The first time I watched the movie Labyrinth with David Bowie, I recognized those ugly little things disguised as Muppets. They had plagued me during my most dire illness.
I was in high school when I came down with strep throat. I’d never been so sick in my life. For an entire week, I went to school with a sore throat and low grade fever because I hated to miss school. Instead of shaking it off, which I might have done had I stayed home a few days to rest, I became too ill to go anywhere but to a doctor. I lost a week of school and a noticeable amount of weight. During the worst of my ailment, I suffered hallucinations.
It was winter and our house didn’t have central heat. My bedroom being the coldest, I was allowed to sleep on the living room couch, near the fireplace. Only I couldn’t sleep. Every time I dozed off, goblins would fly out from behind the couch, fill the room, and squawk loud enough to wake the dead. I didn’t know how anyone else in the family could sleep. I was too sick to be frightened by them, too sick even to wonder at their existence. (The goblins didn’t bring David Bowie with them, but even if they had, I was too sick to care.)
Finally, I got up and went to my parents’ room to tell them I couldn’t sleep because, “Those things in there are making too much noise.” What things? I got no sympathy. The goblins’ racket apparently hadn’t disturbed their slumber, but I had. I was told to go back to bed. They didn’t even get up and shine a flashlight behind the couch to show me nothing was there. Maybe they thought I was old enough to figure it out for myself.
During the day, with sunlight to chase the goblins away, I was finally able to rest. Lying in the living room in my feverish malaise, I heard my little sisters whispering. An elderly friend of ours had recently died. My sisters thought I was asleep and couldn’t hear them. One of them (You know who you are!) said, “Is she going to die like Mrs. Brant?” I actually was miserable enough to die, but since I was more amused than offended by what they said, I didn’t wish for the Goblin King to carry them away.
The medication kicked in. The congestion in my throat began to break up and I started to cough up phlegm. With it came copious amounts of blood, too much for a few tissues to handle. I ended up in the bathroom. Too sick to stand at the sink, I sat on the floor by the tub, hacking and spitting. With all that blood, I thought I really was dying, but my parents didn’t act very concerned. As I hung over the bathtub, coughing up my guts, I saw something I’d never noticed before.
Our house was old and the bathtub probably older still. Our well water contained so much iron it stained everything. The tub, originally white, was almost entirely orange. Many months of diligent scrubbing had reduced the stain somewhat, and as I stared at it for what seemed hours, I saw that beneath the stains were pictures— black ink drawings of cowboys, as though someone had painted them on the bottom of the tub before the artwork was covered by iron deposits. I marveled how those pictures had survived years of staining and scrubbing. I wondered why no one had noticed them before.
When my throat took a breather from shedding bloody phlegm, I told my mother about the pictures. She must have thought I was crazy. As my fever receded, so did the drawings on the bottom of the tub. What had been so distinct was no longer apparent. After my recovery, I searched the floor of the bathtub for anything, even a rust stain, that could be mistaken for a cowboy, but I found nothing.
Fortunately I didn’t develop schizophrenia or any other delusional condition and haven’t hallucinated since. From time to time, like everyone, I see things that turn out to be something else at second glance, such as a stick mistaken as a snake. But I tell you, at the time, those goblins and cowboys were as real to my vision as the words on this page.