‘Sh-h …’ Angelina warned. ‘Someone … or something coming up the bank.’ She unsheathed her hunting knife.
Pieter fingered his knife and the other men reached for staves.
Ira appeared, crawling on all fours. We stared at him. By the time he reached us, he was shaking. He shocked me with his weirdness, his drawn face, the black filth he disgorged, the contortions of his hands. None of us would go near him. At the top of the bank, he attempted to stand, reeled forward and collapsed on hands and knees, heaving and retching.
He was in a terrible state, blackened from head to foot from falling into burnt vegetation. His clothes were in a dreadful mess from vomiting. We backed away. Clutching his abdomen, he wailed, trying to stand but reeling on his feet. He clawed his stomach and heaved again.
Pieter watched in revulsion. ‘What’s wrong with old fancy pants? You been drinking the river water again, Ira? Should have boiled it first, you know.’
A black object slipped from one of Ira’s pockets and plopped onto the earth. Pieter frowned and picked it up. My eyes were on the building contractor’s fingers. He examined the charred thing, turned it over in his fingers. I realised it was a piece of meat, the roast carcass of a tiny animal.
‘You been scoffing these, Ira?’ He managed to elicit a weak nod. ‘This
morning? All by yourself? What about us? This morning, we hadn’t
eaten for four days. Damn pig. Did you leave anything for us, Ira?
Couldn’t you bring a few morsels for your dear starving friends?
Damn you. Probably been gorging your face all day.’
Ira heaved again, just about choking as he did so.
‘That’s right, choke, you bastard. You’ve eaten our share too.’
Pieter examined the corpse closely, sniffed it, then held it up for a better assessment. The lower members of the limbs and the head were burnt off. The tail, I could see, was missing too. As he clasped the little body in his fingers, I imagined the terrified animal fleeing the smoke and flames, scurrying through the grass. It was a rat and
Pieter knew it.
A grin came across his face. ‘Look, Ira.’ The unhappy architect peered up in misery. Pieter dangled the carcass in his fingers so that it hung by what was left of its tail. With his other hand, he held his nose,
pegging his nostrils. Ira stared while Pieter danced a jig. We
watched in puzzlement.
Abruptly, Pieter ceased his antics. ‘D’you know what you been scoffing? Do you know, Ira? Rats. Of all the filth to have in your guts. Rat, Ira. You got rat down your throat.’ He flung the corpse into the grass. Nausea must have swept over Ira, for his stomach heaved, disgorging the intolerable flesh into the grass.
Pieter laughed at him. ‘Rats carry terrible diseases, hey.’
Ira lay alone in his misery. His spasms diminished and might have eased their intensity. He rested, his breathing coming in short gasps. His eyes appeared sunken and staring. I realised he was ogling Angelina helping Jason drink. Another spasm overwhelmed him and he rolled onto his stomach to be sick.
‘Lassa Fever. That’s why you’re so sick, boy. You’ve contracted Lassa Fever from the rats.’
Ira stared up at him from the ground.
‘You’re finished, Ira. It’s the scourge of Africa. Tomorrow, you’ll be a
stiff cadaver. We’ll leave you for the crocodiles.’
I was about to tell Pieter to shut up when he started again.
‘Don’t you remember reading about those American scientists? Studying the disease, became infected themselves? Two of them women, flown back to the States, placed in isolation. Modern medicine could not help them, Ira. All over in five days. It’s worse than rabies.’
From the YA novel ‘The Girl Who Tweaked Two Lions’ Tails’.
Fab reviews on Good Reads.
On Promotion Sunday 2 June. Free downloads from Amazon. One day only.