Ecce viator: Behold the Traveler
by Ed Higgins
The snake glides unhurriedly through the garden one warm July afternoon looking for a schmoose. Or barring such pleasant daytime passage, a shady snoozing spot. He twines himself about the gravid apple tree's trunk caduceus-like, slithering his handsome head up into the canopy's gray-green leaves. He nuzzles down on a lower branch awaiting passing adventure. A brown and gold stippled boa in a Bo Tree. He smiles, musing languidly at the thought. Still life: Ficus religiosa with serpent. The image amuses him greatly as he itches his smooth chin against a bit of rough bark on the limb.
The wry serpent reposes himself firmly upon a steadfast branch of the Tree of Knowledge. He often journeys to this particular tree. The fruit of chance encounter along the path below and the occasionally discerning conversation with some passerby often draws him from other pleasures in the garden.
Barely settled, phallic and cunning, he smiles warily--although benevolently enough--for he has dined satisfactorily lately. On a weanling shoat he'd earlier noticed rooting among the fallen apples beneath this favorite of all his trees. Oh yes, he considers it his tree. The Tree of Lunch and Conversation, as he likes to tell his friends. Although he never invites others here; nor do they dare ask.
Ah, but look, someone's coming along already.
He smiles readily at young Alice whose wind-brushed hair and golden innocence happen to chance by at this very moment. She hurries along the well-worn path unawares, passing under his particular tree. Her only curiosity quite obviously for the White Rabbit who has passed by earlier, comically dressed like a nineteenth century Oxford don. The hare himself curiously harried by the bedeviling mathematics of time and a pressing tardiness for his own strange underground business. Shy and stammering, the harried hare perhaps just didn't cotton to a pre-pubescent girl curiously chasing after him. So thought the serpent. And that he himself had been slack-jawed and swallowing a squealing young pig when the wide-eyed White Rabbit happened along didn't much tell for the possibility of amused or friendly conversation either.
But seizing this new opportunity the boa clears his now unobstructed throat loudly enough to catch young Alice's hurrying eye and innocent ear.
"Oh, hello!" say's this pretty and entirely unflappable daughter of Eve.
Eyeball-to-earful the arrested Alice and reclining boa quickly enough turn to chatting up the nice day, the very pleasant scenery, and, incidentally, the curious journey she's obviously embarked upon. The serpent's keen as a prophet to enlighten her on a certain mushroom's dangerous pharmacology, odd tea parties to come, strange behaviored people she's liable to meet here and there given the fantastical nature of the universe. He speaks knowingly about what a curiousier and curiousier world this world's journey becomes the deeper you look into the nature, or, say, the non-nature, of just about anything.
"Hell, take reality as just a prime example," he muses, overlooking the probable Victorian gentility of his young companion.
"Metaphysically, you wouldn't believe the stuff I've tried to wrap this thick skull around! And worse, tried to swallow! Hee-Hee! He enjoys these little puns, thinks of them as harmless conversational affectation. Wit really.
"Thinking can crush the life out of you!" he adds warming to his own rhetorical excesses. "And it's certainly a bitch toward happiness in anyone's Maslovian hierarchy of simple needs."
He pauses for rhetorical effect, smiling like a used car salesman.
"Holy Shit," he says, totally forgetting himself, his moist serpent tongue pensively flicking the afternoon air, tasting random pheromones but not yet realizing he's lost any chance of recovering polite conversation, let alone friendship, with this starched and pinafored traveler. His words fall from his dark tongue to her ears like offending worms assaulting the nearby apples. "Shit," he almost says again, but then recovering his tongue somewhat, corrects himself. "Goodness," he offers, "You know, sometimes a tree is just a fig tree--or at least an apple tree! Ficus religiosa transformed, so to speak, into Malus religiosa. Ya know?"
"You do know Latin?" the boa asks.
"Well, no," says pretty Alice. "But I'm beginning to learn!" Truthfully, Alice finds her Latin lessons tiresome. And her mind begins to wander as she senses tediousness about to come her way.
Where might all this be going she thinks with the impatience of the young for abstract thought. Especially in Latin, and with the threat of religiosa hanging in the theological air. But one mustn't be impolite.
"Oh, you don't then?" says the snake having stalled in mid-oration, wondering if he should now translate the Latin and simply ruin all cleverness.
"Well, to tell you the truth," he tries to backpedal, "Latin's not that much help unraveling cosmic things anyway." He decides the finer rhetorical context has already been lost on her. Like retelling the punch line of a missed joke. He'll try another tact.
"Sometimes even a cigar's just a cigar, eh?" He winks, paternally.
But she doesn't know this either. Yes, but her father smokes a pipe, she says. And she's never read this alluded to Mr. Freud. Chronology is sometimes a problem for the snake.
For young Alice, shifting her weight from one black patent shoe to the other, being polite is turning increasingly boring. But Alice notices the serpent's sad, pleading eyes: richly light grey-green-to-gold; she finds them nearly hypnotic. She notices too the boa's enormous, vividly patterned bulk wrapped around and around the Tree of Knowledge's brown trunk, ending with his smooth head resting on the scuffed lower branch. The snake's brow is draped aslant in the tree's glossy leaves, almost suggesting a comic green beret. And he is smiling, contentedly, despite the sadness in his eyes. He is clearly, but sweetly, befuddled she concludes. As adults often are around curious, intelligent adolescents. Which she considers herself, of course.
The boa twined branch is only a few inches above Alice's honey-golden tresses. She could reach up easily and pet the snake, offer it a bit of comfort maybe, or at least the acknowledgment of touch.
But such intimacy would scare the shit out of her. The snake too probably.
Neither herpetology or other of life's more studied reflections for this hurried pilgrim, not yet anyway. Much too young. "She's polite though," thinks the serpent warmly, "And pretty. Even an Enlightenment admirer of all God's creatures seemingly."
He's mistaken, of course.
"After all," he thinks, "hadn't her aroused curiosity respecting another of God's puzzling creatures, the pink-eyed white donish rabbit, brought her on this journey in the first place?"
Alice snaps out of her near hypnotic reverie. She's seriously bored now, and the thought of the vanished, frock-coated rabbit she'd been trailing catches at her wandering mind. The white rabbit's image bumps along somewhere in her mind's dim distraction until along side a bit of casually stored information about the Maslovian interest of hungry snakes in the order Lagomorpha. These two ill met thoughts synapse explosively through the cortex of her suddenly fully alert head. The brain's mysterious chemistry sounds its hormonal alarm. Like a village fire brigade, adrenalin rushes madly about her previously quiescent body.
The boa smells the fear. He feels like a bastard for forgetting himself. For using bad language anyway.
"Dumb shit," he chastises himself, but inaudibly so as not to add further insult. "Just as I was winning her over with my most winsome smile and honest, exploring intellect," he thinks, actually speaking absently aloud.
Alice doesn't hear him in any event. Her ears are ringing with fearful chemistry.
"You dumb little shit!" she thinks to herself, scolding her misjudgment with the practiced vehemence of an adolescent's private vocabulary--as well as a fair assessment for an appropriate profanity situation.
"This tan boa bastard's as dangerous as they come," she concludes. "That creep's wrapped around a tree trunk three times my girth. The boa has slid down the branch above Alice's head and curled himself around the tree's trunk in an attempt to seem more friendly, more upright, and he now smiles reassuringly. "He's going to crush and swallow all sixty-some pounds of me whole!" Alice calculates this instantly from the ease with which the snake has embraced the tree trunk's girth.
"He's probably already eaten the strange white rabbit before I've now popped along as the main course."
"Well, I suspect you must be on your way," offers the boa, politely, breaking their uncomfortable silence. He realizes further conversation will not recoup Alice's lost interest. If ever he had it in the first place. His tongue flicks reflexively, acrid with the taste of her fear. He's embarrassed and a bit ashamed that he's the cause of this turn in her natural friendliness. He's always had a soft spot for innocence.
"Look, don't be a stranger," he finally says, with forced cheerfulness, offering her as clear an exit line as possible under the circumstances.
"I've enjoyed meeting you," Alice says self-consciously, hiding her fear badly. They both knowing she's lying through her bright young teeth.
But Alice has been quick to catch the situational shift. Understanding more from less can always be a valued trait in any serious discourse.
"Help yourself to some fruit before you go," offers the serpent, as if the tree were his private patrimony. "Never know when you might develop a touch of hunger along the way, eh?"
Alice eager to depart, yet not wanting to appear hurried, or worse, ungrateful, reaches up among the glossy leaves snatching a particularly handsome apple from near the branch that had earlier held the serpent's mordant countenance.
She holds the plucked fruit in her left hand, raising her right with a slight parting wave.
"Well, goodbye!" she says, walking steadily away, while keeping her most winsome smile fixed on the snake's own ambivalent gaze.
"And thanks again for everything," she calls back from a little distance beyond the tree's umbrella-like canopy.
She waves again. "With more vigor than either convention or gratitude demand," observes the snake to no one in particular. Alice is far out of hearing now.
Alice, of course, is thanking her damn lucky stars to be on her way again, unscathed.
"I hope I never run into that creep again!" she says aloud to also no one in particular, since she's well away down the path from the disconcerting boa and his imposing tree.
Alice polishes a side of the apple on her dress, feeling its solid bulk against the dress's soft cotton pressed against her ribs; she bites into the sweet golden-green fruit.
"Pippin," she thinks, "Newtown Pippin. No, too sweet, it must be Garden Delicious," she finally decides.
"Yes, Garden Delicious."
She laughs happily, skipping down the beckoning path toward the rest of her anticipated journey.
About the author:
Ed's poems and short fiction have appeared in Duck & Herring Co.'s Pocket Field Guide, Monkeybicycle and Bellowing Ark, as well as the online journals Lily, Cross Connect, VLQ, and Red River Review, among others. He lives on a small farm in Yamhill, Oregon with a menagerie of aimals including an emu named To & Fro. He teaches writing and literature at George Fox University, south of Portland, OR.