The Boy In The Hammock
By Julie Galosy
I had gone to the Amazon only to meet with a witch doctor to accompany him on his herb-finding soirees into the rain forest. It turned out that destiny had a very different mission for me.
My guide and I had just attended a ferocious football game with teams representing different tiny Amazon islands when he suggested we visit a local house. Getting into the homes of locals has been a life- long interest of mine and I have reciprocated whenever a stranger asks to enter my own. Lucho bolted across a meadow and entered the house via a log which had hatch marks chopped into it to use as steps. He shimmied up the log. I found myself following behind with bum in the air on all fours, entering very unceremoniously.
The couple who owned the house greeted Lucho warmly and gave me a big hug as well. We entered a real house instead of the huts I had been visiting along the trip. There were actual walls both inside and out. There was an actual kitchen. Who knows, maybe there was a real bathroom, oh, guess not, no water.
We sat, not in a hammock, but on a bamboo sofa. We were clearly in the Amazonian version of elegance. The hosts treated us to coffee made fresh from the pot on the open fireplace stove. We discussed the football game and life on the island.
Along the edge of the front room there was a hammock suspended about three feet or so above the floor. Inside this hammock was a little boy, perhaps three or four years old. He was writhing and twisting as the hammock swung gently in the breeze. He was foaming at the mouth and his tongue would periodically fall out of his mouth and flop. His eyes were rolling back in his head. He made grunting sounds.
I tried to avert my eyes from the boy. His parents made no sign that he existed and I took this as a cue that polite people should ignore him. Lucho didn’t seem to notice him and I wondered how he could be so disciplined as not to look at him at all. I couldn’t help myself: I stole glances.
After some pleasantries we moved on, walking past the boy in the hammock. Lucho tight- rope-walked his way down the log and I spun around and exited going backwards as a monkey might.
“I know what you are going to say,” he said.
“He has been that way since he was a baby. They keep him in the hammock to protect him from falling.”
“But his muscles?”
“No he will be fine. They walk him together many times a day.”
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘fine.’ There are drugs for epilepsy” I said.
“It is not our business,” he said. “They love their son and are doing the best they can for him. Do you see any hospitals here?” he gestured to the jungle.
“Well, no but. . .”
“You know the answer. There is nothing to be done.”
For me it was a blessing that I was leaving the next day to fly to Cuzco to see Manchu Picchu. I spent the night re-visiting the vision of the boy in the hammock. How could parents raise their child in a hammock with no exercise, sunlight, games, fun? I was horrified that the options were so limited.
Still haunted by the boy, I took myself out to a restaurant in the heart of Cuzco, preparing to enjoy a pleasant and peaceful meal. The restaurant was lovely, very reminiscent of something in Germany or Eastern Europe: lots of wood beams and shuttered windows. A typical mountain motif. The tables were arranged around a center fireplace and although chilly, everything was toasty inside. I started to relax and enjoy the solitude.
The restaurant was full and in the middle was a large table with about sixteen seats. There was a convivial party occupying this table, all men and all speaking English. I hadn’t heard any English at all on the whole trip, with the exception of the guide, so it was nice to eavesdrop in my native language. They were in animated conversation and I soon realized that they were doctors. Words like “Cerebellum” and “Cerebral Cortex” were being bandied about--Neurologists. I eavesdropped some more and learned that they were attending a convention of some kind in Cuzco and were researchers from around the world. English was the common language. They had finished their meal and were enjoying several after-dinner drinks.
I suddenly realized why this entire trip was happening: I was the messenger. Without a moment’s hesitation I approached their table.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” I began. “Please excuse me for disturbing you, but I couldn’t help but overhear your conversations about the brain and I wonder if you are neurologists?”
Of course, they seemed a bit wary of me but one of them was game. “We are,” he said.
“I thought so.” I responded. Not really knowing how to continue, I just plunged forward.
“I wonder if you would give me a few minutes to describe something I have just seen, a tragedy really, in which you might play a part.” I hoped that by being a bit intriguing they might stay with me.
“Please sit down,” one of them said, pulling over a chair.
I introduced myself and they did the same with complicated names from around the planet and I barely listened knowing that there were too many for me to remember and trusting in the gods to help me deliver the message for the boy.
“This is a very strange story but it is true and please bear with me,” I began. I noted most of them settled back in their seats. Some motioned the waiter for more liqueurs. Others lit cigarettes or cigars. Spurred on by these behaviors, I began. I explained about the islands of the Amazon and how small groups of families congregated on these islands. The Brazilian and Peruvians doctors verified this, even adding some public health information about these isolated communities for their colleagues.
I continued that my concern was for a young boy. I described my encounter with the boy in the hammock. I told of his eyes rolling and his tongue and his foaming. I told of his writhing in the hammock and of his parents’ obvious concern that he might hurt himself and deep love for him.
As the tale unfolded the doctors became animated. They started asking me questions: Which way did his eyes roll, left or right? Did his tongue always come out in one direction or the other? They fired questions at me from all angles. Unfortunately I had no responses. I told them that I was trying to be polite and not to stare at the poor child and so I only caught glimpses of his actions.
At this point one doctor apologized to me as they were going to discuss this together now. They turned inward to their table and went into overdrive discussing all of the aspects of the case. At certain junctures it was clear they needed more information and asked me about his breathing, the quality of his skin, his nails, and whether he had any other ailments. I answered as best I could but as a messenger I was pretty limited.
I was so impressed with the seriousness with which they took this information. All of them were engaged in the discussion of the boy in the hammock. Their professionalism shone through and their concern was touching. After about fifteen minutes of talking while I waited patiently, and some Spanish discussions, they reached a conclusion.
“Here is what we are going to do,” one of them said. “We are going to go and get him.”
Tears came to my eyes immediately. “Can you do that?” I asked.
“We are doctors, we can do anything.” All of his colleagues broke out into gales of laughter. “Tell us where he is.”
“I don’t actually know where he is but I had a guide and the guide has a fax machine (This was before the internet). I am sure Lucho will help you to find him.”
Fax numbers were exchanged and they assured me they would take care of him. We all shook hands and I again apologized for disturbing their evening. Our discussion concluded they rose to move on as a herd to the next place. All of them hugged me as they left.
The waiter brought a small black book with the check inside. Across the check there was one word “Pagado.” The doctors had paid my bill.
When I got back to the States I sent a fax to Lucho explaining what had happened and urging him to cooperate if one of the doctors contacted him. He faxed back to me and told me the doctors had already contacted him. They had taken the boy in the hammock to the hospital by helicopter. They had tested him and found that he did not have epilepsy or any other life-threatening disease. He had a vitamin deficiency which was easily and quickly corrected.
The boy in the hammock would lead a normal life playing with his friends, competing in football and being the apple of his parents’ eyes. He could thank fate for sending a young woman from New York City to carry his message from the Amazon to Cuzco. And I could thank the doctors for being so wonderful with such a strange request. It is these little magic moments in life that come to us so unexpectedly that make everything so very special.