Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Heart of a Dog

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The small, mixed-breed dogs lay on the rough wooden table, spread out evenly as though prepared for enshrouding and burial.

The night had the bluish-black cast of the hand-carved and hand-buffed ebony I had seen in a marketplace on the outskirts of Nairobi. The wood had been carved into the shape of a black rhinoceros, then buffed with natural oils and a soft cloth.

“What are you doing with them? Do you really have to experiment on dogs?” I asked the Medic.

The laboratory smelled vaguely of roses, with overtones of pungent chrysanthemum. The weather outside was violent. Lightning illuminated the skies in unpredictable flashes, and the glow cast along the walls and on the Medic’s face was an unhealthy greenish gray.

The crash of thunder, the blank, unadorned walls made me shiver. I avoided looking into the mirror.

“I’m surprised that it is raining like this in the middle of the desert,” I remarked.

“What makes you think you’re still in the desert?” asked the Medic. “You were asleep for a long time. It often happens like that. You sleep for three days straight. Something deep in your psyche tells you you’re safe. You’re out of the kill zone.”

The Medic laughed and placed electrodes on the dogs' skulls. I half-expected giant black thread and stitched-together limbs, a shaved underbelly. High-pitched giggles accompanied sparks. The electrodes were rubbed with conducting gel.

Lightning flashed. As the equipment sputtered and surged with the electricity, I trembled. The dogs twitched and whimpered despite their deep sedation.

“What do you have them sedated with?” I asked.

“Something that should feel very familiar to you,” he replied.

The Medic peeled off the electrodes, then placed them on my temples. Then, he held the back of the chair and waited. The growl of thunder presaged more lightning strikes. The storm was not retreating. Another cell was approaching.

A flash in the corner of my eye, the sizzle of conducting gel, the smell of singed hair, flesh: I could see it was bringing us both a half a click closer to where we needed to be. When the flash finally came, though, I realized the Medic had no faith in what he was doing. He was doing it anyway, even though he knew it was profoundly immoral because the sacrifice and pain were for something that probably would not work.

The dogs slowly shook themselves awake.

The dogs seemed strangely relaxed. I, in contrast, battled the tongue that threatened to plunge itself down my throat. I was unable to do anything about the waves of paralyzing pain except to remind myself that it could not last forever. I would either die or the electrically-stimulated convulsions would end. I fought to inhale and to take in sufficient oxygen to keep my chest rising and falling.

The scars from the electrode burns would probably never completely fade. Neither would the shock that occurred upon opening my eyes, and seeing the Medic’s greenish-gray skin turn a bit more olive. A mirror, strategically placed, gave me the ability to see if the rubbery, olive-gray cheeks and neck still had enough elasticity to keep from splitting open with each new surge of electricity. With effort, I forced one eye open and gazed deeply into the mirror which seemed to tremble and sway.

The trembling intensified, resulting in something akin to a convulsion, while a warm, clotted liquid -- vomit or blood - surged from my throat onto the floor. The mirror swayed above the Medic. The Medic was alone in the laboratory. I was not there any more, or was I? A greenish-gray face appeared in the mirror.

I was looking at myself.