Here’s a new short story, another flash fiction entry in Chuck Wendig’s weekly writing challenge. This week’s is titled Choose Your Random Words.
The Ruins of St. John’s Basilica taken from Wikipedia with permission if not consent.
Picture is © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro
St. John’s Scorpions
by Rick Cook Jr
The bass rumbled to life and the ground began to dance. Scorpions skittered every which way, coming out from under rocks and bricks, a hundred glowing devil bugs making Jason wish he’d said no to the pot. He let loose a very manly cry while he danced back and away from the creatures, tripped over a fallen column and fell on his ass only to realize they weren’t coming directly at him. He had just enough sober in him to be chagrined at the horror vixen scream that had escaped his lips.
“You jump high, like Michael Jordan!” someone shouted from behind him, laughing.
“Yeah, well, I weren’t expecting someone to paint a buncha scorpions with glowy shit, now, was I,” Jason shouted over the music.
Nurten came to his side and offered a hand. Her dark skin appeared slightly luminous in the blacklight, as if she’d become topaz. Jason accepted her hand and got to his feet, watching the scorpions scuttle out of view. Nurten offered him the Turkish cigarette she’d been dragging, and he took a few puffs while she patted his back to free it of debris.
Jason exhaled heavily, coughed slightly, and leaned in towards Nurten and whispered, “I’m a better dancer than that, I promise.” She giggled and took the cigarette back, then disappeared into the faceless crowd forming up near the DJ, a glowing gem hiding in costume jewels.
His nerves pleasantly buzzed despite the scare from the scorpions. What a bizarre trip. A surprise holiday from work had turned into quite the little adventure, exploring old ruins and castles across Western and now Eastern Europe, culminating in this highly illegal rave deep within the ruins of St. John’s Basilica.
Emin came up next to Jason and said over the music, “The scorpions are not painted, you know.”
“You’re jokin’,” Jason shouted back. “Some tosser just tagged a bunch to mess with the ravers.”
Emin shook his head. “All scorpions glow in the UV of a blacklight, my friend. This is a known thing to you British, is it not?”
Jason thought about it, shrugged. “Probably, I don’ bloody know.”
Emin waggled his head in a vaguely unsettling gesture Jason didn’t recognize. “You take the train in the morning?”
Jason nodded, peering through the crowd, looking for Nurten, spotting her for only a moment or two before she disappeared back into the strobing lights and shadows.
“Then I think you will appreciate a night to remember?”
“They’ve all been nights to remember, even the ones I can’t recall.”
Emin grinned and gave him a playful shove into the crowd. They bumped and slid and danced into the crowd until sensation was everything. Glowing drinks passed through the dancers, spliffs and acid and cigarettes, probably some exstasy. Jason ignored the hard stuff, but still he lost track of time. He felt like he was chasing a ghostlight through the crowd, for he never could reach Nurten’s side, though the occasional topaz grin flashed by and was gone.
Then he saw the scorpions again, and he swore they were swaying in time to the bass rhythm atop crumbling walls, inbetween pillars and fallen stone. They were like tiny stars in the night sky of the universe of St. John’s Basilica.
Jason found a blacklight torch and took off into the ruins, intent on finding the stars. Nurten and Emin followed along and soon they were chasing scorpions in the dark, far from the rave at the heart of the Basilica.
Then the Turkish Police appeared and began making arrests. The flashing lights only added to the spectacle from Jason and his friends’ vantage, and they hid in the ruins until everyone was gone.
But the police conducted a thorough search, and suddenly all the choices Jason had made tonight that led him to this place seemed foolish and downright destructive. Emin hugged his sister and whispered something to her, then grabbed Jason and hugged him.
“Take her to safety, my friend. I will distract them.” Before Jason could protest Emin darted off, shouting in Turkish. The police gave chase and Nurten sighed heavily.
Jason grabbed Nurten’s wrist and pulled her along, until they were completely lost in the darkness of the ruins. The flashing police lights vanished, the steady bass rumble of the music died away, and Jason suddenly thought he understood the meaning of isolation.
He turned on the blacklight torch again and the stars returned. Scorpions scattered from their footfalls.
“Why are there so many of the damned things?” Jason mused as they crept through the ruins, following the occasional star through the darkness.
“There is a story,” Nurten suggested. “An old one about malaria.”
She shrugged as they floated through darkness, on the trail of scuttling will o’ the wisps. “Do you know the legend of St. John’s manna?”
“Something about magical dirt?” Jason said, completely mystified by this line of questioning. “What’s that got to do with scorpions?”
“It was said that when St. John was buried, he was merely sleeping, and that every time he breathed the dust around his tomb stirred, giving it the power to heal the sick. This ‘manna’ became a holy relic all over the known world.”
“And?” Jason prodded, surprised to realize his hand had found its way into hers.
“There is perhaps some truth in the manna of St. John’s tomb, not in mysticism but in medicine.”
“Now you’ve really lost me, Nurten.”
“The scorpions were brought here from greater Asia as a curative for malaria. They didn’t know it back then, of course, but this particular kind of scorpion’s venom has something inside it that helps it to fight off the worst of malaria and other agues.”
Jason was nodding at this. “So the Basilica was a gathering place for the terminally ill and injured, and someone brought a real curative into the mix, and a crazy myth was born.
She shook her head. “I think it likely the legend was already here, and the scorpion venom just added legitimacy.”
“And when the Basilica became defunct, the scorpions were free to roam.”
“Yes, precisely that,” Nurten whispered.
“Do you think Emin made it out okay?” Jason asked.
“He is like the Houdini, never stay caught.”
Jason laughed, then grabbed her around the waist, pulled her in. Their lips met and for the briefest moment all the worries of the evening were relieved, forgotten. Her face lit up again like a shining topaz crystal and she sighed when their kiss broke.
“I will miss you when you go, Jason.” He rocked her back and forth and they danced in the scorpion ruins of St. John’s Basilica, the stars swaying around them, scuttling beneath.
“I have an idea,” he said, and whispered to her.
She smiled and nodded, and they followed the stars to safety.
The next day Jason boarded the train, rubbing his shoulder. The patch over the scorpion tattoo itched like crazy.
Okay, so this requires a little bit of backstory and explanation I think. The premise of the writing challenge was to write ~1000 words using three random words out of a list of 10. I rolled a d10 and got the words Scorpion, Holiday, and Legend.
So I did something a little bizarre with this one and ended up with St. John’s Scorpions. I ended up doing a bunch of research so that I could mash a bunch of disparate elements together and make them seem like a plausible idea, a good possibility even. I have no proof or evidence whatsoever that the strain of scorpion known to have the resistance to malaria exists or existed in Turkey specifically, so the story is very fictional based on that, despite using a lot of historical accuracies to meld it together. It’s like a Dan Brown novel that way, I guess. But I’m up front with you about it. The story is bullshit, even though it sounds good.
Some of the referential material I used in hammering this concept out:
So there you have it. Hope you enjoyed this rather bizarre entry, because I certainly enjoyed writing it.
As a side note, the cover picture for this (the glowing scorpion) is used with permission by Laura Wilson, who created the picture as part of a challenge, and I’m incredibly happy having my short stories prompt art! Thanks Laura!
Good stuff man! I like the merger of fact and fiction, makes for a fun read.
Glad you enjoyed it! I had a blast with this one, even though scorpions are just about my least favorite thing with legs. Stupid scorpions.
Really liked it and as usual would like to read more! Love that it was in Turkey!
I guess it’s kind of apropros with all the current news in Turkey, but that really had very little to do with the decision to place it there. St. John’s Basilica was just the perfect site that allowed me to mesh the topics together.
Cool story! So you are saying that there really is a strain of scorpion whose venom fights malaria? That is beyond cool!
Scorpions freak me out, but I hate ticks much worse.
Yeah, Rebecca, the link to the Mesobuthus eupeus at the bottom of the post outlines a type of scorpion that theoretically could be found in Turkey during the time of St. John’s Basilica, which also has in its venom a set of microbial peptides that have been shown to kill or inhibit a couple of malaria-causing parasites. I more or less extrapolated the concept that in less scientific times it would have been used as like a home remedy, like leeches for bloodletting or maggots for cleaning necrotic flesh from a wound. And that kind of thing would almost definitely become sort of legendary, so attaching it to a pre-existing religious legend was natural and lent a lot of credibility to my fake story. =P
So it’s absolutely not a true story, but the potential for it to have been true based on the disparate facts alone was intriguing enough to me to develop it out.
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