A Happy Surprised Ending
By Bruce Zimmerman
I was still studying the paperwork, trying to put the right answers to the questionnaire that I had to fill out for my acceptance to college. I knew it was kinda’ late—but I hadn’t realized how dark and threatening the weather was getting. Then my Aunt Harriet (who was both the principal and librarian of our three-room schoolhouse) interrupted my concentration with a loving tap on my shoulder.
“Tine to go home Rufus. Got to close up. We done give out of daylight.”
“Gee Whiz! I need to finish this paperwork for the folks at A&M down at the capital. Hey, did you know they actually played their first official football game? Lost to Tulane 34 to zip. Just imagine football and school all in one place!”
“OK. I’ll lock up out front. Here’s the key to the rear. Bank the stove and make sure your lantern is turned off, then set it on the ice box. Don’t stay too late, ya hear?”
“Give the key to your mom. I’ll get it in the morning.”
It was kinda’ less than an hour later when I packed up my gear to go out back. The skies lit up with flashes of lightnin’ and the building shook at the sound of the thunderclaps. As I started to bank the stove in the dim light, my eye caught a movement at the bottom of the outside door, and in less than an instant I wet my pants.
Blocking my exit was the largest, meanest, blackest water moccasin I had ever, ever seen. Hell, years ago me and the kids would race through the swamps, and never fear o’ nothin’, but this guy was really, really mean looking. As he started his curl, ready to strike, his green eyes flashed from the light of the newly banked stove.
I threw my key at him as a distraction. Then I slowly moved back protecting my legs with my work satchel. But he slowly slid closer, creating a loose coil, never taking his eyes away from me. As I, too, moved slowly back, I could feel the sweat run down between the palm of my one hand and the dead-end wall at my back. My skin seemed to crawl and twitch, and the pit of my stomach was as cold as ice. There was no sound other than the rush of blood in my eyes.
The snake shifted again into a tighter coil. Always tighter…. Why the devil is he waiting? Why doesn’t he get it over with? Then for an instant his head veered away over toward the table. A slight movement had drawn his attention. I did not dare take my eyes away from the snake; slowly the distraction entered my field of vision.
It was Auntie’s cat…. that scrawny alley cat she found as a kitten, then nursed back to health. Her back was arched, and every hair stood on end. Her stiff legs slowly walked in a circle around the snake. The black monster moved slowly, his attention now on the cat. He tensed, ready to strike. Then he let loose, and to me it seemed faster than—what do they say— “like the speed of light.” He missed. The cat was just barely out of reach. Now she began stiffly walking back and forth. “God, she was asking to die,” I thought. Another strike. Missed again—by what seemed like only a fraction of an inch.
The snake continued striking without going into a full coil, again and again, always missing by the thickness of a bible. And every time it missed, the cat would counter with a precise whip of a spread paw while she braced herself on three stiff legs. Again and again, she slashed out at the snake, just as it repeatedly retreated to a semi-coiled position readying itself to strike again.
Then I realized what she was doing. The snake was being timed. Just as she lunged, in a split second, sharp claws raked across the snake’s evil eyes. That dumb alley cat was deliberately blinding the snake. Now in frustration, the snake didn’t bother to coil, but charged after the cat in a furious, exasperating, disoriented, striking fury. Striking and missing—striking and missing—each one a little bit s-l-o-w-e-r. Finally, as the snake stretched out in a wild enraged strike, the cat, like an explosion, took one electrifying leap and struck the snake exactly in the back of the head with vise-like razor sharp jaws. You could hear the crunching as the cat shook and banged the snake against the wall, while the snake weakly tried to defend itself with a desperate attempt to coil its body around its attacker. Then—it—kinda’—wiggled—to—the—floor—like—a—broken—hose.
The battle was over.
I took a deep breath, while I tried to dry my embarrassment on my pants. Wow! That ugly, brave alley cat had saved my life. Really! Hard for me to believe! But then, as I turned toward the cabinet, I suddenly became very, very humble as a realization set in (and I felt a great deal of dissatisfaction in my thinking) for I suddenly realized what small elements we humans are in the animal kingdom. I was only alive by circumstance. There were good reasons why that cat had fought so hard to kill that poisonous snake.
The three little reasons came tumbling out of their hidden basket—with eyes filled with wonder—their harmonizing squeaky voices—crying for their mother’s milk.
by Marilyn Myerson
C’mon, sweet baby, I crooned, give it up for Momma. My fingers are getting tired. Gentle massage, tender caresses. C’mon, c’mon, don’t go soft on me now, please, please, release your precious fluid! A few more strokes, and ah, here it comes! Sigh, we can both rest now. Thus begins an ordinary day in my, Marilyn Myerson’s, life as a snake-handler, milking their precious fluid. Sweet Baby is a four foot long, olive coloured Brazilian pit viper with dark brown markings and amazing golden irises. His venom is worth a pretty fortune, it plays a significant role in both folk medicine and our current pharmacopoeia. Deliciously enough, research with the venom of one of Sweet Baby’s ancestors led to the development of the very hypertension drug I ingest daily, while giving thanks to this serpentine wonder. Snakes have held special fascination for me ever since I saw Kaa, the python in Sabu’s Jungle Book movie, as an otherwise sheltered kid open to astonishment and the lure of the exotic.
The first snake I ever touched was Ruby, a timber rattler, dark brown and yellow in all her glory. On a grade five expedition to the zoo, the reptile specialist held her out toward the group of us shuffling kids, beckoning for our attention. The grimaces on my classmates’ faces and their disgusted “Ew”’s faded into the background as I stood riveted. I reached out, a mite tentatively at first but soon enough my arm stretched out in full confidence to savour the first touch of this magnificent creature. Her skin was dry, nothing “ooky” about it at all. I continued to fondle her and the zookeeper offered to drape her around my shoulders. This was the biggest thrill of my young life! I felt Ruby murmuring to me beneath her sibilant breath, “Come play with me, and you shall be transported to realms of delight.”
How prophetic she was! Our bonding was magical; I wanted to run away with my snaky shawl but, alas, Ruby’s handler gently dissuaded me. “Come back and visit us when you can,” he offered as balm for my breaking heart.
At home, I devoured everything I could find about snakes. Happily, my parents had had the foresight to purchase a full set of the Encyclopedia Britannica and I was soon lost in the multitude of facts and lifelike diagrams. The pale green walls of my room faded away and I could no longer even hear Perry Como’s invitation to “Catch a Falling Star” from the radio in the adjoining room. I had found my heaven. It was tough to leave this reptilian world, but my mother’s voice resounded: “Young lady, come and eat dinner NOW!”
I succumbed to the aroma of porcupine meatballs, my favourite, and promised the vellum pages I would soon return. But after supper it was “I Love Lucy” night on TV, so my burgeoning research project was set aside for the time being. Later I went to bed grumbling, as was my wont. I never understood why I couldn’t stay up later; even if it was a school night, there was so much more to do! But as tendrils of sleep drew me in, I tingled all over, sweet smile on my face, thoughts of Ruby cascading through my dreams.
I grew up, as we do, but I did not outgrow my fascination with snakes. I majored in zoology in college, then wrangled a scholarship for an advanced degree in herpetology. One of my favourite jobs included field work in India – the king cobra may be one of the most feared snakes in the world but, paradoxically, it is unique among snakes for making a nest for its eggs and remains until the young hatch.
Snakes have truly gotten a bad rap. The Garden of Eden and all that. But lose the scales over your eyes: these creatures are content to bask in the sun, eat, mate, and ask only for peace. Hmm, maybe I was a snake in some previous life.
I also ran captive breeding programs. Have you ever watched snakes mate? In general, they are sensuous creatures, their tongues constantly in motion as they explore the air. Serpent love is gracious and intimate. Mr. Snake bumps his chin on his partner’s head, wraps his tail around her, while she raises her tail and they entwine in a loving embrace. Snake sex can last for an hour or even go on for a whole day. Hmm, maybe I will be a snake in some future life.
I love the symbolism of snakes. No, dear Freud, put away your monocle and notepad, you trade too easily in cliché. I’m referring to snakes as spirit animals, symbols of transformation: shedding our old skins and emotions, renewing ourselves. Ouroboros is an ancient image depicting a snake eating its own tail, depicting the cyclical nature of life and the eternal mysteries.
I would call myself a snake charmer but I’m the one who is charmed. Charmed, calmed, and joyful around these glorious creatures.
Like fiction?? While we compile and edit your memoir submissions, OLLI Connects is publishing a series of stories contributed by our prolific group of fiction writers. Like the two stories above, many of our most frequent writers pen stories in response to a challenge prompt, such as….”snakes.” We are delighted to share some of those pieces as well as other literary flights of fancy, fantasy, and homespun wisdom. Just tune in every Monday for some light summer reading beginning June 19th.–Editors
Bruce Zimmerman was born and raised in New York City during the depression years. After graduating from the University of Rhode Island, he served in the Korean War. In 1957 he and his family moved to Tampa, where he started his own construction company that remains in existence. Bruce began taking OLLI writing classes with “Writing your Life Story” and is a current member of the Imaginative Writing “crew.”
Marilyn Myerson, PhD Philosophy, has learned to take nothing for granted and to have fun. She retired from USF after 38 years of teaching, learning and kicking up her heels in Women’s and Gender Studies. Marilyn was the first outside hire in W(G)S, starting in 1973, when the department was just one year old. She was an administrator at various departmental and dean’s levels, including a stint as W(G)S Chair before her retirement as Emeritus faculty in 2010. She shepherded the Human Sexual Behavior class through its many incarnations, developed the original women’s health classes, and taught feminist research methodology. She is currently in three writing groups, and happily involved with OLLI-USF, taking art and writing classes. She created and teaches OLLI Imaginative Writing classes and facilitates writing groups.
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Tune in next week for a thoughtful review of Harper Lee’s classic and how it relates to our times.