Though I was only ten years old I had a mild crush on Monica, and fantasized running my fingers through her lusciously long, auburn hair, which highlighted the sheen of her pretty face, faintly freckled. She, however, preferred George, which I accepted with the resignation of a younger brother. She came to mind as I pried a tick from my armpit after a stroll in the woods around our property in upstate New York . I rarely think of her, except when I find a tick on me.
She was the eldest daughter of my father’s business partner at the time. They were both Swiss watchmakers and owned a jewelry store together – the Tivoli Jewelers of Zululand. When we first arrived in colonial Empangeni, we visited them on occasion. He had recently purchased a large farm and loved to talk about his grand plans. Farming, for many white South Africans , was a lucrative hobby. My father was one of the few male members of the country club who did not have a couple of hundred or even thousand acres tucked away in the hinterland to which we could retreat on weekends. But, then again, we were different from the others in so many ways – we were vegetarian, my parent’s didn’t drink, and our table wasn’t set in the English way. Monica’s father, who’d given up the ways of the old world, had started a large gum plantation which he hoped would ensure a comfortable retirement. He was a crafty business man (as my dad would later find out when the partnership dissolved acrimoniously three years later) and was bound to succeed. At that time, however, we were the best of friends and he invited us all out to his farm.
I was excited. It mattered little that Monica gravitated toward my older brother; I liked her younger sister too, though she lacked the long, rich, flaming hair. Initially, George and I felt awkward as we sat together with the two of them on the covered, wraparound stoep, drinking cold coke. We were relieved when Monica suggested she show us around the farm. We ambled through the large rambling garden and between tall Eucalyptus trees, which gave off ample shade. The freshly mowed lawn smelled good. “Let’s get away from their roaming eyes,” Monica said, as she flicked her head in the direction of our parents who were having tea out on the stone patio. We climbed over an old, rusty fence, and waded through a swath of dry, tall veld. By the time we reached the endless rows of fledgling gum trees, down the hill from the oasis of green lawn and shady trees, we felt at ease with one another, our awkwardness scattered.
And that’s where we stayed for the rest of the afternoon, running around, playing catch, and falling into the dark, red earth, landing purposefully on top of one another. The two girls had always seemed so prim and proper, but out here they became wild, daring country girls. After we’d exhausted our increasingly bold game of catch we huddled together on the ground, panting contentedly and peering up at the sky. We told each other wild tales, confessed secrets and let our warm bodies touch each other. Well, mostly I listened to George and Monica banter away, but I laughed a lot, and the younger sister stuffed grass down my shirt after which she leaned her head against my shoulder. Evening came all too soon and we drove back home in high spirits. I felt fulfilled and curiously agitated.
“You’d better have a bath,” my mother said. “You look filthy.” I agreed, put on the bath water, undressed and got in. The water was too hot and I stood for a few moments while I waited for the running cold water to even the temperature. To this day it’s a mystery that I didn’t recognize or feel anything immediately. Only when I lay down and washed away the layers of red dirt off my skin did I notice my condition. My whole torso, legs and feet were covered in black spots that refused to be washed off. At first I was puzzled, but then I realized the cause of my affliction – ticks! I’d often found a tick or two on me – but this! The last time my body looked anything remotely like now was when I’d suffered from German measles. I jumped up, peered into the big bathroom mirror and got the full impact of my condition. My entire body was covered from the neck down: the black plague was everywhere. I slumped to my knees in the sullied, hot water, utterly dismayed. Painstakingly I picked out tick for tick, making sure I had the whole beast fully extracted – head and all. As yet, they weren’t bloated with blood and were still very small. Many were fixed firmly in the most difficult and delicate places. I was embarrassed in spite of myself. I didn’t want my parents to find out about this tick attack – least of all George, lest he make some snide remark. By the time I was done, the water was cold. I hurt all over and felt like a living pincushion. Over the next few days I still discovered a wayward tick or two.
I never told anyone about that ordeal. In retrospect I wonder about the others: surely George must also have returned tick ridden. And what about the girls?
Two years later we moved away from Empangeni, and just months after our arrival in Johannesburg we heard the terrible news – Monica had died on a school outing! She’d stepped out from behind the school bus and was hit by a passing car – killed instantly. It was the first time someone my own age had died – someone I’d known well, someone I’d admired, had a crush on. I remembered her so clearly, laughing and running around the gum plantation, free and unencumbered, her bronze hair flying in the wind. And coupled with that insouciant image I remember the tick invasion. Strange how memories are linked: death, ticks and a girl from my childhood who liked my brother.
Eric G. Müller is a musician, teacher and writer. He has written two novels, Rites of Rock (Adonis Press 2005) and Meet Me at the Met (Plain View Press, 2010), as well as a collection of poetry, Coffee on the Piano for You (Adonis Press, 2008). Articles, short stories and poetry have appeared in various journals and magazines.