Scarlet Fever

Scarlet Fever
by Richard Jones

The family sailed from England when I was little. We departed from Southampton and crossed the Atlantic in a season of storms. After seven sleepless days of nausea we landed in New York harbor. My father carried me in his arms down the ship’s gangplank. For the next few months we lived a peripatetic existence out of suitcases, driving the DeSoto and staying with relatives. Then—still with no home—my father, the war pilot, left us in Portsmouth, Virginia, at his sister’s house and returned to duty in England. I fell ill with scarlet fever. The day I got sick, my mother suffered a vertigo attack. For days she could not lift her head from the downstairs sofa while I lay feverish in a second-floor room under the eaves. The doctor snapped his black bag shut; the health inspector posted a quarantine sign on the front door and no one was allowed in or out of the house. Fires inside me burned and raged. My sister and cousins whispered I’d be lost. A telegram was sent to London. An Episcopalian priest, I’m told, knelt by my bed and prayed. I cannot remember whose hand held the cold compress when my temperature spiked and the end loomed near. I still don’t know what hand gave me water, my aunt’s, my sister’s, or someone unknown to me, or what angel to thank for accompanying the child I was through the valley of death. And yet, after all these many years and a long and lucky life, whenever fever dreams wake me in the dark, I sometimes feel on my brow that cool, damp cloth—calming me, healing me—one of a thousand mysteries I give thanks for when I close my eyes at night.

 

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Richard Jones is an award-winning poet whose books include Apropos of Nothing (Copper Canyon Press, 2006) and The Correct Spelling & Exact Meaning (Copper Canyon Press, 2010). His poems are published in such popular anthologies as Billy Collins’s Poetry 180 and Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems, and he has been heard on National Public Radio. Currently, he is a Professor of English at DePaul University in Chicago.