The active ingredient in zombie powder is tetrodotoxin, which the witchdoctors extract by mashing blowfish liver into paste. A near-lethal dose, applied by rubbing into a skinned elbow or sprinkling over a stew, begins with tingling extremities and a tightening of the chest. It ends in a coma so severe that respiration slows to imperceptible levels. Like a corpse. And the victim will be presumed dead, and buried, and mourned.
That night the witchdoctor will dig up the body. With administration of low-dosage hallucinogens and hypnosis therapy, the victim awakens convinced he’s a zombie. Not a Romero zombie, which is just an unwrapped mummy. A voodoo zombi. A braindead slave of the witchdoctor. Apparently it’s an enduring psychotraumatic state of paralysis.
Dad snorts. He says these so-called zombies just need a good old fashioned talking-to and they’ll snap right out of it.
Folks at home wonder why I didn’t call off my annual surgical mission to the Haitian highlands this year. My regular team backed out last Tuesday when the quake hit. I was desperate enough for another pair of hands in the OR that I called Dad.
He said, Got nowhere to turn so you call your daddy.
He’s an anesthesiologist. Retired. An asshole.
I told him the barrel was only so deep.
The earthquake knocked out the air control tower at Toussaint Louverture International, and no one can get anywhere near Port-au-Prince without USAID tags anyway, so Dad and I hired a puddle jumper from the D.R. that chugged through the smoke of the slash-and-burn clearings and put us down on a grassy airstrip in the hills.
American churches organize regular clinical missions to Haiti, but since the ’04 coup I’m the only guy doing any cutting this deep in the bush. Every year I ship down twenty-seven boxes of supplies wrung out of hospital administrators or purchased from donations. Portable anesthesia machine, pulse oximeter, a Bovie for electrocautery, everything I need to slice and snip and staple, plus the miscellany – gauze, sponges, gowns, hemostats, all the way down to nonsterile latex gloves. I can’t stockpile anything, or locals will steal my suture needles for fishhooks. On top of that, the rescue effort in Port-au-Prince is rerouting the supplies I usually source locally. O2 tanks, fuel, solar panels, that stuff.
Surgery’s a bitch this far off the grid.
My ex-wife used to ask why I keep doing this charity shit. That’s what she called it. She said, Your own son’s a goddamn basketcase and you’re flying to Haiti for good works?
I’m sweating through my scrubs during patient screening.
Dad sweats less than I do.
He’s judging me.
The generator’s in and out, so I’m cherry-picking short procedures. Can’t lose power with a patient on the table.
A grandmother waddles into the screening room leaning on the shoulders of her children. All sinew and marrow. Not a wad of subcutaneous fat. As she hikes up her skirts to unravel the knotted rags around her groin she mutters, Padone’m, padone’m. Pardon me, pardon me. A tumor the size of a softball bulges wetly from her vagina. Prolapsing cervical cancer. I send her home with pain meds.
I tell Dad, six months tops.
We see a couple hernias. One swells a guy’s scrotum up as big as an eggplant. He looks like a dog digging a hole when he reduces it. His name’s Philostrom. I put him on tomorrow’s schedule.
Absolutely no food after midnight, I say.
Wi dok, says Philostrom. Yes, doctor.
No water either. No nothing.
My regular team used to joke that you could ask a Haitian at clinic if he ate deep-fried butter every night for dinner and the reply would be, Wi dok.
Dad says if I took orders good as Philostrom I’d be a better physician.
Next in shuffles a pair of barefoot newlyweds. The groom wears a suit with fraying hems that smells like pigshit. His wife holds her mouth as if saving a gulp of water. Her husband says when she eats, blood oozes through her teeth and dribbles out her lips. I show her the tongue depressor and she says ah-h-h-h-h-h.
Oral cancer, gnawing through her palate up into the sinus cavity.
She’s walking dead.
She’ll starve, probably.
I tell them they need a real hospital with radiation therapy, and fat chance finding that in Haiti anymore. She’s looking at my neck while I talk. The groom pats the back of her hand. For my honest advice, I say, run the girl across the border to the D.R. The widower-to-be says, Wi dok, but the guy doesn’t even have shoes.
Less than a year, I tell Dad.
He says I got some kind of bedside manner, and I say, Wi dok.
The same way most Americans know hola and buenos dias, Haitians used to learn the English words for good morning and thank you and goodbye. That was when Baby Doc still held this jalopy together, juddering and sawing at the seams. Sometime after Clinton sent the Marines to restore democracy in ‘94, a new phrase replaced all those English pleasantries. Give me one dollar.
That’s what people say when they see me.
Blan, meaning gringo, give me one dollar!
It doesn’t bother me. No one ever tugs at my shirt or tries to shake me down, at least not out here in the mountains. Just a dollar will do, and even then they can’t be troubled to press the issue.
My son called me a selfish fucking prick once in a Best Buy because I wouldn’t buy him four hundred dollar Beats by Dre headphones.
I warned him to say it again.
He turned to his mother for backup. He said, Tell him to his face. He’s a selfish fucking prick and you know it.
My wife raised her eyebrows at me accusingly and said nothing.
I remove a ganglion cyst from the right elbow of a farmer. I patch up three inguinal hernias. A twenty-two-year-old guy with breast cancer turned up yesterday from over the mountains, but he slept outside last night without a blanket and woke up with nasal congestion, so I decline surgery. I tell him the good news is he can eat now and he says, Wi dok, and climbs back onto his donkey because there’s nothing to eat, anyway.
The toilet overflows and stinks up the OR.
I deflate a cyst on the eyelid of a grandfather who says he doesn’t know for sure but thinks he’s ninety. I carve into a woman’s thigh looking for a sewing needle that got lost in there a couple months ago. It’s drifted into her knee.
From behind my mask I say to Dad, Like looking for a needle in a kneecap.
He says, Why don’t you watch what you’re doing.
Philostrom is the last case of the day. The Bovie craps out as soon as we put him under. Dad ends up following the lines of my scalpel with a soldering iron to cauterize my incisions. I only manage a partial fix because we’ve used up our ration of gauze.
Dad says, Give it a year he’ll herniate again.
I say, Good thing I’ll be back to take care of him.
In the Papa Doc era, Toussaint Louverture International was a U.S. Marine Corps airbase called Bowen Field, occupied as part of the naval advisory mission to Port-au-Prince. Eventually, JFK forked over USAID funds to transform the base into a commercial airport. In exchange, he got Papa Doc’s vote to boot Cuba out of the Organization of American States.
In 1994, as Haiti tumbled toward anarchy, our boys came storming back to the same airfield – Port-au-Prince International, now – filling the tarmac with planes, and tents, and pallets airdropped from C-141s. The Joint Command called it Operation Uphold Democracy. The soldiers called it an intervasion. They stayed three years.
After they left, the airport got renamed for the revolutionary hero from Haiti’s struggle for independence.
Then there was this earthquake, which pulverized everything.
In the moments after it hit, a groaning floated into the hanging dust from those trapped beneath the flattened city of Port-au-Prince. Survivors called it the fo mouri, the noisy dead, and they wept over the ham that the buried moan was more awful than the shaking itself. Within hours, U.S. Air Force special operations controllers were on the ground at Toussaint Louverture directing the incoming international aid, because there were no competent Haitians for the job.
That’s why I’m here too.
I need these people to stay the way they are – helpless, tributary, shaking me like a fruit-bearing tree – because I’m the witchdoctor and they’re my zombies, and even if the only gratitude they show me is frightened courtesy, as long as they’re paralyzed by the promise of a world where guys like Philostrom don’t drag their plows swinging eggplants between their legs, they’ll go on wi dok-ing til the sun sets behind smoke-charred skies.