I’m in bed today. I can’t get out. I hear people, heavy footsteps on the rickety porch where we sometimes sit at a table and talk at dusk. I hear people knocking on the door, calling my name, especially Estelle. She was supposed to come help with translations, but I just can’t bear it. Not today. I’m too tired. Outside, the jungle is a cacophony of sound. With no fan in my room, I can hear it all right through the walls as if it’s from my own head. The insects making a shee-shee, the variety of birds that make every range of music you can imagine–from a guttural hum so low it seems like it’s my belly to a sudden squeal that jolts my chest in shock, and the howls of something that I’ve yet to identify–maybe monkeys? I don’t know how to explain the concept of depression to Estelle. “Sad, very sad,” I say. I know that word in their language, of course, but it doesn’t carry the same weight, I don’t think. When I tried to say it the other day to explain why I looked the way I did–still in my pajamas–she made a face.
Maybe I’m putting their culture on a pedestal, I don’t know, but it seems like there is something inherently different about the way I feel. I visited one home for a meal, up high on stilts with pigs squealing beneath us, and when I asked the mother how many children she had, she told me two. She laughed and then added that actually she had five, but three died. I didn’t know what to say or how to react. Was it funny? A joke, maybe? Or is that just their way of talking about such things? Do they even get sad? Was she sad when those children died? Did I just misunderstand the whole conversation? I can’t tell. I believe she must be, well, sad, but her happiness doesn’t make sense to me.
When I went to town last week, I checked my email. Chris had written to me. I know that we broke up before I came out here, but it was painful to hear that he’s started to see someone more consistently, a girl named Catherine who I remember from a psychology class. She sat in the second row and always raised her hand. He thought I wouldn’t remember who she was. Maybe that’s what started this new round of depression, that, and the endless question of why? Why am I doing this? Why am I here? What am I hoping to achieve? Does any of this matter at all? Is my presence here, heaven forbid, even doing more harm than good?
So I’m stuck here in bed, waiting for God knows what. I wish I had a working phone so I could play that app, “Calm,” that used to help me relax and sleep. Now I have nothing but the sounds of the bugs outside and, from time to time, voices–calling to one another in a language I must work hard to understand or joking together as they pass not far from my house on the little road. I’m supposed to go to a celebration tonight, some version of a wedding, but I don’t know how I’m going to make it. I did bring pills from home, but I’ve been trying not to use them. I feel I need to save them in case I really need them. I have liquor too, gifted to me by a laughing man with no teeth when I first arrived, but I’ve kept away from it. It’s in the cabinet. It’s their local brew, and I know it’s strong. And it tastes terrible, like poison, which is certainly a good thing.
I stare up at the ceiling of this place. Thatched roof made out of palm trees. It’s my dream. All I’ve ever wanted, life in the jungle, not far from the ocean, among an indigenous population who I get to study. I worked hard to get here, and every little detail is all that I hoped it would be–the canoe ride out across and through the black corridor of water with my backpack stowed beneath the stern, the suspicious villagers I had to befriend with Twix and Twizzlers from home, and my little hut, occupied previously by my advisor, when he worked here years ago. But this demon inside my mind keeps me hostage, makes me question everything, the reality of the world around me, the value of these lives, these humans, the value of my own life.
I feel the skin of my legs. I feel the bumps, the infected mosquito bites and whatever other insects have bit me, creating unfamiliar red welts that each hurt or ache in their own unique way and respond to my mindless scratching differently: this one with pale ooze, that one scabbing over. I lift my hand to examine my left calf, where I am quite certain I recognize the raised path of a hookworm larva burrowing under my skin, certainly passed along from one of the village dogs. I once saw a picture of a kid with the same thing all over his feet, winding around and around like a labyrinth. But I don’t think there’s anything I can do for it out here.
They say despair is the disease of the west, that because of it we have the problems with addiction and depression and anxiety and all the rest of it. But why the despair, I wonder? And shouldn’t I be escaping from all that if I’m here, in one of the most isolated but inhabited places known to humanity? How did the despair make it into my luggage and come with me?
My mom was worried when I told her I was coming. She knew it might be hard for me, given my past and understanding how alone I might feel. But she also knew that I couldn’t not do it. It’s all I’ve wanted to do, forever.
I hear louder sounds, swishing through the brush of papaya and bananas trees that crowd the back of the house, clearly the announcement of something big. Then there’s a face at the window. It is not Estelle, but her husband or partner, the man who is the father of her baby, that is, Joe. He doesn’t try to speak to me, but I can see he is concerned. He makes an expression that means he wants to know how I’m doing, if I’m okay, but all I can think about is how sad it is that he has to come here and here look at me. In the past I may have worried that I don’t have on a bra as I lay on my sheeted mattress in my underwear and a T‑shirt, but right now I don’t give a damn. I smile at him, and he waves to me, gesturing with a huge, black-lined hand, dry and caked.
He’s trying to get me to come somewhere, and I don’t really know if I should or if I want to. But I nod, and I say, “Okay,” and I stand up, only beginning to think about covering my panty-covered crotch and bare thighs with an awkward hand. Is he leering at me? I can’t tell, but there’s no way to protect myself anyway. I could yell. I could call out with all my strength, if he tried to climb in the window. He rests both hands on the sill, and I tremble. Then he waves goodbye. Soon I hear banging up the front steps and then more banging on the thin wood of the front door. Loud and heavy. I rush to pull on my long denim skirt, the sort of thing that seemed appropriate when I was choosing clothing for my life as a modest ethnographer in the bush, and I slip on a bra. Then I go to the front door. There’s a little hook latch, but that’s it. I pause and breathe heavily before pressing up the tiny piece of metal, and the door rushes open with a whoosh.
I realize I have closed my eyes in fear, and I open them to see Joe standing there. His face seems to indicate irritation or impatience, if not anger, and he is motioning me to follow. He’s half way down the steps urging me to hurry, but again, with no words. I grab my flip flops and put them on. Only as I become active do I think about all the work I need to do, the huge burden of folders and notebooks and writing and recording waiting to be transcribed and reduced and interpreted and communicated so that we can glean some sliver of information, some tiny little piece that could potentially add to the canon of anthropological study on this people group, something that might give us insight into all of human behavior throughout history. I want to fall down again onto my termite dust covered mattress just thinking about it and about what a failure I am destined to be.
But there is Joe, getting visibly upset with a clenched jaw now, rushing me with gritted teeth, so I follow him. He stays five steps ahead, turning around to rotate his arm in a circle, always pushing me to come, come, come. We follow the main road for a time and then turn off onto a little trail heavily lined with thick enormous leaves covered in holes and hanging vines that brush my arms as I pass. I’ve been warned against touching so many of them–they all seem to carry some form of toxin for self-defense–but Joe is hurrying me so much that I can’t help it. I can hardly see him ahead of me, and the route is so narrow and dense, I’m not sure I could find my way back. I barely step over a thick, red, roiling line of ants carrying leaves and crossing the narrow pathway, and then I quicken my step to catch up with Joe. Thank god, he’s stopped now, I am relieved to see, but then it only makes me wonder again, why? I’m out of breath, and my heart is jerking inside it’s ribcage. He’s just outside a tree-shrouded little hut, smaller and closer to the earth than my own, barely a mound of dirt. He urges me on one last time and then pushes me in the door, remaining himself outside.
It’s dark inside, and it smells rank, like unbathed flesh. It’s hot, too, warm and crowded. There are women, only women, I believe four besides me. Estelle, across the small space, greets me with a nervous smile that quickly moves away. One of them is on the ground or on a bed, I can’t quite see, and she is groaning. It sounds like an animal, just like an animal, and for a moment, I wonder if they are slaughtering something. Then I remember a conversation I had with Estelle last week or the week before, when I told her I had never seen a birth. But it’s so dark in there I can hardly see anything, even if a baby is being born. I squint, my eyes adjusting to the light, and then one of the women uses her arm to pull away a blanket or thatch or something that is shielding the window openings, and yellow, filtered by the canopy overhead explodes into the room.
I hear another desperate grunt, long and low, and then I realize what is before my eyes, a woman on her hands and knees, and the purple head of a child coming out her ass. It’s birth. This is life, I see. Should the baby be that color? Is it all okay? The mother herself reaches under and grabs the thing with one final spasm as the rest of the miniature human body spills out of her, white and bloody. She moves into sitting position and takes the thing into her arms, cradling it.
The woman, this mother, presses the slippery mass to her breast as soon as a “gwah”ing cry is raised. Tiny head wiggles back and forth against an enormous black nipple. It grips and holds on. When my breathing has slowed, they ask if I want to hold the wormy brown bundle of human, but I shake my head no, afraid of all that a living soul holds within itself. Before Joe leads me back to my home, Estelle reaches out a hand for mine. I grasp for and then hold the flesh of her fingers and palm and look into her eyes.
Erica Jenks Henry has published fiction in Maudlin House, nonfiction in the Reader’s Write section of The Sun, and has forthcoming hybrid work in Thimble Literary Magazine. Erica has a Master’s in Public Health. She has worked with the Chicago Housing Authority and in Honduras.