1. The emperor scorpion fluoresces bright blue.
Most blue feels unnatural. Electric. Manufactured by pharmacologists. Bottled poison that sits glowing in translucent bottles – dusty on a chemist’s shelves. The corticosteroids and biologics. The synthetic mists that Erica must gulp to stay alive.
Or the sapphires and cobalt growing within the earth, silently and privately, like precipitated bile in an organ. Ripped out and polished by human hands. Their surfacing made somehow profane. Some things should never be seen or touched, but left to grow, quietly cultivating their secrets.
Blue is deceptive. It has a seductive invitation, like a viperine tooth or the glowing tendrils of a man-o’-war. Let me hold you, it says. Be silent and rest with me. Let me rock you down, down, where there is only stillness. It wants to be inside you, coat your bones. A quiet annihilation. Touch me, become me.
A foot below the surface of the canal, underneath her family’s houseboat, she likes to surrender her breath. Purposefully. The tranquillity is captivating. It is not the same as holding her breath, feeling the blood pounding in her ears, her body straining against self-immolation. Under water, there is a hush, gently blanketing her body.
She looks up at the teal glass separating her world of swaying pondweed and the hostile orange air above. The choking humidity moored in their 40-degree September. Her mother shrilly chiding: ‘Get out now! You don’t know where that water has been!’
True, it is not always fit for swimming. Now in the umpteenth year of flooding, their houseboat floats precariously in a basin of pesticide and petroleum runoff. The risk to her body, however, seems laughable.
2. Scorpions can survive underwater for two days.
The minute her head breaches the surface, she gasps, her body attempting to inflate and buoy itself. But the energy it took to paddle her arms has winded her. She gasps again and again, trying to keep her head above the surface and swallow more air than water.
Her mother hooks her hands under Erica’s underarms and struggles to pull her teenage daughter under the railing. Her rainbow swimsuit snags against the barnacles puckering the stern.
‘Now you’ve gotten yourself all worked up,’ her mother scolds. She disappears for a minute, leaving Erica to lie trembling and wheezing on the deck like a recently-hauled fish, dreading the boot about to land on her head.
Then she feels a shaft of plastic being placed between her teeth. ‘One two three,’ her mother counts, and on the last beat Erica obediently inhales the bitter dust.
‘No more swimming or running when I’m not around,’ her mother says, putting the cap back on the inhaler. ‘These are expensive.’
3. Scorpion mothers carry their young on their backs.
‘They’re called booklungs,’ explains Dr. Jehaanan, pointing to the cross-section in the illuminated projection. ‘Still fairly experimental. But it may improve your quality of life.’
‘It will be my own tissue?’ asks Erica, squeezing her husband’s hand.
‘Of course. We begin with two 3-D polymer moulds, which are implanted with stem cells drawn from your fat, and modified to differentiate into cartilage and dense tissue. The polymer will disintegrate, leaving only your own cells behind. We will also do a gene-splice marrow transplant at the same time. Your red blood cells will no longer carry oxygen, and instead your body will produce hemocyanin. This will fill the cavities of the book lungs. ’
‘I don’t really understand.’ Hannes side-eyes the projection hovering weightlessly above the examination table. ‘Why would these lungs be any different?’
Erica notices that Hannes’ lips are pursing – failing to keep his expression, and position, completely neutral. Contrary to what he had promised.
‘Your respiration will completely change. No more inflammation of the bronchus, no more mucus, infections, or cysts. The gas exchange happens in an entirely new part of your body. You won’t be – for a lack of a better word – breathing.’
It surprises Erica how easy it is to imagine. The curve of the pleated organs illuminated before her face. Picturing them inside her body, flanking the outside of her breasts. Spiracle vents gaping like small open mouths inside her armpits.
‘Many arachnids have booklungs,’ adds Jehaanan. ‘It’s where we got the idea. All the folds maximise the surface exposed to the air and the amount of gas exchange. See how the layers look like a folded book?’
‘And what about my… the lungs I already have?’ asks Erica.
Dr. Jehaanan shrugs. ‘Defunct. Remove them eventually, probably. Once we’ve established the first surgery was a success.’
4. Scorpions may be the oldest land animals still living today.
Outside the Harley Street clinic, the unspoken boil ruptures.
‘It’s grotesque,’ hisses Hannes, loath to allow pedestrians in on their conversation. The orange-grey sky is awash with the stench of ammonia and methane. It hums with delivery drones, pumping through their invisible capillary-like traffic lanes.
But Erica is already two feet below water, wafting with the duckweed, in the blue silence. ‘It’s natural,’ she says, her voice muffled by the elastomeric respirator she replaces over her sunken cheeks.
5. Scorpions do not have bones – they have an exoskeleton made of chitlin.
Erica signs the waiver – she will recover at home, unattended. And the do-not-resuscitate which would render the first document moot.
She imagines the empty houseboat, its decimated parts on a scrap heap. Their paltry worth contributing to her hospital bill. She knows what her mother would say about all this. She hears it, or rather feels it, like a guppy reverberating with the finger-taps against the aquarium glass.
She feels cold in her dotted gown and plastic booties. The hairnet squeezes her face. The anaesthetist asks Erica to count backwards from five.
The sound of twenty tennis shoes crunching against the terracotta track. She runs for thirty yards before her windpipe pinches shut. The weight on her chest crushes, as if someone has dumped a sandwich board declaring ‘the end is nigh’ over her shoulders. Her primary school gym teacher finds her trembling and pale. Unable to draw breath.
Such a silly thing to forget how to do – the very ritual which keeps her alive. Pulling the purity of life inwards with every muscle surrounding your organ and tissues, and push the waste forcefully from your nose and mouth. Even a child should remember how.
Her teacher taps her shoulder twice in a chummy ‘walk-it-off, soldier’ gesture.
She graduates from inhalers and atomisers, to three bronchial thermoplastys a year.
The basement of the off-campus building is dank and clammy. She leaves her oxygen tank at the door, like a wet umbrella. Silvia Winkels takes her bottle of Rekorderlig from Erica’s hand and drains it. ‘I’m glad you came,’ she says.
‘I’m not really into poetry,’ Erica admits.
‘What are you into?’
Erica leans in and kisses Silvia, impulsively. Her heart pounds as her lips part. She feels the warmth of Silvia’s breath touching her lips. She nurses on it. Then Erica pushes Silvia away, panting.
‘Do you want me to stop?’ asks Silvia.
‘No – I mean yes – just for a minute,’ she pants. ‘I have CMA.’
‘Chronic metastatic asthma.’ Ashamed by the need to explain. ‘It’s the atmosphere. My airways are too narrow and they get agitated and capillaries burst and that causes and—’ she realises that Silvia is looking around the room, distracted, unlistening.
‘That’s awful, love, you should take care,’ Silvia says, avoiding her eye. ‘I’m just going to go find my mates, be back in a tick.’
Silvia disappears into the throng of the party. And does not return.
Charlie Foresgren squeezes her throat behind the chippy. She regrets making the joke in front of his friends about his band never finishing a song. The apartment they share will be chilly tonight. Fireworks burst before her eyes.
‘Will you stop undermining me?’ he asks coldly.
She digs her fingernails into his wrist meekly. She considers clawing his eyes but she does not want to hurt him.
Her husband calls her a gene-punk and a bio-hacker. Growing an animal in her armpits.
He sleeps on the sofa for a time. Then his office.
After a while, Hannes just does not come home at all.
Erica stands on the Pitch Hill summit, one of the last stretches of woodland in southern England. Her walking shoes are muddy, her sweaty vest clings to her back.
She looks over the vista, and the monolith coking ovens in the distance, blenching smoke skywards. The brown forest disintegrates into the persimmon hue of the city, ending abruptly on the horizon. It is the first bright day in May, after a month of frost and fog.
She lifts her arms, feeling the wind thread through the thick hairs and graze the spiracle vents beneath. Despite the steep climb, her chest is silent, motionless.
At this altitude, tufts of xanthic smog hover at the same height as where she stands, shrouding the valley. It almost seems possible to scoop them with one hand and squeeze them like lamb’s wool. But the smog cannot harm her. It cannot even enter her body – once porous, now fortified.
Palms skywards, shoulders open, she basks in her stillness.
This world was not made for Erica.
And Erica was not made for anyone.
Originally published in Jet Fuel Review.