How the Heartworms Came to Petit Trou

Kenneth Huggins

Kenneth Huggins

It was during the time that the Major's wife was pregnant that the heartworms came. They swept along the ocean waves just like the Caribs and the Spanish had long centuries past, and they washed across the islands of the sea. They didn't come to Petit Trou at first, At first they hit the outer islands and the cities like San Gabriel and Guadeloupe. But everyone in Petit Trou had heard stories.

First, the dogs would go. Th e worms would creep into their mouths or
noses while they slept. They'd travel down their arteries and curl up in the
chambers of the heart, and there they'd mate and make more worms that
curled up white and tiny in the ventricles and auricles and eat away the
vena cava. They'd slide into the lungs and fill them up like water filling up
a ship. And if the carcass of a dog were opened up, the worms would spill
out like a pile of tiny skeletons. Outside, the dog would wince and curl into
a ball as if it wanted to surround its heart and keep the pain from coming
in. The pain, however, was already in. And there was nothing anyone could
do. The dog would howl and squeal. He'd shake all over with convulsions.
Then he'd die.

Although the world had reached the age of science, no one understood
the heartworms—why they came or why they went beyond the dogs, which
they had never done before. Th ey got into the parakeets and myna birds.
Th ey got into the cats and donkeys and the cattle and the mules. Th ey got
into the howler monkeys. Th en they reached the people. And no one knew
a way to stop them.

In Petit Trou, the people heard of stories from the outside world, of
people dying in the streets, of children's bellies popping open from the
pressure of the worms. Whole families died and rotted in their homes. So
many died that people had to push them all together into giant holes. So
many died that people walked around and over them as if they were a stand
of trees that some big wind had flattened to the ground.

One traveler told of what he saw in Mirimire.
"All dead," he told them. "Everyone except a baby girl. I found her
crying in her hammock. Right beside her, on the floor, her mother lay
there dead. And then the baby shook, and then her eyes looked up, and
that was all."

He bowed his head.
"We're lucky," said the man.
"Shh," a woman said.
And she was right.

At first it seemed that Petit Trou was lucky. The heartworms stayed out
for a while, and people started saying that the harbor's narrow opening was
good for something after all. It kept the heartworms out. But not for long.
The first sign came when children found a howler monkey staggering down
an alley back of town. They said he staggered like a drunk and reached out
to them, like he needed friends to hold him up. His long prehensile tail
dragged useless on the ground. And then he grabbed he's heart and fell face
forward. Doctor Barleyman himself conducted the autopsy. But everybody
knew what he would find. The worms spilled out all over.

After that the people started burning clothes and bed sheets, throwing
out old food and anything that might be tainted. Th e doctor told them
"build the bonfires up and drive the humors out." But no one knew what
humors brought the worms. Th ey didn't understand at all. And then the
people started dying. Not everybody died, not every animal, but many did.
And that was all it took to break the town apart. Th e rich had houses in the
hills, right by the tennis club. Th e governor, the mayor, the prosecutor, and
the district engineer, the Colonel, even Doctor Barleyman, the Douglases
and all the officers with gold and silver epaulettes, they moved into the hills.

Mrs. Douglas said at first she wouldn't go.
"We can't just leave them here," she said. "It isn't fair."
But then the Major touched her big round belly.
"We've got to make the baby safe," he said.

So Major Douglas and his wife and all their friends moved out of town
and up into the hills where no one coughed and no one shivered. Everyone
played tennis, and their clothes were smooth and white. They shuffled decks
of cards and sipped cool drinks and barely heard the sounds of weeping
from the town below.

Nobody knew just why the heartworms didn't find the club or any of
the tennis players. Doctor Barleyman would say they'd left the darkness and
the tepid humors down below. But down below the people only shrugged
and shook their heads. "No heart," they said, "no heartworms." Then they
buried all their dead.

The plague took one of every four in Petit Trou, a better average than
in other towns. The village square became a burial ground. And underneath
the ancient banyan tree of Handy Juan Garay, where lights at Festival had
always hung, markers for graves went up:

Here lie the dead of Nivelle Street

Here lie the Baniwars; I alone remain

The marker all were wooden, and the words were painted on. There wasn't time for carving stones.

And then, as quickly as they'd come, the heartworms disappeared.
Nobody understood. But Petit Trou came back. And all the islands of the
sea came back. The earth began to turn upon its axis once again. But no
one who had stayed in town forgot the tennis players who bad moved into
the bills and stopped their ears up when the weeping came. And no one
from the tennis club moved back to town.

Th is story originally appeared in Red Cedar Review, Vol. 30 Iss. 1, 1993. For more information on this author at the time of this publication, and other online issues of this publication go to:

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