New Fiction by Basma El-Nsour: ‘The Scorpion’

By Basma El-Nsour

Translated by I. Rida Mahmood and Marcia Lynx Qualey

He squirmed a bit, feeling heavy all over, and opened his eyes. They were full of wrath, and it was with great difficulty that he raised his palm and brushed off the layers of dust that had gathered on his eyelids, struggling to move his stiff body. It wasn’t easy. When he stretched out an arm in search of his pack of cigarettes, he glimpsed his naked body,  just the remnants of a thick white cloth that had been wrapped around him. He looked around with contempt.

“Damn!” he muttered indignantly. “What did I get up for?”

Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris 
Sup Persan 332  folio: 73r  
Baghdad, c. 1388  
(Tusi; ʻAjaʼib al-makhluqat)

When he decided to stand up, his head smacked into the low ceiling. He gave a bitter smile, as if he’d just remembered something important. He stretched out again and tried to doze off, but sensed an unusual movement by his feet; it was then that he realized a living creature was sharing the space with him. The movements grew clearer; it was more like unobtrusive crawling, and as he peered down at his feet, he was able to make out a good-sized scorpion creeping swiftly towards him. He rejoiced.

“Come on, my friend. Come closer,” the man called out, his voice full of affection.

The scorpion complied with astonishing spontaneity. His crawl quickened, so that he made scratching sounds. He climbed gracefully over the man’s body, moving over him with care, trying to avoid falling into one of the various cavities. At the chest area, he climbed up the prominent ribs. After great exertions, he arrived at the neck, climbing until he found a comfortable spot at the center of the nose and rested there, all the while trying to keep his balance. With clear sympathy, he gazed at the man. 

“Sorry,” the man said. “There’s nothing to sting. I pity you, my friend. All that excess venom must be quite something. It seems to me that you’re suffering from an imbalance. I’d like to help you, but I’m helpless, as you can see. I myself am not completely at ease. And, excuse me, but could you please step away from my nose? You’re tickling me.”

In a single leap, the scorpion jumped down to a spot beside the man. He eyed the man with indifference, and the man stared at him for a long time.

“It is heartbreaking, when the purpose of your whole existence is to hurt others,” the man said gravely. “Seems that your life is not without boredom. Human life is more exciting, and if you were a man, things would be different. I can picture you with a big, bushy beard and two cunning little eyes—yet maybe they’re a little sad. You might have been someone of importance, say a musician. Sometimes you’d jolt awake, haunted by a certain tune. You would hurry to the kitchen to pour yourself a glass of wine. You’d make sure to eat a few slices of cheese, too; it tastes great when you have it with wine, especially when it’s quality stuff. You should be careful, though—there are some lousy varieties out there, so be a person of refined taste when it comes to these matters. What? You don’t like alcohol! You prefer coffee? Alright then, put the coffeepot on the stove. And breathe in deep, let the smell seep into your blood vessels, and it’ll spread through your body as fast as a rumor. Now watch closely, with pure joy, at how it seethes like a devil, but be careful not to let any of it spill over onto the stove, or else your wife will give you an earful in the morning. Don’t argue, my friend, women are like that, they’re annoying sometimes. But, all in all, they’re necessary. They bring a special charm to our lives. You know? I knew a woman once, she wasn’t all that gorgeous, but something made her stand out from the rest. I think I loved her back then. She didn’t love me back, but the mere idea that she and I existed on the same planet was a thrill. Do I look like a foolish lover? Maybe, but you’ve got to understand, my friend, that just because I loved her doesn’t mean I had any right to force something on her. Everything can be coerced except for feelings. They’re either there or they aren’t, as simple as that.”

The scorpion turned in a circle three times before returning to his previous spot. He seemed both puzzled and uncomfortable, as though he felt a wave of distress.

“How can I convince this fool that I don’t care about all his raving?” the scorpion asked sharply. “I never thought that these giants, who are capable of crushing me under their enormous, ugly feet, could be so fragile and dumb. And this wretched man . . . He can’t quite grasp that I too might have my own disasters. How could he have guessed that I lost my way looking for my mate? We had a full life full of delightful stingings. Then suddenly, she disappeared. I’m afraid she might have found another scorpion, one who’s younger than me. Yes, she must be messing around with him down a hole somewhere . . .  As soon as I get myself out of this situation, I’ll know how to hit back. I’ll teach her a lesson in loyalty, that whore! She kept telling me I was the only scorpion in her life, and I was stupid enough to believe her. Who knows? I might be wrong. Yes, I must be wrong. She wouldn’t abandon me. She must be looking for me right now.”

“Now you’re drinking your coffee,” the man said, ecstatically. “Only a little sugar, I’m guessing. You light up a cigarette, then you take a drag. Yes, take a long pull on the cigarette. Don’t mind the health warnings, those are just nonsense. Blow out a cloud of smoke over your head. Your mind will clear up now. Grab a pen and paper, and now you’re jotting down the first line of a new poem. Sorry! I forgot. You’re not a poet, you’re an exquisite musician. No matter, you’re creating a miracle, and that’s what matters in a moment like this. You’re filled with certainty. Do you realize how great it is to be certain of something, no matter how insignificant it might seem to others?”

The scorpion crawled around nervously. He felt suffocated, and he stomped his microscopic feet in frustration. He reached a distant corner and began to dig, but to no avail. He grew impatient, surrendered, and returned to his place near the man. He looked down on him in contempt.

“Oh, you’re back!” the man exclaimed. “Are you enjoying my conversation? Great! Honestly, I’ve been lonely. I was drowning in sleep, and when I woke up suddenly, for a moment I thought I could get up and leave, but then I remembered it was impossible. I don’t even know why I woke up in the first place. I think some loud drumming pierced my ears. Do you know what drums are? You don’t, you’re just a miserable scorpion, and your knowledge of musical instruments must be next to nothing. Drums, my friend, make very loud noises. It is hard to imagine that such a tremendous noise comes from a void, a barrenness. What really puzzles me, though, is the source of these noises. What do you think? Do you think a band of drummers in hell are beating their drums over people’s heads as an additional touch of torment?”

The man gave a long giggle.

“Don’t you agree it’s a bit funny?” 

The scorpion determined to find a way out at all costs. He crawled madly in every direction. His vision blurred, his tail shook nervously. He felt dizzy and grew more and more exhausted. Slowly, he crawled, until he almost fell over. Suddenly, he heard a familiar movement, a scratching sound. He caught the smell of his mate. A sudden surge of energy ran through his body. He crawled eagerly toward the smell. He found a little hole, squeezed his body through, and was able to get out. He found his mate, licked her body thirstily, and the two crawled away together, to a far-off destination.

*

Ibtihal Rida Mahmood is a Jordanian American writer and translator based in New England, USA.

Basma El-Nsour is a Jordanian short story writer and attorney. She has a weekly column in al-Araby al-Jadeed newspaper and is editor in chief of Tayki magazine, which focuses on women’s literature. She has published several short-story collections. Her work can also be found in translation in The Common, Banipal, and Snow in Amman: An Anthology of Short Stories from Jordan. 

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