Night of the Scorpion by Nissim Ezekiel

I remember the night my mother
was stung by a scorpion. Ten hours
of steady rain had driven him
to crawl beneath a sack of rice.

Parting with his poison – flash
of diabolic tail in the dark room –
he risked the rain again.

The peasants came like swarms of flies
and buzzed the name of God a hundred times
to paralyse the Evil One.

With candles and with lanterns
throwing giant scorpion shadows
on the mud-baked walls
they searched for him: he was not found.
They clicked their tongues.
With every movement that the scorpion made his poison moved in Mother’s blood, they said.

May he sit still, they said
May the sins of your previous birth
be burned away tonight, they said.
May your suffering decrease
the misfortunes of your next birth, they said.
May the sum of all evil
balanced in this unreal world

against the sum of good
become diminished by your pain.
May the poison purify your flesh

of desire, and your spirit of ambition,
they said, and they sat around
on the floor with my mother in the centre,
the peace of understanding on each face.
More candles, more lanterns, more neighbours,
more insects, and the endless rain.
My mother twisted through and through,
groaning on a mat.
My father, sceptic, rationalist,
trying every curse and blessing,
powder, mixture, herb and hybrid.
He even poured a little paraffin
upon the bitten toe and put a match to it.
I watched the flame feeding on my mother.
I watched the holy man perform his rites to tame the poison with an incantation.
After twenty hours
it lost its sting.

My mother only said
Thank God the scorpion picked on me
And spared my children.

Summary

The poet remembers the dark rainy night when his mother was stung by a scorpion. It was raining heavily, a scorpion had taken shelter, under a sack of rice. When the poet’s mother went to get rice from the granary, the scorpion bit her and disappeared in the rain.

The neighboring peasants, came in large numbers with candles and lanterns. They chanted the name of God to paralyze the evil one, they wanted to stop the scorpion from moving. They believed the effect of the poison would increase with the movement of the scorpion. They wanted to kill it, but it wasn’t found anywhere.

The poet’s mother was in great pain. The people prayed that all the sins of her previous birth be burnt. They believed the world to be unreal and wanted pain to absolve all her sins, and decrease the sufferings of the next birth also. More and more people walked in. The poet’s mother continued to suffer and was in great pain.

The villagers were superstitious, but the poet’s father was a disbeliever, he doubted everything especially the claims of religion. He was a rational person, his views were based on reason and logic. He tried every powder, mixture, herb, and an amalgam of herbs and prayers. He poured a little paraffin upon the bitten toe and put a match to it. The poet watched the flame feeding on his mother, he also watched the holy man trying to control the effect of poison with words in prayer or magic and performed his rites. After twenty hours the sting was lost, the poison became powerless and the mother recovered. She forgot all her sufferings and her pain. She thanked God, and was grateful that the scorpion had spared her children.

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