As the eastern sky turned red, Dr. Jenn Carson got up from her bed. She stood by the living room window, tall and quiet, gazing at the wild flowers through the open window. The rays of the winter sun caught the zigzagging wings of orioles and woodpeckers that created patterns across the sky in the sleepy tribal hamlet of Sylee, India. She looked at the blue-green hills that dominated the hilly topography, for miles around.
The thought of the pandemic crossed her mind that devastated the tiny village over the past few months. The news of people disregarding government guidelines shocked her. Only a few health workers worked with dogged persistence to combat the pandemic.
Cycling through the sal, siris and simul trees she reached the chipped building of the health sub-centre that morning and said to the nurse-
“Any new coronavirus case, sister?”
The pagan only nodded in affirmation.
Dr. Carson washed her hands for some time with soap even her hands were not visibly dirty. She entered the isolation ward wearing a face mask. With just one toilet for the patients who needed urgent care, the smell of their excretion mixed with hotness due to power failures made life a living hell there. She kept essential medical services running though with much difficulty.
Abandoned by her husband a tribal woman lay with sad eyes, an unclear figure cloaked under a blanket. She smiled at Dr. Carson, her eyes glinting with hope. The doctor realised that the patient was feeling stressed during the crisis. She decided to talk to her patient. “How many weeks pregnant are you,” asked Dr. Carson in a calming tone maintaining a safe distance. The woman answered in a faint voice, “Nearly 16 weeks.” The sick woman started to cough. The sounds of her laboured breathing broke the silence of the ward. The old wall clock struck the hour making a sound once. “Can you tell me about your family?” asked the doctor. “I have three kids at home and a husband who is a heavy drinker,” replied the debilitated woman with great difficulty. Tears trickled down her cheeks. “Didn’t you stay at home?” asked Dr. Carson. “I can’t even see my children. I don’t know where I‘ve caught it from, but I’m very ill,” said the ailing woman. “Don’t be scared,” said the physician, “as depression is not an advantage.” The queasy woman only nodded. The doctor never took off her mask.
After some time, Dr. Carson came out of her room and gazed absently at the far distance. The blazing sun casted ripples of gold everywhere. After a while, she entered her room. The sun began to play hide-and-seek from behind the clouds. In the profound silence, a lone dove cooed.
The shrill cries of some wild birds broke the silence. Suddenly, rain poured down from the murky skies and soaked the foliage. A fresh smell arose from the sodden earth. The sharp rain began to ease off at last. A sudden flash of sunshine appeared but there was no rainbow. Dr. Carson peered through the window at the crisp and clear sunshine.
Dr. Carson opted for a light lunch at her desk that overlooked the forest from her room. She planned a mountain bike ride on her new Hero 24T on the weekend. She thought of her motherland where she started biking young- even before her feet reached the ground. The rural nurse suddenly appeared running. “The sick woman is having more difficulty in breathing, doctor,” she cried out in fear. Dr. Carson turned around, startled, at the sound of the nurse’s voice. She rushed to the isolation ward. The shortness of breath gradually decreased in intensity in her patient. “The function of her lungs have become normal,” she muttered to herself and uttered a sigh of relief.
The sun set slowly, turning the sky into a shade of tangerine. The condition of the sick woman worsened at nightfall. Dr. Carson decided to travel ten kilometres to the nearest hospital through the dark and desolate forest road, as the ambulance driver did not report for work. “Keep a tight hold on the bicycle seat,” the physician said to the nauseous woman. Green lights flashed from the luminescent organs of lovesick fireflies in the wilderness.
The lights rippled and danced, vanished and reappeared again. Lots of strange noises made them feel slightly nervous. Dr. Carson continued along the desolate road for some time.
A gust of hot wind swept through the foliage. Massive flames lit up the night sky while shrill cries of frightened animals broke the nocturnal ambience.
The two women got trapped by the raging and unpredictable bushfire. “What the heck?” Dr. Carson said in a low voice. “It is hell!” cried out the anxious woman. “Oh my god, what is coming towards us?” whispered the doctor as she tried to evacuate the place. “It doesn’t look like that the fire is weakening,” the bilious woman answered in a feeble voice. She began to cough violently. The strong winds only managed to spread flames and embers. Suddenly, Dr. Carson took a very sharp turn onto a dirt road pocked with holes. The old bicycle jumped on the rough and loose surface of the narrow track but never broke down. The battered wheels and the narrow handlebars held firmly as Dr. Carson cycled out of the forest until she reached the town hospital.
As the ward boys carried the sick woman on a stretcher, Dr. Carson mentally prepared to lodge a fire report with the town Brigade.
(c) Dipayan Chakrabarti