A Snake came to my Water-Trough

The day a 14-foot python, out hunting for food, strangled our Staffordshire bull terrier to death in front of my mother and me during an evening walk on the farm in Zimbabwe, was the day my scales tipped from wary ambivalence to fear and loathing of snakes. Up close the python’s coils around the dog were as thick as a strong man’s leg; its stench was so rancid it made me dry-heave. Pythons kill their prey and swallow them whole, which is why they smell of rotten meat. The dog died trying to bite into the snake’s neck, but it never stood a chance. It was dead in less than a minute.

Living as we do, with no doors and articulated walls that stay open most of the year because of the heat, snakes can slither in and out of our house at will. In the two-and-a-half years I’ve lived here I’ve seen maybe three or four snakes inside. They usually venture into the house to find a safe, dark, spot in which to stay warm during our short winter, like under a sofa or bed.

Once, when a visiting professor and his wife from California came for lunch, our attention was called to the u-shaped mid-riff of a snake, its head and tail buried inside a crack in our front step. While we were all peering over the snake to see if it was stuck, the hooded head of a Mozambique spitting cobra, weighed heavy with the body of a frog in its mouth, slowly emerged from the crack. The poor frog’s legs were splayed cartoon-like out of its mouth, which was lucky for us: the snake could neither spit nor bite.

Mozambique spitting cobra. Photo credit: Ryanvanhuyssteen
Mozambique spitting cobra. Photo credit: Ryan van Huyssteen

The Mozambique spitting cobra is our most common snake. Other than having once watched boomslangs mating — a three-day spectacle of coiling and roiling through the grass, up and down trees, oblivious to anything other than their task at hand — I have never seen another species of snake. I know they are out there, and we heard only last Sunday that the continent’s deadliest snake, the one every African really fears, the black mamba, is not uncommon in the bush along the Zambezi river. But we live up on the escarpment where the ecology is different. Thank the Lord.

All the same, the Mozambique spitting cobra is not a snake for sissies, and is also considered one of the most dangerous in Africa. From what I’ve read the snake is nervous and highly-strung, “and when confronted at close quarters can rear up to as much as two-thirds of its length, spread its long narrow hood, and ‘spit’ in self-defense.” Its venom can be projected to a distance of two-to-three meters with remarkable accuracy, and if it’s in a position where it can’t spit then it will bite instead. Either way the venom isn’t deadly, but should be avoided at all costs.

Just ask our Jack Russell, Jackie, who came to bed one night with seeping eyes, swollen to slits, that were clearly agonizing. I bathed them in warm water until they could open again, and it was then I had a passing suspicion she might have been spat at by a cobra. The next morning Jackie appeared back to normal, and I never gave it another thought.

Our Jack Russell, Jackie, who was spat in the eyes by a cobra in our house.
Our Jack Russell, Jackie.

Until that was, during the late afternoon on the same day, I noticed each time I walked through the doorway of our bathroom my hair got wet. It felt as if a beetle was peeing on my head: little squirts once or twice, and then nothing more. I was busy preparing for a live television interview after I’d been asked by an American media organization to participate in a discussion on “land reform in Africa.” (My old life as a pro-democracy activist in Washington, D.C. suddenly surprised me by showing up in my new life here in Livingstone. You can click here for an excerpt, if you’re interested.)

Just minutes before starting the interview (over the telephone) I went to the loo and was squirted at again. This time I turned around and looked up. There above me, entangled in loose electrical wires atop the doorway, was a spitting cobra, reared up, narrow hood spread, giving me all it had left in its venom sacs. Probably for the first time in its life the snake missed, with both Chris and I concluding that over the course of the afternoon it had spat at me enough times to run out of venom. Either that, or it was so tangled up in the wires, the snake was unable to throw itself back enough to really give me a good gobbing.

I shouted for Chris who, at his lofty 6’6″, was the first to notice how the snake was tangled up in the wires. In the excitement of the moment, he slammed the snake’s dangling lower half in the steel frame of an articulated wall so hard it shattered our one and only bedroom window. The massive pane cracked slowly and crashed to the floor in a roaring crescendo of broken glass.

Going on live TV was stressful enough. Imagine being spat at by a cobra, followed by the loud report of slamming steel, followed by a crashing window pane, followed by going on live TV. It wasn’t just the glass that shattered. My nerves did too. I made it through the interview more-or-less unscathed, but the cobra didn’t. Like in D.H. Lawrence’s poem, Snake, it was despatched by Chris, yet not without the same regret about which the poet writes below.

Snake
by D.H. Lawrence

A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pajamas for the heat,
To drink there.

In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob tree
I came down the steps with my pitcher
And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough before me.

He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in the gloom
And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over the edge of the stone trough
And rested his throat upon the stone bottom,
And where the water had dripped from the tap, in a small clearness,
He sipped with his straight mouth,
Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack long body,
Silently.

Someone was before me at my water-trough,
And I, like a second-comer, waiting.

He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do,
And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,
And flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips, and mused a moment,
And stooped and drank a little more,
Being earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning bowels of the earth
On the day of Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.

The voice of my education said to me
He must be killed,
For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous.

And voices in me said, if you were a man
You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off.

But must I confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink at my water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of this earth?

Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him?
Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him?
Was it humility, to feel so honored?
I felt so honored.

And yet those voices :
If you were not afraid, you would kill him!

And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid,
But even so, honored still more
That he should seek my hospitality
From out the dark door of the secret earth.

He drank enough
And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken,
And flickered his tongue like a forked night on the air, so black,
Seeming to lick his lips,
And looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air,
And slowly turned his head,
And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice a-dream,
Proceeded to draw his slow length curving round
And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face.

And as he put his head into that dreadful hole,
And as he slowly drew up, snake-easing his shoulders, and entered farther,
A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into that horrid black hole,
Deliberately going into the blackness, and slowly drawing himself after,
Overcame me now his back was turned.

I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.

I think it did not hit him,
But suddenly that part of him that was left behind convulsed in undignified haste,
Writhed like lightning, and was gone
Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front,
At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.

And immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.

And I thought of the albatross,
And I wished he would come back, my snake.

For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.

And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
Of life.
And I have something to expiate:
A pettiness.

Annabel Hughes Aston is a writer and an award-winning chef in Livingstone, Zambia. She is the creator of "bush gourmet" cuisine.

23 Comments

  • Oh my goodness you and me both have a loathing of snakes. How you live in a house where they can slither in and out is beyond me. I just could not do it.
    We had all sorts on our farm in Wellington Cape from cobras, to puffadders, boomslangs, mambas and small brown snakes the workers called tobacco rolls. Here in Spain we see a few snakes but apparently they are not dangerous to humans. Well having been in close contact with some over a metre long I run the other way and never hang about to discover if they bite or spit. They do rear up though.
    My cat likes coming for walks and one evening late last summer, (we live out in the countryside) Couscous and I were strolling up the dirt road when right accross the road in front of us was a one and a half metre snake. I freaked and ran back but Couscous had other ideas and went over to it and bit its tail! I was screaming at her to leave the thing alone because of course the snake got really mad. Long story short it eventually disappeared into the rocks and long grass. Silly cat! Had me with legs like jelly.

    P.S. tried your recipe, Pineapple with dulce de leche. Divine! I cheated and bought a jar but it was still a winner. So going to make this again.

    Keep safe and hopefully snake free. How lucky you were not getting any venom in your eyes or mouth. I would have been long gone after an incident like yours.

    Reply
    • Thank you for your wonderful comment, Gillian! Snakes come with territory, I’m afraid, but then so do many wonderful things, too. I actually saw more snakes in the United States, living in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains, than I have here, so I guess it’s all relative! So glad you liked the dulce de leche recipe. All the best to you, Annabel

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  • You are brilliant Annabel! Love your stories..

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    • Ah, thank you, Cherie! What a sweet comment … xo

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  • A main reason for living in New Zealand is that there are NO snakes!! Your stories are awful and make our skin crawl – please continue with lovely recipes and pretty flowers and no more horrible nightmare snake stories!! We agree with Gillian’s comment above – the Dulce Luce was a hit and approved by Luisa our Gorgeous Argentinian Pastry Chef!! xx

    Reply
    • Haha, Louise … your comment made me burst out laughing! I think I even scared myself after writing the story. I was hyper-aware going in and out of our bathroom last night! So glad your Gorgeous Argentinian Pastry Chef approves of the dulce de leche … what a great start to my day!

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      • Oh … and Chris reminded me to tell you that we’re having Chinese snake soup for lunch today. Recipe to follow soon … 😉 JOKES!

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  • I’m very impressed you were able to do your interview – I think I’d have been too shaken, probably thinking how much worse it could have been. So, so pleased we don’t have snakes like that in England. Great story though.

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    • Haha, Anne … thank you. I never had time to think! It happened, and then I went straight on air. Thanks for stopping by my blog. All the best to you, Annabel

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  • Luckily, St Patrick got rid of all snakes from Ireland! My only experience of snakes has been on safaris and I have seen a black mamba in Tanzania. Our guide was FURIOUS with the scout for walking towards it to have a look. I would have been shaking like mad going into the TV interview! I’m glad that Jackie survived – such a gorgeous photo of her! Xx

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    • Lucky indeed, Kate! Good on St. Paddy! I would have been shaking like mad if my Tanzanian guide walked me towards a black mamba. Now that really would be nerve-wracking! xo

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  • Oh Annabel… revert back to your lovely stories of food and farm life and all things sweet and nice… I have an absolute fear of snakes, couldn’t even look at the pictures in your story.. hahaha! Reading it was terrifying… not sure how you live in a house without every door and window covered in wire mesh to prevent snakes from entering in!!! We too live with some of the deadliest snakes in the world – am just so thankful they hate the city! (mostly!!!) Have seen a few snakes since living here in Brisbane but they have all been ‘apparently’ harmless (no snake is harmless!!). Love your articles…. and will now look up the link to your interview… haha!

    Reply
    • I’m so sorry, Sue! That’s what Louise said above as well. I will, I will return to my food and flowers and the lovely life in the Zambezi Valley, but remember that snakes do exist in Eden, too, haha! I am wholly sympathetic of your phobia … mine is not far behind yours. My only consolation is that, if possible, a snake will do its best to avoid you … or at least that’s how I delude myself! Lovely to hear from you! x

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  • Another highly entertaining piece Bella! xox

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    • Thank you, dear Bridgey! Not so entertaining at the time, haha! xo

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  • Great post! We were surrounded by black mambas on our kopje – took two of our dogs. Always remember my dad slashing away with an old sword at a wall thick with jasmine to try to get out a snake – can’t remember what the snake was or if he ever found it!

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    • Oh, Georgie … just the thought sends shivers down my spine. You must have all been hyper-alert growing up on Lone Cow … I would have been! Sorry about your dogs. 🙁

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      • No – not me – not much good at hyper-alert. My brilliant parents really kept mambas off the radar as far as being number one panic button. In fact don’t really remember many panic buttons – just a constant row of issues that were part of every day. Their theory was something to do with living by the sea and shark attacks – the mambas purpose is not to seek you out but sudden encounters can prove unfortunate for either party :). Now spiders ….

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        • Very wise … and I agree with your brilliant parents. Snakes aren’t set on looking for trouble, and sudden encounters are part of the territory. Spiders I can deal with, no problem … in fact, I’m happy they are around noshing all the mosquitoes, an insect that brings in a whole new set of challenges! 🙂

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  • The Snake: O-level English Literature, 1965

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    • 🙂 … that was the year after I was born!

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  • oh my. and to watch your pet die. how horrible. i didn’t know that i hated snakes till i moved out to the country, and they also come with the territory. but they don’t spit or strangle. they would bite, so we have to watch our dogs if we spot one. but no poison. i guess i should be thankful!

    Reply
    • Great to hear from you again, chef mimi … and yes, one must be thankful for small mercies! 😉

      Reply

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