“Toothpaste” by E.T. Stafne (Senegal)



E.T. Stafne (Senegal 1994–96)

I never knew such goddamn pain in all my life.

My fingers searched out the offending patch of skin and found it just above my mouth. In my groggy, half-awake half-asleep state it felt like a fist-sized plug of tobacco shoved between my teeth and upper lip. That explained the bulging I felt, but not the intense pain. Slowly, I rose up from the hot and uncomfortable foam mattress, threw aside the frayed Peace Corps-issued mosquito net, and dragged myself over to the lone mirror in my possession, the one on the inside cover of a Silva compass. Not meant for self-inspection of deformities, its size did not allow for the full effect of horror that I would have realized with a regular-sized mirror. This small one gave me the illusion that it wasn’t all that bad, just a small bump. But as I continued to run my moist fingers over the tender, fulminating skin, a shadow of dread draped over my soul.

The pain radiated from my upper lip and across my face in fierce waves; each one crashed unceasingly against my uncomprehending brain. I clutched the compass tighter and drew it closer to my mouth. Millimeter by millimeter I searched desperately for a sign of what constituted this agony. Thoughts of mere insignificant infirmities cascaded through my mind — perhaps just a fever blister, or I hit myself unwittingly and it was just swollen, or maybe an ant bite — though tempting, none of them sated the fear that festered in my stomach. It started to grab me now, consume me with thoughts of something terrible, horrible . . . awful.

I breathed deeply, closed my eyes, and tried to regain my composure. It’s nothing, I told myself. It was a lie and I knew it. It was indeed something and the pain that it conferred grew like a gangrenous wound. I was 400 miles from the doctor and seemingly a million miles from civilization. Fear seeped into my resolve. A germinating seed in the back of my mind grew the idea that I could indeed die from this.

Once again I clutched the small mirror close to my face, searching for the clue that would give me relief, or at least a momentary respite from my wild imaginings. Then, almost insignificant, but there, yes, there, near the crusty corner where my upper and lower lips met was a swollen eruption of skin, a repugnant head, filled with a white hue.

A pimple? I pondered. A fucking zit?

I couldn’t believe it. Never in my life had a blemish caused so much agony, so much apprehension. Carefully, with fore fingers together, I proceeded to squeeze. Nothing. The stubbornness of it only made me more determined. I pushed under my lip with my tongue and pressed with angry fingers until the pain raged like a screaming banshee across my skull. And then, like a reward for the anguish, the skin popped open to reveal the white madness beneath.

I was in a timeless vacuum, nothing else mattered except the need to conquer this…this what? Encouraged, I squeezed harder, enduring the lightning bolts that strafed my face. I grunted and pushed harder than ever. Nothing. The white tip of the underbelly of the beast poked out ever so slightly as if to taunt me. I took a break, panting from my efforts. I felt woozy and uncomfortable. This was no ordinary pimple.

Bolstered by the respite, I again looked at the mad, swollen protrusion. Bring it on. In a desperate attempt to end my suffering again I plunged my tongue behind my lip and pushed, and then I ran my knuckle across it. Seconds clicked by as I pushed with every ounce of strength. Then, in a moment of surrender, I heard an audible ‘pop’ and watched in horror as a vile, white, worm-like exudate emanated from the corner of my mouth. I continued to push and it continued to grow, stretching out like the Conqueror Worm in its toothpaste-like consistency. I screamed aloud as the last bit ejected and plopped harmlessly on the floor. I stood, dazed and numb, looking down at the offensive emanation.

Jesus H. Christ, I whispered and closed my eyes.

The mass of infection soiled the ground by my feet, laying prostrate like a failed larva. The pain subsided, but I pushed again until blood flowed without a hint of white pus. The relief was welcome. I cleaned the blood off my face, the pasty slug from the floor, and walked out of my mud hut to face another Peace Corps/Senegal day.

Eric Stafne (Senegal 1994–96) entered the Peace Corps after completing his undergraduate studies at Michigan State University. He worked with women’s gardens, fruit tree grafting, and agroforestry projects during his time in Senegal. His time in the Peace Corps was a turning point in his future, as he continues to work in agriculture and horticulture.

wretch-unsungIn 2004, Eric published a Peace Corps novel, The Wretch Unsung

Currently, he resides in south Mississippi.And yes, the above story is mostly true.

One Comment

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  • This literary moment gives me the total creeps. Eric writes so luminously that I could almost feel his pain, fear and loathing.

    I’d better buy this book.


    Leita Kaldi Davis
    (Senegal 1933-96)

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