Thou shalt not insert thy foot into thy footwear without properly shaking out the same.
That, of course, is the eleventh commandment in the Kalahari. It should be obeyed every day for as long as you live. Should be. Unless you have a hangover and need your early-morning coffee urgently. Then you might forget…and pay the price.
Which is what happens to Servaas when his headache and thirst forces him to sit up. He feels for his slippers with his feet in preparation of the hesitant, shuffling advance to the kitchen. More than most days, he needs his usual caffeine rush to get going today. That’s the moment the pain in his left big toe overwhelms the old man to such a degree that his former symptoms do not bother him any longer.
It is a well known fact that there is no better cure for a hangover than a scorpion sting – its pain is so intense that all other forms of discomfort simply fade into insignificance. Servaas doesn’t appreciate this sudden change in his perception of what the word ‘pain’ implies as he starts doing a weird, one-footed dance while testing the maximum decibels he is capable of..
Gertruida knows a lot about scorpions. She’ll tell you that scorpions roamed the waters of the earth some 200 million years before the dinosaurs started scaring the other living creatures. At first a purely aquatic animal, it started off with gills and large eyes (the better to see with, of course). In those early days some of these frightful creatures were a metre in length, but they became smaller when they became terrestrial and had to adapt to their new environment. Nowadays most scorpions are smallish, and the inverse relationship between the venom and the size of the pincers is well known.
When at last Servaas settles down, he shakes out his boot to see what kind of scorpion decided to camp in there for the night. The very large sting and the small frontal parts confirm his suspicion – this is a Transvaalicus, its name immune to the fickle political efforts rename every reminder of a ‘white’ past. Servaas’s indignant stream of foul language is almost lost on the deaf animal, but the very sensitive sensory hairs on the exoskeleton pick up the vibrations and translates the message to the small brain behind the median eyes.
This scorpion, it seems, at first thought about what Servaas is saying before deciding to rather scamper away to a crack in the floor. When the angry boot thuds down on the spot it occupied seconds ago, the scorpion is already relaxing comfortably under the floorboards a few metres away.
The escape of the scorpion upsets Servaas. It isn’t because he wanted revenge (well, maybe that’s not entirely true), but he still believes the old myth. To alleviate the pain, you have to catch the scorpion, burn it, and then apply its ashes to sting. With no scorpion to burn, Servaas has no antidote.
Parabuthus transvaalicus, Servaas knows, is particularly venomous. It is even fatal at times. He has to get help, and get help fast. With no time to lose, he hobbles down Voortrekker Weg to Precilla’s little pharmacy.
Rolbos, like we all know, is a town where many unusual events take place. The townsfolk tend to live through these with a distracted acceptance, knowing that most storms will pass all on their own. But, when something really weird happens, they do manage to work themselves up into an excited state. So; when Servaas hops down the street on his one foot, clutching the other with both hands and howling so loud that Vrede seeks refuge behind the church; the bedroom curtains parted, faces peeked out…and the peals of laughter rolled through the town. Poor Servaas! Like the rest of the Rolbossers, he sleeps with the minimum of clothes. Unlike the usual custom, however, he hasn’t changed his attire for this somewhat unplanned trip to Precilla’s.
Gertruida is the first to react as she rushes out with a large towel to drape over the less tanned bits of Servaas’s anatomy. Once the old man is covered up in a more acceptable fashion, she hears the tale of woe. She leads to poor victim to the bench on Boggel’s veranda and bends down to inspect the wound.
“Tell me again what happened, Servaas?” The mischievous twinkle in her eyes should have warned Servaas.
“I put my foot into my damn slipper. The scorpion stung me.” Anger at the stupid question.
“And then you found the scorpion?”
Light dawns. Uncertainty. “Y-ye-e-e-s…”
“In your boot?”
“So the scorpion quickly switched its hiding place in the forlorn hope that you’d not find it? That, Servaas, is a sign of a much advanced scorpion. Must be the cleverest and most active scorpion ever, seeing they spend 95% of their time doing nothing. I should write an article for Nature. Or even National Geographic.”
“Let’s go and have a look at the slipper, shall we?”
They find the toothpick in the slipper. Despite Servaas’s explicit pleas, Gertruida recounts the episode with glee in Boggel’s Place. Servaas, with no other option, can only smile shyly from where he sits with the bandaid on his toe.
“That’s the problem with assumptions,” Gertruida says later. “You make a deduction and create a false reality.” She can get rather academic about even the most mundane events. “It isn’t that Servaas was stupid, or anything like that. He simply added two and two together and got an answer. Sure, his analysis proved to be wrong in the end, but until he realised his mistake, he firmly believed he had been stung by a scorpion. When he hopped down the street, he believed his life might be over.
“That’s the way some of the religious fundamentalists go about their lives.” Gertruida switches the subject so suddenly, even Servaas looks up in surprise. “They take a small bit of their faith and then go storming down Life’s main street, assuming they have not only the right answer – but also the only answer That’s the fundamental flaw.”
“Ja. They should consider all the options,” Vetfaan says dryly. “Look in the boot and the slipper. Distinguish between the scorpion and the toothpick.”
“And, please, dress properly when they go howling through the streets. Nightdresses don’t do it for me.” Precilla stares pointedly at Servaas. “On the other hand, fundamentalists would be more recognisable if they dressed like Servaas did. We’d know who to avoid…”
The Curious Case of the Toothpick Scorpion will be the source of many a joke in Boggel’s Place for a while. This is sad, because poor old Servaas will have no choice but to grin and bear it. It’s not that the old man has no sense of humour; it’s just that he wishes the townsfolk would have taken Gertruida’s lecture to heart.
If only all members of all faiths took the time to admit that there are boots and slippers in this world and that wild assumptions don’t always stand up to scrutiny – then there’d be more tolerance amongst mankind. Sadly, Servaas thinks, society is just too prone to go off at a tangent, not questioning the basis of their beliefs.
There is a difference between Servaas’s assumption that morning and the fundamentalism that rocks the world these days. Servaas’s hangover was cured. The world’s headache is getting worse.