Age Seven: Burying the Evidence of a Crime
I was sort of expecting it that night when Danielle had one of her crying fits. I can see them coming because her lower lip curls, her nose becomes scrunched, her eyes half close, her hands start flailing, and she hunches over like an old woman.I’ll celebrate when I see Amu,” Danielle said, rejecting Mom’s suggestion of a seventh birthday party. Not wanting another awkward party, Mom backed off.
“You sort of know how this will work out,” I said to Danielle as she sniffled in my arms.
“Sure, but I can’t help sinking into this feeling,” she said as she regained enough composure to respond.
“The million-mile bridge again?” I asked. She was thinking it over, so I added, “That sounds pretty strenuous.”
“Pretty lonely, actually,” Danielle responded. “Like a goodbye.”
“A goodbye can be followed by a hello.”
“There’s no hello,” Danielle replied, “just goodbye.”
“Mom’s talking about another visit from Dr. Sonis,” I said.
“Oh my god, you told her!” Danielle exclaimed.
“Well, a week ago Mom saw you running to my room with, uhh, some urgency. I had to reassure her that nothing drastic had happened. Dad was there, too, and he said he knew about it.”
“Yeah, I think Dad overheard me and we talked about it.”
“Oh, thanks for telling me that Dad knows.”
She nodded and sniffled. “Yeah, and thanks for telling me about Mom.”
“So, what did Dad say?”
“He said he knows about the endless rooms, too.”
“Yeah, well, endless rooms, endless bridge, it’s just different metaphors. But he’s learned how to be okay with it. He said when you’re in one of the rooms, the rest of the world seems like an illusion, but when you’re out in the world the eternal succession of empty rooms becomes the dream.” Danielle sighed. “I don’t think I found that especially comforting. What did Mom say?”
“She said they’re panic attacks. Dad has had them, too, but she’s disturbed that you’re having them at such a young age. I didn’t have the heart to mention that these episodes started when you were two.”
She was standing at the foot of the staircase again with the rolling suitcase. Those country music stickers had been replaced by scotch-taped pictures of someone I didn’t recognize.
“New singer, Dani?” I asked.
“I don’t think he sings. Cheng Liu is a physicist.”
“He looks pretty young to be a physicist.”
“He’s ten,” Danielle replied. “Well, almost eleven.”
“You probably have the only Cheng Liu suitcase in all of North America.”
“I think there might be a few in China.”
“What sort of physics? Stars and galaxies?”
“Actually, the other end of the size continuum,” Danielle replied. “Very little things. You’ve heard of strings?”
“String theory?38 Sure.”
“Strings are like little spaghettis only much smaller and with zero width,” Danielle explained.
“I like fat spaghetti myself,” I replied.
Danielle went on as if I hadn’t interrupted. “Cheng Liu replaces the strings with what he calls manifolds.39 Two-dimensional ones are like curved sheets of paper. And three-dimensional ones are like tiny objects bending in the fourth or fifth dimension.”
I smiled at her earnest explanation and gave a nod. “Makes sense.”
“It makes a lot of sense. I could never understand why string theory was restricted to just one-dimensional objects.”
“That does seem pretty limiting.”
“Now this research has me wondering, why stop at three dimensions?” Danielle said, a spark of excitement in her eyes. “I mean, if we have the dimensions handy, then why not have four or five dimensional manifolds and beyond?”
“Exactly my sentiment.”
“Okay, you’ll see,” Danielle said.
“I’m sure I will. Where are you off to this time? Antarctica?” I asked, and immediately regretted it, not wanting to give her any ideas.
“I thought maybe I could go with you to CMA.”40
That was easy. “That’s no problem at all.”
“And I’d like to perform.”
“Uh, well. That’s probably doable, too. I’m only allowed to introduce one new singer each year and I was going to introduce Meredith,” I said, referring to a Stern School classmate. “But I suppose she can wait until next year. I mean I think you can do it.”
“Terrific!” Danielle replied.
“But why don’t you talk to Dad about it first,” I added.
Danielle and Dad discussed the CMA at dinner, with Mom and me listening.
“You know, I’ve heard you two girls singing for years and you definitely have an amazing talent,” Dad said. “But there are a couple of things you should think about.”
Danielle turned in Dad’s direction and widened her eyes in anticipation.
“First, your sister already told Meredith she could perform this year.”
Dani bit her lip. “Go on.”
“Second, if you’re successful, and I’m sure you would be, it will be as if you’ve been shot out of a cannon. There will be no turning back.”
Danielle returned to eating her peas. I could tell she was thinking over Dad’s counsel.
“You know, if Meredith was counting on performing,” Danielle conceded, “I don’t want to be responsible for bumping her. I can wait.”
Dad, Mom, and I shared a relieved look.
While we were eating Mom’s blueberry pie, Danielle had another announcement.
“I got a letter from Amu.” She held a piece of paper and handed me an envelope.
“Oh wow, those are beautiful stamps,” I said as I passed the envelope to Mom.
“That’s wonderful, darling,” Mom said. “I know you’ve been missing your friend.”
“Her English is really getting better,” Danielle observed.
I was so happy for Dani. “We’re all ears. What did she say?”
“She writes ‘Dearest Dani, I hope all family happy. I go with Dad to Lusaka for water meeting be there last Tuesday November. Maybe you be there I bring pillars. All love, friend forever, Amukusana.’”
“Pillars?” I asked, knowing the answer as soon as the word left my mouth. “Oh! Pillows!”
Danielle stood and held up the pillow she had been sitting on. “This works out perfectly,” she exclaimed. “Claire and I will fly to Lusaka after the CMAs!”
So, Danielle and I went off to CMA.
I remember kneeling on the stage, checking the microphones while a massive wooden cowboy loomed over me. I motioned for Dani to come over beside me and she ran onto the stage holding her guitar. I pointed out at the vast, empty grassy field. “That’s where the fans will be soon. Isn’t that exciting?”
She looked at the field and gave a curtsey, as if greeting thousands of fans in the audience. In her enthusiasm, she grabbed the mic and started to sing one of her songs.
Before I knew it, the backup band for the Mountain Boys, who had been tuning their guitars, started jamming along, so I joined in, too. This resulted in a spontaneous fifteen-minute jam that ranged from Alabama blues41 to Jimi Hendrix.42 The Mountain Boys folks stared at Danielle, their mouths agape. As she struck the final dramatic chord, a couple of older guys who had listened from the field clapped with wild enthusiasm and their dogs started to howl in response to the clapping.
“That was pretty amazing,” I told Danielle that evening. “I mean you were, like, possessed. I’ve never heard you play quite like that before.”
She grinned. “Yeah, I can start my fan club now with two aging hippies and three hound dogs.”
“You gotta start somewhere. And, hey, there’s nothing wrong with aging hippies.”
Our propeller plane landed in Lusaka. We had good weather this time, which made all the difference in the world. Our plans to connect with Amu were pretty sketchy given that the only way to communicate with her was by letters that took a week to deliver. Danielle’s plan was to find out where the water meeting was once we got to our inn in Lusaka. I thought that “water meeting” was a bit vague, but she wasn’t concerned about it.
We were back in the stifling heat of the Lusaka airport. As we gathered our luggage, we were met as planned by Uncle Eric, who had been looking after the water program. Danielle gave him a hug, then paused. Something was wrong.
“Where’s Amu?” she asked.
“She’s fine,” Eric said. “She just wasn’t feeling well enough for the ride.” Eric gave Danielle a note.
“Not worry, dearest Danielle. Little sick. Amu good quick. All my love, Amukusana.”
I recognized the look of alarm in Danielle’s eyes.
“She’s really …” Eric started to say, but Danielle cut him off.
“Uncle Eric, you’re coming with me,” Danielle ordered. “And Claire, dearest sister, please get two donkeys, one for Eric and one for you and me. We’re going to Sempala.”
“I’m not sharing a donkey, dearest sister.”
“Three donkeys then.”
“They’re not always available,” Eric cautioned.
“Eric, please just come with me. Claire will get the donkeys.” I knew enough not to counter Danielle in her urgent problem-solving mode.
“Oh, and give me the printer,” she added. “It’s in your luggage.”
“What do you need with that?”
“It will help with communication.”
“What are you communicating?”
“I’ll explain later. Please focus on the donkeys.”
Danielle didn’t want to stop to sleep so we went thirty-six hours straight on the donkeys. The diverse display of animals in our midst did not seem quite as vibrant as they had the last time, and the carpet of stars only served to illuminate my lion patrol.
We finally arrived in Sempala, and Danielle ran frantically to Amu’s hut, with me just steps behind her. A few of the women recognized us and gave us animated waves. Amu was lying there, asleep, drenched in perspiration, two women sitting by her bed.
Danielle had learned enough Bemba to ask them where Amu’s mom was. The women told her that she was seeking a nurse, but the answer was delivered with a look of resignation that said We don’t expect this mission to succeed. Danielle gave Amu a hug which left Dani’s T-shirt dripping wet. Amu opened her eyes and gave us a weak smile.
Danielle pulled out a mercury thermometer and stuck it in Amu’s mouth along with her fingers to prevent Amu from biting down.
“102°,” I read off the thermometer.
Danielle then produced several devices from her knapsack. She had Amu bite on a rubber ball while she stuck a metal scraper into her throat and within a few seconds had the sample she needed. Out came several bottles with different colored liquids, and another tool to carve up the sample. One by one she put small samples into the bottles and mixed various preparations.
“She doesn’t have malaria,” Danielle declared after about twenty minutes. Other conclusions followed. “Negative for typhoid … Negative for dengue and yellow fever. I do think it’s viral, however.”
The women tending the water machine hugged me each time I went to fetch water for Amu. We had now been up for about forty-eight hours and Danielle finally fell asleep holding Amu’s hand. I accepted one of the women’s offer to share her bed. I don’t think anybody slept very well, with Amu wheezing and gasping for breath.
The next morning, I went to fetch more water and when I returned Danielle was holding the thermometer for me to read.
The day after that was worse. Amu was in and out of consciousness. When she was awake, she just panted and moaned.
As I came back with water the next morning:
“We have to get a nurse,” I said in a panicked voice.
“Good luck with that.” Danielle sounded surprisingly calm.
“We still have to try,” I said.
She nodded. “I’ll stay with Amu.”
I ran out of the hut and tried to ask for help, but had difficulty explaining my request, as there was no entry for nurse or doctor in my English-Bemba dictionary. I did find the word “hospital,” but when I said the word Cipatâla to the kind ladies by the water machine, they sighed and pointed far in the distance. “Mufulira,” they said.
I ran to the donkey station and caught Uncle Eric as he was grooming the largest one.
“Uncle Eric, we need to get Amu to a doctor or nurse immediately. She is sinking—or I should say her temperature is soaring. I understand there’s a hospital in Mufulira.”
“Actually, I already looked that up. It’s twenty-four hours away without stopping,” he replied. “I don’t think Amu could make a trip like that.”
“Then we have to go fetch help and bring someone back here.”
“We can try, Claire,” Eric replied, “but that’s a very small hospital, and they’re not exactly on standby to make house calls. And isn’t Amu’s mom trying to find a nurse?”
“We have to try, too,” I said. “I’ll be ready to leave in ten minutes.”
I ran to tell Danielle the plan, as fast as my feet could carry me.
But when I entered the hut, Amu was sitting up, smiling, and the color back in her face. Danielle handed me the thermometer.
“Oh my god, 99°!” I exclaimed. “It’s a miracle!”
“Miracle of modern medicine,” Danielle said.
“Medicine?” I asked.
“Ribavirin,”43 Danielle replied. “It’s a strong broad-spectrum antiviral, effective against Rift Valley Fever, which is what I think she has—probably from a mosquito. Ribavirin has a good track record in swampy areas like Sempala.”
“How did you get that? Isn’t it a prescription drug?” I asked.
She glanced away. “We’ll discuss that later. I think Amu needs some fresh air.”
Danielle helped Amu up, and she walked shakily and slowly out of the hut with Danielle holding her hand. The two girls took a slow walk to the stream, visited the water machine, got a drink of water for Amu, and then came back to the hut.
We stayed the night again in Amu’s hut, only this time the girls talked for several hours, helping each other with their English and Bemba respectively. Amu walked slowly to her suitcase and opened it. There were the two small pillows she had planned to bring to Lusaka. They had a very gentle pillow fight and fell asleep arm in arm.
This made me think of Charlie, and I started to miss him.
One of the donkeys was ill, so I ended up sharing a donkey with Danielle on the trip back. I got the front saddle and it was not as uncomfortable as I feared. As it turned out, this was a good thing, since I was easily within reach when Danielle had one of her crying fits, as twilight set on the first day of our voyage back to Lusaka.
“You seem to time these well,” I said. “I mean you don’t seem to get panic attacks when you’re engaged in a crisis.”
That seemed to distract Danielle momentarily from her crying. “I’m glad crises are good for something.”
“Well maybe. But did you ever think that you might seek crises to protect you from your panic attacks?” I added.
“Thanks, Claire, I’ll be sure to mention that to Dr. Freud the next time I see him.”
“Does Dr. Freud make house calls?”
“Okay, Dr. Sonis, then.”
At our usual resting spot between Sempala and Lusaka, we snuck away from Uncle Eric to find a spot in the grass to gaze at the stars. I had been too distressed to enjoy them on our donkey ride to Sempala.
I finally had a chance to ask Danielle about the medicine. “Okay, so how did you get your hands on Ribavirin? That is a prescription drug, right?”
“I just gave the prescription to the druggist—that’s why I needed the printer.”
“Right here,” Danielle said, unfolding a wrinkled piece of paper from her vest pocket.
“This is a prescription for your nose drops.”
“Yeah, my Nyanja is a little uncertain, so I may have made a few mistakes translating it.”
“I see. And they just handed this drug to a seven-year-old?”
“No, no, to Uncle Eric. He was the grown-up.”
“And he didn’t notice your, uh, translation errors?”
“Turns out his Nyanja is a lot rustier than his Bemba.”
“And how did you know that Ribavirin was the right drug?”
“I got the ones I thought might be needed.”
“Yeah, let’s see,” Danielle said as she took her supplies from her knapsack. “Oseltamivir and Zanamivir for additional antivirals, and Amoxicillin, Ciprofloxacin, and Erythromycin for antibiotics.” The labels were all in Nyanja.
“And they gave you, er, Uncle Eric, all these drugs with one prescription?”
“Well, one at each pharmacy we went to.”
I shook my head in amazement. “What else do you have in there?” I reached into her knapsack. “Syringes of blood?” I asked.
“That’s Amu’s blood—I needed to run some additional diagnostics. Otherwise how would I know what drug to use?”
“Yes, of course,” I replied. “And where did you get all of this medical knowledge?”
“I do read, remember?”
“Good point. You never did stick to age appropriate literature,” I replied. “So, tell me, in your extensive reading, have you ever studied Zambian prison conditions?”
Danielle responded with her typical silent defiance. “Do you think I did the wrong thing?” she finally answered. “I mean, Amu wouldn’t have survived much longer with such a high fever.”
It was my turn to be silent for a long time. “I think you did the right thing, Danielle. I just don’t know how long we can survive with you always doing the right thing. You know, we might want to get rid of this stuff before we go through airport security in Lusaka.”
She gave me a knowing look, and took a small fold-up shovel out of her knapsack.
“Boy, you really thought of everything,” I said.
“You know they could actually use these medications in Zambia,” I added.
“Right,” Danielle replied. “We’ll just get rid of the paraphernalia. We can leave the medicines in a paper bag by the front door of the hospital near the airport.”
And so, by the light of the moon, we took turns digging a deep hole to bury the evidence of Danielle’s crime.