Having two boys of my own, and eleven grandsons, I have done my share of reading to them books about snakes, a topic on which I probably would never have read one word if left to myself. I’m so accommodating. Last week I even read many pages of a giant book about dinosaurs.
That book mysteriously appeared in my house a year or more ago and I didn’t pay much attention to it until Scout asked me to read it last week. It may have been the most boring read-aloud I have ever agreed to, and finally I said I’d had enough. After he went to bed I threw it in the trash.
Snakes are more interesting, I admit, because they live on the earth with us and can be observed as they really are. But still….
I sat with the grandchildren twice last week to read the snake book that is in our home library, and I re-learned several things about the reptiles. Doubtless I will re-forget most of the facts we read, too, as I always have done, even when my brain was younger and more flexible. I have read stuff like this for so many years: “Would you believe that a python can swallow a whole goat?…The snake doesn’t chew or swallow the way we do. It simply moves its body forward with its jaws wide open and ‘walks’ the animal down its throat.”
When I imagine this scene, or look at pictures of it, I think about how the snake itself is consumed by the task of consuming. Even the egg-eater, who takes only 15 minutes to finish the job and spit out the shell, can’t go anywhere or sleep or drink water, for the duration. The beautiful green flying snake can’t sense a hawk threat and take off like a spring to escape.
After Scout had gone home I came across a poem about the way a snake eats, and I started reading it with the idea of someday sharing it with him. But when I got to the last stanzas I realized that it was for me, much more than for a snake-fascinated boy. Through this poem’s impact, what I learned of snakes I won’t be forgetting. It might take a python a few hours to eat a goat. My portion is of a different calibration and I only know that I’ll be at it a while.
I watched a snake once, swallow a rabbit.
Fourth grade, the reptile zoo
the rabbit stiff, nose in, bits of litter stuck to its fur,
its head clenched in the wide
jaws of the snake, the snake
sucking it down its long throat.
All throat that snake—I couldn’t tell
where the throat ended, the body
began. I remember the glass
case, the way that snake
took its time (all the girls, groaning, shrieking
but weren’t we amazed, fascinated,
saying we couldn’t look, but looking, weren’t we
held there, weren’t we
imagining—what were we imagining?)
Mrs. Peterson urged us to move on girls,
but we couldn’t move. It was like
watching a fern unfurl, a minute
hand move across a clock. I didn’t know why
the snake didn’t choke, the rabbit never
moved, how the jaws kept opening
wider, sucking it down, just so
I am taking this in, slowly,
taking it into my body:
this grief. How slow
the body is to realize.
You are never coming back.
–Donna Masini, from Turning to Fiction