Yesterday, and only a week overdue, I submitted an article in which I made light of typical traveler anxieties, from the microbial right on up to the tectonic. Twelve hours later, Mexico had me eating crow.
This comeuppance occurred in my bedroom. I had just gotten undressed and was slathering cocoa butter on my baby belly when my eyes snagged on an unmistakable dark shape on my cream-colored wall, just above the bedroom door: two pincers and an upturned tail.
The scorpion had no need for that tail, however. My heart stopped all on its own—no neurotoxins needed.
I am not really a jello-y kind of woman. This week, I’ve killed a pair of back widows (or, should I say, a widow and her doomed mate?) in my bathroom. And my two-year-old son and I have been tracking the renovations being made to a wasps’ nest on our roof. Snakes can give me a good shudder, particularly if I’m startled, but if no one else is around to finagle into what needs doing, I know how and can.
Scorpions, however, are another story, this one no doubt written by John Steinbeck. In his novella, the The Pearl, which is set in Mexico, a scorpion crawls down the rope suspending a hanging cradle and then, just as the father moves to intercept it, the insect tumbles onto the sleeping baby and stings him. It is one of those truly haunting moments in literature, and anyway there’s no other explanation for all the mornings I’ve compulsively shaken my shoes before I put them on my feet. Before last night, I had never laid eyes on one.
Or maybe The Pearl was just fodder for my imagination and this is my explanation: those traveler fears that I have been working so hard to undermine are more about otherness and difference—an abject fear of the unknown—than they are objective dangers. Maybe if I got to know scorpions, or knew more about them—or at least learned what handling them entailed (as I have done for earthquakes and black widows and unfortunate bouts of la venganza)—I wouldn’t feel so offended by such a presence in my bedroom.
It would then follow that exposure is the best antidote to my scorpion anxiety. But my one dress rehearsal didn’t do me any good. When the sting occurred, I dreamed that my now-husband Steve was etching a design on my arm with a pocketknife. Then the pain burned through the celluloid of the dream and I remembered I was on a volcanic island off the Pacific Coast of Honduras.
“Something just bit me,” I whispered to Steve, who was snoring softly, and not even in reach of a pocketknife.
I didn’t say scorpion, but I didn’t have a doubt in my mind.
“It’s still in the bed,” I said more loudly, not daring to get out of the bed myself. I knew that getting riled up would make the toxins slosh around in my body all the more quickly. I also knew that there was no phone on the island.
Steve bolted, somehow whipping back the sheet and flicking on the light in the same move. There was no scorpion after all, but an oversized centipede skittered across the white sheet and leapt (who knew!) onto the tile floor, where Steve dispatched him, and then some, with a flip-flop.
Whatever its motives, this heroism didn’t alter the fact that my arm was swelling all around the hard white sting. The travel health book I have always carried was succinct and reassuring about scorpion bites—To adults, scorpion stings are rarely dangerous. Take aspirin and if possible put ice on the sting. But it had nothing to say about centipedes.
That was a long night, but rather than embitter me towards creatures with an overabundance of legs, the experience bolstered my dread of scorpions. The next time Steve and I returned to the U.S., I bought a backpacker’s mosquito net to carry on future trips.
Last night, as I performed a pregnant rendition of the standard heebie-jeebies dance for a very real, very large scorpion in my very bedroom, I had one comforting thought: my mosquito net was at that very moment draped around my toddler’s bed. Steinbeck’s scorpion couldn’t get at my sleeping baby.
It’s true, the scorpion was positioned directly over my bedroom doorway like a blessing. It wasn’t in my bed or in my underwear drawer or nestled down in the toe of my boot. But I would not be soothed by such benign posturing: scorpions, I knew from sources other than Steinbeck, tend to drop from above. And I would not feel blessed as I scampered under him, clutching a nightshirt I couldn’t quite manage to put on.
At the top of the stairs, I hissed:
“Steven. Right now.”
I don’t speak this way to my husband. He came running.
“Scorpion,” I whispered. “In the bedroom.”
Steve rushed in to see it, and once he had, made a beeline for blue flip-flops.
“Wait!” I said, the urgency suddenly rushing out of the situation now that I had someone to share it with. “Let me get the camera.”
Photography is, after all, a first way to know the foreign: Oh look, something different and interesting, let me take a picture to show the people back where I am from. Photography, particularly the amateur sort, doesn’t involve touching or talking or breaking down any boundaries.
The scorpion brandished his pincers in annoyance at the camera flash, but he sat tight for the photo shoot. With my digital camera, I could get a close up look at the scorpion without leaving the safety of the middle of our bed. He was, I learned from the pictures, dark brown with muted shine and no distinctive markings.
Only when I was satisfied with the sharpness of the photos he took did I let Steve move onto the next step. For this, he clutched a plastic sandwich box and a manila folder and climbed up on a chair.
The failed capture itself was too fast for me to fully grasp what happened, but the scorpion did not survive, contrary to our intent but probably for the better since we didn’t then have to figure out how to kill it or where we might ethically release it. We latched the sandwich box shut just the same and Steve carried our catch downstairs—a specimen for now, but destined to become a souvenir—for analysis a la Google.
It turns out, Steinbeck wasn’t making things up: there are upwards of 800 deaths every year in Mexico from alacrán stings. Guanajuato, a city just three hours from where we live and not unlike our city, is known affectionately (and unofficially) as the Scorpion Bite Capital of the World. And ours guest, clearly some sort of Centruroides, is among the most poisonous on the planet.
None of this information should have made me feel any better. And yet, as Steve and I scrolled through pages of scorpion trivia and photos, I started to feel sleepy. I thought about the book I’d been looking forward to before that shape on my bedroom wall canceled my plans for an early night. Before long, I gave up the project.
In the morning, I was annoyed to discover that Steve had left the sandwich box uncovered. Sure, the scorpion was dead, but still. What if our son had grabbed it off the table and the dead bug fell on him? What if…well, I didn’t have another what-if.
And after breakfast, we introduced our toddler to what remained of our visitor. We issued warnings—if you ever see a bug like this, don’t touch, back away, get mama or daddy—but we also let him get a good look. When he got a little too possessive of the sandwich container, we took it away and used a pen instead to role-play scorpion spotting. It became the game of the day.
So now I’ve rehearsed saving my child from a scorpion about 900 times, I’ve done my background reading, I’ve encountered one in my own home, and (although it was a centipede), I’ve mentally experienced a scorpion sting. Am I cured?
I may find out sooner rather than later.
“I am only telling you this because I’m not going to do it,” Steve confesses as we brush our teeth. “I’ve been dying to cut out a scorpion shape and put it on your pillow.”
Steve is one of three brothers. In the years that we’ve been married, he has worked hard at not treating me like one more.
“At least you weren’t planning to use the real one,” I retort.
“Oh, I hadn’t thought of that!”
I can tell he hasn’t entirely given up on the idea, that maybe he hopes that warning me will make it all right to play the prank anyway.
I suppose I’ll have my answer when I see me next scorpion. Part of me hopes, for my husband’s sake, that it is both real and alive.