The Scarab

One night in Portland OR, (I was about 3 or 4 – so, like roughly 1962-63) as Mom was closing up the bookstore to head home, a big storm blew through, knocking down trees and blowing in windows. Just as she’s locking the door, this guy shows up. He had rolled into town a few days before, heard the bookstore was the place to go to get hooked into the bohemian community, and has been by to see us a couple times already. This evening his windows just got blown in and rain is pouring into his rented room. He doesn’t know where to go. Mom brings him home to the farmhouse with us.

The storm lasts a couple days, so this guy is stuck with us for a while. Our household consists of me, Mom, her brother my Uncle Bill, her lover George (or was it Irvin at that time?), and the various revolving beatnik buddies Bill & George drag home. Nights are for the adults to drink, smoke, read poetry & argue about art and the nature of existence. I doze in the next room, lulled by their voices and the odor of pot and cigarettes.  

During that time of the storm, when the newcomer is stuck with us, someone brings out some peyote. The men partake and proceed to lay about on couches having visions. 

In the newcomer’s vision, he’s walking through the streets of Portland after the storm. Windows are boarded, and people are cleaning up debris. He sees a jewelry shop window, and in the window there is a scarab. In his vision, he knows this scarab belongs to my family.

You’ve seen scarabs, everyone has by now, though I suspect they weren’t so common back then. A scarab is a stone representation of a dung beetle. Real dung beetles go around collecting shit – like from camels. They roll the feces into little balls to store in underground nests. They eat the shit and they lay their eggs in it.

The ancient Egyptians worshipped scarabs as a kind of Deity. They were thought to have great power, because they created new life out of death. The popular symbol was carved out of a green stone that people wore for luck, power, protection – something like that. Today they’re not uncommon in jewelry.

So anyway, the newcomer has this peyote vision, laying on our farmhouse couch, and he knows when he awakes that it was not merely a hallucination. That particular scarab he saw was real. So when the storm clears up, he goes back into town and starts walking the streets of Portland. Up and down the streets he walks, until he finds a jewelry store that looks identical to the one in his vision. But there is no scarab in the window, which is boarded over, having been broken in the storm.

Scarab

The newcomer goes into this dusty little jewelry shop and says to the owner “I want to see the scarab”.

The jeweler says “what scarab?” and the newcomer says “the one you had in the window recently.”

The shop owner says he never had a scarab in his shop window. So the newcomer says “I know you have a scarab here, whether it’s ever been in the window or not”, and he describes the scarab from his vision. As he talks, the shop owner starts to look suspicious and says “how could you know about that?”

Turns out he has a scarab exactly as described, but it’s never been on display. He’s never shown it to anybody. He keeps it in his safe.

That the newcomer knows it exists and can describe it convinces the shop owner to sell it to him. He says it’s a true ancient Egyptian scarab, 4,000 years old. The gold setting is Byzantine – 400 years old –  a pendant with a little golden serpent coiling up each side of the scarab. Tiny pieces of colored stone are embedded in the serpents. One speck of stone is missing.

Authentic ancient scarabs had hieroglyphics carved into their flat backsides, a prophecy or blessing or something. On the back of this scarab’s setting, you can see where some time in the past, a patch was cut out of the gold backing to reveal the back of the actual scarab stone. There’s a little seam where it was welded back together.

Whether it really is 4000 years old or not, I don’t know. But that seam on the back shows that someone who knew something about it once thought there was a good chance that it was. Enough to look for the engraving. And then put it back together afterwards. Sure, I could take it to an appraiser, but either way, I don’t actually want to know.

But anyway, the newcomer buys the scarab and gives it to my mother, because according to his vision it belongs to her family.

More than 20 years later, when my mom comes to visit us in New Mexico, about a year after my son is born, she gives me that scarab, saying she always felt it was supposed to belong to me, and she doesn’t want to have to die for me to have it. When I later tell my youngest brother she’s given it to me, he says “I thought that had always been yours.”

It was the only thing of value she ever owned, even if it was a fake – the only thing worth inheriting. And I had known as a child, as she did, that I was what was meant by “her family”. It was a secret message to me from the far reaches of history, an allusion to who and what I was. 

I felt it was in her safekeeping, for me, certain that scarab was my heritage – antiquity, shit, bugs, rebirth, holes in the ground, arcane symbolism, rebirth, snakes, a hidden prophecy, rebirth and a truth I hesitate to test.

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"For a woman to explore and express the fullness of her sexuality, her emotional and intellectual capacities, would entail who knows what risks and who knows what truly revolutionary alteration of the social conditions that demean and constrain her."

-Louise J. Kaplan - Female Perversions