A hamadryad (Greek: Ἁμαδρυάδες, Hamadryádes) is a mythological being that lives in trees. Hamadryads are born bonded to a certain tree. Some believe that hamadryads are the actual tree, while dryads are the entities, or spirits, of the trees. If the tree dies, the hamadryad associated with it dies as well. For that reason, dryads and the gods punished any mortals who harmed trees without first propitiating the tree-nymphs.
Hamadryas hannah is also a (now obsolete) binomial for the King Cobra.
I’m working my way up into the little gorge, under the cliff, where the rocks are stacked and tumbled around the stream bed and there are caves and tunnels everywhere. Green light; bananas trees and elephant palms, out of reach of the sun except for half an hour in the afternoon when the angle is right. A trickle of water in the stream bed, growing to a torrent after rain. I cut back screens of hanging roots and creepers and take down some of the bananas in there. Inside, it’s kind of a mysterious grotto, with lots of gaps and caves between the stepped rocks. I see bats flying in and out of the cliff as it gets dark.
Snake City. Has to be.
That’s where I’d live if I was a snake, anyway.
I find huge insect nests, wasps or ants or I don’t know what — great mud cities, on vertical and overhanging planes, dead and empty now.
For me the snake is the spirit of this place. The sea eagles that patrol this coast are magnificent, of course, but not really land animals. My fear is what comes out of the tunnelled ground, and the gaps and little caves between stacked rocks.
I still haven’t seen one, apart from the harmless little green ones, that is. You have to be careful even then — somebody told me there’s a viper that looks identical apart from a mark on its forehead. I haven’t seen cobra or python or water snake. Except in my dreams, of course. My waking dreams too: in the jungle everything twists and undulates — would I even know if I’d seen one?
A few mornings ago, four of the guys lifted a large section of wood lying in the undergrowth, the bottom of an old monkey cage, and underneath was a big cobra, six feet long and as thick as my wrist. ‘It freaked out and took off’, they told me, but they were still freaking out themselves, and counting their luck: all four had put their hands under the object to lift it. And later that day, driving my bike away from Lion Rock, I saw one rippling across the road ahead, maybe the same one. It was some way away from me, but it was the right black-brown colour, and its dimensions were more or less as described. I accelerated to try to get a better look, but it moved sinuously and fast across the road, like a wave or a flame. It may have been an illusion, but in the sunlight its skin seemed to have a reddish aura. I gave thanks that my first sighting of King Cobra was at distance, not underfoot in the jungle or at night in my hut.
I knew I would have a more personal meeting eventually, living down here. I just don’t know what the circumstances will be. At night, whether writing or reading or trying to sleep, I’m taking in all the sounds around me. Sprays of raindrops blown from tall trees. Movements in undergrowth. Falling leaves. A monitor lizard crashing around. Some nights, the screams of dying animals. Sometimes I get into a state of hyper-alertness and sleep is difficult. My hearing seems not just sharper but more topographical, image-mapping the terrain by insect wavelengths, bat-squabbles and owl-hoots. Wind. Leaf shuffles. Something moving on my roof. Sometimes, the screams of small mammals protesting their deaths.
At night, the waves on the rocks make a hundred different sounds, some of them incongruous, impressions of footsteps or muttering voices, or a door slamming deep within the earth, just once at each high tide. The water seems to penetrate underground for some distance. When the tide is high at night, I hear it rumble deep beneath me. A slap or concussion seems to come from the landward side of where I lie. An echo, or do the underground sluices go that far back into the mountain?
Mosquitoes are not too much of a problem, because of the steady sea breeze. Bats flicker through my balcony, and my hut is well-patrolled by geckos. They seem wary of the spiders, like me. I’ve accepted by now that a bamboo hut in the jungle is never going to be any kind of exclusion zone, and I’ve decided that if I ever open my door and find a cobra inside I’m just going to say, ‘Sorry! Wrong hut…’ and quietly close the door, before going and finding somewhere else to sleep.
You should get a snake-fence, says Apsara.
Snake-fent no good, says Nueng. Come down from trees!
A huge tree towers over my hut, draped with hanging roots. Creepers reach up to meet them and form twinned and twisted filaments. Some of the lines touch my roof. Sometimes I stare up into the branches looking for snakes. I’ve never seen one up there in the canopy. They’re pretty hard to see even when they’re under your feet.
I know it’s silly, but I suppose I’ve lived my entire life inside shells — houses, condos, cars — and now I haven’t got one, or at least only one made of bamboo and reeds. A year ago, I was living in a huge and beautiful apartment with a wall of glass and a stunning view out over the fringes of Ho Chi Minh City. I was aware I would never again live anywhere so fabulous. It was a nice fluke that I could afford it on only a part-time teacher’s money — but schools were gradually forcing me out of teaching, and I didn’t know what my future held. A bamboo hut with light coming in through the walls and floor was my answer to this feeling of decline. Go to the other extreme. I’ve never had less of a house, less of a shell. If tendrils of plants are infiltrating my living space, groping in through gaps between walls and roof, what kinds of interpenetrations might be going on at deeper, less material levels?
The roof keeps the rain off; the weave might look rough but it is waterproof. The walls are studded with gaps, which let in light to beautiful effect during the daytime, or at night if I leave the outside light on. Under the mushroom, it becomes a jewelled temple. It looks great filled with snaking thermals of marijuana smoke, as well.
But it took a while to adapt to sleeping in the forest. Most nights I was spark-out from my labours, but there were nights where I wasn’t achieving deep sleep at all, merely a kind of one-eyed, submerged hyper-alertness, ready to snap my eyes open at any close sound, or the clammy touch of a gecko landing on my arm. Leaves and nuts and dead twigs land on my roof all the time; even after rain has stopped, breezes continue to unleash volleys of droplets from the leaves fifty feet above. Sometimes I was sure I’d heard something come down from the trees on one of the lianas, land on my roof and scrabble around for a while before sliding over the edge and landing in the leaves beside my hut. Probably just a green snake — and it’s irrational, of course, to worry about it, since the snake isn’t looking for me — the problem would only arise if I surprised one or stepped on one. But it’s hard to be rational when you’re half-asleep.
I’m in their territory. The hut keeps the rain off, but apart from that is essentially an illusion. When I close my eyes, it disappears and I’m lying out in the jungle, trying to sleep. Physical tiredness is not always enough to override this hyper-vigilance.
Sometimes you just have to get up and roll another spliff.
There are also big pythons in this forest — rarer, but still present. A few months ago, I hear, there was one in the chicken pen, up by the main clearing. They killed it, I think — and cooked it, no doubt.
Every day as I move through jungle I’m careful to follow Nong’s advice, one of the older guys, who told me: Don’t look up, look down. Alway down. Snake coming! So I concentrate on the ground. The trouble is that here everything looks like a snake. Everything winds, everything coils around everything else. Would I even know if I’d seen one?
The morphology of the snake seems not just natural but inevitable, to my mind — that in the ubiquity of these shapes one of them would eventually, inevitably, detach and animate and move. If God sleeps in the minerals, dreams in the plants, walks in the animals and thinks in man, as Zarathustra said, and if the point of our existence, as Hodgy says, is for the universe to experience itself, then God slithers in the snake, and in the form of the snake puts the fear of God into himself.
My illusory house is bordered by huge tree roots, twisting massively along the ground and under my thin split-bamboo floor. Coming down from the mushroom, I hear the great python moving beneath the illusory floor: an earth-wave, a telluric current. I speak to it with respect, my love compelled but real. And my fear is calm, a static vibration, a current of energy coming up into me from the ground and snaking up my spine.
Then one morning, I find a calling card left in my hut. Lodged in the hinge of my bamboo window frame, catching the light, is the sloughed, transparent skin of a snake.
What kind of snake? It’s colour gives no clue: it is the colour of dead skin. Is it my imagination, or do I see the distinctive shape of the hooded head? I gently try to remove it in order to examine it outside in better light, but it is bound to the wood by resinous red threads like wax drips, and comes apart as I remove it. Was that really a hood, or just the way it split and opened out?
Photographing it in sunlight I see a tawny tinge. I enlarge the images on my computer, and marvel at the tessellated diamonds of its back and sides and the concave bars of its belly. Looking at the photographs I notice something else. It may once again be an illusion, but the tail of the skin disappears inside the hollow bamboo of the window frame, as if the snake emerged from there. I go back with a bright torch and look closer. That’s certainly how it looks. This little cobra was inside the bamboo. And it’s sure as hell inside my head.
Love is stronger than fear, says Hoagy. And yet… how will I sleep tonight?
I love this place, and its spirit is the snake, so does that mean I have to love the cobra?
In the meantime I show the photographs to Ai, who he says decisively that this is a harmless green snake not a cobra, despite the illusion of a hood. And he shows me some small sections of cobra skin incorporated into one of the belts that are hanging up on sale in the bar. The scales are sharply tessellated in diagonal straight lines.
He’s right. These scales slightly are rounded at the point, not like the cobra’s sharp diamonds.
People always say, the snakes are just as afraid of you as much as you are of them.
Really? In which case, somewhere there’s a snake somewhere lying awake worrying about where I am.
I start reading online, when I’m over at Ap’s place, for information, belatedly educating myself about King Cobras and other snakes in Thailand. I learn that out of the two hundred or so species that are found here, thirty-five are venomous and most of these can kill you, though you’d have to be pretty unlucky in some cases. Apart from King Cobras, there are vipers and coral snakes and banded kraits, small but deadliest of all. Every year around seven thousand people die from snake bites in Thailand, a staggering total to me. Most of these are agricultural and forestry workers — but I’ll bet some of them are clueless farangs like me, stumbling around in the jungle or reaching behind a bush to retrieve their stash.
I did that once. The police had been putting the squeeze on Nueng again, and he told me to hide my stash in the bush away from my hut in case they came to search. Reaching arm-deep into the growth around a small tree-stump along one of my paths, I picked up some leaves and stalks as well as my package. One of the stalks was very beautiful, but only as I discarded it did I realise that it was a snake. By that time I’d already educated myself a bit, and knew that this was a golden tree snake, not venomous, and half asleep anyway.
A King Cobra bite can kill you in ten or twenty minutes, if it gets you on the torso. Since they rear up to four or five feet off the ground, this is not unlikely. Regardless of where I got bitten, though, I don’t think I’m getting out of this valley alive. You have to bind and immobilise the limb and get to hospital fast, not climb a hill.
I hadn’t realised how big they are, either — up to six metres. An adult King is four to five meters long on average; they are the largest poisonous snakes in the world. And while an attack would only happen in particular circumstances, in those circumstances the snake would be very aggressive. So item one on the first-aid checklist of what to do if you get bitten by a King Cobra is this: 1. Get the fucking thing off you. It has powerful jaws, the most powerful in pounds per square inch of any venomous snake, and that’s your first problem, as it bites down and locks its jaws, injecting venom.
Over the next two days, two more sloughed snake skins appeared in exactly the same place in my hut. I wondered if a brood had hatched inside the strut of the window frame. Or maybe word had got around the snake community that this was a good sloughing station. And then it occurs to me —
What do cobras eat?
If I’ve got green snakes hanging out in my hut, how long before a cobra shows up?
I’m not really obsessing over it, and if I talk about it a lot it’s really just for laughs. Ap said there would probably be a leaf I could eat as an antidote. Right, I said, which one? I don’t know, she said, eat all! And we laughed at the idea of people standing over my agonised corpse with its mouth stuffed with leaves, looking at each like, what the hell happened here?
It’s all just talk, it’s not going to happen. If I was going to get bitten by a snake, it would already have happened as I blundered about in the jungle.
But a little self-education is a wonderful thing.
And then one evening, I’m sitting on top of the big diamond-shaped rock I’ve cleaned the ivy and creepers and soil off, sharpening a knife. I’m thinking about a certain person who has hurt people dear to me, and whom I have determined beyond doubt that I will meet again one day. It’s sundown, and I’ve been sitting up there for a while, smoking, drinking cold coffee, and writing in a notebook. Then I’ve gone and brought my machete and the whetstone back up with me, so I can sharpen my blades and watch the dusk come on. I’ve finished my machete, and now I’m sharpening my switch-knife, even though I only ever use it for cutting weed and stirring coffee.
As the sun disappears into the bank of haze on the horizon, I gather up my stuff — coffee-cup, notebook, knife, whetstone — and clamber down to the path — but I’ve got too much to carry and I leave the machete at the top. I’m about to go back up for it, when I catch a movement in the corner of my eye, on the path to my right, a little below my line of sight. A colour, a movement, that are not part of my usual landscape — my landscape because I uncovered all of it it with blades, scraped it, smoothed these paths with shovel and hoe.
The colour is a smooth charcoal black with a hue of cream in its shine, the movement fluid like a wave, and I feel the extraordinary sensation of pure instinct taking over the muscles of my eyes, zooming in, focusing and enhancing, blurring out background, performing all these background operations to show me in ultra-high resolution the beautiful and horrifying face of an adult King Cobra as it breasts a rise in the path. The black eyes, large sand-coloured plates of its face, the slightly gurning line of of the mouth, its tongue flicking out to taste the air. The head, earless, not so much sleek as skull-like. Behind it the wave of the body, the sheen of the skin.
Ophiophagus hannah, the Hamadryad. My camera-eyes catch it in the motion of lifting its head, no doubt tasting my sweat. It’s only ten or twelve feet from me — probably less than one body-length, in terms of the dimensions of the snake. Because I am viewing it head-on, I can only guess its length, but if it’s ten feet long, it’s too close. It is the cobra’s body-length which makes it particularly dangerous, giving it an unexpectedly long strike range.
I would like to stand and look, but my body won’t allow it. It picks me up and carries me half a dozen strides back along the path towards my hut, and before I can turn round to get another look, it’s disappeared. No doubt it simply turned up the slope, in among the rocks, heading for Snake City. For a moment I wonder whether it was there at all. Did I imagine it?
I stand there in the dusk for a while, thinking about what just happened. Then I go back to my hut and make a fire in front of it. Now that the dry season is here it’s so easy. I do that most nights anyway, but tonight it’s more a territorial thing.
I think about what happened to my eyes and my body when I saw the snake — about the adrenalin instantly infusing all my veins, so fast. Electric. And I think about what happened to my eyes, and about the act of seeing itself.
I’d seen lots of pictures of King Cobras, and memory, the scientists say, is 50% of seeing. Could I have projected the image? I think about the precession of simulacra — the impossibility of having an experience, now, of which you have not already experienced representations.
No. Not imagined. Physical. My eyes knew what it was before I did.
Strangely, from that moment I stop worrying about cobras. I see them a couple more times, though not such big ones, and I have the sense of a creature that is very aware, that looks at you and takes you in, reading your intentions. And if you do the same, there’s not going to be a problem.
It’s fully dark now so I get my flashlight and go back to pick up my bits and pieces. I make myself stand there at the bottom of the diamond-shaped rock for some time as it gets dark, feeling the vibrations of the encounter.
God putting the fear of God into himself.