Masque of the Red Death

The blood coughs became more frequent over our stay in the Corcovado. I tell Menna but no one else. Her hypothesis is that I have a minor laceration somewhere in my lung. I managed to inhale a mouthful of nuts last week and I was bent double in an epic coughing fit that lasted around twenty minutes. Perhaps my lung tissue has been nicked by a sharp fragment of peanut. I like this theory, because we are a very long way from civilisation right now, so I certainly wouldn’t want it to be anything more scary like tuberculosis or lung cancer. Once I tell Menna about a medical problem there is a sense of delegation, a transfer of ownership, and I generally cease to worry about it. Whatever the cause, I have developed a deep melodious cough with a frothy gurgling undertone that isn’t entirely unpleasant, a bit like blowing bubbles through a straw. It brings a salty iron taste to my throat. The blood I spit out is profuse and shocking in it’s red glow; freshly oxygenated, it looks so vibrant – so healthy!

We go on a long jungle trek and see herds of peccaries in a hurry; they are being pursued, we are told, by an invisible puma. We see groups of coati with glossy black fur, striped tails held high, hunting the purple and orange halloween crabs that infest the sandy walkways at the forest’s edge. We watch a rare white hawk circling silently through the branches of a huge Guanacaste tree, flitting round and round like a jungle phantom. She was hunting howler monkeys, waiting until the mothers slept to snatch a baby from their grasp. We waded across rivers that may have been frequented by crocodiles, although we didn’t see any – which I suppose is the way with crocodiles, until they have a hold of your leg. At the end of the walk I take myself away quietly and cough for a while on the beach. Menna pats my back. Matilda comes up to us and is very disturbed to see a wet pool of blood between my feet in the sand. We pass it off as a cut lip. She nods silently and wanders off.

When we surf again that evening I am caught inside by a set of waves. Held underwater and unable to breathe for a long while, I splutter as I surface and then my gasping causes more coughing. I try to swallow down the blood as I am scared that I will attract sharks.

The fourth night of our stay in the jungle is the worst yet. I cannot lie flat without gargling and choking. I drift in and out of sleep propped up on pillows on my single camp bed.

In the darkness I relive old M*A*S*H tv episodes where sweating soldiers bleed out in tropical field hospital tents; I float down the oily jungle waters of Apocalypse Now in thrall to some undefined twilight danger, pulled towards horrific moments of dark self-realisation. I think of the descent into fever and tropical madness in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; I retrace Allie Fox’s tracks in Thoreaux’s Mosquito Coast, knowing that I too have dragged my family deep into the jungle on a wild quixotic quest that can only lead to death and disaster. I think of Kafka slowly dying of consumption and Yeats, Orwell (did Camus go this way too?).

I piece together fragments of poetry and worry away at scraps of lines: piecing together Dulce et Decorum Est in the early hours, dwelling on the blood that comes ‘gargling forth from froth corrupted lungs’, repeating the line over and over to myself. I remember the masked figure that moves silently through the ball in Poe’s gothic tale Masque of the Red Death. Prince Prospero and his men were hiding from the plague too, I remind myself, naively thinking they could lock themselves away and outlast the disease – but the chime of midnight brought darkness, ‘and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all…’

Menna is awake most of the night of course, watching me cough and bubble and mutter to myself, staggering up to spit blood into the loo and replace my damp clutch of tissues. There is no electricity in our tent and we don’t want to wake the kids, but when the sun rises at 5:30 she examines me. One side of my chest is no longer rising as I breathe, the lung is hard and full of blood.

We agree that it is time to get to a hospital.

And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall… And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all

The Masque of the Red Death Edgar Allen Poe

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