Essay 4: Three Episodes
- Scene: Kosi Bay
Type of snake: Black Mamba
Body of water: Saltwater lake
Type of dog: Evoked/imagined
Colour: Pink and grey
Problem: Danger can never be adequately anticipated
Resolution: We forge ahead regardless
I don’t remember this one. I feel as if I do, but when I look at the picture in my head that this story summons up, there is something wrong with the perspective. I should be looking down at the snake as we head towards it on the bike. I should either be looking down at the snake or the back of my dad’s head, depending on where I was sitting on the bike. It would make sense that I would be on the handlebars. That is the logical place to put the three year old accompanying you on your evening ride. So, I should be looking down at the snake as we head towards it on the bike. I should see my own legs and then in front of us on the path there should be sand, sand, sand, black mamba.
Instead, I see us as if I was standing in the lake. It’s late afternoon, going into dark. We are silhouetted in the last of the fuzzy light and the smoke from the fire. What’s happening on the bike is my dad is telling me a story. The main character in it is modelled after a dog I know. What’s happening with the snake is it’s just lying there. Me and my dad don’t know about the snake until we are right on top of it, and the snake doesn’t know about me and my dad. We are all extremely surprised to meet. We all scream in our different ways. The snake screams in its heart, my dad screams in his head, and I scream with my mouth open extremely wide. I see this as if I was standing in the lake, which is actually an estuary, with the water at my grown-up knees.
I could make it so I see what happens from the perspective of the snake. Stretched out across the path, making for the lake/estuary because you are a snake who loves to feel salt water on its scales, and then suddenly a clattery green bicycle is bearing down on you and there are two sharp intakes of breath and the bike goes right over you. You can’t believe it. What kind of life is this? How could you have been so blind? What of your famed hearing? Is it only bats that have the good ears, or is it snakes as well? Regardless, it should never have happened.
The story my dad tells is that we rode over the poor snake and it lashed itself up so that the tail end and the head end were up by our legs. This is the kind of thing that is difficult to describe without the aid of gestures, the snake athletically whipping itself up and around, the dent the bike apparently left in the middle of it. In the story my dad tells, we all escape without injury or consequence. The snake is angry, the three year old is beside herself, the dad is aware that things could have gone much worse, but no permanent damage is done.
- Scene: Southern Drakensberg
Type of snake: Puff adder
Body of water: Dam
Type of dog: Healthy pet
Problem: Family and the forging of a distinct identity
Resolution: We accept that it is a tricky business
This time I am five, and it’s me and my mum walking down to the jetty. The jetty is one of the grand passions of my early childhood. I am helplessly fixated on it, am possibly in love. It is the subject of many dreams. I wake up in the middle of the night and say its name: jetty jetty jetty. The jetty (my jetty) has a metal ladder going into the water. The ladder is infrequently used, except by those who will get heart attacks if they jump straight into the dam. I would never have the nerve to use the ladder. In my family, swimming has a strongly moral component. To be a cowardly or reluctant swimmer is to be slightly untrustworthy. This is obvious to me even at five, and so I hurl myself into the water like a champion. My grandparents’ dogs rocket in after me. They are two Irish setters, and they swim too close. They are always raking their claws down your legs and staring right into your face with hot besotted eyes. The dog element is my least favourite part of swimming in the dam at my grandparents’ house. Everything else about it is my best, though, so it evens out.
We’re walking down to the jetty. Everyone else is down at the dam already, being bitten by horseflies. My mum is holding my hand, and we are singing a song called WE WALK STRAIGHT SO YOU BETTER GET OUT THE WAY. That’s the whole song, chorus and verse. You swing your arms when you sing it. I am shouting it as loud as I can so my cousins can hear and be jealous. It’s Easter Monday, and I am still smarting from the losses accrued at yesterday’s egg hunt. Every single person who was ever born is better at finding Easter eggs than me. I am sick with the shame of it.
It is possible that the walk and the song, then, are undertaken for the purposes of consolation. My mum knows me. She knows how much I hate an Easter egg hunt, and she knows how much I love this song. The two of us are WE WALK STRAIGHTing along the path to the dam, and my spirits begin to lift. I kick my feet out and admire my little red sandals. What I am saying to the world is: Get a load of me in these shoes. Get a load of me and my mum as we walk down to the dam.
In the middle of all of this I look down at the puff-adder which has materialised in front of us. It’s there on the path and we are WE WALK STRAIGHTing directly into it. It lifts itself up and puffs itself out in the textbook style. It hisses like a cartoon snake. In the memory I have of this meeting, it actually spits at us. This is not normal behaviour for a puff adder, I don’t think. The relevant literature does not support my recollection, and also informs me that the bite of a puff adder is almost never fatal. Still, I will tell you that it looks at us with murder in its swirly hypnotic eyes.
My mum lifts me up with one arm, the whole of me, like a woman who could hoist a car up off a baby. She has me somewhere up round her shoulders and we are running up the path back to the house. My mum is whispering Jesuschristjesuschristjesuschristjesuschrist as she runs. This is all technically terrifying, but I am just about ecstatic by the time we get back to the house. My mum has started her horrified laugh, and she won’t be able to stop for days. Imagine it bit us. Imagine its teeth when it bit us through our sandals. It is a proper adventure. We could have actually died, you know. I practise saying it to my cousins. They can stick their ability to find eggs up their butts. Who was it that nearly got killed by a snake? Me.
- Scene: Southern Drakensberg
Type of snake: Unknown
Body of water: River
Type of dog: None
Colour: Green and blue
Problem: The idea that the world can be explained
This time there are no surprises, and we see the snake long before it sees us. Its attentions are elsewhere, entirely focused on the frog it has in its mouth. The snake’s main problem is size: it is small, and the actually still-alive frog that it has in its mouth is quite big. We’re on our way back from the river, in retreat from the storm on its way up the valley. We are walking in single file, as the path requires. Dad in front, then brother, then me. My dad stops and says Woah there. Steady now. He shows us what’s going on up ahead there with the snake and the frog. I am immediately ready to extract maximum value out of this situation. Another killer serpent! Here we go again!
It’s obvious that we should run, lest it kill us. My legs start going all fizzy, and I am woozy in anticipation of how loud I am going to get to scream. My dad says Take it easy. This snake doesn’t care about us. Look, it’s ignoring us. Everything’s fine. He says it with complete assurance. This is his way. Sea a bit rough for swimming? It’s fine. Noise outside of a man with a metal claw trying to get in? It’s really fine. Late? For Christ’s sake, it’s fine. The only food is beans? It’s fine, and think of this as supper.
We all just stand there and watch for ages. It really is horrible to see. The frog is head-first in the snake, kicking its legs still. Things are generally bad for the snake as well. It can’t get the frog in or out its mouth. They word you are thinking of is “nightmarish”. Are they both going to die? What kind of life is this? Me and my brother think that maybe we should help them, but it’s not easy to see a way to intervene. And anyway, whose side are we on? As a friend of the underdog, your heart says frog. But then look at the snake. Look at the snake and tell me that it couldn’t use the support.
This is an intractable conflict. We can’t stop watching and we can’t help. My dad is perhaps realising that this is not the most salutary example of the coldly beautiful natural cycle. He is trying to think of a reason to make us leave. Obligingly, the rain starts. Nature can at least be relied upon to come up with the goods in this respect. The rain makes it so we cannot stand there and watch this terrible thing anymore. It has no effect on the frog and the snake, who are locked in a battle that is cosmic and everlasting and therefore beyond the reaches of simple weather. But for us it’s coming down so hard we have to actually start running, back over the bridge and into the leaky tents.
The next time we come back this way, the frog and the snake are gone. Any number of possible meanings can be inferred from this. I try not to come to any conclusions.