Saturday, August 15, 2020

Texas Notes: Redheads

Trionfo Di Virtu. Libro Novo, 1563 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     As a fan both of poetry and of writing that sets you in a particular place, I especially enjoyed today's essay from Austin bureau chief Caren Jeskey.

          I picked up a clumsy log 
          And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.
          I think it did not hit him…

          And immediately I regretted it.
           I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
           I despised myself and the voices of my accursèd human education.

          And I thought of the albatross,
          And I wished he would come back, my snake.

          For he seemed to me again like a king,
          Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
          Now due to be crowned again.

          And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
          Of life.

          And I have something to expiate:
          A pettiness.
                                                                      —Snake, by D.H. Lawrence

     Living with scorpions isn’t so bad. The night I moved into a house in the woods I noticed one of the little buggers crawling up my new bedroom wall. I screamed bloody murder and ran and told my sister that she couldn’t possibly leave me there—I’d have to move back into her home where I’d been living.
     It was settled. Being the stoic one, she calmly said “I’ll take care of it,” and she did. Once it was gone she heartlessly left me there, alone. I may or may not have slept that night. This was back in 2016 when I was still a wimp. After three and a half years of living in a heavily wooded lake community outside of Austin, I mastered the art of living with these heretofore dreaded arachnids. Other fun and frequent victors were pinkish transparent geckos, arthropods of shapes, sizes, and breeds new to me, beetles—ok, giant tree roaches to be honest— and even a couple of red headed centipedes. My own little menagerie. 
     My friend Vivian and her husband John visited from Chicago once, the night of the Cubs big win a few years back. When we got home I remembered that I’d neglected to shake out the sheets and check under the foam mattress that rested right on the floor. They said “oh no, don’t worry about it! It’s late.” I insisted. My heart leapt when I saw the first telltale sign. A scorpion’s molt under the blanket on the top sheet. Vivian said “oh! Looks like the skin of a scorpion.” Yep. I knew what that meant. “Let’s lift the mattress up,” I said. “Oh no, we’re fine,” they said, not wanting to put me out. “I insist,” I said as I raised the mattress off the floor to see the little guy scurry quickly away. I propped the mattress up and grabbed the nearby glass jar and piece of cardboard one must always have handy in homes like this. I caught the little guy and escorted him or her outdoors and my job was done. I hope they were not too freaked out.
     I learned that as long as you don’t stick your hand in a dark place without checking first and you shake towels, sheets and blankets out, the chances of getting stung are rare. Even if one did sting you it might hurt quite a bit for a while but would heal up rather quickly. Scorpions do not prey upon and attack humans, they only react if startled. Dangerous scorpions are not endemic to Texas.
     I’d run around the house catching geckos in said jar while they briefly joined me as roommates, and escort them gently outside. They were cute as heck.
     The first time I saw a wolf spider in the kitchen I must admit I jumped. When I learned that they are harmless and quite beneficial in eating up the small insects they catch, I left them alone. I’ve heard it said that spiders dwell in the homes of kings, so I take them as honored guests. I learned to identify the violin pattern and extra set of eyes on brown recluses, and luckily never saw one.
     The cutest were the jumping spiders with their big eyes that seemed to watch me. Turns out they are able to see very well since their eyes act like telescopes. They hear well via sensory hairs that take in vibrations, and they sing and dance to woo their mates. Who would kick a jumping spider out? Not me.
     The roaches have such a bad rap that even I, lover of creatures small and large, had to help them find the door. They are not hard to catch as long as you are committed. Some of them fly, so hunting and catching them sometimes involved tall step ladders, patience, and a very quick hand to pop the jar over them and slide the cardboard over the jar while the fast and furious mini armored submarine tried to wriggle its way out. When their long antenna would get caught in the struggle and become casualties I’d feel bad, but hopefully they were able to sprout some new ones once they got back to their homes in the trees where they belong. 

     One day I ran the water to warm it up for a shower and went to grab a towel. When I got back to the tub I beheld a magnificent being. It’s long purple body was partially stuck in the drain, and it’s countless yellow legs were moving the speed of light, trying to break loose. It’s head looked like a mini lobster with long curly tentacles. I went to the kitchen, got the tongs, and gingerly removed it from the drain to a table on the back porch. I thought it was a goner since it looked like a drenched noodle. I left it there, took my shower, and by the time I got back outside to check on it, it was gone. I told my neighbor about it and she scolded me. “Never let one of those go! You should have killed it.” It was a red-headed centipede and can grow to the size of a large man’s forearm. It’s sting is incredibly painful and it can do damage to small pets. I also learned that their favorite meal is scorpions. I wonder what kind of ecosystem I’d destroyed by escorting this guy outside?
     I’m now tough as nails when it comes to critters of the arthropod and small reptile variety. The next frontier will be snakes. Wish me luck.


  1. Great piece. My daughter moved to Florida recently and has had some of the same kinds of experience with geckos and various arachnids. I think she and her family are now almost as used to them as Caren is.


    1. Tell her to shake her shoes and boots out before putting them on! Maybe she's already learned that the hard way, like I did.

  2. Caren my skin is crawling after reading that. You are a better man than I. The UK is comparatively sparse when it comes to scary creepy crawlies but as our climate warms there are newspaper reports of visitors form the nearby Continent which fill me with terror. Damn, there is enough in life out to get you - especially currently - without Dame Nature unleashing a plague of biting, stinging horrors fit to scare you to death! I shall be ultra careful whenever I return to Austin. Only the occasional cockroach or hornet has troubled me so far. I have been warned!

    1. I never thought I'd become used to so many creatures camping out but one does adapt! You won't have much to worry about in North ATX and if you do, just call me and I'll take care of it. Don't forget to shake your shoes and boots out though, just in case.

  3. Guess the creepy-crawlies don't bother you anymore. Sounds like you even (sort of) like them. I lived in Florida for a couple of years, in the mid-70s. I still miss the sand and the surf and the sunshine and the ocean breezes. But I do not miss the bugs. I hate bugs.

    I had a map of the U.S. on my wall when I lived down there. One night, I saw a scorpion (I think) covering the entire state of Tennessee. Had to keep the kitchen spotless and put tin cans on the table legs, because of the ants. And the "palmetto bugs" (the big flying roaches) were very common, and would eat the glue in the bindings of books. It was not fun finding one when you opened them.

    Didn't see too many big centipedes, though. We get their much-smaller cousins up North. To me, they're like the rats were to Winston Smith in Orwell's "1984"...they are the worst thing in the world (*Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia!"). I yell and shriek when I encounter one. Been that way all my life.

    Old Chicago story: The Feds wanted an insect-hating Capone mobster to talk. He refused. So they put him into a buggy cell, and soon he was singing like a canary. I'd sell out anybody in a heartbeat if that happened to me. Anybody and everybody.

    1. Ha! Great story about making the bad guy sing. Not so tough without a pistol I guess?

  4. It seems to me the intent of this column was to discourage house guests.
    Well done.


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