The Snake Hunter

John Michael Gorrindo

The snake hunter preferred to work alone.  He would answer to the hunt when there was a stirring inside- a strange quiver that started gently at the base of the spine and sent ripples to the cerebellum.  It might creep upon him while he was sitting, eating rice in the predawn hours; or when he was stooped over, probing the sea grass at low tide for trebang in the late afternoon.  But it only came when he was alone.

A man who forages in sea beds, tends orange and papaya trees and a patch of corn; and raises chickens for meat and eggs only answers to nature’s rhythms.   To forage and garden were daily events.  To hunt was not.  When it came to call, hunting’s primal sway turned aside the rest of the world.

The snake hunter’s stick always stood propped in a dark corner of his house against the wooden planked wall, a noose of rope drooping from its upright end.  Dangling from its drawstring nearby hung a snake bag on a rusting nail tacked into the same wall.  Inside was stored a long length of rope and skinning knife. 

After the stirring called, the snake hunter would climb to the top of the neighboring hill and stare out to the south at the cape towards land’s end.  His eyes would focus sharply, scanning an imaginary line that traversed the cape from east to west. Next he took a mental snapshot of the landscape as would a single lens, fixing each tall tree onto a mental map he would carry with him once he walked into the bush.

Most snake hunters hunted in groups, risking life and limb by climbing down the steep faces of cave mouths found beneath the gnarled, exposed roots of giant trees.  Once at the bottom of the cave deep inside the earth, they would catch the snake unawares, sleeping in the darkness.  But this snake hunter had seen too many of the young and careless fall and mangle themselves deep down in a subterranean limestone pocket.  He was more interested in finding a snake above ground while hunting its own prey.  It set him right to hunt his prey while it hunted its own.  To jump a snake as it slept in the bottom of a limestone cave wasn’t a proper way to hunt.  This snake hunter once risked himself, too, by climbing down through the narrow passages under the cape’s oldest trees deep into the earth, but no more.  He now only hunted alone and above ground in the light.

There is a code of honor when hunting that can be followed, or ignored.  The python was a worthy creature, and the snaked hunter respected it.  He had long studied the python’s behavior.  To respect one’s prey is to know it.  And to hunt a predator, the hunter must know how that predator hunts and what it eats.  The python was capable of eating any animal it came across, but it preferred the wild pig that scurried noisily through the underbrush covering the cape. 

The python would climb a tree or even drape itself across the canopy of low lying bushes in wait for a pig to come rooting for food.  If a pig lingered below the snake long enough, the python would silently lower itself down head first towards the ground.  Opening its great jaws wide, it would strike by straightening its head, neck and upper body out taut, grabbing hold and burying its teeth into the pigs hide.  The snake then tumbled the pig over as it somersaulted headfirst, looping its body underneath and around the pig.  The pig’s only chance was to free itself from the snake’s jaws in these first, frantic moments before the ensuing death grip.

The musculature of the great reticulated python is like that of finely braided strands of steel. Once those long strands contracted as looped around a pig, there was little chance for escape.  Within a few minutes, the pig would be asphyxiated.

Sensing death, the python unravels its massive body, hyper extends its jaws, dilates its neck muscles, and begins the long process of swallowing the kill whole.  Long longitudinal muscles running down along the snake’s neck begin pushing and pulling the pig down its alimentary canal.  The pig’s mass finally comes to rest in the snake’s stomach, half-way down the length of its body.

If the kill is large, the snake must crush it before digesting.  Slithering back up into the trees, carrying along the great lump in its midsection, the python searches for an adequately strong and tight fitting forked branch.  Through this branch it will run the length of its body.  Once the lump has reached the fork, the snake bears down and wedges the lump through, breaking the bones of the pig inside.  The process is repeated until the pig’s mass has been broken down sufficiently.

It is during this process of pulverizing the pig that the python is most vulnerable.  The snake depends on its hide’s coloration to camouflage it while it slowly wrestles itself through the forked branch of a sturdy tree. 

The snake hunter left his house just before dawn, carrying his snake stick in one hand and the snake bag with the other.  He descended the wooden steps of his house-on-stilts to the path below that led to the dirt road that passed in front.  A woman in her sarong pushed a large cart full of empty Gerry cans down the road en route to the community well in the village below.  Once she had filled the cans with well water, she would push the cart back up the hill and deliver water to all the houses on the hillside above.

She saw the snake hunter approaching.  Seeing he had readied for the hunt caused her to pause and stop the cart.  Studying his every move, she stared into his eyes until he had passed.  Neither said a word as the hunter kept his eyes fixed on the mass of shrubs and trees that loomed ahead at the top of the hill where the road ended.  She did not look after him, but continued down the road, pushing the cart as its rubber wheels bounced along the top of the limestone cobbles.

The snake hunter reached the end of the road and disappeared from human sight along a narrow trail, penetrating the thick undergrowth.  At that moment the sun broached the sea’s horizon to the east and the faint stirrings of village life from within the wooden houses-on-stilts throughout the hillside neighborhood sent up a muted murmur.

It was not long before a one meter long monitor lizard scurried across the trail up ahead as the snake hunter stealthily made his way deep into the heart of the cape’s hinterland.  Whatever sound he did make was masked by a chorus of birdsong that always accompanied dawn’s awakening.

The cape’s most unassailable creatures, the sea eagles, rode the thermals skyward far above and to the north of the cape’s headland.  From afar they could easily spot schools of fish swarming near the surface of the sea in all directions offshore from the cape.  The snake hunter stopped and craned back his neck to watch three of then gliding effortlessly; circling the very hilltop he had climbed the day before.

Though that strange stirring inside could tell him it was time to hunt, it could do no more.  His skills as a hunter had to heed the call.  When he first experienced the stirrings as a young man, he thought maybe they would eventually head him directly to his prey, but he soon discovered that would never be.  Hard-bought experience taught him there were limits.  How many times had he gone hunting and never even occasioned a sighting?  He couldn’t count them all. 

But taken together, both failure and success had trained his senses. There were signs all around to be read. He came to understand that a python’s presence was manifest in the behavior of the living things that surrounded it.  He had honed his powers of observation, and he could empty his mind in order to properly read the sign posts of nature.  But in these things he took no pride.  For the snake hunter, pride could only detract from the hunt.  To heed the call to hunt with discipline and clear headed deliberation was all he cared to know.

The snake hunter broke free of the thick underbrush and came upon a small clearing of limestone outcroppings.  It was no longer dawn.  The sun was climbing fast and now hung above the horizon.  Setting down his gear, he climbed the craggy rock and squatted on his haunches.  Finally in the open, he could stop and look all around.

A smattering of large trees dotted the land up ahead and he was now nearing land’s end.  Listening intently, he tried to discern the rustlings in the underbrush, and looked for signs of anything unusual.

Sensing nothing, he moved on, approaching the nearest large tree whose stout, broad branches were the kind a python might choose to climb wrap.  He inspected it and then each of the large trees nearby, but found nothing, neither in the tree branches nor on the ground below.

The land had become quiet as the birds that feed at dawn had been silenced by the dead heat that soon sets in after sunrise.  Now the snake hunter could clearly hear every rustle in the bushes and trees.  Blue lizards basked in the sun, fixed motionless to the faces of  limestone rocks.

Still, there were no signs of a python.  The snake hunter stopped to listen anew and think.  The deep blue seas off land’s end were clearly visible now.  It was not always true that there was better hunting to be had the further out one was from the village, but the snake hunter decided to move on towards land’s end and walk along the cliff sides that towered above the expansive waters of the surrounding sea.

It was the dry season and the west monsoons prevailed.  Ocean currents wrapped themselves around the cape, but were not too strong nor the seas too rough when the west monsoons were in season.  Fishing vessels languished off the cape in the fertile fishing grounds.  Several small islands dotted the distant reaches of the sea.

In the breezeless heat of mid-morning, the snake hunter reached land’s end.  Walking slowly in sandaled feet, he picked his way carefully along the great sea terrace; through cobbled limestone and tickets of underbrush; trying his best to avoid the sharp and brittle branches that shred away at a man’s legs.  The sea lapped calmly onto the great rocks at the foot of the cliff below, and mottled green patches of coral shown clearly through the transparent waters just offshore.  The equatorial sun was quickening its arc of ascent and had bleached the sky bluish-white.

The snake hunter walked east towards two towering spires of rock that stood abreast and erect one hundred meters offshore.  The great pinnacles were feared by the local people as it was believed they had appeared hundreds of years before in the wake of the death of a mother and her son who had committed incest.  Separated from each other soon after the son’s birth, the two were reunited years later, neither aware of their blood relations.  After becoming lovers, the people of their village discovered the couple’s true origins, and hounded the star-crossed couple unto their dying days.  The son died from a broken heart soon after his mother, who had jumped to her death from the very cliffs where the snake hunter now stood.  To spite their fate in life, mother and son arose from the sea in defiance after death, their spirits forever entombed in stone.  Standing squarely in the pathway of the cape’s currents, they exacted their revenge, drawing many a fishing vessel headlong into their stony laps.  Sailors measured their worth in how close they could make the cut around the spires which brought them home free on their way to the cape’s other side.

The snake hunter was wary of the spires, and kept one eye on them and the other on the path he threaded along the cliffs.  He came upon a large section of sunken sea terrace where undergrowth had taken hold, growing down the cliff side which sloped steeply onto a sunken shelf below.  Peering down, he scanned the vegetation and there he suddenly saw it- a long reticulated python, draped along a massive branch of a large tree; its bulging belly wedged tightly up against a forked branch.

In all his experience as a hunter, rarely had the snake hunter seen such a large snake.  Only pythons of advanced age achieved such a size.  Skins of an older python skin would fetch less in the market that that of a younger one, as age thickened and hardened them, but the snake hunter considered a larger python the greater hunting prize.

Under normal circumstances, to subdue a snake of this size, a hunter would have to truss it with a rope and drag it out of a large tree.  It was a job best done by at least two men.  As the python was situated on a steeply, sloping shelf off a cliff side, it was a life-threatening proposition for a single hunter.

The snake hunter’s pulse quickened and a heated rush shot up his spine.  He squatted momentarily to calm himself, turning his sight away from the python.  Instead, he focused his attention on the two offshore spires in order to temper his sudden, uncharacteristic excitement.  Mother and son stood impassively outside of the temporal, their forms cast in static perpetuity.

The snake hunter had to decide- either let the snake go or seek help.  It was impossible to know just exactly when the python had swallowed its fresh kill.  It might remain immobile for several hours, but it was a gamble to leave and return later as it could escape in the meantime.  He could kill the snake first, but couldn’t skin it properly in the tree.  Given the tree’s dangerous location on the tipped shelf filled with under brush, he couldn’t be assured of being able to skin it once it had been lowered.

If the snake was killed and left in the tree, the snake hunter could return with help to fetch it, but the snake skin would likely be already shredded and torn away by the work of scavenging rodents and birds as he would have to leave the carcass overnight.  He could never wantonly kill such a great creature and leave it to such ravages.

It was never easy to walk away empty-handed, especially with a prey plainly in sight.  But the snake hunter knew his limits.  To descend onto the steep shelf in plain view of mother and son would be a clear invitation to death.  The spires had sighted him just as the hunter had his prey.  How quickly predator could become prey.  The hunter knew this all too well.

The snake hunter would never tell a soul about the sighting.  It would never occur to him to do so.  It was simply just one more episode in the life of a hunter; a day’s exercise on the hunt that reaped the rewards of experience but no trophy.

As the sun had now reached and eclipsed it zenith, the snake hunter took one last look at the great python.  If the snake had sensed the hunter’s presence, it did not show it.  It lay motionless, wrapped along a great branch in the heat of the sun, safely removed from potential harm on the sunken shelf overlooking the ominous pinnacles of mother and son, standing like sentinels in the sea.

The snake hunter turned away.  The days’ hunt was over.  It was time to return to his wooden house-on-stilts, kill a chicken, and with it make a meal along with white rice and some stewed greens.  With the sun at his back, he disappeared back into the bush.