Our house in Barstow, California was small for a family of seven but its backyard was quite sizable, except there was no grass. It was all sand, like the desert that surrounded us, and featureless save for a pit in the center packed with stones. We didn’t really play in the backyard, even when we had friends over, because there was nothing to do there and it was always hot. Barstow is a small city scoured by the Mojave sun and for the year we lived there I quickly learned that I was not one for deserts and never would be. Nor was I one for small cities. Certainly not this one, full of old buildings, lean against their own shadows, and people just about as destitute as we were, who regarded us with mean amusement and called us names.
I don’t recall them with hatred because I know that there weren’t many who looked like us in that city and it’s easy to react harshly to the unfamiliar face. Even then I was more confused that they’d treat with such cruelty those who were clearly afraid of their own strangeness and more a threat to themselves than others. No hatred, but I recall them (and they were mostly other children) not without certain pangs: walking home from school, many would jeer at us in mock-Chinese, which we didn’t speak, and on the playground some would stretch their eyes out narrowly enough so as to not resemble a human face at all.
In Los Angeles, there was the sky and its pleasantries, the mansion-spotted valley all beside, and at a distance the city’s center gathering to a brilliant pinnacle. Yes, there was the smog and dense traffic-jams, and Skid Row, and the human misery of any great city, but it was still Los Angeles, where we had family and plenty of folks who resembled us.
In contrast, Barstow was the sweltering bottom of the world. It never cooled, in my remembrance, and a number of things happened there that I wished had never happened, chief among them being our first dog, who we had but for a moment before a series of errors drove him out from our lives. Failing him in the manner that we did, it was perhaps my keenest introduction to personal loss, as well as the very real seriousness of neglect.
We were one of those pitiful families who were tight-knit yet couldn’t help but lose easily: toys, friends, homes, cities. Dogs. I remember arriving to our new residence, car-weary, and opening up the sliding door to see that grassless backyard and its pit of stones. It was as if the surrounding desert had maneuvered around our flanks to ensure we had no avenue for escape. There was a fence but it was as ineffectual as our wishes to be gone from that place. Sand and stone was our life, now. It was not only the bottom of the world, it was—to a child younger than ten, at least—its very end.
It’s strange how the mind distorts. Objects in recall are farther than they appear and the mirror of memory warps over time. Returning to one’s childhood in the way that I have been requires a certain degree of imagination to bring back those events and emotions with a suitable level of faithfulness to their incipience. When you remember yourself as a child, are you transporting your adult self into that child’s body, surveying the past through the present’s vision, or is the child momentarily, if haltingly, resurrected in the adult? We live in and through ourselves as much as we live in and through the world, and much in ourselves remains occluded from our knowledge just as the world constantly eludes envelopment.
The scorpion most likely was not bone-white and it was certainly smaller than I remember. But on a stray day, drifting in boredom, I found myself in our backyard, poking at the dirt with a stick. I approached the pit of stones and I realized I’d never examined them before and I wondered what hid there, be it treasure or yet more sand. I squatted over the pit and moved the stones around, and in lifting a large one, suddenly revealed was a scorpion.
Again I remember it as pure white and as large as my foot. Its black eyes peered up at me from the stone pit without a hint of feeling. It remained perfectly still and made no indication that my movement of the stones had bothered its rest. I dropped the stick and backed up slowly but did not remove my gaze from its odd gleam.
Fascination, more than fear, transfixed me to that spot. I’d never seen a scorpion in the flesh before. Thinking of it now, its complete stillness may have meant that it was a corpse, or maybe even a discarded skin; it may have been too terrified to move, itself. I was too young to consider such things, though, so I simply stared, wondering if that bulbous appendage at its rear would suddenly strike out at my extremities.
What is it about near and present danger that simultaneously evokes a bizarre desire for its fulfillment? As much as it chilled me, there was something to my own mixed stillness that was curious to feel the scorpion’s touch.
Would it be cold if it crawled onto my leg? Or, if it stung me, would the collected warmth of all that sun seep into my veins as well? A scorpion that large surely held enough venom to kill a child. How long would it take to die before being found and would the scorpion even move from its home in the pit after ending me? After all, it was I who was out of place in that desert, and it was killing things long before I’d found it in my idle there in the yard.
It was so simple to lose things—what more, then, was my life? I can remember the first night with our first dog and how elated we were and how quiet he was. The foreknowledge of parting that past parting often brings was in his eyes but we were not aware. Then there were the desperate months of whimpers in the night and standing, at a loss, before a creature whose needs seemed beyond our capabilities. And my own tears, lying prostrate before our puppy, when we were told that he had to go away. He would often hide himself behind the sofa in those last days and I’d go to him and cry, as if I were the one being abandoned. When he was gone, I wished in my heart to never have another pet, but like most things wished for, it wouldn’t hold true, and I’d soon lose again and again.
It was the smallest things, it seemed, that suffered most.
I kept on looking at the scorpion, and it kept on looking at me, as if to dare my hand forward. Because it is so still and large, even memory finds its animation difficult, and so it remains in the pit, without moving, as I walk back out of the yard, behind the sliding glass, to safety. I went back in the following days, emboldened, to look for the scorpion again, and curiously enough I never found it. It may have left the pit and found another spot to hide itself. It may simply have just been dead, and was tossed into the winds shortly after our encounter. The scorpion may never have existed at all.
But not when I close my eyes and misremember.
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More from Ezekiel Yu: Bolt of the Average: On Shirley Hazzard’s “The Transit of Venus”, Nature’s Nurture: On Pattiann Rogers’s “The Determinations of the Scene”, In Memoriam: Carcinogens and the Common Isopod