When Juju told me Isabelle was sick, my first thought was, What else is new? My next thought was, Good, at least we can get out of here now. It was Easter Sunday, and that morning we’d had our daughter, Isabelle, baptized at the same church where Juju’s parents had been married forty years earlier. The Mass was familiar: a lot of singing and some prayers I hadn’t thought about in a long time. Then at some point, we were led up to the front of the church and the young priest was saying something I didn’t catch and there was the sound of water being poured from a jug. Isabelle cried and Juju murmured something in her ear. Then it was over. I wanted to be moved, but as we made our way back to our pew, all I could think about was getting out of my church clothes and into my bathing suit.
But now we were at a party at Juju’s Aunt Bernadette’s to celebrate the baptism and it was hot. There was a band—accordion, guitar, drums—and long tables covered in food. There was a whole roast pig, tripe stuffing, arugula salad, two kinds of fruit salad, rice, beans and a rough clay pot filled with a steaming fish stew. And for dessert, there was the much-discussed cake, multi-layered and impressive, Isabelle lettered across the top in thick icing. There were also several platters piled high with brigadeiro, grape-sized balls of Brazilian fudge made with condensed milk and rolled in chocolate sprinkles.
I was sitting on a low cushioned bench beside the ivy-covered wall that surrounded the outdoor courtyard where the party was taking place. Water dripped from the leaves of big potted plants; tiny mosquitos whined in the heavy air. I felt soggy and slow-witted. I was holding a plate of roast pork in my lap and drinking orange juice from a wine glass wet with condensation.
Right up next to me, on the long bench, sat my brother-in-law, Wagner. He had his left leg propped up on a wrought iron patio chair in front of him, a chunky walking boot wrapped around his ankle. Wagner worked as a driver for Juju’s father’s trucking company and he’d recently been injured when a steel plate he was carrying fell and landed on his foot. The injury had cost us a fishing trip and now he and I were discussing the fish we hoped to catch the next time we got together.
“Perch,” Wagner said excitedly. “Taste is good, but a lot of bones. Hard to eat.”
I nodded. Wagner was speaking in rapid Portuguese and I was doing my best to keep up with him.
“I don’t mind a few bones,” I said. “What do you do with perch—fry them?”
“Yes…” Wagner said, “You can fry them… or bake them with butter and onions and a little salt, much better actually.”
“Yes,” I said.
I was trying to come up with some more for Wagner when Juju called me from inside the house.
“Out here,” I called back.
A minute later, Juju was making her way toward me through the maze of long tables set up in the courtyard, her voice coming to me intermittently as she scythed her way through the crowd. Juju’s not a tall woman, she’s maybe 5’6”, if you include her thick silky hair, but she’s strong, with an imposing presence, and when she moves, people tend to get out of her way. Within a minute or two she was there in front of me.
“Hey,” she said. “Isabelle’s not feeling well. I want to go back to my mom’s house and give Dr. Cho a call.”
“Really?” I said. “On Easter Sunday?”
“Sure,” Juju said. “I’ll call her cell and If she doesn’t pick up, I’ll have her paged.”
“Is she really that sick?” I asked.
“Yes,” Juju said. “She has fever and watery poop.”
“Okay,” I said. “Whatever you want.”
“Find Zoe,” Juju said. “Then come in the house. I have to go get my mom moving.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’m glad we’re getting out of here. I need to take the dog out.”
“The dog?” Juju said, “I’m more concerned about Isabelle.”
“Of course,” I said. “But we have been here a long time and someone needs to take the dog out.”
Juju made an exasperated sound.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“Yeah?” Juju said in a way meant to convey that she wasn’t. The band was playing a melancholy waltz. Loud laughter came from a table of Juju’s uncles and their friends. Someone coughed, a wheezing, racking, choking sound, then one of the uncles pounded the table with his fist.
“Okay,” Juju said.
“Okay,” I said.
Juju turned and went back into the house. She hadn’t touched me once during our conversation. I waited until I was sure she was gone, then I turned toward Wagner and shrugged.
He laughed and patted me on the knee.
“Mommies worry,” he said sweetly.
I smirked. I didn’t have the words I needed in Portuguese. We sat in companionable silence for a minute or so.
“I gotta move,” I said.
“Yes, yes,” Wagner said.
“Zoe!” I called into the cheerful gabble of the party.
“I’m here, Daddy,” my oldest daughter Zoe answered from beneath a nearby table.
“What are you doing down there?” I asked.
“I’m petting a fluffy white poodle that lives in this house,” she said, “It’s so cute. Do you want to come touch it?”
“Not right now,” I said. “Come help me. We have to go.”
Zoe scrambled out from under the table and ran to where I was sitting. I patted Wagner on his broad shoulder and shook his hand.
“Ciao amigo,” I said.
“Ciao,” he said.
I felt around on the cushion beside me, found my white cane and unfolded it with a snap. I got up and reached for Zoe. When I took her hand in mine, I could feel the delicate bones in her long spidery fingers and it gave me the creeps. I didn’t like feeling my daughter’s skeleton. It was like snooping through someone’s diary. All those nubbly little bones in their thin envelope of skin? Some things are better left hidden.
“Why are we going, Daddy?” Zoe asked.
“Izzy’s not feeling good,” I said.
“Oh,” Zoe said. “But when we get home can we go in Vovô’s pool.”
“Sure,” I said. “As soon as we straighten out the Izzy situation.”
Zoe led me across the courtyard and into the house. I like this house. It was a tall narrow townhouse that fronted the street with a lot of steep staircases and tall shuttered windows. It was gloomy and cool inside and felt very old world.
“Duck,” Zoe said.
I reached out my hand, felt the top of the rough-hewn granite doorway and ducked my head. Zoe and I passed through the doorway and into a column of cool fast-moving air. We were in the parlor, an elegant room with a tiled floor and heavy antique furniture. Somewhere above my head, a ceiling fan rattled noisily as it churned the humid air. My untucked dress shirt ballooned out from my body and fluttered in the breeze.
On the far side of the room, Juju’s mother, Maria, and Aunt Bernadette sat together on a high-backed love seat. They were laughing brightly and their presence felt ephemeral, as if they were buoyed up by the room’s cool swirling air.
“Yes! Yes! Yes!” Maria said. “Yes he did. He asked me and I said yes, of course, but it was only much later when I found out, he never told her it was off. It was father who had to go over and tell Dr. Lopes. Can you imagine? What a mess.”
“You are a heartbreaker,” Bernadette said, laughing. “Let’s have a little more, shall we?”
She poured a fizzing stream of Prosecco into Maria’s glass. Then she looked over and saw Zoe and me.
“Some wine, my love?” Bernadette asked me.
“No thanks,” I said, “I think…”
“We need to go,” Juju called from a nearby room.
There was the clatter of high heels on tile and Juju burst into the parlor with Isabelle in her arms.
“Izzy’s burning up,” Juju said, “I want to get her home.”
“Yes daughter, yes, yes,” Maria said from the love seat. “We’ll go home now. Right now.”
“Give me that, my dear,” Bernadette said.
She took Maria’s wine glass from her and set it on a side table with a musical tink. Then Bernadette got up and there was a moment of strained rustling while she helped Maria to her feet. Then we were all hugging. Various cousins and old family friends came in from outside and I hugged a lot of men and women I didn’t know, my white cane held awkwardly under my arm. There were soft bulging arms, rough silk, coarse facial hair, waxy lips pressed against my cheeks. Someone was wearing a strong floral perfume that made my eyes water. I willed myself not to sneeze.
When the hugging ended, I found Zoe’s hand again and we followed Juju and Maria out through the parlor to the street.
At the curb, we all climbed into the rented Toyota wagon, careful not to touch the red-hot seat belt buckles. Juju cranked the air conditioner with a whoosh and we drove off with a toot of the horn for Aunt Bernadette.
We rode for a while through wide peaceful fields of coffee and bananas, Brazilian pop playing softly on the radio. The air-conditioned air inside the car felt good and the lethargy I’d felt at the party began to lift. After about fifteen minutes, we jounced over a small bridge that spanned the Alegre river, before turning onto a dirt road that led to Maria’s farm. The road was mostly potholes and rocks and as we drove the car bounced violently from side to side.
“Wah-oaoa!” Zoe howled. “This is like Hershey Park!”
The car banged in and out of a narrow ditch in the road. My stomach lurched.
“Is this what it’s like driving in Africa?” I asked Juju from the backseat.
“Africa’s worse,” Juju said. “Here, the only animals you have to look out for are cows.”
“What about capybaras?” Zoe asked.
“And capybaras,” Juju said. “But if you hit a capybara, it won’t come through the windshield and kick you to death. A zebra… well, you know.”
I thought about zebras. I tried to imagine a herd of them thundering across the savanna partially obscured by a swirling beige dust cloud. I couldn’t do it. The best I could come up with was an abstract smear of grayish brown with a few dark blobs floating in the murk. What were these dark blobs? Eyes, I decided. The zebras’ eyes. I erased the smear and managed to momentarily conjure up a black and white drawing of a smiling zebra, a simple cartoon like something from baby’s first book of animals. Then the zebra was gone, and I gave up.
I reached forward into the front seat and found Isabelle’s arm, then her face with my fingertips. She was hot. Heat radiating from her forehead.
“She is pretty hot,” I said.
“No kidding,” Juju said. “That’s why I want to call Dr. Cho; I don’t trust the doctors around here. They’re sweet, but I just don’t trust them.”
Gravel crunched under the car’s tires as we pulled onto the long driveway that snaked around the side of Maria’s house. At the top of the driveway, we bumped over the roots of the big mango tree that shaded this part of the yard. When we came to a stop, I swung open my door and got out. Leaving the closed cocoon of the car felt like climbing out of a spaceship and setting foot on an alien planet. In an instant, sound changed, the atmosphere changed, I passed from cool to hot. Cicadas buzzed. I smelled the deep petting-zoo tang of cow manure. High above me, leaves shushed like ocean waves in the slight breeze and from just above my head, a tropical bird squawked rustily.
I slammed my door and started around the back of the car. Where we were parked, the uneven ground was soft, loose dirt with a thick matte of fallen leaves and small broken branches. As I passed around the back of the car, I stumbled over a loose rock and reached out and put my hand on top of the car to steady myself. The metal roof was bright and hot, and yellow sparklers of sensation passed through my fingertips and flared across the dark screen of my consciousness; searchlights in a black sky, wasabi on the tip of my tongue. I pulled my hand off the hot roof and the colors disappeared, the dark screen of my mind reverting to its normal gray state.
I came around the back of the car and opened the front passenger door for Maria.
“Help me, my love,” Maria said.
“What do you need, Mami?” I asked.
“Please,” she said, “take the baby from me.”
I scooped Isabelle up out of Maria’s lap and when I brought her to my chest, her head fell against my collarbone with a damp thunk.
“Izzy looks funny,” Zoe said.
“Funny how?” I asked.
“She’s all kind of squooshy. Like bleah.” Zoe threw herself on the ground and lay there moaning.
“Get up,” I said.
Juju helped Maria out of the car, then she took my elbow and led me toward the house. Maria went in front of us and held the big wrought iron gate open for us.
In the foyer, an enormous room with high ceilings and stained-glass windows that Zoe called the museum, the dog, my seeing-eye dog, Nadia, ran to greet us, her nails scrabbling dryly on the tiled floor. She was frantic, yipping and barking and pushing her nose up into my crotch. I wanted to kick the dog. Chaos scares me and my first instinct is to lash out at the source of the chaos until some kind of order is restored.
“Get the fuck away from me,” I said through gritted teeth, and brought my knee up to block the dog’s thrusting nose.
“Be nice,” Juju said. “She loves you.”
“I am being nice,” I said. “I just don’t think it’s a great idea to let the dog knock me down when I’m carrying a sick baby.”
Juju led me through the quiet house to the back bedroom where we were staying. I lay Isabelle down on the middle of the bed and Juju organized a row of pillows on either side of her.
“I do actually have to take the dog out,” I said. “She’s crazy from being alone all day.”
“That’s fine,” Juju said, “but I want you to talk to the doctor first.”
My mouth tightened. I wanted to say, “You’re the one insisting on calling a doctor in New York on Easter Sunday—why do I have to make the call? And, by the way, YOU ARE A DOCTOR! What can I possibly say to Dr. Cho that you can’t express better than I can?”
“Sure,” I said.
Juju dialed the number and handed me her phone. I pressed the warm glass rectangle to my ear and listened to it ring: one, two, three times. A woman answered. She sounded sensible and friendly.
“Hello,” she said, “this is Dr. Cho.”
Did I go to college with this woman? There was something familiar about her voice and manner.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m so sorry to bother you on Easter. I’m Adam Linn, Isabelle Linn’s dad. We’re in rural Brazil and my wife wanted me to call you. Izzy’s sick…”
“She has high fever,” Juju said, “with diarrhea and possible dehydration.”
“Did you get all that?” I asked Dr. Cho.
“Yes,” Dr. Cho said. “How old is the patient?”
“She’s two and a half,” I said.
“And how high has the temp gotten?” Dr. Cho asked.
“How high has her temperature gotten?” I asked Juju, who was sitting on the bed next to me.
“104, almost 105,” she said.
“105,” I relayed to Dr. Cho. I could hear children talking in the background. A dog barked.
“105,” Dr. Cho repeated thoughtfully. “That’s high, but you’d be surprised what we’ve been seeing the last couple of weeks. There’s a stomach bug going around New York and I suspect Isabelle brought it with her to Brazil.”
“She’s pretty limp,” I said. “It’s not like her.”
“Oh yeah,” Dr. Cho said. “When they’re dehydrated, they’re like little rag dolls. Make sure you get her hydrated with some electrolytes. Pedialyte, juice, coconut water is great. I suspect you have access to plenty of coconut water where you are.”
“Yes,” I said. “There’s Pedialyte, too.”
“Great,” Dr. Cho said. “Every ten minutes, make her drink whether she wants to or not. Her temperature should be down by tomorrow.”
I still had the nagging feeling I knew Dr. Cho from somewhere.
“Okay,” I said. “Juju, do you want to ask the doctor anything?”
“No,” Juju said.
“Thank you, Doctor,” I said. “Again, I’m so sorry to call you at home…but we’re down here and, you know…”
“Parents worry,” Dr. Cho said with a throaty laugh.
“Yes,” I said.
We said goodbye and hung up. I handed Juju her phone. I repeated what Dr. Cho had said to me.
“A bug from New York,” Juju murmured uncertainly. “I don’t know about that.”
“It’s stuffy in here,” I said.
I got up and went around the end of the big bed. Our suitcases were stacked up at the foot of the bed and there was a thin foam mattress on the floor for the dog. I stepped on the foam mattress and opened the heavy wooden shutters that covered the room’s only window. Air streamed gently past my face. Outside the window there was a dirt farmyard with a battered chicken coop and, further back, a high green hill with twenty or so black and white cows spread across the lush grass. Zoe had described the scene outside the window to me on our first day here and I had to assume it was a reasonable facsimile of the truth. Although I hadn’t smelled any manure from here in the house, every couple of minutes or so, a booming mooooa alerted me to the presence of the nearby cows.
There were the blop-blop-blop of the squabbling chickens, the laughing ducks, the rooster’s chak-crooooo! that sounded nothing like cocka-doodle-do.
“That’s better,” I said, sitting back down on the bed.
“I’m just worried about mosquitoes,” Juju said. “At night I’m getting eaten alive. Make sure you close the window before it gets dark.”
“Okay,” I said.
Later, out by the pool, I sat under an umbrella, half-listening to an article from the New York Times on my phone while Zoe splashed around in the shallow end. She was throwing water with a plastic bucket and pretending to be Harry Potter. Every minute or so, a few drops of water would hit me.
“Be careful with the water,” I said. “I just can’t get the phone wet.”
“Sorry, Daddy,” Zoe said. “Voldemort is trying to kill me, so I’m using the water to kill him and the Death Eaters.”
“I know,” I said. “It’s a nice, pool isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Zoe said. “Nadia likes it too.”
The dog was walking around the pool sticking her nose in occasionally and screwing up her courage to jump in.
“Come, Nadia!” Zoe called.
The dog whined pitifully but stayed at the edge of the pool.
“I don’t want her in the pool,” I said. “It will be me who has to haul her out and I don’t want to get scratched. Remember Florida?”
“That was different,” Zoe said. “You fell running with her at the beach.”
“Same thing,” I said. “It was me trying to keep Nadia safe around water. I just don’t want her in there, okay?”
Zoe filled her bucket and threw the water. A second later, it landed with a pattering splash on the surface of the pool.
I heard the shuffling slap-whop of plastic sandals on the concrete path behind me. Then the gate in the low chain-link fence surrounding the pool rattled open with a rusty squeak.
“Oi Adam, oi Zoe,” called Maria’s cousin, Vivian.
She came over and lightly put her hand on my bare shoulder.
“The doctor is here, and Juju wants you to come up to the house.”
“What doctor?” I asked.
“The doctor,” Vivian said. “Isabelle is sick.”
I got up out of the lounge chair and put on my T-shirt.
“Come on Zoe,” I called. “We need to go up to the house.”
Zoe climbed out of the pool and scampered across the tiles. I took her hand and we walked up the path to the house.
In the foyer, the big house was alive with a sense of grim industry. There were a lot of hushed voices and the opening and closing of many doors. Where had all these people suddenly come from? Zoe let go of my hand and ran off.
“Where’s Juju?” I asked Vivian.
“She’s in the bedroom with the doctor,” Vivian said. “Should I get her?”
“No,” I said. “I’ll go there.”
“Why don’t you wait here,” Vivian said. “I’ll get her for you.”
“Okay,” I said.
I sat down on a high bench by the front door.
“I’ll go get Juju,” Vivian said, flap-whopping down the hallway away from me.
Nadia flopped down at my feet and I reached down and smoothed the fur on the top of her head. Time passed. No one spoke to me. Where was Vivian? Where was Juju? I thought about trying to make my way back through the house in search of the bedroom, but I didn’t want to add to the chaos. So I sat there in the foyer, patting the dog and wondering what to do.
“I’m very sorry,” a man said in heavily-accented English.
I was startled and got to my feet.
“Hi,” I said, reaching out for a handshake. “You’re the doctor.”
The man took my hand in a cool damp grip and gave it a tentative shake.
“The doctor. No, no, not the doctor,” he said with an embarrassed laugh. “I’m the priest, we met this morning…at the church. I baptized your daughter. Now she’s sick.”
“Oh hi,” I said, withdrawing my hand and sitting back down.
I regretted this immediately, because now the young priest was there looming over me and I didn’t know what to say next.
“The baby is very sick,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “But she’ll be fine.”
“Yes,” said the priest. “Let us pray.”
I reached down and began patting Nadia again.
“Very sick,” the priest murmured.
I wanted to put a face on this solemn voice coming at me through the darkness, but the only face I had to give him was the Jack of Diamonds. A long, pointed face with a comically long chin. I didn’t like having the Jack of Diamonds hovering over me in that echoing foyer. I was grateful for Nadia’s silky fur under my hand.
The priest breathed in and out through his nose.
I’m not sure how long I sat there with the quiet priest standing there in front of me, but eventually Juju emerged from the hallway that led to the back of the house. She clattered across the floor in her hard-soled shoes and sat beside me on the bench.
“I was talking to the priest,” I said.
“The priest was here?” Juju asked.
“I think so,” I said. “He said he was the priest.”
“Well the doctor was here, too,” Juju said. “He wants Isabelle to spend the night in the hospital, but I don’t trust that place, so I told him we’d monitor her here and that we’d give him a call if her condition changes.”
“But she’s okay,” I said. “It’s just a little bug, right?”
“I have no idea,” Juju said. “It could be anything—meningitis, malaria, polio.”
“It’s not fucking polio,” I said. “People don’t get polio anymore.”
“I don’t know,” Juju said. “It could be anything.”
Later, after a shower, I lay down on the bed, the sleeping Isabelle between Juju and me. From outside, I could hear the sound of wind shushing in the tops of the trees and low sounds from the neighboring cows settling down for the night; grunts, chuffs, an occasional bellow.
I lay there for a long time, my heart beating in the darkness. I listened to Juju’s gentle snoring and Isabelle’s ragged breath. Everyone was asleep, even the cows. But there were no cows. There never had been.
Outside, small upright figures emerged from the trees at the top of the hill. They stood in a loose row on the moonlit grass, not much bigger than children. They were hairy, wearing capes, the tops of their heads obscured by rounded hoods.
Then one of the figures, a little taller than the rest, broke from the group and walked down the hill toward the house. About fifty yards from the window, she stopped and brought a pale cone to her lips, a megaphone, Moooooooooo.
Adam Linn is an American author and essayist, concerned with those things that bang away in the dark…until they don’t. He is the author of the novel American Sexy. His inspirations include: Tintin and The Price is Right. Jimmy Ernst and Lucille Ball. Clarice Lispector and John Waters. Kafka and Patricia Highsmith. Borges and Biggie Smalls. Roberto Bolano and Ved Mehta. Cesar Aira and his episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter.