Friday, May 22, 2009

Jungle Fever

One morning, a few months into our stay on Luaniua, I woke up with a severe headache. The ache wasn't just in my head, come to think of it, but all over my body. I rolled over on my pallet and curled my knees to my stomach, willing it to stop hurting, as well.

My sister and brothers began stirring with the rest of the village outside. I could hear their feet crunch-crunching on the coral stones that covered our floor, and my mom digging for the right pot for the morning's breakfast. I heard the clicking sound as she pumped the little Bunsen burner, the cadence increasing in speed until there was a little pop as the released gas was ignited by a match. On the other side of the mat wall, I could hear chickens scratching fretfully for their breakfast, as well. Underneath it all was the constant, low, rolling thunder, felt as much as heard, as the ocean continued its quest to re-claim this little atoll unto itself.

My mom came in some time later, to see why I wasn't joining the rest of the family as they ravenously devoured the breakfast she had made them.

"I don't feel good, Mom," I said. She made the low, comforting murmur that comes inherent to all mothers worldwide, and returned to me a few minutes later with a thermometer. It felt cool and alien, poking against the tender flesh underneath my hot tongue. When it was time, she pulled it out, held it up to see against the light, and frowned.

"Here, honey, take some medicine for your fever," she said, and left me to rest. The day grew hot and sticky, and my achy body found no rest on the thin mat. Every way I turned, I could feel the coral sticking up at me, hard little nubs in my back, or my legs, or my arms, or my stomach. My stomach. Suddenly I sat bolt upright, lifted the mosquito net and vomited into the bowl my mom had set there for me. After that, I felt much better, and settled down into sleep.

By the time the sun had crossed the highest point, and begun to make the shadows long again in its descent into the sea, I was feeling much better. I even got up and ate dinner with my family (canned tuna on rice), and took a trip to the women's beach to relieve myself. I lay down to sleep that night hopeful for a full recovery tomorrow.

But the next day, I felt even worse than I had the previous morning. Now I had chills, and shook uncontrollably sometimes. I would get icy cold, and my nose ran and ran. I blew it on a lava-lava kept by the side of my bed so many times that the cloth soon became crusty and stiff, but I had no other choice but to continue blowing as my sinuses continued to fill up. My bed, encased in the mosquito net, felt like a cage. The thin, green mesh hung on strings from the ceiling, pressing down over and around me, closing me in, cutting off my air. The back room of our hut in which my bed lay was close and dark, filled with dusty shadows. The ambient air steadily warmed as the sun pushed relentlessly on the leaf roof above. There was no cross breeze to relieve the stuffiness, and even if a stray puff found its way in, it was blocked by the net around me.

My mom gave me more medicine for my fever and I finally fell asleep. This time my sleep was full of strange things. A boy with an animal's face would point at me and laugh and laugh. Fish jumped in and out of the ocean at enormous heights, making barely a ripple on the smooth water. Someone held a burning branch to my forehead, and it turned into a gecko which burrowed into my skull and reproduced there.

I awoke from my nap several hours later exhausted, but feeling better. My fever was gone. My body was sore all over, but my stomach was relatively quiet. I was not too cold or too hot, just very weak. Mom fed me some soup from a can when I came from my bed and sat draped against the wall in the common room of our hut. Maybe it was a forty-eight hour sickness, and I would feel better tomorrow once I had regained my strength.

Only I didn't. When the sun rose on the third day, I felt even worse, if possible, than the two mornings prior. When it came time for our daily radio sched, Dad sent out a help cry, talking to other, more experienced missionaries in our group who were scattered throughout the provinces of the Solomon Islands. Their response was immediate; I had malaria, caught from innocent mosquitoes that carried the bug among the islands. It is a cyclical illness that shows flu-like symptoms half the day, then regresses the other half, and gains strength as time goes on. My parents had the anti-malarial medicine, Chloroquine, in their medical supplies kit, and gave me a dose immediately.

I gagged on the bitter pill, which was chalky and stuck to the back of my throat stubbornly. It tasted as if it was coated in acidic vomit which had been dried and ground into a powder. I almost threw it up. My parents urged me to gulp water, which I did, and under extreme power of will managed not to hurl it, along with the rest of the contents of my stomach, all over the graveled floor.

I recovered quickly after that, but to this day have great difficulty swallowing any type of pill. My mouth still remembers the bitterness of that Chloroquine tablet. And anyone who had taken it will know what I mean.

Island Games

There was an open area right in front of our house that the village used as a central meeting place. It had an enormous tree, the biggest on the island, probably. Three of us kids with hands linked could barely reach around it. Its wise old branches stretched over the dirt commons (called the Marai) where the village feasts and meetings were held. It was under this tree's leaves that my father, before the rest of us came to the island, stood in front of the assembled village, awaiting their verdict as they debated whether or not they needed this foreign family to come and translate the bible for them.

The Marai, as it turned out, was also where the village kids would come to play their games when their household duties were done. Each day I would hide in the shadows of our front door, watching them as they played, squabbled, and ran around on bare feet made hard and wide by the life long absence of any restricting shoes. One day I ventured out to watch them from our gravel front yard, and was soon drawn closer to watch the game they were playing.

Each child had a collection of rubber bands on their wrist, worn like bracelets. They would each contribute a rubber band to the collective pot, which were then balanced on a little gallows a few feet from the group. Each child would take their turn at shooting at the hanging rubber bands; the child who knocked them to the ground, won the pot, and the whole game started over again.

My brother, Nathan, soon became proficient at this gambling game. He proudly wore his large collection of rubber bands that reached from his wrist, half-way up to his elbow. I wasn't allowed to play with him and his friends; village customs tabooed sisters and brothers to have much public interaction. But I would sit a little ways away, enviously watching him and his cool, older friends as they bantered and postured in their little-boys-turning-into-young-men way.

Sometimes I would play an island version of hop-scotch in the dirt of the Marai with the other little girls. There was no gambling involved, as in the boys' games, but you did move up in the childish pecking order among your peers if you got good at it. I was good at it. But not the best.

Monday, May 4, 2009


Of course, the rainbows rebuilt themselves. That is the good thing about being a dreamer; although the lows are very low, the highs are amazingly high, and the cycles continue to repeat themselves. We settled into the rhythm of our new life, accustoming ourselves to building the day around the high and low tides, whether or not the sun was shining, and the twice daily ringing of the church bell. After home schooling in the morning, my sister Anna and I would venture out into the village and see what fodder we could find for our imaginations.

One place we loved to play was the women's beach (called the ikua in language), at low tide. It was on the outside edge of the island, the one facing the open ocean. When the tide went out, it revealed the reef which circled the islands in the atoll like a shelf. It was a smooth expanse of rock, with indentations in the coral which held trapped whatever sea creatures and treasures left behind by the retreating waters.

One day, Anna and I sought out the ikua, with its steady, cool breeze coming off the great ocean, to take refuge from the heat of the day, and to find entertainment in exploring the tide pools. We picked our way out across the naked reef, collecting treasures as we found them; an odd shell, the purple spike a sea urchin left behind, bits of blue and green sea glass.

Together we spied a particularly large shell. We both grabbed for it at the same time; I got there first. "Danica, I saw it first! It's miiiiiine!" my little sister complained.

Knowing I had the upper hand (possession is nine tenths of the law, after all), I raised my eyebrows archly and didn't say anything.

"Dan-eeeeeeeek-ah!" I could see her grow frustrated and smiled smugly to myself. It was fun to bait Anna and see how far I could push her frustration until she finally exploded in anger. We continued to argue as our feet led us further out towards the edge. Anna made a snatch for the shell I was holding, and I bounded away from her, stretching my legs to leap from one exposed spot to the next.

Except, I didn't land on dry, protruding reef. I landed in water. I landed in something's home. A long, slippery, writhing something, that shot out from under my bare foot clear into the air and splashed into the next tide pool over. It was an eel, two feet long and as round as a coke can, twisting itself angrily into frenzied figure eights as it sought refuge from my rude intrusion. It was as if Jello had solidified and come alive under the arch of my foot. A great shiver of horror spread in a wave up my leg, body and to the tips of my ears. My sister and I shrieked as only little girls can, dropped the sea trash we had gathered, and sprinted to the beach, skimming the exposed reef on our tippy-toes until we reached the safe sand.

There is an island word for what happened to me that day: koa. It means 'it serves you right', or 'you got what was coming to you'. If only Anna had already learned that word, she would have said it to me.

"Koa, Danica."