A hamadryad (Greek: Ἁμαδρυάδες, Hamadryádes) is a Greek mythological being that lives in trees. They are a particular type of dryad, which are a particular type of nymph. Hamadryads are born bonded to a certain tree. Some believe that hamadryads are the actual tree, while normal dryads are simply the entities, or spirits, of the trees. If the tree died, 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.
So 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 banana leaves. Inside, it’s like a grotto, with lots of gaps and caves between the stepped rocks. Looking up I find huge silent insect colonies on the vertical or overhanging planes of rock, wasps or ants or I don’t know what — great mud suburbs, dead and empty now. 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.
For me the snake is the spirit of this place. The sea eagles that patrol this coast are magnificent, of course, but are not land animals. My fear is of what comes out of the tunnelled ground, or the gaps and little caves between stacked rocks. I listen to Nong, one of the older guys, who helped me one afternoon and told me: Don’t look up, look down. Alway down. Snake coming!
I still haven’t seen one, though, apart from the harmless little green ones. You have to be careful, even then — somebody told me there’s a viper that very similar apart from an orange 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 metal rusting in the undergrowth — it was the bottom of an monkey old cage — and underneath was a cobra, six feet long and as thick as my arm. ‘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 Jamrock, I saw one rippling across the road ahead of me. I accelerated to try to get a better look, but it moved sinuously across the road like 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 a King Cobra was at distance, not in the jungle or, God forbid, at night in my hut.
I knew I would have a more personal meeting eventually, living down here. I just didn’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. Once or twice, a hia crashing around. Wind. Leaf-falls. Something moving on my roof. Sometimes, the screams of small mammals protesting their deaths. Occasionally I find myself in 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.
The waves on the rocks make a hundred different sounds, some of them perfectly incongruous: impressions of footsteps on the street, muttering voices in alleyways; military music. The water seems to penetrate underground for some distance. At night, I hear or feel it rumble deep below; a door slamming, deep within the earth, once at every high tide, seeming to come from the landward side of where I lie. An echo? or do the underground sluices go that far back into the mountain?
Sometimes you just have to get up and roll another one.
Mosquitoes are not too much of a problem, because of the sea breeze. Bats flicker through my balcony, and my hut is well-patrolled by geckos. Like me they seem wary of the spiders. I’ve accepted by now that a bamboo hut is never going to be any kind of exclusion zone, and 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 can install a snake-fence, Red tells me.
Snake-fent no good! laughs Nueng. Come down from trees!
A huge tree towers over my hut, draping it with hanging roots. Creepers reach up to meet them and form twinned and twisted filaments. Some of the lines touch the reeds of my roof. Sometimes I stare up into the branches looking for Nueng’s tree-snakes. I’ve never seen one up there in the canopy. They’re pretty hard to see even when they’re right under your feet.
So it took me 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-vigilance, ready to snap my eyes open at any close sound, or the clammy touch of a gecko on my arm. Leaves and nuts and dead twigs land on my roof all the time; even after rain has stopped, breezes continue to unloose volleys of droplets from the branches fifty feet above. Sometimes I was sure I’d heard something come down 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 the pit viper they call landmine. 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 in a jungle in the open, wide-eyed and comatose.
I know it’s silly, but I’ve lived my entire life inside shells — houses, condos, cars, institutions — and now I haven’t got one at all, or only this shack made of bamboo and reeds. A year ago, I was living in a huge and beautiful apartment with a long theatrical fourth-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 salubrious. It was a nice fluke that I could afford it on a part-time teacher’s money — but international schools are not a professional setting, and their top-down culture was steadily forcing me out of teaching; I didn’t know what my future held. A bamboo hut in the forest was my answer to this premonition of decline: go to the other extreme; I’ve never had less of a house, less of a shell. 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 in the afternoon, 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 smoke, as well. And if tendrils of plants can infiltrate my space, groping in through gaps between walls and roof, what kinds of interpenetrations might be happening at deeper, less material levels?
Every day as I move through jungle I’m careful to follow Nong’s advice and concentrate on the ground. Everything coils around everything else. The morphology of the snake seems not strange but inevitable — that in the ubiquity of these shapes one of them would eventually, inevitably, detach and animate and move on its own. If God sleeps in the minerals, dreams in the plants, walks in the animals and thinks in man, as Zarathustra says, and if the point of our existence, as Hoagie 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 itself.
There are reticulated pythons, too. 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, telluric current. I speak to it with respect, a love both compelled and 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 hood? 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 move it. Was that really a hood, or just the way it had 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 had emerged from there. I go back with a bright torch and look more closely. If this little cobra was inside the bamboo, it’s sure as hell got inside my head.
They’re all around you, says Hoagy. Don’t worry about it. Love is stronger than fear. And yet… how will I sleep tonight? I love this place, and the spirit of it 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 what he says is 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 that snakes are just as afraid of you 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 informing 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. Most of these are agricultural and forestry workers — but I’ll bet some of them are clueless stoners like me stumbling about in the jungle, or reaching behind a bush to retrieve their stash. A King Cobra bite can kill you in ten or twenty minutes, if it gets you on the torso or the neck. Since a big one can rear up to four or five feet off the ground, this is can happen. 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 mountain.
I hadn’t realised how big they are, either — they can grow 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, on the first-aid checklist of what to do if you get bitten by a King Cobra, Item 1 is: 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, injecting more venom.
Over the next two days, two more sloughed skins appear in exactly the same place in my hut. I wonder if a brood has hatched inside the strut of the window frame. Or maybe word has got around Snake City that this is a good sloughing station. And then it occurs to me — what do cobras eat?
Hmm. Other snakes.
So if I’ve got baby green snakes hatching out in my hut, how long before a cobra shows up?
If I talk about it a lot it’s really just for laughs. Red said there must be an antidote leaf in the jungle that I could eat. Right, I said, which one? I don’t know, she said, eat all! And we laughed at the idea of people standing over an agonised corpse with its mouth stuffed full of leaves, shaking their heads and looking at each other, like, what happened here?
It’s just talk-for-talk’s sake. If I was going to get bitten by a snake, it would already have happened as I blundered about in the jungle knowing nothing.
Nevertheless, a little education is a wonderful thing.
And then one evening, I’m sitting on top of the big rock at the entrance to Snake City. I’ve finished cleaning the ivy and soil from its strange, flat-topped diamond shape, sharpening a knife and thinking about a certain person. It’s sundown, and I’ve been sitting up here for a while, smoking and drinking cold coffee, writing in a notebook. I’ve brought my machete and the whetstone up with me, and all I plan to do now is grind my blades and watch the dusk come on. I’ve finished the machete and am working on my switch-knife, a murderous-looking thing I only ever use it for cutting weed and spooning out coffee.
As the sun disappears into the bank of haze on the horizon, I finally gather up my stuff and clamber down to the path — but I’ve got too much to carry and I leave the machete and stone at the top. I’m about to go back up for them, 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 landscape — my landscape because I uncovered all of it, scraped it, smoothed these paths with shovel and hoe.
It’s a smooth charcoal black with a hue of cream in its sheen, and I feel the extraordinary sensation of pure instinct taking over the muscles of my eyes, zooming in, focusing and enhancing, reducing noise, blurring out background, performing all these background operations to show me in ultra-high resolution the face of an adult King Cobra as it breasts the rise in the path. The black eyes, large sand-coloured plates of its face, the senescent, gurning line of the mouth, its tongue flicking out to taste the air. The earless head, not so much sleek as skull-like. Behind it, the wave of the body, the creamy-black coils.
Ophiophagus hannah, the Hamadryad. My camera-eyes catch it in the motion of lifting its head and tasting my sweat on the air. It’s not much more than one body-length away from me, if it’s as big as I think it is. Because I am viewing it head-on, I can only guess its length.
I would love 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 before I can turn round to get another look, but it’s already 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 motionless in the dusk for a while, thinking about what just happened. Then I go back to my hut and build a small fire in front of it. I do that most nights anyway, but tonight it’s more a territorial thing. I watch my fire and think about what went through my body when I saw the snake — about the adrenalin instantly infusing my veins, so fast it seemed electrical. 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, as electro-magnetic resonance imagery suggests, is 50% of seeing. Could I have projected the image? The precession of simulacra — the impossibility of having an experience, now, of which you have not already experienced multiple representations.
No. Not imagined. Physical. My eyes knew what it was before I did.
And after that I stopped worrying so much about cobras.
A few days later I was sitting on my vernadah in the middle of the day, which had grown too hot for working. A cobra poked its head out of the undergrowth a few feet away and looked me right in the eye, assessing me. I sat still, thinking, ‘Go ahead, friend.’ It came forward — only about a metre long — must be a juvenile, I thought, and lacking those large plates on the face. It entered the patch of grass in front of the hut and disappeared. I watched closely to see if I could detect any movement in the blades of grass, but there was not a shiver, and not the slightest sound. It had kept moving at the same pace, however, as became obvious when it appeared out the other side of the patch, moving smoothly and circling back downhill. As it moved calmly along the path in front of me and came within a metre of my feet, I saw the monocle mark on its neck and realised this was Naja kaouthia, also known as the Indian Spitting Cobra, smaller but more venomous than its cousin the King. I reached out a hand, slowly, to my machete — just in case — but it sensed my movement and slithered rapidly away along the side of the hut.
Both times I was left with the the sense of an intelligent creature, that 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 the rock 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.