“That's the role of death and disease, he thought. To keep the ever-growing mountain of life from smothering us. That's fine for the jungle and mosquitoes, but there are too few children to lose any.”
Excerpt from SARAMPIÓN©
first prize California writing contest
read on Public Radio 2004
A shower of papers escaped into the air. Like caged birds released, they caught the currents, and scattered. Some up and down the tiled walkway, some into the small central garden, a couple into the adjacent examining room -- the one with no door.
Juan stared at them disgustedly and couldn’t find the heart to bend over and pick them up again. Not important how careful I am with this -- he glared at the battered aluminum chart frame with its undependable spring -- it won’t function. The gringo hospital sent it as a generous gift, and probably even received credit for their taxes. But it is only junk.
He stirred from his thoughts when he heard rustling. Maria-Elena, with her familiar short brown hair and her always starched uniform scurried underfoot to retrieve the papers. “Ah, thank you, a thousand thank-you’s, Maria. Today I can’t pick up papers, only drop them.”
“Dr. Zapien, why don’t you go home now and rest? I believe you’re tired.”
“Yes, I am tired. Tired in my muscles, tired in my blood, tired in my head.” There was a silence as long as two breaths. “Am I finished with patients?”
“Just one new patient,” she began. Juan watched the corners of Maria’s sky-colored eyes as she spoke. Tiny folds of skin there moved as her heart changed from concern for the doctor, to professional reporter on matters of his clinic and hospital. “A boy, just in from the campo – his parents walked five kilometers, carrying him.”
She’s tired, too, Juan diagnosed silently. She has grown two more wrinkles at each eye this past year. The wrinkles help her face smile, however, which is good, because these European faces like hers – thin, sharp noses, pale skin, invisible cheekbones – they need help to smile. But the same wrinkles can frown, and I’ve seen them, on others, droop with age.
“I put him in room six with the other child and you can see him in the morning. His mother is cooking him some dinner, and will sleep on the floor near his bed. He’ll rest well until tomorrow.”
She could have taken her Spanish and Arabic features to the capital years ago, Juan continued his thoughts, to work in a fancy clinic there. She would be wealthy by now and ready to retire. Instead, she stayed here among us, and is probably older than she would otherwise have been.
Outside his head, it was suddenly quiet. She had ceased talking.
“Tomorrow?” he prompted her.
“Yes. You can see him first thing in the morning.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“A rash,” she shrugged. “And fever.”
Juan’s dark eyebrows shot up. “Oh? What else? Never mind. Let’s go see him.”
“But, you’re tired,” she tried to dissuade him. “You should go home early.”
“Six? But the girl with kidney failure is in there!”
“Yes. I told you, remember? They can keep each other company and-- ”
But there was suddenly no one for her to talk to, so she wheeled and followed his flapping white coat down the hallway, marveling at how fast he could suddenly move.
“Why is he blindfolded, Señora?” Juan asked the boy’s mother.
She squatted by her son’s bedside, stirring soup over a small alcohol stove set on the floor. The riot of colors interwoven in her traditional dress was the only enlivenment in the white, clean-scrubbed room. The boy’s father slouched in the corner, his tattered white farmer’s pants and shirt blending with the paint.
“His eyes hurt him in the daytime,” she answered meekly. She kept her eyes down, respecting the doctor’s status. She fingered her shiny black braids nervously. “It was bright outside when we brought him.”
Juan gently pulled the sheet from the boy, murmuring reassurance to him. He was four years old at most, with a crude blue cloth tied over his eyes. An angry rash scorched his trunk and arms, spreading by tendrils that intertwined each other, and invaded the normal skin. When he lifted the boy’s head to remove the blindfold, he felt as if he’d touched a stove.
“Maria, what is his temperature?”
“Forty – one, Doctor.”
Juan pried open the boy’s eyelid. He saw that the white part of his eye was injected with red veins. The under-surface of the boy’s eyelid was as red and stippled as the flesh he cut with his scalpel when he did surgery. But this, he knew, was not, as in surgery, a healthy red.
The boy grimaced when Juan opened his eye to the room’s light. His teeth gritted, but did not meet in front. His two front teeth were rotted away.
Sugar cane, thought Juan. Candy from the capital. I’ll discuss it with his parents –after he recovers.
His gaze shifted, for a moment, over to the adjacent wood-frame bed where his kidney patient lay. She was thin in her pretty Spanish face – like those models in the European magazines, he thought – but swollen with fluid in her legs. Her feet were twin balloons with five little toes almost swallowed by the inflation, like a surgical glove, when in a moment of mirth, you over-inflate it.
My little queen of the festival baile, Juan thought, using the same words he used each time he saw her, you will be dancing again soon. Those legs and feet still belong to the town’s best dancer.
Her mother stood rigid and aloof at the girl’s bedside, as if shielding her daughter from these people of the campo. Her eyes met Juan’s, and shot him suspicion and a sense of insult.
“Señora,” Juan acknowledged her with a bow of his head and a smile.
There may be more danger here to your daughter, he thought, than your injured sense of class superiority, Señora. Now I need to find out.
Within the cave of the boy’s mouth, Juan’s flashlight found the final clue he needed – and dreaded.
“Maria Elena, please move this boy and his family to a private room.”
“But where --?”
“Anywhere,” Juan retorted with urgency.
He turned to the boy’s parents. “He’ll be more comfortable in a private room. You may stay with him, of course.”
“Pronto,” he directed to Maria from the corner of his mouth. After the move had been accomplished, and the boy’s father had been sent to the town pharmacy for Tylenol, Juan paced the hall slowly, writing in the chart as he walked.
He was jolted from his thoughts by Maria’s voice, then immediately recognized that the crinkling of her starched uniform had been there all along, as he walked.
“What did I do wrong?”
“Nothing, Maria. Nothing. You did nothing wrong. It’s only that the boy may be contagious, so we moved him. I think he and his parents will be more comfortable using my office as a private room.”
“So you were concerned the girl may catch what he has?”
She watched his face closely, knowing how difficult it would be to discern what was in his heart. He was like a statue, she had long ago decided. Those statues in Greece and Rome, with a skin of smooth, wrinkleless bronze, and nearly unchanging expression. His powerful cheekbones, his wide, regal nose, his dark thick lips seldom revealed anything. She knew to watch his eyes. Although so black that iris and pupil were indistinguishable, they somehow betrayed to her when he was tired, sad, angry, happy, or, like now, worried.
“The girl,” he nodded to answer her question, “and then her ballerina friends who visit her, and then all the children of the town.”
“But what –?”
She gasped before she could control herself. “I heard it was in Villarica last week, but --- I’m sorry, Dr. Zapien. I didn’t know it was measles.”
“Don’t feel bad, Maria. It wasn’t obvious. Unfortunately, his lungs are filling with fluid, and he will need a good nurse such as you. What little we can do for him, you will do well. I moved him to protect the others, but you don’t need to say that to his family. I want them to feel welcome here.”
“Then they are better off not in the same room with that Lopez woman. Such a snob! (Father, forgive me).” She made the sign of the cross automatically. Then she knelt down.
The sign of the cross Juan had seen her make hundreds of times. But why was she kneeling? He looked down at her, and saw that she was gathering papers from the floor. His aluminum chart frame was, like a birdcage left open by mistake, empty again.
His nurse handed Juan the papers, neatly arranged, delivered with formality and respect. “And the measles vaccine from the Ministry of Health …?”
“The Ministry of Health…” he shook his head as he said it, primarily during the word ‘Health.’ “No, we haven’t heard from the Ministry of Health. There is no vaccine for our town. For the capital, yes. For Rio Verde, birthplace of the president, yes. But for us, no.”
“The Virgin will keep us.”
A sparkle in his tired eyes – “yes, she will. If not here, then in the grave.”
“Doctor!” She seemed truly shocked although his blasphemy was, by now, a familiar presence in the mildewed hallways of the clinic. “The Virgin will protect us from the plague.”
“‘Epidemic’,” Maria Elena. It won’t be a plague for another week or two. Well, I’m going. You’re right, as always. I need some sleep. Thank you again for chasing my prodigal charts.”
He latched the thin wooden door of the clinic, leaving behind until tomorrow, the patients and the nurses who would care for them through the night. The afternoon air, still thick with humidity, was a little less feverish under the weakening sun. Ponderous dark clouds roiled in the east. He watched them expand into the sky as he walked the narrow red clay road toward the eastern side of town.
The road cut a red slash through lush grass which, given a week or two without the traffic of people and cows, would quickly overgrow and heal it. The whirring of furious insects, hidden in the grass, virated in Juan’s ears. He inhaled a little deeper. The pervasive odor of cow manure had now been infused with the perfume of orchids.
He directed his eyes to the source of orchids: the dense jungle which formed four distinct walls around the town. It was constantly growing tentacles into the space cleared by the villagers. Juan saw two men whacking rhythmically with machetes against this encroaching growth.
Life pushes with the ceaseless power of fertility, thought Juan. It expands into every space. By now, we should be smothered in a ten-kilometer deep mountain of life. Maybe that is the role of disease and death. To keep the mountain low. That’s fine for the jungle, he allowed, and the mosquitoes. But there are too few children to lose any.
And for the disease which the Spanish call Sarampión, there is magic: a vaccine. But we’ll never have the magic. We are Indians. Mayas. Not important if we die. I am expected to wait here until the sickness arrives, then do things which don’t work. That’s how they teach you in medical school in the capital.
He had other plans.
This afternoon, he walked past the path to his house and continued east toward the temple ruins.
“He takes the walk for his health,” someone who knew nothing of him explained to her companion. “All doctors do that.”
A puff of breeze, exhaled from the jungle to the east, brushed his ears. It carried the faint tinkling of leaves against each other, like clicking tongues in prayer, gone over the centuries to frequencies almost beyond the human ear. Something pulled in him -- pulled at his eyelids as though to extract tears, pulled at his heart as though to rip it whole from his chest.
We will see what I must sacrifice for this, he thought.
He passed through the zone of squealing pigs and squawking chickens where the multicolored houses were packed together. A short stick pinwheeled through the air, and startled Juan as it clattered to the road in front of him. Two boys scampered from his right, and crouched over the stick. One hit the end of the stick with another stick he held in his hand, and the missile was airborne again. Laughing, the two pursued the flying stick, and disappeared among the houses.
Further along the road, the plank buildings became less densely placed, less recently painted. Trees and ferns crept into the spaces between the houses. Plant life grew right up to the road’s edge and houses shrank back to hide within the tree shadows. A chicken cautiously emerged from a house, flitted about for a few seconds in its small yard of packed mud, then was swallowed by the undergrowth. Within the shadows of the open doorway, on pudgy toddler’s legs, stood a boy of maybe 18 months. He had on a short T-shirt which reached half way down his swollen belly, leaving him conveniently naked from that point down. By now he’d been taught to relieve himself in the bushes outdoors. Going pantless kept his clothes clean. From the shadows of his home, the boy watched a daily show in the yard and on the road before him, unaware that he was, to an approaching virus, a target.
Juan licked a salty drop of sweat from his lip and increased his pace. His town fell behind him, and soon even its noises trailed off. On either side of the narrow path rose straight, solid walls of green. Like sponge, they absorbed the sounds of his footsteps and increased respirations. But the green also oozed sounds which enveloped him: a constant low insect hum, bird caws, monkey chatter, hissing from wet leaves.
His vision narrowed. Between the ten meter high walls of green and the narrow strip of sky framed overhead, there was only a short horizon: a line in the distance where the path and the cloud-burdened sky met. There would be the ruins where his ancestors had celebrated their rule over the known world. He locked his eyes on the horizon and let his legs carry him with a mechanical march.
He envisioned his grandmother: a short, powerful copper-skinned person with a majestic nose. She squatted at a cooking fire. “Tell me about us,” Juan asked her in Maya. “What do we do when we have a need this great?”
Sounds from the jungle, like her clicking tongue, said “I can tell you no more than you would hear from me while I lived. You were not interested then in what the Maya do, and all that I knew which you would not hear is gone. But I will tell you again what you have already heard. You have little of the plant-knowledge, and this is bad because there is a remedy for measles. You can only act on your instincts. You can chew the plant which takes you back -- back before the Spanish. It is always best to go in complete time cycles. Then it will be the same day as today, the same hour, but in a time period before now. Chac is powerful, but he is for rain. Ix Chel is weaker, but works with the healers. For what you ask, you must sacrifice much.”
He felt his body flinch. Aware of it, he checked to be sure all was correct: eyes on the distant site, legs striding. So I must sacrifice much, he thought. I admit I’d hoped it would be “this is a great thing you ask, but it is for others. The gods will see your selflessness and ask little.” Complete cycles. From one creation of the cosmos, through all the time sequences of the moon and stars, to the extinction of all fires. Fifty-two years each creation. He did a calculation and decided to go twenty cycles.
His eyes told him he was half way to the ruins. Time to chew the plant. His gaze swept the jungle floor beside the path as he marched, his heart drumming in his ears, his skin slimy with the humidity. He saw the leaf shaped like a dream, and stopped. In rhythm with the thudding of his heart, he dug carefully with his fingers. He removed the root, unbroken, and brushed off the soil. He bit off the leaf and replaced it carefully in the soil as if it had never been disturbed. He put the root in his mouth and began chewing.
As he marched, he recalled the ruins he’d been to hundreds of times in his childhood. He had scampered over all four faces of the main temple then, careless of the loosening rocks which occasionally careened off the edifice to the ground far below. It was a fall steep enough and far enough to kill. But the decaying mortar had left the sloping sides of the temple pock-marked with footholds for boys.
Only in the past year had he discovered his genetic memory; a trait which, augmented by the hallucinogenic root, had taught him the power of his ancestral gods. He had rediscovered the ceremonial purposes of the temple, and had learned to use sacrifice. And for sacrifice? Twenty cycles before now, a person would have died, his heart ripped out and placed, still beating, in the hands of Chac. Or he would have been drugged and thrown into a cenote to descend beneath the water into the hands of the gods.
But there were other sacrifices: food, animals, even Time itself. Several months earlier, Juan had burned his 100,000 pesos of savings toward a car and Chac had sent rain two days later. It saved the new corn which was yellowing from drought. Later, he’d cut several pieces of skin from his leg and received, in a vision, the formula for shrinking internal tumors. He began to develop a list of sacrifices and categorize them by value, to have at his disposal several ideas. But he quickly abandoned the exercise because he knew only what value they had to him, and it was the gods he must please.
The ceremonies at the ruins were short, since he had only the time of his afternoon walk to do them, and they had to be done at the temple. But he was learning to use the time spent in travelling to initiate the process: his pounding heart was circulating the drug to all his muscles, to his eyes, to his sweating skin; he envisioned as he strode, the cycles of time slipping past.
The path opened into a large clearing. The blush of the setting sun behind him invaded the saturated clouds over the temple like a spreading rash. His cadence remained unbroken. He crossed directly toward the north face of the main temple.
It was no longer the pyramidal pile of rocks, long loosened by centuries of rain and multiple cycles of invading roots; he was marching toward a scarlet pyramid, perfect in its sharp corners and symmetry, glowing in the tangential light. Its four faces were stuccoed, dyed, and burnished to a glassine finish. Its apex was truncated and held, nearly beyond view, an altar. Burning copal issued from it and undulated in smoky columns of incense toward the inflamed sky. The jungle stood back several hundred meters in all directions from this raw, crimson temple, like a breast torn open to reveal its heart.
With steps synchronized to his heartbeats, Juan continued his approach. At the jungle edge, his eyes could hold the entire temple. But with each marching step, it grew larger until the base of it spread beyond his vision in both directions, until the altar top was lost from sight to merge with the excoriated sky, until he could discern within the smooth red-glass surface of the north face, a carved stairway of ninety-one steps.
Ten paces from it, Juan saw himself mirrored in the crimson surface between the steps. He saw his image approach on feet that were wrapped in sandals of snakeskin. His legs were bare. Falling from his neck was a cape of blue quetzal feathers, spangled randomly with small sparkling white pinfeathers. A jaguar skin draped his left shoulder. On his head was a crown of clavicles joined end to end, forming alternating inverted and upright V’s. Gold highlighted the peaks of the crown, while emerald-blue jade highlighted the valleys.
All the colors were crisp, contrasting, brilliant. All the colors were red.
With cadence unbroken, he began the climb. Each step was nearly half the height of his legs; the next step up was at the level of his knee. In rhythm with his heart, his leg muscles climbed. He saw only his face in the scarletina mirrors before him. On the surface above each step at eye level, his face entered from below, flowed upward before him as he climbed, then disappeared into the step above. His face entered again from the bottom of the facet above and repeated the cycle.
Juan stared at his face, rising up each mirror on the strength of his quivering legs. Juan’s red face after Juan’s red face. This is the circulation of the cosmos: constantly beginning over. Nothing else should exist.
But, there are distractions. There is a deep burning in the thighs somewhere far below; there are fever-screaming lungs sucking desperately at the viscid air; there is a thrashing heart which cannot climb forever at this pace. There is pain and hunger for air hidden behind the face in the mirrors because Juan is not a god. The nares flare as if to rip themselves apart for more oxygen. But he squeezes his lips tightly to hold in any sounds of gasping.
Now . . . blood from the clouds begins to spatter the steps; it spatters his skin; it forms rivulets on Juan’s face. Within another ten excruciating steps he has achieved the top.
The platform is bare except for a small low altar of limestone at knee level. Drops spatter the glassy temple surface. As his flailing lungs and heart recover, Juan turns around slowly to scan the world for twenty kilometers in all directions. An unbroken canopy of green meets the raw wound of a sky. No smoke. No clearing where the town should be. He paces the altar.
“Ix Chel, goddess of health and sickness in the animals that build the temples, hear me. There is coming a virus which carries on the exhaled air of the sick. It harvests our bodies as we harvest the corn, but it scorches us as we never would the earth. It uses our lungs to propagate and damages them so other bacteria may enter and kill us of pneumonia. It inflames our eyes so we even shun the life-giving light of the sun. Sometimes it assails our brains and destroys what we are.
“I am a Chiman, a healer. But I have nothing to offer my brothers, the animals that build the temples. This virus will hurt the small ones, the ones who build for tomorrow. Help me.”
Blood drips from the sky onto the altar. Juan bends his head back to look directly up toward the home of the gods. Two drops find his eyes simultaneously and he blinks. When his vision clears, he knows what the sacrifice will be. “Ix Chel will send the virus past our town and spare our children. Juan Zapien will die one year before his time, to sooner serve the gods.” Juan says it as a fact -- repeating a contract already agreed upon.
* * * *
When he reached home there was barely enough light to find his landmarks.
“Out for a walk again?” asked his wife. “I sent Lupe to the clinic, but Maria-Elena said you’d gone. Of course, Lupe spent nearly an hour doing it. Do you think she has a boyfriend on the way to the clinic? I don’t know any boys who live near there.
“And. I must tell you, but only so you can know it from me and maybe laugh at how ridiculous it is. Fernanda the Mouth came to tea and told me everyone in town -- you know who ‘everyone’ is: Fernanda the Mouth and no one else -- everyone in town is saying the measles will infect all our children and you do nothing.
“It’s ridiculous, of course. But you should know it. If you hear it now, don’t be upset. Do you want some wine?”
Juan was struggling against some residual hallucinations: his wife was a parrot in a yellow dress. Her wings were clumsy and she spilled the wine. Its stain spread over the tablecloth like a chest wound.
“Never mind the wine – it was bloody anyway. Sarampión will not afflict the town this year. Will you excuse me from dinner? I’m too tired to eat tonight.”
His wife dined alone, listening to the splatter of the rain and thinking about the town’s doctor who slept in her bed. He’s tired. He works very hard. He’s a better doctor than the town deserves. Someday Fernanda the Mouth will need him -- and what will he say then?
( inspired by the music “Night Rain” by Deuter )
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