X-Epsilon

By Maniza Naqvi

Brain_scansJust as the frigid February evening air is stirred by the imams calling out the azan from all over the valley on Monday evening —Hiya al salah—hiya al falah— “come towards worship—come towards salvation”— Rahima pulls a cigarette out from her pack of Drinas; sticks it between her lips; lights it; dials 5555 and calls a Zuti taxi to her apartment—one of the many cab companies in Sarajevo which arrive at the door a minute after being called. She puts on her coat, an oversized olive color, man’s raincoat with a corduroy collar. She double checks the pockets for her pack of Drinas and the 3 convertible marks in loose change for the fare. All set, she leaves her one room apartment. The cab arrives and she gets in to its smoke filled interior. A sevdah’s ululating blues plays on FM 89.9 Radio Zid for the short ride just down the hill to the hospital.

Her 48 hour duty has begun. She has entered her world. All morning long she has cleared her head for this—all Monday morning, after a weekend plunged in a seamless nightmare-filled fitful sleep. The same nightmares always, every off-duty. The same method of recovery. This is her routine.

Outside the emergency room she can see the usual sight: police guards with automatic weapons dressed in tight black uniforms and bullet proof vests barring the way to the ER. Police cars parked in the driveway. She sweeps past them waving them aside, saying she’s the doctor and can’t they see that?

'He’s a bank robber from Olovo! He’s shot himself trying to run away!' A cop shouts after her.

“Thank you doctor” she growls back at him and shrugs her shoulder with a jolt as though repulsed.

As she enters the ER and surveys the newest arrival it’s as though a switch had been turned on inside of her lighting up a thousand bulbs of a thousand watt each. She is on! This is an interesting one. The one last week, the victim of a burglary—the plastic surgery—the reconstruction—was successful. It seems to have worked but it’s still too early to tell, the bandages haven’t come off yet.

This one, they tell her, he has shot himself in the head. Outside, the hospital the walls are still pock marked with bullet holes. Inside for Rahima it has never ended, it goes on.

The newest casualty in the emergency room this evening had been brought in by the police, a swat unit in black uniforms and carrying automatic weapons. So this is one of the robbers. They said he had shot himself through the head after he realized that he was surrounded and alone and there was no other way to get away, to escape. They said he had already shot a policeman. Rahima says to the attending nurse 'The bullet has done a lot of damage! Impossible if we can save him. He’s already brain dead.' But she knows that she will struggle all night long to save his life anyway. 'The guy is so young in his twenties. Oh his poor mother!' she shakes her head angrily.

It’s a mad house every night. Car accidents and head injuries all the time, except during Ramazan—she’s noticed, when people don’t drink and there are fewer accidents. For her, snipers have been replaced by alcohol and the war by car accidents.

'So!' She asks herself, 'I sobered up for this?'

Later, she makes the rounds to her patients in the ICU one by one. She makes jokes with the ones who are awake. 'Hey have you heard the one about Mujo and Haso during the war when they were on a curfew patrol with orders to shoot at sight at the checkpoint in the old city. So there they are the two of them. Mujo and Haso. They see a motorcyclist coming down the road towards them just as the clock shows that it is ten to ten. “

'He still has ten minutes,' Mujo says.

When the motorcyclist gets close Haso takes out his gun and shoots him. 'Hey what the hell did you do that for,' Mujo shouts.

'Ah, I know him, Haso says. 'He’s my neighbor, our place is more then ten minutes from here—he would have never made it on time!'

The patients still laugh at this old joke. She laughs with them, exacerbating her smokers cough and offers cigarettes around.

Then she comes back to her waiting room. Waiting for the X-rays and other test results she passes the time by watching TV; flipping through the channels and talk shows and sitcoms. She stares at the girls gyrating to techno music whose eyes Rahima thinks are filled with embarrassment. She talks to nurses, smokes more cigarettes, munches on chocolates and downs Bosnian coffee.

'This one, ah, he is perfect', she says to the nurse she spreads her arms as though to display his body in front of her, as though he is lying in her lap; as though she sits beholding him and is asking the nurse to behold him too. Rahima says to the nurse that his body is perfect, young, strong, muscled, tanned as though he had just been on the coast.

A thin lab technician bursts in with the undulating sheets of X-rays. Rahima fixes them into the frame of the back lit viewer on the wall. She moves close up to it and the bluish light from it turns her face paler still, as she examines the various angles of how the bullet came in and where it began its killing and shattering. And then she waits for more test results. This beautiful man, at his age, he should have been at the coast on the weekend—if it had been Tito times, he would’ve been.

The X-ray negatives, call him X-Epsilon. The police don’t know his name. But she knows what she needs to know. His shattered skull, where the bullet has entered at an angle which would have meant he was exceptionally talented to have shot himself at such an impossible angle—all she needs to know of him now is contained in this silvery image of his cranium photographed from ten different angles.

Rahima waits for the test. The diagnostic center where the tests are conducted is at a distance from the ER. They have taken him there in an ambulance. While she waits, her daughter calls her. They talk—Rahima tells her about X-Epsilon. How can he possibly survive the tests and being moved around? Isn’t time of the essence? Her daughter asks indignantly. Rahima considers this question for a moment as though her daughter has interrupted her concentration, then she asks, her voice coldly polite, 'What should we do here, what should I do, do you have a suggestion for tonight, because this is all we have, this is all that we can do?'

Her daughter goes quiet. Rahima, says she has to go, she hangs up and considers the air.

Late at night she walks back from the ER alone to her office. She walks past the morgue an old three story building, completely in darkness not a single light on. Past the bullet holes in the walls, the gaping hole in the wall from the shelling, the plaques for all the staff who were killed during the war here at the hospital while on duty. She always stops here searching for her name—past all of them, past the silent unlit morgue, past the place where the wild dogs come to rest after their feasting on the garbage left at the open market just down the road. Past all that, past all the plaques for the dead. Past, all that history, this walk every day, every night, through the war and after it. Past the prime of life and all that can be lost there; past the heartbreak of losing. The rest is history. Cold winters, hunger, death, destruction, siege, starvation. Working without sleep for days on end. Eating next to nothing for days on end. The rest is history. The loss, the distance, the breaking apart. They don’t put up plaques for that. They don’t have plaques that say. 'This one is for the lost, the lasting lasts, who are told to forget and that the past is past.'

Past all that now.

A large group of people—men, women and children are waiting outside the ER. A man in a hat and a leather jacket steps forward through the shadows up to her, 'Doctor, can you let us know about our baby?'

She finds out from him that a child in their settlement was run over by a car. The whole settlement has arrived to stand vigil outside the hospital and pray for the child. She goes in and asks the doctor on triage duty. The young doctor has been on 24-hour duty. She is pale—without sleep and harassed.

'The gypsy child?' she asks. The child came in about six hours ago—he is two years old and in a coma. They have done a CT scan. There is no internal bleeding. They’ll keep him in ICU tonight. Rahima knows from other times that the people outside will stay there—through the night—holding vigil for their own.

The night continues and Rahima goes off to do battle in the operating theater against the cruelty of a destroyed man, of no more than 22 or 25 years, the beautiful body, the bank robber, the escapee into the woods, the so-called suicide attempt, nameless, his X-rays listing him as X-Epsilon. She emerges from there as though from a war.

A nurse takes note and smiles as she sees Rahima return—glowing from her successful feat in the operation theater. She comes back from the surgery room dressed in the green operation theater uniform, her hair covered in a plastic operating theater cap.

Glowing as though she has just returned from the kitchen where she might have been baking fresh burek for her family; her cheeks are red, her eyes are shining, unmistakable that the adrenalin is taking affect. Adrenalin highs, are always an addiction, always needing the crisis, the confrontation, the fight, the struggle, eyes shining, heart pumping, skin glowing, after surgery, coming out of the ER. “I need blood,” she laughs, “Surgeons need blood to survive!” Then left completely dull and exhausted and empty the day after. She survived the war. Now she needs this constant sense of war to survive.

She glances at the city news reported on the night beat and nods. 'Just a boy!' The newspapers will write about him. They will call him a thief. But he is just a boy, if only someone would write about him that way—this boy dying tonight, let him live on. 'Let this death not die tonight.' Sitting forward her shoulders hunched her hands grasped together, a cigarette jutting from between her fingers, she calls her daughter: 'If only you could have watched.'

'Why?' her daughter asks. Rahima detects a resentful tone in her voice.

Rahima is silent for a moment. Then she says, -So that you can see where I go when I am awake.-

As she walks around in her intensive care ward and meets her patients. Rahima switches on again, and becomes jovial. Telling jokes. Making the patients who are conscious, unable to sleep, laugh. Gentle with those who are fragile.

She peeks into rooms, ducking in and out amongst the sleeping, the unconscious, the sedated and the insomniacs. In one room lies a man, a strong jaw, clear skinned, high forehead his head swathed in white bandages, shaved of its full head of thick auburn hair who keeps whistling even though he is unconscious. While another, an old man who had been brought in that day with an aneurysm even though now completely sedated, keeps shouting at the whistler to shut up, 'Mother-fucker shut up, get out of my house, this isn’t your house, this is my house! I’ll kill you if you don’t stop whistling!' He is a potato farmer from Gorazde, who had fallen in the fields this morning while digging up potatoes. He had been wheeled out of the room which he was sharing with the whistler into the hallway but could still hear the whistling. The whistling and the threats were the background noise through out the evening. Patients in the corridor laughed, the nurses were laughing. Rahima laughed too. The cigarettes, the smoke, the bitter coffee, the cubes of sugar and the dark humor. The old man had his hands locked behind his bandaged head his feet dangled off the bed, he wore a diaper and catheter, and for all purposes looked as though he was lying on the beach or under a tree in the courtyard of his home with the view of mountains and meadows. He lay there in pampers, sedated, yelling orders and curses. The younger man, the whistler, handsome, young, in a coma, had been in a car accident three months ago. He would whistle and periodically kiss the bed post. Whistling, kisses, threats and curses, whistling, kisses, threats and curses. Cigarettes, smoke, bitter coffee, cubes of sugar. Whistling, kisses, threats and curses.

Back in the waiting room a cockroach crawls onto the white linen covering the old couch. Rahima moves over to the Olympia Typewriter at her desk, she has to fill out the case history. She pokes with her index finger on the keys, laboriously tapping out letter by letter the case history of X-Epsilon concluding that he will make it through the night alive.

Also by Maniza Naqvi

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