It’s the dog days of summer, the time when it becomes hard to blog. Dedicated and serious bloggers push through it and write brilliant, meaty pieces on the new constitution or nuanced and warm offerings about choral singing and fly fishing or whimsical asides about larping. The less dedicated among us stare at the list of blog topics we intend to tackle, heavy duty pieces about entitlements or the positive role of corporations in politics, then turn away and go back to playing poker on our cellphones.
Better something than nothing, I figure, so today’s blog is about snakes, inspired by the comment thread on Booth’s recent post on fly fishing.
I don’t like snakes, but I don’t dislike them either. We have snakes here on our farm in Indiana and when I see one, I walk around it. Occasionally we’ll have to shoo an aggressive black snake away from the garage with a broom, and I suppose if we found a copperhead or rattler too close to the house I’d probably kill it, but for the most part they go their way and we go ours.
However, I’ve lived much of my life in places where there were snakes, poisonous ones, and have accumulated some stories. Growing up in south Georgia it was massive diamondbacks, huge snakes as thick as your arm that would stretch across the narrow, sandy roads as they sunned themselves. In West Africa, it was mostly cobras and green mambas. In Louisiana, it was water moccasins and in Australia tiger snakes.
1973—West Africa I
Peace Corps training was based in Kenema, where we were housed in a low cinder-block dorm, just a long row of concrete cubicles, each with a cot and a door that was nothing more than a thin piece of cloth on a string. We were playing cards when someone stuck their head in the door and yelled “Snake charmer.” Three of us jumped up and flip flopped across the compound to the street where the snake charmer was performing in front of a crowd of about thirty people.
Snake charmers traveled from village to village performing for tips. They wore black, pajama-like outfits and fluffy headdresses made from black-dyed rags. They carried their snakes in burlap sacks. There was no anti-venin available so locals were terrified of snakes and snake charmers. Snake charmers could handle snakes with impunity because they had “medicine,” what we would call black magic. In other words, they were evil men who’d made a bargain with the devil. If a snake charmer loaded his writhing sacks onto a local jitney bus, called a lorry, everyone else got off. If he came to a village and needed a place to sleep, he got not a room but a house, and afterwards the medicine man performed elaborate rites before anyone would sleep in it again.
This snake charmer was a scraggly man, with brown teeth and the faint odor of palm wine. His act consisted of pulling a snake from a bag, throwing it on the ground so that it faced the crowd, who immediately jumped backwards and screamed, “Wayah!” He’d then reach out, snag it by the tail and return it to the bag. We got there just in time for the spitting cobra. He reached into the bag, pulled the snake out, and threw it to the ground. It took off toward the crowd, who immediately bolted, except for me. I stood where I was and grinned at the snake. Behind me people screamed, “Wayah! Wayah!”
The snake crawled toward me. When it got about eighteen inches away, it rose and hooded, its head level with my bare knees. It swayed back and forth, deciding. The snake charmer looked at me as if I was crazy, then reached out and grabbed the snake by its tail, tugging it back and dropping it into the sack. He tied the top. We stood, legs akimbo and hands on hips, staring at each other. I am sure he was wondering, “Who is this smart ass ruining my act?” I was thinking that these snakes had to be defanged. With exactly the same hubris as a thousand white men in Africa before me, I refused to yield to silly native superstition. Instead of shorts and sandals, I should’ve worn starched khakis and a pith helmet.
After a moment he turned and walked back. Grunting, he lifted his biggest sack, and untied it. He walked over to me. By now I stood on my own little island because the crowd had retreated six feet or so behind me. Looking at me appraisingly, he untied the sack and dumped a cranky, fat Gaboon viper with a head the size of my fist into the dust. It crawled a few inches, felt the heat from my bare foot and coiled into striking position. The snake charmer watched me. I looked at him and smiled.
The crowd was going crazy behind me. Children buried their heads into their parents’ legs and wept. Adults slapped each others’ shoulders and whispered. Wayah! Wayah! The snake charmer looked back and forth from the snake to me. Finally, apparently resigning himself to the reality that I was now part of the act, he shook his head, reached down and grabbed the snake behind the jaws.
Another Volunteer snapped pictures like a photographer at a fashion shoot, racing around, kneeling, turning his camera sideways. Klick, klick, klick, klick. My fans cheered me on. The “wayah’s” of surprise morphed into “wayah’s” of encouragement. Wayah! Wayah! Wayah! The snake charmer hung the heavy snake around my neck and released his hands. He hugged me. He smiled for the camera. I smiled for the camera. The viper smiled for the camera. Klick. Wayah! Klick.
Then came the money shot. The charmer grabbed the snake, held it between us, flipped it over, pried its jaws open and using a small stick raised up a fang fully an inch long. A crystal drop of poison glistened on its tip. I stared at that hypodermic-sharp fang that had been less than an inch from my carotid artery and felt the blood rush down from my head. I felt my knees soften and struggled to hold myself upright. The world went silent. I no longer heard the klicks or the cheers. I couldn’t stop looking at that fang. My tongue was made of dust.
And then I did the single bravest thing I have ever done in my life: I smiled, waved to the crowd and calmly walked back to the dorm.
1973—West Africa II
After training we did visits in the villages of Volunteers who’d been there awhile. In Joe’s village, I went to the latrine. When I came out, I looked down and there, perfectly parallel between my two feet in their plastic sandals, was a short, flat arrow-shaped snake. I didn’t move. Nor did he. We remained like that for what seemed like a very long time. Finally, he slowly turned, his flickering tongue almost touching my bare foot, and crawled away.
Back inside the house, we looked up the snake in Joe’s book. It was a death adder—the same snake that killed Cleopatra.
“Why didn’t you kill it?” asked Joe.
I shook my head. “You kill it. Me and that snake had a deal. I wouldn’t kill it and it wouldn’t kill me. A deal is a deal.”
Since it was always warm in West Africa, some Volunteers slept on waterbeds they’d brought from home. Ray was sitting in his living room one day when out of the corner of his eye he saw a small black cobra slide around the corner and into his bedroom. Without thinking he jumped up and yelled, “Kalii!” which means snake. Instantly every adult male in the village poured through his front door, each with a machete. Ray tried to yell stop, but before he could get the words out his mouth a stream of pinkish water poured through the doorway. Inside his bedroom, the dead cobra lay in pieces on his shredded water bed.
We were laying pipe through the Atchafalaya Basin. My job was to follow the excavator digging the ditch in a small aluminum boat. Once or twice a day I’d fuel the machine or lubricate something, but mostly I sat in the boat and watched, there more for safety than for anything else. Every day I’d wash my boat, prepare lunch for the operator of the machine, read and in the middle of the day when it got hot, slip into the bayou for a swim.
This drove the operator and the supervisor crazy, because they rightly thought swimming alone by yourself in a deep black-water bayou with snakes, strong current and the occasional alligator was unsafe. The supervisor would try to talk me out of it by telling me stories like the old urban legend where a man jumps into a river and comes out with fifty snakes hanging on him. I’d just laugh and say that was nonsense, that snakes couldn’t open their mouths underwater or they’d drown.
One day we were sitting on the tracks of the machine and a cottonmouth swam by. A cottonmouth is a very bulky snake and swims very high in the water. Instead of its head poking out of the water at an angle like most water snakes, they form a sort of “S,” almost like a camel’s neck with the top of its head parallel to the surface. This one held a fish in its mouth. The supervisor looked at me, but didn’t say anything. I never swam alone in the bayou again.
Australia has 6 or 7 of the ten most poisonous snakes in the world, depending on how you count. (You’d think it would be straightforward, but it’s not. Some snakes have very toxic venom, like the sea snake, but have small fangs and rarely bite. Some have venom that is less toxic, like the tai pan, but are quick to bite and inject larger amounts, and whose bites are often fatal.)
A friend was burnt out from work. Another friend offered the use of his country retreat near Melbourne. The first friend went down at night and settled in. The next morning he got up, took his coffee out to the back veranda, and there sunning themselves on the stone path leading into the garden, were half a dozen fat black tiger snakes. Tiger snakes are very poisonous, very agro, and very dangerous. He took his coffee, slowly retreated into the house and went out to the front to sit and have his coffee, where there, laying on the welcome mat was another tiger snake. He quickly packed and left.
The other day I was running along Woodall Road and I saw a black snake, actually a Southern Black Racer, dart across the road. I stopped to look at it. It was about three feet long, as thin as a ribbon, and like most Racers, aggressive as all get out. This one coiled up in the leaves, hissed at me and then put his tail up against a dry leaf and began shaking it furiously. It was a pretty good imitation of a rattlesnake. I’m a believer in evolution, but it’s still amazing that behavior this specific could occur through natural selection.