Dr. Mosi Ndiaye draped his coat over the plastic airport seat. He had a few hours until his flight to Cairo, so he sat down and took out his smart phone, expecting to catch up on email correspondence.
Amsterdam Airport Schiphol bustled under the bright March sun, as diverse crowds of passengers threaded through the lobbies at varying speeds. A master of languages, Mosi could understand much of what he overheard, but he had always been keenly interested in listening to the moods of the speakers as well as their choice of words. It was not enough to understand the words and grammatical structures, which could vary and often violate their laws of proper speech; much could be gleaned from pauses, gasps, and other means of nonvocal communication.
Dr. Ndiaye had always been interested in the diversity of cultures, even as a child. He saw his first white person at the age of three, and wondered what their country was like. Did they live in snow? Did the snow's whiteness bleach their skin? Did they skate on ice cubes?
His curiosity led to emergence from his home village in the Sudan, studying in Cairo, London, and New York until he earned his doctorate in Anthropology. He could not stay in one spot for long ever since. He traveled to every corner of the world to find what every person on planet Earth had in common, and how factors such as environment, climate, and other effects of nature led people to act and speak the way they did.
He smiled to himself as he overheard a French couple becoming exasperated at reading the flight schedule blinking intermittently on the marquee. Several businessmen from China walked quickly by, all dressed in the same style of suit, nodding and agreeing with any passing remark one of them would make about an airport feature. He saw other businessmen from Dubai in Italian Armani suits walking steadfastly in dark sunglasses as their porters followed in formation.
Despite having ample time to read his emails, Mosi found himself paging through each of them quickly. Some were newsletters from the various scholastic groups of which he was a member. Some were from relatives, passing along whatever clever glurges they thought could possibly be good for morale. One or two others from discussion groups he joined long ago, but barely read now because the novelty had eroded since then.
After deleting those emails in a matter of seconds, his eye caught a message header from a Dr. James Denbow. The name sounded familiar. After a few seconds, he recalled meeting Denbow at a TED conference in Zurich several years ago. He remembered Denbow talking about an archaeological site in Congo he was trying to visit, and how much adversity he had to overcome just to get there. Not only did he have to avoid the constant fighting in the region, but he also had to negotiate with big cold-hearted businesses and enterprises wanting to exploit the area. Mosi had always wondered if Denbow's efforts were successful. Now he would surely find out.
Hello, Dr. Ndiaye. I hope you are doing well. I believe the last time we spoke, I told you I was taking a team to the Loango Coast in Congo. We finally secured a site and began work over a year ago. I would love to tell you more about our findings in detail, but for now I need your help.
One of my colleagues, Dr. Ingfrid Ellefsen, has met with an unfortunate accident. We believe her to be the victim of a bite from some sort of poisonous vermin, and we have transported her to Kinshasa General Hospital, where she is undergoing treatment. She seems to recovered physically, but she is currently experiencing some sort of dementia. Her voice has grown huskier, and she doesn't seem to recognize me or any member of my team. She has been resisting the hospital workers, who saw it necessary to put her in restraints.
The strangest aspect of her behavior is a mysterious language she's speaking. I took a video of her and have attached it to this email. I remember your affinity for languages, and wondered if you could identify what she's saying. I realize she could be babbling in random sounds, but she seems to repeating some phrases. I hope this can help the doctors here understand what they should do for her. Right now, they are overworked and unable to devote more time to her care. I'm reaching out to anybody who could possibly be of any help.
Dr. Ndiaye clicked on the video attachment. He could see a woman strapped to a gurney in one of the hospital's hallways. Orderlies and patients ambled about, speaking at top volume and trying to contain their own personal chaos. He could hear the woman muttering, but could not understand th3e words due to background noise. After a few seconds, Denbow brought his smart phone closer to Dr. Ellefsen's face. She seemed frightened, straining against her bindings and looking directly at the wall beside her, hoping to avoid whatever Denbow was trying to do to her.
Dr. Ndiaye could hear Denbow talking to Dr. Ellefsen in a calm tone, trying to comfort her, telling her it was all right, but she kept muttering the same sentence over and over. After replaying the video attachment several times, Dr. Ndiaye checked a few online articles to verify his suspicions. He then hit the reply button and sent an email to Denbow.
Hello, James. I am very pleased you have written to me. I would very much like to help you. I will make arrangements to fly to Kinshasa, for I believe your colleague's problem is beyond the realm of medical science.
If I am correct, she is speaking Nazdi, a nearly-extinct branch of the Bantu Niger–Congo classification of language. She is saying “Do not whip me. Do not whip me.”
Dr. Ndiaye felt the saunalike African air accost him as he left the airport and looked for a ride to the hospital. He followed the dilapidated direction signs and found a shuttle bus. At least 30 years old, the bus had been coated with green paint and tan camouflage patterns. He gave his suitcase to a baggage handler, but took a travel bag on board with him. He knew the handlers would be tempted to open his suitcase and look for valuables that they could sell, which is why he kept them in his smaller travel bag.
As he worked his way down the bus aisle to look for a seat, he noticed a soldier sitting behind the driver, wearing shades and loosely holding a rifle between his legs. The patch on his shoulder bore an ornamented red cross and the words “Armor of God.” Dr. Ndaiye found a seat and sat down to recounnding squeaks. More passengers crowded into the bus and soon the already sweaty conditions became even worse as two other people cramped in the seat next to him.
Ah, Africa. How I've missed you, thought Mosi to himself.
The bus's loudspeaker squawked with static as the driver spoke into his microphone. The driver spoke French with a protracted drone, as if he were reciting his speech while asleep. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Kinshasa Tours. Such a fine morning this is for a drive, yes? The sovereign country of Belgium makes this journey possible for us, ladies and gentlemen. They have donated this bus, which we have decorated with God's blessings. There is nothing to fear, yes?”
Dr. Ndaiye heard the name Lubanga being mentioned all around him. That must have been the local warlord the Armor of God soldier was there to deter. The passengers didn't seem so concerned with danger, as they were straining their necks for a chance to glimpse the robber baron, in case he happened to appear at that very moment.
The bus jerked as the driver shifted into gear, and ex pulsed a cloud of oily black smoke that wafted its way into the open windows. “Kinshasa is the third largest city in Africa ladies and gentlemen,” said the driver languidly over his mike. “It has a population of 9 million people and 60 bonobos, haha. We are home to Lola ya Bonobo, the world's largest refuge for orphaned bonobos...”
Downtown Kinshasa had made some progress towards modernization, but not so much in urban renewal. Cables for internet access had been strung through open windows in lieu of junction boxes. The cables had then been roped together and laid down on the sidewalks, which lost semblance to any notion of flatness long ago. Sidewalk debris jutted at potentially lethal angles as numerous Kinshasans adeptly avoided them from years of practice.
Luckily for Dr. Ndaiye, the shuttle bus stopped directly at Kinshasa General Hospital. As he waited for the handlers to retrieve his suitcase, numerous children held pieces of junk they salvaged from street trash and tried to sell them to the passengers as souvenirs. Dr. Ndaiye gave the handlers a few francs and tossed a few coins to the child hawkers as well. He then made his way to the main lobby and called Dr. Denbow on his smart phone.
The two met shortly after Dr. Ndaiye entered and shook hands. The last time Mosi had seen Dr. Denbow was three years ago, and the man looked like he aged many more years than that. His salt and pepper beard was now all white, but his skin looked tough and leathery. Denbow had also lost a lot of weight, but his grip was strong. Mosi towered over him by ten inches or so, but doubted he could handle Denbow in a fair fight.
“Welcome Dr. Ndaiye. We are so glad you came,” said Dr. Denbow with a slight Texas drawl. “Are you tired from your journey? Would you like to rest first?”
“I'm fine, thank you,” said Dr. Ndaiye in a deep booming voice. Many people had compared him to Darth Vader, due to his voice and height, and not in the least his deeply black skin. “I would like to meet Dr. Ellefsen, if that's possible.”
“Sure, follow me,” said Dr. Denbow as he proceeded to lead Dr. Ndaiye down a crowded hallways. “We finally managed to get her in a room, which she shares with three coma patients,” he continued. “The Chief of Medicine has been makin' noise about transferrin' her to the psyche ward, but that place is scarier than the Hardesty Slaughter House. I talked him into waiting for your input.”
Unlike many African hospitals, KGH was did not exist in squalor. It was considered the finest hospital in Africa in its heyday, but that was when it was staffed by whites and only admitted white patients. Nowadays, signs of disrepair such as cracked walls and water-stained ceiling tiles were common. Sometimes medical supplies were low, and doctors had to ask their patients to bring their own.
“For what it's worth, the doctors think it was some sort of insect bite,” said Dr. Denbow. “They did find a small piercing in her upper back, just below the cervical vertebrae. They don't know what type of insect, though. There's no irritation, but there is a jagged edge, like she got pierced with an awl. For now, they're diagnosing her as having poison-induced dementia, but they can't find any similar cases as of yet. As you can see, their resources are somewhat limited.”
The two scientists pushed through a set of double swinging doors and approached a checkin desk. They had to wait several minutes for an administrator to appear, who was carrying a case of IV fluid and told them she's be with them as soon as she could. While waiting, Dr. Denbow said to Dr. Ndaiye, “But what's really strange is she doesn't act like the way she used to at all. I mean, she was a little shy before, but now she's outright hostile about it. She won't talk to me or anybody on our team, and when she does, her voice is really husky. She'll only speak that Nazdi language you told me about. The doctors have to keep her sedated because she keeps tryin' to escape.”
“James, you and I are educated men,” said Dr. Ndaiye. “We know certain things cannot exist because we are rational beings, trained to observe objects and events empirically, without emotional or cultural influence.
“But during my travels, I have met many who fervently believe what you may consider nonsense,” he continued. “They believe in spirits, demons, ghosts, what have you, to the point where fear takes over rational judgment and the impossible happens. Sometimes it's merely coincidence, but a certain occurrence of events can inspire mania and fear, making people capable of powers no one would have dreamed possible.”
“So you're saying Dr. Effelsen got possessed by an evil spirit?” said Dr. Denbow as the administrator returned. They signed their names to the visitor sheet and proceeded to the coma patient ward.
“Not necessarily,” said Dr. Ndaiye. “But one thing's for certain. She no longer believes she is herself any more. We must assume she's convinced that she is someone else.”
They entered a long room with four beds lining the adjacent walls two by two. Three other patients lay perfectly still, machines monitoring their vital signs. Dr. Effelsen lay in the fourth bed, her arms bundled in straps alongside the bed frame. She seemed to be mumbling in her sleep. She wore a stained hospital smock and it appeared as though clumps of hair had been torn from her scalp.
“She did that to herself,” said Dr. Denbow. “What you just said is starting to make sense. It's like she doesn't want to be in her own body.”
Dr. Ndaiye stared at Dr. Effelsen as she continued to mumble. “I have to go change,” he said. “I'll be right back.” Dr. Denbow was puzzled by this, but had no other option than to trust Dr. Ndaiye.
After fifteen or so minutes, Dr. Ndaiye returned. “Whut in the hail?” exclaimed Dr. Denbow, reverting back to his native Texan drawl.
Dr. Ndaiye had changed into a multicolored tunic with a flat drum hanging from the side. The tunic was a base blue fabric with red and white braids of yarn streaming straight across the torso and diagonally at the sides. He wore two armbands fastened around his biceps, each bearing a large feather and a horse-like tail. More multicolored braids and leopardskins hung from the bottom of his tunic. He carried two rods that were half a yard long each and painted in similar colors and patterns to the rest of his attire.
“This is the dress of a sangoma,” said Dr. Ndaiye. “They are practitioners of loka, or healing magic. Maybe whoever Dr. Ellefsen believes she is will respond more positively to this.”
“Sure, why not,” said Dr. Denbow, shrugging his shoulders. “Lord knows nothing else has worked.”
Dr. Ndaiye had asked Dr. Denbow to leave the room. He thought it best he be alone with Dr. Ellefsen when she awoke. Dr. Ndaiye brought his hand down to where the flat drum hung by his side. He stiffened his thumb, brought his fingers together, and beat a subdued rhythm on the drum head. He chanted a song as he maintained the beat, an old folk tune he remembered from his youth. He hoped it sounded it sounded authentic enough to his intended audience.
Eventually, Dr. Effelsen's eyes flickered open. She turned to face Dr. Ndaiye, and sucked in her breath. Dr. Ndaiye continued to chant and beat the drum. He stood up and made skipping motions around the bed, putting on a show. Dr. Effelsen's eyes followed him, not in terror, but in fascination. He could see her slowly starting to smile.
Dr. Ndaiye stamped his feet and flicked his wrist to produce a final staccato beat on the drumhead. He then bent forward and gently took Dr. Ellefsen's hands in his own. “Good day to you,” said Dr. Ndaiye in Nazdi. “I am Mosi. You are in a healing place. What is your name?”
Dr. Effelsen breathed heavily, noticed that her arms were no longer in straps, and started becoming calmer. She licked her lips, looked at Dr. Ndaiye and muttered “I... am woman.” It sounded like she were asking a question. As Dr. Denbow said, her voice was husky, as if she were speaking as a man.
“Yes,” said Dr. Ndaiye. He handed Dr. Ellefens a clay mug, the crudest he could find. “Here is water.”
She grasped the mug in both hands, looked at the contents, then brought her lips to the edge of the mug and sucked at the water, making a loud slurp. Indeed, it was not a ladylike gesture. She lowered the mug and asked “How?”
“They gods trick you. I am here to get rid of doga.” The word meant witchcraft. “Do you remember what happened?” Dr. Ellefsen looked at him blankly.
“No? Don't worry. You are lost, but we shall bring you back.” Dr. Ndaiye stiffened his thumb and curled his fingers together and started a new rhythm on his flat drum. Bump-tip-tip-Bump-tip-tip-Bump-ba-Bumpa-ba-Bump.
“Imagine yourself standing on the banks of the Congo river,” he said in almost a chant. “The sun is setting. You have found enough food to bring back home. The winds are good. They take away the heat and sweat. You are calm. You are at peace.”
Dr. Ndaiye was attempting to lure Dr. Ellefsen into a state of hypnosis. He didn't know whether she would be conducive to to powers of suggestion, as successful hypnosis demands largely on the patient's cooperation. If she though he was trying to take advantage of her mind, he would get nowhere.
“The river sings a gentle song. You see white swans gliding through the waters, and you feel the gods have sent you signs of good times ahead. The sun glitters on the water crests. You are at rest and you are completely relaxed.” Dr. Ndaiye could see her breathing had slowed, and the lines of tension had disappeared from her face. Good. She was responding to him.
He continued with the drum beat and pleasant reassurances and then said, “When I count to three, you will tell me who you are. One... Two... Three! Who are you?”
Dr. Ellefsen's lips parted, as if she were about to speak. Dr. Ndaiye hit his drum softer, lowering the volume of the beat. “I... don't know,” she answered.
Dr. Ndaiye changed back into his regular clothes and met Dr. Denbow in the hall outside the coma ward. There, he met the Chief of Medicine, Dr. Kayembe. A native of Kinshasa, Dr. Kayembe had heavy lids under his eyes that looked like link sausages. His eyes were bloodshot and he seemed to wear a perpetual frown, as if he hadn't slept for weeks. He wore a white lab coat over his suit and braced his hands on his hips, as if he needed to bolster his defenses.
After Dr. Denbow made introductions, he told Dr. Ndaiye, “They still haven't done the tox screen yet.”
“We only have two lab workers, and they are backed up,” said Dr. Kayembe with a harsh smoker's voice. “We are also missing a centrifuge. It probably got stolen. I would not be surprised if one of the security guards took it.”
“I believe I can help you,” said Dr. Ndaiye. “I am good friends with Dr. Chitra Narendra. She is a leading member of the World Health Organization and is a specialist in toxins. She was instrumental in containing the West Nile Virus. I shall contact her and see if she can bring her own equipment.”
“That would be magnificent,” replied Dr. Kayembe. “Although if she comes, I may not let her leave. I heard you drumming in there. Did it help?”
“Dr. Ellefsen did indeed respond to me, but her recollection of events is weak. I believe she shall no longer attempt to escape, however.”
“If she is recovering, then we should discharge her,” replied the Chief. “We need to make room for more patients.”
Dr. Denbow said, “Doctor, we can provide funds from our grant money to cover her costs for staying here. Can you at least wait for Mosi's friend to arrive and check her out?”
Dr. Kayembe expelled air through his nostrils as if he were releasing steam. “Very well, if a WHO representative can see our dire situation with their own eyes, perhaps they can provide more help, yes? Get her here as soon as possible.
“And take care you don't parade around our hospital in your magician outfit, Dr. Ndaiye,” added Dr. Kayembe. “We already have enough patients who think sorcerers stole their penises.”
Dr. Ndaiye contacted Dr. Narendra later that day via smart phone and explained the situation to her. She asked if there were other cases in that area similar to Dr. Ellefsen's, for it might require that a health warning or quarantine be instituted. Dr. Ndaiye told her he didn't know of any other cases, and that he believed this was a unique phenomena. She replied that her case load happened to be light currently, so she would make arrangements to come.
The next day, Dr. Ndaiye tried hypnosis on Dr. Ellefsen again. He suggested more peaceful environments to her, but as before, she still had no recollection of her identity. He then described a warm sleep to her, hoping it would trigger a remembrance of something she saw when she awoke some morning and her mind would be more fresh and receptive.
“It is dark. You have been in a deep sleep, and you are now starting to wake,” he described as he thrummed his flat drum. You are aware of sunlight pushing back the darkness, and you feel a surge of energy. What do you see?”
“Darkness,” said Dr. Ellefsen flatly. Strange, thought Dr. Ndaiye. Why would she remember seeing darkness?
“Do you know where you are?” he asked.
“No,” she mumbled, “but I know where to go.”
“Where do you go?”
“To find food. I can smell it.”
“Is it breakfast? Are you going to eat breakfast?”
“I don't know what that is.”
Dr. Ndaiye thought this strange, but decided to go with what she did know, lest she lose her train of thought.
“But you are going somewhere. To find food.”
“Where do you go?”
“I don't know. I find food.”
“What do you find?”
“I don't know, but I smell it. So do the others.”
Dr. Ndaiye wanted to ask her more details about her brood, but she didn't seem to be able to offer him specific information. Was this some sort of tribal practice or ritual? Would she know?
“Do you hear anything?”
“I hear the others.”
“What are they saying?”
“Nothing, I hear them moving.”
“To the food?”
“What kind of food is it?”
“Dead. Rotten. Still. It no longer moves.”
Does she think she's some kind of bug?
The next day, Dr. Ndaiye accompanied Dr. Denbow and his team to the Loango archaeological site. Bulldozers and earthmoving machines were parked right next to a tape line drawn around a plot of ground that had been encircled with yellow warning tape. The hulking machines bore AMF logos, identifying them as belonging to the American Mineral Fields corporation.
“This area is rich in coltan,” explained Dr. Denbow. “Short for columbite–tantalite, used to make tantalum capacitors. Goes into all your mobile phones and video game consoles. They're set to plow this area the moment we leave, if the local warlords don't kidnap us first.”
“I remember your talk at the TED conference,” replied Dr. Ndaiye. “The risks you are taking are truly enormous. I have explored in some hostile environments myself, but nothing like this. How have you managed to survive this long?”
“Nationalist pride,” replied Dr. Denbow. “As long as the DRC government remains stable and we find enough artifacts to satisfy their historical interests, they keep the wolves at bay. But if there's a military coup or change of parties in power next election, this will all come crashing down in an instant. Here, lemme show you where Dr. Ellefsen got bit.”
Dr. Ndaiye followed Dr. Denbow as they carefully walked down platforms and wooden stairs built inside the dig site. Denbow introduced Ndaiye to members of his crew as they approached their individual project areas. Even though the excavation seem riddled with gravel and debris, each archaeologist used fine-haired brushes to sweep away layers of dirt without risking even miniscule damage to potential artifacts. This profession truly required patience and discipline, as well as a certain tolerance for harsh environments.
“By the way,” said Dr. Denbow, “I contacted her sister, Freya. She's gonna come down and see if she can jog her memory. I told her it's a dangerous situation down here, but she insisted on coming.”
“That could help, or make the situation even more puzzling,” replied Dr. Ndaiye. “Dr. Ellefsen appears to have multiple personalities at this point.”
The two walked along a wooden bridge inside a ditch at this point, and the canopy of jungle trees to the side started to shadow them more. Strings with tiny red flags were strung along the trees at the edge facing them. “We're actually alongside a nature preserve,” said Dr. Denbow. “It both hurts us and helps us. We can't go any further than that string, but neither can the AMF. Legally speaking, that is.”
Denbow pointed to a hole set lower than the bridge. Jungle tree fronds lurked overhead, looking as if they were poised to grab unsuspecting victims. “She found several shards of pottery in that area,” said Denbow. “She almost had a complete bowl put together.”
“Is this where she got bit?” asked Ndaiye.
“I think so,” replied Denbow. “I don't think she even felt it at first. She came wandering over to the first aid tent like she was drunk. She was swaying back and forth like she was losing control. The medic laid her down and put her on oxygen. He injected her with a hypo and then checked for insect bites. That's when she started going crazy. We heard her screaming like a gorilla all the way across the camp.”
Ndaiye flattened himself with his chest on the bridge and his head overlooking Ellefsen's dig spot. He took care not to disturb one speck of dirt as he crossed his eyes and concentrated on finding anything unusual. He then stood up and looked overhead. The jungle tree foliage remained perfectly still. He wanted to see if there was some colony of insects gathered on the frond, but saw nothing.
The next day, Ndaiye thumped his flat drum for Ellefsen again, soothingly talking her into a state of wakefulness from a deep sleep. “When I count to three, you will wake from a deep sleep. The sun is slowly lighting the room you're in, and you feel refreshed. One... two... three.” Ellefsen's eyes fluttered open, and she gazed at the ceiling overhead.
Ndaiye took a risk. He didn't want to upset her, for fear she would retreat from her hypnotic state, but he needed answers.
“The other day, you said 'Do not whip me.' Do you remember?”
Ellefsen's eyes looked away, and she started to breathe heavy.
“No one's going to whip you. You're safe here. No one's going to whip you. Do you understand?”
Ellefsen looked at Ndaiye, as a child looks to her mother for protection. “Yes.”
“Why did you say that?”
“I don't know. I was scared.”
“Who did you think was going to whip you?”
After some time, Ellefsen whispered, “The men of the white god.”
Did she think she was a slave? White slavers certainly used whips to control them like livestock, but why would she call them “men of the white god?” Why not simply “white men?”
“Were they taking you somewhere? On a boat perhaps?”
“No. They tied me down. To a table.”
“They whipped you while you were tied down to a table?”
That explained why she reacted so violently when they strapped her down to the gurney. Ndaiye would be sure to tell Dr. Kayembe not to use the restraints anymore.
“These men...were they white?”
Ndaiye stopped himself. He realized he must be careful not to suggest any sort of situation to Ellefsen, as it may influence her memory in the wrong direction. He also felt rage starting to build up inside him, recalling the atrocities and evil of the slave trade. Africans would always be regarded as second-class citizens because of that. Every non-black race would think nothing about oppressing them. It didn't help when his own people acted like savages that needed to be controlled with whips either. Ndaiye breathed deeply several times, calming his nerves and clearing his mind. He realized he needed to be objective about this if he wanted to crack the mystery of Ellefsen's dilemma.
“You say they were men of the white god.”
“Do you remember what they wearing?”
Perhaps these men weren't slavers. They may have been priests.
“Did they say anything?”
“They told me to leave.”
“They told you to leave?”
“Yes. I said I can't leave. You have me tied down. They told me they won't believe my lies. Then they whipped me and threw water on me. They sang a strange song and whipped me again. I cried. I asked why they whipped me. They told me to leave. I said I can't!” Ellefsen started crying. “Why did they whip me? What did I do? Why do they hate me so much?” Ellefsen bawled and howled, as if she were experiencing the whips again.
Ndaiye held her down by the shoulders. “I will count to three. When I finish, you will be back in a safe place. The men with whips are gone. They cannot hurt you. One... Two... THREE!”
Ellefsen continued sobbing but seemed to be getting calmer. Ndaiye embraced her and whispered assurances to her. Her sobbing grew quieter until she fell back asleep. Ndaiye gently released her and stood up. His eyes misted as he told her, “I don't know who you are, or how you came to be here, or why you suffered, but I swear I will do everything in my power to make things right.”
Dr. Ellefsen's sister Freya Iverson and her husband Ivor had arrived at the airport. Ndaiye wanted to hire a van to pick them up, as he didn't want them to go through the same experience he did when he arrived. He asked Dr. Kayembe how he could do so. Kayembe explained to him that there were no transport companies to call. Natives of Kinshasa had their own system for flagging down the type of transport they were looking for at certain street corners throughout the city. Natives were also glad to help visitors find transport, as this was the way they had always done things and saw no reason to change. Kayembe taught him how to signal for a van. Denbow came with him.
Freya and Ivor were both pleasant and cheerful people, both blond, slightly overweight, and paleskinned. Freya certainly resembled her sister, but with styled hair and a made up face. They both wore the same type of glasses however: oval frames mounted on silver wiring. The four established that English would be their common language after experimenting with several others.
On their way back to Kinshasa, Ndaiye told Freya about her sister, but did not yet go into detail about his last few sessions with her. “As Dr. Denbow told you, she has been experiencing delusions, as if she thinks she is someone else. Has she ever acted that way before that you know of?”
“Oh no,” said Freya. “Ingie was always very single-minded. She was usually quiet, because she was working out complicated problems in her head.”
“So she never pretended to be someone else, even for play?”
“Not that I can recall, no. She would sometimes talk to herself, but that was just her thinking out loud. People thought she was being crazy, but she really wasn't. I remember when we were girls, we went to our mormor's for Christmas. Ingie found an old locket set in bronze, I think. It was discolored and blemished, and mormor said she couldn't find anything that would clean it. Ingie hardly said a word the rest of the day. Then during dinner, she suddenly jumped out of her seat and started gathering things in the kitchen. Baking soda, vinegar, measuring cups, and so on. She then asked for mormor's locket, and wiped it a few times. It looked brand new, not a blemish in sight!”
“Yep, that sounds like her,” said Denbow.
“Sounds like she was very no-nonsense, very driven,” said Ndaiye. Another theory destroyed.
“Oh yes, she was never interested in dating boys. She never married. She wanted to travel the world and solve mysteries. Our aunt Gurdja was like that. Every generation an Ellefsen girl becomes wed to the planet, as we say in our family.”
“Ingie? Ingie! It's me, Freya!”
At least that's what Ndaiye thought she was saying. Despite his mastery of languages, he hadn't studied any of the Nordic. He could still guess intent from body language, facial expressions, and so on. He had often been called as a mediator because of his ability to interpret the unsaid.
Dr. Ellefsen did indeed respond to her sister's greeting, and the two embraced. Ndaiye and Denbow smiled, thinking they had found the solution and cured her mysterious illness. However, things took a turn for the worse.
Dr. Ellefsen seemed to be accusing her sister of something. Freya seem puzzled, and spoke with concern. Ellefsen made the same accusation, and sounded petulant, like a child. She even curled her lower lip and set her face in a frown. Freya spoke again, sounding defensive and pleading. Ellefsen seem to be threatening her now, then crossed her arms like she was solidifying her position. Freya pleaded some more, and Ellefsen said “No!” Then, she covered her ears with her hands and blurted “lalalalala!”
Freya seemed angry and frustrated. Ivor came over and took her in his arms, leading her away from Ellefsen's bed. Freya called her “Ingie” again several times, but Ellefsen refused to answer.
“What happened?” asked Ndaiye.
“She said I took her Barbie doll,” replied Freya. “Of all the things! It was like she was five years old again! Why is she like this? What happened to her?”
Ndaiye went over to Dr. Ellefsen's side. He didn't have the flat drum with him, so he beat a rhythm on the bedside table with his thumb and fingers. Within minutes, Ellefsen's features began to relax, and she uncrossed her arms. Ndaiye then talked her into a sleep state.
It then occurred to him that he had not initially brought her into a hypnotic state. She became a five-year old version of herself the moment she saw her sister.
Ndaiye led the Iversons and Dr. Denbow to the lobby. It was packed with patients, many of whom were expectant mothers, so the four of them stood in a corner under a television mounted in the ceiling corner.
“We've never seen her act that way before,” explained Ndaiye. “She's been exhibiting other personalities, even as a man. But this is the first time she's manifested as herself! Even as a child, it it looks promising. Perhaps we're getting closer to bringing her back to normalcy.”
“This is all very strange to me,” said Freya. “You say all this began from an insect bite? I've always warned her about going to Africa, but I didn't think it could be this bad!”
“Ma'am, this is nowhere near a typical incident, whether it took place in Africa, Europe, North America, wherever,” said Denbow, obviously a little peeved.
“Look, why don't you folks find a place to get settled in,” said Ndaiye. “Your presence here has helped tremendously, and I consider this a breakthrough. I'm sure Dr. Denbow can find a nice place for you to stay. He's practically a native here.”
The Iversons were skeptical, but couldn't think of anything more they could do, so they consented. Ndaiye was wanting to get back to Dr. Ellefsen. Since he didn't induce her into a trance when she assumed this new personality, he wanted to see if he even needed hypnosis. After Denbow and the Iversons departed, he went back to the coma ward.
Ellefsen still appeared to be asleep. Ndaiye bent down put his hand on her shoulder and gently shook her. She opened her eyes and looked at him with a dreamy expression. He held her hand while smoothing loose hair from her forehead. She then opened her mouth in a deep yawn, stretched out her arms, and sat up, curling her feet underneath her bottom.
“Ingie?” he asked. “Are you all right? You seemed upset a while ago.”
She smiled lazily and hummed “mmmm hmmm.” She then grabbed him by the ears, pulled his face up to hers, and pressed her lips up to his. She opened her mouth and playfully chewed on his lips while flicking her tongue inside his mouth.
Her pushed her away. “Ingie,” he shouted. “What are you doing?” With one hand cupped behind his head, she slid her other hand down his crotch and stroked his genitals. He grabbed her hand and pulled it away. “Stop that at once” he shouted.
She sprang up from her sitting position and crashed down on her bed. She started screaming like a chimpanzee, then picked up objects from her bedside and threw them at him. He put up his hands defensively and back away from her. The coma patients lay as still as ever, but their monitors seemed to shine with more intensity and light up the ward like a dance floor.
Ellefsen jumped to another bed, picking up anything loose like cups and lamps and threw them at Ndaiye. He finally decided enough was enough, ran out of the ward and called for help.
“We've got her sedated and strapped in,” huffed Dr. Kayembe. “You assured us she would not need restraint any more, but my orderlies tell me she was screaming like a bonobo and throwing loose objects all over the coma ward! She is too dangerous to be kept there. I'm going to transfer her out at once!”
“Please sir,” said Dr. Ndaiye. “She knew who she was and seemed lucid prior to that.” Lucid as a five-year old child could be, but Ndaiye didn't want to tell Dr. Kayembe that yet. “I don't know why she behaved so extremely, but we're making progress. I think she's getting close to recovery and I don't want to jeopardize her progress!”
“We already have a strained enough budget as it is,” rumbled Kayembe. “We can't afford any more mishaps, do you understand me? You have until Dr. Narendra arrives and makes her diagnosis, then she's gone!”
“I understand Dr. Kayembe, and I humbly apologize.”
After the two finished their conversation, Ndaiye remembered something Kayembe said, that his orderlies said that Ellefsen was screaming like a bonobo. Why bonobo? It seemed like monkey or chimpanzee would be more likely words, but then he remembered Kinshasa was nearby Lola ya Bonobo, the world's only refuge for orphaned bonobos. To Kinshasans, “bonobo” would be a more familiar term over the others.
“I think I've been going at this all wrong,” said Ndaiye. He had met Dr. Denbow at his archaeological site and discussed Dr. Ellefsen's situation while Denbow's team carefully performed their excavations.
“I've been assuming all this time that Ingfrid was exhibiting multiple personalities. That condition is but a Hollywood cliché. Those kinds of cases are rare, and usually suspect. Skeptics assure us that the patient can be manipulated by the examining psychiatrist to put on a performance. I am afraid I've been guilty of that myself.”
“Don't beat yourself over it,” said Dr. Denbow, placing a reassuring hand on Ndaiye's shoulder. “You've invested a lot of yourself into Dr. Ellefsen's care, and you've made some serious breakthroughs.
“But they were accidental breakthroughs, and I've been attributing their manifestations to my hypnosis technique. But her last two events had nothing to do with hypnosis.” Ndaiye and Denbow started pacing down the wooden walkway surrounding the excavation pit.
“When I reflect on our sessions, she's been very cooperative, and one of such an unbalanced mental state would hardly be that conducive to hypnosis. It all seemed to so easy. My initial theory was that she believed she was a native to this region, and unsophisticated and brutish. Possibly a laborer, or farmer, or fisherman. I assumed that persona would respond to my suggestions of serenity and be more cooperative, but she didn't. Not until I suggested darkness did she assume her second personality, and she sounded more like an insect or grubworm than human.
“I thought these manifestation were occurring under hypnosis. They weren't! She was never in a trance. She wasn't responding to my suggestions. She was reminded of something for her past, and she acted on that memory. Darkness reminded her of feeding with a colony of vermin on a carcass.”
“OK, this is getting weird, and this situation is already weird,” said Denbow. Are you saying she was actually a grubworm sometime in her past? Like a previous incarnation?”
“As much as I would like to agree with what you just said, I mustn't. I cannot assume any religious concept is real, such as the Hindu concept of reincarnation. I almost made that mistake before, by following my heart instead of my brain.
“When she was first admitted and you contacted me, she was saying 'Do not whip me' as the orderlies were restraining her with straps. She had been in a similar situation in her past, when priests thought she had been possessed by a demon, and were trying to whip it out of her.”
“The Catholic church did move into this area shortly after the Belgians settled here in the 19th century,” said Denbow. “They wanted the natives to stop worshiping their pagan gods, so they made a big show of scaring them out of their idolatry.”
“I don't think this was for show,” said Ndaiye. “If she had acted the same way every time she relived a moment in the past, people could very well have thought she was possessed by an evil spirit. She would have spoken with a different voice, not recognizing the people and land around her. She must have been in a constant state of fright and reacted violently to her strange surroundings.”
“Like when she practically molested you?” asked Denbow.
“I think I know what caused her to do that,” said Ndaiye. “The orderlies said she was screaming like a bonobo. There's a bonobo refuge here, so Kinshasans are used to seeing them around. Bonobos are very sexual creatures. It's virtually how they communicate. When I was attempting to comfort her, she must have thought I wanted intimacy. When I pushed her away, she mistook that for rejection and became enraged.”
“You must have some effect on women,” said Denbow with a snicker.
“Ask my nine wives at the compound,” said Ndaiye with an almost straight face. “I think when she saw Freya, she remembered the fights she had with her as children more than anything else. What we do as children can stay etched in our psyches for our entire lifetime. But why would Freya recall that moment over all the others? I'm thinking an alien presence experiencing a new personality would instinctively go the brightest spots of her memory and draw from that.”
“Alien? You think she's possessed by an alien?
“More like her body is in possession of an alien. I think we need to take a closer look at her X-rays.”
The next day, Dr. Chitra Narendra from the World Health Organization arrived, with two assistants and a new centrifuge. She told Dr. Kayembe it was a donation. He kissed her hand and told her just for that, he'd only keep her on ball and chain for a few years.
Dr. Narendra was a short woman, with grey-streaked black hair pulled back in a bun. Her eyes were sharp and black, and her lips naturally formed an almost-smile, as if she could tell what everybody was really up to. “Now if you please, let's put the new centrifuge to work.”
A few hours later, she met with Ndaiye and Denbow in the medical lab. “I found no traces of venom or poison in Dr. Ellefsen's blood,” she told them. “Only the traces of sedative she's been administered.”
She opened a folder and took out a few pictures of the back of Ellefsen's neck. “These were taken when she was first admitted here. As you can see, there is a single puncture wound. It has healed over by now, but back then, the hole seemed to have a jagged edge. It is similar to a bee sting, but usually the stinger is either broken off into the epidermis, or retracted entirely. The edges of the wound are sinking inward. There was no stinger. Whatever bit her burrowed into her body. Your hunch was correct, Dr. Ndaiye.”
Denbow and Ndaiye looked at each other. Although Ndaiye had asked her to look for an invading organism the size of a small worm, he mentioned nothing about the possibility of it being an alien being. He wondered if anybody at WHO had encountered something like this before.
Dr. Narendra took a couple of stiff plastic sheets and attached them to a light board. “I then examined the X-rays. I tried to look for signs that an invading body left a trail. I had to magnify the image.” She showed them the second X-ray and drew a circle around a small line. “As you can see, the invading body burrowed all the way to her cerebral cortex. It resembles a nerve ending. I believe it could be some sort of parasite.”
“Could this be a tapeworm perhaps?” said Ndaiye.
“It does not seem to be feeding from or damaging the host,” said Dr. Narendra. “A tapeworm will latch on to a vital organ and leech from it. We took another X-ray and the parasite does not seem to have grown any bigger. I'm not even sure it should be called a parasite.”
“Can this be causing Ingfrid's condition? Can it be removed?” asked Denbow.
“It would be a risky procedure,” replied Dr. Narendra. “ I cannot tell how entangled the organism is with her nervous system. It would certainly require exploratory surgery so we can assess the extent of its work. It would be a very delicate and lengthy operation.”
“But you could do it,” said Ndaiye.
“How else do you think I got this job?” she answered coyly.
The KGH OR was once considered state of the art four decades ago, but fell into neglect. Some of the ether tanks were past due for inspection, if not already empty. The paint on the ceiling and floors had peeled, and the scraped floor exposed a coat of dark primer that made the operating room look covered in blood. Nevertheless, the instruments and surgical tools were built to last, and were serviceable once the cobwebs were swept away.
An observation deck with a plexiglass wall overlooked the operating area. That was where Dr. Ndaiye, Dr. Denbow, and Freya and Ivor stood now, focusing their attention on Ingfrid Ellefsen, and willing Dr. Narendra's skills to be miraculous this day.
For her part, Dr. Narendra showed professionalism and calm. Other surgeons had joined to observe, and she narrated each step of her procedures as if she were instructing a class. Ellefsen had been laid on her stomach, with face mounted in a brace fixed off the end of the operating table. A video camera had been mounted from an angle that focused on Ellefsen's back, at the base of her neck. Other doctors from around the world were watching this as well.
Dr. Narendra had just finished using a drill to cut away the upper section of a C1 vertebrae to expose the area inside. Everyone on the observation deck winced at the sawing sound. “Now that we have exposed the dura,”explained Dr. Narendra, we shall now make a U-shaped flap to expose the anterior surface of the medulla. Scalpel, please.”
Narendra made an incision, then announced “There it is, everyone. Hello, little fella. Time for you to leave. Forceps, please.” Ndaiye looked over the observation deck monitor. He could see a wormlike creature with shiny transluscent skin, embracing Ellefsen's nerve center. Despite Narendra's misgivings, the organism seemed to pull out easily. She held it up for everyone to see before dropping it in a pan. Ndaiye thought he could see it wriggle, like a newborn babe seeing the outside world for the first time.
“Dr. Ellefsen is recovering well,” said Dr. Ndaiye to Dr. Narendra as she was typing a report on her laptop. “She remembered nothing after going to the med tent at the site. She recognized her sister and brother-in-law, as well as Dr. Denbow. When they introduced her to me, I saw no spark of recognition in her eyes. She didn't remember me at all.”
“You were not interacting with her,” said Dr. Narendra. “You were communicating with our new friend.” She gestured over to a microscope where the organism had been placed in a nutrient bath. Ndaiye stepped over and took a look. The organism did indeed resemble a worm, but with nearly transparent skin and a sharp, beaklike end. He could see it extending and retracting pseudopods from its body occasionally, grabbing nutrient morsels and absorbing them.
“All the things this creature could tell us,” he mused. “All the lives it lived, all the experiences, all the history. This is an anthropological Holy Grail if there ever was one.”
“You were the first to discover it, technically speaking,” said Dr. Narendra. “If we cannot identify the species, it will certainly be named after you. How does Mosius Ndaius sound?” she said with a smile.
“This creature is perhaps centuries old, and highly adaptable to its host,” said Ndaiye. “It shows no signs of damage from the operation, as far as I can tell. Can anything on Earth exist like this? And yet even though its body survives, I fear its mind is eroding, going senile. It cannot always remember the past correctly. It confuses the pasts of its hosts, with no bridge of continuity to connect them. I wish there was some way we could help it.”
“Mosi, we shall care for it as best we can,” said Dr. Ndaiye as she saved her report. “But this is an entirely new species. We know it favors any organic brain as its living environment, but beyond that, we can't exactly practice memory therapy on it.”
“I can think of one way,” said Ndaiye as he removed the container from the microscope.