Don't Watch the Super Bowl

Many NFL players won’t be able to recognize their grandchildren because of brain damage. Does that sound like wholesome entertainment?

Sports by
Web Exclusives •  1,133 words 

This morning, at breakfast, I met with a woman who graduated from a large southern US university with an NCAA Division I football team. Jane, as I will call her, was not an athlete. But like many students, she participated in what may be called America’s trickle-down campus football economy: Her job was to attend the classes that football players skipped, take notes, and then file them with the athletic department. She also led special seminars for the football players, to try to bring them up to speed on course material. It was difficult, she told me, because many of these students had been recruited solely for their athletic prowess, and exhibited a “low level of education.”

Her rewards as a professional note-taker weren’t just financial (she describes note-taking as one of the best paid student jobs on campus). She also was permitted to bask indirectly in the glow of the football team’s cult-like status. She sometimes travelled with the players, got free tickets to their games, and decked herself out in free paraphernalia.

One of her clearest memories of that period surrounded a pizza lunch she attended for the football team’s hangers-on. The star guests that day were the “southern belles,” a corps of attractive young women who would accompany football recruiters on visits with star high-school prospects. Jane realized that it wasn’t just a scholarship and a chance to play football that these recruiters were selling to kids. It was the whole alpha-male package.

Despite everything we know about the brain damage suffered by football players, many of my friends defend their decision to watch it on the basis that players take on the risks knowingly, and earn a lot of cash. In his recently published book, The Game’s Not Over: In Defense of Football, author Gregg Easterbrook summarizes the most commonly recited apologist tropes thusly: “Yes, keep watching the NFL. The games are fabulous; the players know the risks and are well compensated. I watch the NFL on television avidly, and attend many games with enthusiasm. I never feel the slightest compunction. You shouldn’t either.”

But even putting aside the fact that only an infinitesimal fraction of the players who bash their heads against one another in high school and college will ever earn a living from the game, Easterbrook relies on a conception of free will that is cynical and formalistic. Football players are recruited into the upper echelons of the sport when they are teenagers, bursting with hormones, athletic aggression, and the adolescent delusion of immortality. As University of Cambridge neuroscience professor Joe Herbert notes, many young males at this time in their life are desperately seeking to affiliate themselves with tribal groupings that allow them to express status lust in a violent way.

Easterbrook has written many brilliant things during his long and distinguished career. But here, he is just a football fan applying his gigantic intellect to the task of justifying his emotionally felt, atavistic love for a game that has visited senility upon untold legions of former players. Let me be plain: If, like Easterbrook, you choose to watch the Super Bowl, you should know that many of the men you cheer and boo will one day be unable to recognize their grandchildren—in some cases, their children—because of what the game does to their brains.

Anyone who has seen the Will Smith movie Concussion knows the disgraceful back story on this: Evidence linking football and brain damage has been accumulating for decades. But the NFL brushed it aside, at one point even setting up its own self-serving body of experts to deflect the science. We now know the truth. And for those who haven’t seen the film, I heartily recommend the excellent summary of recently published books on the subject contained in David Maraniss’s New York Review of Books essay, The Collision Sport on Trial.

“The current estimates are that nearly 30 percent of all NFL players will suffer some form of dementia over the next sixty-five years,” Maraniss writes. (That works out to an average of about six or seven of the twenty-two NFL players you see on the field at any given time.) Particularly affecting is the story of “Iron Mike” Webster, the Hall of Famer who anchored the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line during their late 1970s Super Bowl-winning heyday. By the time he died in 2002, at the age of fifty, the greatest center in NFL history “was a broken man who lived in a pickup truck, estranged from his family, shocking himself with a Taser and attaching his teeth with superglue.”

The landmark analysis of Webster’s brain tissue figures prominently in the plot of Concussion. During his playing career, Maraniss reports, Webster was hit more than 70,000 times. This plainly exceeds the engineering design limits of the human skull and brain. It probably also exceeds the engineering design limits of a helmet, or a car bumper for that matter.

Even as I write this article on February 3, a New York Times news alert informs me that yet another football great, Ken Stabler, is now known to have died with a brain riddled by chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)—a degenerative brain disease believed by many leading researchers to be rooted in repetitive concussive injury. If you want to take a look at the man’s brain—along with an annotated primer on the evidence of CTE, you can find it at the Times web page.

Perhaps, in future, such images will be required viewing for aspiring young football stars before they sign on with NCAA recruiters—much in the same way that tobacco companies are obliged to show nauseating photos of damaged lungs. Fifty years ago, we were ignorant enough to believe that smoking could be a part of a healthy, wholesome lifestyle. In another fifty years, my grandchildren will be shocked to learn that some people believed the same about football.

If you look beyond the glitz surrounding the Super Bowl, what you have is the gladiatorial end product of an industry that takes starry-eyed young men as input, and spits out dead-eyed men as output—men whose angry moods and self-destructive tendencies often make life hell for wives and children who never knew the glory of a touchdown or the flirtations of a “southern belle.” As David Hovda, head of UCLA‘s Brain Injury Research Centre, puts it: “Brain injury does not happen to one person. It happens to an entire family.” If you’re as smart as Easterbrook, no doubt you can find all sorts of clever ways to justify those three hours in front of the television. But you won’t convince me—and if you’ve read this far, I doubt you’ll even convince yourself.

Jonathan Kay (@jonkay) is the editor-in-chief of The Walrus.

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The Blacksmith

An excerpt from Yann Martel’s new novel, The High Mountains of Portugal

Fiction by
Web Exclusives •  2,029 words 

Hipolito the blacksmith is moved by the drama of Tomás’s twelve afflicted horses and goes into tender, lengthy details about how the lice powder should be mixed with warm water, applied topically, allowed to dry, then carefully brushed and combed out, starting at the top of the head and working one’s way back and down across the horse’s body. It’s a task that takes much time, but a horse deserves nothing less than the best treatment.

“Bring your horses and I’ll help you do it,” Hipolito adds in a burst of fellow equine love.

“I’m not from these parts. I only have my automobile here.”

“Then you’ve come a long way searching for the wrong remedy for your horses. I have the powder right here. Twelve horses, you say? Six cans should do you, eight to be safe. And you’ll need this comb-and-brush kit. The highest quality.”

“Thank you. You can’t imagine how relieved I am. Tell me, how long have you been selling moto-naphtha?”

“Oh, about six months.”

“How’s business?”

“You’re my first customer! I’ve never seen an automobile in my life. But it’s the carriage of the future, I’m told. And I’m a smart businessman, I am. I understand commerce. It’s important to be up to date. No one wants to buy what’s old. You want to be the first to spread the word and show off the product. That’s how you corner the market.”

“How did you get this enormous barrel all the way up here?”

“By stagecoach.”

At the word Tomás’s heart skips a beat.

“But you know,” Hipolito adds, “I didn’t tell them it was for automobiles. I told them it was to treat horses with lice. They’re funny about automobiles, those stagecoach drivers.”

“Are they? Any stagecoaches coming soon?”

“Oh, in the next hour or so.”

Not only does Tomás run back to the automobile, he runs forward to it.

When he roars up to the smithy in his uncle’s Renault with the alarm of a bank robber, Hipolito is surprised, stunned, aghast, and delighted at the throbbing, clanging invention Tomás has brought to his shop.

“So this is it? What a big, noisy thing! Quite ugly in a beautiful sort of way, I’d say. Reminds me of my wife,” yells Hipolito.

Tomás turns the machine off. “I completely agree. I mean about the automobile. To be honest with you, I find it ugly in an ugly sort of way.”

“Hmmm, you may be right.” the blacksmith muses, perhaps pondering how the automobile will wreck his commerce and way of life. His forehead wrinkles. “Oh well, business is business. Where does the moto-naphtha go? Show me.”

Tomás points eagerly. “Here, here, here, and here.”

He has Hipolito fill the fuel tank, the barrel, and all the glass bottles of vermin lotion. He eyes the bottles hungrily. He sorely wants to empty one all over his body.

“Come again!” cries Hipolito after Tomás has paid for the fuel, the eight cans of lice powder for horses, and the comb-and-brush kit of the highest quality. “Remember, from back to front, starting at the top of the head and working your way back and down. Poor creatures!”

“Thank you, thank you!” shouts Tomás as he speeds away.

After Arez, he turns off the road onto a well-marked track. He trusts that his map, with its faint markings for secondary roads, will lead him back to the road beyond the larger town of Nisa, which he is hoping to circumvent by this deviation. From that track he turns onto another, then another. The quality of the tracks goes from bad to worse. There are rocks everywhere. He navigates the terrain as best he can. The land, meanwhile, rises and falls like heaving swells so that he can never see very far around him. Is this how Father Ulisses felt sailing to the island, closed in while in the wide open?

In the midst of his oceanic meanderings, the track simply vanishes. The directed smoothness of a pathway is replaced by a rockiness that is uniform and undefined, as if the track were a river that opened onto a delta, casting him adrift. He navigates on, but eventually he hears the voice of prudence and it urgently suggests he reverse his course.

He turns the machine around, but facing one way looks no different from facing another. He becomes confused. Surrounding him in all directions is the same countryside, rocky, dry, silent, with silver-green olive trees as far as the eye can see and bulbous white clouds boiling up high in the sky. He’s lost, a castaway. And night is coming.

Finally it is not this predicament, of being lost, that leads him to dropping anchor for the night. It is another, more personal one: Great armies of tiny vermin are rampaging over his body, and he cannot stand it any longer.

He reaches a rise in the land and halts the vehicle, tapping its front against a tree. The air, fragrant with the fertile labour of trees, is extraordinarily soft. There is not a sound around him, not from insects, not from birds, not from the wind. All that registers upon his ears are the few sounds he himself makes. In the absence of sound, he notices more with his eyes, in particular the delicate flowers that here and there brave the stony ground. Pink, light blue, red, white—he doesn’t know what kind of flowers they are, only that they are beautiful. He breathes in deeply. He can well imagine that this land was once the last outpost of the storied Iberian rhinoceros, roaming free and wild.

In every direction he walks, he finds no trace of human presence. He wanted to wait until he reached a private spot to take care of his problem, and now he has found it. The moment has come. He returns to the automobile. No human being—no being of any kind—could stand such itchiness. But before slaying his enemies with his magic potions, he gives in one last time to the gratifying indulgence of scratching an itch.

He raises his ten fingers in the air. His blackened fingernails gleam. With a warlike cry, he throws himself into the fray. He rakes his fingernails over his head—the top, the sides, the nape—and over his bearded cheeks and neck. It is quick, hard, spirited. Why do we make animal sounds in moments of pain or pleasure? He does not know, but he makes animal sounds and he makes animal faces. He goes AAAAHHHHH! and he goes OOOOHHHHH! He throws off his jacket, unbuttons and removes his shirt, tears off his undershirt. He attacks the enemies on his torso and in his armpits. His crotch is a cataclysm of itchiness. He unbuckles his belt and pulls his trousers and his underpants down to his ankles. He scratches his hairy sexual patch vigorously, his fingers like claws. Has he ever felt such relief? He pauses to bask in it. Then he starts over again. He moves down to his legs. There is blood under his fingernails. No matter. But the vandals have regrouped in the crack of his ass. Because there too he is hairy. He is hairy all over. It has always been a source of acute embarrassment to him, the forests of thick black hair that sprout from his pale white skin all over his body. That Dora liked to run her fingers through his chest hair always comforted him, because otherwise he finds his hairiness repulsive. He is an ape. Hence the care with which he has his hair cut, with which he shaves. He is normally a clean and neat man, and modest and reserved. But right now he is unhinged with itchiness. His ankles are constrained by his trousers. He kicks his shoes off, pulls his socks off, tears one pant leg off, then the other. That’s better—now he can lift his legs. He attacks the crack of his ass with both hands. On he battles: His hands fly about and he hops from one foot to the other, he makes animal sounds and he makes animal faces, he goes AAAAHHHHH! and he goes OOOHHHHH!

It’s as he’s working his pubic patch, his hands vibrating like the wings of a hummingbird, his face displaying a particularly simian grin of satisfaction, that he sees the peasant. Just a short way off. Looking at him. Looking at the man hopping about naked, scratching himself madly, and making animal sounds next to the strange horseless cart. Tomás freezes on the spot. How long has the man been watching him?

What is there to do at such a moment? What can he do to salvage his dignity, his very humanity? He removes the animal expression from his face. He stands upright. As solemnly as he can—with quick dips to gather his clothes—he walks to the automobile and disappears inside the cabin. Profound mortification brings on complete immobility.

When the sun has set and the sky is inky black, the darkness and the isolation begin to weigh on him. And full-out, unqualified, comprehensive humiliation is not a remedy against vermin. He is still covered in rioting insect life. He can practically hear them. He cautiously opens the automobile door. He peers out. He looks about. There is no one. The peasant has gone. Tomás lights a candle stub. He has nowhere to place the candle where it will not risk damaging the plush interior, so he unplugs one of the bottles of moto-naphtha and corks it with the lit candle. The effect is attractive. The cabin looks cosy, truly a very small living room.

Still fully naked, he steps out. He takes out the tin of horse lice powder and two bottles of moto-naphtha lotion. He will do better than what Hipolito suggested. He will mix the lice powder with moto-naphtha rather than with water, doubling the lethalness of the concoction. Besides, he has no water left. The water from the barrel in the cabin went into either him or the automobile. He has only a skin of wine left. He mixes moto-naphtha and horse lice powder in a pot until the paste is neither too runny nor too thick. It smells awful. He starts to apply it to his body, working it in with his fingers. He winces. His skin is tender from all the scratching. The paste burns. But he endures it because of the death blow it is striking against the vermin. Apply liberally, says the label on the bottle. He does, he does. After caking his head and face, he applies the mixture to his armpits and over his chest and stomach, on his legs and feet. He covers his pubic mound in a thick layer. Where the paste falls off his body, he applies double the quantity. For his rear, he places a great dollop on the footboard and sits in it. There. His head upright, his arms tight against his body, his hands spread out over his torso, he sits very still. Any movement, even breathing, not only loosens the paste but increases the burning.

This burning is infernal. He tries to get used to it, but he can’t. It’s as if the paste has consumed his skin and now is working through his flesh. He is being roasted alive. But so are the vermin. They and their eggs are dying by the thousands. He needs to endure the agony only a little longer, until they are all dead. After that, he will be well on the road to recovery. He continues to wait, slowly sizzling.

Then it happens: a shattering BOOM!

Excerpted from The High Mountains of Portugal. Copyright © 2016 Yann Martel. Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Penguin Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

Yann Martel is the author of Life of Pi and The High Mountains of Portugal.

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Head to Toe

A microbiologist explains why we smell bad—and what it means for our health

Science by
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Photograph by NIAID
NIAID / CC BY 2.0 Streptococcus bacteria.
Varieties of Sweat

Body odour is caused by a combination of sweat and bacteria. Sweat keeps our skin moist and regulates our temperature, but it also contains fats, hormones, and proteins to strengthen the barrier provided by our skin. These molecules are also used as food by the bacteria there. When they are done eating, these species release waste products—their own fecal matter—right onto the skin. Many of these have an aroma; some are sweet and musky, but most are quite unpleasant. The determining factor isn’t the bugs, however, it’s the type of sweat they are given. Humans produce four varieties of sweat, each one serving a different purpose. Depending on their content, the potential for smell can range from minimal to downright awful.

The least troublesome types of perspiration are thermal and gustatory sweat. They are produced when our bodies get too warm from the weather or exertion. The latter, more commonly known as the “meat sweats,” is caused by increased blood flow to the stomach when we eat dense food. Unlike thermal sweat, this type of sweating is limited to the forehead. These varieties are not associated with significant smell, since they consist mainly of water, electrolytes, and small quantities of waste products, primarily urea and ammonia.

The other two forms of sweat, emotional and apocrine, are the ones that cause all the trouble. It’s because these provide social cues to others about our health and welfare, both biological and psychological. Emotional sweat usually occurs on the hands and in the armpits, the genital regions, and the feet. Apocrine sweat is similar to scent secretions from animals and is designed to keep enemies at a distance while inviting potential mates to get closer. (The word apocrine comes from the Greek krinein, “to separate”.)

Emotional and apocrine sweats are thicker than thermal sweat because they are rich in molecules such as fats and hormones, many of which have a mildly pleasant aroma. Some of these secretions will be used by the skin to maintain elasticity and bonding. But most will be taken up by bacteria, used as nutrients, and eventually shed as smelly by-products. Over time the strength of the smell will grow as the concentration of the bacteria and the by-products rises. Eventually, without intervention—washing—the odour will emanate and find those sensitive olfactory nerves.

How often you need to clean comes down to the relative concentrations of the four types of sweat. Thermal and gustatory sweat will have little impact on your scent even if the sweating becomes profuse. The lack of any significant nutrients will keep the microbes from causing any olfactory offences.

But even the slightest amount of apocrine or emotional sweat can eventually turn a person’s scent foul. The stench is essentially a call for help from a suffering body, and it signals to other people that an individual is experiencing abnormalities such as infection, fear, and even depression.

As to how often you can go between washes, ask someone you trust. Let that person get within a foot of you, inhale, and then decide. Whatever you do, don’t trust yourself. Our olfactory systems have a tendency to become desensitized to our own smells and will be unable to pick up on any offending scents until they are overbearing. If you can smell yourself, it’s already too late.

The armpit of our emotions

There are two easy ways to find out if someone is stressed. The first is to ask. The other is to sniff that person’s armpit.

The armpit is scientifically known as the axillary region and has been the focus of many a study on human psychological states. The decades of research have revealed that a trained nose can detect anxiety, fear, calmness, and even attraction.

Depending on the person, a wide variety of bacteria may call the armpit home. Some of these produce sickly-sweet aromas; others make woodier and muskier scents. Some release odours that smell like cheese. Then there are those that offer the earthy odour of a damp forest. The determining factor is what we feed them.

Depending on our emotional state, we may form different types of fats and hormones in different concentrations. The best example of this comes when we are stressed. The main biological signal of stress is adrenaline, and it sparks the entire body to go on the defensive. Being on the defensive produces higher amounts of sweat, a higher body temperature, and a greater number of chemicals (which will give off the smell of fear once broken down by the resident microbes). Within minutes to hours, our scent can change from pleasant to offensive. It may take days before the system calms down and we return to a more natural, pleasing aroma.


Which kind of underarm protection is best? Deodorants are specifically designed to target the bacteria on the skin. They don’t necessarily kill, but they can inhibit growth so these microbes cannot produce an overwhelming odour. Most also have some form of fragrance to mask any bacterial unpleasantness that may develop over time. Deodorants are quite efficient, although they don’t tend to last very long. They also don’t prevent sweating, so those who have an overactive sweat gland could still end up with wet marks on their shirts.

The chemicals in antiperspirants differ depending on the brand, but almost all contain metal aluminum. This element gets into the skin and blocks pores to prevent sweat from escaping. Instead, excess water is sent to other regions of the body for excretion. This is a highly effective way of keeping your armpits dry. There may be hazards, though. Some researchers have suggested aluminum in the blood increases the risk for some cancers and Alzheimer’s disease. But no concrete links have so far been found, meaning this may simply be a matter of coincidence, not causation.

The other issue with antiperspirant is that it cannot fend off certain types of very smelly bacteria. When antiperspirant is used constantly, some environmental types of bacteria can find a home by attaching to the chemical components of the cosmetic. One such example is a group of bacteria found in dirt. We pick these hitchhikers up on our hands and no doubt transfer them to the armpits during our daily checks. Once they have made a home, they can use the sweat to thrive. For us, this means a change in our odour to include the smell of, well, mud. This is reversible by quitting antiperspirants for a while and going with either a deodorant or your natural scent.


It happened to me soon after I turned forty. The person walking beside me noticed I had a particular smell.

I checked my armpits to be sure, but I couldn’t detect anything. So I asked what the aroma was like. She said, “Old-man smell.” For anyone who hasn’t had the chance to experience this odour, it’s a combination of stale air mixed with grass and grease. It’s not pleasant.

The chemical behind this particular aroma is a compound known as 2-nonenal. It’s essentially a fat molecule formed as a by-product of various cellular processes in humans and bacteria. The chemical is better known in the food world as a component of fermentation, to increase the grassy and oily odour of aged foods such as beer and wheat. The chemical is also made in larger amounts in people over forty years of age.

Unlike other human odours, which are mainly caused by bacteria, this one happens to be our own fault. It’s formed under the skin and released as a waste. You might be able to reduce the levels of the stuff by reducing your consumption of alcohol and tobacco, which tend to force the body to send out fats in much higher concentrations. You can also reduce your intake of animal fats and butter. These are high in omega-7 fatty acids and they can make for a rather stinky output once metabolized.

Showering and bathing temporarily removes 2-nonenal. A longer-lasting fix is to flush it out of the system with a lot of sweating. Getting a good workout can help keep the concentration of the smelly scrounger low enough to be undetectable to most people. It may take a few days to get there if you’ve been for the most part sedentary. Increased showering over this time is a must! Keep exercising regularly and you will soon begin to smell youthful and look it too.


Foot odour comes in four main varieties: sweaty, cheesy, vinegary, and cabbage-y. That’s because of chemicals produced by the bacteria down there. Methanethiol is a key component in the flavour of cheddar cheese. Acetic acid is a result of sugar fermentation—and is better known as vinegar. By-products associated with rot, such as propionic acid and butyric acid, can leave feet smelling like rancid cabbage. The most common foot-related chemical, isovaleric acid, is responsible for the smell we call “sweaty.” Our noses are up to two thousand times more sensitive to this chemical than the others, and many of us can recognize it even at the slightest concentration.

Only a few types of bacteria have learned to enjoy inhabiting the foot. Most of these are friends, despite their smell, and our lifelong partners. At any given time, we have hundreds of millions of them living happily on our feet, which they regard as the perfect environment: warm, moist, and offering an unending supply of nutrients in the form of dead skin cells. They adhere to us shortly after birth and stay with us for the rest of our lives. They are also a necessary part of keeping our feet healthy. The bacteria release oils that help keep skin soft and enzymes that break down dead skin and prevent dry, flaky areas, as well as calluses. Our foot friends also provide a barrier against microbial pathogens. Our bacteria are very territorial, and they have mechanisms to ward off disease-causing visitors. They produce a number of defensive molecules, called antimicrobial peptides, which seek out and kill any invaders. These molecules are similar to antibiotics, but pathogens cannot develop resistance to them. To have the healthiest feet, we need these good microbes working hard for us. It can be difficult to assess their presence with our eyes, but we can always perform a smell test to ascertain if our feet are in good microbial hands. When we have a smell that is familiar to us—even if it isn’t pleasant—we can be sure we’re maintaining the same microbial population.

If that smell changes, though, and becomes more bread-like, grape-like, or acrid instead of sour, it can be a warning sign. There are several infections, mainly fungal, which can take residence on the foot and start to attack. Unlike our microbial flora, which prefer to feed off dead skin cells, these intruders want to eat something fresh. Without proper treatment, these pathogens can cause rashes, breaks in the skin, and larger wounds. Should this happen, you may require medical attention.

While the smell of your feet is usually a sign of your overall health, it might not do wonders for your social life. Thankfully, there are ways to keep the friendly bacteria happy while still keeping scents to a minimum. One option is to use talcum powder or charcoal inner soles. They both absorb the smelly chemicals and prevent them from dispersing in the air. While they won’t make your feet smell nice, they can keep your shoes from accumulating noisome chemicals.

There are other naturally derived compounds—including citral, geraniol, and limolene—that are known to help improve that familiar foot smell. These chemicals shift the way the bacteria make by-products, inhibiting isovaleric acid from being produced in the first place. They can be found in several common foot-care products available in drugstores.

Excerpted from The Germ Files: The Surprising Ways Microbes Can Improve Your Health and Life (And How To Protect Yourself From the Bad Ones) by Jason Tetro. Copyright © 2016 Jason Tetro. Published in Canada by Doubleday Canada, a division of Penguin Random House of Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Jason Tetro (@JATetro) is the author of The Germ Files.

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Chembera Bridge

The desert is brutish. And there is not only drought

Flash Fiction by
Web Exclusives •  1,159 words 

Illustration by Rolli

There is nothing west of Gwanda. It is empty Matabeleland.

But I turn my toe to that nothing. And I go.


A man is a terrapin—so my father says. His wife, his child, they stand on his shell. And he pulls them. He goes a mile a day, he is steadfast. Another child climbs on. Another. Perhaps his father, his mother, who have grown old. He goes a foot a day, now, the terrapin. Now inches. Now an inch. Now he is kicking sand, and getting nowhere. As he kicks, a grandchild climbs on. And the poor terrapin—he is crushed.

That is my father. I laugh. Wagging my head.

Mwana, he says. You are a bachelor—still. You do not appreciate.

I watch the fire. Down in the coals . . .  The best words are there.

Baba, I say. You can bear nothing, and still be kicking sand. The chambers of the heart . . .  There is room for burden, there. More than a back could ever bear.

He grunts, my father. Sticks his pipe in his gums.

Quiet is confirmation. He knows, my father. I am no fool’s son.

I tell him . . . about the missing boy, the ransom. But he does not listen.

He looks in the fire, my father. He says nothing.


I am walking, I am kicking along. I kick the dust until there is none. Then I kick sand. The sand gets redder, as the sun setting. Then it is rust red of Kalahari. A man who prizes life, stops there. I keep going.

A gully comes up. I go down the hill and up. It is high, the other side. I am so tired by climbing, I pile my bones on the top.

I will never get up again.

So I close my eyes—then open them. I pluck my bones up, I surprise myself. I am settled—yet maybe afraid. I cannot say. But I keep going.

It is flat land ahead. A man can see eternity, but he looks at his feet.

I forget I am walking until I remember my thirst.

I forget my thirst and remember my hunger.

I forget my hunger and remember the sun.

Then I forget everything. I hear something. It is—I am unsure what. It is like a bird. I catch it again—but the wind snatches it.

I turn my toe. There is something on the skyline. The heat waves it, like a flag. I am beat but my feet are curious. They keep going.

A bridge. It is no illusion. It is a bridge—and next to it, a banyan.

I rub my eye—but in the shadow of the banyan, there is a man. As big as a kitchen. With a big beard. Sitting bent-legged in the sand.

Strange, to see a man there. But I am there, too. Perhaps it is not so strange . . .

Hello, I make myself say.

The big man grins.

Hello, again.

Nothing, again. But a bigger grin.

I think he is not quick. I wonder if he is dumb.

A few steps and I see the vine. The kiwano vine winding around the tree. The tree is dead but the vine thrives. The big boy plucks a melon, pricks it with his thumb. He sucks the jelly from the shell. The white seeds in his black beard—I see these from far off. And the shells everywhere.

When I am close, he puts down his melon. Pinches a fat one off the vine. Holds it out to me.

I shake my head. I am hungry, and I am thirsty, too. But none of that matters . . .

So he sits the fat melon on his lap, the man. And finishes off the other.

The bridge. I am staring at that bridge. It is inscrutable. It is stone—chembera, very old. It spans nothing. There is nothing under it. Just sand.

So I turn my toe to this bridge. I stand in its middle. A bridge is as good a place as any, for thinking.

But my heart is beating. And I cannot think.

The wind uncovers something. A ring of—mudbrick, it looks like. In other spots, too, I see bits of brick.

A village.

The desert is brutish. It feeds and it stretches. More villages have been consumed than are left, I would bet. And there is not only drought. There is the virus . . .

Virus. When I think that word, I am finished. A word may as well be a cannon. When it is the right word.

I am finished. I am done. I sit on the bridge. Then I lie.

I will never get up again.

I close my eyes . . .

There is that sound, again. Like a bird. It is the same—but louder.

I open my eyes. I sit up. I stand.

There is nothing in the sky. But lower down . . .

It is no bird. It is the big boy. He has switched his melon—for a horn. He is blowing it, beautifully. I think … it is the sweetest thing. That I have ever heard.

I am beat, but my feet are moving. They are taking me to the tree.

That music. I close my eyes, it is so good.

When he finishes, the big man spits out his horn. The melon on his lap—the same fat one, I am certain—he picks up. Holds it out to me.

This time, I take it.

There is room for two, in the shadow. I suck the jelly. And listen to the big man play.

I sit a long time there, eating kiwano, listening. I do not even think, but listen.

And it returns to me. My courage. My desire of life. My strength. It happens, it is that simple. It is inscrutable. Like the bridge.

I hold my hand out. The big man takes it. He shakes me. He grins.

I think I grin, too.


I am not sure how, but I get back to Gwanda. I get there just. The sky is turning. My ears are ringing. Then the sky is flying back . . .

When I open my eyes, I am in a white room. In the new hospital.

Good news, says a smiling man. There is money for medicine. From the government.

I am a cool man. But I am crying.


It is a long time, before I tell my father. About the desert. The big man, the bridge. To try a new thing, he listens. Then pulls his pipe out.

Mwana, he says. That is fever. That is dreaming.

Down in the coals. I pick my words.

It is dreaming, I say. But it is true.

He grunts, the old man, sticks his pipe in his gums. He looks into the fire.

He says nothing.

Rolli (; @rolliwrites) is a writer and cartoonist from Regina. His most recent story collection, I Am Currently Working On a Novel, was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and short-listed for the High Plains Book Award. Rolli’s cartoons appear regularly in the Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest, Adbusters, and other popular outlets.

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