Incubation (Novel Excerpt – Work-in-progress)
by Nelly Rosario
And so it is that Monday morning, after a weekend of carousing with a woman not the wife, Dr Gregorio Abreu Cazas wakes up inside his hut, feeling not hung over per se, but feverish and watery of belly, as if having caught a bug. Skin gone from dark brown to translucent white and covered in a rash, not measles, thank heavens, so rampant among the Arao on the Venezuela delta, but a dozen seeing holes spread throughout a cylindrical body that presents with segmented exoskeleton, complete with dermal hooks, a diagnosis no physician can sugarcoat even to himself. Overnight, he transformed into a maggot, on the order of diptera, genus cochliomyia revohominivorax.
He wants to be surprised but feels only deep relief.
What makes him squirm is being trapped again in the village of Curitas, where Dr Cazas was deployed a year ago by the Cuban government.
Arao jebu spirits must be just as demanding with assignments. Could have chosen to hatch him as a grub inside any moriche palm along the delta. Stick him instead back inside a space heavy with backstory.
Backwaters, what does he expect. Something the woman not the wife might say. Something Dr Cazas may have said.
Like other janokos in Curitas, his squats on stilts over murky river. He could eat the morning draft. The usual aroma of raw sewage blows in through thatched walls, shivering him with an all-consuming hunger intensified by the region’s curse of malnutrition. Forget thirst in all this water, which renders the Arao unable to rely on farming. The diet of fish, river crab, and moriche yuruma starch wreaked havoc on the pork-loving Dr Cazas.
Ink, it never dries here.
Having only seen dwellings on stilts in Venice, early Europeans stamped the land with “Little Venice” or Venezuela.
Abracadabra. The origin of curses. Abracadabra: to create with the word.
What a longing he has now for his mentor Professor Barba and his etymological obsession, many self-invented. Comrade Prof. Barba, who had taken it upon himself to prepare Dr Cazas for the medical mission to Orinoco Delta.
Don’t let names like Red Cross River fool you, he said. Those boat people rely on shamans to cure AIDS, dengue, bat rabies.
The name Curitas, in fact, derives from “Band-Aid” and “little cure” and “little priest” — all three misfortunes indicating a village in dire need of a skilled general practitioner with dubious specialty in ophthalmology like Dr Cazas.
An honor, Dr Cazas responded, focused on the red triangle Prof. Barba had drawn on the map of northeastern Venezuela. The professor’s index finger traced river routes —that under Dr Cazas’s blinking became a nervous system, a placenta, roots, thunder — until reaching the Atlantic Ocean. Here, Prof. Barba’s face lit up, and he switched to Cubanese.
Asere, this is a good omen. Inlé, Orisha of medicine, lives where river and ocean meet.
Ah, yes, the Physician of Illiterates, said Dr Cazas, in spite of his devout mother. Easy are the patients with such doctors.
The professor shook a finger at him, finger that Dr Cazas saw had left oily smudges on entire swaths of mapland. He sensed that old Prof. Barba had never been to the Orinoco delta, neither as a man nor as a maggot.
An incredible lightness of being, this ability to simultaneously breathe from mouth and anus. He is a first instar, a full two millimeters in length. At this early stage, his priority is to disregard local malnutrition among infants of thirty percent, infant mortality rate at fifty.
This is now the fly life. He is to gorge the body to second instar stage, then third. He is to make himself obese, having to molt not once but twice. At critical mass, he must halt feeding and leave the food source. (Let moriche grow before cut-down, say the canoe builders. Cutting younger breaks Arao law.) He is to find a safe place where the outer shell can harden for protection during metamorphosis. The test will be to break through the casing, rebirthed as a mutated New World screwworm fly, leaving behind the empty shell as evidence of achievement.
Evolution or death.
Here on the Orinoco delta, flies lay eggs on mosquitoes, which plant them on sleeping men.
At dawn that very morning, the woman not the wife extricated her long limbs from Dr Cazas. He was too wrapped in a dream about his pet, the scarlet macaw Rubí, to feel the hammock’s rocking.
Like a newborn, Sammy thought, and ran her rum-red nails along the hollow of his belly. Her missions, always accomplished. She gathered her lacy things and tiptoed from the hut to catch the first canoe out of the village. By now she is on her air-conditioned drive back to Caracas to meet with another prized patient: aspiring Miss Venezuela, daughter of politician, needs C-cup before quinceañera.
To Dr Cazas, Sammy herself is a preternatural wonder. Svelte knees. Hemachromatic irises. Part-Arao, part-Empire. A creature whose acrylic nails have the power to relieve the searing itch that had developed on his back since his arrival to Curitas. Presenting no rash or discoloration, he ruled out the possibility of an insect bite. Right there, between his shoulder blades, a Bermuda triangle that sucked back-scratchers into oblivion. Only Sammy, ah Sammy, knew the precise coordinates of his delirium.
She was effect and cause. Pursuer of the good life who afflicted him with gratifyingly anti-revolutionary symptoms. What species of man had he become, for instance, with a sudden need to shave exclusively with six-bladed, chrome-plated, aloe-stripped razors? Absolutely his hammock could use a layer of memory foam.
He was a medical diplomat, Dr Gregorio Abreu Cazas, Cuba’s national prestige. He was sacrificing his marriage and his sanity to wash the great unwashed. He had, when all was said and done, buttoned up his white coat, pulled on his combat boots, and marched into battle. While inoculating children against tuberculosis, a good soldier doesn’t complain of low living wages, overwork, or homesickness. No, he digs his boots into the trenches so that his fellow countrymen may have access to the goods and aim for the ideals denied to them for over half a century by the evil empire that is the United States.
How endearing, his martyrdom, said Sammy on their first night out.
But more about her. She runs an international cosmetic surgery practice booming in Caracas, Miami, and more. Beauty-pageant season is year-round, as he well sees. All expenses paid by Big Pharma to conferences throughout paradise — San Francisco or San Antonio, where would he choose?
Ah well, a choiceless choice for an atheist who nevertheless shoots for miracles. With preventable diseases so ailing her hometown, his choice is to be selfless, with the interests of the masses at heart.
Quite the crowded heart, Mr. Mao.
A stink bug, a flytrap, a mutant of the tropics, she is.
So what will it be, a Havana Club or Jack Daniel’s. The waiter is waiting.
Revolution or death.
Forget about the tab. Sammy never rations.
And so his hand is forced.
Well-said, compañero. Next, she’ll make him try the stewed otter.
Already, a relationship oiled to perfection.
Be ever loyal to wife and nation, wrote Prof. Barba, reject implants of diabiological wings. Bald-eagle females are larger than males, he went on, and build their nests on the cliff edges. Facts worth mentioning if only to make Dr Cazas aware of the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, a sinister operation engineered by the United States to brain-drain Cuba of its national prestige. A claw, Dr Cazas, that steals their doctors overseas to the land of the free, where — to pause on the word “parole” in the scheme — upstanding black men like Dr Cazas are unjustly incarcerated. For the next few pages, Prof. Barba will take it upon himself as mentor to elucidate the logistics of this predatory practice. Point being, well, to point the good Dr Cazas in the right direction. No green law on the planet can keep an endangered species from flying. And so forth.
Dr Cazas folded the four-page letter into the pocket of his white coat. After rereading and unreading his mentor’s words by candlelight, he began to perceive in the purple prose the flash of a green light.
Before long, Sammy was lifting the back of his shirt. Of course she would take care of the CMPPP paperwork. She could use him. Her Los Angeles practice is experimenting with iris implants — a simple procedure, like treating cataracts — yes, she could certainly use him. All he had to do was save for the flight.
At present, however, he is unable to see himself past the first instar stage. He remains in a catatonic state on the floor of the hut, not an inch further from where he hatched. Unfed, hunger vicious. Inches from him a larval mass has gathered to feed on Dr Cazas’ scarlet macaw. But he hatched isolated from the rest, finding himself paralyzed under the inconsolable weight of matter.
The desk woven from moriche, stacked with patient files, teaching notes, an unfinished letter to the wife. From the moriche, Araos also weave baskets. Sometimes patients tipped him for treatment with baskets, piles of which occupy a corner of the hut. In a last letter to the wife, he mentioned the possibility of selling them in Cuba. Vaya Colón, was the loving reply, at least my Grego wasn’t banished to the Gambia. I hear the water there dies of thirst.
Long before he left Cuba with the brigade, Yuliana could taste defection in his kisses.
“Morning breath and it’s only noon,” she said, cool as a Russian breath mint.
He delayed his response for the first letter home. Your breath is reminiscent of Bosc pears. She would never decipher the two prognoses he’d coded in those words: 1) Diabetes accounts for 20% of Cuban deaths per year; 2) In all of Latin America, Cuba has the highest divorce rate.
His own prospects read no better. Written on the hut’s thatched walls — with the goddamned triangle eating at his back—he could only see a life sentence. And just three months into service. Two more years to go. And counting. Hundred of patients. Swamped. Snaking lines at the policlinico. Holes in cots for cholera shit. His arm-pit stink of do-goodness. No sidewalks, walking on water as a Jesus run low on miracles and tongue depressors. Sobbing Marías, coughing Magdalenas, AIDS widows. Racist officials locking up canoers for trying to feed their children. And that dour colleague Dr Vilma Méndez, oral surgeon from Matanzas, garlic muncher, arm swatter, insectophobe.
Unlike her, he got the runs soon after stepping off the canoe.
The canoer had spilled more soup than a cabbie in La Habana. In toothless Arao-Spanish, he spoke of doing time for smuggling drugs from Guyana and Trinidad, not knowing. Not wanting to know. What he knows for sure is where to fish the best fish by color and scent of river. That both parents died of measles for lack of doctor. And his parents and theirs and theirs knew for very sure that under Red Cross River lives Madre de Agua, a 56-foot snake colored black like Dr Cazas, white and yellow striped of head with 10-inch horns. No lie, he’s seen it with his very own spirit, why would he speak with two tongues? If mother of water leaves water, the entire delta dries up like a no-love woman. One last thing before docking, what he too knows for sure for sure is that Man One was a hunter in the sky and after shooting down the heaven bird followed its fall through cloud to earth, where he chose — he chose, good doctor — to stay and play with good things he saw. What’s play-good on earth for Dr Cazas?
His? Ah well, medicine, of course and of course. And chess. He might like to take up canoe-making.
Because in Curitas no one steps on terra firma.
Least of all the woman who rented him the hut, apologizing for its sparseness, smiling and smiling, because her daughter Sammy is a doctor just like him. Her daughter Sammy has much coin, lives in the capital, but visits the delta every other moon. She has the magics to turn beasts into beauties, her daughter Sammy, old into young. Thanks to her daughter Sammy, Doña Nati has the whitest set of bites in all the land. Here’s her daughter Sammy, posing with Miss Universe in a photo put to none other than the beautiful Natividad Bosque, may Christmas forests be forever.
Forever. The endless dreams that visited on the hut flickered x-ray images of his own skeletal smile, bottom teeth migrating to upper jaw.
He found himself especially toothy around his colleague Dr Méndez, who was responsible for dispatching regular progress reports to brigade headquarters in Tucupita. After crossing paths at Doña Nati’s on one occasion, he chewed aloud on a thousand-dollar thought. With all due respect, why was the daughter Sammy off in the capital pumping silicone, while her hometown was left to import the goodwill of these two humble doctors?
Doña Nati just flashed her dentures then held out a hand to collect the rent.
Mouth hooks flex. He has found the wherewithal to join the feeding frenzy. The scarlet macaw carcass has no name or eyes to speak of. Abracadabra. He is fattened to second instar and anticipates molting soon.
This is development.
Nelly Rosario is author of Song of the Water Saints: A Novel (Pantheon, 2002), winner of a PEN/Open Book Award. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry appear in various anthologies and journals, including Callaloo, Meridians, Review, Chess Life, and el diario/La Prensa. Rosario holds an MFA from Columbia University and was formerly on faculty in the MFA Program at Texas State University. She was a recent Visiting Scholar at MIT, her alma mater, and presently serves as writer/researcher for the Blacks at MIT History Project. Rosario lives in Brooklyn, where she’s at work on a speculative novel on community medicine.