The image is captivating. One man is horrifically disfigured. His actual malady is Recklinghausen’s Syndrome, one of the abnormalities often cited as the affliction of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. The surface of the man’s entire body is covered in tumorous growths, ranging in size from a pea to an orange. He looks as if his skinned has been brought to a boil and then flash frozen. Others recoil from him, mistakenly believing that he must have an infectious disease. People cringe, except for the other man in the photo frame. He is dressed in simple white. He is an older man. He looks like he could be your grandfather. This second man leans forward and offers the afflicted man his hand. He caresses the first man’s matted hair. And then the second man draws the first into an embrace, kissing his face.
Two weeks ago my cousin Rachel got lost in the wilderness. She was visiting a friend in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Rachel went for a hike in the morning by herself. She walked a long way into the wilderness, and at some point she paused to look around, realizing that she didn’t recognize any of the landmarks. Somehow Rachel had strayed unwittingly from the trail. At an elevation of six thousand feet in late November, it’s chilly at noon, and by the time the sun begins to dip below the Western lip of the mountains, it turns stark cold. Rachel had no food. She wore no heavy coat. She began to panic, and she kept walking, sometimes in circles, always farther and farther into the wilderness.