This weekend I accidentally clicked on a mention of smallpox in Wikipedia. That landed me on Wiki’s smallpox page and I saw the photo there. I was going to link to it, but I find I can’t bring myself to go back and get the url.


Let me stress that what I saw has not inspired me to give money or even to think a humanitarian thought. I hope that somewhere down the road I will send $50 to an organization that helps victims like the girl in that picture. But my point for now is that I have never seen anything so horrible and never expected to.

The closest I can come to describing the picture will sound flippant. The day I saw it I had eaten an almond croissant. The girl’s face looked like a face almondine, with the almonds the size of an adult’s thumbnail — not the rim, the whole nail. The almonds are set one against the other, no space between them, and their narrow end points up. Together they’re like the scales of a pine cone, or giant almonds arranged like the scales of a pine cone. They’re white and glossy, which is why a straight comparison to a pine cone wouldn’t work.

The girl’s eyes are still there, you can see them looking out. But otherwise her face is a cluster, a rigid and severely arranged cluster that presents regular lines and not a sign of flesh as we understand it. I guess I assumed that smallpox would look like a mass of sores hanging off of a face, like exaggerated acne; you would be looking at a face that had been wrecked and spoiled.  Instead there is no face, and that is very disturbing.      

… this just in: I googled smallpox and found this sentence in the page of links: “The world’s last known case of smallpox was reported in Africa in 1977.” That’s from kidshealth, and I guess they’re right. Of course there are plenty of other diseases that need fighting, and I could give money to one of the relevant groups. 

update, I start by saying that “face almondine” is the closest I can come to describing the girl; then I finish by saying she has no face. Damn. I guess I just liked the phrase. One reason: it makes it easier for me to mention the almond croissant I’d eaten, and that brings the reader’s mouth, mentally, into close contact with the girl’s face; the resulting disgust is intimate and ups the description’s emotional effect. Also, “face almondine” is just snappy. I can say apologetically that it sounds flippant, implying that the flippancy was not intended, but I’m still turning a phrase about a horror and a tragedy. Flip a turtle on its back and its legs keep going; overturn me psychologically and my joke reflex keeps twitching. At least if the source of my overturn is a picture; if it’s a horror and tragedy that has hit me personally, I’ll probably skip the jokes for a while.