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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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’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…