Bush Babies

Once when I was eight and visiting my grandparents in Santo, Texas, a Brown Recluse spider bit me on the arm.  The adults insisted it was just a mosquito bite.  They told me I knew nothing.  I’d been asleep, so I actually hadn’t seen it bite me, but I understood enough to realize what it was, or at least what it wasn’t.  I explained that the bite itched and hurt, and that mosquito bites didn’t hurt, but my parents promised me it was just a mosquito.  I complained more, until they finally took me to the doctor a month later, just to get me to stop complaining. 

“If I take you to the doctor and he tells you it’s nothing,” my dad said, “will you let it alone?”

“Yeah, sure,” I said. 

My parents’ continued to argue that the bite had just been a mosquito, until after a doctor examined it, and stated otherwise.  Dr. Jeter explained that the so-called mosquito bite was instead the bite of a spider.  And so the possibility of the bite coming from something more than a mosquito finally became true.  The doctor’s professional opinion now justified the fang marks I’d been staring at the last month.

We went to see my grandparents that weekend, and they called Uncle Johnny after hearing bite had come from a spider.  He’s the bug expert in my family.  I was excited to see him.  He was always my favorite uncle.  Plus, I figured he’d be happy to point out more about the problems with spider bites to my parents.  Being young, I knew my parents don’t have to listen to me, but because Uncle Johnny is old, and because he’s Uncle Johnny, I figured he’d do plenty of talking on the subject for me. 

“You know, Brown Recluses, they seek you out,” Uncle Johnny said.  Johnny runs an extermination business outside of Santo, Texas.  He sprays a lot of the Houston metroplex, taking care of some of the nastiest places – the Greyhound bus depots and the airline hangars at the airport.  Johnny came over from Cuba back in the seventies.  However, because Johnny has lived the longest, it justifies his knowing more than the rest of us.  When I told him the doctor said my mosquito bite was actually the work of a spider, Johnny said it wasn’t news to him.  Ol’ Johnny just didn’t want to contradict my dad in front of his little girl.

Johnny explained that the bite clearly came from a Brown Recluse.  Those spiders are the only ones in Texas with fangs large enough to break off into a wound.  “I’ve even heard of them causing sepsis,” Johnny said. Much like their curved teeth Brown Recluses are one of the few spiders that shed their skins like snakes, leaving little brown husks in corners that crunch when smashed.  Supposedly, “Brown Recluses like to hide under the covers, or beneath beds, hanging onto sheets and dust ruffles, before creeping out and up into the bed to strike in the dead of night, always while their victims lie asleep;” that’s how Uncle Johnny explained the occurrence of my spider bite to me.  “Those things always choose tight places to bite,” he said, “anything with an elastic line, like the tubes of socks, or along the waist or groin area.”   By comparison, Uncle Johnny runs one of the larger extermination businesses in the state, so I figured he should know about these things.  They’re always having him speak at Texas A&M, where Johnny explains things like the Bush Baby and the Brown Recluse.  Sometimes, though, I think Uncle Johnny likes to tell lies. 

Still I always ask him for new stories about bugs, and spiders, and things with stingers.  I have a morbid fascination with information of this sort, which he always indulges.  I remember Uncle Johnny explaining that it was important that after being bit by a Brown Recluse to make sure you found both spiders.  In case you didn’t know, Johnny explained, “The problem with Brown Recluses is that they travel in pairs.  So even if you smash one, the other will take over the same process the following night.  These spiders, they treat their victims like any other insect caught in their web, only their web is your bed, so they assume that with enough bites, you’ll eventually liquefy enough to eat.”

After my first encounter with a Brown Recluse, I was always convinced there was another spider lurking somewhere in my room at my grandparents.  The first I figured was probably dead, because the doctor said he’d left its fang in my arm.  The thought of a spider loosing its fang in my arm seems a bit strange to me now, but when I was eight, I was happy to hear the spider had suffered, too.  Still, even if one spider was gone, thanks to my Uncle Johnny, I was always afraid there might be another.  So I made my dad check between the sheets and underneath the bed every night for any possible spiders, before I’d even consider going to sleep. 

I also learned while staying in Santo that it was always necessary to check the light fixtures.  The wood scorpions that lived in the brush along the acres of my grandparents’ acreage sometimes came in the house when it rained.  They’d crawl down into the attic, eventually making their way into the dome part of the light fixtures, where their scorpion silhouettes could be seen illuminated from above.  The problem with the scorpions was that if they didn’t die from the heat of the bulb, they’d occasionally escape, dropping down angrily onto the floor, stinging whomever and whatever they came into contact with first.  Sometimes if we found the scorpions still alive, they’d get shaken out of the light fixture and into a glass jar by my dad, so my sister and I could examine them more closely.   I remember when my dad wasn’t paying attention, my sister and I would shake the jar violently, watching in horror as the scorpion tried to strike our fingers through the glass.

The scary thing about scorpions is that their bodies are hard, making them difficult to smash.  Unlike other bugs, Uncle Johnny explained, scorpions wear shells that are similar to bullet proof vests, in that it tends to make them stomp proof.  To guarantee you kill it, a scorpion can’t just be stomped, but rather must be ground beneath your shoe.  If the scorpions fall on you, or manage to escape your shoe, they’ll sting their victim with their tail multiple times as they run down your arm, or up your leg.  While I wasn’t sure how much I always believed his stories, I know that some version of this had actually happened to my mom when she lived in Santo as a girl.  My mother explained that scorpion stings hurt worse than anything else, including fire ants, and wasps; she said they were so bad that once, the scorpion’s venom actually caused her to develop a fever

So after checking all the sheets and all of the light fixtures, my sister and I would usually go to sleep.   Even after twenty years, I still have the two inch scar running down my right arm.  If my Uncle Johnny was right, I think the spider chose to bite me there, because I’d been forced to wear an arm brace to bed.  I didn’t actually have anything wrong with my arm at the time.  It’s just that I’d lied about having some sort of nerve pain in my right elbow to get out of having to play the cello.  I hated carrying the stupid thing around, and had learned over time that my parents weren’t ones to let me quit anything they’d already spent money on, unless I could come up with a medical excuse to justify it.  While my mother let me skip practice at first, eventually she insisted on taking me into an orthopedist for an expert opinion.  All I remember is agreeing with whatever the doctor said, something about nerve pain and numbness, which resulted in my constantly having to wear a thick plastic brace.  I nodded along, got prescribed the brace, but at least I never had to place the cello again. 

I remember after I had my surgery to remove the tumor formed by the Brown Recluse bite, my Uncle Johnny explained to me that I could have had it worse.  Johnny said, “There are spiders that exist in the Amazon that are as big as a fat baby’s head, which is why the natives call them ‘Bush Babies.’  They’re one of the most poisonous spiders in the world, except for the Daddy Longlegs.  Those would be the most poisonous spiders, if they could bite, but luckily their mouths are too small to bite anything but gnats.”  Continuing on, though, my uncle explained that there’s an entire tribe living down in the Amazon, all with missing arms and legs.  “The Bush Babies,” he said, “when they get hungry, they hunt the natives, leaping out of trees, chasing them on foot.  If one bites, before the native can kill it, this forces the amputation of the limb, to keep the poison from getting to the heart, which would otherwise stop it in a matter of minutes.”

Uncle Johnny explained that before he came over from Cuba, he’d helped Castro come up with a plan to help his buddy, Pinochet.  Apparently, the Bush Babies had begun to cause problems in the smaller villages outlying the forests along Chile’s southern interior.  They were biting villagers, not just Amazonian tribes.  There was an increasing panic at the The Bush Babies had begun to migrate, “it was the result of too much logging,” Johnny said.  It’s similar to what’s been happening in South Texas, the bugs, and creepy crawlies, coming into to houses, making our homes theirs.   My plan, it’s what allowed me a safe passage over.  My dad sent me the money, after I handed Castro my plan, and I never looked back. 

I always loved Uncle Johnny.  I was closer to him than I was to my dad.  Johnny assured me that his plan was the reason there no longer remained any documented encounters with the Bush Baby.  His method of attack had sent their numbers scuttling back, deep into the Amazon, away from civilization.  I told Uncle Johnny he needed to do the same with the Brown Recluse, and he always told me it was next on his list.  This always made me smile.