You remember the story of the scorpion and the duck? The scorpion rides a duck to get across the river? The scorpion promises not to sting the duck but then does anyway halfway across. The duck asks him why when they were both most certainly going to die now. The scorpion shrugs and says, “I’m a scorpion.” Now you remember?
This is not that story. This is the story of a girl and a snake. Behind the house where the girl lived with her parents was a large pond. A pond with the usual things – fish, ducks, herons, mosquitoes, dragonflies, water lilies that extended out from the shore, and cattails along the bank. None of the animals minded her tromping around the pond or when she threw pebbles and sand into the water – except the herons, but you know how herons are. They insist on quiet while they fish in the shallows. Whenever she made noise, they stared down their long beaks at her.
“Sorry,” the girl would say, and the herons would shake their heads and take careful steps through the silt.
She often waded in the pond, watching the minnows nibble her toes, and played tug-of-war with crawdads mired in the mud. Sometimes, she would take off her clothes and let caterpillars crawl over her body. This was her routine in the summer until dinnertime, which her family ate at sunset everyday.
The morning she met the snake, all the animals were in an uproar. The snake glided across the pond toward her holding a fish in his mouth. The ducks took flight. The herons sized up the snake and stepped away. The minnows sought colder depths. None of these animals would have fallen for the promises of a scorpion.
He glided up onto the bank as if the land were simply more water. The girl crouched down and watched him swallow the fish. “That’s gross,” she said.
After such a meal, the snake was sleepy, but it was the first time a human had talked to him, so he wanted to take advantage of the opportunity. “And why is that?” he said.
“You should chew your food before you swallow. That’s the rule.”
“My mouth isn’t built that way. I have to unhinge my jaws to swallow food whole.”
“Oh,” she said, practicing opening and closing her mouth to see if she could do it. With the danger camouflaged in the grass, the ducks swooped down to the water, and the minnows darted into the shallows again. “Why is everyone afraid of you?”
“Because I’m a water moccasin, a rather large one, and I’m poisonous.” He opened his mouth exposing his fangs.
“Scary.” But she did not flinch. “Do you want to play with me?” she said.
The snake curled into a spiral under the warm sun. “I’m a little sleepy, but if you’re still here when I wake up, I will.”
“I’ll wait,” the girl said, and she went off to pick two cattails after consulting with the redwing blackbirds who were partial to hiding among them. She laid one next to the sleeping snake and waited. The sun arced toward the west, and the girl worried that he would not wake up before she had to go home. Finally, the snake yawned, his long fangs shining in the sun.
“I brought you a cattail,” she said. “Let’s pretend to be pirates and sword fight.”
The snake took his sword in his tail and they fenced with one another through the afternoon, until the snake got carried away in the antics of being a swashbuckler, tripped her with his sword, and sunk his fangs in the girl’s thigh. The snake dropped the cattail and rushed toward her, “I’m so sorry,” the snake said. He curled around her leg and hugged her.
Blood seeped up from the wounds. “Am I going to die?”
“No, no,” the snake said. “It’s okay, but I’m sorry to have hurt you.”
She glanced to the west and realized the sun had descended dangerously close to the horizon. “I had a wonderful time, but I need to go.”
Dinner had surely been set on the table, and she prayed that her father had gotten stuck in traffic on his way home from work. As soon as she released her prayer to heaven and before the snake had unwrapped completely from her leg, her father appeared above them with panic in his eyes from the telltale wounds on his daughter’s leg.
You can imagine his reaction. The father grabbed a rock. The water moccasin hissed. The girl screamed. “Don’t be afraid,” her father said and crushed the snake’s head.
The hospital doctor explained that while her wound was definitely the result of a snakebite, it was not poisonous.
Back at home, her father forbade her to go to the pond again. She looked to her mother who simply folded her arms and said that dinner would not wait any longer.
As she got older, she ran away often to drink rum with friends and be with boys, only to be dragged back home by her father and sent to her room without dinner. Her mother would come in while the girl sobbed into her pillow and say, “You’re lucky your father found you. That’s all I can say.”
Finally, on her eighteenth birthday, she began to understand danger: the dangers of the world, of the pond, of this house. It lurked in photographs on the wall, in the pots neatly stacked in the cupboard, in her father’s smoky overcoat. She also noticed that she was hungrier than she had ever felt before. After her mother brought out the cake, she thanked her parents for the lessons they had taught. She hugged them close, slowly unhinging her lower jaw before swallowing them whole, after which she curled up on the couch and went to sleep.
So, you see, this has nothing to do with the scorpion and the duck.