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THE NIGHT OF THE SCORPIONS

by Elisha Porat


Some months ago, a heavy, oppressive Hamsin-a desert wind-swept over  the country. The heat suffocated chickens in their coops, trees withered and  dropped their ripe fruits in the orchards. In the heat trapped in the house, I  had trouble falling asleep at night. Mosquitoes swarmed around the bed; strange insects rustled on the floor. It seemed as if even the jays couldn't fall into  that peculiar slumber that birds sleep.

I grabbed a damp towel, went out to the porch, and lay down in the rope  hammock that my neighbor had strung between the cypress trees. The grass glowed  and thick warm air wafted from deep within the bowels of the gardens. At the  edge of my field of vision, just before it was blocked by the right wall of the  porch, the sloping roofs were swallowed up in the wind's clear skies. Was there  a full moon, or only a faint silvery crescent shining through the shimmering  haze? What were those lights flickering in the gloom? And what was that dull  rumbling sound growling from the shrouded orange groves?

I rocked slowly in the hammock. From far off in the dark rose the woeful lowing of penned cattle. I fled the agonies of insomnia and gave myself entirely  to the hammock's sway, yielding myself so completely that I forgot where I was.  The Hamsin wrapped me in its fever and I was borne aloft on the wings of  misty memories to another parched night that I had endured long ago.

I could hardly believe how the hammock had transported me through the cracks of time. But I was suddenly free of the stifling Hamsin. Memory came  back, sharp and clear, and I saw again the Night of the Scorpions as though it had happened under the hammock the night before.

On one such Hamsin night between the holidays of Passover and  Shavu'ot, the earth's vermin rose up against a tired company of soldiers on the  bright stone slopes of the mountains of Samaria. They rebelled with such fury  that they nearly conquered the troops. A nice beginning, I thought, sinking into the rhythms of memory, and continuing to wrestle with the legacy of that Hamsin night.

In the blazing hot morning, when the exhausted men refused to go down to the  range, I came out of the isolated command officer's tent and slowly went to the  small compound facing the camp kitchen. A commotion had drawn me. The company commander, who had gone to brigade headquarters to get final orders for the last  drill, was absent. His likable but bumbling deputy had no control over the agitated company. The dangerous drill was driving all the men crazy. The Minister of Defense himself was coming to observe the men who had volunteered to  put on their gear and fire a new model machine gun. For days, a tractor had ceaselessly churned up dust and gyrated below the slopes strewn with scorched rocks. The landing pad for the helicopter carrying the VIPs and top officers was meticulously straightened and leveled. The entire company groaned with an eerie fear even though every raw recruit knows that the Minister of Defense can't do anything to him.

Wan, ashen-faced, and drenched in sweat, his clothes gray and coated with dust, the Minister of Defense emerged dazed from the chopper's door. The unit's  proud young officers carried him in their strong hands straight to the firing  range to observe the last firing exercise, for which the company had worked non-stop for more than two weeks. His ears were deafened by the sudden blazing bursts of the new machine gun, his eyes blinded by the glint of flashing map cases. He watched in astonishment as the thrown hand grenades blossomed into  mushrooms of smoke. A touch of nausea gripped him and a young officer was dispatched to bring him a bottle of cola. How was it that he had ended up in  this burning desert? Why hadn't he managed to send one of his adjutants? And why had he allowed the Prime Minister, who was always occupied with urgent affairs, to force this unnecessary trip on him?

Far to the southeast in the broiling sun's hazy halo, I could see bewitching oases quivering in the incandescent air: lofty palm trees; gushing, refreshing  streams; and deep shade beneath falling water. Jordan-Jericho on the border of  the eastern sector. You couldn't shoot to the east of that, where camps of black  tents were scattered on the seared slopes and tethered livestock bleated and  mooed at night.

The unexpected confusion flustered our good-natured deputy CO. He wasn't used to such important guests. He cursed the stinking day and the CO's drawn-out trip and the terrible Hamsin, which had not consulted the commander's office up in the hills but instead had fallen with all its wrath on this lonely company. As if this weren't enough, he now realized that the company physician was also missing. How had he overlooked that during the chaos of the night's troubles? He had gone off two days before with men injured in an accident, as though no one else could have accompanied them to the distant hospital. Why was he tarrying there? Why hadn't he come back when he was so badly needed here? The three orderlies, conscientious men but inept and bewildered, hadn't slept the whole night. Actually, apart from me, I thought on my way to the grounds, who  had slept that night?

The cries of the soldiers attacked by thousands of scorpions kept the breathless orderlies dashing among the tents. I hoped that the final live-fire exercise would be called off. Without our CO, the sympathetic and beloved instructor, and the good doctor, the men wouldn't dare open fire. I hoped that up there, at brigade HQ, they wouldn't approve the drill. No company in the  world could give an exhibition exercise, before the Minister of Defense and his nit-picking staff, after a nightmarish Hamsin night such as we had just  gone through.

I had never seen such an astounding spectacle in my life. All the desert's  scorpions, thousands upon housands - you couldn't tell in the sweltering dark whether they were yellow, black, or brown - that had gathered at our unfortunate company's gritty camp. As if it weren't enough that men had been hurt in an accident or that soldiers had shriveled from thirst the week before. The men ran around panic-stricken in their combat boots and skimpy underwear; the heat of  the Hamsin wouldn't let anyone stretch out on his mattress. Even the bravest of the company's soldiers, the proud volunteers who took pride in shooting the new machine-guns, shouted for help. The tormented drivers jumped into their seats, someone shouted an order and their headlights went on. The vehicles began to plow through the camp, crushing thousands of stinger-drawn scorpions. But beneath the ground pulp sprouted new scorpions erupting from the  sand. Column after column formed up in the furrows left by the drivers' wheels.  From the eastern sector, from the general direction of the refreshing  Jordan-Jericho, rose a strange vapor.

Was a full moon shining over the company? Did it illuminate each dark segment on the tails of the hordes of scorpions? Did I hear the insects screaming? Could  I hear the cry of these small creatures? Or had I too lost my mind, just like the raving soldiers of our abandoned company? But the dark tent's flickering lights calmed me down. The tranquil lowing of the cattle skipped on the breeze, and the placid bleating of goats betrayed no sign of fright or discontent. The poor deputy CO summoned the platoon commanders and the incompetent orderlies,  mess hall tables were turned into improvised cots, mattresses were hung between  tent poles like large hammocks. The terrified soldiers climbed into them as if  they were sent to their rescue. On the tables, the scorpions strode across the rifle butts.

That pleasant, acrid odor given off by the tingling acid of ants spread over the encampment. Was it this cloud of gas, of evaporating ant gas, that had called all the desert's scorpions here? Layer upon layer of the insects were stomped and trampled, but below them, inside the fissures of the earth, welled up fresh new battalions of swift, fearsome scorpions, their tails unfurled and their stingers raised. Woe to him who made the mistake of flicking on his flashlight for a moment or striking a match. Woe to him who drew masses of  scorpions streaming towards the source of light. And woe and more woe to him who hadn't fled from the campfires, into which the insects crawled endlessly and  unwaveringly and then split open in the flames.

It was only the officers' tent, off by itself, that none of the scorpions entered. I, who had been left alone in the tent, was besieged. I couldn't go out into the sea of scorpions rolling and seething below me. In the tent, seized by madness, orders were given in savage, throat-wrenching shrieks. The dryness of  the air, the burn of the east wind, and the relentless heat radiating from the ground scrambled the company compound, turning it into a thick stew of lights, screams, dust, and the stench of these repulsive vermin. Heaps of their dead were piled up everywhere. Could it be that I alone had been spared all this pandemonium? Was it possible that only I had lain on my army mattress, propped  my head in my hands and wondered how it all would end?

Through the rolled-up tent flap, I saw the warm lights of the shepherds' tents and heard the tranquil sounds of gurgling around the dust-ridden company camp. During the day, when I sweated on the range and followed the shooters and cursed the careless, I didn't notice these sounds. The roar of gunfire and the  range marshals' orders blotted them out, but now on my bed, cut off from everything, I imagined that I would even be able to hear the roosters crowing  just before sunrise.

I didn't dare get off the mattress for a minute. The canteens I had filled and put beside me grew heavy against my rolled-up shirt. To defend myself  against the invaders, I also heaped up crinkling sheets of newspaper around me and wedged thick boards under the mattress, a barrier against scorpions that also  worked against back pain. I tied my shoes above me in the lashing and ignored  the cries of the soldiers, the rumble of angry engines, and the screeches of the  abandoned company's radio receiver. I drifted to the cool falls of  Jordan-Jericho, to the brooks and the dripping ferns and the secluded river's  shaded recesses, all the way to the boundary of our eastern sector, beyond which it is absolutely forbidden to shoot. Anyone who dared shoot there during the final live-fire exercise, in the presence of Minister of Defense and his  trailing entourage, would be hauled before the CO for summary judgment.

My rope hammock suddenly creaked beneath me and the trunks of the cypresses trembled. From the closest houses came a child's sudden cry. Had I momentarily  awakened from my nightmares? Had all the creatures of the desert risen up against us that night? Bats woozy from the heat beat on the roof of the porch. I swathed myself in the damp towel, which had already grown warm on my feverish brow. If I hadn't been sleepy and lazy, I'd have gotten up and soaked it again.  The night of the scorpions appeared before me like a dream that had never happened. Had a torrent of sweat drenched me then too? Had the throbbing of my heart suddenly pounded so dreadfully in my ears?

Toward morning, the desert's vermin mercifully abated their attack on our wounded company. Their throats parched, the men of our broken troop began to shout the good news from tent to tent. The company CO heard of the surprise assault made by the desert scorpions. He was already on his way back, returning  from brigade HQ with a small convoy carrying everything we needed. From below, from the desert road, the radio picked up the doctor's concerned voice as he hurried back with an ambulance driver. They would be at the camp in just a few more minutes. And the tidings we had all hoped for also went around: the final exercise had been canceled because of the brutal Hamsin.

The Minister of Defense personally expressed his desire to visit the battered company another time. One of his top adjutants was already seeing to the  arrangements.

One platoon leader, a member of the nature society, suddenly got an order and  announced in an authoritative voice that he really needed heroes now. He would  painstakingly classify each type of scorpion that had attacked us in the night.  Not one would be overlooked. Whoever had any strength left, any fighting spirit, was invited to sift through the piles of corpses, aided by the field guides he pulled out of his knapsack.

Through the open flap, I heard the roosters crowing in the distance. I saw the lights going out in the shepherds' lodges. And I heard the flocks going out  to pasture, to the glowing slopes of the eastern mountains of Samaria. Had there been any injured? Wounded, stung? No, I don't remember; I think not a single soldier was stung. Such strange incidents occur in nature. In the crazy desert, you always expect surprises. So what had all this been? A horrible Hamsin  dream or a true vision of terror?

That Hamsin night between the end of  Passover and the holiday of Shavu'ot, on the ivory limestone slopes of Samaria's mountains, I saw how the desert's insects had risen against a far-flung company of soldiers, laying siege to the camp, blocking all routes to the water tanks  and the ammunition depot. They streamed over the cracked earth and overran the mounds of gear meant for the final live-fire exercise. It was as though they had  a well-prepared plan for foiling the drill. Some of them even were caught in the chair intended for the Minister of Defense.

Their stingers held high and reeking of acidic vapors, these daring insects had confounded all insecticides, all swatters and sprayers. Not far off was the moment when they would drive the company's stunned men off into the desert, a  humiliating flight that would rout soldiers wearing only skimpy underwear and  heavy combat boots.

I sat by the edge of the tent, draped in a mosquito net. If it was good against gnats, it should be good against scorpions. Loud, heart-rending ballads came from the shepherds' tents. I was struck by a desert yearning that has no name. Had someone called me? Had someone tried to talk to me that night? Had the scorpions been sent to me? And who was I, a frail man, that I could read the writing of insects?

I rose with the rising sun. I put on the rolled netting like a transparent dress. Jordan-Jericho savagely drew me. Who would come to our aid? What could we grab to keep us from slipping among the swaying tails? Who would protect us and  prevent us from falling under the upraised stingers?

The jays struggled awake in the dense boughs above my porch. The brief  Hamsin night had come to an end. The wet towel that I had wrapped around  me had long since dried out. The rope hammock had pressed red creases deep into my flesh. I was all mixed up by what I had seen and remembered. Before I escaped to my bed, I remembered, with difficulty, where to find the switch to the air conditioner.
 

(Translated from Hebrew by Alan  Sacks)
 

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