• An Coenen


[EN - Translation by Philip Stessens]

The sun had only just risen, but was already disappearing in the wisps of morning mist. Sara got off the pontoon into her kayak and began to paddle slowly. This was always her favorite time of the day. At this hour it was still calm on the water and today it even seemed as if she was the only one. She took a deep breath. The air smelled of meadowsweet and water mint. Pink primroses mingled along the bank with the violet of the first cautious pike herb. She smiled. Another two months and the Valerian would also start flowering again. She skillfully steered the kayak through the pontoons. In this part of Schaerbeek alone there were more than a thousand. On each pontoon there were six tiny houses, built from ecological materials and equipped with a heat collector - a storage place for the heat from the sun that could then be used to generate electricity - and its own mini water purification system. Each house also had its own little garden on the pontoon, where the residents grew vegetables, fruit or other plants in large planters. Sara peddled to the swamp she had rented from the government. It was a remote part, on the border with Evere and Woluwe-Saint-Lambert, which is part of High Brussels. The government had first tried to grow algae there, in the hope of producing ecological meat substitutes on a large scale, but that turned out to be more complicated than expected. After several unsuccessful attempts, the area, covering about one hectare, became the subject of a “call for projects”. Any Schaarbeekois who had a good idea to use the swamp could submit something. At first Sara, who was a biologist and herbalist, had thought of a communal vegetable garden or herb garden, but due to the scarcity of cultivable land - there was more water than land - she had the idea of ​​setting up a swamp plant business. Because in this way she could also provide the Brussels restaurant owners with exclusive and special ingredients - she was one of the few who still knew that you could eat the roots of Reed, Cattail and Swamp Anemone as a kind of potato - the government had chosen her project and given grants. Enough as starting capital. Now, almost ten years later, Sara's company was known far beyond Brussels and even Belgium. And she was considered an expert on marsh plants.

Artwork by @tavub ©

The first - still quite innocent - signs of the epidemic appeared in the second week of May. People complained about the mosquitoes, which seemed to be more numerous than in years past. They were gigantic swarms. At first they only showed up at dusk, but soon they were also present during the day. Everyone went crazy, and the conversations were about little else. Sara protected herself with a mosquito net at night and during the day she only wore clothes that covered her entire body. People invested in better fly screens and especially in masses of insect repellent spray, but the mosquitoes did not seem to be bothered. They were stubborn, aggressive and constantly craving blood. One morning Sara was about to get into the kayak when a loud scream came from the cabin next to hers. On the deck of the pontoon, her neighbor appeared with his four-year-old daughter in his arms. Sara immediately saw how serious it was and ran to them. The girl was breathing hard and was burning with fever. A few barely visible mosquito bites, pinkish red against her pale skin. A few days later the girl died. She was the first victim of the epidemic, but many others soon followed, including Sara's neighbor, the girl's father. After two weeks, when the death toll had already risen to one hundred and fifty, the government decided to intervene. It was early in the morning of the 20th of May, when the inhabitants of Lower Brussels were startled by the sound of dozens of drones. The drones announced that everyone was obliged to stay inside until noon, because they were going to spray a strong pesticide. Windows and doors had to be kept closed and it was “strongly discouraged to consume the next crop from the planters”. From behind the window in the kitchen, Sara watched the drones begin to emit a white haze after these reports, which were constantly repeated. With a lump in her throat she watched as the plants on her terrace were covered with a thin white layer. But the action did not produce the desired results. The mosquitoes turned out to be resistant to the poison and as if to show their strength, they seemed to be increasing in numbers. After a month, the situation became so unsustainable - the hospitals could no longer cope with the influx of sick people that the mayor of Brussels made some very drastic decisions. It ordered the immediate quarantine of the worst-affected area, Lower Brussels, and high fences were placed on the entire border between Low and High Brussels.

High Brussels was not in the swamp area. Especially the well-off inhabitants of Brussels lived there. The fences were located in the north on the border between Evere and Woluwe-Saint-Lambert and ran to the south over Ixelles, Saint-Gilles, Vorst and Uccle. The federal government banned all Brussels residents from leaving the city for a month already.

A gigantic field hospital was built near Lower Ixelles, consisting of large tents on pontoons. Ambulance boats are constantly coming and going. One morning in June, Sara was working in the swamp when a kayak headed her way. Curious, she tried to see who was in it. The man was wearing a mouth mask, yet she saw who he was. 'Slimane!' She saw that he was wearing waders. On his head was a kind of pith helmet with a mosquito net. Slimane was also a biologist. They had worked together for a while, years ago. 'Sara!' He smiled, but his look was concerned. 'What brings you here?' Sara was robed up to him and looked at him in surprise. 'I heard you grow swamp plants here.' 'Yes.' 'Which ones do you have?' 'You better ask which one I don't have,' she laughed. Slimane waded through the plants, whispering the names of the plants. 'Meadowsweet, yellow iris, calamus, ...' He turned back to Sara. 'Is there somewhere we can talk?' 'Yes of course. Come with me.' They waded together to a small pontoon where Sara had attached a canopy with the help of a wooden pole. Under the awning was a small aluminum table and a folding chair. 'Nobody ever comes here,' she said, pointing to the seat. She herself sat down on the table. 'The mosquito plague ...' Slimane gave her a gloomy look. 'I don't know what you've heard, but it's not right.' He paused and watched the willows sway gently back and forth in the rising breeze. 'The lab where I work, together with two other labs, was commissioned by the government to investigate what makes this disease so deadly. And unfortunately we all came to the same conclusion. Malaria. But a new shape. One that turns out to be even more deadly and that… ' He took a deep breath. 'Which can now also be transferred from person to person.' 'What?!' Sara jumped off the table and stood petrified for a moment. 'Are you sure?' 'Unfortunately yes. And there is no cure yet. But then I heard about your plants.' 'What are you thinking of?' 'A combination of summer wormwood with marsh plants.' He gave her a monstrous look. “But I need your expertise for that, Sara. I am here to ask you to come with me to Upper Brussels. Our research center is located at the Sonian Forest. We have thirty acres of land at our disposal. My colleagues have already started sowing the summer wormwood. The ground here is far too soggy for that. ' Sara thought for a moment, then turned back to Slimane and said, 'If you think I can help, I'll come.' She put her left hand on her heart, as if to emphasize her words. 'I'll be there tomorrow.' The next morning, Slimane returned with some assistants to pick up plants. Sara helped load them into the kayaks, carefully packed. Then she grabbed her backpack, got into her kayak and gently paddled behind the others. Near the City of Brussels, where the Grote Markt was still located years ago, a large jetty was located on the remains of the old Town Hall. Slimane signaled that they would dock there. She paddled slowly towards him. 'You live in Lower Brussels, so you will be tested here first, Sara.' On the dock, two men in protective suits were ready with a blood test. One of the men pricked her finger and put a drop of blood on a test strip while the other measured her body temperature. Fortunately, the test turned out to be negative. Slimane smiled and took Sara's hand. 'Now we just have to cross the border.' At the end of the landing stage there were four armed soldiers. Slimane showed them the documents authorizing Sara to enter Upper Brussels. After a brief eye contact, she was allowed to continue. The research center was located in Watermael-Boitsfort, on the edge of the Sonian Forest. Sara had not been to Upper Brussels for years and was shocked by the amount of trees that had been felled since the last time she visited. Everywhere were parceled out pieces of forest where houses had to be built. And no tiny houses here, but villas. Slimane saw the look on her face. 'I know, Sara,' he said softly. 'But I have the feeling that this epidemic is starting to look differently at the value of this forest.' They walked on and came to the research center. Here they retired for the next few weeks to find a cure for the new malaria variant. It was already September when they found a suitable combination. After a few more weeks, which were devoted to extensive testing on subjects, the drug could finally be applied to patients. The combination of summer wormwood, meadowsweet and calamus was found to be effective enough to relieve the patients' symptoms. In December, six months after the start of the epidemic and two months after taking the drug, the numbers started to improve. There were fewer reports of new infections and fewer mosquitoes were observed. Death rates dropped spectacularly and fewer sick people were admitted to hospitals. The fences were removed again. To prevent the situation from deteriorating quickly, the mayor allocated a huge amount to fill in pieces of swamp. Pumps were installed in other places, creating a permanent light flow in the water. For the duration of the works, a temporary emergency shelter was created for the residents of High Brussels. In the years that followed, no new houses were being built in the Sonian Forest for the time being, but large fields of summer wormwood arose.

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