When I stepped off the plane the most astonishing sight came into view of mountains that touched the sky. The greenery was so brilliant that the blue of the sky was muted. Clouds circled the mountains but did not touch them. I stood transfixed as I took in this spectacle.
"Excuse me ma'am, but the rest of the passengers need to get by." It was the kindly voice of the steward that brought me back to the present.
"I am so sorry," I said.
“It's quite alright, Dr. Albright. It's the reaction most people have when they first see our little island paradise.”
I had come to the little island paradise to conduct research for the Centers for Disease Control. The world was in the midst of a pandemic and millions of people had died worldwide, but here on Martin's Island, only one person had died from the VR1- Virus. The rest of the population had remained disease-free. Originally the thought had been that the island had shut down, thereby keeping the virus at bay, but in reality, tourists had been coming and going the entire time. The question was how they had maintained their healthy community. The answer to that question might be the answer to the pandemic and a solution for the future.
As I looked around, I could see no other planes on the tarmac. One flight a day from Miami was what the brochure had indicated. We had landed at noon and the sun shone brightly overhead. The heat would have been staggering except for the soft breeze.
A small, seventyish gentleman in shorts and a brightly patterned shirt stepped forward holding a sign with my name. He smiled and offered to take my bag. "We're delighted you are here, Dr. Albright. The car is just over here." He tilted his head in the direction of a dusty, green Jeep. The vehicle had a canvas roof, but little else in the way of safety. The doors had been removed and the windshield was folded down over the engine hood. He reacted to the surprise in my expression. "I can assure you that it is quite safe."
“Thank you," I said. I clutched my medical bag close as I walked toward the Jeep. "Do we have far to travel to the clinic?”
"Call me Gerard. It's about ten miles to the other side of the island. You'll get a good look at Martin's Island as we travel."
As we drove along the coastal road Gerard pointed out some of the landmarks and talked of local history. The ocean waves were calm and rhythmic. The sky was cloudless and blue. Gulls hovered over the water in search of food and a few people lounged on the sandy beaches that stretched along the island's coast. On the other side of the Jeep, the hills rose sharply and melded into the central mountains. Gerard explained that the tallest of the mountains was a dormant volcano that the locals called Mauna. The clouds that I had seen earlier circled this peak, but the very top of Mauna was visible.
We passed through a small village with wooden buildings and colored umbrellas on tables outside. Gerard said that these were the local restaurants and bars. Small homes were scattered about the hillside above the restaurants. The houses were brightly colored and appeared neat and well cared for. A bit farther down the road buildings appeared that were larger and more modern. "This is hotel row," Gerard said. He shook his head. "There are restrictions on height and size, but it seems every year they get bigger and more expansive."
"I take it you don't care for the tourists," I said.
"The tourists are okay." He was quiet for a bit. I thought perhaps he was working on what he should say. "It's just the business people that come and want to take over the island that I have a problem with."
"I can understand that," I said. I sat quietly for the rest of the ride to the clinic. I wasn't sure what Gerard and the locals might think about my study of their habits, but I didn't want to begin my journey by offending anyone.
The clinic was just beyond the hotels in a cinder- block one-story building. It was painted white and had bright red shutters that appeared to function to keep out hurricane speed winds and torrential rain. It was nestled at the foot of the hills and back away from the road some distance. I'm sure that was to help with flooding or any wave surges. The St. Angel Clinic sign was large and well-positioned. We turned into the dirt road and parked just outside the front door. Two other vehicles were parked at the clinic— another Jeep and a van that looked as if it was a hundred years old.
"We're here," Gerard said as the Jeep jerked to a stop. He engaged the hand brake and jumped from his seat. Coming around to my side he offered his hand and then reached into the back seat to retrieve my small bag. I hadn't packed much for this trip, knowing that the weather would be hot and I might not stay very long.
The front screen door creaked as Gerard opened it and the main wooden door was propped open. No air conditioning, I thought as I scanned the dark room. A row of chairs lined the wall that faced the water. At the other end of this room was a counter for checking in. The room was painted green and the floor was covered in rough-hewn boards. No expense spared, I laughed to myself.
A young man in a white coat appeared in the doorway next to the counter. "Ah! Dr. Albright, I presume?" He extended his hand. "My name is Dr. David Turner. I'm the attending here."
I took his hand and felt his firm grip. "I'm delighted to be here."
“Did you have a good flight?”
“Yes, thank you.”
He looked at Gerard. "Thank you for delivering Dr. Albright. I think we can take it from here."
Gerard turned to bid me goodbye and went out the door. I heard the Jeep motor turn over and then the sound of tires on the dirt as he drove away.
Dr. Turner picked up my small bag and motioned me through the door he had come through. "You'll be staying here at the clinic in our guest room while you conduct your studies. I hope you'll find it agreeable."
I was a bit surprised that I would be staying on- premises but quickly decided that might be better. I could do my work and perhaps not have to stay too long. Although I was as intrigued as anyone else at the CDC, this trip had come at an inopportune time in my personal life. My husband and I had been having some troubles for a while, and leaving him during this fearful time wasn't ideal. But I had decided that my career might do well if I could figure out the island's secret, so I had taken the assignment and told Doug we should use this time apart to think about our relationship.
The guest room was sparsely appointed but had everything I would need while I conducted my research. The double bed was against the far wall, and there was a small wooden desk with a chair and a closet with some drawers built-in. David set my bag down on the bed and motioned to the door. "You’ll find a bathroom across the hall. I will warn you, however, you will be sharing it with staff and patients, so it will only be a private bathroom after hours."
"I will bear that in mind," I replied. I couldn't imagine sharing it with all those people, but I didn't know what to say. "Where do you live?"
"The small, one-room building out back is mine. It's not much, but it does allow some separation from work at night. The locals know where I live, though, so often they come to my door when they need help." David looked around the room and at my little bag. "I’ll give you some time to unpack and freshen up and then we can go to my office and talk. You're in luck, it has been a quiet day." With that, he turned and left the room, closing the door behind him.
I stood in the middle of the room and let out a sigh. Next to the bed was a window. I opened it, hoping for a breeze. It was warm inside the clinic, but it wasn't stifling, probably because of the cinder block and location nestled into the hill, but the air was still and stale in the small room and fresh air would help immeasurably.
When I finished settling in, I found David in his office, just down the hall from my room. It was a nicely furnished room with a carpet, a large wooden desk, several filing cabinets and colorful pictures on the walls. The office window was open and there was a soft breeze moving through the room. I found myself jealous of the breeze and hoped that maybe at night my room would cool.
As if reading my mind, David smiled. "If you leave your door open at night, you'll get a nice cross breeze from the rest of the open windows in the building. I would keep the door closed during the day, however."
“Thanks, I'll do that.”
An older woman appeared in the doorway holding a tray with our lunch. She set it on the edge of David's desk. He introduced her as Essie and said she would be providing our meals. “She lives down the road and is an amazing cook."
I smiled at Essie. "It looks divine."
Essie nodded and left the room. I sat down in the chair next to the desk and as we ate the fruit and meats on the tray we talked about the clinic and the island. David had come to Martin's Island on vacation after graduating from medical school and found it a perfect place to begin his medical career. That had been five years ago and he had no plans to leave anytime soon. "The locals are industrious and caring people. They will make you feel at home quickly and take care of all your needs if you are open to them."
After lunch, we spent the rest of the afternoon talking about the pandemic and David's thoughts about why Martin's Island had been spared the deaths we were seeing worldwide. He admitted that he didn't have any medical answers for the anomaly. He offered the use of his files and suggested that I spend some time in the village talking with and observing people.
The clinic closed at five o'clock and David suggested we go into town for dinner and he'd show me around. I was grateful for the company. I didn't travel by myself often and usually only to medical conferences where there were people and activities to keep me from being alone. The idea of hanging around Martin's Island by myself was a bit daunting, I welcomed his companionship.
The café was in the center of the cluster of bars and restaurants. It was a beautiful, clear night so we sat at a table outside. The stars filled the sky and the aroma from the kitchen was intoxicating. As we stood to leave, I noticed Essie sitting at one of the interior tables with Gerard and another older man. Essie's eyes met mine and I smiled and gave her a little wave. She nodded slightly and went back to her conversation.
When I returned to the clinic I tried calling Doug. I wasn't sure how good the reception would be out in the country, but I could hear the phone ringing. After five rings it went to voice mail. "Doug, I have arrived safely and will begin my research tomorrow morning. I hope you are alright—feel free to call me at any time. I love you." After a short hesitation, I disengaged. Even though the time apart might be a good idea, it was worrisome not to talk to Doug. The pandemic was everywhere—except here it seemed— and I would feel better when I could talk with my husband.
In the morning I dressed and wandered the village and the beaches talking to locals whenever I could. Everyone seemed open and willing to answer my questions, but no one had an answer about how they had stayed healthy. I began my methodical search of David's medical files. So far I couldn't find any trace of evidence that would pinpoint what made this island different from the rest of the world. Food and exercise are common among all islanders and yet, other islands had suffered at the hands of the pandemic. People here on Martin's Island suffered all the common ailments: heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, asthma, and cancer. But only one, an old man, had ever shown symptoms of the VR1-virus. That patient had died, but no one else contracted the virus. It was a mystery indeed, but an important one to unravel.
At the end of clinic hours, David came into his office looking tired. "It was a busy day," he said. He sat down in the chair next to his desk and looked at me. "Find anything useful?"
I shook my head as I stretched my back. I hadn't realized how long I had been sitting there hunched over his files. "I'm not finding anything that would answer my questions. Do you have any theories?" As a medical doctor, I was hoping he might be able to shed some light on the anomaly.
"I don't really. I guess I stay busy enough that I haven't given it much thought. Thinking the tropical weather and sunshine might make the virus less aggressive."
“It's a good theory except for the fact that other tropical islands haven't been so lucky.”
"Well, good luck with your search. I'm going to my house to call it a day. I'm nearby if you need anything." With that, he stood up and turned to leave.
“I think I'll go back to our little café for some dinner. Shall I bring you something?”
"Thanks, but Essie left me a tray for this evening. I knew I would be busy all day and she offered. I should have said something to you—but things just got away from me." David looked a bit sheepish as he said this.
“No problem. I could use the fresh air.”
I tried calling Doug again. Still no answer. Now I was beginning to get worried, so I called Annie, my best friend and colleague. She answered on the second ring.
“Hi, stranger. How’s it going in paradise?”
I smiled at Annie's optimism. "Sorry to say I haven't cracked the mystery yet. But I'm calling to see if you've seen or heard from Doug. I tried calling yesterday and again today and no answer." I was trying hard not to let my concern show.
"I haven't, but you know, we've been slammed here at the hospital. I will check on him after my shift and let him know you've been trying to call. How is it there?"
“Well, as you'd imagine, beautiful—sunny, hot and not a cloud in the sky, except for the ones that circle the volcano.”
I could hear Annie's laughter. "A volcano? Hope it's not active."
"No, apparently it’s been dormant for centuries." I sat down on the edge of the bed and found myself wanting to lie down. "I’m heading into the village shortly for some dinner and then early bed and up to continue my research through the files here at the clinic. It's a mystery here—no indication or promise of an answer."
“Don't worry, if there is an answer to be found, you're the one to find it!”
After we hung up I decided to just lie on the bed a minute longer. Sometime later in the night—it was so dark outside even the stars seemed to be hiding— I awoke to the sound of wind—wind like someone had pointed one of those giant circular fans next to my bedroom window. A howling sound accompanied the wind. I could hear a banging sound coming from the front of the clinic and I jumped out of bed and ran to see where the noise was coming from. The screen door was banging against its frame, so I latched it closed and began to lower the windows.
Suddenly the lights came on and I turned to see David standing in the room. "I heard the wind and came to check on you. You alright?"
I had to admit I was glad to see someone else. "I'm fine. The screen door was swinging in the wind making a banging sound, so I got up to close it."
"Sometimes these storms come out of nowhere. It should be fine by morning." David double checked the front door to the clinic and then helped me finish closing windows.
"Thanks for checking on me. I must admit, I fell asleep and woke to the sound of wind and it was a bit unsettling." I felt silly admitting this, but it was true.
“No problem. I should have mentioned the possibility, but it slipped my mind.”
“Any other weather issues you might want to mention now?" I laughed and it sounded a bit nervous to me. "Just in case.”
“No, I think this is the big one. Do you want me to stay here with you?”
"Oh, no, that isn't necessary. Now that I know what it is, I'll be fine." I tried to sound confident. I did realize that I hadn't had dinner and was now a little hungry. "Any chance of a snack around here?"
"Oh, of course. Essie keeps snacks in the little refrigerator behind the counter. Help yourself. I'm sure she'll be by to restock tomorrow." He opened the refrigerator door. "Yep, lots of goodies in here— you should be fine."
I checked the refrigerator and found some fruit and cookies and gratefully took them back to my room. I hadn't lowered my bedroom window, so I set my food on the desk and closed the window. Papers and files had blown onto the floor and I stooped to gather them. Soon I heard banging again. I thought maybe the screen door had come loose so I got up and went to check. People were pounding on the door and shouting. I turned on the lights and ran to the door to open it.
At least a dozen people stood outside the clinic, and all of them were shouting at the same time. "Help! Help! The café collapsed and several people have been hurt! Where is Dr. Turner?" I noticed a man carrying a young boy in his arms. I could see blood trickling down the boy's face and right arm and the man holding him had blood on his arms as well.
"Come in! I'll take a look at you two and one of you can run out back and get Dr. Turner. My name is Dr. Albright. Let's see what we can do for you." The man seemed relieved to bring the boy into the waiting room. I led them back to the exam room while a few in the group ran through the hallway to the back door. Everyone else milled around the waiting room talking loudly about what had happened.
As the man set the boy on the exam table he looked at me. "You're a doctor?"
“Yes, Dr. Albright from Atlanta, Georgia. I'm here on a research project, but I can certainly take a look at—”
"Richardo, he's my son. We were just leaving the café when it collapsed. The debris hit both of us but seemed to hit Richardo harder. He'll be okay, though, right?" The man talked rapidly and stared intently into my eyes.
"I will take a look at Richardo and then you as well. Let's see what we have here." I began my exam of the boy and discovered mostly superficial wounds. He responded well to my questions and I decided it was not likely that he had a concussion. His father's wounds were mostly superficial as well, but since he had carried the boy, the blood commingled on the father and his wounds had appeared more serious until cleaned. "You both will be fine—just some scrapes and bruises. You were lucky."
I heard the commotion when the crowd saw David enter through the back door. He stuck his head in the exam room and when I gave him the thumbs up, he continued into the waiting room. As I finished with the boy and his father, I joined the group and learned that several people had been trapped inside the café when the wind caused the roof to fall. David went with the group to see what he could do to help and I agreed to stay at the clinic and receive any wounded that might be found.
As I headed back to the exam room to clean up and inventory what supplies we had for a major emergency, I decided that I would keep the bloodied sponges for examination after things were calm. I placed the sponges I had used on the boy and his father in separate bags and marked them.
Soon more survivors began to arrive at the clinic. Most were carried in by villagers but a couple were able to walk on their own with assistance. David only had one exam room, so we moved a couch from the waiting room into his office where I set up to examine patients. The triage center was in the hallway and David's nurse, Bella, took over. She sent the most injured to David and I would get those who only needed cleaning and bandaging. Unfortunately, two people didn't survive—they worked in the kitchen where the most damage had taken place. Even during the chaos, I thought to ask David to bag sponges and mark them for my research, and I did the same.
It was late when the clinic became quiet. Most of the patients had been sent home to recuperate. The elderly man I saw sitting in the café the first night with Essie was still in the exam room. He had some head injuries and David felt he needed observation before he could go home. All in all, I was exhausted, but exhilarated. It had been a dozen years since I had contact with patients. I had decided early in my career that patient care wasn't my passion and had moved into research. Although I worked with doctors of patients, I hadn't had real contact with sick or injured people. It felt good to get my hands back in the game, and I knew that David would have been able to handle the crisis eventually, but having my help probably saved him hours.
When I cleaned up and changed my bloodied clothes, I headed for the refrigerator in the waiting room. Essie had been there during the pandemonium and had filled the refrigerator with food. I looked around and saw her sitting quietly in one of the chairs by the window. "Essie, thank you so much for the food!"
“You are welcome. How is Rudolfo?”
“He's the older man from the café, right?”
Essie nodded. I could see her hands fondling a set of rosary beads.
"I think he will be fine. Dr. Turner just wants to observe him through the night and then he will probably be able to go home in the morning. Is he your husband? A relative?"
Essie again nodded. "He is my brother. He is very old and I am afraid."
I sat down next to her and put my hand on her shoulder. "Dr. Turner will take very good care of him. You should go home and rest."
Essie looked into my eyes and I could see the tears. "I will wait here if that is okay."
I smiled. "Of course it is." I got up and went back to the refrigerator and picked up an apple. "Thank you again." I headed back to the exam room to tell David about my conversation.
After things had calmed down, I looked at my phone and noticed that I had a couple of voice mails. One was from Annie: "I talked with Doug. He's fine and should call you." The other was from Doug: "Sorry I wasn't here to take your call. I've been on call most of the time you've been gone. We have more patients every day so I'm sleeping here at the hospital. Will try to call you again when I have a break. I love you, too."
I let out a huge sigh. I don't think I realized how worried I had been. Doug and I met when I was a resident at Duke University Hospital and he was a general surgery resident. We both were hired at Grady Hospital in Atlanta where I worked until I decided on research and was eventually hired at the CDC. Doug remained a surgeon but had moved to private practice. I was sure that the hospital had recruited everyone they could to help handle this pandemic—medical facilities were stretched to the limit and there appeared no end in sight. Hopefully, my research could shed some light on what was happening on Martin's Island. I realized that I hadn't checked on the packaged sponges that David and I had collected during the day. I went into the exam room and found Rudolfo sleeping. David wasn't in the room, so I quietly opened the cooler and looked at the baggies waiting for my appraisal. I relaxed a bit and turned to leave to find Rudolfo awake and looking at me.
“I'm so sorry—I didn't mean to wake you. How are you feeling?”
Rudolfo raised his eyebrows. "Who are you?"
"I'm Dr. Albright. I am here doing some research. I helped Dr. Turner today with his patients. How are you doing?" I walked over to Rudolfo and took hold of his wrist to take his pulse.
He laid his head back down on the table and slowly shook his head. "I'm okay. A headache is all."
"I'm not surprised. That's quite a bump on your head. I'll get Dr. Turner and see if he wants to give you anything for that headache." I noted his pulse and left the room to find David sitting next to Essie in the waiting room. "Your patient is awake. Says he has a headache."
David nodded and squeezed Essie's arm as he stood up. "I'll see what I can do. Thanks for checking on him."
The next morning the sun was bright, no clouds in the sky and the wind was slight. If we hadn't worked through the bedlam the night before, I wouldn't have known anything bad had happened. I walked into the waiting room to find Bella at the counter pouring a cup of coffee.
"Good morning, Dr. Albright. How did you sleep?" Bella held out the cup.
“Thank you. I slept well. Please call me Alicia." I took a sip of the hot solution. "Mmmm. This is so good.”
"Dr. Turner isn't in yet," said Bella. "He stayed with Rudolfo most of the night, so he'll be coming in later unless you need him."
“Oh, that’s fine. How is our patient this morning?”
“He's gone home, or at least I assume so. He wasn't here when I came in.”
That was a bit of a surprise. I didn’t think David would release him in the middle of the night. I walked down the hall to the exam room to find Bella was right—Rudolfo was gone. As I stood there, I decided that since David wasn't coming in until later, I would go ahead and start my analysis of the bloody sponges. I was pleased to learn that the clinic had the capability of blood analysis. That would make the process quicker and more efficient. The hematology analyzer was located in a small, windowless closet next to the exam room and with any luck, I should have results of each sample within twenty minutes each. With laptop in hand, I began my review of the blood samples we had taken during the crisis.
I was waiting for the results of my sixth sample when I heard the back door open and heavy footsteps in the hallway. As I looked up from my computer, David leaned into the tiny room. "How’s it going?"
"I'm only two blood samples away from having some results. Are you rested from last night?" I stood up from the stool. "I understand that Rudolfo went home last night?"
David's face took on a strange look. "What do you mean?" He rushed to the exam room and threw open the door. "Where is Rudolfo?" He ran to the waiting room and questioned Bella.
I caught up with David to hear Bella's response: "I thought you sent him home last night. He wasn't here when I came in.”
David scratched his head. "I most certainly did not." He walked to the front door and stood there looking out to the ocean. "It must have been Essie. Rudolfo kept saying he didn't want to stay, so I guess she helped him home." David hurried into his office and came out with his bag. "I'm going to Essie's and see if he's there. I'd like to check on him at least." With that, David was banging out the front door and the sound of his car engine shortly followed.
I went back to the analyzer and finished my samples. I took my data and sat down at my desk to do some research. Within an hour I had my results. Whether the patient was young or old or in between, my eight-person sample showed the same thing: everyone had antigens against the VR1-Virus. How could that be? Usually, immunity is created after you've had a virus and survived or had a vaccine. There was no vaccine and according to all of David's medical records, no one tested positive for the VR1-Virus on the island except the old man— who subsequently died. So, this just didn't make any sense. Granted, eight people isn't a very big sampling, but without exception, they all had the immunity. To be thorough I would need more samples; then I could make a more accurate hypothesis. How would I get others to give me blood samples? I was ruminating over this problem when I heard a car engine and then the front door bang open again.
"He wasn't there!" shouted David.
I came out of my room. "What do you mean he's not there?"
David paced around the waiting area and gesticulated wildly with his arms. "Essie says she doesn't know where he is and hasn't seen him since she left the clinic late last night. Where could he have gone? Did you hear anything?" He stopped walking long enough to look directly at me.
“Honestly, I was so tired, I didn't hear anything. I'm so sorry. What can I do?”
He shook his head and looked at Bella. "I'm headed into town. Maybe someone knows something." He looked at me with an inquisitive face.
"I'm coming!" I grabbed my purse and ran out the door trying to keep up with him.
We spent the afternoon driving from place to place, but no one had seen Rudolfo or knew anything about his disappearance. By dinnertime, we decided to stop and have something to eat. We settled on dinner at a place next to the demolished café. I was shocked at how total the destruction was—nothing left but rubble. I couldn't believe that anyone had escaped.
David noticed my shock. "The townspeople finished dismantling the café during the day. The sooner it is cleaned up, the quicker the owners can rebuild."
I was somewhat relieved that the damage I was looking at wasn't the result of the wind the previous night. As we ate dinner, I wasn't sure if it was the right time to bring up my research results—David had a missing patient on his mind.
But he gave me an opening. "So, did you have some time to analyze those samples?"
I was excited to discuss my data with him. "Yes, actually I managed to get through all eight samples and found something interesting. Everyone we treated yesterday has antigens for the VR1-Virus."
David sat back in his chair and raised an eyebrow. "All of them?"
"I know, queer isn't it?" I wiped my mouth with my napkin and leaned in closer. "I know that eight samples isn't a big pool, but everyone! I am thinking I need to take blood samples from more villagers and see if my hypothesis is correct."
“We can probably make that happen. You can start with me and Bella and we'll see who else might volunteer.”
"Perfect." I was excited now and hopeful that we would get to the bottom of this mystery and find a vaccine for the VR1-Virus.
"Well, maybe we can solve your mystery. Looks like mine is still out there somewhere." David shook his head and looked at his phone.
"No." David shrugged his shoulders and let out a sigh. "I think it's time to head back to the clinic. Nowhere else to search and it will be dark shortly."
The next morning, I took blood samples from David and Bella as promised. Bella was tasked with putting out the word in the village to see if we could get volunteers to come to the clinic. I analyzed the blood samples and found they both had the VR1- Virus immunity marker. When I told them, they seemed surprised, but pleased. I quizzed them about the possibility of having had the virus and both were one hundred percent sure they had not been exposed or had the virus. This was getting more mysterious by the vial.
By the end of the day, I had five more volunteers give blood with the same results. I was sure that it wouldn't matter how many came forward, the tests would confirm the same thing—immunity to the VR1- Virus. I was certain of that finding, but still no closer to figuring out how that came about, although for the CDC it wouldn't matter—with these blood samples, a vaccine could be developed and in time the pandemic could be controlled. But I knew that if I could determine how these people had the immunity, we could prevent millions of deaths worldwide. I decided to do some old fashioned sleuthing.
My next day on Martin's Island found me back wandering the village. I started asking questions about the old man who had contracted the virus and the people he lived with and worked with. It seemed that every time I spoke with someone about the old man—Joseph—Essie's name came up. It was clear that Essie was a central fixture here on the island. I realized that I needed to have a conversation with her about Joseph and the virus.
It was near the end of the day when I approached the small wooden frame house that belonged to Essie. I walked up to the front door and as I lifted my hand to knock, the door opened. Essie stood there in a flowered apron, a wooden spoon in her hand. "Essie! It's so good to see you," I said.
Essie moved back and indicated I should come in. The small front room was painted turquoise and had brightly colored furniture. A rocking chair sat in the corner with a green cushion on the seat and back. I guessed this was Essie's seat. The house smelled of cinnamon and cloves and made my mouth water as I imagined the cookies or pie baking in the oven. Essie smiled. "The cookies will be ready soon."
I sat on an overstuffed yellow chair that faced the front window and Essie sat in the rocking chair opposite my chair. "I have found something interesting happening on Martin's Island,” I said, “and I think you can help me with the mystery."
Her facial expression didn't change. She leaned back in her rocker and closed her eyes. "Is this about your research?"
"Yes. Do you know why I am here?" I was surprised that she might care why I was here on Martin's Island.
"I do know why you are here. You want to know why we don't have the virus that is killing people all over the world." Essie stood and excused herself. I heard the oven door open and close and shortly she was back with a tray of cookies and a tall glass of cold water.
"Thank you." I sunk my teeth into the warm, gooey confection and let out a sigh.
Essie began to rock slowly. “There is a custom in my country that keeps us safe from the outside world.” She closed her eyes and started humming a soft tune, much like a child's lullaby.
"Can you tell me about that custom?" I wasn't entirely sure this kind of information would be helpful in my scientific report, but I was curious about what she might tell me.
"You will come back tomorrow and see for yourself. After dark, we will meet in my backyard." Essie stopped rocking and looked at me directly. "You won't tell anyone else and will come by yourself."
I understood her tone and nodded. I stood up and moved toward the door. "I will be back tomorrow, after dark and alone."
When I got back to the clinic, I didn't know what to think about what had just happened, but I had a job to do and sat at my desk to complete that task. I sent off several emails about my findings. In the morning I would prepare my cooler for transport of the blood samples back to the CDC for development of vaccines. I completed what I needed to do for the eventual termination of the pandemic, but my curiosity about how this immunity came about was not satisfied. I hoped tomorrow night would answer that mystery.
With my test samples safely packed and in transit to the CDC the next morning, I called Doug. To my surprise, he answered the phone on the second ring. "I’m so happy to finally talk with you,” I said. “How are you? What is happening at home?" I realized that I hadn't been keeping up with the news.
"The pandemic is still raging and we’re all hands on deck, but I'm doing fine." He sounded tired, his voice strained.
"No symptoms?" I worried about all our medical people on the front lines of the pandemic.
"No, no symptoms. The government has done a great job getting us protective gear, so we're being extra careful and hopeful. How is your research going? Any good news?"
“Oh, Doug. I sent blood vials today and I think you'll see a vaccine coming sooner than we thought. It's very good news here.”
"Good news, indeed. When are you coming home?" He sounded eager.
"I should be flying out of here in the next day or two. I have a little more research to do and I’m hopeful that I’ll have some more specific information regarding the virus by the end of today." I wasn't sure if I should push how he was feeling about our relationship.
Doug's voice was soft and quiet. "Hurry home, I miss you."
I paused and held my breath. My heart rate sped up hearing those words. "I miss you, too. I’ll let you know when I'm leaving. Be vigilant."
When we disconnected, it was the first time in weeks that I felt hopeful about our relationship. I would hurry home once my questions were answered.
I decided to have dinner in the village to be closer to Essie's house. As the sun began to set over the ocean, I paid my bill and began walking. My heart rate accelerated with each step and the humidity pressed against my skin. As I approached Essie's I could see lights behind the house. The walkway in front of the house was dark, so I followed the lights along the side. I could hear music and drumming and voices. I came around the back of the house and stopped at the scene that unfolded in front of me.
The backyard was a flat area bordered on all sides by tall palm trees and lush bushes. People stood around the perimeter of the yard talking in hushed voices. I spotted Essie in a metallic silver dress in front of a fire pit. It appeared that the fire was dying, but the charred area made it apparent that it had been larger and probably very hot when first lit. A wooden spit perched over the fire and the smell of roasting meat floated in the humid air. Essie lifted her arms and began chanting. Those in attendance joined in. I couldn't make out the language of the chant, but the melody was enticing and I found myself humming. At the end of the chant, everyone grew quiet and stood motionless for a minute. I wasn't sure what I should do at this point. I didn’t think Essie had noticed me and it seemed like I was intruding on a very special, almost spiritual moment.
Essie turned toward me and held out her hands. "Come Dr. Albright. Be our first recipient. Rudolfo would be pleased to feed your soul and body." She handed me a cup filled with a thick red liquid.
When I put the cup to my nose, I recognized the smell of blood. I recoiled and looked at Essie. “Is this what you do with all your dead?”
Essie’s eyes sparkled. “But, of course.”
I handed the cup back to her and looked wildly around at the people in the yard. David and Bella were there standing side by side. I didn’t know what to do at this point, so I stumbled away from the fire and when I reached the end of the house I turned and ran toward the front. I felt his presence before I heard his voice.
“Dr. Albright! Wait!”
I had nowhere to go that he couldn’t find me, so I stopped and turned toward him. “David? What is going on?”
He came up closer and stood quietly for a moment while I caught my breath. “Let’s go back to the clinic where we can talk.”
“Talk? What is there to talk about? Was that Rudolfo? What happened, did they kill him to eat him?” I felt my stomach doing flip flops and I wondered how long it would be until I vomited.
“No! Of course not. Essie finally told me that Rudolfo stumbled home and fell dead on the floor when she opened the door. I don't know why she didn't tell me right away. Needing privacy in her grief, perhaps.”
That, at least, was a relief. “And then they eat him? Who does that?”
David’s smile was cautious. “I felt the same way you do when I first learned of this custom. But this is their ancient way of honoring the dead and keeping them alive. It’s been going on for thousands of years.”
I couldn’t believe that this man of science was trying to justify what I had just witnessed. “Just because it has gone on for a long time doesn’t make it right!” I felt a little less wobbly and turned to walk back to the clinic. David didn’t try to talk to me anymore, but he did walk quietly at my side for our journey back.
As I walked I tried to process all that I had learned that evening. I was relieved that no one had killed poor Rudolfo, but the eating of human flesh and drinking the blood was still incredibly upsetting. Then another thought came to mind. “David, do you think they drank the blood of the old man who had the virus?”
“Yes, I know for a fact that they did. I have been present at each ceremony to document what I’ve learned and make sure of death before preparations.”
“You know, of course, that it’s impossible to pass on the antigens by drinking the blood. The acid in the stomach would destroy the blood’s capacity to do that.”
“That is what science says. But how do you explain what has happened here? One of the reasons I agreed to have you come and I asked Essie to include you tonight was so you could see what happens and maybe make some sense of it.” David looked very earnest and serious.
“This is something I will have to consider,” I said. “Right now, I think I need to be alone to process everything.”
“I understand. It’s a lot to take in.” David held the clinic door open for me. “We can talk in the morning.”
I couldn’t even begin to think about sleep. I paced my room and sat at the computer trying to make sense of it all. Nothing I read came to the conclusion the evidence offered me. But how could I argue with the results I was seeing? And how could I ever explain this to the CDC or any other medical association without sounding ridiculous?
At some point I must have fallen asleep because I heard Bella humming in the waiting room and coffee percolating. I sat up and wiped my eyes. I heard the back door open and footsteps in the hall. I walked to my door to see David coming slowly toward me.
“Didn’t get much sleep I take it?”
“How could I?” I tried to smooth my hair and realized that I looked a mess. “I’ll freshen up and then maybe we can talk?”
In David’s office I again relayed my confusion and doubt about the antigen transfer. “Everything I have learned, studied, and read contradicts what is happening here. I don’t even know what to do next.” I stood up and paced the room feeling like a caged animal.
David’s voice was gentle and somewhat reassuring. “I know," he began. "I’ve been where you are, but you and I both can’t deny what has happened here.” He went to the small refrigerator in the corner, pulled out a vial and held it up. “I saved this for you. Thought maybe you’d want to do an experiment.”
I flinched at the knowledge of what was in the vial. “I don’t know if I can do that.”
“If I take your blood now and there are no antigens and then you drink this and retest you can see what happens. That might just satisfy your hypothesis. At first I thought it was something special in the islander’s DNA that might have made this possible, so I tried it and you know the result.”
I looked at David and saw he was confident that I would have the same conclusion. I had to admit that it was the only way to find out for sure. I nodded and sat down next to his desk. He took out a tourniquet and needle and prepared to take the blood sample.
I ran the sample and as expected, found no antigens in my blood for the VR1-Virus. I went to David’s office. “So how long after you drank the blood did you wait to retest?”
“Ceremonies always take place at night, so I ran the test the following day.”
“Okay, let me have the vial.”
David retrieved the vial and handed it to me. I tried not to think about what I was doing as I downed the blood and swallowed before I could have second thoughts. My mouth was coated with the sticky solution and I ran to get a glass of water to wash it away. David was smiling at me when I returned to his office. “It takes some getting used to, I know, but you’ll have your answer tomorrow.”
The clinic was busier than usual that afternoon. Several patients came in to have their dressings cleaned and changed and talk with David about what had happened to Rudolfo. Richardo, accompanied by his father, brought a plate of fruit for me late in the afternoon. I gave the little boy a hug and reassured his father that he would be just fine. It was nice to take my mind off of last night’s events and this morning’s experiment.
After closing, David suggested dinner in town and I agreed. We walked the mile to the village in silence and found an outside table where we both were pleased to see construction had already begun on the demolished café’s site.
I spoke with Doug after I returned from dinner and the virus was still the only topic of conversation. I grappled with telling him about the events of the last two days, but decided that he wouldn’t believe me, or if he did, his opinion of my experiment might derail our newfound commitment. I would wait until I knew the results and even then, I might not tell anyone. What would people say? What would happen to the villagers? What might happen to Dr. David Turner? I hadn’t stopped to think through all the ramifications. I was beginning to realize that whatever I decided would have consequences— some could be severe.
In the morning David took my blood sample and I put it through the analyzer, confident of what I would find. The antigens were there. David appeared in the doorway as I read the printed results.
“Just as you and I thought—positive. I can’t begin to explain this and I’m not sure what I should do with this knowledge.”
“What do you think you should do?” David stood at attention and I could see concern in his eyes.
“I’ve been thinking about the consequences for you, for the island, for humanity, and for me if this knowledge were to be revealed.” I looked down at the paper I was holding.
“And what have you decided?”
I lifted the paper in both hands and tore it into pieces. David’s eyes met mine and I could feel the relief. “I don’t know that I will be the only medical researcher to visit this island, but I will not be the one who divulges this cultural practice and its results.”
With that David smiled and walked down the hall to his office. I went to my room and began packing my bags. I would deal with this on my own and perhaps one day find a way to research the results without giving away the details. But for now, a vaccine was being created and I had done my job.
Candi Lavender is a retired social studies teacher and yoga teacher. She became interested in writing in high school but only started taking formal creative writing classes at Salem College about two years ago. Before her first place win at Gemini, she was awarded first place in the Senior Literary Arts Festival Contest in May 2020. Lavender lives in Winston-Salem, NC with her husband and enjoys spending time with her family and four grandchildren. She invites you to visit her website: www.lavenderwords.com.