A spray of red dust, the color of congealed blood, rose on the horizon. A motorbike raced down the dirt road from Chemeril, swerving around the rocks it could avoid and slowing for the potholes it could not. Dr. Berg watched it. Behind the driver sat a man and woman. The man held the woman across his lap. One of her arms had escaped his hold and dangled at her side. It flew without restraint at every bounce of the motorbike. The man leaned close to the driver and shouted in his ear. Berg considered possible diagnoses and calculated the medicine that remained to him and when the next shipment should arrive. It would be a near thing.
It was not until the motorbike braked to a hard stop just before the doctor that Berg could tell the woman was pregnant. It was only the slightest of bumps. When the woman’s eyes were open, they stared at nothing. She only stood with her husband’s support. Berg had to discount the most optimistic of his diagnoses. It would be a much nearer thing, if it were a thing at all.
Berg immediately led them into the tent that served as his operating theater as the driver reclined in the shade cast by the motorbike. People died all of the time in Pokot. There was nothing for him to get excited about. The husband was talking, but he spoke so fast and his voice was so twisted with emotion that Berg barely understood even the little of the tribal language that he understood.
“My wife didn’t wake this morning. She slept even when I touched her shoulder. When I pulled off her wrap, there was blood all over. Please, doctor, help her.”
“And she was well last night?”
“And she has not been in any accidents recently?”
“And has she eaten anything unusual?”
“No, doctor. Please, doctor, tell me what is wrong. Save my wife.”
“I do not know, but I will discover her illness and cure it,” Berg said with confidence he did not feel but wanted the man to feel.
Together they laid the woman on the wooden operating table, and Berg blotted the blood that streamed down her leg.
The husband held his wife’s hand, and Berg moved to a discrete corner of the tent. The machine was there, hidden behind his operating tools. Berg tore a piece from the bloody rag and dropped it into the machine. He sanitized his hands while waiting for the analysis. He needed to know whether she would survive, whether he could keep the medicines for someone else.
The machine ejected a card, and Berg took it. “Airplane.” He smiled.
“Please, sir, step outside of the tent,” Berg ordered. “Your wife will be fine, but I need space to work.”
The man hurried out after squeezing his unresponsive wife’s hand once more, and Berg gathered the precious medicines that would save the woman's life. He worked with confidence. Every time the bleeding began again, he staunched it and administered another medicine. When the time came, Berg did not hesitate to draw his own blood and transfuse it with hers to buy more time for the medicines to take effect. He would survive. She would survive.
By the end of the hour, the woman was dead and her body cooling. Unsettled by the stillness inside the tent, the man looked through its opening. Berg had not called him in for a final moment with his wife. He hadn’t expected there to be a need for it. He motioned for the man to come in, and Berg withdrew.
He paced. Patients died under his care, he accepted that, but not patients whose fate was death by airplane. How did it happen? Where was the twist? Where was the airplane? Could the machine have been wrong? Berg slowed, and hope began to flicker in him. If the machine were wrong, if weren’t infallible, he could return to Germany. He could see his father and mother and Sabine again.
“Doctor,” the man called from inside the tent.
Berg returned to the man and the body.
“My child,” the man said, his hand on his wife’s abdomen. “Please.”
Berg wanted to tell him no. The woman could not have been more than six months pregnant. It would be a struggle to save such a pre-mature infant in Europe’s finest hospitals. It would be nothing less than a miracle to save the child here. Berg wanted to tell him no and save the man the sight of a dead fetus and preserve the woman’s body from further desecration, but the man was in anguish. Berg would try.
He directed the man outside again and began the operation. He cut across her abdomen with a scalpel. Through the viscera he could just make out the body of the fetus. He moved carefully, never cutting too deep and taking the time to clear away organs to keep a clear view. Finally he opened the womb and removed the fetus. It was small and still. Berg would break it if he tried to slap it and make it breathe. Berg pricked its foot with another scalpel. The child screamed, long and healthy, and his father cried outside.
Amazed, Berg took the child to the corner of the tent to clean him when a thought struck the doctor. He wiped off the scalpel’s blade, the one that had pricked the infant’s foot, with a swab and dropped it into the machine. When the analysis was complete, Berg dropped in a second swab with a new sample of blood taken from the mother. Dr. Berg read the cards. The first, the child’s, said “Airplane.” The second, the mother’s, said “Hemorrhage.” The machine was right, again, and Berg felt his earlier elation deflate. He would remain in Pokot.
Berg brought the child to his father. Berg silently watched them together, the father rocking his son in his arms until the infant fell asleep. The husband looked toward the motorbike and the driver who still reclined against it. Berg nodded. There was nothing more he could do for the boy here, but he would survive.
It was only when the father mounted the motorbike that Berg thought to give him the card. The man looked at it and shook his head. He passed the card to the driver, but he also shook his head.
“Me no English,” he said in broken English. “My wife know, but no me.”
Berg could not think of the tribal word, if there even was one, for airplane. He looked to the sky but could not see or hear any airplanes there either. He tried to mime the vehicle, but Berg could see that the man and driver did not understand. He gave up. They left.
Days passed. The man returned for his wife’s body after Berg cleaned it to the best of his abilities. A man died. He had contracted rabies from the goats he herded. A man lived. A minor cut on his foot had become infected. He had ignored it, and the flesh became necrotic. Berg amputated the foot to save his life.
Weeks passed. Berg delivered five infants and four stillbirths. Only one mother died in labor. A new supply of medicines finally arrived.
Months passed. The rains did not return when they should have. There was a cholera outbreak in one of the distant villages. Over one hundred died because the government could not afford the medicine and supplies from the World Health Organization arrived late.
Years passed. The rains returned. They disappeared. Cattle rustling against neighboring tribes escalated into war. Few died, but many were maimed. The tribes made peace again.
Berg treated those he could heal. He eased the passing of those he could not. He made sporadic attempts to train the tribal doctors in modern medical techniques and to petition international pharmaceutical companies for further donations of medicines but always gave up in futility.
A puff of dust, vermillion against the setting sun, rose on the horizon. A lone figure made its way down the dirt road from Chemeril. Dr. Berg watched him. It was a young man, no more than twenty years old. He stood tall. He did not limp. He swung both arms easily. His gait was neither slow nor hurried. He carried only a long, thin walking stick. The danger, if there was any, was not immediate, and Berg waited patiently.
When the young man was near enough, he shook Berg’s hand and put his free hand across the other arm in a sign of respect.
“I am honored to meet you, doctor,” the young man said in carefully rehearsed English. “My father tells me that you delivered me, that you saved my life. My father tells me that it was a miracle. You took me from my mother’s womb after she had already died. You are a great man, indeed, to manage such a feat.”
Berg still remembered the day he thought the machine had made a mistake and waved his hand to dismiss the compliment.
“If I were truly a great man, I would have saved your mother as well. Moreover, if I were only an average man but with an adequate supply of medicines, I would have saved her.”
Unprepared for this response, the young man said in less certain English, “But you did it. That is great.”
Uninterested in continuing this conversation which Berg knew the young man would not give up, the doctor invited him to share the ugali and cabbage he had just cooked. The rains had returned early that year, and Berg enjoyed the fresh vegetables from his small farm.
They sat across from each other and ate with their hands. They did not talk until they each cleared their plates of every remaining crumb and took a glass of goat’s milk.
“What is your name?” Berg finally asked.
“Michael Krop Kamais,” the young man answered, still in English. “I am named after my mother. They say that you come from Europe. Is that true?”
“Yes, from Munich, Germany. My family still lives there.”
“That is near the Alps and the Mediterranean Sea?”
“Could you tell me about them? I have read about them in my textbooks and seen pictures, but I have never spoken with someone who actually visited them or even traveled beyond Nairobi or Kampala. What are they like?”
Berg stretched his memory.
“Well, the Alps are very nice. There are trails, and you can walk up them to the very top and see cities and nations that are very far away. The sides are covered in forests, and they are always cool. The Mediterranean Sea is very nice, as well. When I was young, my family would visit its shores once a year for holiday. The water was warm like a bath. No matter how far I would swim out, I could never see the opposite shore.”
“That does sound very nice, not like here at all.”
Berg waited for Krop to continue, but the young man was quiet. He did not look at Berg, and the doctor was patient. When Krop was ready, he would talk. Krop finally took a sheet of lined paper from his pocket, unfolded it and began to read without lifting his eyes to Berg.
“Sir, you have already done more for me than any man has by giving me life. I could never adequately or fully express all of the gratitude I have toward you for this, and I regret that I am only beginning to share it with you now because I have a request.”
Krop paused again.
“This year I completed the fourth form of secondary school, and took the KCSE. I had the top marks in my class and I will qualify for any college or university in Kenya to which I apply. I am the first in my family to have this opportunity. I could enter the University of Nairobi and study law, but I have only one desire, to become a pilot. As I said earlier, my marks will qualify me for any aviation school that I apply to, but unfortunately they are not high enough to qualify for government support. The entire burden of tuition and board falls upon my family, and we cannot bear it. Even if my father and uncle sell their entire goat herd and received the best price, it would only pay for a single term, so I come to you to ask for assistance. If you will support me and pay these fees, you will honor me and my family. I will defend your name against any who would speak ill of you. I will name my first-born son after you.”
Berg shook his head.
“Before you were born, I tested your blood. It told me that your death would be caused by an airplane.”
Berg saw Krop shake his head and twist his speech in his hands, but the doctor continued.
“It is true, and it is unavoidable. The test has never been wrong. I am sympathetic to your dreams, of course, and am very sorry, but I could never hasten your death by supporting your choice to become a pilot.”
It was brutal Berg knew, but he would not lie to the young man. If Krop did not know the truth, he would only find some other way to attend aviation school. Berg had to kill the dream entirely to protect him. Krop struggled with the words in English. When they would not come, he spoke in his tribal language.
“But, sir, I know this. I have always known this.” Krop took a scrap of paper from his pocket and passed it to Dr. Berg. It was stained and creased many times over, but the faded letters still read “Airplane.”
“My father showed the card to the district chief, and he explained what it meant. As soon as I could understand, my father told me how I would die, and he gave me the card when I was old enough to be responsible for it.”
“Then why do you want to rush toward your death? You are very fortunate. It did not read “Cholera” or “Thirst” or “Knife.” It read “Airplane.” You can live a long, full life here. I have never once seen an airplane pass over head. Years from now, perhaps, they will build an airstrip here, and then you will meet your death by an airplane, but that will not be for a long time.”
“But then how would I ever see Europe and the Alps and the Mediterranean Sea or the great cities?”
“You can drive, you can find another way.”
“And what of the Americas and Japan and Australia? I can’t drive over oceans.”
“Then you can take a ship. You can find a way.”
“No, I can’t. It would take me years. I could never see them all. I have to fly. It’s the only way. The prediction does not give a time. Maybe it will not come until after years of flying and visiting these lands.”
“And if it does not? What if it comes after only a year of flying?”
“Then it will be worth it to see just one new place.”
“And if it comes even earlier than that, when you are training on the ground?”
Both men stopped talking. They were breathing heavily. Berg spoke next.
“I was not tested at birth like you, Krop. The machine was not invented until I had completed my medical training. Like everyone I knew, I took the test. I did not keep and cherish my card like you because I was embarrassed by it. I threw it away immediately, but I still remember it. It predicted ‘Bratwurst.’ Do you know what that is?”
Krop shook his head.
“It’s a type of sausage. It’s made from the meat of pigs. My homeland is famous for them. I do not think that there is anything that tastes better, but to die from one, to choke on a bite or trip on a slice or to any other perverse method by bratwurst, would be ridiculous. It would be embarrassing. Immediately I searched for a place where they never ate pigs, a place so remote that it had never heard of sausage and that even Germans would not visit it. Pokot was that place, and I have not once feared for my life here.
“I have saved the lives of hundreds of your tribe. I have read the complete works of Goethe, Schiller, Novalis and the other masters. I have lived a good life. One day, when I am old and tired, I will return to Munich and accept my fate but not until then. I know what I am saying when I say that a life, any life, is better than death.”
Krop shook his head and spoke again.
“No matter when it comes, whether after years of traveling the world and seeing all of its wonders or before I have even left the ground, it will be a good death. What is there to die from here except for disease and wars with the Turkana and Samburu? They are common. There is no honor in those. My father is proud of me. He knows that I will be more than a goat herder, not like his father or his father before him so far as anyone can remember. My death will be remembered. I will be remembered. It will be good.”
It was dark now. Berg looked up to the sky. The moon was new, and the stars were brilliant.
“No where else will you see stars like this,” he said after some moments of contemplation. “There are too many cities, and they are too bright from electric lights. They hide the stars.”
“Then I will look everywhere but the sky,” Krop said.
Because it was late, Berg invited Krop to sleep in his tent that night.
The next morning, after Berg and Krop drank their goat milk, he told the young man he would support him at aviation school.
Later that year Krop’s father came to Berg with two letters from the aviation school. They were in English, and he asked the doctor to translate and read them to him. The first said that Michael Krop Kamais was dead. There had been an accident. While learning the airplane’s controls on the runway, the plane had started on fire, and Krop did not escape. The letter expressed its deepest sympathies that Krop’s remains could not be returned to his family because they were disfigured beyond recognition. It was signed by the headmaster.
The second letter was written by one of the instructors. He had taken the first-year students on a short flight through the Highlands and over the Great Rift Valley and only turned when they reached Mombassa and the Indian Ocean. The instructor wrote that he had made that flight many times over the years, but he had never seen a student in such ecstasy during it as Krop. The instructor wrote that, had he lived, Krop would have been an excellent pilot.
Reading the letters to Krop’s father, Berg felt old and tired for the first time. That same day, after Krop’s father had left to share the news with his family, Berg left Pokot for Nairobi and made arrangements for his return to Munich.
2 years ago