by Ramona DeFelice Long
I was eight years old the day my father walked into the kitchen, pulled off his cowboy hat, wiped his forehead with the red bandana he kept in his back pocket, and announced he had a headache.
“Well, no wonder,” Mama fussed. “Baling hay at noon! Y’all are crazy to even—“
I never found out what they were crazy to even, because right then, Daddy slapped his hand, still holding the bandana, down on the table. I jumped and Mama’s eyebrows hit the ceiling. Before she could give him what-for for mistreating the tablecloth hand-embroidered by her mother, or grandmother, or great aunt (I forget which) Daddy’s hand closed into a fist, crumpling the bandana and the tablecloth together.
He said, “I feel…” but he didn’t finish. Instead, fist still closed, he stepped backwards. The ceramic bowl full of figs I’d picked not one hour earlier jerked forward from the middle of the table. He stepped back again, jerking the cloth again, and for one second I wondered if he was trying to perform some kind of magic trick.
“What on earth?” Mama said, staring at him, but his eyes were closed. He swayed as he back stepped two more times. Just before the bowl reached the edge of the table, Mama jumped forward to grab it. She clutched it to her middle and we both watched, stunned, as he hit the wall and slowly slid down it, like a man does in an old western movie when he’s been shot by a bad guy. Only there was no bad guy in our kitchen and no bloodstain blossoming across his shirt. There was only the tablecloth that billowed out and fell to cover his sprawled-out legs like a bed sheet, or a ghost.
And then he fainted.
Mama was all over him in a second. She set down the bowl and said to me, in her nurse’s voice, “Heat stroke. Wet me a towel, quick.”
I did, turning the taps full blast. Over the gushing water, I heard her say his name. I wrung out the cloth and handed it to her. She gently wiped his face. He jerked when the towel touched his forehead, then his cheeks, but his eyes stayed closed, his mouth open. He started panting in short jerks, like one of those yappy little dogs.
I stood by the table, picking at a sticky spot of dried fig juice near my elbow, hardly able to believe what I saw before me. Heat stroke? My daddy was a cowboy. A cowboy didn’t hit the deck just because he got a little too much sun.
“Help me get him up,” Mama said. I grabbed his arm and, grunting, we hauled him up. His weight knocked me into the wall, and we stumbled forward together down the hall, him reeking of sweat and hay and cow. Every few steps, he moaned in a way that made my stomach go hollow, a feeling I had never experienced before, or since.
We sat him on their bed. I pulled off his boots. Mama unbuttoned his shirt, telling him while she did it that she was doing it. She told me to get another wet towel, and a glass of ice water, too. I spun towards the doorway, and she called after me to get a straw, raising her voice, and he moaned again. From the hallway, I heard her say she was sorry, and then his belt buckle clinked so I guessed she was getting his pants off, too.
When I got back, his clothes were in a tangle on the floor and he was bare-chested, under the sheets, propped up against the pillows. I was surprised that, for somebody with heat stroke, his face was gray.
“Call the doctor,” Mama ordered. “His number’s by the phone. Tell him I said to come here right away.”
I grabbed up the clothes and rushed away. My hands shook but I dialed the number and told the lady who I was and exactly what Mama had said and then, in case she wouldn’t listen because I was eight, I said, “It’s for my daddy. He fainted in the kitchen.”
There was a pause. “Your daddy did?” she said, which made my stomach ache again.
I put his clothes in the hamper and waited, going back and forth between the door and their bedroom, until the doctor came. He didn’t stay long. When he came out of their room, he used our phone to have some medicine delivered.
“Heat stroke medicine?” I said.
He looked at me, and then his eyes slid away. “It’s not heat stroke. Your daddy has encephalitis. It’s going round the horses.”
“Did Lemon catch it?” I asked, worried for Daddy’s red quarter horse. “Is it bad?”
“It’s carried by mosquitoes,” he said. “It makes the brain swell. That’s why he’s got that headache.”
I wondered if Lemon had fainted. I almost asked the doctor, but didn’t. In truth, I felt relieved. Daddy fainted because his brain was swollen. That was much different than fainting because you got overheated.
I tiptoed back to their bedroom and saw him, lying quiet, still panting; even sitting halfway up, his long legs nearly reached the foot of the bed. I thought of him sliding down the wall, moaning, and I felt ashamed for my relief.
I tip-toed away back to the kitchen. There, I put the table back together. The tablecloth was crumpled, marked with pink lines from where his sweaty hand had crushed the handkerchief. I re-wet the towel Mama had used to wipe his face and scrubbed and scrubbed at the pink lines until they faded away.
Encephalitis is a scary illness. Mama nursed him at home. When he got thirsty, I went outside with ice cubes wrapped in a clean towel and pounded them with a hammer into chips. She fed them to him with a plastic spoon. She stapled the bedroom curtains shut so no glare could eek through and aggravate his headache. Once I went in with fresh chips and found him sitting up, in the dark, wearing sunglasses.
He slept nonstop; Mama never did at all, it seemed. My job was to make sure nobody rang the doorbell. People came, whispering--cousins bearing casseroles, cowboys dropping in after tending his herd. A few days into it, one of the cowboys told me that Lemon had died.
No other cowboys caught it. Daddy was sick for two weeks, and then he recovered. Good as new. Went right back to baling hay in the heat. But I never heard him speak about Lemon. From time to time, he’d talk about catching encephalitis, but he’d never mention fainting.
I have that tablecloth now. Mama offered it to me when I bought my first house. She said she was too old to bother with ironing, and if I didn’t want it, she’d give it to the church. I took it.
Most of the time, it’s stored in the back of my linen cupboard, but I use it for special occasions. When I do, I spray it with starch and iron out even the smallest creases. I treat it with great care, like it is fragile, and very precious.
“Ramona DeFelice Long is an author and independent editor whose short fiction has been published in literary and regional magazines. A native of Louisiana now living in Delaware, she has received literary fellowships from the Pennsylvania State Arts Council, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and in 2009 was recognized by the Delaware Division of the Arts as an Established Artist in Fiction. She maintains a literary blog at http://ramonadef.wordpress.com