Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Killing A Snake

In the dry season, snakes are ubiquitous.  You must always be on the lookout for them: in trees, under dried leaves, behind rocks, or sunning themselves in the yard.  Yellow-jaw and jumping tommy goffs, coral snakes, beaden pearls, parrot snakes and monkey snakes.  Some are poisonous, some are not.  Yellow jaws are the most feared.  They are known to be very aggressive and bold, attacking with little or no provocation.  They can spring up at their prey from a distance and their venom is extremely lethal.  During dry months, snakes follow the animal life as it retreats down from the high ground toward the low-lying areas where streams and rivulets remain flowing even in the drought.  Prey, like birds, frogs and mice, is plentiful here.  We live in the lowest land of all.  Thirteen acres of it along Cacao Creek, a small winding tributary of the Columbia River.  Even before the flood that will drive us from this land in despair, life here is about survival.  The hard, clay soil is not good for growing much besides coco, cassava and bananas.  The corn we grow is small, stunted and hardly edible.  The beans come up spindly and sparse.  Tomatoes won’t grow at all.

But the snakes love it.

The drier the weather gets, the more the snakes appear.  One day, Rosie are I are joyfully splashing around in our favorite swimming hole in the creek when suddenly I spot it.  There, on the river bank coiled in the dead leaves at the base of a jippy jappa palm is a yellow jaw tommy goff.  The brown and black pattern on its skin makes it nearly invisible but there it is, just a few feet away, our deadly jungle nemesis.  We call for our father, who quickly comes running.
“Don’t move, girls.”  He says.  We freeze, partly because our dad told us to, partly with pure fear.  We are standing chest deep in the river, huddled again some rocks.  Our hearts are pounding, our breath shallow.  We look at one another and then back at the snake.  The serpent is looking right at us with its cold, beady, black eyes.  Will it jump at us?  Will it jump at our dad? What if he misses and it gets angry?  Another thing you need to know: snakes can swim.

Rosie and I watch in terror.  Way (as we come to call our dad) has his machete in one hand and solid rosewood walking stick in the other.  He is barefoot and wearing only shorts.  He moves stealthily along the river bank, slowing approaching the snake.  With each step he lifts his bare foot up over the thick, dry vegetation in the underbrush, and then, in slow motion, brings it back down avoiding branches and leaves that will crackle if stepped on.  The seconds drag out.  The yellow jaw does not move.  It does not seem to notice Way slowly approaching in its peripheral vision.  Maybe snakes don’t have peripheral vision.  Maybe it is too focused on the shivering girls a few feet away.

            Way has moved within the snake’s striking distance – it the serpent notices him now, it will be too late.  He lowers his machete down and silently pushes the tip into the earth.  Then he grasps the rosewood rod firmly with both hands, calmly lifting it up over his shoulders.  With great force and no hesitation he slams it down across the middle of the coil.  In an instant he repeats the motion, this time smashing the head.  The yellow jaw is dead.  He gives it a few more whacks for good measure then looks up.  “Cho,” he says “that snake’s no match for me!”  Suddenly it seems we were foolish to be so scared.  He picks up the snake with his machete, its slinky body draped over the blade.   He crosses the creek and walks up the other side of the bank, disappearing into the underbrush. 

            That evening, Rosie and I are still electrified by the close encounter with the most poisonous snake in Belize.  In the flickering firelight, we repeat the events over and over, feeling happy to be alive to tell the tale.  We ask Way to explain exactly how he did it.  He thumps the rosewood walking stick on the ground.  “You must always carry a good stick with you in the bush.  You let the snake know you are coming.  Snake is afraid of Mankind, Mankind should not be afraid of snake,” he says.  “But to kill it – there is only one way.”    

          “Like you did today?”

           “Yes!”  He grabs a banana frond and tears off the leafy part, dropping the spine near his feet.  “It’s just like so.”  He taps the middle of the banana frond with the stick.  “First, you have to hit the snake across the back – to paralyze it.  If you break its back it can’t move.  It can’t attack you.  Then, crush the head –now it can’t bite at all.  You don’t go for the head first because if you miss, well . . .cho.”  He sucks his teeth.

          “What did you do with the snake today?  Where did you take it?”

           “That is the last part- snake has to know who’s boss.  You  hang it up inna  tree so the other snakes know to stay away.  I took the snake yonder to the Jackson’s land.”  

             The Jackson’s are our nearest neighbors, they live in the village a few miles away, and they have an old rice paddy that runs adjacent to our land.  Way does not trust them and he thinks that the snakes came from their land.  “I hung up the snake right so.”  He lifts up the banana frond with his stick and gestures toward the Jackson’s land.  “Dem and the snake, dem both need a lesson.”  Rosie and I exchange a knowing glance.  To us, the Jacksons always seem nice enough,  but our father harbors suspicion for pretty much everyone in the outside world. 

           This is not our last time getting too close for comfort with a deadly snake in the jungle.  In fact, decades later a yellow jaw nearly takes my father's life.  But tonight, he seems larger than life, invincible.  The key to our survival in this wonderful, forsaken snake pit we call home. 

~ Sarah Jane Forman

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