Archive | March, 2013

Terminal Rage

10 Mar

Copyright © Oliver Nichols

Most animals will not survive sub-zero temperatures. Freezing causes ice crystals to form which expand to rupture the organism’s cell walls, resulting in imminent death. Some creatures have adapted to survive freezing conditions by migrating, hiding and hibernating, or fighting frost to some degree.

But for scientists studying immortality, the holy grail of their discipline is to find a creature which has evolved genetically to completely avoid crystallization of its liquid content under sub-zero conditions, while decelerating its life systems to a near-death point where little or no energy is required for survival. Then, when thawed, it would still be able to resume life with no impact on its remaining life-span. The evolutionary science behind such a trait would unlock a treasure trove of secrets that would have bearing on our own longevity as a species.

By the early 1900s however, the search for this mythical creature had all but stopped. Scientists had lost hope in ever finding it. That is until the late 1930s when a chance discovery revived that obsession.

In 1937, and during the final decades of the British occupation of Egypt, a group of scientists from University College London took back various exotic species of Egyptian animals to classify and study. Including two rare ruby-red scorpions captured in the desert outside the Siwa Oasi. Although the UCL researchers did no know it at the time, they were in possession of a previously unclassified sub-variety of the more common and extremely lethal Androctonus australis scorpion. Unlike most other animals that live in deserts, Androctonus does not dig burrows and can withstand sandstorms powerful enough to strip paint off steel, without any ostensible damage to its odd exoskeleton surface. Its armor is covered with dome-shaped granules which when cloned into other materials, protects them to a certain degree as well.

When the UCL mission returned to London, one of the two scorpions had died in transit. Because there were no arachnologists on the team, the other scorpion was eventually deemed of little interest and was to be terminated. Instead of discarding it, a young research assistant decided to freeze it to for a more compassionate death, and must have forgotten to remove it from the freezer.

Three years later, the frozen scorpion was discovered by an undergraduate arachnologist. Certain that it was dead, he thawed it and then held it, but was bitten by the scorpion with lethal effect. The Androctonus escaped, and the young student died in fifteen minutes, before which he was able to inform his colleagues what had happened to him.

Intrigued by the implication of a scorpion that can survive under sub-zero conditions for three years, a small expedition from UCL was dispatched back to Egypt to try to retrieve more samples of the scorpion. They wanted to understand why a scorpion that lived in a temperate, desert climate had developed the ability to remain alive while frozen. And more importantly, why its primary instinct upon coming back to life was to attack and kill. Was it a primitive form of revenge, hard coded within the scorpion and activated upon revival?

The UCL scientists failed to retrieve any more specimens of the rare ruby-red scorpion. As if it had never existed. They returned to London empty-handed.

But the local Siwi people knew better. The ruby-red scorpion had terrorized them for centuries and they feared it more than death it self. Each year it claimed at least two lives. Death from its venom is miserably painful. Which would explain why they called it al ghadab al qatel. Terminal Rage.


The Italian Laundromat

3 Mar

cover_pageDonatella studied the repulsive face of the man sitting at her dining table, shoveling chunks of lasagna in his mouth. She considered closely what he had just told her.  “I have a surprise for you.”

What surprise?

After stating these words, he continued eating, as if he had wanted to plant the seeds in her mind then tend to whatever they sprouted later, after he satiated his hunger. With his mouth open and chewing loudly, his nicotine-stained teeth were a sickening shade of sulfur-yellow.

She squeezed her brain to remember what exactly she had found attractive about this man twenty-four years ago. His hair had thinned where it mattered, and grown profusely where it repulsed her most—on his back, out of his ears, and in his nostrils. Mauro had aged quickly and with little grace. He had let himself go.

What happened to the Neapolitan heartthrob who had walked into papa’s gelateria and made a woman out of me?

Mauro was the first man to lust after her when she was a homely teenager. She had a flat chest and androgynous features. The other girls ridiculed her, and boys just skipped over her like she was the steamed vegetables option on the menu. But Mauro was different. Apparently, he had seen something in her. His powder-blue eyes had pried her out of her shy, insecure clam. And his strong, ripped body, bursting out of the tight shirts he liked to wear, had tugged at her heartstrings. Something about the way he used to stare at her with one dirty thing on his mind had unleashed a flutter of emotions in her heart. And a yearning of the flesh in her body and soul, the likes of which she had never known.

Every Tuesday when she was alone at the gelateria, Mauro would come by for a zabaione cornetto after lunch. Not long after, he started coming back every day. Slowly he unwrapped her until he finally reached her core and left her with no option but to surrender to him—in the name of love, desire, or some other madness that had taken over her body but which her mind was yet to find a name for.

At first, it was slow-burning kisses behind the counter during lunch breaks when traffic at the gelateria was low. His tongue would leave no part of her body unexplored. His expert hands, and the way he knew exactly what to do with a woman felt like a tornado of desire pummeling through her inexperienced, hungry body. Then, they started locking up the gelateria and shacked up in the back to do more daring things. And before long he finally took her. On the floor between large sacks of white sugar, two naked, sweaty bodies were fused. Mauro’s pelvis pounded her hard as her lustful screams were drowned by the sound of whole milk churning in steel drums.

She blossomed after that. Like a curse had been lifted. The angular lines and plain contours of her teenage years quickly morphed into soft curves and womanly swells in all the right places. She grew her hair and her boyish face transformed, eradicating the looks of doubt she used to see in people’s eyes wondering “what” she was.

Against her family’s will, Mauro had convinced Donatella to elope with him to Rome in the dead of the night. They would start a family together. He’d work as a mechanic at his uncle’s auto repair shop until he had enough money to open up his own place. And she would stay at home to raise the children, one of whom was already growing inside her. A boy. Mauro promised her a life of material comfort away from the gang violence and shattered dreams of Napoli.

Now, a whole quarter of a century later, the man she had fallen in love with was but a stranger living under the same roof. What possible surprise could he have in store for her now? She’d seen all of his “surprises” and they were usually the sort that left her cut open. In our twenty-four years together, he never remembered my birthday let alone our anniversary. Never once did Mauro impulsively bring home some flowers or perform any gesture of unconditional gratitude. He was the sort of man whose ability to take was bottomless, but gave nothing in return except pain.

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