Our last house lay cradled in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains. The neighborhood terraced up the slope behind our property, ending three blocks away at the edge of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. From the path that emerged from our end of the development—marked by a dead, two-armed Saguaro that traced fat black ink strokes against the sunset—trails traced their way up into the desert: Lost Dog Wash; the Anasazi Spur and the Sunrise Trailhead; the Ringtail and Old Jeep Trails; Tom Thumb’s Trailhead and the Marcus Landslide Trail. A short hike over a low rise and the city disappeared behind us. Before us a sea of ironwood cholla, saguaros, barrelhead cactus, ocotillos and creosote crested like waves.
I loved the idea of living so close to the desert. We’d been a ten-minute drive from the preserve in the previous house, and though we’d had our share of javelinas and coyotes wandering down into the neighborhood, the mountain seemed removed. We could not feel its pulse. So when circumstances dictated a change anyway, we went with our gut desire to live in the desert, not just near it. On a March day in 2007, we rumbled up the long slope of a road called Via Linda—Pretty Way—to our new home.
It was magnificent. We hiked the trails. We collected pieces of quartz from the upper elevations—the rocks spilled down one side of the mountain from a white waterfall of an outcropping two hours up the trail. At night, we ambled up the long, dark avenue bisecting the neighborhood until we reached the end of the pavement. We crossed over into the desert and paused, listening to the silence undergirding the night sounds. From our patio, we watched the hawks circling overhead, and reeled at the panorama of stars undiminished by the brighter lights below.
We had wildlife adventures. Coming round a corner before Halloween one year, we surprised a herd of javelina nibbling on pumpkins in a neighbor’s yard. We froze. They bolted. Stampeding towards us, they parted at the last moment and disappeared into the brush on the other side of the road.
Another time, heading up the avenue in the dark, we saw a parked car ahead with its lights on full beam. “Assholes,” I said to my husband. “What the hell are they doing?” The next moment the profile of a deer split the glare in two. It bounded into the brush at the side of the road and emerged with its young before hightailing it back into the dark mountains. The people in the car had been trying to locate the fawn, they explained when we reached them.
All this beauty so near. Geckos and hummingbirds and coyotes howling at the moon.
And treacherous creatures of a more insidious nature.
One night as I snuggled up to my husband in our bed, I felt a thin whisper on my leg. I had just enough time to wonder if I had felt it or not, when the hypodermic jab of a needle in my upper arm jolted me upright. “Fuck,” I wailed. I’ve been stung! I’ve been stung!
“What?” My husband hollered, still sleep drunk. “What happened?”
“There’s a scorpion in the bed,” I said, throwing off the covers and bounding out of bed.
“Hold on,” he said. “Are you sure? Maybe it was a needle from the cactus. We were re-potting those plants today. It could have gotten on you .”
“No!” I said. “That was no cactus needle. I’m sure of it.” Still brushing myself off and shaking my hair out, I danced around wondering if the fucker was on the floor now.”
My husband jumped up and circled around the bed. “There it is,” he said. “Get a shoe, quick.” It lay motionless at the foot of the mattress, primeval, repellent, oblivious to its own danger. A whack and it was no more.
The scorpions sabotaged my desert mountain experience. I was later stung in a chair while convalescing from the flu. My daughter was stung in her bed and had to be taken to the emergency room. One of them crawled out of a pot my husband had held close to his chest a moment before. I could never relax when coming into the house or getting up in the night time, when slipping my foot into a shoe or opening a cupboard. I once found a dead one in the dishwasher and another in my china cabinet. The specter of the evil things haunted the house. I sensed them seething behind the walls. The “Scorpion Slayer” we hired (his business name) could only marginally keep them at bay. We moved after five years. I still worry about the young family that snapped up the house in a short sale in 2012.
On a footnote…if you happen to be thinking of moving to Arizona someday, read this NY Times article on the reality of sharing space with these truly creepy critters.
This reverie was stimulated by Charli Mills’s latest flash fiction challenge:
May 4, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) include insects in a story. Periwinkles, bees laden with pollen, ants building hills. What can insects add to a story? Do they foreshadow, set a tone, provide a scientific point of interest or a mystical element? Let you inner periwinkles fly!
So, here’s my flash.
Cleaning day in the new house. The feel of fine grit in the bathtub. She scrubbed, like a woman she’d seen in Oaxaca grinding corn on a stone metate.
Then, Ow! What the hell? A sliver of glass? She turned to the sink and threw her rag down. Inspected the finger. No blood. Only a suffusion under the skin, as if the tip were blushing.
She did other chores. The finger grew numb. Still she didn’t realize. Returning, she picked the rag up. The evil thing lay in the bowl, flat, segmented, pincered, its barbed tail ready to strike.