FULL STORY TO APPEAR IN THE JANUARY 2010 ISSUE!
The dry wind whips into a brief fury, and when it settles I hear a voice from my neighbor’s backyard. I leave the ants and press my ear up to the rotting wooden fence.
“Little heart a-beating
Little life so fleeting
Will you take it with you
Or die try-ing?”
The child-like voice sings a nursery rhyme I’ve never heard, almost whispers it, really. I straighten up and put my hands on the top of the boards, and lift myself up until I can just peek out over the top. There is the girl from the window, wearing blue jeans and a white t-shirt, kneeling in the dirt near some sort of small circle made of stone. She looks a little more real out here in the daylight, a little less tragic. Something moves inside the circle, but I can’t make it out, and my arms are getting tired.
“Hey,” I call as my grip begins to slip. “What are you doing?”
Her song cuts off mid-verse and she grabs something up from the circle, but she doesn’t turn her head to look at me. “Come and see,” she says.
I drop to the ground and all but run around the fence, through her gate, which hangs open.
“Sit down,” she says when I reach her.
I plop my butt on the ground and cross my legs. Now I see the sunglasses she wears, overly large plastic ones, the kind you get at drugstores and highway gas stations. Her head is still inclined to the circle, and I look down. I’m back on my feet in less than the time it takes to shout, “Jesus!”
Inside the circle, a sleek blue-black scorpion, about the size of a box of woodstove matches, stands as still as the stones surrounding it, pincers and deadly tail poised in the air.
The girl laughs, low and musical, the kind of laugh that is able to distract me from the strangeness of what I’m seeing.
“It’s okay, he won’t hurt you,” she says, and beckons me back to her with a closed fist. I step a little closer to the circle but I don’t sit down.
“It’s an Emperor Scorpion,” the girl goes on to explain. “Their sting will hurt you, but it can’t kill you. My dad imports them from Africa, on request. He owns a pet shop. Sit down.”
“That’s okay,” I say. “What are you doing with it?”
“Watch,” she says, and opens her fist.
On her palm sits a tiny brown mouse, at least two times smaller than the scorpion. She tilts her hand and the mouse tumbles over her fingers and into the pit formed by the stone circle. The scorpion jerks back from this new arrival, and the mouse pumps its puny forepaws along a rock, furiously trying to climb it.
The girl starts up her song again, humming at first, then repeating the first verse, slowly, as the mouse begins to explore its surroundings. The scorpion’s pincers widen, and my stomach clenches, knowing what must happen. I think about telling her to stop, or maybe snatching the mouse back up myself, but I’m frozen with cruel curiosity. The mouse runs in frantic circles around the stone perimeter; the scorpion twists slowly to follow it. The girl sings another verse in her low, upbeat whisper:
“Molded out of black glass
Turn too slow but think fast
One more bite it’s over
Before I can blink, the mouse has scuttled its way onto the top of the scorpion’s tail, and now it is feverishly chewing away near its tip. The scorpion continues to turn in slow, tight circles, trying to bend its pincers backward to knock off the mouse. Almost independently from my brain, my body bends closer to the battle. I can hear the mouse’s teeth work their way through the scorpion’s armor-like hide and into the meat of the thing.
Finally, the business end of the stinger is gnawed off and falls away, and the mouse wastes no time. It jumps onto the scorpion’s back, well out of reach of the flailing pincers, and digs into the scorpion’s neck.
“No cry-ing,” the girl sings again.
“Wow,” I breathe. “Shit.”
There’s only the sound of the mouse’s chewing for a while, and the wind picking up, and my heart beating. I realize I’m sweating, and wipe my arm against my forehead. Sticky skin against sticky skin, does nothing.
A door creaks open behind me and the girl moves camera-flash-quick, kicking out as she stands up so that the stones fall into the circle, covering both scorpion and mouse in some sort of awkward tomb.