A History of the 20th Century, with illustrations: Atonement’, Ian Sales

Illustrations © 2012 Robin E. Kaplan.



 [ He dreams of icy wastes, © 2012 Robin E. Kaplan ] At night, while he swelters in his bed, he dreams of icy wastes, the limitless white tracts of the North Pole. He tosses and turns beneath the soaked sheet covering him, and remembers stumbling blindly through wind-whipped snow across a land without colour, without horizons. His limbs shake with the cold and he feels death closing its hand upon him. He cannot stop, he cannot give up—he must continue on through this blindness, through this frigid air which eats at flesh and bones.

He wakes at dawn and the dream remains sharp in memory. He can still feel ice on his limbs though sweat drips from his brow, pools beneath his arms and in the small of his back. His assistant, Suah, brings him breakfast, a plate of cassava and fried fish gravy, and he spoons it into his mouth without tasting it. His dream has overwhelmed him, his past rising within him to push away the world. Though never truly human, for a moment he cannot remember how to be human, nor what it means. The surgeries he has undergone over the decades have erased all evidence of his origin, but today he feels his past lying close to the surface.

After he has eaten, he washes his face in a bowl of warm water and, to the sound of commentary from the Barcelona Olympics on a transistor radio, dresses in T-shirt, loose trousers, boots, and a white coat.

There is already a queue before the clinic. Women in gaily-coloured lapa skirts and tops, doe-eyed and round-bellied babies perched on their cocked hips, gaze mutely at him. Old people, wizened and crabbed, with limbs like twigs, gurn and huff. Others are missing limbs, the white bandages on their stumps stark against their black skin. All are victims of the civil war next door in Liberia.

They wait patiently, with a fatalism he finds unnerving. He came here to help these people, to right the wrongs committed upon them. But he wishes each day they were not so passively accepting. There is less than a decade remaining until the turn of the millennium, and every day he feels a small sharp stab in the heart when he considers how few of his patients will live to see it.

Suah, Gio tribe like those waiting, goes among them and asks of each what they want. There are too many for the clinic to see in a single day; some will have to come back tomorrow. Or perhaps the day after that. It is the way things are. The UNHCR, the voluntary agencies, they do all they can for the refugees at Buduburam, but it can never be enough. The 140-acres of the camp were intended for twelve thousand refugees but now hold three times that number.

He watches the ones who were turned away disperse silently and fade away among the scrubby tracks and breezeblock hovels roofed with rusting corrugated tin. The splashes of colour cannot disguise the filth and poverty. He re-enters the clinic.

Settling at his desk, he waits for Suah to usher in the first patient of the day. At least the medical supplies have arrived, at least he can do more than offer these people—through Suah—medical and hygiene advice.

For the past two decades he has moved around Africa, from refugee camp to refugee camp, changing identities, presenting faked credentials. The camps are so desperate for doctors, they perform only cursory checks. He is no charlatan, however; he has over one hundred years of medical experience. He has saved many lives. He has also killed.

He looks down at his palms, invisibly stained with the blood of the first person to die at his hands. He hadn’t meant to choke the boy, he hadn’t meant to murder him, though he’d blustered and railed once caught, claiming the act justified. An urge had come over him to determine if he possessed the power of life and death like his master.

 [ But all he could do was take life, © 2012 Robin E. Kaplan ] But all he could do was take life. He could not give it.

He has spent the tens of decades since trying to redeem himself. That is why he chose a career in medicine, that is why he ministers only to the poor and needy, the refugees and victims. He is paying penance, and he will continue to pay it until the day he finally dies, though he does not know when that will be. He has already lived nearly two centuries, with no diminishment of faculties, no end in sight. It is a punishment.

In the second decade of the nineteenth century, he had been given life by science. He had been created, made from dead flesh—and he had owed everything to his creator. At the last, he had watched him die and could not save him. When he thinks back on that day, he burns with shame at his powerlessness. If he had been able to save him, he would have done so—

After all, some called him a monster, but he had never thought of himself as one.


© 2012, Ian Sales

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