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Essay

Nature, Putting the 'Augh!' in August

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 29, 2004; Page D01

Getting bitten: It's worse than a paper cut, slightly better than death. Thinking you're about to get bitten: That's a little worse still. Ever been in a fourth-grade classroom when a bee flies through an open window? The screams are loud enough that teachers from other classrooms come running to see who's dead, and who can still be saved.

You don't need anaphylactic shock or all the "National Geographic Explorer" special effects for a bite to be huge news, at least on a very local level. People's bite stories are sometimes pathetically banal, especially in the dead of summer, like hearing about their dentist visits or closing costs: I was [blanking] in the back yard, and all of the sudden this [blank] bit me. I was happy, and then I wasn't. I woke up and there it was. It was an amazing day, and then sszzztt!! and I was all like [Lord's name in vain]!!


(Katherine Frey For The Washington Post)

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Things were fine, until that precise awfulness, until that split-second stab of interaction between species.

And then what'd you do?

I lived, but it wasn't easy, let me just say. It's been a year since I stepped on the stingray near La Jolla. We were stomping along in the shallow California surf (hilariously, Hasselhoffianly), it was my birthday, and suddenly there was a jab at my ankle and I thought: glass. I teetered a moment and said, calmly, "I've stepped on something." But it wasn't glass, and as a pinkish, illegible cursive squirt of my blood surfaced, the stingray swam around my legs, horribly exotic and uninvited and the size of a small Calphalon skillet, not part of the plan.

"What do you want?" the boyfriend said, an hour later, after the swelling wouldn't stop and the lifeguard didn't care and we had hiked up the cliff back to the rental car. I was thrashing around in the back seat, wailing in pain as he drove. I was sweating, cussing, starting to pant and had that odd tinge of anxiety attack, thinking of venom and paralysis. "Do you want Tylenol?" he asked. "Do you want to go to an emergency room?"

"Let's go check into the hotel," I wept, "and I'll Google it."

Another half-hour later, booting up the laptop, feebly typing a search: "stingray bite pain."

"It says, 'Plunge it in the hottest water you can stand,' " I announced, "to 'neutralize the toxin' " -- toxin! " 'Patient may also show signs of increased anxiety.' "

The Internet was right, but life has not been quite the same. My foot eventually stopped hurting, but the moment never stopped happening, a ready visual in my mind: the upside-down "j" shape of the incision, the swelling, the sea beast floating away. Two weeks later, when the swelling had not fully subsided, I found an online testimonial from a woman who'd been healed by the hands of a preacher, having suffered foot pain for 20 years from a vacation stingray encounter. That's why I limped into the HMO on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.

They were interested. Finally someone was interested. They took X-rays to see if a piece of the ray's stinger was embedded in the bone, gave me an antibiotic prescription. The real care was the attention, some validation. "Oh, sure, this is a nasty one," the triage nurse said, poking at my bulbous ankle. "Stingrays hurt. Toughest-looking surfer dudes in the world come in here, crying their eyes out."

And that's when the pain started to stop, only when it became part of the long human narrative of bites and stings.

You spend your life avoiding black widow spiders and water moccasins and all the other things you told yourself could be out there or under there or living around these parts, whether these parts were the Amazon or Bethesda. You think about sheds, box springs, corners, weeds. Rec rooms in Scottsdale, Ariz., crawling with scorpions that are the same exact color as the carpet. You should come to the barbecue out at the country house: We'll have my special potato salad, you'll get Lyme disease from deer ticks, it'll be a blast.

Foxes terrorize suburban Washington!


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