graph. It's a "telling" word rather than a "showing" word. In a piece this brief, and this pointy, word choice is as important as in poetry.

I also think the line, "The child, in any case, is not his son" is... not great. Whether in a rich, Western hospital or the poorest tent clinic, doctors don't share the same emotional bond as do parents and children. They can't, and it would be bad if they tried. I think this line takes a bit away from the genuine horror/pain and becomes maudlin.

Also not sure why the narrator is sorry... sorry to have seen the boy exposed? Without context as to why the narrator is there, it's less convincing.

Sorry... you know me; always take the stuff I like the best and pile on the persnickity comments.

The title is fantastic.

"You have seen me see this" is fantastic.

Good to see something from you.

- A

( Posted by: andyhavens [Member] On: September 11, 2010 )

Thanking Andy & Scaph
Thanks Andy: critical reading is always appreciated.

In the first paragraph... hmm... any descriptor indicating stoicism or lack of surprise would do, but maybe I don't need anything.

In the fifth... the intention was not to blame the doctor for a lack of empathy, but rather to emphasise the contrast between the routine, impersonal care he's imparting and the infinitely-personal care of the mother, who appears for the first time in the next sentence. Perhaps, again, it's redundant... not so sure about that one, though.

And 'sorry'... not so much for any concrete, trivial occurrence described here, as for the vast inequality of human experience and human opportunity; for 500yrs of inglorious colonial history, right up to the inequitable present. Hence 'all the complicated things for which I'm sorry'. Tough to elaborate on that with a 500wd limit but perhaps I ought to try! (Besides, this wasn't supposed to be an essay on sociology... except perhaps obliquely, it is...)

Thanks also Scaph, for reading and leaving a comment. (It's probably the mother you should cry for, over and above her child.)

( Posted by: mobiussoul [Member] On: September 13, 2010 )

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