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Death by Scorpion

Muerte por alacrán
by Armonía Somers
Translated from Spanish by
Kit Maude

Tan pronto como surgieron a lo lejos los techos de pizarra de la mansión de veraneo, dispuestos en distintos planos inclinados, los camioneros lograron comprender lo que se estaban preguntando desde el momento de iniciar la carga de la leña. ¿A qué tanto combustible bajo un sol que ablanda los sesos?

– Los ricos son así, no te calientes por tan poco, que ya tenemos de sobra con los cuarenta y nueve del termómetro – dijo el más receptivo al verano de los dos individuos, mirando de reojo el cuello color uva del otro, peligrosamente hipertenso.

Y ya no hablaron más, al menos utilizando el lenguaje organizado de las circunstancias normales. Tanto viaje compartido había acabado por quitarles el tema, aunque no las sensaciones comunes que lo hacían de cuando en cuando vomitar alguna palabrota en código de tipo al volante, y recibir la que se venía de la otra dirección como un lenguaje de banderas. Y cuidarse mutuamente con respecto al sueño que produce entre los ojos la raya blanca. Y sacar por turno la botella, mirando sin importársele nada la cortina de vidrio movedizo que se va hendiendo contra el sol para meterse en otra nueva. Y desviar un poco las ruedas hasta aplastar la víbora atravesada en el camino, alegrándose luego de ese mismo modo con cualquier contravención a los ingenuos carteles ruteros, como si hubiese que dictar al revés todas aquellas advertencias a fin de que, por el placer de contradecirlas, ellos se condujeran alguna vez rectamente. Hasta que las chimeneas que emergían como tiesos soldados de guardia en las alturas de un fuerte, les vinieron a dar las explicaciones del caso.

– Ya te lo decía, son ricos, no se les escapa nada. Vendrán también en el invierno, y desde ya se están atiborrando de leña seca para las estufas, no sea cosa de dejarse adelantar por nadie, ni siquiera por las primeras lluvias.

Pero tenían la boca demasiado pastosa a causa de la sed para andar malgastando la escasa saliva que les quedaba en patentar el descubrimiento. Más bien sería cuestión de hacer alguna referencia a lo otro que venía a sus espaldas, algo de la dimensión de un dedo pulgar, pero tan poderoso como una carga de dinamita o la bomba atómica.

As soon as the varied array of slate roofs of the summer mansion appeared in the distance, the truck drivers realized what they’d been wondering since they’d started loading up the wood. Why would anyone need all this firewood when it was hot enough to scald your brain?

“That’s how rich people are, it’s nothing to get worked up about. Not when it’s forty-nine degrees out already,” said the one driving. He was dealing with the heat rather better than his companion whose skin had turned a vibrant shade of purple, especially under the collar. A stroke seemed dangerously imminent.

They didn’t say anything else, at least not in words. They’d exhausted their topics of conversation on the long journey, but their sense of common purpose remained, especially when one of them felt moved to trade tirades of swearwords with vehicles on the other side of the road, a strangely formal exchange with its own rules and codes. Or, when their gazes began to look dangerously vacant, they helped to jolt each other awake. Or, when they were passing the bottle back and forth, staring listlessly ahead as sunbeam after sunbeam passed through the windshield. Or, when one of them yanked the steering wheel to squash a snake in the road. Or, when they gleefully mocked the naivete of road signs with similarly exaggerated swerves, as though to say that if the authorities wanted them to do something, they should have had the signs say precisely the opposite; they’d drive properly out of sheer contrariness. Eventually the chimneys came into view like stiff-backed guards on sentry duty, answering their question.

“See? I told you so. The rich see to every last detail. They must come here in winter too.

They’re already stocking up on wood for their hearths. Always trying to stay a step ahead. They’ll have them lit at the first sign of rain.”

But their mouths were too dry to waste the little saliva they had left blabbering on about unimportant revelations. More urgent was the need to send a signal to the truck behind them: a raised digit, a seemingly insignificant gesture as powerful as a stick of dynamite. Or an atomic blast.

“It’s been eating away at me for the whole trip. Every time we go over a fucking pothole, I think that scorpion has stung me,” said the one in danger of an aneurism, who could no longer contain his mounting anxiety. His outburst was accompanied by a spatter of sweat rubbed from his neck.

“Just forget it, why don’t you?” exclaimed the man in the driver’s seat. “The way you’re going on, we should have just upped and quit the moment we saw it slip in among the wood… Like a slinky,” he added maliciously, waving his hand sinuously in the air. “Ready to creep up your spine.” (His companion pressed his back against the seat in terror.) “But we took the job, didn’t we? So, scorpion or not, we’re going to have to unload the cargo. And if the little bastard does stick us, so what? At least it’s an interesting way to go. Why worry about how you’re going to kick the bucket?”

The truck slowed as they approached the signpost: Villa Therese. Entrance. The driver put it into second gear and headed up the drive to the house, snaking like a caterpillar between two stretches of grass that had been cut so short and neat they looked as though they’d come straight out of a catalogue. A pair of enormous Great Danes surged out to fill the air with their barking, taking up a position next to another sign with its own arrow: Service. Next came more billiard table lawns and further barking. Eventually, a servant emerged: a dry, tough man with an elegant bearing, his solid expression not dissimilar to the kind of lock one finds on large wooden chests.

“This way,” he said, arcing his arms like a conductor giving instructions to the string section.

The truck drivers exchanged a look that contained all the wisdom of their years on the road. One of the Danes inspected the truck’s rear wheels, sniffed one carefully, and started to pee. Just as the other dog had begun to add its own parallel stream, both of which glinted in the sunlight before splashing onto the earth, each man jumped out his door and walked around to the back of the truck. They exchanged another meaningful look: a combination of the grimace shared by a pair of soldiers entrusted with a difficult mission and an emotional farewell in case one of their numbers came up. Fortunately, such outbursts of human feeling don’t last long. When the butler came back out with two enormous baskets, the demeanor of men who just a moment before had been shedding tears over one another changed entirely. Now they were a pair of rude truck drivers who grabbed the baskets from the butler’s hands, glancing with amusement at his shiny shoes and white waistcoat. Then one of them pulled on a handle and the river of logs began to flow. Thus the horror was unloaded, moving from the sunlit garden into the ebony darkness of a house where a scorpion could easily creep up your back without your noticing. They made several trips to the kitchen woodshed where a fat woman possessed of a cow-like disposition gave them ice water with lemon and granted them permission to wash their faces. Then they were sent to each of the house’s fireplaces. There was no one to be seen. (These mansions always seem to be left empty, have you ever noticed?) After delivering the final log, they left the fairy tale abode for the last time. They hadn’t enjoyed being there as they might have, but instead celebrated something much grander: a sense of relief, rebirth, and renewed joy in life.

“It was nice, you have to admit…the furniture, the carpets. It felt like a dream. The way those people live, what they must get up to behind closed doors.”

Having stowed the baskets away, the butler came back out, wallet in hand. They snatched the cash he held out and quickly climbed back into the cab like thieves making a getaway. They were noisily pulling away, pursued by the piss-happy dogs, when one of the men, glorying in a victory that could only be shared with his companion, started to beep the horn, shouting:

“Hey, mister, you’d better tell your masters to be careful where they put their arses when they get back! The house ain’t safe: a scorpion, about this big, came in with the wood…”

“The size of a crocodile, man,” added the driver and, reaching for the bottle, he started to laugh.

It was only when the truck had just finished rounding the corner of the estate that the man they had left behind was able to make out the message. The crucial word, the one that conjured a set of pincers, legs, tail, and stinger, had only been thrown at him by the cowardly bastards right at the last minute, like a fortune told casually by a distracted psychic with no regard for the poor devil whose fate hung in the balance. He went back into the mansion through the same back door they’d used to unload the wood and looked around. He’d always seen the interior of the house as a forest of objects, an utterly static world that even in its passivity was always asking for more, chewing up anyone it no longer had any use for. It was a monster with multiple mouths, bristling with feet, a flexible skeleton swollen with sawdust, horsehair, and wave after wave of moldings. He’d seen it that way since the day that little Therese was born, the day he’d arrived to take charge of the household, rather irritated by a shrill, insistent wail. Suddenly, after fourteen years of relative peace and mutual trust between himself and the things, the relationship had been altered by something much smaller than the miniatures they kept in the ivory display case. But this thing moved of its own accord, harboring instinctive but insidious designs. And it brought a whole philosophy with it, not that he quite knew how to express this idea. He was like someone biting into the flesh of an existential fruit right through to a pit that can’t be digested or spat out however hard they try. The scorpion that had come in with the wood was an intruder that could be summed up in a single word. Although it had yet to present its credentials, it was a highly influential ambassador. All they knew about it was what it was called and its time of arrival, but it represented a challenge that was everywhere and nowhere. First, the man ran down to the cellar, where the recently filled woodshed was located. The underground woman had such a peaceable expression—her solitude didn’t seem to bother her at all—that he immediately decided against asking her for help.

“What’s wrong, Felipe? What are you doing down here at this hour? Are the masters back already?” she asked in her provincial accent, wiping floury hands on her apron.

“No, Marta, they’ll be back at five, for tea. I just wanted some juice,” he answered distractedly, peering down at the floor, which was littered with peels.

The bovine-faced woman, who thought she was being scolded, ran to get a broom and swept up the cuttings with the humility of a natural inferior. As she bent down to scoop them up, he looked at her through the liquid in his glass. She’s a good woman, he thought, like the warm bread one hankers after in winter. But she could do with a little more salt, and someone had added too much yeast… He had nearly completed his thought, which took on a different color when seen through a glass of juice, when he was stung by the remembrance of what had sent him down the stairs in the first place. Pins and needles coursed through his body. He put down the glass, picked up a rake hanging next to the woodshed, and started to pile the logs up in the middle of the kitchen, like a dog digging a hole in search of a buried bone. Every time a pile collapsed—they’d been poorly stacked by the hurrying truck drivers—he leapt backward with his legs spread apart, staring at the floor. And so, the man dressed in black slowly began to lose his dignity. His handkerchief soon grew dirty with wood dust and sweat, relieving him of his aura of importance. Now he resembled nothing so much as a mannequin someone had forgotten to auction off after their shop went bankrupt. But he had no choice, he had to complete his task. When he was done, he raked the floor of the woodshed. Then he looked up at the cook’s expression of amazement through the dusty air, which was very different from looking at her through the juice. But when something starts to seem less appealing, it never occurs to anyone that it might be their vision that’s dirty, he thought. He spat in disgust at everything and nothing before dusting himself down and starting up the spiral staircase to the main hall on the ground floor. He took another despairing look at the world of objects. From the wooden baseboards to the beams along the ceiling, which just so happened to be coated in a scorpion-like shade of varnish, from the chests to the half-open drawers of the furniture, the creature’s potential territory was vast. And there was also the chance that it had blended in with the drawings on the tapestries, the tasseled curtains, or the patterns on the lampshades. Of course, he could delay the search until the others got back. But what for? If an epidemic has broken out, you don’t wait for the Minister of Health to come back from his vacation to fight the virus, even if everyone’s already struggling with the flu and no one is authorized to release public funds. Worried that further hesitation might be fatal, he decided to turn the house upside down. He’d heard that a scorpion’s venom was similar to curare and more effective the smaller the victim. Small animals, children, and vulnerable adults. In his mind’s eye, he saw little Therese thrashing around in the night after being stung in the ankle, or the shoulder. First, as with the aboriginal poison, came a brief period of elation, a delirium similar to that produced by fermented drinks. Then came prostration, immediately followed by paralysis. It was precisely the image of this harsh contrast, the girl who was ordinarily so exasperatingly mobile lying prone during the venom’s final stage, that broke his last vestige of decorum, sending him running up the stairs to the floor where the bedrooms were located.

Even though he knew it was empty, he entered the girl’s room hesitantly. He’d always felt a little bewildered when he was in there, at first because newborn babies are often naked, then, as the blonde girl’s calves changed in complexion, size, and temperament, because she no longer spent so much time in a state of undress. While he formulated and executed his search plan (first, he’d flip the rug over and check it very closely), he thought back over the mysterious path of that change. At the start of every season, she usually gave him a hug (next behind the curtains, just in case), but every year the color and consistency of her hair would be different (mattress flipped, pillows checked), and the hairdos grew more frivolous. Finally, this summer, just a few days ago, during her customarily frenetic hug with the bachelor butler, he’d felt the soft, round breasts of a young woman under her starched blouse. Of course, he was allowed a secret little shiver (sheets ripped off in violent tugs). The chance of a clandestine thrill was an age-old perk that nature had reserved for him as a caretaker of children, a man who raises innocent young girls and then thrusts them into our arms. It wasn’t on the bed underneath the flipped mattress or hiding among the springs. Suddenly, he saw a pink, cloud-like item of clothing that appeared to have no practical purpose sticking out of a half-open drawer. The dangling pink threads offered virgin terrain for exploration, and it was there, underneath more clouds, jellyfish, and other bizarre feminine accoutrements, that he caught a deadly glimpse of the arachnid. Reluctantly, like someone profaning sacred territory, he reached for the intruder. However, it turned out not to be a scorpion perkily waving its tail but the edge of a small diary with a crocodile skin cover and the father’s golden seal (Günter Stockbrokers), the kind of thing that companies hand out as a corporate gift at the end of the year. It touched him to see the childish treasure, like a rabbit’s foot or anything else that children tend to cherish. A girl’s foolishness, a diary nestled among the little panties and bras. Suddenly, moved by the fragrance of all that underwear worn so close to the body, a body that had now developed little breasts poking out from beneath her blouse, he opened the diary at random, just where something had been scribbled messily in pencil along with the date of the family’s arrival. “Back in the country today, damn it. So bored. I’ve left behind the boys, the dances, the aperitif with nine ingredients invented by The Nine. But, Therese, you have to admit that something significant happened to you this year when you hugged Felipe. It ran through your whole body. And to think that all this time you’d been squeezing him like a tree trunk. Remember it tonight in bed. Also, the sedatives the doctor prescribed. Or maybe I shouldn’t take them and should instead wait to see how long the dizziness lasts? Don’t forget to put on the record while it’s happening…”

Various different clocks around the house chimed out a concert indicating that it was four in the afternoon. The man dropped the scorpion-colored diary to the floor. It happened to fall open on that entry. He peered down at it from above, the way one looks at genitalia. From the same perspective, he thought, as an obstetrician, professionals whose privileges were so different from those of ordinary mortals. There weren’t any logs in the room. The girl hated wooden stoves; they were for old people. She had a small electric radiator in her closet. As he walked in a stiff daze to the threshold of Mr. Günter’s bedroom, the reverberations of the chimes still lingered in the air. He leaned against the doorframe before stepping into a new atmosphere. “What would it be like, what’s it like, with a girl?” he mumbled to himself. Open diaries, a cascade of blonde hair on the pillow, that awful record he’d heard coming out of the locked bedroom in the middle of the night. Eventually, he restarted the search. A thousand diary-shaped scorpions leapt out of every log in the fireplace, which in this case was full, as though the occupants of the room were afraid of catching a deathly chill. He felt like he’d actually been stung but couldn’t say where or when. Nonetheless, the effect was just as malignant. He furiously ripped the sheets off the bed, lifted up the carpets, and threw a bottle of sleeping pills he found on the bedside table across the room. Then he remembered the safe hidden behind the painting. His master had given him the combination as a demonstration of his trust. The butler had never before given the bundles of papers kept in there a second thought, but right now he was a different man, a man condemned to die, driven mad by a curse deposited on his doorstep by a pair of men in a truck. He pulled down the painting and turned the dial of the safe to unlock the mechanism. Then he reached in and took out the carefully labelled documents. “Maybe,” he mumbled, “if that damned scorpion has indeed poisoned me, I’ll find an antidote in the form of a legacy with an annuity. I should at least find out before it’s too late.”

And so the hole in the wall started to reveal the shady story of Günter Stockbrokers’s millions. It was organized into different chapters, like a novel. There was a chapter about embezzlement concealed by falsified numbers, another containing misleading graphs suggesting infinite potential, and more about a bubble burst by artificially enhanced inflation, fraudulent accounts, the concealment of assets, the improper use of dividends from a fund set aside for other purposes, dubious expenses or losses charged to clients’ accounts, chicanery to fix the value of stocks, the worst kind of speculation… All of this was accepted and cynically approved of in notes in the margins, as though the real pleasure lay in the crime itself, a kind of dirty trick at your own expense.

The butler peered more closely at one of the final entries: “Arrest, bankruptcy, and suicide of M.H.” Before looking into it any further, he remembered the man the initials referred to. He had seen him at one of the famous dinners given at the estate, trying to fork an elusive onion that eventually rolled off his plate while the rest of the table laughed at him. Poor M.H.’s story started to play out in promissory notes, renewals of guarantees, expired powers of attorney, and letters pleading for clemency until the entire usury scheme was brought to a head and executed without pity. A model accountant, the owner of Villa Therese kept a detailed record of everything, right down to the price of the funeral flowers, which a dead man can no longer see or smell. But the episode with the pickled onion would never be remembered, thought the butler, like someone who’d seen an event with his own eyes forced to listen to the account of someone who only knew it from hearsay. Then he inserted himself into the tale: he put down the bottle of cognac wrapped in a napkin and, worrying about the carpet, crouched under the table to retrieve the errant foodstuff. Amid a dense forest of trousers and feet, he had seen the splendid leg of Mrs. Günter Stockbrokers wrapped around that of M.H., or rather his leg between hers, thrusting slowly and steadily as though it were polishing brass. When the butler resurfaced with the innocuous but acidic little sphere, he thought he saw something similar to an image on one of the tapestries, the one depicting a deer hunt, emerge from the august stockbroker’s bald skull. But now, putting two and two together, he saw that the man with the head of black hair just beginning to turn gray in that way that women admire was really the one trapped in those accursed forests. Pursued by the Günter dogs, he had found himself cornered, pointing his own gun at his pretty salt and pepper temples. What a way to go, the butler said to himself as he continued to search for the scorpion among the different accounts, feeling its sting spread across his body. He left the room, where the papers were now strewn across the floor, with some difficulty. The creature, if it was really there, appeared to be wandering around his lower extremities. Every step was like placing his foot in a new snare. But he still had control of the top half of his body, arms to use and a brain to guide them.

Finally, he got to the wife’s room. Big Teresa, he thought, to differentiate her from the other one. As he stepped into a discernibly sensual space, he pictured her, an exuberant redhead always enveloped in an infernal cloud of perfume emanating from handkerchiefs tucked into her cleavage. Although he barely had any strength left to stand, he continued the search, which by now he’d grown quite skilled at. Really, turning everything upside down and leaving it that way was a means of returning things to their natural order, he murmured again, sniffing the sweet scent of a bed that always had a disheveled, well-used aura even when it was impeccably made. It followed the wife around; she was a carrier of rumpled bedsheets the way other people were carriers of typhoid. Nonetheless, he had to do his job here as well. Urging himself on, he opened every drawer and suitcase, as well as a bag that had been left on a chair. The Günter Stockbrokers diary again, but this time with nothing special in it except for a set of dates marked in the calendar, an erotic schedule that someone with more information might be able to use to chart the path of feminine lasciviousness. There was another chapter, but it consisted only of annotations of different appointments. There was nothing about M.H.’s coup de grace. Those appointments must have been brought to a halt by the great black barrier. After that, although the same symbols were used, they’d have headed in another direction, like migratory birds toward a new summer. And peace on earth to all men. He drew on his last remaining reserves of strength to fetch the papers chronicling the end of the onion man and spread the documents across the bed as though they were a bunch of sharp pins, or he were sneezing out an insidious burst of microbes. He’d done what he could, at least as much as he could do before his imminent death.

He wasn’t completely sure why, perhaps it was the scorpion’s sting, the digging of little Therese’s nails, the arch notations of the grand representative of the bourgeoisie who gave out elegant notebooks to his clients, or just the great lady’s musk, but whatever the reason he decided that his last act would be to withdraw to the basement where the bovine woman lived. She was the last vestige of humanity left in the house. Yes, he could do it, he had to get there. No filthy scorpion, not all the scorpions in a noble mansion like this one, would be enough to bring down a man like him, who had tamed the savage objects of the living room and explored the autonomous, upside-down world of the legs under the table and seen how it reflected the reality above as faithfully as a mirror. Just as he started to undress in the middle of the kitchen so the woman could check him from head to toe (Marta, a scorpion has been brought inside along with the firewood, no more questions please), a series of events began to occur in in succession although only an omniscient being would have been able to take them all in at once. One: the Great Danes began to bark to announce the arrival of a car. Two: the clocks struck five. Three: the uniformed chauffeur, cap in hand, opened the door for his passengers to get out. Then the shouts of the girl Therese could be heard, drowning out the barking as they resonated through the already tense atmosphere of the house: “Felipe, my dear, we’re back again. What did you make for tea? I’m always so hungry after the beach.” Four: Felipe had a vision of a small, round pair of breasts spinning dizzily while a record played over little sighs of inner oblivion, and promptly fainted into the cook’s trembling arms. Just at that moment, in what would more or less be image five, an image that the creator of scorpions had reserved for his own personal delectation, a creature with a pointy tail climbed slowly up the back of a seat in the cab of a truck several miles away from Villa Therese and its inhabitants. Its journey through the vehicle had been quite uncomfortable and the leather upholstery proved no different, although a few well-placed slits had kept it safe from the springs. But then, perhaps pulled by strings controlled by an inscrutable puppeteer, it headed on to its final, dramatic destination where a pair of necks of very different temperaments bounced into view above the backs of the seats. We’ll never know what the little monsters are thinking before they turn around to employ their aft artillery. Six: while this deadly act was underway, the voices of the men could be heard in the scorched, still air of the afternoon:

“We left that stuffed shirt flat on his ass, didn’t we?”

“Bastard, a summer house they only use occasionally? They deserve to get stung by a scorpion, it’d get rid of them once and for all, the sons of bitches…”

 


“Muerte por alacrán” from Muerte por alacrán. Buenos Aires: Editorial Calicanto, 1979.

Image by Yusuke Nagaoka.

Armonía Somers (1914-1994), the pen name of Armonía Liropeya Etchepare Locino, was a Uruguayan feminist, pedagogue, novelist, and short story writer. Her first novel, The Naked Woman (2018), is available from the Feminist Press while her masterpiece Only Elephants Find Mandrake is forthcoming in 2021.
Translator
Kit Maude is a translator based in Buenos Aires. He has translated dozens of Latin American writers for a wide array of publications and writes reviews and criticism for several different outlets in Spanish and English.