I roll up in bed and lean over the side, feet on the floor. There’s a steamboat in my head. That’s right, a rattling, howling dragon of a steamboat. It’s one of those big, side-wheeled monsters that prowled the Mississippi in the 1800’s. The giant paddle-wheels churn muddy, greasy river water. The decks creak, wood and metal bound together by rusting bolts grind with every push upriver. The smokestacks jut upward, towering above the hurricane deck, sporting those lace adornments where metal is made to look delicate but feels sharp and abrasive, especially where they jab into my skull. They belch black smoke into my cranium. The smoke is in my skin, which is sweaty and hot. Dots of pain pollute my attempt to gain some perspective. I hold my temples, but I can’t diminish the heat of the boilers. Sweaty, filth-encrusted men shovel coal into the bellies of these twin giant behemoths. The pressure guages brush the red zone. Heat radiates off them in palpable, feverish waves. Stop it, stop it, stop it. We’re only dreaming. I try to cool them off. I try to ease back on the throttle and reduce the mad, upriver charge that has me hacking and wheezing in the dead of night. I try and distract myself. This is the Mississippi, after all. It’s a beautiful river, expecially now, in 1886. I look to the riverbank. The trees are barren and gray. Gaunt figures stride among the dead groves, gazing at my boat with yellowjack eyes and bared pale teeth. One side to the next and then back, rolling from side to side, just as one shifts while reading a book. A book. It was that book that did this to me. I push myself unsteadily to my feet to find water. My mouth is dry with caked-on river mud. I weave through the darkness into the bathroom. I hesitate to turn on the light, because the way my head feels, I’m certain I’ll see the bulges and the bony ridges and the necrotic stains. But I hit the switch anyway. No, my face is there. Normal as always, perhaps a bit pale and gaunt, but exhibiting none of the outward signs of the river-bound nightmare that’s going on inside my head. I switch off the light and pace the living room, cooling off and breathing deep. I settle on the couch in the semi-darkness, and it’s hours later, when the sounds and images of the River begin to die away, that I’m able to get some sleep.
This is what a virus-induced fever is for me. I’m on the mend, taking antibiotics, but last night is rough. I happen to be doing research on Mississippi riverboats for a script I’m working on, and the last thing I’m looking at before switching off the light is a splendid picture book of Natchez during the heydey of the Riverboat Era.
Incidentally, the image above is a rendition of the Sultana. On April 27, 1865, The Sultana, having just picked up an absurd number of passengers (most of them Union soliders heading home after the Civil War) blew up. The boat burned to the water. Some 1500 people died in the disaster. Read more about it here.