Leith was fed up. It did not matter how careful she was Olga always found something wrong. As if it mattered the bandages were folded incorrectly. They barely had enough so often they had to tear them in half to make them last.
but to re-use the ones they would normally have discarded.
It was scary to think that in curing one disease
they were also spreading another even more deadly one.
Helen told her yesterday that it would be a miracle
if a child were born in the camp free of HIV.
She liked Helen even though she was not exactly Einstein. She knew Helen had lied about her qualifications to get this job. But the HELP Foundation did not care. Most nurses with those fancy new degrees would not want to work here. No high desks to hide behind. No endless notes to write just the choking dust, the putrid atmosphere and worse the unrelenting despair. Helen just accepted it like it was nothing out of the ordinary to be surrounded by all this pain, dirt and fear.
Olga on the other hand refused to face the fact that there was little they could do. Provided they followed her stupid routines she was happy. How she hated Olga’s scrubbed pink skin and straw-like hair pulled back severely into a roll at the back of her head. She had insisted Leith cover her curly red hair the one thing she liked about herself. Her mother used to say it was her crowning glory which was just as well as her skin was freckled, her limbs too long and her breasts hardly more than a pair of nipples.
Helen somehow managed to look pretty even here.
Her short punk hair framed a perfect oval of a face and
her skin was milky like a healthy baby. She was tiny too.
Not fat like Olga or awkward like her.
You hardly even noticed that one leg was shorter than the other.
Olga came bustling into the tent. ‘We have another birth in Sector 4. I’ll get there later if I can. You know the routine. Let’s see if we can save this one.’ She wanted to scream at her, ‘All of the babies in Sector 4 who have survived have developed AIDS. What is the point of saving a child for that?’
But she did not. She was a coward and as the youngest aide in the camp no-one ever expected her to have an opinion on anything. She had attended deliveries here already. They mostly did little except ensure the baby was not strangled by its cord or by the mother or someone else. All the women here had been infected with the AIDS virus because they had been forced into prostitution by their parents in exchange for food. They knew that if they were ever allowed to return to their villages they could not take a sick child with them.
There all the mothers were from the local town and
even the single ones and those who had undergone
the most gruesome labour greeted their babies with delight.
They were so proud of their achievement, feted and celebrated by family and friends.
Leith walked slowly towards the tent. No one would greet this child with joy.
Their death would be a relief, their life a painful burden.
She could hear whimpering sounds from within. Not full-bodied screams like you would expect.
Just a low-grade, simmering sob. She reluctantly bent down to enter and was shocked at what she saw.
The mother was hardly more than a child herself. She was alone except for the baby, which she cradled in her arms.
She had delivered it herself.
Gently Leith checked that she was not still bleeding, took the baby from her
and went about the post-natal routine she had been taught.Carefully cleaning the wound where the cord had been bitten off, and freeing the baby’s face from the membranes, which hid it.
The child on the ground rocked back and forth crying quietly.
Leith tried to put the baby girl back in her arms but instead she grabbed hold of Leith and hid her face in her chest.
Leith was sitting on the ground nursing the mother and the baby.
Mother and baby made the same whimpering sound.
Leith’s tears bathed them equally.
Olga was about to speak when Helen shook her head to stop her.
They sat down beside Leith, dried her tears,
then uncurled the tiny fingers that clasped hers so tightly
and began to wash the little body.
(This story is a work of fiction originally published in the 2001 Spring edition of Gowanus, the award-winning literary journal)