Chapter 14: Snake
On the far side of the island on a beach of soft white sand I saw what I thought was a pile of vegetation up above the high waterline. It struck me as odd that a large mat of green brown foliage could get there so far up the beach. I had not seen any signs of life on the island: no tracks, no spoor … nothing.
As I approached the vegetation it moved. This was not trees and grass. It was alive. A head the size of a bucket rose up in a sinuous movement. Turning to face me, a tongue flicked out, and the forked the end flicked up and down once or twice and slid back inside the head.
The snake started to uncoil itself, getting bigger and longer. The head rose up to my head height, the eyes never leaving me. Its eyes were the same camouflaged colour as its skin. The pupils were a diamond shape and jet black. It started to move towards me. I started to move back. It was at least twenty metres long and thicker than me around the waist.
The tongue was flicking in and out, tasting the air – and me – on it. Backing up and moving sideways into the trees, the thick foliage swallowed me up. I could still see the snake but it could not see me. It stopped. The head went from side to side on the long flexible neck. There was a low hissing sound, which almost sounded like it was annoyed. The head went to the ground and the tongue flicked back and forth across the ground. It was tracking me by the scent I had left.
It came on, following my scent trail. I turned and ran back through the trees, back to the sand and down the beach to the cart. I had only five metres of rope left. Taking it and the axe, I headed back into the trees. I had an idea. The snake was still following the trail I left when I found the tree (this had given me the idea). I stripped off my buckskin tunic and dragged it around the tree on the ground, leaving a well-marked path to follow.
Standing under a low branch and quickly dressing I tied a slip knot in the rope, and jumped up and pulled myself up on to the branch and into the foliage to await the snake.
I did not have to wait long. It suddenly appeared, moving quite fast, the tongue flicking back and forth like a metronome. The snake followed the trail round the tree back to where I had hidden myself above the trail.
I had not taken its length into my plan. It was back to my position before its tail had left the spot. When its tail was in close proximity to its head the tongue flicked along its flank. It stopped. The head went back on itself and it reversed direction. I could hear the scales scrape against themselves as it went back over itself. It got back to under my position and searched around with its tongue. It went back along the path it had used coming in, again turning back to the tree … round the tree again. This time it searched both sides of the trail I had left.
When it came back I lowered the rope with the noose in the end so that it just touched the ground. The snake’s tongue, flicking back and forth, tasted the rope and pushed forward. When the head had passed through the noose it was pulled tight. The snake started to thrash around, its coils wrapping round itself and the rope and the tree. It was very heavy, and if I had not had the rope tied to the branch it would have pulled it out of my hands easily. When the thrashing had eased I was able to pull a metre of rope up and wrapped it round a branch stub. The snake was now lifting its head as high as it could and attempting to bite the rope. Each time it raised its head I could get another few centimetres of rope back. It was like fishing for big game: fish, pump, and wind; pump and wind – only it was supplying the lifting movement and I was taking up the slack each time.
The rope was not a thick rope, more of a heavy cord – and it bit deeply into the snake’s neck just behind the head, effectively strangling it to death. The end came quickly: one moment it was thrashing around and the next it stopped. I gave it another vicious pull. The head was now two metres off the ground, and the body was pulling it down with the aid of gravity. Leaving it tied to the branch, I got down the other side of the tree. Using a long branch I poked the snake several times. It did not respond. With the sharp end of the stick I poked it in the eye. It did not blink: a good sign that it was indeed dead.
I cut the rope and when it hit the ground I chopped its head off. It took three chops with the axe to remove the head. Then it was skinning time. I was thinking of all the things I could use the skin for. A canoe would be nice: it was big enough for three or four canoes. When the skin was off I rolled it up. The carcass was cut up into manageable lumps and taken back to the beach where the cart was left.
This was several trips’ worth. I was covered in blood by the time the job was over. The snake was cut up into strips, which would become jerky and dinner. There was a lot of meat and I knew I was going to lose some. I could not process it fast enough: some would go off but it could not be helped. The skin, which was now in a tight roll like a small carpet, went into the cart. I could work it later.
After dinner and a bath the buckskin top was washed. It was very badly stained with blood and other snake body fluids, most of which I did not want to know about – only how to get them out the clothes.
As the snake was being dissected I noted its last meal, which it could have only just eaten as it had not started to dissolve in the stomach acid. It was a big ratlike thing, very similar to a South American capybara – only it had big webbed feet and three toes, with retractable claws like a cat. It had big spade like teeth like a rodent and a short spade like tail which was furless, wide, and flat, like a leather tennis racket – just like a beaver. The fur was short and waterproof. The stomach acid was just sliding of off it and soaking into the leaf litter underfoot.
I did not want to touch it but was interested in seeing if I could find a live one: the fur looked useful. It took two full days and nights to process the snake into jerky and I managed to save the lot. By working into the night, using the light and heat from the fire, I had plenty of wood and I repaired the cart-raft so that it was out of the water completely when I was in it.
After making a small raft from logs I poled to the next island, which had bigger trees on it and a larger land mass. I still had not seen any of the capybara things and was beginning to wonder where the snake had got it from. Beaching the raft in a small inlet, I went to investigate this island.
Bow in hand, arrow knocked and ready, and keeping as quiet as possible, I headed into the undergrowth where there was a well-defined animal track from the beach into the trees. It required me to stoop in places but I could navigate it with ease.
I had noticed without being aware that there were no birds to be seen or heard. I could hear things in the trees, but not birds. The track led to a large clearing in the wood. Watching from some cover across the clearing was a capybara, which moved to the side and became two, then three. There were a host of them: all sizes, down to very small ones – which I took to be young, as they were running around and fighting and playing like children do. The adults were paying them no attention and came on into the clearing and split up into small groups and headed for some fallen trees, which they walked up and into the branches of. I was amazed they could climb trees with ease and I remembered the retractable claws – the big webbed feet. I could see how it would be an easy thing for them to do with feet like that. Even the little ones were playing in the lower branches and seemed at ease. From the safety of the dense under bush where I could see and not be seen I watched for a while.
As it started to get dark I headed back to the beach and my camp. I worked on the snakeskin for the next two days and started to collect the makings of a canoe. I had decided on an open canoe or Canadian type as opposed to a kayak style, as I could get more into it. Getting the wood to make a frame to stretch the snakeskin over proved much harder than I ever imagined. I had to visit several of the islands close to hand to find something which would be useful. It was proving a tiresome task, going to and from the island with the wood and back to my camp, so I just moved the camp to the wood and set up a new camp. During my exploring of the islands I was able to watch the capybara on several occasions and saw that they were cropping back the vegetation on the riversides – maintaining the waterways.
They were always in packs. I could not tell if they were families or gangs or loose associations. I could not even tell the sex of one from the other. They were big brown rat like rodents which just stopped and looked at me whenever I exposed myself to them. They did not even run away. I did see them scatter and flee in panic, making a high-pitched squeaking sound. The cause was another big snake – not anywhere as big as the one which was now taking shape as a canoe, but it was big.
When the snake had left the area several of the larger capybara followed it, squeaking and grunting. It sounded almost like a cough or sneeze, accompanied with a stamp of the foot.
I had just about run out of glue, and decided to go get some hooves and hide and make more. I did not need a lot to finish the canoe but I would run out before it was complete.
I was in a swamp and there are no grazing animals, at least none that I had seen. I needed open savannah, or woodland with herds of deer or antelope. There were some really big trees on this island. I could see a long way from the top of one: the only problem was that they had no branches on the first five to six metres from the ground. Not a problem: I had some rope and soon was at the top of the best-placed tree to give a good view to the nearest dry land. It was upstream from my present position, which would make the raft hard work – but coming back loaded would be easier.
With a small pack – enough for five to six days – and lots of spare arrows for the bow, I set off at first light. It was hard going for the first half of the day as the current was strong, the channel deep – and the bank was all reeds, with very little firm ground underfoot. When I eventually got to solid ground I found a small inlet which was in constant use as a drinking hole by lots of animals. I had stripped down to my loincloth, as the work required to move the raft had got me sweating like a horse. I beached the raft at the edge of the inlet of the mud bank and sat down on it to rest. Within moments of my arrival the wildlife were back drinking and were ignoring me completely. I did note some were watching me closely but did not take fright when I sat upright or when I raised the bow. They did not even run when I dropped the first animal.
It was a big sheep – or ram, as it had a massive set of horns, which I could also use in the making of my glue. It looked to be a mature animal perhaps past its prime, but I could use it. It was quite heavy for its size and I was again sweating by the time I dragged it under the closest tree. After skinning and removing the hooves and horns I chopped the top of the head off and removed the brains. Having no container to keep them in I emptied the stomach and turned it outside in and put them in that. I could use the brains for curing skins.
I did not need the hide as it came off the sheep, just the skin for the glue. The wool was shaved off and kept rolled up tight and tied off with a bit of string. I had seen sheep shearing as a child but did not comprehend just how hard it was – and I was removing it from a skin which was draped over my leg, not from a live animal. I cut into the skin several times and was glad it was not alive during the shaving. It was not easy to shave using a knife, but after a short time it was getting easier – with fewer mistakes, fewer nicks in my leg. After collecting some firewood and starting a small but intense fire I made as much glue as I could with the animal’s hooves, horn, and hide.
I cooked several choice cuts but could not bring myself to eat them, as the smell of the glue was overpowering and very unpleasant. I moved away upwind from the fire and the now-cooling glue, and enjoyed a dinner of kidney and liver with some fresh roots and tubers found along the edge of the swamp. I had to have a smudge fire to keep the insects away from dining on me. I had not noticed them on the islands before but here they were driving me nuts. I pulled several leaves from the reeds growing closest to the bank and made a large basket-type shape 400 mm by 300 mm by 300 mm deep by plaiting the reeds together. It would not win any prizes but it would keep the flies away from my head as I slept. It worked, along with the smoke. I had a restful night and was up with the dawn.
I had heard scavengers at the carcass during the night but the fire had kept them away – or it could have been the smell of the glue. I did not know but it was OK by me.
Back to the glue making today. I would need another sheep of approximately the same size, with horns if possible, and a lot more wood. “Wood first,” I think. I had a good look around see if the scavengers had moved away. They had. Nothing had been left of the sheep, not even the heavy bones – just a flattened area under the tree and a lot of dung from whatever had been there.
I found the herd out on the grass not far from the inlet again. They did not move as I approached. I could see a small group of males off to one side – and one which sported an impressive set of horns curling round and round back on themselves, making its head look three times bigger that it was in reality.
That would do for me. I was able to walk right up to within five metres of it. I had one arrow tipped with mosquito wings left. It hit the desired spot. The ram went down without a sound. Its colleagues did not notice or take any notice until I walked up to the carcass and tied a rope to the back legs and dragged it back to the tree for preparation. On the way back I found another kill site. I could not guess which predator had made it or how many of them there had been: there were just skin and bones left but, more importantly, all four hooves and a set of horns with the skull attached. It was not a big animal but it was free and I could use it, so it was gathered up.
Eventually would be turned into glue. It was another day of working in the stink of the glue pot before I had enough to finish the canoe and could go back. I had two pelts of wool, which I could turn into usable wool yarn: when I was a small boy my mother had taught me to knit and fend for myself.
I was looking at making a jumper, scarf, socks, and much more. A blanket would be nice: then I could stop sleeping under skins, if only for the summer. Going back the way I had come was so much easier than the struggle getting to the savannah in the first place: I just had to guide the raft and let the current do the work. After another two days’ work the canoe was finished and it was time to try it out.
There was a small pond like area on the other side of the island which would do. I did not want to try it in the river till I was comfortable using it. If it sank then it would be better in shallow backwater than in a deep, fast-flowing river. It went well. It did not sink, but it was not completely watertight. I had put a hole in it as I was dragging it round the island. I would have to do something about that or every time I beached it I would be in danger of putting another hole it. Runners or skid bars would be good: a sacrificial bit of wood to protect the skin. It would also help as a keel – which I had not made on this canoe, and had found it would go round in circles and not in a straight line.
I had been thinking about making a crossbow, and now I had the canoe finished I could have a try. Some of the horns could be laminated with wood to make a stronger bow and I would get twice the number of crossbow bolts for the same amount of wood for arrows. Just the trigger mechanism to work out. I had scratched out a design in the sand as I let my mind wander.
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