Alex was bitten by a sand viper while dismounting a camel in the Erg Chebbi dunes, deep in Morocco. The guide, a boy no more than twenty, warned him about the snake, told the camel too. But his warning came in a language foreign to Alex and barely comprehensible to the camel. The camel got the gist, stepped to the side; Alex did not, walked right into it.
“No, no, no,” the guide said, swatting the air with his hand.
“Damnit!” Alex screamed, the bite shooting up his leg.
They were midway through the trek and Alex was already bored. Riding animals through the desert had lost its romance quickly. But they were still a good distance from Merzouga when the snake got a hold of him. They had at least two or three more dunes to cross, and a few villages to visit, and surely Anne, the German schoolteacher, would require a couple more photo stops, so she could get the same fucking pictures of her standing in front of the same fucking sand dune. There were hours of camels left and Alex was certain he was dying.
He’d been told to bring many things: water to match his requirements, sunglasses, windcheater, headlamp. And he’d been warned about many things: dehydration, overexposure, bandits. But no one warned him about sand vipers; no one told him what to pack for snakebites. These were dangers the tour company preferred not to mention because they were so unlikely. But Alex had a way of finding the most improbable dangers, the most ridiculous pitfalls. He found a way to step directly into the path of the only snake they’d seen the entire trip. This was nothing new, this kind of misfortune; he brought it upon himself.
So Alex rode the camel as best he could, poisoned leg dangling to the side. He thought about his blood and the venom coursing through it. He thought about vultures and how excited they’d be to find his corpse.
Two years prior, Alex broke eight bones after falling headlong into a crevasse while skiing off-piste near Chamonix, France. The guide, a tall Frenchman, warned him about the dangers of skiing out of bounds, how straying from the group could lead to hidden crevasses, crevasses that were deep and black and seemingly bottomless. He sounded these warnings repeatedly but Alex still found his way into the hole, his leg broken and bent above his head, blood dripping from his mouth. Pain ripped through his body and made him curse his life, swearing that he would be more careful next time. But pain subsides and bones heal and even the best intentions fade.
So Alex rode the camel as best he could, poisoned leg dangling to the side. He thought about his blood and the venom coursing through it. He thought about vultures and how excited they’d be to find his corpse. He thought about language and how his inability to comprehend its varieties was the reason for his serial misfortune. He vowed to learn a foreign language, start paying more attention, give up the cigarettes and booze and insistence on international travel. His next trip would be to the Gulf Coast of Florida, the Ozarks, maybe Mount Vernon. It would be to a place friends and family had visited, a place where recommendations could be made. It would be a package trip with swim-up bars and golf at dawn and maybe zip lines. But those trips were a long way off and this one had just begun.
“How do you feel?” she asked. Her name was Maria, a dental hygienist from Italy, the closest thing to a doctor for many miles. She was traveling with her sister. They were celebrating something important.
“My leg hurts,” he said. “And my ass.”
“Do you need water?”
“I need a doctor.”
“You’ll tell me if you feel like passing out?”
Alex nodded, then looked to the guide. “My leg?” he said, pointing to his ankle, now the width of his calf. “It’s okay that it’s swollen like that?”
“Yes,” the guide said.
“I don’t believe him,” Alex said to Maria.
“I’m sure this has happened before.”
“Yeah, but with what results?”
Alex looked across the blank landscape, the dunes like gold bed sheets. The wind picked up, sand swirled. He pulled his scarf tight around his face and closed his eyes, imagining all the other places he could be at that moment but knowing how far he was from all of them.
“Is he dead yet?” she asked. Her name was Elizabeth, a fourth grader from Liverpool. It was her eleventh birthday and she was here with her best friend, Mary, riding camels in the desert. This was a birthday party and Alex had ruined it.
“Not yet,” Mary replied. “His eyes are still open. But maybe he’s close. It’s hard to tell from here.” The girls rode tandem, Elizabeth at the controls, Mary holding tight around her waist, craning to get a look at Alex who trailed just behind. Elizabeth’s mother rode next to the girls, a foam cooler slapping against her camel’s hind legs.
“Soon you think?” Elizabeth continued, squinting into the horizon.
“I’m not dying,” Alex said flatly. “Nobody’s dying today.”
“Mom?” Elizabeth said.
“He’ll be fine, sweetheart. It’s just a little snakebite.”
“It’s not that little,” Alex corrected. “It’s actually pretty big. The snake was huge.”
“Mom, is that true?”
“Please don’t scare my daughter,” the mother said.
“I’m not trying to scare her,” Alex said, “just warn her.”
The mother looked at him plainly. “You’re a fine one to talk,” she said.
They arrived in Merzouga with the sun falling fast. Maria and the guide helped Alex off the camel. They escorted him to a small hut where he sat with four locals and ten minutes of silence, before Maria finally returned to check on him, holding a chocolate cupcake in one hand. “Elizabeth wanted you to have one,” she said. “But there aren’t many left. Do you mind sharing?”
Alex wanted to ask why there were cupcakes in the desert. He wanted to know how they got here, whose idea it was to proceed with birthday plans while he was being slowly poisoned. “I can’t eat right now,” he said. “I have no appetite.”
“You should try to eat something.”
“I have no appetite,” he said again, louder this time.
Maria broke the cake in two and set half on the ground next to him. “In case you change your mind,” she said, and gave the other half to the local men, who thanked her in their native tongue.
The guide entered the hut as Maria exited.
“Can they do anything?” Alex asked.
“Not here,” he said.
One of the men looked closely at Alex’s ankle, said something to the guide, something in Arabic. He had chocolate frosting on his upper lip.
“What did he say?” Alex asked.
“He says he’s seen this before.”
“Ask him what I should do.”
Words were exchanged. Alex waited desperately for the translation.
“He says there is a doctor in the next village. He has the solution to your problem.”
“Yes, like that.”
Alex leaned back against the wall. He wrapped his arms around his head and tried to squash the pain. Outside, the group sang Happy Birthday to Elizabeth. Happy Birthday to you.
Alex awoke with sunlight across his face, a wool blanket over his legs. A Moroccan boy sat next to him, flipping through a guidebook. He wore a green t-shirt that read, I Have an Irish Attitude. He was maybe sixteen.
“Where am I?” Alex asked.
“You’re here,” the boy said, pointing to a spot on the foldout map.
“How long was I asleep?”
“Where is everyone?”
“Where did they go?”
“Who are you?”
“I’m Tarik. Omar’s brother.”
“The man who led you here.”
Alex sat up and touched his ankle, which had swollen considerably overnight. It looked infected. He thought about amputation and wondered if he were the type of person capable of such a thing. He knew he was not.
“I have to get to the next village,” he said. “Your brother told me there’s a doctor there.”
“No,” Tarik said. “We must go to the hospital in Fes. I’ll take you.”
Alex stood and walked outside. His eyes were paper dry, his nose full of dirt. He took in the early morning sun, which didn’t feel like heat at all but rather a prelude to the afternoon, when he would be reminded what heat truly was. It had been over twelve hours since he’d been bitten and he worried time was running short. He felt weak and unsteady. He limped and squinted into the sun. He sat next to a small fire and ate breakfast with his hands. Then, with his belly full, he crawled into the tiny pickup that would take him to the city.
It was a long drive and Tarik had many questions for Alex. He wanted to know why he was in Morocco, why he’d been bitten. Alex said frequent flier miles, miscommunication. Alex asked Tarik what it was like living in Morocco, if he had a girlfriend. Tarik said it was probably a lot like Algeria, that he knew a pretty girl in the city. Tarik said he liked girls but knew nothing about them. He asked Alex for advice but Alex had none.
Tarik then told of an American girl he met six months ago, a yellow-haired girl from a place called Ohio. He asked Alex if he knew her, being American and all. Alex did not. Tarik told him about how she had come to Morocco with her family, how the two of them had escaped from camp one night and sat like anchors in the sand, her head resting in his lap, he pouring sand through her hair. He had written her letters—one per week—for the past six months but received no response. He wondered if perhaps they got lost in the mail. Alex lied, said it was possible. Tarik then told of another girl, a girl from the city, the daughter of a tailor, a beautiful girl with a hundred boyfriends. “I can’t wait to see her,” he said. “ I hope she remembers me.”
“Your English,” Alex said. “It’s so good.”
Tarik said he’d learned by stealing from the book exchange at hostels. He knew it was wrong but couldn’t resist. He’d read Catcher in the Rye ten times, said he loved it, said it turned things. Alex told him that book was very popular with American kids his age. Tarik wasn’t surprised. He told Alex that once they got through this goddamn desert, the city would be like heaven, like a long drink of cold water. He said someday he would come visit Alex in California, and they’d sit at the base of one of those giant trees and laugh at the time with the snake.
Alex was touched. Alex was sickened. Alex rested his sweaty head against the truck’s dirty window. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for helping me.”
“Don’t worry,” Tarik said, smiling. “You won’t die.”
It was late afternoon when they reached the city. Tarik escorted Alex to the hospital, where a pact was made, information exchanged. Tarik departed, and Alex entered the hospital and told the nurse what had happened, about the throbbing pain in his ankle and how his fellow travelers had abandoned him, forcing an overnight in the desert, and how now, after all that, he was really starting to think he might be close to death. The nurse asked his name, and then led him to a small room where he was injected with three bottles of polyvalent antivenin before falling fast asleep.
Alex awoke the next morning with clean blood and tended wounds. He paid the receptionist eight hundred dirham, walked outside, took a deep breath, and tried to place himself. Cars and motorbikes sped past. Everything was moving so quickly. He walked into a market where three dogs slept in a pile behind the counter. He grabbed an Orange Fanta and drank half before paying. He stepped back outside and spotted Maria loading a suitcase into a cab. He called her name.
He said hi.
“Are you okay?”
He said he was.
“I’m sorry we left you.”
He said it was okay.
“We didn’t know if we should move you. It was getting late. They said a doctor was coming.”
He said he never came.
“I’m very sorry. Please understand.”
He said he did.
“I’m glad you’re okay. Good luck with everything.”
He said thank you and watched Maria and her sister disappear into the cab. He stood motionless for a moment, the bustling city moving around him, and then, with no sense of direction, began walking the streets, contemplating his next move. He stopped at an intersection and waited for a break in traffic. He watched a young girl juggle oranges. He saw a man balance a crate of live chickens on his motorbike. He saw Tarik running from a building, holding a paperback in one hand, a girl in the other. He saw the smile on the boy’s face and the girl’s hair blowing straight back and the fists of the man chasing after them. He waited for the traffic to part and then looked both ways before crossing.
Brady Hammes’s first published story was recently named a storySouth Million Writers Award Notable Story of 2008. He lives in Los Angeles.
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower.
Much has been written about the violence in these stories, but it’s the combination of humor and pathos that I find so alluring. Tower has a way with language that consistently floors me.
Werckmeister Harmonies by Bela Tarr.
The first ten minutes of this film—shot in a single take—follow a man as he enters a bar and uses the local drunks to recreate the workings of a solar eclipse. It’s funny, touching, and gorgeously executed.
“The Slingshot” by John Hodgman.
I’ve probably read this more than anything else on the Internet, and it moves me every time.