A prior upon funeral pyre

Lillian Juarez sits inside a undersized un-air-conditioned FIMA operational sight medical tent. She diligently watches as inactive microbial infections of Ebola culture hydrolyzes beneath the viewing lens of a very cheap 8th-grade-biology-class-level microscope. Besides her slight alteration to the fine adjustment knob and seemingly spontaneous transcription of illegible polysyllabic adjectives, the only movement inside the tent results from the rustling of a soft yet uncool breeze sweeping in from the oceanic city of Monrovia through the quarantine zone, which encompasses the entire state of Bomi.

Were Lillian Juarez not so entirely engrossed, exhausted, dehydrated, and completely fed-up with the state of her quote unquote virology research, she may have noticed the soft uncool breeze, or the sounds outside the tent coming towards her, or the ominous and Precambrian style stillness which surrounded her in the lonely undersized tent. But, it is not in Lillian’s nature to notice things outside of her immediate focus. She never had the luxury of developing an intense sense of external awareness.

She was forced to grow up rather quickly, in the poverty stricken, drug immersed, corruption capital of Santa Teresa, Mexico. The youngest of six and the only girl. With time it became apparent that he character would not be defined by her femininity and as it stands she remains as one of three surviving siblings that made it past the age of nineteen. Which is not entirely uncommon in her neck of the woods.

Lillian figured out pretty damn quick that the only way out of such dire straights was to look out solely and exclusively for numero uno. So it wasn’t out of character, at the not so tender age of fifteen, unbeknownst to her family and friends, for her and her boyfriend to pay a coyote a significant sum to smuggle them out of Mexico and over the border into New Mexico. Lillian was no ones fool and realized even before she left her home for the final time and kissed her sleeping father on the forehead, that the success rate of such a venture was extremely low, so, she devised a back up and back up to the back up plan, just in case. Therefor, it should also be of little surprise to find that halfway through the four day trek into the desolate desert region, on day numero dos, when Lillian realized that she had placed her very real fate of life and limb in the hands of a totally incompetent coyote, she decided, again unbeknownst to her relative party, to slip away when all concerning members of her party lay casually sleeping beneath a purplish igneous looking rock, taking a siesta, and go it alone. Being that Lillian was no random scared fifteen year old Mexican woman but rather an ingenious, well read, determined and a hard-as-fucking-nails sort of chica. After she slipped away from the wayward and probably doomed group who were unknowingly being lead astray by the either idiotic and equally doomed or devious as in never really intended to get anyone anywhere near New Mexico, coyote, she waited for night fall and used her knowledge of celestial navigation to make it to the good ol’ US of A in relatively record time.

Knowing this about Lillian Juarez it should be of little to no surprise that she quickly made her way from Antelope Wells, NM to rendezvous with a distant cousin in southern California and start her life as one of the many thousand undocumented illegal immigrants currently living relatively comfortable domestic lives in the state of California. Lillian then found a way to obtain mock citizenship through underground Mexican friendly channels which allowed her to begin her formal education. An education she had begun informally long ago inside of libraries and bookstores alike. Resulting in her application and acceptance into the University of California, SF campus, at the age of twenty two to pursue her BMS graduate degree in microbial virology and really kick some well documented academic ass.

Unfortunately for Lillian, her academic fame cut both ways and eventually led to a biopic investigation into her personal life. This particular investigation, lead by journalism and medical students alike, wondering where in the exact hell did this American Indian looking, multi-lingual, hard-as-fucking-nails and not terribly popular with the overly Caucasian and Asiatic softer-than-new-born-baby-shit population, of whom asses she was handing to them academically, student population. This biopic, not entirely earnest and friendly, eventually exposed her true identity and falsified documentation, which lead to her immediate expulsion from UCSF and eventual deportation back to the hell from which she came.

In all likelihood this is where Lillian Juarez’s story is injected with a bit of serendipity. Because were it not for her coincidental interaction with one Klaus Hidenburgensietz, a renegade sort of in his own right, German emergent biologist. Lillian would likely have ended up returning to Mexico City with her metaphorical tail between her legs to study at National Autonomous, the best in Mexico and a fine university in its own right but not even remotely in the ball park of UCSF. To live out the rest of her academic career with a big black mark or at the very least embarrassing smudge on it. But, as I say, while in Mexico City, trying to navigate the ins and outs of her native homeland. Experiencing it as a foreigner so long had she been gone from the country she once sadly referred to as home. Lillian attended a conference headed by FIMA looking to enlist young pre and post med, doctoral or otherwise, biology and the variant of applicable sciences alike, to volunteer to study the impending epidemic taking place in sub-Saharan Africa.

At first glance Lillian was not convinced that this sort of adventure was for her. Although she was, as we have seen, prone towards flights of fantasy involving intrigue and risk and danger. Her tolerance for and appreciation of such endeavors had been effectively dulled by her pretty devastating defeat at the hands of her softer-than-new-born-baby-shit academic colleges. Because this festering defeat had maligned her desire to cultivate anything in the way of eccentricity, as I say, she very nearly skipped this particular event altogether. But, as anyone who has visited Mexico City in the height of its summer season well knows, the outdoor atmosphere was unbearable. So Lillian decided to slip inside the crowded University lecture hall mostly to get out of the highly polluted Mexican air with only the vaguest interest in the topic at hand. If not for one very specific speech by the aforementioned Klaus Hidenburgensietz, or Dr. H, as he was more commonly known, it is entirely possible that Lillian would have forgone such actions she would later take and rather tread the road more often navigated. Falling back into line with the other very promising Latino national academics. Whom would surely love and respect her as an equal.

In Lillian’s memory and for the sake of expediency we will not elaborately divulge the mass of Dr. H’s speech in it’s totality but rather reiterate the specifics of which transformed Lillian from passive listener into active and eventually devout follower. The speech went something like this.

There are very few instances in the span of human existence in which such a panicle of emergent properties of such rich and variant distribution resolve independently to assume the resemblance of a figurative Godhead resulting in such a profound and immutable opportunity to actively advance perspective fields as this utterly horrific and detrimental event currently taking place in Africa. Furthermore it is clear that outside of the obvious practical scientific research application inherent in a real world open system biological event of seismic proportion, with such multiform and unyielding variation, there exists a very real and present humanitarian campaign existing simultaneously and congruently, which contains an equal and unyielding variation of commingling difficulties and opportunities. Not since the birth of DNA molecule has science stood to make such an indelible mark on both scientific and humanitarian culture simultaneously.

And although all of this sounded very well and good and possibly even truthful to the ears of Lillian Juarez it was what the good doctor would say next that really made her think that Africa was something she could sink her teeth into. He spoke to her soul it seemed.

It is we few scientists that hold the key in this situation. Not the petite bourgeoisie toiling rigorously in the sterile bleached white lifeless laboratories of North America and Europe. Not the lumbering pharmaceutical companies and United Nations who’s humanitarianism cannot extended beyond the width of their prospective checkbooks. Nay, fond travelers, philosophers, minds of the future. This charge falls to us and us alone. Those whom exist on the fringe where popular scientific thought sublimates with real life actualization. The Darwinian quest connoting itself actively in the self actualization of predisposed scientific cognition. This my dear friends, my fellow scientists, is where we belong. In the activity of the field, immersed in the finger prints of God.

Lillian is not your tradition God fearing Catholic Latina, she is not prone to being fooled by the obvious sales pitch laden bullshit of white intellectuals, nor did she necessarily appreciate or agree with the blind dogmatic pontification with which Dr. Klaus H. spoke which reminded her of a physicist discussing the relevance of the Higgs Boson. All this considered, perhaps it was something in his Germanic earnestness or her simmering vitriol at the defeat by aforementioned “petite bourgeoisie” that spoke to her. Perhaps it was just fate that she happened to catch the tail end of his specific speech in that particular lecture hall. Whatever it may have or not have been something clicked inside of Lillian Juarez and she decided that she would not only follow Dr. Klaus H. to the foreboding center of the dark continent but also laden with all of her astute Hispanic resolve, become his most indispensable and devout devotee.

This is how Lillian Juarez came to find herself sitting inside of a undersized, un-air-conditioned, poorly equipped medical tent nearly one hundred miles east of Monrovia, in the state of Bomi, painstakingly attempting to discern the best way to organically synthesize microbial anti-bodies to disarm the terrifyingly effective killing machine Ebola, which currently ravaged and decimated the population of the tribal colony which her unit of researchers had nearly two weeks ago found near completely wiped of the map of human recognition.

At the particular moment Lillian does in fact become aware of a strange noise that seems to be making a beeline in her direction. She put down her number two pencil and rubs her eyes in attempt to refocus them. Then stands up and starts to walk towards the slightly billowing flap of the beige tent. The noise ruminating from the exterior is most certainly the sound of someone running and breathing laboriously. Although in most cases fear would be a good response, Lillian intuitively feels that the sound of panting and running is one of desperation and not malice. And, she thinks, if  her destiny is to be raped and murdered, which is in line with the customs of war-zone militant guerrillas known to populate the area, at least she would get the hell out of Africa.

Before she can reach the partially sealed flap of the tent Dr. Niri Umballa bursts through the flap panting like a worn out old dog. His deep brown skin and balding head glisten with the never ending perspiration commonly experienced by the African inhabitant both native and otherwise. He looks as if he needs to vomit and although he tries to speak his words cannot overcome the strength of his breath.

“Calm the fuck down Niri. What’s wrong? Are we under attack or did you find the cure to Bengal fever?”

Lillian calmly smiles and lights a cigarette while Niri attempts to unsuccessfully support is scrawny Indian frame by holding unto the flimsy fabric of the tent. As he catches his breath he looks up at Lillian in horror and puts his massive muppet hand on her shoulder, in the way he always does when hoping to make a point.

“The bodies…they are burning the bloody bodies.”

***

Standing before a massive funeral pyre, a backlit silhouette embossed by the vibrating flames, Dr. H stands smoking a pipe and looking rather placid when Lillian and Niri arrive at the site of immolation. Standing a few feet closer within the sphere of heat which ranges from uncomfortable to physically dangerous, directing the movement of corpses from a hermetically sealed examination tent into the four meter tall inferno, one of only eleven remaining members of the Watchoto tribe, which only one month ago numbered well over one hundred, is the local tribal leader and medicine man named Jaya, whom since the scientist have known him lives in a constant state of remorse due to his inability to save his tribe. The three of imports watch in varying states of  silent shock and confusion as Jaya carries out what will be his final charge as leader of the now decimated tribe.

Lillian Juarez, whom is not endowed with any of Niri’s Indian subservience or Klaus’s Germanic detachment nearly runs head first into the fray in order to stop the burning of the corpses and avoid the complete loss of their specimens which the three of them had worked so hard to quarantine and document and had labored and cared for and had such high hopes for. But, luckily for her because such interaction would increase her chance of contraction exponentially, Dr. Klaus H. got a hold of her before she could commit such a heinous breach of ethical idiocy.

“Let them go. There will be others.”

“But how can you let them just do this. They told us that we could use the bodies. This is bullshit.”

“To us they are bodies, to them they are family.”

Behind Lillian’s rage she feels a twinge of begotten humanity and personal attachment where empathy is said to exist. Which is not Lillian’s strong suit because feeling anything for anyone outside of Numero Uno is a major ethical breach. She quickly squashes the budding empathetic sprout and standing partially modified and equally pissed off watches the last few bodies disappear into the fire which smells something horrific.

The sound of Lillian’s displeasure obviously catches the ear of Jaya because he slowly turns towards them to view the trio standing motionlessly in the faint darkness of early evening. The three foreigners brilliantly illuminated by the combustion of his friends and family. Although the three scientists cannot see it, his face is streaked equally with sweat and tears as he walks towards them like some apocalyptic survivor.

What follows is a moment of trepidation that resonates through the three of them, even Lillian, when the real bone marrow harrowing humanity and loss of the situation becomes real. Not just a biological event worth documentation. As Jaya begins his short journey from the nearer proximity to the heat nucleus towards the outer periphery where the three stand together like children, his feet slowly slogging in the arid clay colored African earth slightly dusted by what looks like snowfall but what is actually the ashes of his kin, backlit by the inferno, with the twilight of endless African sky being consumed by the endless blackness and immutable constellations unknown to any city dweller above and behind, there is this moment. A man walking out of hell, a man alone.

When he reaches them there are no words exchanged between the scientists to the once proud chieftain. It seems beyond inappropriate to attempt to ask any questions or relay any condolences. Standing in that moment where words have no meaning and all of the knowledge of science has no meaning and there is only the reality of life it is Jaya who speaks in his broken English.

“I am just a man. I am no scientist. I am no longer a chief. I am just a man. You may judge me for this. God’s may judge me. But, it is what a man has to do. It was our belief that the body isn’t anything to the soul. The man is part earth and part spirit, and once his spirit goes out his body is of the earth. Life to a man is prior. Life is what he comes from and life is what he returns to. This life is about learning how to die. That is why my people are sad. Because before they were born they knew only life and now that they have flesh and bones they can learn only death. That is what our religion say. I am no scientist. But these bodies were mine. They were my family. My daughters and sons. And perhaps they learned what the come to learn and that is why they are gone. And perhaps you scientists could have learned more from them. But they had suffered enough in life. And they learned how to die. Now they rest.”

It is only after the blaze has burned down to white ash and the blackest night any one of them had ever experience turned back to day that Lillian began to take the nights events to heart. As we have learned it is not in her nature to do so. As the FIMA helicopter landed in what was once the flourishing and lively center of the little village, watching as other volunteers disassembled the undersized tent she spent so many horrible nights in, did she take it all in. She was brought back to that night so long ago standing over her sleeping father knowing that she could not wake him to say goodbye. She thought of her home in Santa Teresa. She thought of Jaya standing before the inferno. Were she anyone else perhaps she would have cried, completely broken down and given up. But being Lillian Juarez she simply spit on the arid clay colored African earth and lit a cigarette.

“Fuck it.”

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