The Decision of Dr. Congo

Posted: January 25, 2011 in Short Stories
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The Decision of Dr. Congo 

March, 1986. 400km Northeast of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.

‘Goodbye baby’, he said cradling her lolling head in his hands and fighting back the tears. The eyes stared up at him with an understanding beyond words. A kiss curl of hair fell across her right eye making it blink and breaking the moment’s intensity. He tenderly brushed aside the matted ginger lock and tickled her belly one last time. Shalto, the Great Ape giggled back, totally unaware of what might be about to happen to her.

With heavy heart, Dr. Filegro closed the cage door and walked the short distance to where he knew his other ‘patient’ would be waiting, for that was how he’d come to think of her. She looked so peaceful lying there, none of the trauma of the past few months was visible, there was no tension in her face and her whole body was relaxed and languid. He paused in the doorway to just watch her, framed by the white linen mosquito nets around her bed she looked like an angel.

‘God I love you so much… So goddamn much.’

Dr. Filegro wasn’t ready to see her become an angel just yet, but conversely did he have the right to play God and wipe out a whole species just to selfishly save her life?

Through the adjoining hatch, Filegro could hear Shalto, the last in the line of Bonobo-Sangi great apes, finishing off her afternoon treat. He was starting to feel overwhelmed again by all the choices racing round his head, that feeling beginning in his toes like static electricity, quickly welling up through his legs and torso before fizzing into his brain registering as panic. He needed some fresh air, but even this was too much to really hope for in the hundred percent humidity of the Congolese rainforest, so he settled instead for open space.

This used to be his favourite time of year, the rains had just finished and left everything verdant and buzzing with life. Spring was bubbling up inside everything and the air was filled with an incessant chatter of what might be. As he walked, he contemplated his well-trod dilemma, but like a jigsaw puzzle missing that vital piece, or a game of Solitaire missing the last card he wrestled with it all coming up short and always arriving at the same conclusion: either Jane or Shalto must die. Neither outcome was acceptable to him professionally or personally, even out here in the jungle where lines sometimes became more blurred. Here in the jungle, this was his own personal journey to the heart of darkness.

Dr. Filegro and his wife Jane had been at the research centre deep in the rainforest since ’79, ever since they’d decided that New Year’s Eve in Washington State, surrounded by the Giant Redwoods and giant dreams that they’d make a difference to the world. He hadn’t noticed the changes in her immediately, everyone has their off-days he told himself, everyone becomes forgetful from time to time, especially in this relentless sweat. But once he had noticed, he’d denied it to himself for as long as he could, until it was no longer an option and he too was becoming psychotic with the lie. Kuru Syndrome is a devious disease, but one with a certain karma. They’d been trying to prove that Great Apes had consciousness because their brains were divided into a left and right hemisphere just like humans, and that these hemispheres were independently conscious, acting as sounding boards and allowing them to have conversations with themselves and therefore capable of reasoning. Cogito Ergo Sum. But in handling all the brains of the deceased apes Jane had contracted Kuru – a fatal neurological illness that the locals called ‘Shiver’, being well aware of it from their not too distant past when cannibalism was on the menu, and brain the finest delicacy.

Now he, Philip Filegro had found the cure but his joy was tempered with despair. Shalto’s pituitary gland contained a unique secretion that arrested the cell degeneration and killed the virus, but he just couldn’t synthesize it, only fresh living neurones worked. Shalto was the last breeding pair left in captivity anywhere in the world, and the local hunters had told him no others had been seen in the surrounding lowlands for a generation. Just as only the female marijuana plant produces the active THC chemical, so only the female pituitary gland of the Bonobo-Sangi produced HJ9-N7. Despite having four litters, Shalto had only ever produced males. And now she was reaching the end of her fertility with no chance of a female offspring on the horizon. He could get enough HJ9-N7 from Shalto to save his wife but the process would kill the ape; or he could allow his wife to die and maybe, just maybe synthesize the drug or get Shalto to produce a female?  He injected her with vitamins and fertility drugs each night to try to prolong her menopause but time was against him. He couldn’t even harvest her remaining good eggs and fertilize ‘in vitro’ as the procedure was too costly and he’d been turned down for funding at every turn. But did he have the right to exterminate a whole genus, just to save one person? Or even taking the ape out of the equation, could he deny any future sufferers of Kuru Syndrome hope of a cure? Was a human life always more valuable than an animals anyway, even if that animal happened to share 96.7% of our DNA?

Through the thick gauze of Jane’s bedroom window he watched the locals preparing for the weekly hunt, offering up incense and prayers to their gods. Mbata, the tribal leader waved at him through the window that divided their magic from his science, and asked for a blessing too. Gratefully he gave it, knowing that Mbata and the hunt represented his last chance at finding another mating pair of Bonobos in time to save her. Jane’s most recent MRI scan had shown that there was so much damage to the brain already that she’d be vegetable if the operation wasn’t done within days. She was mostly incoherent and delusional now. It had been nearly a week since her last lucid episode when she, out of the blue had reached out with her hand to grab his shirt pocket, dry mouth croaking the words, ‘Flash’ and smiling. This had been her nickname for him since they’d first met, a joke on his surname and the fact he’d been a good bullshitter – ‘Flash and Filigree’. That last lucid connection had meant the world to him, he held the memory locked away at the centre of his heart for the coming months when he knew he’d need to be strong. The bargaining process associated with all terminal illness had long been gone through, the striking of deals with the cosmos and gods of the jungle in the morning mist. Dr. Filegro was sure he’d seen these cruel deities once, laughing at him on his early morning walk, and Mbata agreed. He’d broken down and cried to the sky, his tears mixing with the condensation around him:

‘Let her live. Let the rangers come across another breeding pair.’

But all to nought. He’d now resigned himself to the fact that there would be no divine intervention and the ultimate decision was to be his alone. Like Mbata, he too believed that there was a single energy in the universe that hits the prism of life and shards out billions of living rainbow possibilities, all alive with the same energy but manifesting as radically different from each other in spectacular evolutionary ways. Could he, a doctor of medicine, shut off one of those unique shards of light forever by killing a whole species? He was effectively committing genocide. A war crime. God knows the soil of DR Congo had seen enough of those, the mud saturated with blood, so much that poppies grew like weeds in the rich soil around the research centre. If he played God on this where would it stop? He imagined a cosmic poker game where he threw in Planet Earth along with his car keys to go all-in. The world was not his to bet with. He felt like a suicide bomber, killing for what he believed to be sacred, only he was taking the bomb vest off and strapping it to Shalto instead. She didn’t know what she was dying for or what cures died with her. Would she even agree if she did know?

He looked at his watch and was amazed to see it was getting late. He must’ve dozed off under the shaded frond of the banana plant. Collecting some of the riper fruit he headed back for camp with a heavy heart to prepare the evening meal. Jane had always been a keen cook and he’d been happy to let her do it, but now he did it every night.

Back in their makeshift galley he reached into the portable refrigerator and pulled out a plate of prawns, the maggot of the sea. He sniffed them. They smelt off, best not to risk it. He threw them out of the open window where some wild animal would get the good news later. He mixed together some coconut milk and the bananas foraged that afternoon, no solids now. Preoccupied, he sliced through banana into flesh causing a few globules of scarlet blood to land in the white coconut milk, like an evil rice pudding and jam. Or perhaps a blood pudding, he thought as he bandaged his finger, hell he’d even use his own blood to make a black pudding and force feed it too her if he could give her the anti-bodies he had to Kuru. As if on cue he heard her wailing from the next room. It killed him to have to secure her to the gurney by those harsh leather belts the rangers had brought him, but when she fitted or became distressed she could seriously injure herself and there was no way he was able to watch her twenty-four seven. Shalto, perhaps in sympathy at her incarceration too began to whimper. In moments like this his ears found it hard to tell which noise was the animal and which human. Kuru had taken away her reasoning and what real difference was there between ape and man if you did that? He was caught between the two with the wails becoming harmony and melody to an orchestra of death for which he was to be the conductor.

Above the spice rack, Dr. Filegro saw Shalto’s favorite squeaky baby toy they’d used to make her feel broody. Why couldn’t she have just had a girl? But, what about the baby he and his wife wanted to have one day? Could he deny him life? These past few nights he’d laid awake hearing the wail of newborn jackals echoing out across the valley and imagined it was his unborn son crying for existence. When he’d married Jane he dreamt of their two spirits becoming one, a gradual process over the years, expressed in physical form by a child, a symbol of their journey to one-ness. But here this ape was almost the reverse. She wasn’t just two becoming one, through her oneself she could become thousands through the lives she saved with her unique cure locked in her pituitary gland.

Outside the mud brick walls of the kitchen Dr. Filegro could hear the hunt returning. He strained his ears to try to pick up a sense of how it’d gone, not daring to believe, but when he saw Mbata in the gauze of his window his heart skipped a beat. Had they found more Bonobo-Sangis?

Mbata’s expression told him all he needed to know. The obligatory speech followed, with Mbata regaling him with the usual lies about how close they’d come, but Dr. Filegro knew by now that as leader of the hunt Mbata had to save a certain amount of face. He didn’t blame him, he understood how it worked. That ended it, the last hope of reprieve from making a decision was extinguished. Damn it, he just couldn’t let Jane go, not like this. A human was more important than an ape and ghosts of an unknowable future. He would do the unthinkable and he would do it now.

Without fully knowing why, Dr. Filegro felt an emotional need to let Shalto and Jane say goodbye to each other, face to face. It was important somehow, even though the thought of it churned his stomach like the blades of a harvester.

He unlocked the ape’s cage and they walked hand in hand, like father and daughter through to his wife’s bed. Shalto saw the white angel lying in her shroud and looked up at the doctor with moist eyes seeking answers. With none forthcoming she let go his hand and moved towards the bed. With her thick and leathery ape hand Shalto carefully pushed back the hair from Jane’s face and reached across her onto the bedside dresser to pick up Jane’s large ivory tusked comb.

Dr. Filegro had to laugh even though the sound caught dry in his throat.

‘I think she wants to comb your hair, Janey!’

But Shalto was retreating back towards the doctor.

‘Perhaps she just wants a memento of you, honey, would that be ok..? Sure it would.’

He berated himself for such loose romantic thinking, no, that was ridiculous, apes may have consciousness but can still only live in the present, they’d never seen any evidence that they thought about the future, with or without having two hemispheres. That surge of anxiety again, it was all too much for the doctor and he wailed loudly, without self-consciousness or restraint. Shalto jumped up and hung from his shoulders as he carried her through tearstained eyes back to her cage. Reaching into his pocket for the keys he unlocked the medicine cabinet before throwing them to the floor where they skated off under a filing cabinet. The small vial of clear liquid and fresh hypodermic needle stared implacably back at him from the opened cupboard. There was no going back now, like the captain of a nuclear submarine, the order had been given and authentification codes confirmed.

With shaking hand he filled the syringe and turned back to see Shalto cradling the elephant tusk comb close to her chest, seemingly deep in thought. The intelligence on her furrowed brow was palpable. Hell, he just couldn’t do it. It’d be murder and nothing good could ever come from such a violent act. He felt the syringe slip from his opening palm and in that instant he knew it was his wife he’d be saying goodbye to.

Sleepwalking, he found his legs moving back towards Jane’s room, the right hemisphere of his brain controlling his motor skills, the  ‘feeling’  left side shut down in the emotional overload.

He found himself standing over her bed.

‘My darling. I am so sorry’.

A rattling sound started up from the next room, followed by agitated shrieks. Shalto was rocking her cage, lifting up each metal corner and slamming it onto the straw floor.

So unnatural was the sound that it shook Dr. Filegro back into focus. Sensing something wrong he immediately ran through to the adjoining room. On seeing him, Shalto immediately stopped her violent swinging and became still. A peaceful, almost serene look swept across her face and he was sure that the corners of her mouth were curling up into a benevolent, angelic smile.

Shalto spun Jane’s comb in her hand, gripping the teeth and exposing the sharp horned handle. Raising the elephant tusk comb high above her head with both hands, she brought it down with full force directly into her heart.

Dr. Filegro rushed to the cage and ripped feverishly at the lock, but it was all academic now as Shalto’s dying body fell against the cage door, her face sliding down the mesh to rest at his hand in a final act of self-sacrifice. Ten years of research confirmed in one moment’s selfless act. Dr. Filegro knew the next hour would be critical, but it would be in the coming quiet years that he’d really be tested.


© Michael G Zealey


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