Not Your Average Walk in the Park
Copyright © Judith Shaw
When I was a kid I kind of liked snakes—except for the time I watched a garter snake eat a frog at the edge of my mother’s goldfish pond. I still feel shivery when I remember that frog.
So I liked snakes in a lukewarm way. They weren’t one of my top-ten favorites, but I didn’t hate them, either.
The turning point came when I was oh, I don’t know, maybe 8 or 9 years old, and the Snake Man came to school with a box full of snakes. A few parents had been called in to help keep chaos at bay, and for once my mother was among them. Typically, she had to work and couldn’t come to daytime classroom stuff.
My mother was tiny, four feet ten or eleven inches tall, and exquisitely petite. She caught the Snake Man’s eye, and he “volunteered” her to show the class that pythons didn’t have to be scary.
He called her up to the front of the class, pulled an enormous snake out of the box, and wound it around her neck.
I think she wanted to scream and run away, but how could she? All the children in the world were watching! At that point I decided that snakes weren’t icky; they were kind of cool.
Until we moved to Singapore.
It was 1985. We’d had to move from Heaven (Jakarta) to my idea of Hell. None of us wanted to go, but unless we were prepared for Ron to give up his job with the bank, staying on in Jakarta was not an option.
Ron was First Chicago’s credit manager for all of Southeast Asia, and he traveled a lot. We were left on our own in an apartment I didn’t like, a school both children hated—though not as much as I did—and a mostly absent husband.
The move was wrenching. Social life in our corner of Jakarta’s expatriate community had been orchestrated by the Citibank wives, a group of energetic and intensely intellectual women who had lived all over the world and loved it.
Singapore, in an oil boom, was full of families from Texas and Oklahoma, as different from my family as could be found in the English-speaking world. They kept a death grip on everything from home, and only acknowledged the parts of Singapore that fitted their vision of how things ought to be.
Expat life revolved around the American Club: American swimming pool, American food in all the restaurants, staff that always spoke good English. At the American Club, and also at The Singapore American School, it was possible to believe that the world was good.
My kids struggled to fit in. I gave up the game early. Ron was rarely there, and Prozac hadn’t reached Singapore yet.
We couldn’t escape the expats. Wherever we went, there they were, behaving like happy Middle Americans. They were so good at looking happy, it made my New York Jewish self feel like a Martian. I wasn’t able to help my kids fit in, but we persevered, looking for things to do and places to see that would make us all feel better about having left our forever home.
Ron is a WWII buff, and God knows Singapore was right in the middle of that war. There were monuments, memorials and remembered horrors galore. Right up my alley? Definitely not. Jessica didn’t like them either, but Ron and Barnaby thought they were great.
One Sunday morning I countered Ron’s suggestion of an outing to the Kranji War Memorial with a walk in Singapore’s Botanical Garden instead.
Barnaby didn’t want to walk. He wanted to go with Ron to look at guns.
So I bribed him.
I told him we were going to the Botanical Garden to hunt for snakes. In Barnaby’s book, snakes trumped war every time.
The garden is indeed beautiful, with plants from all over Southeast Asia and the old British Empire, groomed paths, lovely vistas, anything you could want in a tropical park.
It was also bloody hot.
The three of us—Ron, Jessica, and I—followed Barnaby as he looked for snakes. At about the one-hour mark I started to get anxious. I’d never seen a snake in Singapore, although I knew plenty of people who had. What if our hunt was a failure? Would Barnaby ever come for a walk again?
Then the natural history god smiled, and Barnaby saw a snake.
It was a slim emerald tree snake, bright green with ruby-red eyes, hanging from a tree and pretending to be a vine. It was beautiful.
We dissuaded Barnaby from putting the snake in his pocket, and headed for the rainforest walk, which was, blessedly, in the shade. I walked in front with Jessica. Ron and Barnaby took up the rear. The path narrowed, and we had to walk single file.
The light under the trees was dim, but when I saw the snake coiled in a splash of sunlight, I could have traced every scale.
It was a king cobra, as thick around as my wrist and who knows how long, coiled into a neat pile by the side of the path. It wasn’t a shiny black, more of a dark and dusty grey, and when it saw us, it reared up and flared its hood in warning.
My cerebrum, that modern, thinking part of my brain, abdicated all responsibility, and the hindbrain, deathly afraid of snakes, took over. I screamed, grabbed Jessica and ran down the path as fast as I could. Her elbow flew up and smacked me in the face, but I didn’t feel it until later when I saw the bruise.
Ron and Barnes ran too, but they had no idea why I was screaming. Jess didn’t know either. Turns out, no one saw the cobra but me.
Did they believe me? I’m not sure. Did I ever walk on that path again? Lots of times. Barnaby was wild to hunt for cobras in the bushes. But in the five years we lived in Singapore, I never saw another snake.
I no longer think snakes are cool. The menace projected by the cobra surpassed any danger I’d ever seen, before or since.
I can tolerate snakes, especially the kind that live in Massachusetts and eat snails, slugs and mice. We had a whole colony of milk snakes living near our barn, preying on the rodents who came to eat spilled grain or scavenge oats from manure dropped in the field.
Ron came across a four-footer while weed whacking, and although the idea of a big snake so near our house was a bit creepy, it didn’t freak me out.
I know snakes perform a service, keeping down vermin that otherwise could take over the planet. But when I see one now, I take a step back. I can’t forget the cold-blooded murder in the eyes of that cobra in the lush green garden in Singapore.