Malaria nearly killed my ex-husband when we lived in Vietnam. His fevers reached 107.5. He convulsed, raged, and sweat. He should have died, like our friend Clive.
The disease doesn’t always kill you. If you’re really unlucky, it can cause brain damage. I’m working in Mozambique, where malaria is one of the leading causes of death. It kills more than cancer, tuberculosis, car accidents, heart disease, murder, and diabetes combined.
I want to be lucky, so I take the drug then wait for that in-between state when I can never be sure what is real and who is dangerous. I’m sleeping in my Maputo hotel when I hear the voices. There are two this time. One is angry and loud, the other is scared.
Foda-se! Foda-se! It sounds like Fuck you! Fuck you! It’s strange to dream in Portuguese. I don’t speak the language.
The mournful, pitiful cry must be coming from my psyche. I run away from it.
In fine print the pill bottle says, Psychotic episodes are rare though one of the undesirable effects. The longer I am on the drug, the crazier I get. There was a time I mutilated a man, cut his arms off to keep him from grabbing me. Another time, I ate that same man, scraping his tattoos off with my teeth. I’m powerful between waking and sleeping.
I get out of bed and open my hotel room door. The only light comes from the doorways open just wide enough so that whoever is standing behind them can see what’s happening without being seen. They are voyeurs. Like me.
The frightened voice is below me. A girl lies naked in the hallway. Her smooth brown skin is exposed, her tiny nipples erect. With no pubic hair I guess she’s younger than my daughter, maybe eleven. She’s crying, but she’s not alone. There’s a wrinkled white man, maybe in his fifties, kicking her with his dress shoe, screaming.
Everyone is watching. She looks up at me.
I think about the time I was in the New Delhi train station—a time I am not hallucinating. A boy sleeps on the platform steps. People are walking over him. His friend, his sister, I don’t know which, pulls on my dress and points. She scares me. The train station is notorious for thieving monkeys and children. The boy is not moving. Is he dead? Someone is supposed to meet me soon. I can’t miss my ride. I don’t know Delhi. Why isn’t anyone else helping?
The longer I am on the drug, the crazier I get. There was a time I mutilated a man, cut his arms off to keep him from grabbing me.
Mom-m-m-m-a. I’m back in Maputo. She’s still naked. Stop crying, I want to tell her. Can’t she understand that he kicks her harder the louder she gets? Keep quiet. It can save you. It saved me thirty years ago in a different hotel.
I was seventeen when my rapist broke into a room, dragged me through the window and told his friend to keep watch. He couldn’t get my clothes all the way off. Jeans half on, my legs were trapped. I couldn’t flail them. I stayed quiet. In return, he didn’t kill me. I was thankful. My rapist had been kind.
I’m terrified for this girl. Terrified, wishing for her silence. I have to do something. She’s crying for her mother. Why didn’t I cry for mine? Thirty years of silence.
If I’m remembering, am I hallucinating?
I run to my bed and pull the sheets off, as if the thin white cotton will protect her.
Here’s the part where what I tell people and what I do are different. I tell them I wrap the sheets around her and protect her from the man. This is what I would want someone else to do if it was my daughter, if it was me. But I don’t. I throw them toward her, and she wraps them around herself.
The white man is still yelling Foda-se! Foda-se! when the hotel staff arrives. A young man picks her up while another shushes her like a mother quiets a child. They carry her away in my sheets and leave the man. She’s still crying, Mom-m-m-m-a! as they leave the hallway. The man standing two feet away looks to me.
I run inside my room. There’s no furniture to block his entry. I checked earlier. Like I always do. Everything is bolted to the floor. I should have refused to stay here when I saw the hotel room safe had been stolen, leaving an empty space in the wall. But I didn’t want to be that women—a fearful blonde American who insists on a safer hotel, a woman who demands of others. My Blackberry has no service. There is no peephole to see if he’s coming, so I slide my back down the door and hope my body weight will keep him out. I cradle myself, arms wrapped around my knees, staring at my sheetless bed. Then, only then, do I start to make noise. Sobs—a crying that’s half in, half out: a pathetic crying that tries silencing itself and results in half breathing, half living.
I’m not hallucinating though wish I was. I long for the power. Instead, I’m crying for the girl, for the girl’s mother, for my daughter. I’m crying because I’m not the woman I want to be. I’m silent. Like everyone else.