Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

Alien Spouse

Alien Spouse
Photo by Mario Purisic via Unsplash.

Gaby hadn’t meant for David to go through this alone. Fifteen thousand refugees in the camp plus a catchment area of a hundred thousand for the hospital—and on the other side of the equation, one sick woman lying in a hospital bed in Toronto. It wasn’t hard for their mutual logic to arrive at the consensus that Gaby should stay behind. The woman was older, and it was her time. That she was David’s mother should have factored in in their equation though it didn’t.

After a shower—quick, cold, but at least it was private—Gaby dressed, put on her raincoat, and left David’s trailer. Technically it was hers, too. One week per month she stayed here in the camp; the other three weeks she lived in a small apartment behind the hospital, only thirty-five miles away but easily a three-hour drive on the rut they called a road that ran between the camp and the village.

It was drizzling rain, which had come to seem in the hills near the Congolese border like not raining at all. Tunde was waiting for her at the staff compound gate. He removed a chunk of tobacco from his lip and dropped it into a cup of Nescafe.

“I told you that stuff will kill you,” Gaby said.

“Which one?”

She shook her head and clicked her cheek, chiding him in the familiar shorthand she had picked up from him on their walks together, and he followed her out of the compound. They headed for the Champs Élysées. Tunde had been working for the agency longer and was practiced in projecting a cold neutrality. But he was Yoruba, like David’s father had been, so he made exceptions for David’s wife, allowing her these detours on the way to the health clinic. She hadn’t told him where they were headed this morning, to the tents to see Delphine. Gaby had slept poorly, trying to rearrange in her dreams the facts of the case, a complicated one but not hopeless, not yet.

On the Champs Élysées, they passed stalls selling tube socks, t-shirts, essential oils, diapers, cigarettes and matches, soda, grains and maize, trowels and hoes, buckets, and phone cards. A man laid a cloth over a supply of homemade beer, illegal in the camp, but Tunde, sunglasses on despite the gunmetal sky, stared straight ahead. There were children everywhere, a few huddled into small huts that passed for schools, but most of them running here and there, ferrying goods between vendors or chasing after a taped-together ball or each other.

Gaby stopped at a stall and traded a woman a few maxipads for a breakfast of samosas and chai tea.

“Amakuru,” she said, and the woman smiled and nodded, understanding that this greeting was all Gaby could extend and unable herself to switch to French.

Gaby held out a samosa to Tunde.

“No, no,” he said but took it anyway.

It was early yet, but as the day wore on there would come the smells of curried vegetables, French fries, and fish wrapped in banana leaves. Gaby’s stomach delighted in these developments, even as her heart shrank from them. The food in camps usually got better once a kind of order was established. Even if so many families still went hungry, the entrepreneurs on the Champs Élysées stood to gain from those at the top of the camp economy: aid workers; police; displaced persons who’d been here long enough to get established, start a business, and get their children started in it, too—children who in some cases had been born inside and if they’d been educated at all it had been in a different language than the one they’d need if they ever returned home. Once this plateau of quasi-stability within the camp was reached, the engineers left. David had already received his next billet in Jordan. Again, as he had here, he would make something out of nothing in the desert: powering streetlights, bringing water to the tap stands, regulating the black market, deputizing restless men to help.

There was some overlap, but his work in the camps began long before Gaby’s arrival and hers continued long after he’d moved on. They endured these separations fairly well. They had their work. They made video calls. The agency could be persuaded occasionally to align their R&R schedules and eventually to redeploy Gaby to the same sub office as David. It worked in their favor that doctors were in as great demand as engineers. Had she planned on having such an unusual marriage? No, but then she hadn’t expected to find someone to hold onto in this itinerant life either.

David had been gone four days. The bedsheets still smelled faintly of him and of the bar soap they’d cadged from the hotel on Lake Victoria. Their recent getaway felt like a hallucination, though a sweet one. “You’re different here,” David had told her in their bungalow overlooking the lake, echoing the same sentiments he’d expressed over the years in places like Phuket and Madagascar. “Which version of my wife will you be when we’re done saving the world?” he’d asked, and she’d laughed and said, “When will that be again?”

He’d left behind a couple of books for her, but he’d taken his totems with him to Toronto: his watch, his flask, and the yellow waterproof jacket in which he patrolled the camp throughout the rainy season and many other days besides. He’d taken his only suit. When he got back, she would be at the hospital in the village again. She hoped he wouldn’t leave for Jordan before her next rotation at the camp clinic. Already he had withdrawn from her, but how much of this was due to his sister’s phone call, summoning him home for their mother’s last days, and how much was the emotional retreat that usually preceded his deployments, Gaby couldn’t tell.

Gaby and Tunde passed the communal kitchen, all but abandoned since the ascendancy of the food stalls and kiosks, and she made a right turn up the hill, into which were terraced a dozen lanes of kelly green tents.

Tunde clicked twice, pointing behind them. They should have carried on straight, past the legal office and the police station.

“A quick house call,” she said. “Then the clinic, I promise.”

Gaby hadn’t been to Delphine’s tent before, but she knew from Delphine’s appointments that the electric streetlights along the Champs Élysées kept her from sleeping well, that she had been near enough to the communal kitchen to make use of it until recently when a girl had been attacked there, and that her neighbor ran a nail salon out of the tent next door, the fumes from which gave Delphine headaches. And yet despite all that, Delphine made the best of things. Gaby liked her. She had an easy laugh with her children. The youngest was a prankster who turned face masks into bonnets and paper dressing downs into capes. Delphine had yelped in surprise during her last appointment when she discovered Emannuel in costume, and she’d shot a nervous glance at the doctor. “Go for it, kid,” Gaby had said, and a flicker of joy had danced across his mother’s face. Delphine was tender, too, with her daughters, especially the younger one, Faith, a gun-shy girl who spoke only in whispers.

Gaby made a right turn and trod down the first lane of tents. Her hiking boots squished through the mud that had developed along the well-worn path.

Earlier in the week Gaby had diagnosed Delphine with cervical cancer. In the camp she saw mainly war injuries—shrapnel wounds, amputations, rape—as well as malnutrition and diarrhea. But even here, there was the ordinary violence of disease. Cancer would be difficult to treat, with doctors rotating in and out weekly and the clinic’s resources focused on other conditions. Gaby wanted to transfer Delphine to the hospital in the village, but she wouldn’t go.

“Has Bisi decided what he’ll do after graduation?” Gaby asked Tunde, as she scanned the tents with her eyes and nose. This wasn’t the right place. At the end of the lane, she climbed a sort of stairway notched into the hill and slalomed back along the next lane up.

Tunde’s face opened into a broad smile. His oldest son was nearly finished at the London School of Economics. “He has received offers from three banks. I have told him to stay, or go to New York—that is where the top students go. But he says he will come home to Lagos. He would like to be near his mother and his brothers and sisters.” He sighed with a mixture of disappointment and pride.

The noxious smell of acetone hit Gaby’s nose followed by the plasticky scent of nail paint. Inside a green tent, the flaps tied back for ventilation, a woman sat in a black chair while another woman sat cross-legged on the floor with the first woman’s foot in her lap.

Inside the tent, the framing was draped with a gauzy fabric the color of orange sherbet. Patterned rugs overlapped the plastic tarp that covered the ground. The woman on the floor sat on a throw pillow, and others like it were scattered about for seating. A pair of sleeping mats stood on their side against the tent wall, draped in blankets and forming a kind of banquette, against which sat three other women and their children, waiting and talking. The proprietress painted her customer’s toenails in careful red strokes.

Next to the nail salon, Gaby found Delphine’s tent. Tunde waited outside.

“Hello,” Gaby called through the gap in the flaps. Emmanuel scrambled forward to greet the doctor. Delphine appeared and beckoned Gaby to come in. It did indeed smell like the nail salon next door. Delphine and her children were relatively recent arrivals and it showed. They had no tarp to cover the floor, essential in the rainy season. They had only two sleeping mats, stacked atop each other, though they were four people. A jerry can of water and two silver bowls were piled in the corner, but they had no cookstove. The children sat on the mat.

“Amakuru?” Gaby asked.

“We are fine, thank you,” Delphine said in French. The oldest daughter, Victory, lifted Emmanuel onto her lap. “Will you sit?” Delphine asked, indicating the now-free seat.

“No, please,” Gaby said, perching on a bit of volcanic rock, a surface that was at least less mucky than the damp ground. Delphine sat next to the children. She was wearing an extra-large Harry Potter t-shirt and a bold print skirt.

A woman next door was holding court. Gaby didn’t speak the language, but from the tone of the voice and the laughter that ensued, she understood that the woman was making fun of someone, probably a man.

“These women and their filthy stories,” Delphine said. “We can get no peace.”

“Have you spoken to your husband?” Gaby asked.

“No,” Delphine said. She looked down and her strong features caught the morning light streaming through the tent flaps, her cheekbones a pair of deep Vs. The children all had their mother’s cheekbones, even Faith, whose face was half-hidden behind her sister’s back.

“Do you expect him soon?”

Delphine shrugged. She seemed too tired to guess at an answer and too polite to object to the question.

“When did you last see him?”

“Two weeks ago.”

Patrice had checked the four of them into the camp and gone back to look for their oldest son, who’d gotten separated on the journey. Periodically he returned to deliver provisions to his wife. Gaby did some mental arithmetic, fathoming a guess as to when he might return, but it was unknowable. So there was no point in discussing Delphine’s treatment options today when logistically she had only one, which was to stay put.

Gaby reached into the pocket of her raincoat and retrieved her last samosa.

“Je vous en prie.”

“Merci,” Delphine said, nodding at Victory to take it. Victory tore it in half and fed her brother and sister.

Outside the tent, Gaby joined Tunde. His eyes were shielded by the polarization of his sunglasses, but in the set of his mouth she could see that he had overheard the conversation and was confused. What had she learned by this visit that wasn’t already obvious? Families were separated all the time here. Uncertainty was nothing new.

“You are ready now?”

She nodded. “Let’s go.”

As they turned out of the lane and walked down the hill, she thought of Faith. Nearly two months earlier, the little girl had hidden under the bed in their home while her mother and sister had been raped. Then a truck had arrived, and the men had climbed into the back of it, their guns pointed into the air. Faith had been spared that day, but now she looked as if she expected the men to return at any moment. Victory’s physical wounds had healed almost completely. She was only twelve but she’d always been capable and now a hard shell had snapped into place. Emmanuel was irrepressible, if not too young to understand. It was Faith that Gaby worried about most. What would happen to her in a place like this, without her mother?

All morning at the clinic, Gaby did her best to tune out these thoughts. Her job was to alleviate suffering, not to dwell on it. In an hour she saw half a dozen patients. In a day, between fifty and a hundred. There was little follow-up—not like at the hospital, where she learned her patients’ habits and quirks; met their families; knew their elders, their neighbors, their teachers; received grateful bunches of plantains and sacks of cornmeal, a hand-dyed leather doctor bag, once even a goat. Here at the clinic, there was the speed of triage, the efficiency of guesswork, and the litany of tragedy to disappear behind. For every battered Victory, there were 10 other Faiths, haunted and hunted. What did Gaby’s own feelings matter when measured against so much pain?

Around mid-day, too early to escort her back to the staff compound, Tunde returned to the clinic. He kept his sunglasses on, as though they could disguise the shuffling of his feet and the agitated looks thrown over his shoulder, out the open door.

Gaby was sitting on a bed beside an older woman whose pulse was racing beneath the doctor’s fingertips. Gaby looked down at her watch but she’d lost count of the beats. She was counting footsteps now.

“Come in or go out, Tunde.” She started again. She held the woman’s wrist for 10 seconds, then multiplied by six.

“Mama, this is pneumonia,” she told the woman. Back home she would have liked a chest x-ray to confirm, but it wasn’t necessary here. The fever, elevated heart rate, mucus the color of the red soil outside: bacterial pneumonia.

“Doctor Gabriela?” Tunde asked. “May I speak with you?”

“We’re going to give you some medication to take. Antibiotics. It’s very important that you take them everyday until they are all gone, even if you feel better before then. Jeannette will go over this with you. If you have any questions, come back and see me.”

Gaby nodded to the physician’s assistant and stepped outside with Tunde. They walked a few paces from the door. The rain, which had been thrumping on the clinic’s corrugated roof like a swarm of cicadas, now tapped gently on her head, shoulders, and nose. As a child she had felt a rain coming by the smell of the asphalt, opening up like a flower to receive it. Here it was the rain itself, sweet and musky, she could smell throughout the long season.

“A man is on his way to you, Doctor Gabriela. He has been shot.”

“By whom?”

Tunde shook his head and looked down, ashamed.

“The police,” she guessed.

He nodded. Tunde was on the staff security detail, not the police, but he had helped to train the men. For some he was a surrogate father, and she saw that he felt responsible.

“Bring him here.”

“He is a soldier.”

“I see.”

“His mother is here. He came to the camp to see her, but certain people recognized him and called the police. When the police came, it got…complicated.”

“Where is he?”

“He is coming.”

He pointed at a man approaching, pushing a wheelbarrow. The wheelbarrow was covered with a tarp under which there appeared to be a heavy load.

“You had to smuggle him over here? Can he breathe under that thing?”

“Let us hope so.”

The man and the wheelbarrow arrived and Gaby led them into the clinic. Tunde, who had removed his sunglasses by this point, also removed the tarp, which dripped rainwater on the vinyl floor. The soldier lay huddled in a heap, only his too-big black boots hanging over the side. A pool of blood sloshed to a standstill in the bottom of the cart.

“You said he was a man. This is a boy.”

“This is his uncle,” Tunde said, bringing forward the man who’d pushed the wheelbarrow. The man’s face was wet with sweat and rain, and he looked stricken.

“Help me lift him.”

Together the four of them—Gaby, Tunde, the uncle, and Jeannette—lifted the boy out of the wheelbarrow and onto the exam table. Except for the boots, he was wearing civilian clothes, cargo pants and a navy-colored Polo shirt, an actual Polo shirt, with the little red man on the horse covering his heart. The shirt was soaked through with blood.

Jeannette gasped. She’d found the rebel tattoo on the boy’s arm.

“In this clinic, it doesn’t matter what side a person is on,” Gaby said.

Gaby couldn’t tell whether Jeannette had heard her or not. She was staring at the tattoo. By now everyone knew it had been rebels who’d assaulted the girl in the communal kitchen. Jeannette wasn’t much older than the girl herself. She’d volunteered at the clinic to learn a skill. She was bright and deft with her hands and three years later she was still here, but it wasn’t the same thing as committing to a life of service. It had been a decade since Gaby had had to decide for herself—post-college but pre-medical school, only a work-study at a South American clinic under her belt, singed by a bad breakup. There had been other options: to stay in the States, find a regular job, make money or put down roots. But she’d chosen this.

“Jeannette. I need you. Okay?”

“Yes,” she said.

The rain swarmed on the rooftop, and the police, anxious and excited and bored all at once, gathered by the door, and the older woman watched, stonefaced, her cough momentarily suppressed by the drama unfolding before her, while they tried, and failed, to save the boy. He’d lost too much blood, Gaby explained to the uncle afterward. The uncle looked almost lifeless himself and trailed behind the police as they carried out the body.

“Thank you,” Tunde said. Their eyes met. He put his sunglasses back on. Gaby nodded. Tunde followed the other men.

“Damn it,” she said to the quiet.

The boy had died. It couldn’t have been otherwise; his injuries were too extensive. Gaby felt the limits of her power, as she so often did. Her life took place downstream from a cascade of events, few of which she could control. The boy’s wounds. Delphine’s cancer. Congolese security forces squaring off with rebel groups, and civilians—children—caught in the crossfire. The conflict was nowhere near solved and now Syria was crumbling, too, and refugees were streaming across the border to Jordan. Her small piece of the global puzzle was to help people here, in this clinic. So she fell back on her clinical training, which told her to focus on the facts. The boy had died. It couldn’t have been otherwise; his injuries were too extensive. She fell back on her training, but a sheen of facts wasn’t a balm today, if it ever was.

There was a lull outside. No patients waited to be seen. Gaby’s clothes were soaked in the boy’s blood. Behind a curtain, she changed into fresh scrubs. Jeanette had resumed the task of dispensing antibiotics to the old woman when the clinic computer chimed to announce an incoming video call. David.

Gaby clicked on the icon to answer the call. A grainy image of him, hunched forward before a computer screen in Canada, filled Gaby’s monitor.

“Hey,” she said, sitting down across from him.

“Are you all right?”

“Yeah.” She felt as if she’d just pushed an ox off a cliff. The adrenaline was gone and her temples were tight with dried sweat. “Just had a critical case. It was…”—she clicked, too exhausted to go into details.

“I know.”

Of course he knew. Drinking water, bed nets, toilet paper, these things could be lost or delayed, but news traveled fast.

“Did he make it?”


The screen went black, save for a circular arrow that spun around and around, like a snake trying to eat its own tail. Gaby waited for the video to reload. She looked at the clock on her monitor and subtracted six hours. It was 6 AM in Toronto.

David reappeared, but the image quality was so poor that she couldn’t read his expression. His face looked like a swatch of camouflage.

“How’s your mom?” she asked.

He rubbed his cheeks. “They’re saying it won’t be long now.”

“I wish I could help.”

He shrugged. “What could you do?”

The screen went black again. The snake chased its tail. There had been an edge in David’s voice. What could you do? Of course she could have gone with him, but they’d agreed that she would stay here and work. Now it sounded as if he regretted the decision, maybe even resented her.

What could she do? On the face of things it was a rhetorical question, but it reminded her of a serious one they’d been posed three months after their civil ceremony in the village.

“Why get married at all?” her father had said.

They were sitting in a restaurant in Rome. David and Gaby had gotten themselves invited to the international aid conference that year, in large part to facilitate a meeting of their families. David’s father, Olakunle, had passed away ten years earlier, and in the end Alice hadn’t made the trip. Their mother only had a few lucid moments each day, David’s sister Becky had said. The meeting would be too confusing; the flight would be too long. But Gaby’s parents had come from California to meet their new son-in-law. Gaby’s mother considered the wedding an elopement and had been deeply wounded by it. The United States didn’t consider it at all, and wouldn’t for another three months until Gaby’s application to recognize her “alien spouse” came before them.

Over drinks at the bar, above the Spanish Steps with a view overlooking the city, David had talked about the ways in which he saw his work dovetailing with Gaby’s in the years to come. Had he said these things to her before? She couldn’t remember their ever discussing it. Her father sat back—blazered arm outstretched on the table, clutching his Glenlivet, fingers tapping the side of the glass—and listened, clearly impressed. Over dinner on the terrace, David talked about his family: building sand castles with Becky on the shore of Lake Ontario, while Olakunle taught them words like lagoon and bight as he carved out a series of moats around the structure, leaving it perched atop their own Lagos Island. But mostly David listened, absorbing his new family’s history. The women drank bellinis, which the bar claimed to have invented, and the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica pricked the horizon while the sun set behind David, his brown skin bronzed, giving him an air of ancient, patrician grace. By the time the soup was served, Gaby’s mother was won over. But then her father spoke up.

“You two spend so much time apart. Why pretend at something so domestic?”

Gaby had asked herself the same question before they rode the agency’s scooter to the registry office—David in his suit, she in a tank top underneath the mushanana she’d found on the Champs Élysées. Why become alien spouses? They’d joked about the term when she discovered it on the State Department website. Do you take this alien to be your awful dreaded spouse?

It was admittedly an odd choice for two ex-pats with no definite plans to repatriate, professional nomads, each of whom already had one foot planted in a different culture than the one they were brought up in. David’s heritage spanned the Atlantic, hers the U.S. border with Mexico. She’d accepted that no place would ever truly feel like home—not Simi Valley, where her mother was assumed to be a housekeeper until proven otherwise; not Veracruz, where the crime rate made it difficult for a woman to get around, setting even her fearless tías on edge; not Madison, where her father’s side of the family looked at Gaby with loving fascination, as if she were some odd breed of goldfish. At the tuberculosis clinic in Peru where she’d worked during college she’d learned that there would always be her overwhelming Americanness to contend with, like a skin she couldn’t shed. David said he didn’t expect naturalization to produce a sense of nationalistic unity between them. He just hoped for the marriage itself to be made more visible by it.

They’d fallen in love so anonymously. Anything as specific as love felt unseemly against such a grim backdrop, and even now it wasn’t a word they used readily. They could tell each other “I love you” at a place like the bungalow on Lake Victoria, but it was like watching porn: it felt good in the moment but seedy and excessive later on. For all the feelings of dislocation and the days-long adjustment that was required whenever they left camp together, it often felt like they needed an R&R from their R&R. It was true that she felt more herself when they were separated. She didn’t miss David as much as she felt buoyed by the idea of him.

That little piece of paper with their names stamped across the top—stacks of papers, in their case—would be the start. They wouldn’t be anonymous anymore.

“Why get married at all?” her father had asked.

“Dad,” was all she’d said, in that embarrassed and aggrieved tone honed in her teens. Her mother had smacked him on his breast pocket, and he had asked the waiter for a bottle of prosecco, and she had taken David’s hand. It wasn’t a rhetorical question, not really, but she had treated it as one, shooed it away.

The video feed hopscotched across a network of networks from Canada to Rwanda. The image quality was still poor, but better. David now looked like something out of a Seurat painting.

“This fucking router,” he said.

“I could still come to Toronto,” Gaby said, knowing it was the right thing to say in the abstract, but practically impossible.

“She’ll be gone before you could make it to Butaro.”

“I could speak to her doctors.”

“They’ve done all they can.”

She could see him well enough now to see how tired he was.

“David,” she said softly.

“She didn’t recognize me when I came in. She looked nervous. She started breathing faster. I thought, should I even be here? Should I just leave? Then she decided I was my Uncle Frank and she relaxed again. She’s sleeping all the time now.”

All her clinical training and over a year of living as husband and wife, and Gaby still didn’t know what to say in this moment. She was just so spent, and David was so far away. She heard her next patient come through the door.

“You would have liked her,” he said.

“I did like her.

“But if you’d really known her—not like that, the way she used to be.”

Like that was foggy, in her own world, confused on Christmas Day. Alice wasn’t from Nigeria, like Olakunle. She was from York County, Ontario. She had never left the place. It was just the names and the faces that had changed around her. Gaby had only met her once.

She looked up and saw a second patient arrive.

“You have to go,” David said.

“No, it’s okay,” she said, her eyes darting back to the screen.

“I should get back,” he said. He nodded, clicked something with his mouse, and then vanished.

The pneumonia patient was gone. Jeannette had started intake on the first patient. The second patient was sitting on a folding chair, waiting. Out the door, Gaby saw a third and fourth arriving in the rain.

She stepped into the cue, receiving flesh into her hands, bodies into her care. But her own, usual dissolution into the rush wasn’t happening. She could feel it. She was tired. Cranky. Clunky. She shuffled around the clinic bumping into things, people. The rain on the roof was like cottonball in her ears.

At the end of her shift, Tunde waited for her outside under the eaves. She put her raincoat on, the hood up. They walked in near-silence, the sound of mud slurping their only conversation.

At the bottom of the hill, she made a left and climbed up toward the tents. Tunde was on the inside of the turn and yielded as if he’d expected it. As they neared Delphine’s tent, he hung back. The nail salon was done with business for the day, but a cluster of women remained. They fluttered at the sight of him—suspicious, interested. Or was it Gaby they were stirred by? She felt their attention more than usual.

“Hello,” Gaby called out quietly at the threshold to Delphine’s tent.

Delphine pushed a corner of the flap forward to see who had come. She pushed it out further to let Gaby in. Inside the tent, the children were asleep on the mats, Victory nearest the tent wall, Faith in the middle, the sisters hugging like desperate lovers, little Emmanuel sprawled alongside them, limbs akimbo. The streetlights over the Champs Élysées lit the tent in a somber glow.

Gaby had been prepared to stand, but when Delphine perched on the edge of the mat, she sat, too, on the rock. The women next door had resumed their conversation, but their voices had an angrier cast to them than in the morning.

“They have been talking about that boy all day. They say it was right for the police to shoot him. They wonder whether you tried to save him or just put on a good show.”

“I am very sorry the boy did not live. Unfortunately there was nothing I could do for him. But that is not true in your case.”

Delphine smiled, and though she was probably only doing it to be polite, Gaby took it as a sign of encouragement.

“I’ve been thinking about your situation,” she said. “If your husband could stay here with the children, we could take you to the hospital. Your condition is serious.”
“It is impossible.”

“You would only be gone a few days. A week at the most.”

Gaby knew she wasn’t making sense. If Delphine’s husband checked into the camp, he wouldn’t be able to leave for a matter of days. He wouldn’t be able to search for their son or bring provisions to his family. The tumor was big and lumpy, but the trauma of the assault had made it difficult for Gaby to be certain about its stage. In the best case scenario, she could perform a hysterectomy at the hospital. If she was wrong, if the tumor was more advanced, Delphine would need radiation. She would need to be flown to Butaro.

Delphine, her smile diminishing by degrees, said nothing. Only the boy wizard on her t-shirt seemed intent on listening.

“If we wait, it will get worse. I may not be able to help you then. You must let me help you.”

“Thank you, Doctor Gabriela, but I cannot.” Delphine, lips drawn down tight in a half moon, rose and opened the flap in the tent. Gaby stood and followed her.

“Can someone else watch your children for you? One of your neighbors? These women next door? Can Victory take care of the other two?”

Delphine shook her head, dismissing the suggestions.

Gaby backed out of the tent, but she couldn’t return to that empty trailer having accomplished nothing.

“Mama Olivier!” she said.

A hush fell over the night. The women next door stopped their chatter. Tunde, sunglasses folded in his shirt pocket, bowed his head. The moon held vigil through a break in the clouds. Gaby felt all of this more than she saw it, because she hadn’t been able to look away from Delphine’s face, from which every trace of geniality had evaporated, like milk disappearing in tea. Victory, who had awoken, rolled her sister’s body into the heat of her brother’s, and sat up.

Delphine, Gaby had learned in their short acquaintance, had several names. Delphine was her French name, by which she’d been called when she was a schoolgirl. There was the name she’d been given at her naming ceremony, when she was only a month old. Umatesi. It meant stubborn. Her baptism name was Esther.

But in her village, Gaby knew, she would have been called Mama Olivier. Most of the mothers in the camp had a name like this—Mama Joseph, Mama Yvonne, Mama Jean Baptiste—to honor the eldest child. But too many arrived here separated from those children. It was unbearable to be reminded of their loss, as if they could forget, so they fell back on their other names when they registered at the gate.

When Gaby had delivered the cancer diagnosis last week, Delphine’s face had betrayed no emotion. But now she looked gutted, as if a thousand small soldiers were attacking her from the inside out.

“I’m sorry,” Gaby blurted in English, but she was more than sorry. “Je suis desolé,” she said. In French her apology was more sincere but still deeply inadequate. She recalled that the word desolé had the same root as the word desolate. I am deserted. I am uninhabited. This felt true.

“Good night, Doctor,” Delphine said and let the flap fall closed between them.

Gaby turned around. She looked up at the sky, but the moon, hidden behind the clouds again, offered no insight. There were only the streetlights to lead her back to Tunde, the women in the nail salon and the other people in their tents watching her go, down the lane, down the hill, back to the staff compound.

“Good night, Doctor Gabriela,” Tunde said when they reached the gate.

“Good night.”

Gaby climbed the steps to David’s trailer. Inside it was desolate. In her apartment in the village, she had taken a couple stabs at making little homey touches here and there. She’d hung a simple set of curtains, made from secondhand skirts that she’d cut up and stitched back together. On the walls she’d tacked up photos from her travels. The hospital grounds were dotted with wild pyrethrum and she sometimes gathered bouquets for her kitchen window. But the trailer looked like a squat. They rarely made the bed, which was wedged in between the wall and the bathroom. The blanket was brown and scratchy, and Gaby’s tactic was to get under it as quickly as possible, not to admire it. If this was their home, it wasn’t much of one. And yet, it was more than the families in the camp had. There was a bathroom. There was a floor.

She powered up David’s laptop and made a video call. It was raining harder than before. She turned the volume up as high as it would go.

“Hi,” she said, when he answered. “How is she?”

He hesitated, and she knew.

“Oh, David. Were you with her?”

“Yeah, I held her hand. Becky held her other one.”

She heard the lump in his throat.

“I’m coming. I’ll get on a plane.”

She had decided. David would be her home, if she could just get to him.

“No, don’t.”

“I’ll trade shifts with Paul. I should be there tomorrow or the day after.”

“The service is gonna be small, just family.”

Gaby flinched.


“A funeral isn’t the time to deal with our problems.”

“Let’s not talk about this now, on the phone. Please.”

“You’re right. This is a really bad time. I’ve got to go.”

“Wait,” she said, but he had already hung up.

Gaby tried to shut down the video calling software, but her hands shook too much. She was violently weak. Was this what dying felt like?

Stop it, she told herself.

The rain fell in sheets now. The trailer’s walls seemed to puff out like cheeks.

All her clinical training and still Gaby couldn’t tell if this is what it felt like to have no center or whether it was love.