Falling off the dozer was the best thing that could’ve happened to Earl. It forced him to see a doctor. The concussion he got when his head hit the rock isn’t his biggest problem; it’s the ulcerated leech infection. His leg’s swelled to the size of an elephant’s. The thought of his red, oozing sores is enough to make me reconsider my visit, but I have no excuse. I run my hands through my hair, feel the stubble from my recent crew-cut, and push open the flap to the hospital basha.
I gag at the stink from amoebic dysentery. It practically knocks me over. If anything can take my mind off Hell’s Gate, this is it. Silky parachutes white-wash the hospital walls and create a barrier between the patients and the malaria-carrying insects. They also trap in the heat and the stagnant air. I walk towards Earl’s cot at the back of the hospital, looking but not seeing.
Unblinking men, the whites of their eyes dried open and bodies wasted down to the bone, lay lifeless, except for tremors in their hands and feet. I ignore the clawing and incoherent whimpering punctuated by vulgar outbursts from men flushed and steeped in sweat. Most of the patients in the hospital have typhus or malaria, like Lester. Blinders on, I head straight towards Earl, wondering how he has survived in this hot bed of infection, especially with Lester’s cot next to his.
Lester lays curled up, fast asleep or delirious with fever. Given the sweat on Lester’s face and the bedclothes that stick to his once-burly body, now shriveled and sagging, I’d say the fever is winning. Malaria is a tough enemy. Whenever I come here, I ask myself the same question every other soldier wonders: why him and not me?
“Lester has got to stop losing weight, it just doesn’t look good on him,” I say. I’ve always found it easier to joke than face the truth.
Earl slowly shakes his head, resigned to God’s decision. “My man, my man; Harry boy.
You feeling a bit guilty, coming to visit me two times in one week?” Earl asks with a disheartened cheer. He props himself up against the wall, then points to the end of his cot for me to sit.
“I thought if I didn’t stop by to shake things up around here, you might skip out on me.” My laugh is stiff. I sit down, refusing to look at the gentle, unassuming man who practically pulled my leg out of its sockets until I surfaced from that mud avalanche.
“Now, where would I be going if it wasn’t back to my rig?” Earl winks.
I don’t feel comforted with what I see. “The only reason we need this hospital is that road.
I think it would be patriotic to stop construction; quite a few lives would be saved,” I say, mentally including that little girl at Hell’s Gate.
It only takes Earl a fraction of a second to change gears from mischievous invalid to ball- busting patriot. “Boy, what you talking about? That weather must be molding your brain. If that road ain’t built, Reginald will have died for nothing. An’ I ain’t going let that happen. Without it, we ain’t going win the war. Now stop talking that treason, or you’re going get both of us in trouble.”
A petite Burmese nurse wrapped in a long, brightly patterned longyi and weighing no more than a hundred pounds tries to slip by like a shadow.
“Maran Lu, Maran Lu. Ahhhh, what a pretty little creature be you.” Earl flashes her a huge white smile that could be intimidating, but Maran Lu ignores his come-on and responds with a tolerant sigh as she drops a bed pan by his cot.
“Still not walk,” she scolds in halting English. “You pick at leg?” She gives him a scolding look, hands on her hips.
“Honey child, I’d do anything to get you back by my bed, singing those sweet hymns about baby Jesus.”
A strand of shiny black hair slips from her severely wound bun as she shakes her head in disapproval. She whips out a thermometer. “I know how keep you from talk bad about Jesus.” Her sweet young face scowls, then smiles triumphantly as she jabs the instrument in his open mouth. “I tell Daddy you pinch me if you not zip lips.” She looks to me conspiratorially.
“Why you not keep mouth shut like your friend with—“ she turns her head and boldly examines my face—“sky blue eyes and black long lash.” She teases me with a caress to my cheek. “Harry, your girlfriend like blue, no?” She isn’t the least bit embarrassed by her lack of timidity.
Maran Lu lost all fear when the Japanese burned down her Kachin village, killing everyone in her family, and changing her life forever. When we first met, she told me how she had quickly scrambled up a nearby tree and hid when they invaded the cluster of bashas along the stream in central Burma she called home. The Japanese left, assuming they had eliminated another clan of informants. She wandered the jungles, hoping to live out the war in hiding, but stumbled upon a mission hospital where she was drawn in and protected by the doctor and his staff. That doctor was Gordon Stifler Seagrave, or, to Maran Lu, Daddy.
“Don’t get me in trouble because Earl’s misbehaving.” I take a step back, feigning fear of being infected with whatever insanity Earl contracted. “This is between you and Earl. You’re not going find me messing with you or your ‘daddy’.”
From the room on the other side of a parachute flap, I hear: “Goddamn, son of a bitch.
Where’s my scalpel? If I see another one of these Chinese come in with one of their filthy, homemade leaf compresses, I’m going to ship them back to China.” Giggles in the background punctuate his grumbling.
“Speaking of Daddy,” I grimace, teeth bared in mock alarm, “Sounds like Earl isn’t the only one on his shit list today.” I say this in reference to the physician, otherwise known as the Burmese Doctor.
I admire Seagrave. He told his parents, Baptist missionaries in Burma, when he was only five years old that he would become a doctor. Twenty years later, with a bucket of discarded surgical tools from Johns Hopkins, he made good on his vow. His foul language is as strong and legendary as his belief in God.
“I not know these words,” Maran Lu comments as the profanities continue to stream from the surgical ward. “But make Daddy feel better.” She artfully extracts the thermometer from Earl’s mouth while completing other tasks simultaneously.
Earl rolls his head back and laughs, “Boy, you should’ve seen us last night. It was Daddy, me, Maran Lu, Little Bawk, and Snowball making music like God meant our voices to praise the holy Lord. Even Lester joined in with a couple Amens.”
“He not sing bad,” Maran Lu compliments Earl begrudgingly, then gently pats his cheek. “You not get big head cuz God give you deep voice.” As she walks away she adds, “But you got rhythm.”
“Honey, all God’s children got rhythm,” he teases her. “You just like mine.” She blushes as she leaves.
Earl’s look becomes serious and, quietly, he confides to me. “I think Lester’s ’bout ready to go home.” He looks over at the quivering body in the cot next to him, slick with perspiration, and begins to sing. “I’m just a poor, wayfaring stranger, travelling through this world of woe.
But there’s no sickness, there’s no toil, nor danger in that bright world to which I go.”
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