Snakebite is the fourth episode of Hadithi Ya Hodari.
Macheo encounters a clever reptilian animal that she knows is bad news and cannot be trusted . . . or can he?
“Taala, want to play-fight?” Ghubari asked, sinking into a crouch with his hind legs bobbing up and down.
“No thank you, Ghubari,” Taala responded. “Maybe later.” He had just spotted his mother’s adoptive sister, Macheo, returning from a hunt with the other lionesses. He quickly made up his mind to request a story from her, which he frequently asked of his pridemates, and approached her, leaving Ghubari looking slightly disappointed. “Hello there, Taala,” Macheo greeted as he neared. “How are you?” With a smooth motion of her tongue, she swept away the garnet blood staining her forepaw. “Hi, Macheo. Can you tell me a story? Maybe you can describe what happened on the hunt!” Taala suggested excitedly.
“Sorry, little nephew,” Macheo replied; she often referred to Taala and his brothers as her nephews, which Taala liked. He liked the idea of Macheo being related to him, even if it was not by blood. “It wasn’t a thrilling hunt. I swear that gazelle was trying to leap right into Fahari’s mouth. I just helped finish it off.”
“Oh,” Taala replied, disappointed. “Well, do you know any other stories?”
“Plenty,” Macheo told him, mouth curving into a smile. “Let me think . . . ah, I know a good one.”
At once, Taala sat himself down, curled his tail around his paws, tilted his head back, and gazed at her with wide, expectant eyes. Macheo purred a laugh. When she had recovered, she plunged into her story, while Taala sat unmoving in front of her. “‘Macheo, get down from there!’ I heard Kingiza cry, and through the spiny branches and long fronds of leaves, I could just barely make out his worried face, his eyebrows low over his aeneous eyes.
“‘I will not!’ I replied, obdurate. ‘You said that lions can’t climb trees, so I wanted to climb a tree!’
“‘Okay, I said that,” Kingiza responded, snorting. ‘I meant that we don’t usually climb trees, especially if we’re little cubs who don’t know that they need to be afraid when they get too high.’
“‘You aren’t usually this overprotective, Kingiza,’ I told him, my claws sinking deeper into the branch I am holding.
“‘That’s because you’re clinging to a rotting branch like holding on really tightly will stop you from falling.’
“‘What?’ I queried, but just then a loud crack split through the air, and I felt the branch tilting downward. With a squeal, I scrambled back towards the tree’s trunk, trying to reach it before the branch gives way. I slipped on a loose flake of bark, and my hind paw plunged down into empty space. I pulled it up, claws scraping and scrabbling for a grip, feeling flakes of bark get caught between my toes. I crouched down low, the bark pressing against my lower jaw, and leap for the trunk. However, right as I launched myself into the air, the branch dipped downward sharply, taking the force out of my jump. My spring ended up carrying me about as far as an ostrich can fly. I plummeted to the ground with a scream, paws flailing, the longer fur on my head standing straight up as the air rushed by it.
“Suddenly, I was engulfed by red-brown fur, which tickled my nose and ears. I lifted my face up, out of the hair, and found myself on Kingiza’s head while, below me, he cursed and cried out in pain. ‘Ouch, Macheo. Thanks to you, I won’t be surprised if I sustained damage to my brain.’
“‘Sorry, Kingiza,’ I apologized guiltily, sliding off of him and landing somewhat painfully on the hard ground.
“‘It’s okay, Macheo. Just go play by yourself for a little, all right? Nurisha and Ajali are still sleeping,’ Kingiza reminded me.
“‘I will!’ I told him. After muttering a final apology, I turned and trotted away into the grass, the sharper stalks scratching at my muzzle. It wasn't long before I burst into a clearing, devoid of long plants. It was shaped like a crescent moon. Small shrubs dotted the stretch of land, green and leafy, their topmost branches shuddering in the very light breeze. A bubbling stream, flanked by thin lines of sparkling sand, cut through the edge of it, leaving only a sliver of smooth land on its other side. The bracing scents of the lurid yellow wildflowers, over which hovered tiny, buzzing honeybees, filled my nose each time I inhaled. Though nothing like the aroma of fresh meat, it had its own pleasantness.
“This was a favorite play-area of Nurisha, Ajali, and me. Nothing was different from the last time that I had come here, except for the large, circular pit that now existed at one edge. Surprised, I ran over to investigate, hopping over a bush that stood in my path. What I saw was unexpected; the shallow hole was full of pale shapes. They were eggs, smooth and white, alone and without anyone guarding them, which seemed quite odd. Though most of the eggs were lying in the center of the nest, others had been left outside of it, partially concealed by tussocks. They were all massive, larger than any I had ever seen before. I thought about the size of the eggs, wondering what species they belonged to. I did not take very long for me to deduct that they had to be ostrich eggs. What other bird could produce such enormous eggs?
“I did not know much about the long-necked ratites, except that they were an unfriendly bunch. One time, I had approached a chick, her body round and plump, her legs long and spindly, covered with thick downy brown feathers. I had only wanted to greet her and see if we could be friends, but I was immediately chased away by an angry male ostrich, who delivered a painful slash with his claws. The laceration on my back had stubbornly refused to heal for a long time, leaving me depressed and bored.
“For this reason, it had given me great satisfaction when, only last night, Kingiza had brought us over to witness a pack of ravening Cape dogs take on a group of ostriches. The birds had stood no chance fighting the hungry, vicious animals- their only hope was speed. However, the dogs were able to score enough ostriches to feed the entire pack, as they had cleverly ambushed the ostriches from areas of thick vegetation before the birds could flee. Afterwards, Kingiza had brought us over to pick at the remains- we were not very hungry, but we all wanted to see what ostrich meat tasted like.
“Now I found myself feeling rather curious about what ostrich egg tasted like. The parent birds were dead, and the eggs would not hatch without them . . . no point letting them go to waste. I tried to fit my jaws around one of the eggs closest to her, but to my deep dismay I quickly discovered that it was too big; the thing was almost the size of my head! Not one to give up, I reared back on her hindquarters and slapped my paws down against the white shell of the egg, which cracked into an impressive array of starburst patterns. Using my nose and claws, I was able to force her way into the egg. From there, I went to work, licking out the delicious fluid within. I felt it soaking my muzzle but did not care; there would be plenty of time to clean off later.
“Having partially sated my hunger, I sat back to view the damage I had done. The egg was broken into pieces, traces of liquid leaking out. Glancing down at my paws, I noticed that they were spattered with yellow yolk and cleaned it off with rhythmic rasps of my tongue. Finishing my legs, I swept my tongue around my muzzle to finish the job. With my pelage now mostly clean, I decided to explore some more. The eggs were an exciting discovery that I would share with Nurisha and Ajali once they had awoken, but in the meantime I was content to see what else I could find.
“As I neared the other side of the clearing, I found my eyes wandering above the ground, to the thick, sturdy trunks and wide, solid branches of the trees. Well, these ones didn’t look rotten. I selected the tree that looked the healthiest- an old bifurcate juniper with heavy limbs and rich green leaves. Only a few creamy speckles of light dotted the ground around it, such was the thickness of its crown. Yes, this would certainly do. Sinking my front claws as deep into the bark as I could, I hauled myself up, my hind paws fumbling off of the knots and grooves. Shreds of bark strafing my coat, I kicked and scratched and climbed until, finally, I found myself able to stand without slipping.
“I examined the branch I was on- nice and sturdy, jutting from the right side of the tree. Despite the security promised by its width, I maintained my grip with my paws, unwilling to risk letting go. Above me, I could see nothing but thick emerald leaves, interwoven with more branches, obscuring my view of the sky. A light zephyr filtered through them all and tickled my nose and ears, causing me to laugh. I was quite comfortable here, and I had a very pleasant view of the earth below. However, I still desired to go even higher. I was not going to settle for this measly height.
“I moved higher up, wrapping a forepaw around a branch above me and using it to pull my haunches up. However, as this branch was far thinner than the last, dragging my hindquarters to safety caused my front legs to slip forward, and I was just able to bite back a scream. My momentary fear passed quickly enough, and my eyes widened with awe as they took in the view below, so much more imposing as my awkward position brought forth in the possibility that I might plummet from tree to ground.
Fortunately, I was able to scoot back just enough so that the backs of my forepaws could share the branch with my rear half. Undaunted, I proceeded to scurry up the tree: place a paw here, another there, be careful not to slip, use that knot to maneuver myself into a stable position. I listened to make sure that the seemingly rotten or young branches did not crack beneath my weight, but I was not extremely alert to my surroundings.
“For this reason, I did not immediately notice that the texture of the next branch I stepped onto was different. Cold smoothness replaced rough scratchiness. Solid, unmoving wood replaced by twisting scales. And on top of that, a sleek head that was lifted into the air by a well-muscled neck and turned my way. I looked over just in time to have a pair of pale amber-brown eyes lock with my own. The slitted pupils gazed straight into my own round ones. The cool scales rippled and twitched beneath my paws. Behind me, I heard the sound of a tail flicking against the tree trunk. Briefly, the white jaws parted, allowing a glimpse at a mouth as black and glistening as a river on a moonless night.
“‘Excuse me, do you mind?’
“Snake snake snake snake snake, my mind screamed. Now, I am not a craven lioness, nor was I in my youth. However, from a very young age, I had been taught that the snake was one of the most dangerous animals in the savanna. The Cape buffalo is known for the threat he poses, but when he comes at an animal, they are likely to see, hear, and smell him first. Despite the camouflage provided by the tan, golden, and brown coats of lions, our scent is quite distinctive to other members of our species, so it is difficult to escape the detection of those nearby. A snake is different. A snake will hide in the grass, still and silent, waiting for a hapless wanderer to stumble upon it. It is then that the serpent with employ its deadly fangs, piercing the flesh of their target. The victim will be dead within a few hours if they are lucky. If they are unfortunate, they will suffer for a long time before succumbing to a painful death. A snake was the creature that I stood upon at that moment- a sly, venom-toothed predator in constant search of something to sink its teeth into. By the marks of his scales, the patterns of brown and black, I suspected that he was a lowland viper, a menacing floodplain-dweller that I occasionally viewed from a safe distance.
“I scrambled backward until the icy laminae vanished beneath me, and bark took their place once more. I found myself unable to look away from the penetrating stare of the snake, who did not blink as he held my gaze steadily. After half a minute or so, I remembered that I had been spoken to. ‘I made a mistake,’ I explained, keeping my voice firm.
“Hmm,” the serpent responded loftily. “You would think that would be obvious, would you not? Were it your intention to drape your ponderous paws over my poor scales, I would certainly be deeply affronted.”
“I shuffled my feet, uncertain and tense. The snake’s voice was unusual- sibilant and very slightly breathy, the cadences like none I had heard before. It was near impossible to read the tone, but parsing the combination of words, I thought I detected a hint of dry humor. I hastened to reply- anything to keep the deadly fangs preoccupied so that they were not focused on penetrating my skin. ‘Sorry,’ I apologized. ‘I’m going.’
“But I knew not how to leave. The snake was in my path, blocking the way back to the trunk. If I reached it, I could use it to make my way down. However, there was no way that I was risking that, daredevil though I often was. My eyes wavered from those of the snake’s as I searched for alternate routes to the ground, but I spotted none. ‘Could you move?’ I grunted harshly.
“‘I cannot, for I find myself in an unwonted position of comfort. Should you be seeking a way away from me, you will simply have to pass by. There is room enough for you to manage it, though you might find it difficult as a result of your corpulence,’ the snake drawled lazily.
“Anger surged within me, covering a fresh wave of worry. So he wasn’t going to move. He was drawing out the moment of power over me. Soon I would be his prey. To me, the situation seemed very unfair. I just wanted to climb down the stupid tree and never see him again. I growled and took a step back, feeling the tapering branch bend slightly.
“If the snake noticed my fury, he did not acknowledge it. A forked ebony tongue darted out from the wide mouth, tasting the air as snakes do. The pale eyes widened as they brought the nearby scents into the unseen dark maw. ‘Now, this is quite interesting,’ he commented. ‘I note that you sport a smear of egg yolk upon your chest. How unfortunate it is that your body is shrouded in thick hair- that will take time to clean out. However, it intrigues me.’
“‘What about it ‘intrigues you’?’ I demanded, distrustful. I made to step back again, but realized that if I did, the branch would not hold my weight. Flexing my claws, I glowered at the snake.
“‘Hmm,’ was the only response I received. The muscles writhed and jerked beneath the layer of lustrous scales as the snake began to move. With impressive speed, he slithered from one limb to another until he vanished from my field of view. “My trepidation crumbled at once, drowned in a wave of curiosity. I followed the snake down, though I moved with less grace and speed. Bark caught in my fur and tugged at it, provoking annoyed snarls. I finally gave up and allowed myself to fall about the length of the snake’s body. I landed somewhat uncomfortably, one of my paws folding beneath my rear end. It ached a little, but I was sure that it was not sprained or broken.
“Rising to my feet somewhat inelegantly, I glanced around and spotted the serpent leaning into the ostrich nest. With a sense of caution that I rarely displayed, I edged around until I was facing him. His mouth was stretched agape, wider than I would have thought possible. The thin, elastic lips were fitted around one of the white eggs. The oval-shaped object was slowly disappearing into the snake’s mouth as the scaly jaws slid forward and backward. I watched, half in disgust and half in disbelief, as his head took on the shape of the egg it was consuming, swelling up to a grotesque size. The scales heaved and undulated until the comestible had almost entirely vanished from sight. All that I could see was a portion of the shell, visible inside of the ophidian’s wide maw. Now the inner mouth had the appearance of being white rather than black. With a final rippling motion, the egg was gone, concealed by the body of the snake. He opened and closed his jaws several times while twisting and turning before something strange happened.
“His upper body began thrashing, and suddenly the roundish shape of the egg, visible inside of his throat, flattened. Pulling in three deep lungfuls of air and letting them out, he suddenly opened his mouth wide. From it, the squashed, crushed, crumpled eggshell emerged. Repulsed, I leaped back. The logical part of my mind told me that I should leave now. Now that the snake had finished one meal, he might move on and go for me next. However, I remained where I was. Soon enough, the snake looked up for the first time.
“‘Ssssso-o-o,’ he began, drawing out both letters. ‘You overcame your sense of foreboding and followed me. How obdurately imprudent, especially for a diminutive cub such as yourself.’
“‘You eat eggs?’ I asked, nonplussed.
“‘Unless my memory is fading, you do the same,’ he observed, eyes tracing the small patch of yolk clinging to the fur of my chest.
“‘Yes, but I’ve never met a snake who eats eggs before,’ I explained, making sure to keep up my guard. He could strike at any moment, after all.
“‘Yes, well, I have never met a lion who eats eggs. I must confess that I find it to be a most irksome surprise,’ the snake responded, his mouth opening in a jaded yawn. “In that moment, I noticed an unexpected detail that I had overlooked each time he had revealed to me his mouth before. ‘You don’t have any teeth!’ I exclaimed, unable to believe this.
“Hsssss. He seemed annoyed by my observation. ‘Teeth. Now, why would I desire such fatuous things? I consume eggs and eggs only. Nothing else has ever aroused my appeal.’
“‘You . . . you only eat eggs?’
“I could not process this immediately. There was no way that a snake would only eat eggs. They were carnivorous, just as lions were. How could it be? But what other explanation could exist for the lack of deadly fangs? And I had just seen him eat an egg for myself. To allow myself some time to accept this tidbit of information, I asked another question. ‘What is your name?’
“‘They call me Yai. Ironic, is it not? You don’t meet a lion named swala or kiboko, do you? And yet, by some bizarre occurrence, I was christened yai in honor of my unorthodox diet. I cannot say I am extremely happy about it, but then again, of what value is a name to a serpent such as myself? We are solitary creatures who prefer privacy above all else,’ he- Yai- told me.
“‘I am Macheo,’ I responded, for lack of a better reply.
“‘Macheo,’ Yai parroted. ‘Pleasant name.’ The edges of his mouth curved into a smile. ‘Better than kiboko.’
“‘I agree,’ I replied, smiling back. ‘So . . . you really wouldn’t eat a lion?’
“Again, Yai hissed, but he did not appear to be extremely annoyed. ‘No, I would not. Disgusting thought. You don’t have to fear me, little cub. I don’t bite.’
“A snake that didn’t bite. How weird can you get?, I thought. ‘That’s . . . odd. But in a good way. A really good way.’ I smiled lightly, though I did not draw closer. I got the sense that Yai liked his personal space. I started thinking of more questions to ask him; I wanted to know more. But before I could pursue the conversation further, I heard a voice calling me from a distance- Kingiza’s voice.
“‘Macheeeeo! MACHEO!’ he bellowed, ending with a loud roar that was easily heard. “I glanced in the direction that it had come from, then back at Yai. He appeared untroubled, if vaguely annoyed. “What noisy creatures lions are,” he observed dryly.
“‘I’m sorry- I have to go,’ I told him, stepping away. I hoped that I would see him again. I had never considered the possibility that not all snakes sported teeth that injecting a life-threatening venom. Yai was one of the most unusual animals I had ever met, but I liked him.
“‘Farewell,’ he answered. ‘I enjoyed speaking with you. It has been a long time since I have conversed with another.’
“With a flick of his tail, he turned and slithered away. I watched him until he was out of sight, then returned to Kingiza. It had been quite an interesting day.”
“What an interesting story,” Taala remarked, rising to his paws. “Mother has always instructed me to avoid snakes, and I never saw a reason not to heed her advice.”
“Well, she was asleep, wasn’t she?” Macheo pointed out, her orange-red eyes sparkling. “She never met Yai. And yeah, in most cases she’d be right. If you disturb a snake, nine out of ten times you’ll be hobbling home snakebitten.”
“But not you.”
“No, not me. Not that time, at least. There were other incidents . . . but I’ll save those for another day.”
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