The Mark of the Serpent

One day I thought of how my heart raced at the sight of someone I loved, as well as when I was fearful. This haiku grew out of that contemplation of two polar opposite emotions that each caused the heart to speed up.


My heart races

at the sight of those I love,

and the serpent.

I have a deep-seated loathing for snakes. When someone dismisses a slithering creature as just a garter snake that does nothing to quell the venom that rises up in me. There is a reason for this.

When I was about nine a friend and neighbor was bitten by a rattlesnake and died a few days later. This experience has left an indelible mark in my psyche, and the sight of a snake releases the fight or flight, mostly flight, response without fail.

At that time, we lived in an Amerindian village called Orealla, in Guyana. The Amerindians are the indigenous people of that area of the world. In Orealla the chief tribes are the Arawak and Warrau. Errol was of Arawak descent.

Although the presence of snakes was common, and we knew they were deadly, the sight of snakes did not repel me with the force that it did after Errol was bitten. We would often find the common labaria (pit viper) coiled in cool places under the house or in the outhouse, or the venomous parrot snake camouflaged in a bush. Apart from the flash of fear at the sudden encounter these left no lasting impression. But then, I had not yet known anyone who had suffered a snakebite.

I described the day Errol was bitten in my memoir. That excerpt follows.

The crowd had grown, and several people now formed a barrier between the cassava trough that sat just outside the hut and the low, wooden bench at the edge of the open floor. They were riveted to the spot looking down at the floor with rapt attention. Some of the women had a hand over their mouths, never a good sign. I could not see what was going on because of the mass of bodies before me, but I had the advantage of being small and wiry. Soon I had a front row view. Errol was lying on jute bags spread on the bare earthen floor. Owah Moshe, his grandfather, had his mouth to a spot near Errol’s ankle. He was sucking at it and spitting out blood. Errol’s father seemed to be holding on tightly to something in front of him. I assumed it was Errol’s leg because of his position but his back was to me and blocked my view.

I inched my way further to the right until I was able to see Errol. His mother cradled his head in her lap as she dabbed at his face with a cloth. The look on Errol’s face scared me; it was twisted in pain and had become darker, and he had a strange look in his eyes, as if he was not seeing anything even though they were open. When his mother raised his head and wiped the corner of his mouth there was a bright red spot on the cloth.

The crowd had grown and now formed a circle around the four. I was being squeezed against the bench, but I had seen enough and did not want to be there any longer. I felt sick and needed to get away, so I wiggled my way out of the mass of bodies and headed for home. The strange knot in the middle of my stomach that threatened to empty its contents was new to me.

Delia caught up with me. She and my sister had seen the crowd and had left their chores to come see what was going on. She took my hand and walked back to the house with me.

I was too caught up in watching what was happening with Errol to hear the whispers of the crowd behind me. Delia filled me in. She told me that it was a snake bite and that my sister was talking to Roy, my nephew, who was with Errol when he was bitten. The two had gone up Sand hill to fetch branches to make stands for smoking the excess fish that Errol’s father had caught that day. It was a good catch, and they were going to slowly smoke what they did not use up right away to preserve it.

As Roy told it, he and Errol had already gathered enough branches and were about to head home when they heard a strange sound. Before either boy could react, the rattlesnake struck Errol. In a panic, they tossed the branches and ran down the hill. Breathless, they tried to explain what had happened, but they did not need to say much. The family knew through experience. Owah Moshe was summoned, and he immediately began his treatment. Roy, in a state of shock, retreated to the church steps. He could see them treating Errol until the crowd blocked his view. That was where my sister found him.

Delia dried my tears and assured me that all would be well, and that Errol would get better like his sister Tucko did when she suffered that bad cut on her neck. Delia was an Orealla native who helped us with the housework and cared for the younger children. She had witnessed many snake bites and recoveries through her lifetime and told us that Owah Moshe and many of the elders knew what roots and leaves and tree bark were good for drawing out snake poison. They also knew special ceremonies and prayers that would help Errol recover.

That night I added my own special prayer and hoped that Delia was right.