Imagination Could Make a Man of You

I got myself into a little bit of trouble with Mrs. 23thorns the other day. She objects, it would seem, to having well educated children. Apparently I am not allowed to teach them anymore.

All I had done was take the kids out for a walk in the countryside. My kids are far too soft and suburban, so I had taken them out to spend some time in the open air enjoying nature. It was less fun than I had anticipated, because I happened to choose a day when the country was being blasted by a severe heat wave. We had walked for less than a kilometre when I became aware of quite how soft and suburban my children are. Their muscles seem to have atrophied completely, and I turned around to find them re-enacting one of those lost-in-the-desert cartoons, so we had to turn back. This was not necessarily a bad thing, since our water all seemed to have evaporated, and the soles of our shoes were starting to melt and stick to the stones in our path.


That'll teach them to love the great outdoors!

That’ll teach them to love the great outdoors!

The day wasn’t a complete waste, though. We got fairly close to some zebras and wildebeest, and we walked right through the middle of a lowing, milling herd of feral-looking cows, which seemed to remind the children of how much they loved their father and how very, very close they wanted to be to him. Best of all, we got to cross a river on a hand-powered cable car.

It rocked! You strapped yourself in to a Heath-Robinson welded metal chair and then pulled yourself over what passes in South Africa for a raging river. It was all very Indiana Jones, and the kids were loving it, especially the part where they were sitting down and their father was doing all the work. And then something horrible happened. Something awful. The boy-child got splashed in the eye with some river water.


You know health and safety standards are not high when people are allowed to build public transport devices in their sheds.

You know health and safety standards are not high when people are allowed to build public transport devices in their sheds.

South Africa is not famous for it clean and sparkling waters. One of our most famous inland rivers is called the Vaal, which simply translates as “The Dull River”. But that doesn’t mean they are actively poisonous. The damage the boy suffered was not physical. It was psychological. And it wasn’t entirely his fault.

Someone, you see, might have spent the drive out into the countryside telling him about river blindness. Me. I spent the drive out into the countryside telling him about river blindness.

It’s a nasty little disease caused by parasitic worms. Victims are bitten by black flies that live along waterways in Central Africa. They inject tiny little parasitic worms into the bloodstream, from which they make their way up to the surface. Sometimes, they end up in people’s eyes. And blind them.

You know a disease is hardcore when people build statues in its honour.

You know a disease is hardcore when people build statues in its honour.

In retrospect, it was not necessarily all that smart to tell an eleven-year-old with an active imagination about river blindness. So why did I tell an eleven-year-old with an active imagination about river blindness? Well… He asked. I happened to mention river blindness in conversation, as one does, and he asked about it. We tend to answer our children’s questions as openly and honestly as we can. Unless they ask their father about sex, in which case he openly and honestly tells them to go and ask their mother. River blindness, though, I can handle. And in my defence, I had no way of knowing that within a few short hours, the boy would get hit in the eye with a river….

Things didn’t go well. The boy rubbed his eye. It went red. He rubbed it some more. It started to hurt. Ever keen to learn more about his world, he asked exactly how far away Central Africa was. Then he disappeared. We found him perched in front of the bathroom mirror, checking his eyeballs for tiny worms. Oops.

I should have known better. I myself spent much of my own childhood being stalked by lepers. It was a rather harrowing time. They lived, you see, in a sinkhole under my bedroom.

I found this picture in a documentary about leprosy. Promise.

I found this picture in a documentary about leprosy. Promise.

This was not some silly childhood fantasy. It was all perfectly rational. We grew up largely without television, but every now and then we would cross paths with one at a friend’s house. On one of these occasions, I watched a show which involved lepers. They were imprisoned in an underground dungeon, and spent their time shuffling around wrapped in filthy old bandages and groaning. From this I learned that lepers lived underground, beneath buildings. Which should have been fine. Our house didn’t have a basement. Except.

When I was very young, we had a huge old tree growing outside my parents’ room. It wasn’t quite a baobab, but it was certainly trying its best to be one. It had the same squat, swollen trunk and soft, pulpy wood. Eventually, it got too big, and started lifting the foundations of the house. My parents had it chopped down. Over the next year or so, the massive roots quickly rotted away, leaving a substantial sinkhole behind, right under the foundations of the house. And you know what lives in hollows under houses. Lepers. Lepers live in hollows under houses.

The tree is gone, but my parents kept this photo...

The tree is gone, but my parents kept this photo…

Coincidentally, at around the same time I decided that sleeping was a bad idea. Or maybe it wasn’t so coincidental. The tree-root sinkhole, you see, didn’t look very comfortable. It wasn’t far enough under the house to be entirely suitable for lepers. It stood to reason that they would hollow out a new spot in a more comfortable place. Under my bedroom. I became convinced that there was a colony of lepers living beneath my floor.

Many people will tell you that a good imagination is a gift, and should be encouraged in a child. This is damn nonsense. A good imagination is a curse. Everyone else I speak to remembers that moment of fear-fed adrenaline as you switched off the lights and levitated across the room to the safety of your bed without touching the floor, to avoid monsters.

Hah. They all had it easy. Lepers, you see, are not monsters. They are sick people (albeit sick people who spend their time shuffling toward you with their arms outstretched, groaning, as their filthy bandages unwound from their ravaged flesh). Do you know what sick people get? Doctors. Doctors who do experiments on them.

I might have had one or two bad experiences with the medical profession.

I might have had one or two bad experiences with the medical profession.

It was pretty clear to me as a child that there was a doctor experimenting on lepers beneath my bedroom. I was smart enough to understand that this was a little unusual. I was also smart enough to understand that experimenting on lepers would get a little dull after a while, particularly when you had a perfectly healthy boy sleeping just a foot or two above you.

It was obvious to me that, sooner or later, the doctor would install an access panel beneath my bed to get his hands on some healthy young flesh. But that wouldn’t let him get at me without alerting me to his presence. Did that mean I was safe? It did not. Do you know what doctors have? Syringes. With needles. My doctor had a syringe with a very long needle indeed. A needle long enough to be pushed up through my mattress from below…

This wasn't made to get through a layer of skin. Just saying.

This wasn’t made to get through a layer of skin. Just saying.

I am fairly sure that any problems I have as an adult can be traced back to the fact that, as a child, I didn’t sleep for four years.

And now I had set my son off on his own path. A path he wouldn’t be able to see because of the worms that were growing in his eyes… I felt awful.

I am glad to report that I am off the hook. He doesn’t give a damn about river blindness any more. Mrs. 23thorns stepped in and saved the day.

She rocks! Except when her fashion choices get us thrown out of restaurants!

She rocks! Except when her fashion choices get us thrown out of restaurants!

She’s been letting him watch a local news show every week. The school recommended it so they could learn about current events. Occasionally, there will be something sexual or violent on it, but they warn you in advance. They do not, however, warn you in advance when they are going to do stories about the flesh-eating superbugs that are invading our hospitals. According to the boy, they invade your body while you are under anaesthetic.

He learned about the superbugs on Sunday. On Monday, a friend launched himself off a jumping castle and onto the younger 23thorns’ family jewels. On Tuesday, I took him off to the doctor, who sent us off to the hospital for a sonar, just to be on the safe side.

He seemed to be a little concerned. He kept asking if they would be putting him under anaesthetic…

A still from "Let's go to the Doctor with Barney the Purple Dinosaur"

A still from “Let’s go to the Doctor with Barney the Purple Dinosaur”

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25 thoughts on “Imagination Could Make a Man of You

  1. Linne says:

    I read Edgar Allan Poe in my early teens, speaking of scary stuff. Shortly after that, I was a black and white film about a man-eating tiger in India, where the tiger was never shown. The mother made her daughter leave the hut at night to fetch water. The door closed behind her . . . then there was a snarl and a thump as the door shook . . . scarier than any image. And another black and white film where an old lady lived with her cat in a huge ancient mansion. A couple of men killed her, but I don’t remember why. Part of the film was shown as if seen through the cat’s eyes, including some rooftop sequences where the cat lured one of the men to his death. The cat eventually was responsible for the death of all of them . . .
    But the worst, I think, was a book. My sons’ dad was an artist and when we were expecting our first child, he asked my doctor if she had any books with photos or illustrations of a child in the womb. She loaned him several, including one that was about all the things that can go wrong with a baby’s development. With photos. And in some cases there was only one occurrence on record. Still, I had a hard time for the last few months . . .

    You wouldn’t think this would be a funny topic, really, but you make it so . . . Can’t remember when I’ve laughed so hard . . . oh, yes, it was reading about your 6-week plan and the trip to the gym . . .

    Thank you SO much! And I honestly think that if you put all your posts together in order and had them printed, you’d have a best-selling book on your hands. You’d have to quit the bookstore, of course, and you and Mrs. 23 would have to adapt to the jet-set lifestyle of interviews late at night on tv shows, book-signings, etc. And I would have to find my way to South Africa in order to have my copies signed in person, as I can’t imagine you coming to Edmonton in the winter . . . Do put a book together, won’t you?

  2. Sula says:

    Tears of laughter as usual. Slightly off topic, but being a bookseller can you tell me where I can find a book of Heath Robinson artwork?

    • 23thorns says:

      Don’t worry, slightly off topics are my favourite. I checked up, and most of the Heath Robinsons are still in print. You are unlikely to find one lying around in a bookshop, but if you browse around on the internet and find one you like, you can order it. From me. I need the money.

  3. […] If you’re not familiar with 23thorns, please take a few minutes to go check out his most recent post. I’ll […]

  4. brymnsons says:

    Ah yes the imagination is a terrifying tool in the hands of a young child. I can recall being very afraid to go to the toilet at night because the monsters with big teeth would eat me… or the cockroaches (which were real btw) would carry me away with them. Living up in the Northern part of Western Australia the bugs were always big, always present no matter how much you cleaned and fed young imaginations well… Thanks for the read, enjoyed the reminiscing it brought on too.

  5. It’s so nice to be able to read another of your views on life – especially the Lepers under the bed thing! Lol
    Unfortunately, in my early teens I was introduced to Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books (which I still own nearly 40 years later!), and so I terrified myself with the same kind of imagination that you have 🙂
    I’m afraid I still don’t like letting my feet dangle beside the bed – just in case something – probably slimy and covered with bandages – grabs them (knowing, of course, that the only thing that might do so, would be our cat!) Lol

    Welcome back – and don’t leave it so long next time, hey? 🙂

  6. A.J. Goode says:

    It’s so nice to be able to read something from you again! I’ve missed your posts.

    I was never afraid of doctors hiding under the bed with syringes, but I was pretty sure there was a ghost living on my basement stairs. I don’t remember why I was so sure she lived there, or what I thought she was going to do to me, but I refused to go into the basement for years. Every time the tornado sirens went off, I told my mom I’d rather face a tornado than the ghost on the fourth step.

  7. narf77 says:

    We went to the same life classes apparently Mr 23Thorns. My class specialty was vampires. I read one of my dads horror novels as an 8 year old and most probably shouldn’t have. I am blessed with an overly “good” imagination and I was 17 before I could sleep without the light on (coincidentally around about the same time I started cohabiting and had someone between myself and the door/edge of the bed that the vampires would tackle first…love is ruthless). Good on you Mrs 23Thorns. Aversion therapy, you clever girl :). Glad to see you are all still alive and that you are having heat waves like our own heat waves here in Tasmania. We are supposed to be wet around about now but it seems we jumped straight from winter to summer. Go figure. Don’t tell Mr Jr.23 about brain worms. Just sayin’.

    • 23thorns says:

      We lived in a big old house with wooden floor boards, sash windows, and a corrugated iron roof. There was a huge, gnarled, twisted old peppertree outside my room. When the wind blew, the windows would rattle, the boards would creak, the branches would scratch the roof, and the moonlight would throw clawed peppertree shadows on the curtains.
      It was all a little unnerving.
      Then I found my dad’s copy of Pet Sematary…

      • narf77 says:

        Yeah, I read that one too. What is it with dad’s and leaving their copies of horror novels around? Methinks they ticked off “life lessons” from their “dad’s responsibilities” tick sheet once they realised that we couldn’t set foot outside after dark. There job was done, it certainly wouldn’t be us roaming the streets at night…

  8. Eileen says:

    Love the part about flying into be without touching the floor….been there done that……still don’t like to let any appendages hang over the edge of the bed! 🙂
    Great to have you back and as funny and real as ever.

    • 23thorns says:

      Growing up I was told about the girl who went to sleep with an arm hanging out the bed who was bitten by a snake and died. I know now that it was nonsense, but still keep all my parts neatly tucked away…

  9. KokkieH says:

    23thorns is alive! I was starting to wonder 😉

    I’m with you on that syringe. What on Earth is that thing supposed to reach?

  10. avwalters says:

    I, too, was afflicted with an active imagination. (I read a ‘science’ comic book that taught about radiation and mutations. I tried to convince my mom that aluminum foil outer garments would be a good idea. She wouldn’t go for it.) Never had kids, so I cannot advise whether you’ll be a help or a hindrance in that.

    • 23thorns says:

      I obviously read a very different set of comic books about radiation and mutations. They rocked! I spent hours trying to make the microwave work with the door open so I could develop xray vision and fight crime in spandex…

  11. Holy Cow! You are a RIOT!

  12. jenna says:

    And then he’ll get online, where there is a wealth of diseases, threats and horrors. alone can ruin your life.

  13. ksbeth says:

    thank god for television. they can ramp up a fear factor like no one else, (even us), and in record time. and thank god that i was invisible when wearing sunglasses as a child. the monsters could not chase me.

    • 23thorns says:

      It’s important to learn survival skills like the sunglasses trick. I myself learned to sleep at the very edge of the mattress so that when the doctor pushed his needle through it would hit fresh air.

  14. Haha, a very enjoyable read. Worms, lepers syringes and flesh eating superbugs. Love it! I’m pretty sure your son will be OK under guidance of you and the mrs. 😉

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