First published: Waikato Times New Zealand January 12, 2008
Photo: Deborah K. Morgan
Snake Bite Summer
By Eros-Alegra Clarke
The summer I was bit by a nine foot python was the same summer that a dream of Donald Duck saved my life. It was also the summer I learned that parents can be hurt in ways different than stubbing a toe or hitting a thumb with a hammer.
In the middle of the heat, scent of suntan oil and chlorine soaked days, I turned ten. I had great expectations for this age. Ten was a number with a good sound to it, a solid number. One and Zero, a circle and line; there are all kinds of things to be created by moving around a circle and line. Ten was a number with possibility. And before the accident, my new identity as a ten year old was ripe with this sense of freedom. The future was a thing of security and so the sunlight hours were spent like innocence is an inexhaustible resource. My friends and I searched for scorpions in the hills surrounding the small vineyard town of Sonoma California. We rescued tadpoles from dying puddles, rode bikes and ate sugar until our blood was so sweet it moved through our bodies like golden syrup. I walked everywhere barefoot; on hot asphalt, through thistle filled meadows, and across graveled paths.
While the weekdays were devoted to pleasure seeking, the weekends were spent working in a pet store in exchange for supplies for my turtle, Big Gal. Big Gal was of undefined origin, brought into the store by a concerned nature lover. Half mauled by a dog, she was a mess that refused surrender. I fell in love with her because I knew nobody else would. She was ugly – plain and simple. There were bite marks on her shell, a missing back foot and her colouring was most accurately described as ‘mud’. Big Gal was my first source of comfort after I almost died in the accident.
My job at the pet store came with simple rules; make sure the water dishes are clean; the cages are latched and after handling the mice always wash my hands – especially before moving into the reptile area. The reptile area was a section located in a small room one flight up from the rest of the shop. Wall to wall built in aquariums housing boa constrictors, pythons, chameleons, water monitors, iguanas, frogs, toads, and turtles. The first time I watched the feeding of the snakes I stood with a brave face that I believed had the owner of the store fooled. There was no way I was going to prove that I was too young for my job, too weak, by crying as the mice with their soft pink feet were swung round by their tails and bashed into the wall. Once. Twice. And then tossed into the aquariums; limp things with enough warmth to attract hunger.
“It’s all part of the cycle of life,” my mother had explained when I was home and the crying I had stored down in my toes worked its way back up my body. Her hand rubbed my back in slow circles, an untouched cup of chocolate milk sat in front of me. I wanted nothing to do with this whole ‘cycle of life’ business if it meant the dull thunk of egg shell skull hitting wood. I didn’t have to go back she said. But I couldn’t stay away. It was a different world in the pet store, one full of filtered light and the mixed scent of saw dust, ocean and insects. A world I had grown brave in, swooping nets down into low rumbling tanks and lifting out fins or claws. Petting snakes and carrying cockatiels on my shoulders, I was more than just a girl; I was a friend of wild things.
That is, until the snake bit me.
The fangs of a python are so sharp that when the snake latched onto my hand I felt nothing but pressure and the weight of flinging it across the room. The first pain I felt was the heat of shame that I had screamed out a swear word in my shock. I was sure I was going to get fired for it. It was my primary fear until the owner was by my side, her mouth twitching in concern and amusement, reassuring me that, no I would not be fired for yelling out “sh*t” in response to a nine foot python striking me. It was then that the perfect incisions scattered across my fingers and the back of my hand received any attention. I had forgotten to wash after feeding the animals downstairs and to a half blind snake, I was nothing more than the scent of mouse.
The incisions were healed within days and required no more treatment than antibacterial cream and empathy, but it was my first lesson that some things don’t hurt until we look at them. That some forms of pain do not exist until our minds register the hurt. And that a simple forgetfulness, like washing our hands, can cause us to walk around with the wrong scent.
I think this is what happened to my mother when the drunken men who rear ended our car climbed out of their truck and began abusing her. It was more than the back injuries, the destruction of our vehicle; it was that the incident became not an accident but an act of violence. An attack so sudden and brutal, that it was as if the men could smell mouse on my mother. Years of it seeped into her skin from a long buried childhood that these men had latched their fangs into. These were not things that I understood as a child. I only felt the thin glass between the adult world and the world of my childhood crack as the men raised their fists and threatened us with rage filled words for getting in their way.
At some point before the accident, I can not be sure if it was a day or a week, I dreamt I was Donald Duck driving down the road. Being a dream, there was no car, just me holding an imaginary steering wheel and happily going along my way in a cartoon duck body. It was right before I was going to turn off the road into my driveway that I looked over my shoulder to see the truck – just before it hit me and sent me tumbling out of my invisible car.
I did not recall the dream until later but on the return from a last minute trip into town for school supplies I had managed the entire ride home without wearing my seatbelt. It wasn’t until my mother had put the blinker on to turn into our driveway that I remembered and in that brief moment of reaching for it while thinking, “I am home, it doesn’t matter now” I clicked it into place anyway. It saved my life. A second later the car was spinning across the road, its momentum only stopped by a large concrete barrier in the shoulder of the ditch.
My ten year old body would have went through the windshield, head first.
At the sound of metal crumpling around stone, my father came running out of the house. And before turning to the men and their bloodshot eyes, he instructed me to go inside. The first thing I did was to grab Big Gal out from her aquarium and hold her to my chest, whispering, “I think I almost died. It’s a really big thing, almost dying.” Her head had poked out of her shell, a rare show of affection and then quickly retreated. I waited to feel something, but unlike the snake bite, I couldn’t see the incisions, the places where I had been hurt.
I don’t think my mother could either, or if she did, the new wounds led her eyes to older wounds, things that she had avoided feeling for years. After the car accident she went to bed for months. I remember the shadows of her bedroom, the cold emptiness of the air. I had lost my mother for a season and if it hadn’t been for the remembrance of a dream, a warning about being a sitting duck and the reminder that the things which protect us or harm us are often invisible, I might have missed the fact that instead of loss, I had been given life.
A year passed, ten turned into eleven. An age made of two pillars. One and one. My mother eventually emerged from her room and filled in the space she had left as though nothing had changed. But something had changed, I had grown older. I understood that no matter how many years pass, we are still vulnerable to snake bites and forgetfulness that may cause us harm, but that we don’t have to fear because there is something else. A something that guides us to put on a seat belt, even when it makes no sense.