Friday, November 13, 2009

The 101st Scorpion

Helio would play like a corpse while his assistant covered his naked body with scorpions. Wherever they were, people traveled long distances to see skin and bones, frizzy-haired Helio be covered in scorpions. Spectators would fill with money the open violin case left nearby. The giving would grow furious as the stunned silence from the covering spectacle subsided. The spectators would form a snaking line, drop money then leave. Everyone marveled at the amazing Helio, who, miraculously, had never been stung.

Helio claimed he knew each scorpion. Each had its own personality, he said, and he had developed individual bond with each. This, he claimed, was how he was able to avoid being stung. Sometimes, he would proclaim, I am the 101st scorpion. In the evenings, he and his assistant, along with the members of his entourage, would sit around a fire, eat roasted fish, ingest mushrooms, and he would speak about how he and the scorpions formed a continual circle that represented the oneness of all life. His stoned onlookers marveled at his words and moving lips, the philosophy he’d cultivated after a decade of performances.

Breaking the life circle, he said, could be disastrous.

He had known scorpions all his life, finding them in the wild as a kid. His life’s defining moment was when his younger brother Casimiro was stung by one that had made its way inside their house, crawled into his bed. Their village was too remote for assistance, and the boy died within hours, his helpless father holding him as his mother was on her knees, head bowed in continual prayer. Helio watched, in horror and morbid fascination, as his life's purpose was planted in his mind, emerging years later in his teen years.

Occasionally, a scorpion would die or escape. Helio would suspend shows until he found a replacement, as he insisted upon exactly 100. He would browse available specimens, both wild and captive, an often weeks-long process, studying and handling each one. The circle was perfect, he would say, and only suitable for perfect specimens.

Not long after Casimiro's death, Helio’s father left. Before their split, his mother often cried and his father often yelled. Once his father left, Helio never saw him again. His mother had various male lovers over the years—sneaking inside once Helio was thought to be asleep—but none lasted. When he was sixteen, his mother developed cancer and soon died. A week later, knowing his purpose, he hit the road. For him, it was rebirth, an erasure of his old life.

He and his entourage were headed to a town played before to big crowds and money. Halfway there, they stopped to camp. Come dawn, as they gathered for breakfast, his assistant was gone. Helio and the other five travelers searched nearby, but he was gone. His belongings, gathered in a small canvas sack, remained, and the scorpions were all in their cages. Helio asked the others if they knew anything. Buy they didn’t. They ate breakfast and, nearing departure time, his assistant still had not appeared.

So, just before leaving, Helio said: I need a new assistant. Who wants this job?

They huddled briefly. Soon after, four of them declined in unison, fearing the black beasts. The other, the youngest at sixteen, said, I will do it. Helio looked at the thin, mouse-like boy and smiled. As they traveled, Helio gave him instructions, detailing the delicate processes of covering and removal, making him repeat his words. Helio wondered about the boy’s abilities, but told himself, it’ll be okay.

At the town, people had already gathered. Entrepreneurs were selling roasted meats and cold drinks from rickety wooden carts along with handmade pottery and knickknacks. Before the show, Helio coached his new assistant who, at one point, said, maybe they should cancel. Helio said, you are in the circle now. All will be okay. Just think—I'm the one who’s getting covered with scorpions. Just before show time, Helio looked at the scorpions skittering about in their cages, their tails feverish scythes, an army awaiting his call to battle. For the first time in years, he felt fear.

He recalled his former assistant’s words: one day, these creatures will get you. You will not be talking circles but death. This is the true nature of life. You are lucky but cannot be so forever. Helio blocked these thoughts. The former assistant had disappeared—now out of the circle, his words were meaningless. The kid was the one now.

The crowd was the largest ever—people fifteen to twenty deep. Helio was flat on his back, naked, and saw his assistant step hesitantly toward him with several scorpions, as the crowd hushed. Don't be afraid, Helio told him, you're doing fine. Helio closed his eyes as he felt those familiar points on his skin. Once he was covered, the crowd murmured, occasionally gasping. He heard coins clinking in the violin case. He opened his eyes, saw clouds in the sky shifting quickly.

Then, suddenly, he was stung over and over. He let out a small cry, went silent as he was hit with overwhelming pain. His assistant saw what was happening and screamed, confused as to what to do, standing at a distance as the beasts held firm on Helio’s twitching body. The crowd screamed; some came to help but stopped in a short circle around Helio. Two boys stole the violin case, coins trickling to the ground as they ran.

Eventually, his assistant was able to remove the scorpions. Some remaining spectators demanded killing the scorpions but kept their distance.

Helio's lifeless body was black and purple. Paralyzed, he felt cold rushing numbness course through him, poised to erase his mind. He thought about Casimiro, how he now knew what his dead brother had endured. His assistant knelt next to him. Helio wanted to say something about circles, but couldn’t speak. Instead, he stared into the sky, watched clouds sailing away like trails of smoke.


  1. I was gripped by this!
    So was it the breaking of the circle by the old assistant leaving that caused the scorpions to attack?

  2. Very powerful imagery and nice use of foreshadowing! The story reminds me of the Aesop's fable about the scorpion and the frog.

  3. Mazzz: That's the rough gist of it. More like a foreshadowing of the doom to come.

    Deb: Thanks. I'll take mentioned in the same sentence as Aesop any day. I think he was on to something with those fables of his...

    Thanks to you both for reading and commenting.

  4. If this was written 40 or 50 years ago, I could see Rod Serling from the original Twilight Zone and Night Gallery turning this into one of his teleplays. Well done.

  5. Thanks, Scorpion Equalizer! I always hope that on my best days I can be a low rent Rod Serling.