Erica Jenks Henry ~ In Bed Today

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.