Nonfiction from NER 41.2
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The asphalt stuck to my sneakers as I walked through the parking lot toward a squat, concrete building. It was midmorning in Santa Elena de Uairén, Venezuela, and hot. Inside the waiting room was a single wood laminate desk. Two men, one young and one middle-aged, were shuffling through a stack of papers while an old woman waited, her palm slapping quickly, unconsciously, on the surface of the desk. A sign on the wall behind her read MALARIOLOGIA in dark green letters.
“You have to come back after lunch,” the older man told her. “Her test isn’t in here.”
The woman passed me on her way out, her face tight.
“Name?” The younger one was looking at me. He seemed no older than sixteen.
“I already have our test results,” I told him, and thought back to the moment they had arrived. I was at home, trying in vain to bring my husband’s fever down with wet T-shirts and a small bowl of ice water. We had been without running water since the drought started in October, and it was April. The results had come in the form of a text from my brother-in-law. “There are two strains of malaria,” he wrote, “the nasty kind, and the deadly kind. Benjamin has both.”
“Are you here to pick up your medicine?” the young man tried again.
“We already did,” I told him. “But we were only given one blister pack of quinine, enough for four days. In the instructions, it said it’s a nine-day treatment.”
“We’re only giving out half the dosage so that there’s enough to go around,” he said.
“But,” I spoke softly, hoping to sway the men to my side, “my husband has Vivax and Falciparum. His skin is yellow.”
A hummingbird appeared, suspended in the open window frame. It made an exploratory dash into the room before flitting out. The younger man looked at the older, who blinked slowly in exhaustion before speaking.
“The woman who just left,” he said, “her granddaughter is two years old. Everybody needs treatment. I’m sorry, you have to wait.”
The truck meant to deliver the medicine had broken down in Puerto Ordaz, he explained. “It should be here by tomorrow morning. Come early and wait.”
Back outside, I weaved through the traffic toward the main shopping street. The air was filled with exhaust from old cars whose tanks had been altered to smuggle gasoline over the Brazilian border.
Santa Elena de Uairén sits along Venezuela’s southeastern perimeter. Separated from the rest of the country by three million hectares of mountains and waterfalls known as Canaima National Park, the scrappy border town used to be a desirable address for those seeking to live closer to nature. The surrounding area has a dramatic, otherworldly beauty, with rolling green hills and tabletop mountains soaring into mist. When I arrived there as a solo traveler in 2008, I felt I had stumbled into Eden. Now it was 2016, and Venezuela’s economy was spiraling out. Santa Elena had become a hub for illegal businesses like gold mining and the smuggling of government-subsidized items—food, medicine, gasoline—into Brazil for a profit. Living on the border felt like clinging to the brim of a cup about to spill over.
I ducked inside a shady grocery stall and asked the shopkeeper if there was chicken.
Before she could respond, a man cut in front of me to place three stacks of cash next to the register, which the old woman weighed on a scale before pointing him to a wooden door at the back corner of the shop. The man knocked, and the door closed swiftly behind him, blocking my view of the room beyond.
“If you don’t see it, it’s not here,” the woman croaked, returning to my question.
Searching through one of the vegetable bins, I found a piece of ginger. It looked like a small, shriveled body. A grubby voodoo doll. I pressed my fingernail into its shimmery skin and inhaled. I bought it.
I used to love getting sick as a child. My mother would stay home from work, and I would sit on the step stool and watch her make carrot ginger soup, as dusk deepened into a cold autumn night through the windows over the sink. My mother’s enormously curly hair, recognizable from any distance in our town in upstate New York, was made even bigger by the steam from the pot, and it brushed against her cheekbones like a live sea creature.
Moving along the street, I stopped at the butcher to ask for chicken. “Whole chicken, or cut?” he asked.
“We don’t have either,” he said. “The truck broke down on the way here.” I imagined the poultry truck sitting lopsided next to the truck carrying quinine pills on a lonely stretch of road, the frozen wings softening in the midday sun.
Determined to make the soup without chicken stock, I stopped in another stall to buy carrots and squash. The saleswoman looked warily down at my forearm peeking out from under my long-sleeve shirt as she handed me my change.
“What is that?” she asked, pointing with a long, manicured nail. “Chicken pox?”
I looked down at the galaxy of angry red dots spread across my arm. I had nearly forgotten.
“Zika virus,” I said. “It’s not contagious, only by mosquito.”
“I had it last month and I didn’t look like that.” I thought about this for a minute.
“Maybe the rash looks worse on white skin.” She nodded. “No fever?”
“No,” I said, raising a hand to my forehead automatically. “No, I don’t think so.”
Outside I hailed a taxi, a 1970s muscle car as wide as a boat, its motor chugging loudly as I explained to the driver where to go. In Venezuela gasoline costs considerably less than water, and people have a special appreciation for vintage, fuel-inefficient cars. To this day, the town’s primary emergency vehicle is a 1973 Cadillac ambulance.
The taxi left me and my groceries where the sidewalk ended abruptly in rocky soil. I followed a steep, narrow road up the mountain, and turned left onto a dusty path choked with dry brambles. Before the drought, it was a tunnel of flowers, and at the end of that tunnel was the house where I lived. A massive pine tree rose out of a hole cut in the roof, as if the house were a treehouse that had grown too heavy and slid to the ground. When it rained, or when it used to rain, the droplets would meet in the creases of the rough bark to form rivulets, and puddles would grow on the cracked floor between the roots struggling to come up through the cement.
The tree was a sapling when I first moved in. I was eighteen, and it was a season of tropical storms. Benjamin and I would sweep the rainwater out of the kitchen with brooms. He was the one who had inexpertly built the kitchen around the pine tree, not wanting to cut it down. At night I would lie in his arms, feeling cool and scrubbed-clean from the roar of the rain on the zinc roof. Cracks of lightning would wake me, their bright flashes stirring me from my dreams, and I remember thinking it wouldn’t be so bad to die. My heart was full.
Then my mother called, long distance from home in upstate New York. The word—malignant—had to be a mistake, I thought. I was the one who had just dropped out of college. I was the one sleeping with a near-stranger in a distant country. She was supposed to be safe.
I carried the groceries all the way into the bedroom, where Benjamin lay, propped on pillows and with a wet rag wrapped around his head. The fever chills came every thirty-six hours or so, and in between he was supposed to rest. He’d tried reading but had given up—the pain in his head was splitting. It was all he could do to stare into space. I sat on the bed and tried to get him to sit up and drink some water. A nurse had told me that if he started to speak nonsense, it was a sign the parasite had breached the blood-brain barrier and a coma could be close behind. He tried to speak, and I held still to listen.
He was already wearing socks, I said, worried. He took my hand and lay it gently against his forehead, then tried again.
“Put on some socks.”
I looked down. My ankles were bare and it was near dusk—the hour of the Anopheles mosquito, which carries malaria from one body to another. I went to the dresser and pulled on a pair of wool socks. He nodded, and leaned back against the pillows.
It was dark in the kitchen. I turned on the lightbulb that hung over the stove and brought the soup to a boil. Pieces of burnt onion unstuck from the bottom and floated chaotically amid the bubbles. The dogs’ barking alerted me to my mother-in-law’s arrival.
Benjamin’s mother, Zoraida, was the town’s herbalist and its contentious radio journalist. She was also our neighbor. Her skin was tawny and her enormous breasts threatened to spill out of the top of her shirt as she came through the front gate, carrying a plastic bag of leafy stems, and another stuffed with what looked like yards of purple tulle.
“Look at this,” she ordered as she came into the kitchen.
She handed me the cloth, pulling it out of the bag so that pieces dragged along the ground.
“I found it at the stall of the woman who decorates quinceñera parties,” she said, excited. “It’s perfect. The same material as a mosquito net.”
I silently disagreed. The cloth was stiff, the holes looked too small for the air to pass through. I felt stifled by the very idea of hanging it over my bed. But it would have to do. The government ignored the malaria in our region because to admit the outbreak would mean to admit the illegal gold mines in the National Park, from where the disease spread. The economic crisis had seen more and more people leaving cities to seek work in the hydraulic mines, and the combination of deforestation and contaminated wastewater created the ideal breeding grounds for mosquitos. In town we did not have the materials necessary to stop it, starting with quinine, nets, and fumigation chemicals.
We knew from reading the news that the severe drought was an effect of El Niño. We knew the increased temperatures had led to record-breaking numbers of mosquito-borne illnesses. Just over the border, Brazil was experiencing a crisis of its own, with Zika virus being linked to thousands of babies born with the malformation known as microcephaly. We knew from experience and Brazilian public service announcements how to eliminate mosquito breeding grounds— to take care not to leave tanks or buckets or trays of water uncovered. But there was no information on the spread of malaria in southern Venezuela. A friend of mine, a journalist who lived in town, was trying to gather what data she could. Over the phone, she warned me that Benjamin’s case was considered high risk, as both strains of malaria were present. Two people had been confirmed dead from the illness that week, she said, and rumor had it the hospital was deliberately handing out limited doses of quinine to avoid people selling their medicine on the black market.
I told Zoraida about the pills. She said she’d go to the hospital herself tomorrow, and I felt reassured. She used to work at the hospital as a nurse and might know someone who could help.
It was night, and I was awoken by Benjamin shivering uncontrollably. I tried to hold him, to calm him, but his limbs jerked with improbable force, his intelligent eyes rolled back in his head. He asked why, why is it so cold? I bundled him in a down comforter, then dragged a quilt on top of that. The purple mosquito net fluttered in the air of the fan as he continued to shake, his teeth chattering loudly. I touched my hand to his forehead and yanked it back. I fumbled for the thermometer. The numbers read 41.2 Celsius. 106 Fahrenheit.
I flew down the mountain without a flashlight, instinctively jumping over rocks in the darkness. Zoraida was sleeping but became alert immediately. She gathered her supplies as I rushed her in a high-pitched voice I didn’t recognize as my own.
Back up the mountain path, and into the bedroom. Zoraida broke the top off a tiny glass tube and filled a syringe with its clear liquid. She bent, making low soothing sounds as she injected her son. I stood behind her, shifting from foot to foot. The two figures, mother and son, were obscured underneath the veil of the tulle. It looked like a shroud, undulating softly in the dark room. I tried to inhale, but the air was empty. Gasping, I collapsed into a chair.
I was in the room when my father died, though I don’t remember it. I was an infant, and too young to spend the night away from my mother’s arms. I hope I was a comfort to her. The night she died I remember with terrible clarity. We were at her sister’s house, and there was a blizzard. She had been sick for about a year. She looked out at the swirling white from the window and said, “It’s a good night to die.” No ambulance could get to us in that weather.
At the memorial I wandered like a hound who’d lost the scent through the carpeted rooms where she had been alive two days before. My sister and I would run into each other in the hall; she, twenty-five, with our father’s straight nose and dark hair, me, twenty, with our mother’s untamed curls. Growing up, we were so close that people said we spoke our own language. That day, we searched for the right words and found nothing. Now both our parents were gone.
In the months that followed, I went through a phase of scanning online forums created by orphans of cancer. There is some small comfort to be found in these virtual communities, but mostly there is fear. Women ask, is it fair to have children, knowing you might die of cancer, and leave them to their fate? Is it wrong to pass these terrible genes along to another generation? Most users’ responses are meant to be reassuring. Cancer does not have one traceable cause, they remind each other. Unlike malaria, cancer has no direct path from one person to the next. Not all cancers carry the same genetic risk, and are often a product of exterior factors, including diet, exposure to pesticides, heavy metals in water supply, air pollution, and radiation.
My father lived to be thirty-five. He and my mother were the only people in each of their families to become ill and die young. The year before he passed away, he bought a farmhouse in the Catskill Mountains with imperfect glass windows and creaking floorboards and a backyard full of birch trees. It was a peaceful place to be a child, even when, in the quiet of the evening, I could sense my mother’s grief like a night-blooming jasmine.
After she died, we had to sell the house to pay her medical debts. When sorting her belongings into boxes, I came upon their honeymoon album. My parents married at ages twenty and twenty-one, and used their wedding money to buy a station wagon and drive around the country with their husky dog in the back seat. I had treasured this album as a child. In one of the photos, my mother swims naked in an alpine lake in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana. On the day I revisited that image, it struck me that the water around her looked bright and eerily blue, an almost toxic color. I turned the page and found a picture of her in shorts and a stained work shirt, posing in front of a vintage pickup truck. The terrain behind her looks barren and dystopian. That must have been taken in Arizona, I thought, while they spent time building an experimental village. Were they exposed to something? Will we ever know? Is it better to know, or not to know?
On move-out day, as I loaded boxes into the family car, a black bear came lumbering toward me across the lawn. Her round ears stuck straight up over her close-set eyes as she paused, a hundred feet away, to take me in. We stayed like that, examining each other until she turned and ran, her rump shuddering as her paws hit the ground, the sunlight glistening on her black fur.
I ran too, and in many ways I haven’t stopped. I would be lying if I said I left the country only to return to Benjamin—I was also trying to be farther from whatever killed them. It’s not logical, but when I am in the United States, I can’t be sure of anything. Clocks look like countdowns, and advertisements take up so much head space that I can’t distinguish my own thoughts. But grief itself cannot be outrun. After returning to Venezuela, I saw my mother in the pink mesquites that blossomed in dry season and the monster ferns that bobbed when it rained. Years later, I still see her everywhere.
Slowly, that night, Benjamin’s fever cooled. He vomited and fell asleep. I lay awake beside him, checking his forehead from time to time until a weak light began to filter through the cabin walls. Then I slipped silently out and down the mountain to Zoraida’s house. I knew she would be awake. Dawn is her favorite hour for gardening. When I found her, she was pouring the dirty water from the dish basin over her precious calendula bushes.
She saw me and stood, wiping her hands on her sweatpants.
“How is he?” she asked.
“Fine,” I said. “Sleeping.”
She nodded. “If he didn’t die last night, he’s not going to die.”
She laughed at the distrustful, even angry look on my face.
“Do you know how many malaria patients I’ve treated?” she asked. I shook my head.
“Thousands,” she said, exaggerating freely. “I know what to look for.” My arms felt locked to my sides and my neck hurt from my vigil.
“Did you get the quinine?” I asked stiffly.
Not yet, she said. She’d checked with a friend, and it hadn’t arrived.
I turned to the house for coffee. Before I could get away, she wrapped me in a hug of such maternal power that I was disarmed. She smelled of soap and roots and life.
I sobbed silently into her shoulder.
She said again, this time with the softness of a promise, “He’s not going to die.”
I believed she was right, but it still hurt.
After Benjamin recovered, we left Santa Elena. The rain had come and ended the drought, but my sense of security was cracked beyond repair. We moved to Boa Vista, a nearby city on the Brazilian side of the border. Our life here is suburban. We work late. We carry our passports in the glove compartment and wait at red lights when ours is the only car on the road. There is a violence here, too, but it is quiet enough that our neighbors can pretend not to notice. Colonized during the Brazilian dictatorship, the city sprung to life in the 1990s with money from illegal gold mines in the nearby Amazon rainforest. The pharmacies are air-conditioned, and security guards patrol the shopping malls on Segways. The avenues are extra wide to make room for middle-class growth. And the city is certainly growing, but not in the way the urban planners had in mind.
When we arrived in 2016, we were among a handful of newcomers. Today the number of immigrants in this city has reached the tens of thousands, with an estimated six hundred Venezuelans crossing the border every day, fleeing economic disaster. The bus station has been converted into a landing place for those with nowhere to go. Families sleep next to their suitcases in the grassy parks, the children curled into their mothers, a small question mark nestled inside a large one. Emergency shelters have been set up by the UN, and food lines form at dusk and dawn outside the churches downtown.
Our apartment has a yellow couch where friends will sit and unlace their shoes after the forty-eight-hour trip down from Caracas, the Venezuelan capital where Benjamin was once a student. Sometimes, the friend will be carrying a child who is placed gently on the couch, asleep with eyelids fluttering. There is a guest room, but the mother is in no rush to see it. She is in the act of arriving. She still wears the clothes she left home in, and as long as we sit on the tile floor, drinking tea and sharing stories, she is merely visiting friends. She is not yet an immigrant.
That March, a weeklong power outage plunged Caracas, a city of five million people, into darkness. At night people brought their children up onto the roofs of tall buildings to catch a cooling breeze. For the first time in many of their lives, those children saw a sky lit by millions of stars. Elsewhere in the city, power generators in hospitals failed, and people shook with grief in the night.
It’s hard to say what will come next. We stay close to the border because we don’t know, and because Benjamin’s mother relies on us to send her food and medical supplies. She runs an outpatient clinic in the cabin that was our old home.
On the day we bought a mattress for our new apartment, Benjamin helped me carry it up the building’s stairs. Once inside, he sat down on its plastic cover, out of breath. He was still recovering then, and beads of sweat had broken out across his forehead.
“Do you think we’ll ever go home?” he asked.
Home, I thought. A word that makes so many of us ache. For me, it is still the smell of pine earth in the Catskill Mountains. It is my mother, serene and full of health, reading a book on a summer evening.
For Benjamin, it is the house he built on the edge of the Canaima wilderness. It is drinking from ice cold rivers untainted by mercury. Before the mining machines crossed the park boundaries, erasing the mountains with high-pressure hoses.
Some days I think the only home I can rely on is my body, and even then, I know it could betray me. Then there are better days, when I look around and feel able to reforge the word out of things we have now. Maybe home can be a yellow couch. Or a light breeze through the window. Or bed sheets that smell familiar; a glass of clean water; a notebook on a side table.
I teach writing to Venezuelan immigrants at an aid center inside the local university. I am supposed to give the class in Portuguese, but when we talk about home, the conversation inevitably switches to Spanish. What did it smell like? I ask. How did it feel?
Home is feeling safe, they say.
Home is not having to ask permission.
Home is the jackfruit tree from which I fell.
Home is that Sunday at the river, when my brother was alive.
Home is my motherland, my mother tongue, my mother.