When my father was eleven years old, his entire family was struck down by typhoid fever. Only his mother did not get sick, having developed immunity after surviving her own bout with the disease as a child. By the end of those terrible two weeks, my father’s father was dead. He left behind a widow with ten young children and a farm to run. This disastrous change in the family’s fortunes unleashed a whole chain of calamities. But this is the story of triumph over death in the midst of tragedy, and it came thanks to two venomous snakes. Here’s another installment of Stories from Easter Island, as told to me by my dad, whom we call (with great affection!) The Easter Island Head

My second oldest brother was thirteen or fourteen when our father got sick with typhoid fever. He tried to help around the farm, but he overexerted himself and hurt his side. He was completely incapacitated for months. He got so sick, we thought he would die. We lived in the country, and there were no doctors in the vicinity.

It was monsoon season, which is when snakes come out of hiding. There were men who would catch venomous snakes to sell for medicinal purposes. These snake catchers would keep them in boxes that they would carry around on their shoulders. One of those snake catchers heard that my brother was sick, so he visited our home. He told my mother that he could heal my brother with two snakes.

He had an earthen jar with a small opening at the top. These jars were used for boiling herbs or for storing food.

He put one of the snakes in the jar with some water and then he wrapped the jar with a straw rope from the bottom to the top. He plastered mud over the rope so the jar wouldn’t heat up too quickly, and then he lit a fire under it. He slowly, slowly heated up the jar, using just a few sticks of wood at a time. The fire burned for two days. The only time he ever left the fire was to use the bathroom. For two days he ate every meal sitting on his haunches, tending the fire.

At first the water felt warm and good to the snake. But as the water heated up, the snake started to feel uncomfortable and got angry. It started to strike at the walls of the jar, releasing all of its venom into the water.

On the second day, it started to smell like boiled chicken. After two days, the snake had mostly disintegrated. The head and bones were all that remained. The man dumped everything into a hemp cloth to filter out the liquid. He squeezed the cloth so that only the bones and some meat remained. The liquid made up a bowlful of soup.

There was a layer of fatty grease on top of the liquid. I remember that he used hanji, Korean handmade paper, to soak up the grease. He did that two or three times to get all the fat out. He said that if my brother drank any of the fat, he would get diarrhea and become even more sick.

Before he would give him the soup, he very carefully checked his mouth for any sores or open wounds to make sure he would not get poisoned. When he was absolutely sure there were no wounds, he let my brother drink the soup. My brother said it tasted good.

After a one day break, he did the same thing again with the second snake and served another bowlful of soup to my brother. After two doses of snake soup, he fully recovered. Two or three years later, the snake catcher returned and told our mother that it was time for my brother to have one more bowl of snake soup so that he could maintain his good health throughout his life. He was exceptionally healthy, even into adulthood, and it was thought that it was because of the snake soup.

“It’s alive!”

Two people who are very close to me have asked if  “A Snake Tale” is a true story. The short answer is: NO!

On the other hand, a lot of the story details were drawn from life. Most significantly, all the gory information in the story about how snakes are fed is absolutely true…These details gave a framework to the story that struck me as a good way to explore some interesting ethical questions.

Here are some other things that are true:

  • Our landlord’s daughter in Carrboro, NC had an albino snake named Orangina that she asked us to take care of, but it was an albino corn snake rather than a Burmese python. I insisted that they find someone else to take care of her, because I couldn’t bear the thought of having to feed her. All that year I kept accidentally pulling out dead frozen mice in Ziploc bags that had been tucked away into the back recesses of the freezer.
  • I was a docent at a science museum when I was in college. There were two boa constrictors on display at the museum. In the basement of the museum was a tankful of mice who were fated to one day become dinner for these snakes. In my head I can still hear the squeak of their wheel as they endlessly ran by the harsh yellow light of a bare bulb. A coworker told me that she came to work one morning after the snakes had been fed the night before, and she saw that they hadn’t eaten one of the mice. The mouse was nestled comfortably, fast asleep in the coil of one of the snakes. I’m not sure what actually happened to that mouse, but I think we can all agree on what should have happened. If there is even a shred of justice in this world, that mouse would have been shipped off to live out the rest of its natural life vacationing on some breezy, warm isle with a frozen margarita in one paw and a trashy novel in the other, and being waited on by attentive cabana boys.
  • In Carrboro we had a kind, but slightly kooky neighbor (this could describe a large percentage of the population of that lovable town, by the way). One Sunday afternoon he knocked on our door. He told us that he had just killed a copperhead snake and that the kids should come over to see it so that they would know what to look out for. As we crossed the street to his house he explained to us that to make sure it was a copperhead and not an innocuous look alike, he had held out a leather gardening glove toward its head. It had struck at the glove and he saw venom dripping. At that point he whacked it with a shovel, almost but not quite decapitating it. He warned us in advance that it was not going to be a pretty sight. In his backyard we saw the bloody remains of the copperhead. I didn’t want to go anywhere near it, but our neighbor cheerfully said, “You can touch it, kids!” To my absolute horror, all three of my children rushed up to pet the bloody dead snake. Suddenly, my son Nicholas shouted, “It’s alive!” I shrieked as I saw that the snake had indeed started to wriggle. The neighbor assured me that it was in fact dead, and that it was a primitive nerve reflex that kept the snake’s body moving even after death. I was telling this story to a friend, who told me that he had once completely severed the head off a snake and its jaws continued to open and close for a few horrific minutes. I’ve since learned that you can get bitten by a dead snake!
  • Burmese pythons are often kept as pets. They have become an invasive species in the Florida Everglades, probably because pet snakes were released or escaped into the wild. They get so large they have been known to eat prey as large as alligator or deer.
  • My sister called to tell me that after reading my story she thinks I’m a creepy sicko. Hello?! FICTION?!
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