Ayotunde’s smile is the only smile I ever see in that place. First thing in the morning I start my rounds whilst the night insects are still frolicking, hours before the heat has risen or the earth’s dust has been disturbed. Most of the patients are sleeping. From the far corner of the ward, white teeth against black skin cut through the darkness. Ayotunde smiles in his sleep: that is the kiss of tetanus.
His shoulder and heels are the only parts of his body that touch the mattress; his back, stiffly arched, skims its surface. I gently rouse him by touching his arm. His eyes flicker open but his expression does not change.
There is a large gash over Ayotunde’s heart. “This is the gateway the poison used,” I explain to him again, as I have done every morning, this futile explanation being all I have to offer.
“How did you get this wound?” I ask, but Ayotunde just smiles. His jaw, bound by poison, cannot disclose the secrets of the past.
In the beds around him, few get better and many grow sicker, but still he smiles. Yet he reacts to each situation in his own way. The slightest stimulation—a baby’s cry, a dying man’s groan—is enough to send his muscles into tight knots. When this happens, Grace the nurse checks his blood pressure and we take bets on how high it will be. Now we are so accustomed to his condition that we are never far off. More often than not the top number hits two hundred millimeters of mercury, proof that his heart still pumps furiously.
Ayotunde disturbs the other patients. They are unaccustomed to smiles and eye him warily. The men look on with hatred, suspicious he is smiling at their women. “Juju!” wail the women, which I am told means evil spirit. The children peek from behind their mothers to look at him. A small girl tugs at my sleeve as I walk past.
“Is he the Devil?” she asks.
I shake my head.
“Then why does he smile?”
“Because he is a brave man,” I say.
One night, sick with lack of sleep, I slumber on a chair outside the ward. The night passes with unusual quiet. In the morning, I begin my rounds, but there is something missing. This morning there is only darkness. Not long after I have begun, I am interrupted by the Grace’s guttural scream from outside. I run as if attending to an emergency, but it is too late. Ayotunde’s stiff, arched body has been wrapped and bound around a tree and set alight. Grace is horrified but not surprised. “Whoever did this knows that flames are the only way to be rid of a Juju”, she explains.
For some moments I delay looking at his body and instead linger by the tree, watching the cool morning breeze play with the shrubs of the vast plains before it comes to rest on my cheeks. When I finally look, I see that his body is crisp and the gash over his heart healed by a thick line of ash. But his misshapen neck, bent at a formidable angle to his body, has dissuaded the flames from reaching his face, which has been preserved. From a distance, he looks like a young man leaning against a tree, smiling over the plains of Africa.
—Anuradha Arasu has a masters in Creative Writing from City University and a BA in medical journalism and has written for a variety of publications. She loves writing in the mornings before civilisation can get to her.