A Python and Its Prey


In a little desert town where I had business that fell through, I walked the streets.  Downtown was crumbling brick and mortar, signs inviting civic pride and promising renovation.  Another sign, felt-tip marker and stencil: “Exotic Snake Show.”

Inside I found a flight of cement steps, each step too narrow for my boots, each vertical face eroded as if by a waterfall.  There were patches of whitewash on the mint green plaster walls.  At the top of the stairs I found a room empty except for a table where a man stood with a cigar box full of cash.

“Where’s the show?” I said.

He nodded toward the next room, a huge loft.  It was empty except for one corner where people stood around a few cages.  “Just ask them and they’ll show you stuff,” the man said.

I paid two dollars and walked over to the cages. A young woman with moussed auburn hair sat in a folding chair.  Wound around her arm was a thick strand of black patched with gold like puddles of liquid electricity.

The woman spoke the python’s name.  When she turned to look at me I saw a lightning bolt painted on the left side of her face.  I looked for the snake’s head, finally traced its body to an end which nuzzled under the woman’s shirt.  The woman looked at me without expectation.  She did not blink.

Someone called her from the other room.  She held the snake out to me, extricating it from her clothes, gently raveling.  I offered my hands.  The python wrapped itself around my arm.  The woman ran into the next room.  The python was dry and light and alive, the power beneath its hide palpable.

A Chinese take-out carton on the table next to me scooted and rocked.  Inside, wallowing in the oily remnants of fried noodles, six infant mice sniffed and twitched.  They were pink and blind and naked and not unlike human fetuses.   Another one lay in a cage, its side rising with its breath.  A tiny python had found it.  The lithe black tongue trickled in and out, caressing the pink mouse, tasting, taking its time.

Kipling's Bear

The Truce of the Bear
By Rudyard Kipling

Yearly, with tent and rifle, our careless white men go
By the Pass called Muttianee, to shoot in the vale below.
Yearly by Muttianee he follows our white men in --
Matun, the old blind beggar, bandaged from brow to chin.

Eyeless, noseless, and lipless -- toothless, broken of speech,
Seeking a dole at the doorway he mumbles his tale to each;
Over and over the story, ending as he began:
"Make ye no truce with Adam-zad -- the Bear that walks like a Man!

"There was a flint in my musket -- pricked and primed was the pan,
When I went hunting Adam-zad -- the Bear that stands like a Man.
I looked my last on the timber, I looked my last on the snow,
When I went hunting Adam-zad fifty summers ago!

"I knew his times and his seasons, as he knew mine, that fed
By night in the ripened maizefield and robbed my house of bread.
I knew his strength and cunning, as he knew mine, that crept
At dawn to the crowded goat-pens and plundered while I slept.

"Up from his stony playground -- down from his well-digged lair --
Out on the naked ridges ran Adam-zad the Bear --
Groaning, grunting, and roaring, heavy with stolen meals,
Two long marches to northward, and I was at his heels!

"Two long marches to northward, at the fall of the second night,
I came on mine enemy Adam-zad all panting from his flight.
There was a charge in the musket -- pricked and primed was the pan --
My  finger crooked on the trigger -- when he reared up like a man.

"Horrible, hairy, human, with paws like hands in prayer,
Making his supplication rose Adam-zad the Bear!
I looked at the swaying shoulders, at the paunch's swag and swing,
And my heart was touched with pity for the monstrous, pleading thing.

"Touched with pity and wonder, I did not fire then . . .
I have looked no more on women -- I have walked no more with men.
Nearer he tottered and nearer, with paws like hands that pray --
From brow to jaw that steel-shod paw, it ripped my face away!

"Sudden, silent, and savage, searing as flame the blow --
Faceless I fell before his feet, fifty summers ago.
I heard him grunt and chuckle -- I heard him pass to his den.
He left me blind to the darkened years and the little mercy of men.

"Now ye go down in the morning with guns of the newer style,
That load (I have felt) in the middle and range (I have heard) a mile?
Luck to the white man's rifle, that shoots so fast and true,
But -- pay, and I lift my bandage and show what the Bear can do!"

(Flesh like slag in the furnace, knobbed and withered and grey --
Matun, the old blind beggar, he gives good worth for his pay.)
"Rouse him at noon in the bushes, follow and press him hard --
Not for his ragings and roarings flinch ye from Adam-zad.

"But (pay, and I put back the bandage) this is the time to fear,
When he stands up like a tired man, tottering near and near;
When he stands up as pleading, in wavering, man-brute guise,
When he veils the hate and cunning of his little, swinish eyes;

"When he shows as seeking quarter, with paws like hands in prayer
That is the time of peril -- the time of the Truce of the Bear!"

Eyeless, noseless, and lipless, asking a dole at the door,
Matun, the old blind beggar, he tells it o'er and o'er;
Fumbling and feeling the rifles, warming his hands at the flame,
Hearing our careless white men talk of the morrow's game;

Over and over the story, ending as he began: --

"There is no truce with Adam-zad, the Bear that looks like a Man!"

Thanks to James, who pointed me to this poem. I think it refers to a sloth bear (pictured above), but, when we discussed it on Facebook, others argued in favor of a moon bear. Literary critics have often seen the poem as a parable about Russia, which I guess makes the bear a Russian brown; but literary critics get on my nerves.  

Mindsuckers - National Geographic Magazine

A fascinating article in National Geographic tells about parasites who turn their victims into zombie bodyguards. My old friend the Ampulex wasp makes an appearance, as do cats, beavers, ladybugs, and more. (Thanks to Mom for the tip.)

Mindsuckers - National Geographic Magazine: " Across the natural world the same question arises again and again: Why would an organism do all it can to ensure its tormentor’s survival rather than fight for its own?"

For the strong of heart, here's a BBC video showing the jewel wasp in action, turning a cockroach into its slave:

Double Day on the Prairie

The Parnell Prairie Preserve used to be the town dump, but it’s been rehabilitated, and now I walk on it as often as I can in the warm seasons. Its mowed paths wind through prairie grass and stands of birch and hills crowded with pines. One day my son Parker and I were walking there when we saw two riders on horseback. They stayed on the far side of the preserve, as if to give us our own space. I turned from them to see two half-grown deer bounding toward us around a bend. They moved like horses on a merry-go-round, up and down in perfect unison. I gasped at their nearness, and the sound made them notice us. Their heads jerked to direct their gazes toward us; the moist dark eyes held no expression, though I always seem to look for one; they bounded away off the path in a noisy haste. They had vanished in the grass before I could utter a sentence.
A face in the clouds

“I barely saw them,” Parker said. “I was looking at the horses.”

Meanwhile, in the peripheral vision of my left eye, the two horses rolled by, making no sound, though their riders spoke to each other.

Everything seemed doubled that day—horse, rider, deer; there were even two of us. Before we left, we saw two skinks, one of them whipping along a fallen tree with nude white wood, the other spasming through the grass at the sound of our bipedal steps.

Photography by Parker Grice

Crabapples and Cowfolk

Eerie art by Beckett Grice.





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