It was all abdomen, with a crazed black and tan skin that had blunted, misshapen dorsal plates. Bent over close to examine it, I watched yellow foam frothing from its crushed body. I was still swearing a blue streak. Two Russian grad students outside my tent stopped their conversation and one asked what’s wrong? Bit by a spider, I said. I can’t quite recall what he then said but my response was something like ‘go fuck yourself.’
At that moment I was beginning to believe that this country was trying to kill me. My head was spinning. I was dripping in sweat. I looked at my ankle but could see nothing untoward, not two tiny puncture wounds, nothing at all. But I was having trouble sitting up straight.
I staggered outside, weaved my way over to the dig director. Told him I’d been bitten by a spider and asked if the first aid kit had antivenin, or even an epi-kit in case this went bad. He stared at the ground for a moment, and then broke out laughing.
I don’t blame him. The whole thing was absurd. Locals gathered to assure me there was nothing that poisonous this far north (except a snake or two). Thing is, their credibility was beginning to look suspect – they’d managed four-day old goat’s head soup, after all. And we appeared to have a first aid kit bought in Wal-Mart.
Well, no matter. At this point there was nothing to do but take things stoically. I was leaving in the morning. Assuming I made it that far.
Much later, in London, I trawled through Wikipedia. There are two identified species commonly called daddy longlegs. One is high venomous but has no fangs. The other less so but its fangs are too weak to break human skin. No search through Mongolian insect fauna could find me a picture of the creature that bit me. I was baffled and remain so to this day. That day, in London, it was something of an issue. I’d had a single day of feeling fine upon my return to the world, but now I was running a high fever and the gut storm had returned. I knew enough about venom to know that some forms attack systemically, over time, leading to organ failure and all the rest. But here I’m getting ahead of myself.
The day of my departure was one of genuine feeling. I’d made a few friends, but in truth all I wanted to do was get this on with. One of the Mongolian crew’s father was an archaeologist based in the capital, and through intermittent cell phone conversations it was arranged that he would pick me up at the other end and drive me to a hotel.
But there was concern. Flash floods had hit Ulaan Bator on the weekend and fourteen people had drowned. No one quite knew how bad things were. I probably shouldn’t have laughed.
The trip to the capital was long. By van to the nearest town with bus service, four hours. Bus down to Ulaan Bator, six to seven hours. Through it all I sat with a two litre bottle of coke for sustenance, about all I could manage to keep down. As far as bus rides go, it was pretty much standard for third world travelling. Crowded. Kids, grandmothers, young couples. Rest stops opposite doorless outhouses lined up in fly-swarmed rows, the men off pissing in the fields. Cigarettes smoked. Then back onboard.
Reaching the edge of the city, I thought I could make out some of the obvious detritus from the flooding, but in all honesty, Ulaan Bator kinda has that look anyway, so I couldn’t be entirely sure. My ride turned up at the depot and I was driven to a five star hotel.
Unless you have experienced something similar, it is almost impossible to describe the feeling at the moment I walked into that hotel. Eight-five US a night. Fine, whatever. Laundry service? Perfect. Restaurant and bar? Excellent. Fuck yes.
While on the bus I had conjured up visions of the perfect BLT. I couldn’t quite manage that but I did dine on a chicken burger with fries on the side, which was awful but perfect. And a bottle of Guinness, always perfect. If I paid for the extravagance later that night, so be it. But it felt like the antibiotics were finally working.
In the bar there were foreigners of a certain type. Russians, Americans and Japanese: engineers and brokers mostly. And in the three nights that I stayed there, I got to know them in only faintly more detail – about as far as I cared to go. The loud late-fifties drunk hitting on the pretty waitresses and barkeep was American. The three Japanese suits with the young Mongolian beauties to keep them company held forth in a booth where they smoked Turkish cigarettes one after another while their ‘dates’ sat demurely and dressed to kill and were bored witless. The group of scientists in their Abercrombie and Fitch attire who worked too hard at being over-familiar with their environs, as if nowhere too remote even existed – well now, these descriptions have a cynical flavour, don’t they? Try sitting for a few nights in a five star hotel anywhere in the Third World and keeping alive the generosity of your own spirit. Just try.
This was sordid, and pathetic. I’ve never liked it, not in Central America, and not here. Those pretty young call girls were all looking for a way out. Their rich customers had something else entirely in their minds. We all know how money talks, and we all know that it never has anything good to say. Certainly not about us. The sooner I bailed from this bad movie set, the better.
Alas, my Aeroflot ticket was non-refundable and the dates could not be changed. If I wanted an earlier flight out I’d have to pay for it. Pay for it I did. Caught a cab to the airport at five in the morning and joined the crowds waiting for their flights. But the Russian plane never showed. No one had an explanation. I had a connecting flight in Moscow but with a five hour layover, so I wasn’t worried. For awhile, anyway. We left at four PM. Time zones were being crossed. I had no idea if I’d make my connection, but by that point I really didn’t give a shit. Get me outa here. Please.
At this point, all I am thinking about is getting to England, being reunited with my wife and son, getting settled down in Cornwall, and getting onto the tenth novel. Nothing else mattered. Not the madness of immigration in Moscow, not the dreadful food, not the 40 plus hours without sleep, not even the chaos of Heathrow (at least that chaos I understood and indeed welcomed with open arms). Upon seeing me, my wife said she barely recognized me. We’d been apart for what, two weeks? I was gaunter than usual (which is saying something). And I was yellow. Well, no, just seriously wind-tanned. It’s been a while since my face was as weathered as it must have been then. Anyway, relax, no hepatitis in sight, folks.
That first day back in London (after a twelve hour sleep) was heaven. BLT for breakfast. That night I was sick as a dog. Again. But this time with a raging fever tacked on for good measure. Oh, and this was in the middle of the Swine Flu epidemic and people in London were dropping like flies (so the papers wailed).
Read more of Steven Erikson’s Notes on a Crisis on Life As A Human:
Part II: A Stake Driven Deep
Feature Photo, Adult Male Hentzia palmarum Jumping Spider, Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Thomas Shahan
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