Xenolith, Page 8A. Sparrow
It was the night before Father Leo’s excursion. A lone candle illuminated the screened veranda where Frank knelt, fussing with his rucksack. Liz came out of the kitchen bearing a cup of tea for them both. She put one down beside him and reclined on the wicker chaise she positioned to watch sunsets and catch breezes from the river.
Frank took a sip of honey-sweetened jasmine, admiring Liz in repose. In recent days, she had finally started to act like she actually lived here, that this bungalow was home. Frank worried that her trip back to Houston would dash that equilibrium, but seeing her face so calm and unworried relieved some of those apprehensions.
Frank searched his rucksack for a pocket that would accept an extra water bottle and a tube of DEET.
“Oh, and make sure you pack this too.” Liz pulled a bag of her precious dubbel zout licorice out of her purse and tossed it over.
“I thought you were out of these vile things,” said Frank.
“My emergency stash,” she said. “Don’t you go eating them.”
“I’d rather suck seaweed.”
“Ooh yum, nori!” said Liz. “I should add that to my list.”
“You do have the oddest tastes,” said Frank, fiddling with a stuck zipper.
“Men, in particular,” said Liz.
“I won’t argue with you there.” He stashed the salt licorice in a side pocket and zipped it shut.
“What about that gun?” said Liz.
“What about it?” said Frank. “Why would we need a gun?”
He got up and sat on the chaise beside Liz taking her into his arms. She put down her tea and squirmed to face him, eyes wide. “I don’t know. Maybe jaguars?”
“Jaguars? But they’re just cats. Shy cats.”
“Shy cats with big teeth and sharp claws that outweigh me by a hundred pounds.” She scowled, her face glowing amber in the candlelight.
“I’d worry more about the peccaries or worse – the mosquitoes.”
She wrinkled her nose at him. “Peccaries? You mean those little wild piggies?”
“Those little piggies have been known to disembowel a jaguar,” he said.
She still looked skeptical but the furrows on her brow showed that her concern had amped up a notch. Frank regretted mentioning the peccaries.
“They only come out at night, right?” said Liz.
“What? The mosquitoes or the peccaries?”
“Yeah. They’re supposedly nocturnal,” said Frank. “So you’re worried about nothing. Father Leo says we’ll be back in Rio Frio by nightfall.”
The mission’s generator had been off for nearly an hour. The oddly industrial din of crickets and tree frogs had a crescendo. The squabbling of feral dogs could be heard from the village just upstream.
“I’ll miss you,” said Liz.
Frank sighed. She wasn’t leaving till the weekend and already she was starting. “You’re only going to be gone two weeks.”
“I know, but I’ll still miss you.”
She turned and made her eyes big. “Will you miss me?”
“Course I will.”
She looked away. Her eyes narrowed. Frank felt her go tense in his grasp. “So … how will you miss me? What is it exactly that you’ll miss?”
Frank took a long, deep breath. Here it comes. It was like a ritual, this questioning and he hated it. It was too easy to say the wrong thing, especially for him. The slightest dodgy inflection or word choice could set things off.
Though, this night did feel different; maybe because they were about to spend their first significant time apart since their marriage.
“I’ll miss this time. Under this net with you. Listening to the rain and the frogs. No worries or cares beyond our little net.” He kneaded her shoulder, urging her to flow towards him.
Liz squirmed away. “Rain? What rain? It’s not raining.”
He pulled her back close. “You know what I mean.”
Someone rapped heavily against the screen door. He nearly jumped through the net.
“Dr. Frank. Is me, Alejandro.”
Frank slipped out from under the net, and went to the door, bare-chested, wearing only jockey shorts. Frank went to the door and found Alejandro, his administrator, standing with a massive long-handled flashlight.
“I sorry to wake you, but Itzel’s mother … Senora Roxita … she has a problem with the breathing. Itzel brang her to the clinic.”
Itzel cooked for Father Leo and the Sisters. Her mother lived in a tiny village downstream from Rio Frio along the Macal.
“What kind of problem? Is she choking?”
“No, no choke. She no breathe well. Too fast. Not so deep. Her face is hot. Her color’s no good, like a dead person.”
“She’s there now?”
Frank tossed Alejandro a key. “Get the clinic opened up. I’ll be right down.”
He slipped on a T-shirt and pulled a pair of cargo shorts over his boxers. Liz came up behind him and rested her chin on his shoulder.
“What do you think it might be?”
“We’ll see. Maybe she just got a chicken bone stuck. Sounds like she might have a fever, though. Not good.”
“Need me to help?”
“Nah. Get some rest,” he said. “We’ve got a long day tomorrow. At least one of us will be alert enough to spot the vipers.”
“Vipers? What vipers?”
“Just joking,” he said, regretting the quip.
Frank stepped into his sandals and slipped out onto the graveled path that led down to the clinic. Someone started up the generator as he approached. Lights flickered on.
He found Itzel holding her prostrate mother’s head in her lap. She was worse off than he expected. Rales crackled like bubble wrap with every labored breath. Her blood pressure was lower than it should be. Her lips were blue, her eyes panicked.
He clipped a portable oximeter over her index finger. Her oxygen saturation hovered around 60%. A stethoscope revealed one of her lungs fully congested and the other well on its way. He got her into a bed and put her on intravenous ceftriaxone – a broad-spectrum antibiotic that could deal with all of most common bugs. She needed ventilation urgently, but he had to fumble with a balky oxygen regulator for half an hour before he could get it to work.
It was after two when he left Itzel at her mother’s bedside and returned to the bungalow. A candle still flickered on the night stand, burnt down to a nub. Liz slept deeply, her breath whistling gently. The night air had cooled. He collapsed under the net beside her, kissing her gently on her bare shoulder.
He awoke to the sound of Father Leo calling through the window. The sky was bright. Liz was already up and dressed.
“Don't tell me you two overslept,” said Father Leo, in a scolding tone. “The launch is all ready. Our guide is waiting.”
“Frank had a busy night,” said Liz. “I let him sleep in a bit.”
“Busy?” Father Leo made a face of mock horror. “Do I really want to know this?”
“Itzel’s mom has pneumonia,” said Frank swinging his legs over the edge of the bed.
“Oh,” said Father Leo. “Is it serious?”
“Bad enough when I left her. I told Itzel to come wake me if her oxygen dropped any lower. Hopefully, her not coming to wake me is a good sign.”
“What does this mean for our little excursion, then?” said Father Leo.
“Well, I can’t go,” said Frank. “A pneumonia patient needs monitoring, especially at this stage. This disease can turn on a dime. But that doesn’t mean that you all shouldn’t go.”
Frank had little interest in traipsing around the jungle looking for slimy rocks, and was almost glad for an excuse to back out.
“You sure?” said Liz. “We can postpone this.”
Was Liz also seeking an excuse to cancel the excursion or did she simply didn’t want Frank to feel excluded? The l
atter seemed more likely, but Frank’s interpersonal radar had always been faulty. He was particularly, or at least more consequentially, blind when it came to reading his new wife.
“No, go on ahead,” Frank said, cautiously. “We’ll have plenty of chances to do stuff like this together.”