Other posts in the series:
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Izak hadn’t always lived on the street. Once, long ago, he’d been “Mr van Heerden”, and he’d lived in a small cottage in Elsie’s River, and he’d worked in the local garage. He’d been married, and had children, and prospects of becoming head mechanic.
Then the garage closed, and the job prospects dwindled, and the cheap wine intake increased – and the arguments with his wife got more bitter and more violent, and she left, and the house was taken away.
So now he was here. In an alley, off Long Street, with only an elderly pavement special to keep him company.
He had woken up with her one winter’s morning; a mid-sized scraggly labradorish dog cuddled into his side as he lay buried in his cardboard shelter, shivering as the drizzle came down. He had shouted at her, then, and she had slunk away. She was back later, though, as he sat with his little fire in the perforated paint can; wagging her tail and grinning in an ingratiating way. He had thrown her a crust, which she snatched in the air and wolfed down with a growl.
She was often around after that, and he became used to having her tucked into his side as he prepared for sleep: she was warm, and he slept better without having to have as much papsak wine to help him pass out. What made the bond firm, though, was when an aggressive and drunken group of bergslaapers had invaded his alley one night. As he had stumbled back from the threats and fists, away from his few belongings, she had appeared out of the dark; low to ground and growling in a way he had never heard. The men had laughed – until she suddenly had one by the leg, then another by the hand as he swiped at her, and bit another in the crotch as they milled around. He had joined in, then, with a broken piece of concrete reinforcing; together they had driven the bunch cursing and bleeding out of their alley.
He called her Lady after that, and always had a snack for her and a corner of his blanket under the cardboard. They did well together, Izak and Lady: people were kinder when you had a faithful dog curled up with you in your customary begging spot, and even the cops had a smile for them. She also kept people away if they tried to rob them, and patrolled the alley to keep the rats away from their food.
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The bat meal for the rat family was one of those unlikely biological events that result in something genuinely new. Viruses specialised by aeons of evolution to exist comfortably in their separate and very different hosts were mixing in the same cells; exchanging bits of themselves in an environment where the hopeful monsters of recombination that were not viable by themselves, could be sustained by their parents for the functions that they lacked. In the close quarters of a rat’s nest, with constant comings and goings, and exchange of food and saliva, viruses from the bat mixed with what was in the rats, and went back and forth, until suddenly – there was a new entity, that did not need any help to exist.
Bats are host to more viruses that infect other vertebrates that one would believe possible: one study on one species of bat in India turned up more than 50 viruses, mostly paramyxoviruses, and most of them never seen previously.
Rats too harbour a rich and diverse viral ecology: a recent study showed that New York city rats alone carried more than 18 new viruses; rats in South America and Europe are implicated in transmission to humans of a variety of haemorrhagic fever viruses such as hantaviruses – and the ones in Cape Town had never been studied to see what they carried.
It was not a surprise, therefore, that what emerged in the little rat family that had eaten the bat was an exotic mixture of genes that had never been in one organism before. A bornavirus – implicated in fatal neurologic disease in Europe transmitted by squirrels to people – had recombined with a distant evolutionary cousin in the form of an undescribed paramyxovirus – cousin to distemper, measles and mumps viruses – to make something truly new. This was a virus that infected cells of the respiratory passages, but found its way via the bloodstream to nervous tissue, and then to the brain. Like its parents in bats and rats, it didn’t do much to its hosts – but it had one peculiarity.
It made the rats fearless.
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