Last night I told a story at Raincity Chronicles, Vancouver’s answer to The Moth. I was last on the docket, and humbled by the great storytellers I shared the stage with. I was also really impressed by the organizing, wrangling and general finessing by Raincity organizers Karen and Lizzy. I’ve been an organizer, speaker or attendee many times, so I know how much work it takes to get all the little details right.
On a whim, I used the Voice Memo app on my iPhone to record my story. It worked out surprisingly well, considering that it was sitting on the arm of a seat in the middle of the venue. The auditorium at the Museum of Vancouver has a kind of clinical lecture hall feel, but it has superb acoustics.
My friend Rachael snapped a photo of me, so I combined the audio track with the photo and posted the story to YouTube. It’s audio only, and the sound isn’t great, but feel free to give it a listen.
The Written Version
As I sometimes do when giving talks (particularly those outside my comfort zone), I wrote out the story first. We were supposed to tell a story five to seven minutes in length, and my first version of this story was 1500 words, about 500 too long.
For some reason, knowing that I’d have a strict time limit made me extra-judicious in editing. I was reminded of a lot of trusty rules of rewriting–start as close to the end as possible, end as quickly as possible and, most painfully, you almost always have to cut out the bits you love the most.
Here’s the written version of the story.
Julie’s Black Tongue
The day my wife almost died began with a boat trip. We arrive at our jungle camp in Costa Rica, after a morning of river-rafting. We’ve been backpacking through the country, and are staying over night deep in the Costa Rican wilderness.
We arrive at this clearing that’s been cut into the jungle at the river’s edge, revealing rustic huts on platforms. It’s the off-season for tourists so, with the exception of our guide, a Costa Rican native Indian named Paco, we’re the only people staying there.
That afternoon we set off on a hike, with Paco leading the way. It’s my first time in a tropical jungle, and it’s everything I imagine it to be. It’s a world is so rich and verdant that you can only understand it with one sense at a time.
We reach a waterfall that plunges into a deep pool. I imagined such a pool to be sun-dappled and azure blue, like in Club Med commercials and TLC videos. In fact, the water is black and foreboding. It’s the black water of a hundred Japanese horror movies.
Nonetheless, we swim. We paddle around the pool, and takes a photo of us standing under the falling water as it pummels our head and shoulders.
We return to camp, and eat dinner. Afterwards, we sit on this patio of rough paving stones outside the main lodge, playing Jenga.
It’s then that Julie first complains of an upset stomach. Night is falling, so we decide to make our way through the twilight–there is no electricity here–to our hut so she can lie down.
We just take a few steps when Julie throws up. All over the paving stones. It’s unpleasant. She’s got a notoriously weak stomach, though, so we’re not worried. “Just some bad beans,” I joke, and lead her back to our hut.
If you’ve never been in the jungle at night, you don’t understand just how loud it can be. Birds call, monkeys hoot but above all else is the relentless chirping of the cicadas. Their oscillating call is like a jungle car alarm that never turns off.
Despite the noise, we’re tired from the day’s exertions, and it doesn’t take long to fall asleep.
Julie shakes me awake a couple of hours later. She can barely speak. “My throat hurts a lot. It’s swelling up inside.” I clumsily feel around in the darkness for my flashlight, and take a look down her throat.
“Say ‘ah'”, I say. She sticks out her tongue. It is black. Black like coffee. Black like the water in that pool near the waterfall. “See anything?” she asks.
I feel her forehead–she’s got a fever. Her stomach still hurts. Then she says five words that send a chill through my heart: “I am having difficulty breathing.”
“Hang on,” I say. “I’ll go see Paco.”
Taking the only flashlight, I make my way back toward the main lodge. I’m being careful. I’m concerned about Julie, but I don’t want to step in her puke.
I’m scanning the ground. I follow the circle light back and forth, back and forth.
There’s the pool of vomit. And there are three of the biggest, happiest toads I have ever seen. They are three slimy baseball gloves, gobbling down Julie’s vomit.
I shudder and hurry past them. Inside, I find Paco reading by candlelight. He speaks his own people’s language and some Spanish, and I’ve got English and a tiny bit of Spanish. I do my best to express that Julie is sick–that she’s got a very sore throat, a stomach ache and, for all that is good and holy, a black tongue.
Paco seems to understand, and he begins rustling through his small pack. He’s from around here. Maybe he’s got some native plant or root that his tribe has been using to cure this affliction for generations.
He pulls something out and hands it to me. It’s a pink bottle of Peptobismol.
I return to our hut. Julie’s throat is worse. She looks very worried.
I’m doing the math. We are hours from civilization, with no means of communication, and no help. Her throat is closing up. It could become impossible for her to breath. And that would be that. I am more scared than I ever have been in my adult life.
Julie shuffles off to the bathroom. She can’t talk now. I sit and stare into the blackness of the night and think.
Then I remember this episode of MASH. Maybe you’ve seen it? In it, a very reluctant Corporal Radar O’Reilly has to complete an emergency tracheotomy on a wounded soldier. He does it using a Swiss Army knife and a ballpoint pen for the breathing tube. Hawkeye talks him through it on the radio.
I go through my bag. Yep, here’s a ballpoint pen. Now, where’s my knife?
I find it in my shaving kit. I lay it beside the pen. Okay. “Tracheotomy.” It’s Latin root is trachea. Where in the hell is the trachea? Where do I cut? And how deep? And how do I staunch the bleeding? And is Julie going to breath through a ballpoint pen until tomorrow?
This isn’t going to work. I stare into the jungle some more. Julie comes back from the bathroom. I have another idea.
To paraphrase William Faulkner, “a man in a crisis falls back on what he knows best–a murderer to murder, a thief to theft.” Do you know what I fell back on?
My father worked in the pharmaceutical industry most of his life. So I know more than the average young man about over-the-counter drugs. And my shaving kit was chock full of samples.
Julie comes back from the bathroom and I immediately force-feed her four Sudafed tablets. They’re really hard for her to swallow, but she manages.
Sudafed. Antihistamine. Vasoconstrictor.
We wait. The jungle sings its car alarm song.
A half-hour later, Julie’s throat opens up a bit. Then a bit more. In a couple of hours, she can goes back to sleep.
I do not sleep. I stay up all night and listen to her breathing. I notice that the cadence of her breath is the same as that of the cicada’s song.