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On the brink of 6, she likes dressing up, playing pebble games, drinking tea with sugar if there's sugar to be had, splashing her dishes clean at the outdoor sink, circling through endless rounds of ring-around-the-rosie until she's so dizzy she collapses on the ground. She giggles. She pretends to be a bunny, hop, hop; a chicken, flap, flap; a warthog, snort, snort.

She is at that enchanted age when anything seems possible.

And that's just the problem.

In 10 years, when Martha is Sweet 16, strolling home from school in a swishy pleated skirt, men will certainly notice, and if one fellow in particular says Hello, how are you, and the next day says Hello again and that leads to the next thing and the next—what then?

And the dead? "Maybe they stay around awhile. ... Like a spirit you hear in your sleep as if a voice is talking to you."

Who will take care of Martha?

What's to stop her from following in her mother's footsteps?

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FACED WITH a global epidemic, what do you do?

Faced with a plea for one pair of rubber gloves, what do you do?

In impoverished Africa, people want and need to be paid for whatever they do, including sharing their time and their lives. But if we pay for information, a source might exaggerate or lie. Neighbors or relatives might grow jealous. If we buy gloves for one mother, why not bleach for another, drugs for a third? Where do you start? Where does it end?

Instead we tell a story, because that's what we do.

In journalism, that's ethics.

In the heart, it rings hollow.

In the room where Ruth lies dying, it makes the afternoon hang heavy, the air unbearably clammy.

Ruth is tired from our talk. Her eyelids droop shut. She shudders, winces, looks up at the sooty metal roof.

What does she dream?

"I always dream if I was strong as ever I would be doing A, and B, and C ... selling things," she says. "But now those dreams are nothing "

She struggles for breath.

"Now ... I ...don't ...think ...I'll ...those ...things."

Smoke drifts in from the dirt courtyard where cornmeal mush simmers in a black pot. Little Martha plays with her fingers, walking them along the stripes that edge her mother's thin blanket. Outside, a cranky car engine revs. Chickens scrabble and coo.

How the living live.

And the dead?

"Maybe they stay around awhile," Ruth says, her words barely there. "Like a spirit you hear in your sleep as if a voice is talking to you."

She looks to her mother, questioning. Amai Caty raises her head. In the weak yellow light, you can see the sweet sweep of her cheekbones, the luster of her skin. You realize where Ruth gets her glow, and for a strange moment, the bedside tableau looks beautiful, a gauzy vintage ad for Ivory soap. But this is real life, real time, Zimbabwe in the age of AIDS.

"When you die, you die," the older woman tells the younger. "That's it. You don't come back."

Tafadzwa wets his pants and cries, curling up like a potato bug and snuffling into his shirt. Martha tries to comfort him. Warm urine and cold sweat soak the blankets. Ruth and her mother have a long night ahead.

We say goodbye and promise to return Monday.

We will find a way to bring gloves.

In America, the lifetime cost to treat one person with HIV averages $155,000. In Africa, fewer than one in a thousand infected people receive any medical treatment.
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