Thumbs Up by Bryan Murphy


        Luanda. The fifth century of war. The South African army is trying to kill us all, but it is a fly that nearly does for me. A fish fly, “mosca do peixe”, so small you do not see it as it buries its even tinier eggs under your skin. Usually, like a tattoo artist, it chooses fleshy parts of the body to work on, bits that are generally covered up and left in peace, so I assume the irritating white spot on my left thumb is the bequest of a mosquito. Days pass before someone kindly puts me right. Everyone knows what to do. You sterilise a pin in a flame and use it to roll back the skin from around the white spot. Then you get a very good friend to squeeze all the eggs out. The pain is bad, but the consequences of not getting all the eggs out are worse.

This time, it is too late for such home remedies; surgery is called for, simple surgery. But where? People reckon the French Embassy doctor to be the best bet, and he proves willing. My colleague Dunhill returns a favour by accompanying me there and watches as I stare anywhere but at my hand, while my foot stamps on the floorboards like John Entwistle on stage. The only anaesthetic in town is reserved for major operations and the military. No complaints about that. You get a ration of painkillers for afterwards, but the time between the effect of one wearing off and your being able to take the next passes very slowly. I learn that pain does not make you heroic so much as self-absorbed.

I give a repeat performance when the stitches come out. Later, after the bandages have come off, I phone the doctor and tell him the thumb does not look good. “Well,” he says, “if it does not improve over the weekend, you may end up losing the use of that hand.”

Those words kick-start the healing process. I live with a numb thumb for years. It is still a bit slender, but the whole hand works, and I have a small scar to show as I sing for my supper.

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13 thoughts on “Thumbs Up by Bryan Murphy

  1. Micki Peluso

    Bryan, wonderful piece! I know about bugs that do similar rthings but never like this one. It seems the bugs of the jungles have come here in forms od flleshing-eating diseases and MRSA, plus an increase in sepsis from infections we’ve never encouintered before. I like your phrase about pain being more self-absorbing than heroic. i’ll be repeating that to myself a lot.:)

  2. Marta Merajver-Kurlat

    It’s the little things in life that set us wondering about finitude. What if there had been no medical services available? What if the infection had extended and affected vital parts? This anecdote leaves us with much to chew on.

  3. Linda hales

    Bryan – you’ve given us a fascinating piece. It seems we can’t take anything for granted anymore, especially a bug bite. So happy you managed to rid yourself of it in time. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Martha Love

    Very enjoyable little tale, Bryan, in a scary sort of way. Glad you kept your thumb! Living in a tropical climate, I can appreciate that there are many strange and horrid little critters to look out for. Thank you for the fun read!

  5. Delinda

    In my Bacteriology and Public Health class our professor liked to be as graphic as your excellent story. Small bugs have played a huge role in human history. I’m glad you kept your thumb.

  6. Rosemary "Mamie" Adkins

    Bryan, I know your work is marvelous but this short story carried with it, impact.
    A tiny bug could have changed your life forever. It seems all parts of the world carry their own nightmares and it was a great way to express yourself being graphic so that we could actually see this event as it unfolded. I am so very happy you did not loose your thumb.

    Thanks for the read.


  7. Bryan Murphy

    Thank you all for your kind comments. They have made me realise how lucky I was. At the time, it was all part and parcel of living and working in a war-torn country, which I had chosen to do.


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