My father is a horse trainer (among other things). A trained ‘spotted saddle’ horse can be urged up very steep inclines. He neck-reigns and backs up. A pistol or long gun can be shot from his back. This is presumably for their resale since a market share of Georgian fox hunters yet exists. On occasion my father would ride up on a snake and shoot it from his trained horse.
In this memory from about 11 years old, we were high up on a ridge on the farm we shared with Tony Paz outside of Woodbury in the direction of Short Mtn. The hill was too steep for me; I’d never before stayed on a horse’s back at this incline. The cows and dogs and Dad and Gerald could do it, so I was supposed to also. It’s the way I know what it means to hyperventilate. Hyperventilate can’t mean anything else in my register of bodily experiences. Just like when those two soldiers ran up on me with their automatic long-guns when pissing roadside in central Yaoundé too close to the presidential parade grounds, they said; and the unmistakable feeling of bowels letting go. Barely maintaining composure on those occasions as I would now in Teresina, the capital of Piauí.
There’s that song by Hank Williams Jr., A Country Boy Can Survive, which I can sing by heart ... my previous encounters with snakes did not offer the altitude of being horseback nor armed with firepower:
6 copperheads in the junkyard in rural Middle Tennessee.
A rattlesnake encountered during a night walk on Short Mountain. By the time I heard the rattle, we were close; I reacted out of fear, killing the snake with a rock.
The river was high after days of rain. We passed several cottonmouths perched on tree limbs with our canoe. The other passenger, Lee and I were not cooperating very well and the canoe flipped; I hit my nose and lost my glasses. A cottonmouth (a.k.a. water moccasin) floated in the water just behind my head as I came up on the other side of the upturned canoe.
Solange ran out the door and abandoned me. 10-15 women gathered with her outside the door of the small, farmer’s cooperative in Batouri. I’d seen this character before: the African traveling griot-sometimes-a-trickster. As he climbed the outdoor stairs to the office, I considered my options. This was not my first snake encounter in Batouri, and I suppose I learned from the first. I was already standing centred in the double-door opening with my back up to the reception desk when he slung the serpent from his burlap sack onto the floor in front of me. He left enough room for the snake to advance towards me. The group of women gathered would repeat what they saw. I would show #NoFear, and perhaps the look on my face could be read as enjoyment no matter how long it would take for him to re-bag his serpent and leave.
My former wife and I had a rather large snake trapped in our septic tank in Batouri. It would crawl into the toilet bowl at inopportune times and we resorted to one holding both flashlight and machete for the other to use the bathroom. I asked the local merchant what to do with my broken French. I should break a coke bottle in a plastic bag. Then before sleeping, pour the glass shards into the toilet bowl. The next day whoever has cuts on their face is the person who, at times, haunts you in the form of a snake. Fairly straight forward, sir, but what can I do today during the day? He handed me a can of turpentine.
Deeper in the East Province of Cameroon is Yokadouma on the CAR border. Due south is the border with Congo-Brazzaville. On the Cameroon side is a German military graveyard dating before the League of Nations redistributed Germany’s colonial territories and divided Cameroon between France (8 provinces) and the UK (2 provinces). I went to see it in flip-flops, my ill-advised-yet-standard apparel. I was looking at a headstone up close. The guide yelled ‘le serpent’ at the same time he dropped his machete beside my right foot, beheading a small black mamba.
I like going to syncretic shops in Brasil; my favorite two are in São Paulo run by Nigerians. I buy gifts for others and talismans for myself. Whereas I have many ‘guides’ I don’t normally wear them out of a deference to the orientation process into Candomblé and Umbanda. I don’t go to these churches, but some family members do. #Respect. That Wednesday in Teresina I bought some incense from a shop as well as a yellow and black guide--suggesting Oxum--with a serpent pendant. When wearing the necklace the next day at Dona Isolde’s bar, Cesar asked me to explain its colors’ significance (to me). I told him I was most attracted to the snake, which I pulled out from inside my shirt. The shopkeeper told me it would offer protection.
Earlier in the car, Cesar told me Teresina can be ‘brutal’ and then ‘no, barbarian’. When talking to Dona Isolde a few minutes later whilst awaiting the weed dealer, she too used the word ‘barbarian’ to describe Teresina, and explained how having her bar was a way to take care of her sons...to keep them out of trouble. I wanted them to say more even if a guy I met the day before described multiple instances he’d lived through such as being held hostage with his family for a period while their house was ‘cleaned out’ by thieves. This is Brasilan to me … not the thievery but three different people recognizing a gringo (me) and offering info to stay safe. I knew I should listen closely.
The day before--after shopping at the syncretic shop--I swear I saw snakes. And, I rarely use snake as a metaphor.
They looked most like the copperheads in the rusted 5-gallon bucket at the back of the farm. Gerald and I were still young enough to be using a child’s wagon. It was blue. We were treasure hunting in the trash heap. I flipped over a rusted-out can and there they lay … squirmed, a mess of copperheads. The sun had to hit them just right for the copper to shine on their noses. I most remember their black eyes. I counted six sets; a mother and her children. We abandoned our wagon and ran home.
I wanted to buy some weed in Teresina and took random advice to try the carwash out by the river across from the Cavalho supermarket. I wasn’t too deep in...feeling-out the scene. I shared a joint with Rastafari on a park bench. He told me he’s from São Luís do Maranhão, where I was headed next. He was in Teresina looking for work. Looking back, I see that he represented a genteel buffer to the snakepit. I was walking away, but then decided to try my luck farther up the riverbank. Can I buy some weed, I asked. All six sets of eyes pulled up from the card game. And there was competition to walk me down by the river to get the weed. Those days-drunken eyes. Black and vacant. Easily countable. Move away slowly, Todd … and then faster. It is not an extreme measure to cross the first lane before the oncoming semi; balance on the small median. Dance across the other three lanes if need be. Stand in the middle of the road like you did once on 9 de Julho. Use the road tactically because backtracking the length of the carwash is not safe.