Seeing snakes is not a common occurrence around here. All the snakes I have seen since moving here in 2012 could probably be counted using only my fingers and toes, so we are talking about only a few snake sightings per year. Often, those sightings come on a sunny afternoon when the snakes are laying out in the open in the middle of the trails to catch the sunshine. A couple of times we have encountered snakes while traipsing through the bush in search of a lost ball or Frisbee. Once, I was down in the bush off our chopper pad peering all around at the ground in search of our lost ball when I suddenly realized I was not alone. I looked up into the beady eyes of a snake wrapped around a bush, appraising me at head level from a foot away. It started singing, “Trust in me. Shut your eyes.”* But I summoned my mental resolve, resisted its hypnotic gaze, and slowly backed away to a safe distance.
Anyways, as Maggie and I departed from our coworkers’ house following our weekly team meeting, we were not thinking about snakes. Instead, we were thinking, “Holy smokes, the stars are awesome tonight.” See, here in Pal land, there are no street lights. There are no lit up billboards, signs, stores, or businesses of any kind. After the sun goes down, there is only darkness – darkness sprinkled with the zillion sparkling lights that God himself placed. On a clear night, with our house lights off, we do not just see stars. We see galaxies. So, our eyes were in the heavens. Not on the ground. I paused for a moment on the trail as it passed our coworkers’ little garden, enjoying the beauty of God’s magnificent heavenly creation. Maggie, holding the only flashlight, slowly continued towards our house, leaving me in shadow. So, I did not linger long. I took my eyes off the stars, peered at the dark trail in front of me, and hurried to catch up to Maggie. A long twisting shadow caught my eye just off the right side of the trail. Not important. I wanted to go home and crawl in bed. Except, I don’t remember a hose running into the garden there. “Hey Maggie,” I called, “shine your flashlight back here.”
She swung around and turned her flashlight onto the ground by my feet. The light illuminated a long sinewy body with a head perched atop a perfect serpentine s-curve raised a foot off the ground. My mind raced. In Pal, the only good snake is a dead snake. However, my machete currently rested in the hands of a Pal friend. “Axel,” I called. No response. I called for my teammate again. “Axel!” Thank God for the paper thin walls of our bush houses. “What is it?” he called back from inside his house. I replied, “Grab your bush knife (machete) and come out here.”
We waited and watched, while being watched, for a few tense moments. Eventually, the snake relaxed its guard, lowered its head, and began to slither away into the little garden. Axel rounded the corner of the house and came into view. “Hurry, Axel. It’s slithering away.” He hastened his pace, machete in hand, walking along the eastern wall of his house as he came towards us. Suddenly, Axel let out an unintelligible exclamation of surprise and in one smooth motion, jumped back away from his house and swung his machete around in front of him. He deftly detached a snake head from its body in one smooth stroke. Despite the unexpected appearance of this second snake, Axel quickly regained his composure and hurried over to us. He leaned over the low fence of the garden and hacked at the shadowed form of the departing serpent. Thirty-four (or so) violent strikes later, the snake finally stopped moving. Two snakes – one surprising us, one surprising our teammate – both dead. A good night’s work.
The next day, by the light of the rising sun, a Pal boy examined the carcasses of the slain snakes. “Poisonous,” he declared. “A big one can kill a man.”
But not those two snakes. They will not be harming anyone, ever.
*That particular snake did not actually start singing to me like Kaa did to Mowgli in The Jungle Book.