Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Tales from the Furnace: The Badwater Chronicles

Part I: The Desert

"Why should the lovely things of the earth - the grasses, the trees, the lakes, the little hills - appear trivial and insignificant when we come face to face with...the desert or the vastness of the midnight sky? They are the great elements. We do not see, we hardly know if their boundaries are limited; we only feel their immensity, their mystery, and their beauty." -John C. Van Dyke, The Desert
The little insect scampered across the ground; its metallic blue-black wings shimmered in the late morning sun. The day was still as death, not a breath of wind. Just the pitilessness of that blazing white sun. Temperatures rose steadily as the hours went on, but the little wasp could not concern itself with the heat just yet. It was on the prowl, and the scent of its target was thick in the air. It was close. Swiftly it moved over the sand and rocks of the desert floor, until, before long, it happened upon a hole dug into the earth. Here it was: the thing for which it had been searching these past few days, tracking the scent with a ferocious intensity, as if life itself – its very survival – depended on finding it.

The wasp scurried down into the burrow, using its antennae to probe the darkness; in a single instant, it came upon a large, black body huddled deep inside the dwelling. The insect nicked the pulsating mass with its antennae, and in a flash, the colossal creature awoke to the intruder’s presence, scrambling up the burrow, forcing the wasp back up to the entrance, and into the daylight.

Now, out in the open, the two nemeses faced off and regarded each other with a primal aggression. There stood the spider, freshly emerged from its desert burrow, its hairy legs stemmed out from the thick, brown-black abdomen. The wasp lunged forward, as if to strike the tarantula, but the looming creature raised its front legs and bared its fangs. The wasp quickly retreated. It darted around the spider, and before the creature could even react, the wasp seized the tarantula by its hind legs and flipped it on its back. Unable to move, the spider flailed its limbs in the air to repel wasp, but it was too late: the little insect struck at its abdomen with its needle-like stinger.

The blow was fast, but effective. In just a few seconds, the spider went limp. The legs stopped moving; the body stopped thrashing. But, the animal did not die. It could sense what was happening. It could even see the wasp from where it lay. It watched as the winged insect moved closer, latched onto its body, and proceeded to drag it back towards the burrow. If the spider wanted to move, fight, or flee, paralysis made that wish a stark impossibility. Down the hole they went, until finally, they reached the end of the burrow.

The wasp climbed onto the tarantula’s abdomen and proceeded to lay a single egg on the spider’s thick body. Them she climbed out of the burrow and back up to the surface, leaving the defenseless spider with that precious egg egg – her future and the continuance of her species. She sealed up the narrow entrance of the burrow – now a burial vault – with dirt and rocks, so that nothing could disturb the scene that lay below.

For soon, that egg would hatch. And soon, the fat little grub that emerged – connected to the spider by the tip of its tail – would bend over and attach its head to the spider’s body and begin to suck. The tarantula might even still be alive as the baby creature rips into its abdomen and feeds on its insides. Thus, life will end and new life will begin here in the desert.

The Panamint Range glimmered in the distance. The sun rose higher in the sky. Somewhere off in the distance, a raven let out a low, guttural wail. For thousands of years Death Valley has teemed with life, both big and small. It is both womb and graveyard. Harsh yet beautiful. It is life and it is death. Its power is eternal. The spirits of the dead saturate the ground. They linger in the air. Those who enter the desert's grasp will feel that power and will be in awe of it.

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