'You’ve Got Ringworm'

(In June 2003, journalists Mark Frauenfelder and Carla Sinclair uprooted themselves from Los Angeles and moved to the South Pacific. Their first stop is Rarotonga. They brought their two young daughters with them.)

In the morning I take 4-month-old Jane for a walk. She falls asleep, and I leave her stroller outside the door of the little Seventh-day Adventist grocer’s while I go inside for a newspaper. I notice Tia, our landlady, standing near a little table at the front of the store, looking through a stack of envelopes. (The market doubles as the village’s mail depot.) We chat for a bit, and then I show her a recently developed sore on my leg. It started off as a crusty, oozing scab, but is now a quarter-size patch, angry red, surrounded by a darker ring. I ask her if she’s ever seen anything like it.

She studies it with a flat expression for several seconds, then says, “What is it?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “I thought maybe this was something that happens a lot to people here.”

Tia looks at the sore again, then turns back to the table to flip through the envelopes. “No,” she says.

Something outside the market catches my eye. I turn to see three skinny, feral dogs sniffing at Jane’s feet. I run over, flapping my hands at them. They skitter away, eyeing me with a mixture of fear and longing. One of the dogs limps. Though they’re wild, the dogs on the island retain vestiges of domesticity. A part of them wants to hook up with humans, while another wants to run with the pack.

Later that day, as Carla, Sarina and I sit down at our dinner table to eat fresh grilled tuna steaks, papaya with coconut cream, and steamed rice, there’s a knock on our door. It startles us — no one ever knocks here, besides Jehovah’s Witnesses hoping to unload a copy of The Watchtower.

Through the door’s bumpy textured window, I make out the shape of a stout brown-skinned woman wearing gigantic glasses. I fork a big chunk of garlicky tuna in my mouth and chew it quickly, then get up to answer the door. Tia is holding a clear plastic bag with something that looks like green tentacles in it.

“Hi,” she says in her loud, clipped Rarotonga–New Zealand accent. Her smile reveals big strong teeth. “I brought you some aloe vera for your leg.” She says it like she’s asking a question.

Inside our house, Tia picks up a sharp knife sitting on our kitchen counter, and pulls a plump aloe vera tendril from the bag. She sits in a chair next to the dining table with her broad thighs spread apart and her bare feet planted on the tile floor. I sit in a chair facing her. Before she cuts into the plant, I point out that the knife has tuna bits on it. She picks up one of our napkins, wipes off the knife, then deftly slices and skins a chunk of aloe vera.

“Put this on your leg,” she says, handing me the glistening green slice. I do, and it feels cool and soothing.

The next day, the sore is no better. In fact, it’s become larger, moving right past a freckle on my leg that I’d been using as a marker to measure its rate of growth.

I drive to the pharmacy. The pharmacist barely needs to glance at it. “Ah.” She walks to a shelf and pulls down a tube of cream. “You’ve got ringworm. It’s a fungus, not a parasite. You’ll need to apply this for seven weeks after it goes away, even though the instructions say to apply it for two. The strain here is more resistant to antifungal medicines than it is in other places.”

I immediately apply the cream to the fungus, and then think about Tia. She said she’d come and check on the sore in a few days. Although the pharmacist said I wouldn’t need the aloe vera plant, it wouldn’t hurt to use it along with the cream.


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