Selected Poetry: 1974-
A story by
Paul Seifert, M.D.
Fall/Winter 1994 No. 4
A Sikorsky helicopter--droning like a dragonfly conning the back of a snake--followed the sinuous course of an ancient, yellow, and sickly river. The aircraft was unmarked; it was flying close to the surface, hugging the water tightly, and skimming below the level of radar detection.
Aboard, Martin Magruder, M.D., scanned the monotonously twisting banks. An expert on infectious viral diseases, Magruder was employed by the Communicable Diseases Center in Atlanta. The CIA had hired Magruder to participate in a top-secret, highly sensitive mission. An outbreak of a puzzling nature had occurred in Africa. The virologist's colleagues had been told that Magruder was on vacation somewhere in the Rockies.
The thrill of intrigue about the assignment was in stark contrast with the mundane, test-tube monotony of Magruder's everyday life; he spent most of his time monitoring hoards of minuscule killers as they emerged in genetic rebirth from a state of apparent annihilation.
Magruder was in the waning phase of a less-than-spectacular career. He had long ago given up any presumption of winning the Nobel Prize. With no family, Magruder was a loner. He had no personal life. Martin Magruder was his work. The sensual aspects of life had passed him by. Magruder had fallen victim--during periods of frustration and weakness--to certain appetites, having purchased a few bacchanalian nights from "refined" prostitutes, until the HIV scare had put a damper on such sybaritic excursions. In his late forties, Magruder confined the release of his waning libido to a titillating, but only vaguely satisfying voyeurism. The intrusion of the CIA into such an existence had been welcome--like an assault to a masochist whom nobody would whip.
Magruder looked over at this "operative," who called himself Wilson. The expression on Wilson's face was too contrived for Magruder likes, too skillfully composed to betray nothing of what lay behind it.
"So, Wilson," Magruder intruded, to counter the increasing boredom of the flight. "I once read about a face of infinite sadness, behind which all of the individual experiences of human suffering were taking place--in minor key, you see. These anguished performances were invisible to a casual observer, for whom the sadness was therefore inexplicable.
"What would I find behind your face, Wilson? Something more sinister, I suspect. Maybe a compendium of the forms of punitive execution?"
"Low blow, Doc," Wilson said jovially. "Not at all. Behind my face, you would find the resolution of Hamlet's dilemma, Mozart's unwritten sonata, Dostoevsky's lost novel."
Wilson enjoyed flaunting his liberal education. He liked to toss out literary or musical allusions at totally irrelevant points in his conversation, in order to produce an effect, Magruder suspected.
"Tell me something," Magruder challenged. "How do you account for your concern with the so-called realm of the spirit, and the sort of thing you doubtless do for the CIA? There seems to be a contradiction there to me."
"I have been searching for truth, Doc, all of my life," Wilson said with reflection. "I once thought I had found that truth in the classics, but then I discovered--quite by accident--that Beethoven or Bach cannot compete with the sensation a man gets when he has a gun in his hand."
Wilson paused briefly, in order--Magruder suspected--to let the supposed profundity of his remark sink in.
"Holding a weapon," Wilson continued, "I discovered I had the ability to function entirely in the present moment. I am one of those rare people who is able to operate completely outside of time, with no interference from the moral constraints of my past, and with no regard for the consequences of my actions in the future."
"You would have made the consummate criminal," Magruder suggested.
"Probably so," Wilson conceded, "but I have always been appalled at the idea of doing anything illegal. Instead, I bring cultural embellishments to a brutality fully sanctioned by the law.
"But what about you, Doc?" Wilson asked. "Have you ever killed anyone?"
Magruder flashed Wilson a look of disdain.
"I didn't necessarily mean intentionally," Wilson clarified with a smirk.
Magruder felt comment would be beneath him. He took solace in his conviction that Wilson--like Magruder himself--was all sham, and that both he and Wilson were creatures hagridden by vanity.
"I don't suppose you would be willing to share some additional information about our mission?" Magruder asked instead. He had been told little; Wilson had heretofore refused to discuss the details of the operation, as if ironclad secrecy were essential to its success.
"I guess I could fill you in, Doc," Wilson assented, considering how close we are to our objective."
Magruder had expected that Wilson would intone the ensuing scenario in a voice like Peter Lorre's, but was surprised to find him speaking in normal tones. "Our field operatives recently discovered evidence of an epidemic here in Africa, as you already know," Wilson explained. "No big deal, Doc, except that the local nationals have gone out of their way to hush up the incident. The secrecy is what piqued the agency's interest."
"The problem appears to have been confined to a single village, just up the river a ways." Wilson continued. "After investigating the situation, it appears the nationals pulled out of the area. What's of interest to us is the fact that they failed to submit an incident report to the World Health Organization, a clear violation of protocol on potentially communicable disease. Consequently, the CIA felt somebody ought to slip in for a closer look."
"Why bring a virologist exclusively?" Magruder asked. "An abrupt public health event, such as you have described, might have been secondary to an infection by any kind of microorganism; or it might have been an intoxication. Reports of miasmas creeping up out of the tarns and fens in this part of the world have been described in the past.
"Maybe your villagers were overcome by some kind of swamp gas," Magruder suggested. "Hardly my area of expertise."
Wilson did not respond. He sat looking straight ahead, his face masked by an unrevealing and icy stare. Magruder was convinced that Wilson knew much more than he was willing to share.
Magruder had checked the epidemiology of the region before leaving his office, but he had turned up nothing of interest, other than the fact that the village was located in an area with a high prevalence of HIV "slim.
The heat--and the total body-isolation suit he was wearing--made Magruder feel like he was walking into the portals of hell, as he, Wilson, and two technicians approached the desolate village from the well-hidden command post that had been established not far away. Magruder had expected to find a sign at the entrance to the place reading: "Abandon all hope, you who enter here."
Magruder was still reeling from Wilson's latest surprise. The chopper had contained the components of a reasonably well-equipped virology lab--including a high-tech portable electron microscope. The gear was compact, but satisfactory for a reasonably complete, on-site virological probe. It was now obvious to Magruder that the CIA had more than suspected an epidemic of viral disease. What puzzled him most was the decision to study the situation in the field in such detail. It would have been more practical to send tissue and body fluid samples back to the CDC labs for analysis. The tenor of the entire operation was beginning to unsettle him. Wilson was his usual reticent self, glaring impassively through mocking gray eyes in response to the virologist's questions. Wilson seemed to thrive on the possession of exclusive information.
The next surprise came when Wilson, in the midst of a bleak clearing, announced that the group had arrived at its destination. Magruder quizzically surveyed the barren tract before noticing the traces of recent heavy earth-moving equipment in the area. The village appeared to have been meticulously obliterated from the face of the earth--another Lidice, Magruder speculated.
The events of the ensuing hours assumed a macabre fascination for Magruder. Using detailed plans of the village layout, Wilson and the technicians oriented themselves quickly, before making several fiberoptic probes into the loosely packed soil. On the third attempt, they were successful.
The first body recovered was that of a young girl. Magruder forced himself to avoid eye contact with the face initially.
"You're not squeamish, are you, Doc?" Wilson taunted.
She had obviously once been beautiful. Magruder was appalled when he began fantasizing sex with her, but he immediately suppressed the erotic images. Doubtless, the heat was getting to him. The young girl had full breasts, but death had shattered her attractiveness. Grave mold, sunken eyes, and retracted lips had given her face an expression more suitable to a dance of death.
"Bet she was one hell of a piece, hey, Doc?" Wilson chortled, winking at Magruder, as if probing the contents of the virologist's mind. "My instructions are to concentrate on the lungs," he added glibly, handing Magruder a dissection knife, "but you can rip out a little heart, if the mood strikes you. Hell, take one of the tits, if you're into souvenirs!"
Magruder had not bargained for this or had he? Silently, he carried out the sober business of specimen collection.
"Viral studies are best done on fresh material, you and your people do know that, don't you?" Magruder spat at Wilson, who was humming what sounded like a refrain of Mozart, as the dissection progressed.
"Oh, we know that, Doc," Wilson gloated, his face bearing a strange Jack Nicholson grin, "but in this business, a man does what he has to do. He makes the best of a situation and follows orders. That's the agency's motto, did you know that?"
Magruder handed the last few specimens--taken from a second body--to one of the technicians. He was beginning to feel overwhelming regret that he had consented to join this mission. He forced himself to look at the young woman's face again. Now that he had mutilated her body, he felt intense compassion for her. The sensation was strange, because Magruder knew he was not a compassionate man. He wished to cup her face in his hands and speak words to comfort her. He protested when Wilson started back to the base camp, leaving the bodies lying naked and violated on the ground.
"Oh, don't worry about that," Wilson said. "We'll come back and take care of the burial later. Let's just get to work on these specimens."
Back at the ersatz laboratory, Magruder poured over his work, plying his specialized trade in this unlikely place. When the information began to emerge from the preparations, he was completely unprepared for the conclusions that came welling up from the microscope. He was chagrined that, with his experience, he had not put it all together long before this. Magruder berated himself as a person of meager imagination. Because this was so, he soberly admitted, his career had stalled.
He could sense Wilson's eyes boring into the back of his head when he finally stood up, bearing an irrefutable, but agonizing conclusion.
"As you know, Doc," Wilson's voice intoned behind Magruder, "throughout history a transformation in the characteristics of certain rather formidable diseases has occasionally occurred. Evolutionary principles apply to every living thing, after all. In the beginning, the great plague of the 14th Century required rats, fleas, and people, in order to propagate. Later, it acquired the more efficient mode of airborne transmission. Subsequently, it killed a third of the population of the earth--some say half. So, what has been happening to our little friend, HIV?"
Magruder turned to face Wilson.
"Your supposition about the plague is true in part," he said, "but plague pneumonia is not caused by genetic transformation, Wilson. Yersinia pestis attacks the lungs because the bacteria reach that organ through the bloodstream."
Wilson had a self-satisfied expression on his face, as if he understood the nuances, the nuances of everything.
"Until now, Dr. Magruder," Wilson said, in a tone of voice that was almost condescending, "the spread of HIV has been highly constrained, necessitating so-called high risk behavior. The virus has not been transmissible via an airborne route. That is correct, is it not?"
Magruder had to concede, of course, that Wilson had surmised the truth. The virus normally targets lymphocytes, specific lymphocytes at that. The lungs of the two African victims were packed with infected cells, similar to lymphocytes in some ways, called pneumocytes. He had observed the budding of retrovirus particles from the surfaces of these cells. More disturbing, free HIV viral particles were nesting like tiny dragons along every inch of the airways of both victims. The virus had transformed. It had shifted to airborne spread. In its need to propagate its species, the virus had in essence committed genetic suicide, an event that would have staggering consequences, however, for humanity.
"So, you do realize the implications of this discovery?" Magruder asked rhetorically, after showing Wilson the devastating information the slides contained.
"Oh, I think I do," Wilson said smugly.
"If even a single infected individual escaped that village, we may be facing the threat of world-wide contagion," Magruder said.
"The Black Death revisited," Wilson acknowledged.
Magruder's mind was reeling. Even if this incident had been fortuitously contained, transformation might be occurring elsewhere. Optimistically, the information he, Wilson, and the others had gathered would stimulate the expenditure of unlimited global resources to eradicate the epidemic. Finally, perhaps, the pleas of victims would be heard. A real incentive to suppress the infection would exist at last. Everyone on earth would now be threatened. More importantly--from Magruder's perspective--limitless funds would have to be released for virological studies. He, Martin Magruder, M.D., would be in the vanguard of a whole new echelon of lucrative research!
Magruder looked at Wilson. The virologist had an unmistakable glow of gratitude on his face. Visions of the Nobel Prize for medicine were circling through his brain.
Magruder realized that his face was speaking for him. He thought of the young girl. Her face had spoken of the loss of innocence. Her tears had fallen like raindrops, ebony lancets falling from the branches of barren and leafless trees. Magruder's own face spoke of history, of the rejuvenation of a sagging career. His tears were tears of unmitigated joy.
But then Wilson nonchalantly produced a weapon. Almost theatrically, Wilson deftly attached a silencer to the muzzle, as the shocked virologist looked on with increasing agitation.
"I don't understand," Magruder stammered. "What the hell do you intend to do, Wilson?" Terror had supplanted Magruder's joy.
"The information we have gathered here has to be processed with circumspection, Doc," Wilson said coldly. "Certain facts have to be withheld from the populace. The little lambs panic, you see, if they know the big bad wolf is coming. I'm afraid your silence must be assured."
"But you can trust me, Wilson!" Magruder pleaded. "I'm a professional! I can help you. I deserve the recognition this discovery is going to bring someone. You can trust me, I tell you!" he said, breaking down and sobbing uncontrollably.
Wilson was disgusted by Magruder's pathetic display. Any compassion he might have felt for the virologist was lost in that final image of Magruder, groveling and pleading for his life.
"You have to understand, Doc," Wilson said without emotion as he pulled the trigger, "at the agency, we never trust anyone."
From his position of cover in the trees, a young black man had watched the strangely dressed figures violate the precious ground where his village had stood. He had been away, far down the river, when the sickness had come. He had returned to find his entire village inexplicably obliterated. Stunned, he had wandered in the vicinity for days, not wishing to leave the site of his ancestral home. Now he remained hidden in a thicket near the sacred place.
When the strangers had departed, the young man had stood guard over the mutilated bodies lying before him on the ground, too weak to rebury them. He had almost been discovered when the men in suits had returned and had buried one of their own with the bodies of his lost friends. He had known both of these people during life. He had danced with the young girl in the heat beneath the vibrant light of a midsummer moon.
The young man could not understand what had happened in his village. He moved off into the surrounding jungle. The next village lay a few miles away, along the winding course of the ancient yellow river. He felt that he must reach that place, to warn the people.
Wilson took a final look around the intrusion site. Meticulous to the last detail, he was pleased with his work. He encoded his report: "All suspicions confirmed. Vital information suppressed by local nationals. Depth of knowledge of regional medical community indeterminate. Subject Magruder: contained."
Wilson knew that his efforts would be well received and that his input would generate high-level covert action. He felt pleased to be the catalyst of the pressure tactics that would inevitably ensue to deal with the breach in "international etiquette" that had occurred.
Too bad about Magruder, Wilson thought briefly. The doc had been a perfect set-up, a guy with few roots, no anxious family to raise a fuss. His coworkers would accept the story of an accident in the Rockies. His "ashes" would remain unclaimed, and few tears would be shed at his passing.
There had been a single tear. It now wandered from one of Martin Magruder's sightless eyes. The former virologist's face was lying in juxtaposition to that of the young African woman. His fantasy--anticipated indeed by Wilson--had been effected after all, the perfect final touch. Wilson recalled something from Keats about eternal lovers captured in an embrace upon a Grecian urn. The image fit Magruder perfectly, his body entwined forever with that of his black, but comely, lover. From the small hole in Magruder's forehead, his blood oozed, commingling in an eternal embrace with that of his dark lady fair, whose shapely breasts were pressed firmly against his chest.
The young man from the village staggered, leaning weakly against a tree, as an unmarked Sikorsky helicopter lifted off the ground. The sound of the engine in the distance droned in his ears in synchrony with the pounding in his chest. The sound grew progressively louder. Hiding in the cover of the foliage, the man looked up as the craft rattled overhead through a summer sky that enshrouded the cradle of the earth in a mantle of iridescent cerulean ether. The unseen stars of heaven were falling upon that earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken by a mighty wind.