I closed my eyes, felt myself falling past the point of sleep into a pit of silence, deeper and deeper. Then a tug, a yank— and I broke surface into a softer dark, flickering with stars. Above me a stranger’s head, dangling like a frightened moon. Faint murmurings, indistinct; some poor soul moaning. Oh, God, was that my voice?
Fred’s familiar face thrust into the picture. “I couldn’t wake you up!” he yelled. “You didn’t move, so I slapped you!”
Slowly my surroundings came into focus. Darkness, punctuated by camping lanterns. A desert night, cool on my cheeks, the rest of me sweltering in the sleeping bag. Nearby, a few men conferred urgently while the other bus passengers held a nervous distance. I tried but despite Fred’s help failed to sit up as the men approached, introducing themselves as physicians and pharmacists.
“You’re severely allergic to something,” one of the doctors said, “and require immediate treatment. The army base commander has offered to helicopter you to the hospital in Sharm el-Sheikh.”
“Helicopter?” I rasped. The very word pitched me back into free fall. I was terrified of flying on small aircraft; a helicopter ride might put me under for good.
“However,” a pharmacist interjected, “perhaps we can concoct an antidote to tide you over. Do you feel up for some gefilte fish and canned corn?”
Gefilte fish and corn: not exactly my daily fare, but nothing had ever sounded more delicious. Two cans from the stockpile in the bus were brought over and I scarfed them down, gaining strength with every forkful. Huffing, the doctors shook their heads, but the pharmacists cheered when I cautiously sat up. “You’ll be fine, but if you don’t nail the source of your allergic reaction, the next time might be worse,” he admonished, then joined the ascent.
Fred and I stayed behind with a few others who had elected not to climb. As the sky brightened, we reviewed my past fainting episodes. In the three years we’d been together, there’d been two: first while I was still a student in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop after sampling a classmate’s apple-walnut bread; then again when Fred was teaching at Oberlin College, at a faculty Halloween party featuring—what else?—candy apples. Suddenly my childhood discomforts made sense, why my mother’s Brown Betty had elicited the most delight whenever she replaced apples for peaches or plums or cherries (my favorite) plucked from our scraggly backyard tree. As I got older my intolerance for apples must have also grown, until even baked goods proved impossible to stomach. During that long, hot day on the desert bus, I’d been so anxious to keep the doctor away that I ate one apple after another—and in the end managed to summon a fleet of medical professionals.
There it was: clear evidence of what my body had been trying to warn me of all along. But like Old Testament Eve, I’d ignored the portents until they caught up with me here at the foot of Mount Sinai.