The following is the thirty-ninth of a series of excerpts from The Rowan Tree: A Novel by Robert W. Fuller. The complete novel is now in paperback, and available for *free* in various ebook formats including Kindle. The audiobook can be found at Amazon, iTunes, and audible.com. If you enjoy The Rowan Tree, please write a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or your own blog! The author also welcomes your comments.
Groundhog Day, 1993
From the day he arrived in Peshawar, Adam made himself useful in MSF’s operation. He was strong and fit enough to carry the sick and injured Afghan refugees to the van from dawn to dusk and deliver them to Élodie and her colleague, Dr. Donald Lighthill, at the hospital in the MSF compound.
Lighthill, a Canadian in his mid-forties, was on his fifth tour of duty with MSF. He was an expert in the use of prosthetics, and the millions of live landmines left behind from Afghanistan’s war with the Soviet Union ensured he always had too many patients. He did much of his work in the refugee camps where, as a male, he was accepted by the Muslim religious leaders (mullahs) who controlled them.
The compound, which was situated near a refugee camp, was within a walled enclosure. At its heart stood a decaying two-story colonial building dating from the British Raj. Stairs led up to a broad verandah decked out with hanging plants that, Adam noted, were in dire need of water. Just a few miles to the east of the refugee camp lay the narrow Khyber Pass that threaded its way into Afghanistan.
Adam was not only a one-man ambulance crew. Once a week he used the van to make the hundred-mile trip to Pakistan’s capital twin cities, Rawalpindi and Islamabad, to replenish the infirmary’s medical supplies. His route was a section of the legendary Silk Road traveled by Marco Polo in the late thirteenth century. It passed through the lawless Northwest Frontier, legendary for gun-running and drug-smuggling. Consequently, his trips were punctuated with impromptu inspections at checkpoints manned by uniformed Pakistani police and Afghan “watchers,” but once the gatekeepers were satisfied that he worked for MSF, they waved him through.
On one of his trips, when he was giving an Afghan couple a lift into town he got a lesson in local etiquette. When the husband caught a checkpoint guard peering into his wife’s eyes through the slots in her burka, he berated him, shrilly and at length. To Adam’s surprise, it was the man with the gun who backed down.
On the day he’d arrived at the compound, Élodie had made it clear that Adam was welcome in her bed, and as soon as the dishes were done, that was where they went. By ten they were asleep, her alarm clock set for six, his internal alarm for five-thirty, so he could write in his journal while the house was still quiet.
Donald and Élodie worked from seven to seven, six days a week. Donald took Saturdays off, Élodie, Sundays. Though most of Adam’s time was taken up with shuttling patients to and from the clinic, he got good at snatching idle moments to take photos of the camp and the people who lived there.
The staff regularly gathered for dinner, and two Afghans prepared the main course, typically kabab with rice and lentils, or the delicious Afghan lamb stew known as korma. Warm, freshly-baked bread accompanied every meal, sometimes in the form of a hot sandwich of spinach, onions, and spices.
As talented as the Afghans were in the kitchen, they knew nothing about the desserts Westerners enjoyed at the end of the meal. Adam offered to fill the gap. With help from a tattered cookbook left by a previous resident, he experimented with baking at elevations well above sea level, and within weeks he was turning out cakes, pies, crêpes, and puddings. After his day job as transporter of the sick and dying, his night job as dessert chef was a pleasure, and he quickly came to appreciate the comforting role that food, and especially treats, played in the lives of relief workers.
One evening, the staff was lingering at the table, chatting, when Donald told a tale that made Adam question the mission itself. “Last month, Élodie and I were vaccinating teenage boys at a religious school in an Afghan refugee camp. The students are in training to become mullahs, and are called Talibs while they’re being groomed to exercise secular and ecclesiastical power. While we were giving vaccinations a boy ran into the room and said someone in the camp had been knifed. I left immediately to deal with it. When I returned an hour later, Élodie was gone. We knew the Talibs are strict fundamentalists who object to being ministered to by a woman, so I was afraid that she might be in danger. I spent hours looking for her; finally, I found her at a detention center, but it was morning before they released her into my custody.”
“My god, Élodie. I can’t…how did they treat you?” Adam asked.
“They were very angry, and for the most part I couldn’t even understand what they were saying. They treated me like a criminal.”
“She had a bruise on her head,” Donald said.
“One of them hit me with a cane,” Élodie added in a matter-of-fact tone. “Then they took me to the mullah in charge. In French he told me that I had insulted Islam, and severe punishment was called for under their religious laws. I was to be held in solitary confinement until I could be tried in an Islamic court.”
“In order to get her out,” Donald continued, “I had to threaten to go to the Ministry of Police in Islamabad. The Afghans have no legal jurisdiction in the camp because it’s on Pakistan’s side of the border, but the Pakistanis have given them de facto authority. We see the brutal effects of their brand of justice every day.”
“Women suffering from beatings, lashings, and burns,” Élodie explained. “Half of them are severely depressed. Suicide is common. The mullahs’ authority is growing. Their ultimate goal is to depose the rulers in Kabul and bring the entire frontier and ultimately the country under ‘Sharia’ law. They call their organization the Taliban.”
“Élodie was lucky,” Donald said. “As a condition of her release, I had to promise that she wouldn’t leave the compound. We can’t risk offending them again. I’ve worked all over the world and I’ve never seen such fanaticism.”
“I tried reasoning with them,” Élodie added, “but the men simply wouldn’t allow their religious beliefs to be questioned. The women see things very differently, but can’t speak up in public.”
“What do they say privately?” Adam asked.
“That when their men fight they have no choice but to support them.”
“And the men have been fighting forever,” Donald interjected, “fighting either the British or the Russians or each other. The struggle for control of Afghanistan—‘The Great Game’ as it’s still known—is centuries old; it’s a way of life.”
“The violence has metastasized,” Élodie said. “The longer it continues, the weaker the position of women becomes. In less militant times, I think women would be able to temper the religious fanaticism.”
“And you’re committed to stay here through March?” Adam asked.
“I’ll stay as long as you do.”
Later that night, in the bed Adam and Élodie shared, he confronted her: “Why didn’t you tell me about this? You said you couldn’t get back to the compound that night because there was a skirmish on the route.”
“I knew how you’d react, and I didn’t want to turn you against some of the mullahs we have to work with.”
Every Saturday evening Donald took the van to visit a friend who worked at the American Embassy in Islamabad. He left a phone number “for emergencies only” and unfailingly returned by noon on Sunday. From his vague language and avoidance of gender-specific pronouns, Élodie told Adam she thought Donald could be gay. Among the Taliban, homosexuality carried a death sentence, so if that was the case, Élodie admired him all the more for accepting an assignment from MSF that put him in mortal danger. A dedicated, versatile physician, he also took the time to mentor Élodie in frontier medicine.
“I can’t imagine having had a better internship,” she told Adam. “I’ve learned more in the last six months than I did in medical school.”
“Too bad you can’t follow Don into the field,” Adam said.
“My quarantine to the compound puts an extra burden on him. I’m sure my replacement will be a male.”
“When we do leave, we could take the Karakoram Highway to China,” Adam proposed. He hadn’t forgotten how Lahiri’s face had lit up when he described his own journey through the snowcapped Karakorams over the Khunjerab Pass into Western China.
“Aren’t the mountains snowed in?”
“The pass opens in the spring.”
“So if we get to China, then what?”
“The Trans-Sib from Beijing to Russia.”
“I’m game!” Élodie said. One of the things Adam loved most about her was her appetite for adventure.
On the last day of February the Paris office sent word that Élodie’s replacement would arrive in three weeks. Adam had obtained visas, and learned that Pakistani truckers began traversing the Khunjerab Pass in early April, and for a price, would take passengers. He figured they could get from Pakistan to Beijing in less than a week, and Élodie could be in Paris a week after that.
Due to the malnutrition and unhygienic conditions in the camp, in pregnant women complications were frequent; they often died in childbirth, and infant mortality was high. Donald provided most of the prenatal care in the women’s homes but encouraged his patients to come to the clinic at the first signs of labor, so they could give birth there. Élodie had assisted Donald in several difficult deliveries and a few lifesaving Caesarians.
On a Saturday night, sometime after midnight, Adam was awakened by a voice calling out in Dari, the Afghan-Persian dialect spoken by many of the refugees. Since Donald was in Islamabad for the night, he went to the door. An unkempt man, gesturing frantically, kept repeating the Dari words for “doctor” and “baby,” and tugging at his arm as if to drag him outside.
This was not their first late-night emergency. The previous week, at two in the morning, Adam had driven Donald deep into the camp to tend to a sick young boy, and Donald had performed an emergency appendectomy on the spot.
The commotion brought Élodie to Adam’s side, and she told him to bring the van around to the front while she spoke to the man. When Adam pulled up, she pushed the Afghan in beside him and jumped in.
“You shouldn’t leave the compound,” Adam said. “Let me go and bring the patient to you.”
“There’s no time,” Élodie said. “Drive.” She spoke with such authority that he simply followed her orders. Ten minutes later the husband told them to stop. They got out in front of an earthen hut with a plastic tarpaulin that served as a roof. Inside, the only heat came from a kerosene lamp that lit the one-room shelter. A hugely pregnant woman lay gasping for breath on a floor mat soaked with blood. A tiny foot could be seen protruding from the birth canal. Several Afghan women stood around helplessly. Two small children cowered in the corner.
Élodie gave the woman an injection, and a few minutes later, cut into her abdomen with a scalpel and lifted a blue-toned baby boy out of her womb. She handed the child to Adam, told him to cut off the placenta, clamp the umbilical cord, and massage the baby until it began breathing. He did as instructed, and almost immediately the infant’s hue changed from lifeless purple to rosy beige. The little body reminded him of those light bulbs controlled by a rheostat that go from dim to bright with the turn of a rotary switch.
Élodie hooked up an intravenous transfusion and spent twenty minutes sewing up the woman’s belly. The husband, who until now had stood against the wall, approached Adam offering a worn but clean blanket. Adam laid the tiny baby boy in the blanket and placed him in his father’s arms.
As the transfusion took effect, the new mother’s color improved and her breathing steadied. After Élodie checked her vital signs, she approached the father, still holding his new child, trimmed the umbilical cord and tied it off.
In halting Dari, she said “beautiful boy” to the father. “Wife sleep now. Tomorrow, Dr. Lighthill come.”
The mention of Donald’s name was a grim reminder to Adam of the risk Élodie was taking in violating Taliban orders, and he urged her to finish up so they could return to the safety of the MSF compound. Élodie told him to take their things to the van while she checked the mother’s vital signs. As he stepped out into the chill night air he was startled to see a bearded man peering into the hut through a window. His first thought was “peeping Tom,” but then he realized he was dealing with something far more dangerous—one of the spies who worked for the Taliban and kept watch over the camp. Suddenly, the interloper broke into a run. A dormant athletic reflex kicked in and Adam chased him down and seized him by the arm. The man struggled to break free, but Adam spun him round and marched him back to the hut and into the dimly-lit room.
“Woman doctor,” the man spat out, shaking a fist before going limp in Adam’s grip.
“What are we going to do?” Élodie said. “He’ll report me.”
“Would you be safe in the compound? We could take him back with us and release him once we were inside.”
“We couldn’t keep them from coming in after me,” Élodie said. She began to tremble. The new father glowered at the spy.
“We’d better get out of Peshawar,” Adam said. “If we get a head start, we can get you to safety in Islamabad. I’ll tie this guy up.”
“But then they’ll find him here and blame the family,” Élodie said. “I have a better idea.” She went to the black bag that Adam had dropped to run after the spy, and took out a hypodermic needle. She drew a dose of anesthetic into it. “Get him on the ground and hold him still,” she said to Adam.
He used his weight to immobilize the man while Élodie jabbed the needle through his pants into his thigh. Within moments he looked like a sleeping seal.
“Let’s drop him somewhere. He’ll come to in a few hours and be able to walk back under his own steam,” Élodie said. “He’ll either report me or hold his tongue in shame, but regardless, we’ll be long gone.”
“Leave him in the van?” Adam asked.
“No, Donald can’t function without it.” Turning to the new father, she said, “Car. At compound. Twenty minutes.” She demonstrated her instructions with hand gestures. Adam grasped her plan.
The new father nodded, handed his newborn to one of the women in attendance, and ran out.
“We have to trust him,” Élodie said.
“You just saved the lives of his wife and son. If that doesn’t earn you a few points, I don’t know what would.”
Adam drove to the compound, stopping halfway to drop off Sleeping Beauty, as they’d taken to calling the Taliban informant. When they arrived there, Adam threw their things into backpacks while Élodie wrote Donald a note. They were waiting anxiously on the front steps for a car when it pulled up.
“I take you to Islamabad,” the driver said in English. “I am Ahmed Farani, baby’s uncle.”
“Thank you,” Adam said, opening the rear door for Élodie. He tossed their backpacks in beside her and climbed in.
“We very happy…you good doctors,” Ahmed said, looking over his shoulder at them. Adam was amused to be thought of as a doctor but felt no need to correct his assumption.
Minutes later, Ahmed barked, “Roadblock. Put on burka.” From the seat beside him he took a traditional, all-concealing garment and handed it to Élodie. He took off his hat, which marked him as one of the Afghan warriors known as “mujahedeen,” and told Adam to put it on. Élodie put the burka over her head and, with some difficulty, managed to pull it down to her feet. In the dark, Adam could only make out the glint of her eyes behind the veil that obscured them.
At the checkpoint, the driver slowed to a stop and exchanged words with the guards. One of them poked his head in the car and peered at Adam and Élodie. Adam immediately put his hand up to the intruder’s face to signal that he objected to another man eyeing his woman. To his relief, the guard backed off and waved them through. From under the burka came a muffled “It’s claustrophobic in here.”
“I rather like my hat,” Adam said.
“Souvenir for you,” the driver said to Adam over his shoulder. “Cold in mountains. Now we go to nice hotel.”