“Doesn’t this sort of thing only happen in cartoons?” I asked wanly.
As the water that surrounded Dr. Wyclef and me began to get uncomfortably warm, the natives started tossing in peeled potatoes and carrots. A man with a large headdress sipped from the not-yet-broth and, with an excited gesture, indicated to the gathered crowd that it was tasty. That, or we needed more salt.
Either way, the crowd cheered.
Dr. Wyclef continued trying to communicate with them. “My name is Dr. John Wyclef!” he shouted over the din. “I am here with the University of California on a peaceful, diplomatic mission of science!”
“If they don’t understand English, shouting won’t help,” I said.
“I don’t know; I’m desperate,” he snapped. “Maybe some syllable or another will resonate with them. And then they’ll let us out of here and feed us or something.”
“Feed us what, exactly?”
“Or something,” he repeated tetchily.
“Or someone,” I echoed back.
“Stop what?” I asked, in a voice tinged with innocence.
“This isn’t a certainty! We can, we can…” His voice dropped to where it could barely be heard over the beating drums. “…get out of this somehow.”
I rested a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. “I’m not usually the fatalistic sort, but this isn’t looking very good for us, if I may resort to litotes. I… I’m not sure if this is the right time for you, but would you like to pray?”
“Seriously?” Dr. Wyclef cocked an eyebrow.
“There are no atheists in foxholes,” I said, reciting that old aphorism. “And this counts as a foxhole of a sort, I suppose. Though I don’t necessarily need the extra motivation.”
“I didn’t have you figured for the type.”
“I don’t let my life interfere with my work. But neither do I let my work interfere with life.”
He chuckled. “I am sure that this would become an interesting conversation—if we had more time. But doing nothing certainly isn’t going to help.”
“I am not doing nothing,” I said. “Trying to just jump out of here will certainly result in death. By being stabbed or something. Whereas waiting will only probably result in death.”
“Ah, but reasoning with them will probably result in life,” Dr. Wyclef said authoritatively.
“If you can reason with them.”
“And why couldn’t I?”
I sighed. “Do you see the old people on the decorated—perhaps even venerated—carts over there? They’re periodically shaking, and they look kind of out of it? I think they have a neurological disorder called kuru. It’s a degenerative disease that is transmitted via cannibalism, and… I think we can both agree that it looks as though that’s what these people are.
“It comes from a word in the Fore language meaning ‘to shake,’ which is a reference to the primary symptom. Among the Fore themselves, it’s referred to as the laughing sickness. Uncontrollable bursts of laughter occur as the muscles that control breathing start to spasm, you see. It’s believed nowadays that the disease is caused by prions, much like Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, colloquially called “Mad Cow Disease.” They may even be related; there’s some evidence that CJD may be the origin of Kuru.”
“Is that so?” Dr. Wyclef asked. “Kuru, you say? Neurological disorder?”
“Um, yeah, I think so,” I reluctantly admitted.
“No reasoning with them. Huh. I need to think about this for a moment.” Dr. Wyclef dunked his head under the still-heating water and floated in place. I waited several minutes, but he did not move again.
“Well,” I muttered to myself, “C’est la mort.” I held myself together for as long as I could, but eventually my legs gave out. I plugged my nose as I slid under. A useless, but comforting, gesture.
I am certain that we were delicious.