The Butterfly Nebula: Chapter 18 — Stung

December 2, 2015

Stung

We must have fallen asleep for a few hours before dawn. I was awakened by the sun and Beatrice was no longer at my side. Her denim cutoffs, tank top, and panties were still in the truck bed, and I realized that I must have slipped my clothes back on because the night temperature had plummeted and I’d been freezing, even inside my down sleeping bag. Although it wasn’t long past dawn, the sun was already warm for mid-April. The psychedelic mushrooms had mostly worn off and I felt cleansed being in the desert at the break of day after a crazy yet elegiac night . . . but where had Beatrice gone?

 
And then I saw her, some hundred yards away, scaling the lower canyon wall, free climbing. I knew that Beatrice liked to shed her clothes; I’d seen her do it before but never outdoors and in the desert. It was as if she were making her body a microcosm of the desert, shorn of clothing the way the landscape she now embraced was stripped of all but its spring flora; the color, texture and line of her taut glowing flesh absorbed in the bosky backdrop that enfolded her like a lion’s hide. The movement of her limbs appeared more animated and lithe against the solidity of the landscape. Her reddish-gold-brown hair poured down the middle of her back and fanned several inches above the whiteness of her buttocks. After last night I loved her more than ever. Before this morning I would have viewed her as Salome’ but in the moment I simply noted her nudity, admiring every natural step she made on the talus and scree. Above and in the distance the domes of the Empyrean Observatory were studded on the crown of Blake’s Peak, pillboxes glaring white. I ran over to the base of the canyon wall and stood beneath the crevices and outcroppings.

“There are rattlesnakes,” I shouted.

“I’ll be careful,” she hollered back, scaling a steeper ascent.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“To the observatory.”

“But that’s an altitude of 12,000 feet!”

“So?”

“I can’t imagine you doing the last thousand. Really. It’s almost a sheer vertical drop.”

“I’m a climber. I love to climb.”

“You’ll embarrass me.”

She laughed. Caroming echoes.

“You’ll lose the baby.”

“No I won’t”

After 15 weeks Beatrice pretty much had the same body except the gradual mound of her belly, like a lenticular galaxy viewed on edge, like Centaur-A NGC-5128. The easy elastic curve of her stomach, last night and this morning, enhanced her allure . . . the bright Empyrean buildings above us . . . Beatrice in profile, knee and lower thigh pressed against obsidian, fingers jammed in a dihedral, the vulnerable slope of her belly . . . I envisioned a 1950s Science Fiction B-movie and expected any moment to see an irradiated mutation of a giant ant or tarantula crawl over the peak of the observatory and descend upon Beatrice, threatening to pin her in mandibles and enormous lacquered fangs. She still looked safe, though, in her sun-heated flesh, and now having climbed as high as she dared to climb, was making her way back to the ground and to me.

And then she screamed. She stumbled and skipped backwards, one hand clutching the ankle and calf of her left leg, lifting it off the ground and jumping on the good leg. I ran towards her but stopped a few feet short of the scorpion, still advancing, its contorted thorax reared for another strike, curled symmetrical pincers, tail an enormous crimped comma terminating in a barb. I grabbed a semi-petrified stick of Pin Oak, and holding one end of it like a tomahawk or boomerang, flung it at the scorpion, a good strike, not enough to kill or maim but enough to send it scurrying away, etching its trail of retreat in the coarse sand.

“Oh my God! Crazy pain!”

“Let’s see . . .”

A small red circle, like the image of the sun on the Japanese flag, swelled on the lower side of her right leg near the Achilles tendon.

“Soren!”

“Please stay calm. Relax. I’ll get you treatment right away. If you panic it will only increase your heart rate and the venom will spread faster.”

Fortunately, the cooler in the bed of the pickup still had a small amount of ice, and I had Beatrice hold the melting ice on her sting area to numb it. I then draped her arm over my shoulder and we hobbled together, as if she were war wounded, back to the pickup and I helped her dress, putting on jeans and my white T-shirt instead of the cutoffs. I made her raise her leg and prop it on the cooler and sleeping bags before I jumped in the driver’s seat. She never groaned or winced, but her look told me I should hurry. I floored the truck up the mountainside on those patches of road where the curves were not too treacherous. We checked in at the Empyrean and security notified the infirmary immediately. I was told that Adam and Eve had already left. As we waited for someone to bring a gurney, I could feel the labored inflation of her small light rib cage and remembered the bird skeleton she’d stared at on a day that seemed much longer than half a year ago.

“Is it a bark scorpion?” the medic asked us. “They’re more toxic.”

“Do you think it’s a bark scorpion?”

He shrugged. “No way of knowing unless you bring it in.”

The medic examined the sting closely while applying ice and a tiny bit of hydrocortisone. Beatrice had already swallowed the acetaminophen.

“The pain is not as bad,” she said, “but it’s still pretty bad and there’s a tingling sensation. A lot of tingling going on.”

The medic continued to apply cold pressure. He studied the wound between applications of ice.
“That’s normal . . . . Move like a butterfly, sting like a scorpion,” he said, paraphrasing Muhammed Ali.

“I’m pregnant,” Beatrice said.

The medic looked at her, his face neutral and bland but not hostile. He wore gold rimmed glasses and had the beginnings of a red beard, like a loose nest of rust.

“I’m glad you told me that,” he said. “It’s an hour’s drive to the hospital. If we keep you for several hours, under watch, keep you here for the rest of the morning, you and your baby should be fine. The wound is already subsiding, there are no muscle spasms or evidence of neurotoxicity and you’re healthy. I don’t think you or the fetus is in any danger. Let’s keep an eye on it, monitor your pulse and blood pressure and continue with the icing, maybe a little more acetaminophen. If you continue to improve, we can probably let you go by noon.”

Beatrice turned to me and then to the medic.

“Okay, I don’t want to risk anything. Let’s stay here.”

We decided that I would wait while they kept Beatrice in the infirmary. There didn’t seem to be much point in driving to the Caritas Motel for a couple hours and then driving back. The staff had also made an emergency call to bring an MD on site and check out Beatrice. I mostly stayed by her bedside, reading National Geographic magazine. There was an article about the new Space Shuttle and a launch planned for April 1981, one year from now. Beatrice wasn’t given a sedative or pain killer because of the pregnancy, but she’d been up all night and the previous two nights with little rest, and presently, after the shock and pain of the scorpion sting and the accompanying adrenalin surge, she fell into a deep sleep. Before drifting off, she mentioned something about us having to stop and see Virgil on our way home, but I’d mistaken her comment for a mildly delirious utterance because of the shock.

I walked to the observatory cafeteria for some breakfast, but feeling drained and off kilter from the psilocybin mushrooms I discovered I wasn’t all that hungry. It was still early morning, about 8:30. I had grapefruit juice, coffee, and a sweet roll. I knew that in a few more hours I would be starving but this light fare seemed good enough at the moment. I thought that because of the Empyrean Observatory with Beatrice and particularly last night, that she would not cut me out or deny me access to our baby. I felt it acutely as I was sitting by her on the infirmary bed, holding her hand, and I also felt it when we tossed out a string of baby names while lying in the back of the pickup, stoned out of our gourds and gazing at the constellations. I believed her earlier position and attitude toward me had softened, and I was certain I would be more involved in the life of this coming boy or girl . . . the morning dragged on. My sense of hearing became especially sharp. I could hear everything, and with this ringing hollowness in my mind and deep pit in my body and soul, I felt I was a Buddhist vessel for all the pain and sadness and suffering in the world. I returned to Beatrice’s room. She was now awake and I’d brought her some orange juice from the cafeteria. Her earlier free-spirited aplomb had been replaced by a worried expression but I think we both felt certain that the fetus was okay, that the baby would be fine as she was fond of saying. We made small talk while waiting for the infirmary to release her. Occasionally she touched my hand.

The doctor had not found anything wrong from the scorpion sting and the welt was nearly gone. They released Beatrice released around 11:30. We drove back to the Caritas Motel, but instead of entering her own room she followed me into my room and instantly plopped on the bed and fell fast asleep, her aura tracing the length of her spine and lovely body clad in blue jeans and my white T-shirt, her Botticelli face aglow in the film noir grid of light and shadow that fell through the cheap motel blinds. It was a pitiable room in a pitiable lodging ironically named the Caritas, the kind of room a travelling salesman may have stayed at in a bygone era. I sat in a mildewed stuffed chair next to a small laminated table and reading lamp and watched Beatrice sleep. I lost track of time. A previous occupant of this room had taken the Gideon Bible from its bedside drawer and left it on the table next to me. I placed the bible on my lap and opened it to a verse in the Book of Job.

Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, Or loose the cords of Orion? Can you lead forth a constellation in its season, And guide the Bear with her satellites? Do you know the ordinances of the heavens, Or fix their rule over the earth?

I became aware of noises, a cacophony of all the sounds of existence: a baby wailing in one of the rooms; a blaring of Saturday morning cartoons in the same room or a different one; a couple arguing, shouting and slamming doors, shattered glass; kids yelling in the blaring cartoon room and a man in a neighboring room pounding his fist on the wall for them to shut up and turn the noise down; another couple making love, a different kind of pounding on the wall mingled with moans and “yes” and rising excitement and more “yes, yes”; a loud midday news cast overlaid with the wheezing and hacking of an elderly man with emphysema and a portable oxygen tank. I could not clearly separate or single out an individual sound; they all mashed and bled into each other. Beatrice still slept, oblivious to the cacophony, and I felt as if I were at the Very Large Array (VLA) Radio Telescope sifting through all the background signals in the universe. And I was also hearing the cycle of life in this rundown motel, starting with infancy and then childhood (cartoons, shouts) followed by love and sex which may or may not lead to children, but if so then a parental return to your own childhood vicariously, and then maybe marital discord possibly leading to estrangement and divorce and being alone again at some point (angrily banging your fist on some wall, somewhere), to the final wheezing and hacking of old age and illness. We come into the world alone and leave it alone, and the pathetic wrenching gasp for air behind one of those flaking paint doors carried that same universal aloneness as the unattended screaming baby and even the lovers who may deny aloneness in the act but soon know its grip in the wake of climax and orgasm.

In the midst of the motel din I heard the phone ring. It rang several times. I was delirious and borderline paranoid, suspecting I’d broken some unknown provincial law. Then I thought maybe it was Adam Greenfield calling from the Empyrean to inquire about Beatrice and the scorpion sting . . . to see how Beatrice was doing.

But it was Gladys, my putative wife, her voice a hesitant, far away chirping.

“Where have you been?”

“Mostly at the observatory. I called you Thursday night and left a message on the answering machine. I’ll be leaving late this afternoon.”

I had mostly forgotten Gladys since leaving New Jersey last Monday. Not so much out of willful neglect as much as the variety and richness of new experience I’d encountered traveling with Beatrice to the desert and our nights at the Empyrean and in the canyon. To be honest I often didn’t think of Gladys when I was at home. Though I had wanted to talk with her and had called her once, I took her calling me now as something of an affront, neurotically intrusive, and an inopportune time if ever there was one.

“Be careful driving,” she said.

“Of course.”

We chatted for a minute or two, and I was only half listening to her, until:

“I have some news. I was going to wait and save it but I couldn’t wait. I just found out for certain yesterday.”

“Found out what?”

“We’re going to have a baby!”

I was suddenly caught in a great centrifuge.

Gladys: “Are you okay? You don’t sound excited.”

“Yes, I’m okay,” I said, “but a little stunned. I had no idea . . . I mean, after all the years we tried. I’m not sure what to say.”

“Say you love me,” Gladys said, a slight petulance in her voice. “You sound confused or disoriented.”

“No, just tired. Sorry. I’ve been up late at the observatory every night.”

“Are you happy we’re going to have a baby?”

“Of course I’m happy. I’m thrilled about it.”

“It was New Years,” she reminded me.

“I kind of surmised.”

“You always wanted to be a father. Have a child with a telescope to look through with you.”

“Yes, I did. Well, more than the telescope aspect. I guess my wish is finally coming true,” I said, detecting the false note in my voice. “Thank you so much.”

“I should be thanking you for making me a Mommy.”

“We should thank each other then. Come to think of it, we just did,” I said with a nervous laugh.”

“Come home,” Gladys said.

“Soon . . . I promise.”

While Beatrice slept I left the Caritas and drove to the nearest convenience store to buy a fifth of Jack Daniels. Back at the motel I removed the paper wrapper from one of the glasses they place on a small tray in the bathroom and proceeded to fill it most of the way with bourbon, about six ounces’ worth. My head was swimming with new information and yet paradoxically I felt alert and calm. The whiskey went down easy, half in celebration of my pending dual fatherhood and half to gird my loins for what the future may bring. . . . Gladys was 37 and we’d been married nearly 17 years. She’d already had the amnio test and her doctor had told her she could have the baby. She had wanted to wait until after the amnio test before letting me know, just in case. I tried to process everything happening at once: Beatrice and the coming baby; Gladys and the coming baby; Burns and Allen; nights at the Empyrean; the Butterfly Nebula; Virgil and the bracelet; hallucinating on mushrooms under the natural dome of stars but often seeing them as they’d appeared in the Empyrean Observatory; the alien visitation that Beatrice and I had telepathically imagined with a couple verbal cues; love with Beatrice; the scorpion sting; all the painful sounds of life on this planet sealed in the Caritas Motel; the desert and its peoples and their stories; the heartbreaking solitary view of mesa from atop Blake’s Peak. It was a dizzying vertiginous kaleidoscope of everything and nothing, the world yielding up all her secrets and spreading her legs for me with each second I paused and allowed myself to notice.

“What are you doing?”

Beatrice had gotten up and stood alongside the bed, her face a bit slack and wan, a ‘where am I?’ expression. I’d been so lost in bourbon and random thought that I’d missed her waking up. She saw the glass in my hand and saw the bottle. Her blue and brown eyes widened.

“My God, you’re drinking whiskey! Are you still coming down from the mushrooms?”

I smiled, staring at her.

“It’s 2:00 in the afternoon!” she realized. “We have to be out of here in an hour! I’m going to pack.”

I didn’t say anything. I stood up and approached Beatrice, my whiskey breath a fog of grain spirits that quickly enveloped us both. She was still drowsy and muttered my name, followed by the meekest “no” of resistance I had ever heard. I put my arms around her and kissed her long and hard and then tumbled her down onto the bed, seizing the world.

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