Mosquitoes love me. Conversely, I do not like them. The same goes for flies, gnats and other small circling creatures. This simple fact exasperated my father and brother who were immune.
"Relax into the bugs," they would counsel me, as we hiked along in some damp place, a cloud of insects swarming around my head like a dark halo.
"Easy for you to say," I would snarl from deep within my swirling aura, hands flailing angrily at the air.
So with some trepidation I prepared for our Cairo to Cape Town trip.
I followed all the precautions. I dutifully popped my meds and covered up in the evenings, wearing long-sleeved blouses and lightweight pants, applying repellent, carefully checking my mosquito net for holes. But as time went by, I became increasingly careless. The repellent was the first thing to go, mainly because I hated the hot, sticky feeling of it, like an airtight layer of latex paint on my skin, not to mention the smell! The long sleeves went next.
I would sit on deck of our Felucca floating down the Nile enjoying the delicious whisper of the night air on my bare skin.
In Stanleyville, I awoke with a hot ache in my bones and the sensation of a thousand tiny needles pricking my flesh. When I sat up, my head seemed to soar above my body at a great height. My arms and legs felt weighted down, as though an army of Lilliputians had anchored them to the bed.
The beast had the best of me at last.
I lay on a bed in a hospital room, blurredly watching a fan turn above my head. The air was hot and still. As I stared at the fan's hypnotic spiral, an extraordinary languor seeped into my limbs. I went through the feverish dance I'd come to know so well.
Sister said that if it were malaria tropica, the most dangerous strain, and they did not treat it, I could conceivably die from it, whereas taking unnecessary medication might screw with my system, but would not kill me.
The fevers were in full swing. My body behaved like a furnace gone haywire, my temperature modulating up and up until it broke in a dramatic display of sweat and shivers, only to begin the process all over again. Every hair on my body stood bolt upright on its follicle in protest. Although I was ravenously hungry, when I finally got access to food, I was unable to keep it down. Even with something as innocuous as rice, I would eat one spoonful, and my throat would close on the second bite. Still my mind remained detached, even slightly intrigued.
"Malaria's not so bad," I said to myself.
Little did I know the fun had just begun.
My first medication-altered night was spent in a surreal state, somewhere between painfully acute wakefulness and grotesquely etched, brilliantly colored dreams. Everyone I had met in my short life paraded through my head like a Super 8 movie shot with a hand-held camera. All my loved ones came forward in random order to take their shaky bows -my loving grandparents, my adoring father, remote mother, my curiously detached brother, school friends- I shouted their names and sat up again and again.
I started to get up and was stunned to discover that I could not stand and cross the room. I stood up and sat down again three times in rapid succession, my legs folding beneath me like a marionette's. The dizziness in my head was so severe that the walls zoomed by me as if on a high-speed carousel.
"What are you doing?" Dad called out from across the room.
"We've got to get going," I said.
"You've got malaria. You're not going anywhere."
"But we should," I told him, my voice rising and then I passed out.
When I woke, my head ached like the worst kind of hangover. All the colors of the world were piercingly bright.
In my dreams, I rose and fell and rose and fell like a crazy jack-in-the-box before I dived headfirst into a lake, unable to move a limb, I started to drown. I began to scream in absolute terror; arms flailing, shaken by violent sobs that gradually gave way to a bottomless river of grief. Life was fragile. Things could be broken. Loss was real.
I lay on my bed, staring up at the white ceiling, a 12-year-old girl, privileged and reckless, sporadically courageous and wildly arrogant, selfish and loving, thoughtless and tender -sick now and growing up.