November eighteenth was my birthday. On that crisp autumn day, when the air felt like smooth cold lotion landing on my face, Caesar the Scorpion arrived home in a cozy two feet by one feet terrarium. Let’s begin at the beginning. As is my wont, I had impulsively agreed to take care of Caesar—who is my colleague’s son’s pet scorpion—for three weeks while they vacationed in Taiwan. Junior (the son entity) was gleeful at the idea of a pet scorpion in the house. When I broached the subject with Senior (the husband entity), he was incredulous at the thought of scorpion-sitting; but majority rules, so he relented.
This emperor scorpion or imperial scorpion (Pandinus imperator) is a species of scorpion native to Africa.
From a workshop on Macro Photography by Dave Bowlus et al., San Luis Obispo, CA 19 Sept 2010. An especial thanks to Dennis Sheridan for providing the live subject seen in this photo, and to Cheryl Strahl for superb organization and coordination of the workshop.
Photo by “Mike” Michael L. Baird, mike [at} mikebaird d o t com, flickr.bairdphotos.com; Shooting a Canon 1D Mark III, Canon EF 180mm f3.5L Macro USM AutoFocus Telephoto Lens, Canon Speedlite 580EX II Flash, handheld or on a small Gitzo tripod. To use this photo, see access, attribution, and commenting recommendations at http://www.flickr.com/people/mikebaird/#credit – Please add comments/notes/tags to add to or correct information, identification, etc. Please, no comments or invites with badges, images, multiple invites, award levels, flashing icons, or award/post rules. Critique invited.
Caesar is a tropical, non-venomous scorpion whose greatest skill is to turn fluorescent green if you switch off the lights and turn on a blue backlight in the terrarium. Picture the terrarium, a climate-controlled paradise with sensors for humidity and temperature. During the day, a timer-controlled heat lamp comes on, to maintain the temperature. We need to spray-mist twice daily to keep the terrarium humid enough. There is a water dish for Caesar to quench his thirst. Moss strewn with wood chips form the terrain. There is a foam tunnel that Caesar can crawl into, when he pines for a confined space.
Caesar arrived to great fanfare, with a scorpion-welcoming party. We had an assorted set of friends including Junior’s friends at home when Caesar was brought in. Grateful for my grand gesture, my colleague set the terrarium up, plugged in the sensors and the lamp with the blue light. While he was at it, Junior and his friends peppered him with questions that included ones on bodily excretions of Caesar and gender identifiers, if any. All of us were marveling at Caesar’s segmented tail and perfectly symmetrical legs when Junior’s friend chimed in, “Caesar, as in Caesar salad?” I shushed him immediately before his imagination ran even wilder. A friend, a Muthuswami Dikshitar scholar at that, snidely remarked about a compositional possibility, “Shri Vrschika pate kuru suprabhatham” (offer morning salutations to the venerable scorpion). As my colleague was taking leave and we were assuring him of our abilities to scorpion-sit, Junior fired his final salvo, “What happens if Caesar dies?” I noticed all the color drain out of my colleague’s face, but he was left with no choice.
My colleague had printed out a list of instructions that more or less said the following: Scorpions eat crickets. Crickets eat carrots. Carrots eat wallets, albeit ours. He also left us a box of very vocal crickets. Some folks have a water fountain in their home to bring nature inside, but the chirping crickets sent me on a nostalgic trip to Kerala, where, as children, my brothers and I slept to the daily lullaby of cricket-sounds. One other contrivance he brought was the eight inch tweezers-for-the-queasy, to pick the crickets from the box and drop into the terrarium.
We, rather I, settled in to a routine. Wake up in the morning. Mist terrarium. Chop baby carrots for crickets. Drop a cricket for Caesar. Make Junior breakfast. Come back from work, mist again, and then feed Junior a snack. Before going to bed, mist again. It felt like we were witnessing the living and breathing food chain, the whole ecosystem, in the comforts of our own home. It was Thanksgiving week and Senior’s brother’s family was visiting. On arrival, we informed them of Caesar. Their dubious facial expression clearly conveyed that had we mentioned Caesar any earlier there might have been a change of plans. I assured them that Caesar would by no means turn our family thanksgiving holiday into a real turkey.
It was a week since Caesar was home and to me, at least, he felt like family. As a mother, I was getting concerned that the three crickets in the terrarium were alive and well and that Caesar seemed to have not had a meal at all in four days. I put myself in Caesar’s shoes. Maybe he had separation anxiety. Maybe our house was too warm, the blame for which will squarely fall on Senior who likes to have the thermostat set to April-in-Chennai temperature. Maybe like a proper Iyer boy, he observes “vratam” (fast)on certain auspicious days like Thanksgiving. Maybe he was being needy and using the attention-grabbing tactic of fast-unto-death satyagraha; à la Kerala communists who indulge in faux Nirahara Satyagrahas, only to have a steady supply of tender coconut water on the side.
I was concerned enough to email my colleague in Taiwan. Pat came the reply: Caesar eats to live; does not live to eat. No need to worry was the gist. I wished for a Caesar-like attitude to food. Imagine having two plates of Aviyal and Olan right within your reach for two days straight and not touching it! Having tried all kinds of diets, unsuccessfully, maybe it’s time for a Caesar diet—eat only when Caesar does! My brain cells were fired up with ideas for a Caesar diet book, DVDs with Caesar’s eating habits, may be even a live stream of Caesar—a product manager’s monetization ideas.
In the meanwhile, the crickets were thriving. I even thought of naming them after one of my best friends and her sisters—Bittoo, Motu and Chotu.
All was going well when disaster, nay, catastrophe struck. On a Thursday, almost two weeks into our tryst with Caesar, around midnight, while misting the terrarium I found Caesar rather limp in one end of the tunnel. Usually when I mist, there is an immediate reflex action from Caesar to move away from the mist. But that night I detected no movement. I sprayed the mist directly on him. No response. Then I took the eight inch tweezers-for-the-queasy and gently touched him. No response again. By now, I was starting to panic. Senior was summoned, woken up from his REM sleep. Senior too tried to prod Caesar into action, to no avail. All kinds of dark thoughts came into my head. Did the unimaginable just happen? I was hoping against hope that Caesar had just gone into deep slumber. Senior, although groggy, was already suggesting what a lousy idea it had been to scorpion-sit and implicating me on all kinds of false charges like forgetting to mist, breaking the cricket-feeding routine and so on. But the one unmistakable expression on Senior’s face was that of schadenfreude—a perceptible pleasure at my plight.
Senior declared Caesar dead on the spot. And very casually, very callously, announced that he would go to the pet store the next morning and get a replacement scorpion since all scorpions looked like identical twins anyways. I was shattered. I could not sleep all night. In the morning, I again checked on Caesar; he was in the same position we left him the night before. I again misted hoping for some reaction. Junior was somberly informed of the tragedy. Junior, ever the every-bit-helpful son that he is, had even more questions. Did we just kill Caesar? Did I think his piano practice in the same room had something to do with Caesar’s death? Could Caesar hear at all? Before he could ask one more question, I stormed out of his presence.
I went to work with a downcast face on Friday. My colleagues were kind enough to commiserate with me and gladly shared sad stories of their own pets’ deaths, funerals, afterlives et. al. One colleague was especially curious about the tail positioning of Caesar since a downward tail apparently indicates rigor mortis in scorpions. I told him I will get back to him on that. He also suggested may be, just maybe, Caesar lacked the human touch. As much as I had grown fond of Caesar, the one thing I had refused to do was touch him. I couldn’t, not even with a nine foot pole. But I did give him extremely gentle massages with the tweezers-for-the-queasy, while humming a vakra raga like Kadanakuthuhalam. I was guilt-ridden and had no idea how to face up to my colleague, especially his son. I was trying to mentally conjure up an email to my colleague explaining what had transpired. I returned home after work and picked Junior up from the bus stop.
Out of habit I went to check on Caesar and lo and behold, I did not see him in the tunnel where he was last seen. To my utter surprise and shock, Caesar had crawled on to the moss. And one of the crickets was gone, gobbled up by Caesar. The wave of emotions that washed over me was beyond mere words—relief, happiness, anger and some more relief. I was in stage one of grief when Caesar came back from the dead, literally resurrected. Now I was furious at Caesar for putting me through the wringer. But by the evening I had calmed down and an unexplicable serenity prevailed over me. I duly informed Senior that Caesar was alive and well to which his reply was, “Never ever trust a scorpio…n”. As a Scorpio myself, I had a ready retort that I was living now with not one, but two passive aggressive creatures; in the end I pressed my mouth’s mute button just in time so as to not disturb the domestic peace.
My spiritual guide-to-be Shri Shri Vijayanandamayi, who is on an India tour at present, will be pleased to know that I learned a lot, hands-on, about Vedanta in the previous couple of weeks. (Pardon a digression—my observation suggests that Indian gurus and classical music artists seem to share the same migratory patterns. Spring, summer and autumn of every year they are performing all over the States and come winter, they retreat back to motherland. May be there is some symbiotic relationship between them since most artists call themselves gurus anyway?)
I learnt over the last two weeks that all life is maya (illusion) or is it mithya (dependent reality? Mithya must be maya since everything is maya anyway; that all life is a dance of perception between the observer and the observed; that pratyaksha pramana (WYSIWYG) can be deeply flawed; that Caesar’s atman (soul) should not be tethered to a terrarium but be unleashed into a lush tropical forest, able to freely roam the woods, in search of his brahman.
Rajee Padmanabhan is a perennial wannabe— wannabe writer, wannabe musician, wannabe technologist. She lives with her iPad and iPod in Exton, PA, occasionally bumping into her husband and son while either of her i-Pals is out of charge.