An entire herd of elephants will care for a member that falls ill.
—From Care of Jungle Elephants by Tin San Bo
The flood left, but the fever stayed.
I sit on the floor of our hut and hold a cold washcloth to Chanda’s forehead. My mother boils another pot of basil tea on our village’s clay stove in the courtyard. Voices of our neighbors gathered around her flow through the open door of our home.
“Here—papaya juice with honey.”
“Have you tried raisins with ginger? Boil them together and have her drink the liquid.”
“Take these onions, Parvati. When my son had a fever, I made him onion broth.”
September marked the end of monsoon season, but an October rain flooded the river near our village last week. We all worried about the humming of mosquitoes that followed the water. Sometimes mosquitoes carry fever.
Sometimes the fever is stronger than a cold washcloth and basil tea and onions.
One of the fever-mosquitoes must have bitten my little sister, because she’s been sick for five days. She is too tired to get up from her blanket. She does not want to eat or drink, not even fresh milk mixed with sugar.
Our mother enters the hut, holding a tea glass and a wooden bowl. She sets the tea glass next to me and kneels on the other side of Chanda.
“Neera made you papaya juice with honey. This will help you feel better.”
She puts one hand behind Chanda’s head and brings the bowl to her lips. Carefully she pours some papaya juice into Chanda’s mouth.
“My head hurts, Amma.”
“One more sip.” She gives her another taste, then sets the bowl down and lowers Chanda’s head to the blanket.
“Should we take her to a doctor, Amma?” I whisper.
She does not answer.
“I know we have no money, but…” Ever since Baba died last year, I feel like my family is sliding down a hill of sand, clawing and grabbing for anything to hang on to.
“She will get better, Hastin,” Amma says, but her eyes do not leave Chanda’s face. “The fever will break with the next glass of tea, or with another good night’s sleep. And everyone is praying she will get well,” she adds.
They pray she will get well but speak like she will not.
I don’t tell Amma about the neighbor who whispered to her husband last night as they left our hut. “How sad for Parvati,” she had said. “First her husband, and now to lose her little girl…” The man quieted his wife after he glanced back at me.
“Keep giving her the juice and the tea. While I’m making dinner I’ll boil some onions for broth.” Amma touches Chanda’s face and forces a smile. “She is getting better, don’t you think?”
No, I don’t. I want to grab Amma’s shoulders and shake her and yell, Can’t you see she’s getting worse? Do something! Make her better! But she has some hope left and I don’t want to take it away.
She stands and hurries back to the courtyard.
Next to me, a fire burns in a mud-plastered bucket. A metal grill lies across the top of it. I set the tea glass on the grill so the fire will keep it warm. Once again, I dip the washcloth into a bowl of cold water, then place it across Chanda’s forehead. Her chest moves up and down as she sleeps.
My stomach growls when I smell the roti dough baking in the clay oven outside.
I hope we will eat dinner soon—the flatbread tastes best when I pour the buttermilk on while it is still hot. Maybe we will even have beans tonight.
The sun dips lower in the sky, and the hut grows dark. Too early to light the lamp, though. From the wooden trunk that holds my belongings, I grab the ball Amma made me from fabric scraps and take it outside. Amma sits in front of the courtyard stove, covering her face with the end of her sari as gray smoke billows toward her.
Raj runs to me with his tail wagging. Chanda and I found him one day, drinking from the puddle around the water pump. He was so thin we could see his ribs beneath his sand-colored fur.
Amma wouldn’t let us keep him. “We don’t need one more mouth to feed!” she’d said when we asked her. But Raj doesn’t have anyone else. When Amma isn’t watching, Chanda and I bring him some of our dinner or a cup of milk. We shrug and try to look puzzled when she asks, “Why is that dog always following you around?”
Amma saw me petting Raj last week after I gave him a bite of roti. “The dog is getting fatter since you found him,” she said, but I think she smiled a little.
From the doorway I throw the ball over and over again as far as I can, and Raj chases it and brings it back to me. He could play this game all day long.
I let the ball drop to the ground and turn toward Chanda’s voice. I rush into the house and kneel next to her, then brush back the wet strands of hair matted against her face. Raj follows me into the hut and nudges me with the ball before setting it down next to me.
“Chanda, are you feeling better?” Raj licks her face as I take the tea glass from the grill of the bucket fire. “Here, have some more tea.”
She pushes the glass away.
“Do you want to rest in your playhouse?” I ask her. Chanda’s always asking me to set up her playhouse for her. It’s her favorite place to play with her doll or listen to stories I tell her.
She doesn’t answer, but I grab two wooden trunks anyway and drag them across the floor. Then I set one near her head and one at her feet. From Amma’s trunk I grab a purple sari, Chanda’s favorite color, and drape it across the trunks to make a ceiling. The lamp I light shines through the fabric and makes a sunset on the wall.
Now and then I place a hand behind Chanda’s head to help her take a drink. Finally she tilts the tea glass against her mouth for the last sip, then hands me the empty glass. I lean over to kiss her forehead. Still warm, but maybe not as burning hot as before. I run to the courtyard to tell Amma.
Just as I start to fall asleep that night I dream that Baba is playing catch with me and Raj. But then Chanda’s voice pulls me away.
“Hastin, it’s too hot.”
I open my eyes and turn toward Chanda, where she lies on her blanket.
“I’m awake, what is it?” I ask. After Baba died, Chanda started having nightmares. When that happens I hold her hand until she falls asleep again. “Did you have a bad dream?”
“I’m burning up.”
I crawl to her and touch her forehead, then hurry over to my mother.
“Amma, wake up!”
“What is it, Hastin? I am so tired,” she says.
Amma sits up and flings off her blanket.
“What’s wrong?” She races to Chanda and puts her hand on her cheek before I can answer. “Her fever is worse than before!” Amma lights a lamp from a nearby shelf. The lamplight reveals spots of red covering Chanda’s face and hands. Oh, please, no …
We have seen others break out in red spots after a bite from a fever-mosquito. If they get to the doctor in time, sometimes they get well and come back. Sometimes.
“What can we do, Amma?” I ask.
She picks up Chanda, limp like a doll in her arms. “I will take her to Amar’s and ask him for a ride to the hospital.”
“I want to go with you.”
“No, stay here and take care of things. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” She carries Chanda across the courtyard to our neighbor Amar’s house. He owns a rickshaw, so he can get them to the hospital in the city faster than anyone else.
“Amma, will she be all right?” I wait for her to give me some hope to cling to, to tell me again, She will get better.
She stops and turns to me. “I don’t know, Hastin. All we can do is pray.”
Text copyright © 2012 by Lynne Kelly