Monday, October 28, 2013

Snakebitten

Baby Cobra lay low in the tall grass, closely watching the squirrel that had come to gather acorns, a trap Baby Cobra and Mommy Cobra had laid together. The squirrel’s cheeks were puffed with scores of acorns. Stupid, greedy squirrel, Baby Cobra thought. The more acorns he stuffs in his mouth, the slower his reflexes will be, making him vulnerable to a surprise attack. Even as Baby Cobra thought this, the squirrel stuffed more acorns in his mouth, making itself yet more vulnerable to a surprise attack.

When the squirrel’s back was turned, Baby Cobra struck. His sleek body moved noiselessly through the grass and onto the bare dirt. The squirrel didn’t even see him coming. The sound of dropping acorns signaled instant paralysis. Baby Cobra held the squirrel in his mouth, letting the last drop of venom from his fangs saturate the squirrel’s weak body.

Mommy Cobra slithered out of the grass. “Excellent kill, Baby Cobra,” she hissed.

Baby Cobra dropped the squirrel from his mouth. “Thank you, Mommy.”

“I dare say you’re ready to strike out on your own now.” With that, she licked the air, turned, and disappeared into the jungle from whence she’d come. Baby Cobra stared after her in disbelief. After months of coddling and training, he had expected to be set free from his mother’s care with more fanfare than that. Nevertheless, his joy was not dampened. He celebrated by making a feast of the squirrel he had just killed.

Hours later, resting in the shade of a tree, Baby Cobra watched the digesting mass of squirrel move slowly down his distended body. He was mesmerized by the sun’s light reflecting off his brightly colored scales. I am so beautiful, he thought, basking in the afterglow of a large meal. Even if I was not so quick and cunning, no prey could resist me. As best he could, he curled into a ball, snuggling against himself, and fell into a deep sleep.

While he slept, vivid images flew before him, although he couldn’t recall them the moment they disappeared. What he could recall, however, was the emotion the images called up. He felt a tremendous awe over himself: his quickness, his intelligence, his beauty. The effortless application of his gifts could change his habitat to fit his purposes exactly. He felt lord of himself and all the jungle. All the creatures feared him, and he feared nothing.

Over the next few months, Baby Cobra’s dream came true. Each time he shed his old scales, his new scales were more beautiful than before. As he kept growing and growing, soon squirrels were not enough to sate his hunger. He started hunting monkeys and large birds. When they were not enough, he hunted larger game, including peacocks, pigs, and panthers. He would never grow so big as to eat an elephant, but they frightened easily, and he made sport of terrorizing them. Baby Cobra was no more a baby, but a giant.

One night, Baby Cobra dreamt he was lord of not just the jungle, but of all creation. He imagined his great jaws opening to swallow the world whole, his fangs leaving craters the size of mountains. He was infinite, invincible, perfect. Nothing stood in his way.

A sudden, sharp pain roused him from his sleep. Opening his narrow eyes, in the light of the full moon, he saw two small, dark pits interrupting his patterned scales. The evidence led to an obvious conclusion, but it was so fantastic that he was slow to come to it. He had bitten himself in his sleep!

Baby Cobra panicked. If he did not act quickly, his own venom would work through his body and paralyze him, possibly kill him. He slithered frantically about, wondering what he should do. Mommy Cobra would know, but she had left a long time ago. She could be anywhere now. Baby Cobra knew he had to solve this problem himself.

He recalled a lesson from his mother: how some creatures of the jungle, when bitten by a cobra and fortunate enough to escape, suck out the venom with their mouths. I could do that, Baby Cobra thought. He brought his face to the wound and opened his mouth wide. He stopped himself not a moment too soon. How can I suck the venom out? he wondered. For he knew he would only make things worse by biting himself again, injecting more venom into his body.

Baby Cobra curled up into a ball and cried. What tragic irony! Of all the creatures in the jungle, he was the only one that couldn’t save him from his own venom.

A voice suddenly sounded in Baby Cobra’s head. It sounded much like Mommy Cobra’s voice. Like his dream, he couldn’t make out the individual words, but he understood their meaning loud and clear: He must seek out his prey and plead with them to suck out the venom from his self-inflicted wound.

Such a strange notion Baby Cobra rejected as a matter of course. The venom must be playing with his mind, causing him to imagine things, he concluded. This realization, however, increased his alarm. He had better do something soon, or bad things could happen.

He set out in search of help. He encountered many creatures of the jungle—monkeys, pigs, birds—the kinds of creatures he used to prey on. Before he could make his intentions known, however, every one of them fled, afraid he had come to eat them. Baby Cobra started to cry. It was getting harder for him to move. Paralysis was setting in. He did not have much more time to find help.

“What’s wrong, mighty cobra?” said a voice.

Baby Cobra looked up. He could not see the voice’s owner, but he replied anyway: “I have bitten myself, and I haven’t much longer to live, unless someone sucks the venom out of the wound.”

The voice laughed. “That is a good trick. Any creature foolish enough to fall for it deserves to be your next meal.”

“It’s no trick!” Baby Cobra explained. “Look!” He moved just so the moonlight showed the small pits left by his fangs.

“So it’s true. You have bitten yourself,” the voice said. “And without my help, you’ll die. But why would I, who on any other day would be your prey, help you now?”

“Please take pity on me,” Baby Cobra cried. “If you suck the venom from my wound, I’ll never hunt one of your kind again.”

“Do you swear it on the order of the jungle, of the earth, of all creation?”

“I do! Now, please help me.”

“How I must be a fool!” the voice muttered to itself. There was a rustling of limbs and leaves as the voice’s owner climbed down the tree. Baby Cobra gasped when he saw a squirrel cautiously approaching him on the jungle floor.

“You’re just a disgusting little squirrel!” Baby Cobra exclaimed.

The squirrel stood on its hind legs and put its hands on its hips. “Is that any way to compliment the one who is about to save your life?”

Baby Cobra shook his head. “No, I just meant—well—I haven’t hunted your kind in ages.”

“See to it you don’t in the future. That was the deal. Now, roll yourself over so I can reach the wound. And lie straight, if you please. I want as much distance between me and those fangs of yours as possible.”

Baby Cobra seethed with anger at being ordered around by a squirrel, but he had no choice but to comply. The squirrel moved closer, its body tensed in case Baby Cobra broke his promise, and he put his mouth on the wound to suck out the venom.

Baby Cobra felt the squirrel’s touch and risked a look. The squirrel was standing next to him, barely half as tall as he was around. Seeing the dirty, dull brown creature touching his beautiful scales lit up in the moonlight was too much indignity to bear. What was this disgusting squirrel to him, the quickest, most cunning, most beautiful creature in all the jungle, in all the earth, in all creation?

He hissed and lunged at the squirrel, fangs bared, but he was too slow. The squirrel dodged his bite and bolted up the tree. “Serves me right for trusting a cobra!” it said, spitting out what little venom he had been able to suck from the wound.

“Wait! Come back! I’m sorry!” Baby Cobra wailed, but it was no use. The squirrel climbed higher in the tree and was gone. Baby Cobra’s gaze settled on the bite marks, the lone blemishes on his perfect body. Overcome with rage, he turned his fangs on himself, biting the area around his wound over and over, until there were more fang marks than could be counted because he had slashed himself to a bloody pulp. In some dark corner of his mind, he must have believed biting his wound would make it go away. Or perhaps he couldn’t endure being imperfect.

Nevertheless, there was no hope for Baby Cobra now. As the venom worked through his body, he settled into a peaceful sleep. While he died he dreamed again of devouring the world, when in reality the lowly creatures of the jungle devoured him.

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