The hands wake me up at night, clutching my ankles, my calves. I kick them away but they always come back. I feel them running over my blankets searching for a handhold, a clump of flesh to grasp. I wake up before they reach my throat but I know one night soon I’ll sleep too long or too deeply. One night soon, it will be too late.
This is my fourth night on the volcano, near La Fortuna, in Costa Rica. Sometimes it is hot and buggy, like New Orleans in August, and sometimes it is cold and wet, and everything — everything — carries the peculiar smell of bug repellent laced with lemon. Better to stink though, than take a chance with the white-leggy mosquitoes carrying dengue fever.
The hands are beige and chestnut, ivory and purple-black, cream and gold and russet. They seem familiar to me. Known. Some people have a strong sense of pain in ancestral places. I am a person like that. A person who had to be physically removed from the Roman baths in the bowels of Musée de Cluny, because of the ancient cries. A person who cannot visit old cotton plantations, with slave quarters dressed up as historical sites, in the bowels of Alabama without falling to pieces.
Something bad has happened here, on the side of this living, fire-breathing mountain.
Maura, my housemate, opens the shutters as quietly as she can. The birds — parrots and toucans and strange, wildly colored things that seem to have flown in from some other planet — screech endlessly. I watch them sometimes, fighting over berries and rotten plantains. Their cruelty surprises me. Hypnotizes me.
“We should go,” she murmurs, and I want to answer. I want to get up from this hard bed and slather myself in DEET and hike out of here, but the hands are still holding me down.
Yesterday, we took the sky tram to the rainforest canopy. Maura dragged me through 20 minutes of ziplining instruction, only to freak out at the last minute and refuse to go.
“You talked ME into it,” I groused. The guide double-checked my harness, took my phone out of my hands and zipped it into my pocket. I nodded, he pushed, and Maura disappeared behind me. I saw nothing but green and blue and white, trees and lake and clouds. The creatures went quiet, or maybe the wind was too loud in my ears, hiding them. The hands — the hands pressed hard against mine, helping me hold on. I watched them with a detached curiosity. In the sunlight, they seemed like my friends.
After the zipline, we spent the day on the hanging bridges, searching for sloths and other oddities. Maura scampered over the treetops, now inexplicably unafraid. I had more faith in the harnesses than in the rope bridges; I walk carefully, on tiptoe, as if stepping lightly will keep the ropes from fraying.
I call home when we leave the rainforest; my father is old and frail, and he waits for my call every day. I tell him funny stories about the sloths I didn’t see and the happy, chirping birds. He laughs and that’s all that matters.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” he always asks.
“Everything is fine,” I say. The lie sits on top of my blankets, like the hands.
I watch Maura now, from my bed. The sun slants through the shutters, giving her a temporary bronze glow. She brings me coffee; her golden hands press the cup into mine. I drink it black because the sugar is slave-grown, the milk is sour, and the bug spray is all over my fingers.
Something bad has happened to me here, on the side of this mountain, and the only thing I know for sure is that I have to get away.