mother reminds me in every letter that I am not insured. She implores
me to subscribe to the Mexican government program, for foreigners and
nationals alike, that covers every contingency for just over $200 a year.
She points out that I live a stone's throw from a jungle rife with malaria
in one direction, and spitting distance from a rattlesnake-infested desert
in the other. She notes that bandits and pistoleros have been crisscrossing
the country since the Spanish arrived, and she is particularly concerned
about a sign she saw on a beach in a television documentary: "Beware Prowling
Tarantulas." She is firmly convinced that I am tempting fate: tickling
the dragon's tail, as she put it, and sure to get what's coming to me.
I of course came here for adventure - came
with visions of human sacrifice at the temples of the south, of sun-bleached
skulls among the cacti of the northern wastelands. I yearned to meet the
Zapatistas grimly awaiting revolution in their forest stronghold, to encounter
the Columbian smugglers awaiting the arrival of their next shipment, by
plane, among the mountains of the Sierra Madre del Sur. And I wanted especially
to see a live scorpion. I did not, however, expect to find it in the center
of my own living room.
Scorpions are everywhere in Mexico (including,
it turns out, my kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom) and they range in size
from about the length of a cigarette filter to that of a very manly cigar.
In some places, birds hunt for scorpions, and in others, the scorpions
hunt birds . They come in black, white, green, brown, and in combinations
of these colors. (Some of them, in fact, are said to be exquisite). They
come out only at night, and they fall: from thatched roofs and clotheslines,
cracked skylights and banana trees, anything overhead. You choose your
steps cautiously from bed to bathroom, and plop! there is one on your
shoulder. You plod barefoot from the beach to your home, and plop! one
appears in the sand, awaiting your next footfall.
When they are not busy falling, they march.
In a perfect 4:4 time (remember that arachnids have eight legs) and always
in a precisely straight line, they march, death held aloft and swinging
slightly left and right with each step. They are like tiny tanks rolling
inexorably over your kitchen floor, turrets swiveling this way and that
in search of movement. They have no discernible head. There is only death,
swaying lightly above, and legs, marching steady below.
The locals have numerous precautions, procedures,
remedies, and superstitions. The most intriguing of these is chocolate,
considered in these parts the sole known antidote for some varieties of
scorpion sting. If you are attacked, you are supposed to 1) kill the thing,
2) eat chocolate, and 3) don't sleep. If you sleep you may fall into a
coma. While you are awake your skin will burn and you will develop a fever,
but you can reduce these symptoms by consuming heaps of chocolate. And
I do mean heaps. You may prolong your life enough to get to a doctor.
Throughout Mexico there are scorpion brand
names and band names and plastic scorpion dolls to hang below the fuzzy
dice in your car. There are scorpion mudflaps for trucks and scorpion
baseball caps for truckers, and the hot fashions this season are available
downtown at a store called "Escorpion." It is said that in some regions
of the country they are eaten to enhance virility. (This is entirely credible;
delicacies here in the state of Oaxaca, for example, include grasshoppers
and iguana meat). One scorpion, ingested raw without hesitation, is worth
any number of steroids or Viagras or other such masculinity-making confections
available in the States. There is in general a kind of reverent affection
for this mysterious semi-mythical beast with the touch of death at the
tip of its tail .
But I for one have never seen another creature
so revolting. It has a hairy underbelly and long, independent insect legs.
It has a nasty disposition when captured, losing its military confidence
and thrashing its pincers, legs, and tail about with apoplectic violence.
It almost appears to be screaming at you - although of course that is
impossible for a headless being. Worst of all, its entire body is segmented,
and moves in sequence but not in one motion: a living length of chain
flicking death furiously to and fro, a machine assembled from spare parts
at a body shop in hell.
What happened was this: in the floor of
my living room there is a large cistern containing what the landlady refers
to as "emergency water." (Some things in Mexico still make me nervous,
and the gallons I keep for "emergencies" certainly qualify. Should I expect
plague and pestilence? Invasion? What?) The lid had been off for several
days after I moved in, lying upside down on the floor. While cleaning
early one Sunday night, I lifted and replaced it over the cistern opening.
When I looked down at the floor again, I saw, inches from where I had
curled my fingers under the edge of the lid, a black scorpion. It was
curled up tail over body so that at first I mistook it for a large spider.
I further mistook it for dead when repeated
stamping on the floor nearby brought no reaction. ("Stomp through tall
grasses to frighten scorpions," says my guidebook). I made for the broom
and the dustpan, but had a fortunate second thought. I cut the top off
a plastic liter bottle and used the bottom half to scoop the scorpion
up. The proper course of action, I learned later, is to get your boots
on and squish the thing, pronto.
Inside the bottle the scorpion became inspired,
an envenomed whip with legs. Turn, attack, turn, attack. I could see between
lashes that he came to about five inches unfurled. At the end of his tail
stood a blood-red pod about the size and shape of a pearl, except for
a tiny needle at the top. The locals insist that this needle always finds
the vein. In this case he simply stung my bottle to death repeatedly.
He could not, I observed with relief, climb its smooth plastic sides.
But it was plain that if his assailant would stop being such a bottle-wielding
coward and face him Man-to-Scorpion, he knew exactly what to do.
I doused him with so much Raid he probably
drowned before the toxins set in.
Afterward I did not sleep. I turned on all
the lights in the house, checked for monsters under the bed, prayed to
Quetzalcoatl to keep his soon-to-be long-term faithful servant foremost
in mind when delegating patrols to perilous creepy-crawlies each night.
(This prayer has since gone flagrantly unheeded). In the morning, however,
I learned that my fears were somewhat exaggerated. Lethal scorpions prefer
the desert, where they can keep company with tarantulas and Gila monsters
and rattlesnakes. Scorpions in this area and at this altitude, said the
neighbors, are "usually not dangerous," and their sting causes "only a
day or two of fever." (And then there is always chocolate). "Snip the
tip of the tail off," said one fellow with a smile, "and you can let them
run up and down your arm, across your chest, whatever!"
I'll get insured before I try that.