by Elizabeth Hawes Unangst
“Forget it,” the big man said, chuckling. “Out of the question. Far too dangerous for my clumsy little wife. You’re not exactly athletically inclined, you know, babe.” He gestured beyond the villa’s veranda to the lush green terraces sweeping down to the ocean below. “Besides, silly girl, why would you want to leave this gorgeous view?” Without waiting for an answer, he laughed, kissed her on the nose, slapped her on the bottom, shouldered his clubs, and left, calling, “Wish me luck on the links, babe!” as he went.
She waited until the gate in the fence clicked shut and the sound of his spikes crunching on the oyster-shell path had died away before letting out her breath in a long sigh, then tossed the brochure for the jungle zipline tour into the pool and watched it sink.
It had been fun once, she remembered; it used to be exciting to be cosseted and cared for, to have her wine and meals ordered for her, to have Mark go shopping with her to critique and choose all of the beautiful clothes she wore, to let Mark take charge of every aspect of their lives. But now….
Oh, she had tried golf, years ago, but Mark had grown impatient with her. “You’d like it if you just tried,” he would grumble as she stood, often in tears, after the front nine. And then he would leave her in the clubhouse and finish the back nine alone. Eventually, she stopped trying.
Skiing hadn’t gone well, either. Mark had insisted she forgo the bunny slopes—“I came to ski, babe, not just mess around!”—so for two days she scraped precariously down the resort’s steepest trails, paralyzed with fear, while Mark shouted instructions at her. Then, too, she had given up in tears and retreated to the spa for the remainder of the vacation. At least Mark didn’t seem to notice her absence on the slopes, as long as she was dressed and ready to meet him for drinks and dinner when he was finished.
She slipped into the villa’s little pool and began to swim. She had taken to swimming laps at home, too, while she waited for Mark to return from his day (“You want a job?” he had said, incredulous, when she’d brought up the idea shortly after they were married; he’d added, laughing, “Who’d hire a sexy blonde like you, anyway? You’d be a distraction in the workplace.”). Babies, too, were out of the question: “We just don’t have room in our life,” was a favorite answer of his, usually followed by, “Besides, you don’t want to lose that gorgeous figure of yours, do you, babe?” She swam on. Like an animal pacing in a cage, she thought, as the silvery lengths added up until she was tired enough to nap.
When the phone call came, it was not the one she expected (“Sweetie, why don’t you put on that cute little dress I bought you and join me and the foursome for lunch?”); instead, it was the agitated voice of Alphonse, the concierge: “Madame, an accident…a terrible snakebite, a fer-de-lance hidden in the bushes near his ball…I will come for you.”
Minutes later she was clinging to Alphonse’s white-suited back as his scooter sped down from the old coffee-plantation-turned-resort to the port hospital at the bottom of the mountain. This was the first time during their vacation that she had left their villa, she realized.
“Doctor is stabilizing him,” the clinic nurse had told her. “You cannot see him just yet. You wait.”
The tiny waiting room in the stucco building was filled with coughing sick people, so she stumbled out into the blinding sunshine and damp salt heat and started to walk. She numbly picked her way among the flowered alleys toward the little harbor and came out in a fragrant fruit-filled market bustling with activity. She saw a group of giggling uniformed schoolgirls at a stall buying some kind of fried dumpling and discovered she was ravenous. Using her high-school French, she managed to order two of the pastries and sat to eat them at one of benches under the jacarandas in the square.
She didn’t know how long she sat, but when the church bell in the square began to toll the hour she jumped up, hurriedly brushing the crumbs from her dress—Mark didn’t approve of fried foods—and retraced her steps to the hospital.
She found the doctor, a stately man in a white coat with kind, tired eyes who told her, “Madame, we have done all we could, but his condition is grave. He is beyond the capabilities of our small clinic. Moving him would be very risky, indeed, but if he is to have any hope of recovery, you must take him to the mainland.” Seeing the shock on her face, he rested a gentle hand on her shoulder. “If he stays here, Madame, he will die: the mainland is his only chance.” He turned to go. “I will let you speak with him alone, but only for a moment.”
She looked at Mark, his ruddy features now grey and still. He seemed somehow much smaller under the bed’s single sheet. She looked beyond Mark through the fuchsia-framed window and to the creaming blue sea beyond. She could smell the island itself on the breeze that stirred the curtains—salt and sun and sand, the fried and fruity smells of the marketplace, and behind it all a faint dark whiff of the damp jungle in the mountains above them. She thought about the zipline tour again, and pictured herself floating freely through the jungle, high above everyone else, deep in a world of green with only the shrill tropical birds and monkeys for company.
She bent her head to the unconscious man’s ear. “Mark,” she said, patting the swollen and already blackening hand, “Mark, don’t you worry, babe. I know exactly what to do.”
Elizabeth “Bitsy” Hawes Unangst is a former officer in the United States Navy. She served five and a half years in the aviation and intelligence communities. Prior to her service, she was a professor of history and English, and she served for fifteen months as a civilian instructor aboard U. S. naval vessels. She has degrees from Centre College and the College of William and Mary; her work has been published in O-Dark-Thirty and Proceedings.