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Souvenir

Nikki ignored the itchy spot just above her stubby ponytail and hauled the box of souvenirs into her third-grade classroom. She liked to go beyond the set curriculum and show the USA in relationship to the world. Setting the heavy box on her desk, she swiped beads of sweat off her forehead and pulled down the Western Hemisphere wall map.


“What did you bring this year?” Bonnie asked, bursting into the classroom. “Let’s see your treasures.”


Nikki laughed, grateful her principal was enthusiastic about the peccadillos of each teacher at Sacramento’s Sierra School. She pulled out ponchos, belts, shawls, pan pipes, carved masks, and drums.


“This is jewelry made from tagua palm nuts,” she said, dangling a white disk near her ear. “It’s the same consistency of ivory from elephants, so it’s all the rage.” She bounced a little string bag, making tiny carved animals inside poke their noses and limbs out. “These are shigras. Ecuadorians use them as purses.”


“You don’t just visit another country,” Bonnie said, blue eyes wide as she looked over the objects. “You bring it back with you.”


“I’ll pass them around, identify them, talk about the people who made them and the places they came from. The students’ first writing assignment will be to name their favorite souvenir and tell why they like it.”


“So where exactly did you go?” Bonnie fingered a colorful carved mask.


“My sister and I flew into Quito and took a bus to the beach, but the chiggers lapped up our insect repellent as if it was candy.” She stuck out her leg. “I’ve still got scars from scratching the bites. So we went east, joined a tour led by a native guide, and prowled the Amazon rain forest.”


“Ugh! I’ve heard the insects there are the worst.”


“It was wet and hot”—Nikki tugged at her top to let in some cool air—“but our guide’s repellant worked better than what we had at the beach. At night, we stayed in jungle lodges and slept under mosquito netting.” She brushed a hand over the objects on her desk. “We collected most of the souvenirs after we left the rain forest. We rented an SUV and drove along the Pan American Highway, stopping in villages to shop.”


Bonnie grinned and stood. “Got to check on the other classrooms. Do you need anything?”


“I’d love Carlos to come help me hang ponchos and a piece of art that’s still out in my car.”

 

“Where did you get it?” Carlos stepped back and admired the colorful sheepskin painting. 


Nikki turned to the wall map and stuck a Post-it star on the state capitol in Sacramento and a dot to show the location of their school. Then she stuck a star on Quito, Ecuador, and moved her thumb to a nearby spot on the map. “In the Riobamba market. A man showed us thirty scenes of llamas, volcanoes, farmers, and weavers. He paints them with chicken-feather brushes on sheep hide. Most of them were small, but I was lucky to find this larger piece.”


She gazed at the painting, a mosaic effect of a weaver in a hat at work, overlooking horses and sheep in a valley with birds and bees hovering in a bright blue sky.


“I want to go there someday,” Carlos said, “I love their food. You can get it near here, did you know? The Chicha Kitchen & Cafe.”


“My husband and I are going tomorrow night. I loved the ceviche on the trip, and Janet even ate barbecued guinea pig. She said it tasted like roast duck.” When Carlos’ eyes widened, she added, “I won’t tell the students about that!”  


Carlos helped her hang a couple of red ponchos near the painting and closed his toolbox.


Nikki reached into the souvenir box and handed Carlos a white straw fedora with a red band. “Thanks for your help. Here’s a little something for your trouble. I got it right from the weaver. The loose weave makes it breathable.”


Carlos ran his fingers around the smooth edge of the hat’s brim. “I’ve seen them in movies.”


She took off her hair tie, fluffed out her short hair, and put on a similar hat, placing it with care so it didn’t irritate the itchy spot at the back of her head.


Carlos touched the brim of his with a two-finger salute. “Gracias!”


Alone in the classroom, Nikki recalled her sense of belonging in the dry hot air of Ecuador, so much like the summer air here at home.


That evening, she gave her husband Jim a Panama hat but didn’t put hers back on. The bump on her head was still bothering her. She rolled her fingers around what she was starting to think might be a pimple or cyst. 


“Honey, would you take look at this for me? On our last morning in Quito, I was brushing my hair when I felt the bristles run over a tiny bump at the back of my head. And it’s still there.” She knelt and parted her hair, resting her chin on her chest.


“Looks like a mosquito bite,” Jim said.


“But we slept in good beds with mosquito netting!” she protested.


 “Here, I’ll dab some alcohol on it. Now leave it alone.” He lifted her chin and kissed her. “I’m just glad you’re home safe and sound.”

 

As she lay awake in the hot August night, yearning for the delta breeze to blow in the window, Nikki thought about the new painting on her classroom wall and what she’d learned about sheepskin paintings, which reflected the Tigua people’s view that all nature is alive.


In the warm darkness, she felt a wiggling and short, sharp pains pulling at the back of her head. She felt around on her scalp. Was the bump bigger now? When had she first noticed it? She counted back the days—it was in Quito, on Monday, over a week ago. A mosquito bite should be gone by now.


She wanted to ask Jim to look it again, but he was snoring softly and she didn’t want to wake him.


Try to relax, she lectured herself. It’s just the excitement of school starting up again on Thursday.


But the little tugs at the back of her head continued. She got up in the dark and downed two Excedrins, and after half an hour they worked their magic.

 

Before dawn the next morning, Nikki awoke and went into the bathroom. She used her hand mirror to try to see the back of her head reflected in the mirror over the sink, but she couldn’t get the right angle. She picked gingerly at the bump, scratched it lightly, and brought her fingers around to the front of her face. What looked like dried blood under her short nails made the blood in her veins turn cold.


She waited until Jim woke up at his usual six-thirty and had his coffee.


“Honey, I’m getting worried. This bump is still here, and it feels like it’s moving. Can you look at it again?” Nikki tried to keep her voice calm, although she felt like a third grader coming off a sugar high after recess.


“Oh, God,” Jim said, “you’ve been fooling with it! Just leave it alone. You’ll infect it if you’re not careful."


Nikki felt low and shrunken, the way the kids must have felt that year she taught in East LA and the staff checked their heads for lice.


The bump felt like a mosquito bite, but why was it still swollen? Was it a boil? A cyst? Skin cancer? Why did she get these stabbing pains a couple times a day? The bump must be connected to the pains, or was it?

 

That evening, Nikki and Jim drove up to Roseville for Ecuadoran shrimp ceviche at Chicha’s. The meal was fantastic, but back in the car on their way home, she felt queasy. Her stomach tightened around the residue of her meal.


I can’t get sick, she warned herself, moving her fingertips gently through her hair. The bump was bigger, she was sure of it. Was it moving?


“Jim, stop! I need you to look at my head!”


“Can’t it wait till we get home, honey?”


“Get off the freeway, Jim. Now, please!”


He swerved onto the off ramp.


Nikki could feel her lips pucker and pull up to the right. Her left eye squinted nearly shut, and her head rolled forward.


“What are you doing?” Jim asked.


“The bump’s bigger. It feels like it’s moving, and I’m afraid it’s bleeding! There’s something wrong, Jim. I need you to pull over and look at it!”


Jim stopped the car and examined the back of Nikki’s head. “My God,” he whispered. “It’s the size of a quarter. Let’s go to the ER and see what they say.”


She sat silently, willing Jim to drive faster. Benign tumors tend to stay in one place, she thought, but malignant tumors can spread.

 

In the ER, the on-call doctor ordered an ultrasound of her head. “Ultrasound imaging can help determine the composition of a lump, distinguishing between a cyst and a tumor,” he explained.


The scan took fifteen minutes, and after examining the images the doctor acknowledged, “We don’t really know what it is, Mrs. Stowe. It could be a parasite, but I’d like you to come back tomorrow to see a surgeon. Dr. Stone will be on duty.”


As they drove home, Nikki laughed hysterically. “Oh, God, Jim, this reminds me of that short story—who’s it by?— where the earwigs crawl into the man’s ear and lay eggs in his brain!”


“Let’s call your sister and get her and Chuck to come over,” Jim said. “Take your mind off things.”

 

Janet and Chuck arrived bearing a caramel flan, but Nikki was too upset to eat.


“Why are mosquitos like relatives?” Janet asked, trying to lighten the mood.


Nikki stared at her, shaking her head. How could her sister think this was funny?


Janet grinned. “They both share your blood!”


Nikki rolled her eyes. But the distraction of Janet and Chuck’s visit did help.

 

That night, Nikki dreamed she was a kid again. She and Janet were outside their house, watching the neighbors’ twins chase six-year-old Steven. He was pedaling fast on his tricycle, and the twins were yelling, “Cootie head, Cootie head, you’ll be happy when you’re dead!”


Tears streamed down Steven’s cheeks. The twins ran slowly, taunting him. He kept turning his swollen head to look at his tormenters. Suddenly he toppled over onto the grass strip near the street. Nikki ran to him, but she tripped over his trike and fell onto his huge head.


She woke up sweating. Had those kids really been so cruel? She flashed back on the night in the rainforest lodge when she’d awakened from another nightmare, her mosquito netting torn down from its frame and wound around her head, almost smothering her.


Whatever had become of little Steven? What if the bump on her head grew that big? Was it a tumor?


The next morning, Nikki felt as numb as the oak pedestal supporting the dining-room table. Her head felt the size of a watermelon, and the bump was more tender than ever.


Dr. Stone turned out to be young and very gentle. He spoke quietly as he parted her hair. “Let’s take a look at what you’ve got here.” He tapped the bump, looking back and forth between Nikki’s head and the cloudy black-and-white ultrasound images fastened onto the light box on the wall.


He checked the monitor on the data cart. “It says here you just got back from Ecuador. Is that right? Whereabouts?”


Jim answered for her. “She and her sister were at the beach, then in the rain forest for a week, and then for ten days they drove along the Sierra, back and forth from Quito.”


“I’ve never seen this myself, but my next-door neighbor is a large-animal veterinarian, works with ranchers in the Sierra foothills. We like to talk shop, and I think what you’ve got here is a botfly larvae.”


“A what?”


“Well, we rarely see them in humans in this country, just cattle and horses. The fly itself doesn’t do any harm. She lays her eggs on the outside of her own abdomen and then flies past as many mosquitoes as

she can, brushing her eggs off onto their proboscises. Complicated and clever.”


Nikki felt paralyzed, frozen to the examination table.”


“But they slept under netting,” Jim said. “And how could a mosquito get under her thick mop of hair?”


“I can’t say, but I can either remove the critter surgically—or we can use the ranchers’ method. They put a piece of lard over the larvae. The pork fat begins to suffocate it, and it crawls out to escape the lard.”


“I can’t do that!” Nikki wailed.


“Why not?”


“I’m a pescatarian. No meat, only fish!” She managed a weak smile. “Let’s go with the surgery.”

 

Nikki sat motionless while her hair was shaved in an oval around the bump.


Dr. Stone, now in surgical greens, shot two hypodermics full of Novocain around the edges.


Then Nikki lay face down, looking through a hole in the table like the one in her massage therapist’s treatment room. She imagined she could hear soothing music and tried to visualize pink quartz rocks in a circle for healing and harmony instead of the blue plastic container that was there in case the patient needed to upchuck.


“There. Got him!” exclaimed Dr. Stone. “He’s a beauty!”


After she was stitched up and sitting, Nikki asked if she could have a photograph of the bot fly larvae.


“Why?”


“I teach third grade. I always take souvenirs to my students from my summer adventures. This will be the best one ever.”

 

 

 BIO 

June Gillam writes poetry and fiction, including the Hillary Broome crime novels, inspired by her obsession with what makes ordinary people mad enough to kill. A native of the Central Valley, June lives cradled between California’s Coastal Range and the Sierra Nevada mountains.

 

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