The Mountain Part II – First Published June 8th, 2016
By Francis Marion
“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
– John Lennon –
I followed Peter up a steep trail through rock and brush on the edge of a canyon in the Waterberg mountains of the northern Limpopo. His son, tracker, and skinner followed in close quarters behind as we tracked some bull hartebeest spoor up and up. I reached out in front of me to clear a branch from the trail when I felt a firm hand on my forearm. I looked beside me, the 14-year-old pointed at the branch and motioned me to go under. I’d never seen thorns like that before. How did I miss them?
“Are you sure you’re ok with this,” Peter asked for the second time as we crested a small ridge onto a plateau overlooking a large valley and a watering hole?
I was staring at my boots. They were covered in a fine ochre-colored dust the likes of which I’d never seen before. My head was heavy with jet lag and I felt disoriented. Everything seemed upside down and almost surreal. I reached down and ran my index finger over the toe of my boot and examined the dust then shook my head and stood up.
“I’m fine Peter, honestly,” I replied, “I can hike behind you all day long. I prefer it to driving around or just sitting.”
“Ok but I don’t want you to feel like we are pushing you,” he replied in his thick South African accent.
“You worry too much. Just pretend you are not my guide and we are hunting together as friends.”
“You got it.”
“What’s common is common,” he said to my wife and I as we sat with our daughter in his office for the second time in three weeks.
“Ya but there doesn’t appear to be any other symptoms of the flu, doc. She just starts throwing up. No fever, no runny nose, no coughing, nothing. Just vomiting.”
“Trust me. What’s common is common.”
My wife and I looked at each other and she thanked him for his time. We put her back into her ski pants, jacket, mitts, and toque and loaded her into the SUV. She looked distant, her eyes glassy and unresponsive. Then… she did it again.
I laid naked in the bed of the hut looking up at my wife. Her long red, curly hair framed her beautiful Slavic eyes and cascaded down over her freckled, tanned shoulders, eventually coming to a rest against the soft, white skin of her breasts. I smiled up at her as she stood over me, the look on her face was one of trepidation.
“I know I’ve never asked you to do something like this before sweetie but do you mind?”
“For better or worse right,” she replied as she raised an eyebrow?
“You’ve got to find them all. They’re really small, about the size of the tip of a ball point pen. If you don’t get them all I’ll get sick. Just remember they’re everywhere.”
“Only you would think this was a good idea for a vacation,” she smiled at me from beneath the veil of her strawberry locks and began to search for ticks. She took and counted fifteen of the bloody little bastards from every nook and cranny of my body. I never got sick. She must have found them all.
My daughter sat in the bath tub once more looking distant and morose.
“Mum, I don’t get it. She just keeps getting sick,” I’d called her for advice because that’s what kids do. When in doubt call mum.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Francis. If the doctor says there is nothing wrong then maybe you should try and get her in to see someone else.”
“Daddy I feel sick.”
I leaned closer and looked into her eyes. They were yellow.
“I gotta go, mum.”
I toweled her off and put her in her clothes and made my way to the hospital.
An hour later the ER physician pulled me aside, “Mr. Marion we took some blood from your daughter. Near as I can tell it’s something to do with her liver. Her enzymes are well, very elevated. We can’t help her here. We need to get you to Grande Prairie to their pediatrics ward right now. I’m calling for an ambulance.”
I climbed out of the Land Cruiser and wandered into the courtyard. It was lunch time.
In the bathroom of the round, thatched stone hut I turned on the water and rinsed my hands. The sink turned a dark purply brown as the blood and dust from the morning’s hunt ran from the creases of my skin and from under my fingernails.
“Daddy look at this!”
Outside and up the path that led to camp the kids were playing. Swirls of wet, red ochre covered a large rock in a variety of childlike, geometric patterns.
“Isn’t it pretty,” she asked me, “you can paint with it!!”
Her mother’s reddish, blonde hair caressed her face and mingled with the red African dust and mud that covered her cheeks.
“It’s beautiful munchkin. You are so talented!”
My wife and I stood in the hallway outside our daughter’s room. The pediatrician stood with us staring back through the window at her bed. He looked puzzled.
“I can’t explain it,” he said, “she get’s better then just when we think she is going to beat it she crashes again. At this stage, her liver is going into failure and I can’t stop it. We have to get her out of here. We’re putting her on a plane to Edmonton as soon as possible. Pack your bags.”
“Doc,” I paused and looked at my wife, we wanted to know what no one would talk about, “is our daughter going to die?”
He paused and ran his hand over his face and bald head in frustration.
“We don’t talk like that around here. Right now we need to get your daughter to the Stollery,” he turned and started walking towards the nurse’s station, “just get ready to move.”
My wife turned to me, put her head on my shoulder and began to cry, “Why is this happening to us,” she asked?
“I don’t know.”
It was all I could say.
Peter poked the coals in the stone pit with a stick and a cascade of orange sparks blew upwards mingling overhead with the Southern Cross and its neighboring constellations. Across from me my wife and daughter sat cuddled close under a blanket in a single chair. With her head on her mother’s chest, their hair intertwined and fluxed from orange to yellow to red in the light of the fire. Both of them looked back at me across the hearth through my wife’s eyes as the flames flickered and danced in the African darkness.
“I don’t get it. We should have found that hartebeest bull by now,” whispered Peter. My daughter’s heavy eyes perked open as we began to discuss.
“We’ve walked over every hill and through every piece of bush on this property. I swear to God he was here before you showed up.”
I could sense the frustration in his voice. It had been three days of wandering over God’s red acre and the only sign of that bull had been its tracks. I tried to console him.
“Peter. First off they call it hunting and not killing for a reason. There are no guarantees. Not even in Africa,” he grinned from across the fire.
“Second. On day two we managed to kill a fine blue wildebeest bull and today we took a beautiful impala ram. We have three more days to hunt so relax, enjoy the fire and quit thinking of me as your client.”
His wife had been standing behind him listening to us speak. She put her arms around him and suggested it was time for “the boys” to go to bed. It was going to be an early morning. By African standards that is.
We sat in the pediatrician’s office at the Stollery across the room from a herd of white coats. They were talking in murmurs amongst themselves when the oldest one turns to us and says, “Mr. and Mrs. Marion we’ve been looking over your daughters recent and long term medical history and we don’t think she has a virus.”
“You mean I didn’t do this to my daughter?” I asked.
The three of them looked stunned, “What would make you think such a thing,” he asked?
“We were in Africa for almost a month this summer. I just assumed this was some kind of virus that she’d picked up while we were there. That it had been dormant for a while and if we hadn’t gone this wouldn’t be happening.”
“No, Mr. Marion. It’s not a virus. We think it’s metabolic but we don’t know for sure, at least not yet. In the meantime, we are going to start treating her as though that is the case to see how she responds. This fine lady standing next to me is Dr. Chan. She and her team from the metabolic ward will be dealing with her case along with me. As long as she’s here with us we are going to do everything in our power to figure this thing out and for what it’s worth – and I see this all the time – the worst part is the ‘not knowing’. It will get better.”
At sun up I found Peter’s son and his crew standing next to the donkey near the fire. It was just above freezing and they were trying to keep warm. I was loading my rifle onto the back of the Toyota when Peter came from behind me and threw a small cooler into the back of the Land Cruiser.
“There are two cold beers in this cooler,” he looked at me and pointed to the bag, “when we kill that bull today we are going to drink them over his carcass. Are you with me?”
I looked him in the eyes and said, “Giddyup!”
“It’s called ornithine transcarbamylase deficiency.”
“I’ve never heard of it,” she said to Dr. Chan.
I sat in the chair next to my daughter listening. I looked at her while the Dr. and my wife spoke, her hair was redder than usual today and stood out against her pale almost translucent skin. Her light blue eyes were sunken and unresponsive. She looked at us and moved now and then but wouldn’t converse or interact. I wanted her to be better. I thought, “I’d do anything.” She could have my liver if that would work. Anything.
“It’s a form of Urea Cycle Disorder. Basically, your daughter’s body is poisoning itself from the inside out right now. Her ammonia levels are off the charts and if we don’t get them under control soon her liver issues will be the least of our problems. It can kill her brain if it isn’t controlled. The catatonic like state she is in right now is evidence that it is affecting the brain as we speak. We are starting her on a solution immediately to clean her blood. We are also changing her diet. No more meat. Her body cannot metabolize the protein properly and that is part of what is triggering these hyper ammonia attacks. You’ll have to learn to count the protein in all of her food. She cannot have any more than her body needs to grow or function or it can kill her. I am sending a dietician up to see you shortly.”
“So she’s going to be ok,” I asked?
“Mr. Marion. She will be. That she remains that way will be up to you and your wife.”
“How did she get this?”
“She was born with it Mr. Marion. It’s just one of those things that happens that we have no control over.”
The Toyota bobbled along the mountain trail heading towards the ridge we’d walked the first morning. Peter was going over the game plan with me when his son hit the brakes and nearly threw us from our seats up top. We could hear the cracking and thrashing of timber in the bush to the left of us when a herd of hartebeest broke across the track like a flock of sharptails breaking from grassy cover under foot. About a half dozen cows filed across in front of us in a second followed by a bull.
“That’s him! That’s him! Grab your rifle,” Peter yelled but I’d already pulled it from its rack and was making my way into the bush behind the small heard!
We’d only gone in about twenty or thirty yards when Peter put his hand on my shoulder, “Francis, stop. I can hear them moving ahead of us. They are going to cross in front us through that clearing and head back up the hill.”
And there they were.
1,2,3,4,5,6 cows moving quickly from left to right through the opening 40 yards in front of me.
Then the bull.
“I’ll get the shooting sticks set…”
The bellow of the 9.3X62 cut Peter off in mid sentence and the bull wavered. I could see the dark crimson beads against his red coat as he began to teeter…
The Red Hartebeest bull died amongst the orange rocks in the ochre sand of the South African hills. I laid my rifle against some brush and ran my hands over his thick dark horns and his copper-colored coat. From behind Peter tapped me on the shoulder – I could feel the round smooth surface of a cold, wet can of beer on the back of my neck.
“I didn’t think we’d be drinking these this early in the day but will you have one with me?”
We pulled up a rock and watched the skinner do his job while we sipped our victory beer.
“It’s funny. This wasn’t how I expected it to go down,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Peter, “that’s life, though. You just never know.”