Mamba (Excerpt from The Mystery of the Word)

Excerpt of a story from The Mystery of the Word (no longer in print, but still available from online bookstores)

It was a sunny day with a light breeze and the world could not have been more beautiful. I was picking wild flowers in the woods beside the airstrip in Chizela, a mission station in Zambia, when just as I reached for one last flower, a flame lily, all at once I felt something slam into the back of my leg. It was a real hit, like a gunshot, a powerful stinging blow that actually made me jump into the air. I spun around, caught just a glimpse of the familiar coffin-shaped head and those eyes like the tiniest black diamonds, and knew immediately I was as good as dead. There had been no warning whatsoever, yet instantly my astonishment gave way to an eerie sense of fatalism, as though everything leading up to this event had been meticulously and uncannily prepared. Is that, I wonder, what passes through everyone’s mind at the moment of death?

I had another odd thought: she was a good size, this black mamba, ten feet or so, and she struck me as being the spitting image of one I’d killed not long ago, like a twin sister, so that in that fleeting moment when I first laid eyes on her, I recall feeling that she knew exactly who I was. Crazy, isn’t it? Truth is, she didn’t know me from Adam and I’d probably just ventured too near to her nest. For there’s really only one situation in which a mamba will attack a human being out of the blue, and that is when the eggs are threatened.

Well, I dropped my bouquet of flowers as if it were poison and stared in spellbound horror as the mamba went streaking away across the top of the grass, head up, swift and legless as a ghost. Then suddenly she stopped, about twenty-five yards away, and began waving, slowly, musically. Waving at me, telling me she was coming back. I knew this from an article I’d read about mambas just the week before. She would return and strike again, as if merely to kill once were not enough. And then she would eat out my eyes. The entire contents of that article went flashing through my mind. Exactly what the writer had described was happening to me now, just as though I’d dreamed it all.

I knew I was a dead man. The mamba bite is always fatal; I had maybe eight minutes, twenty at most. Yet at the same time I thought: if I have to die, all right, but there’s sure no reason I have to die here. Right beside me, as it happened, was a huge tree––a mukuyu, I think, the African fig––and one other fact I recalled from this article was that mambas have very poor eyesight. So the first thing I did was to hobble around behind this tree. Can you imagine? Hiding from a snake behind a tree? But it gave me time to take out a handkerchief and tie a tourniquet on my leg, just below the knee. It was a beautiful tourniquet, I must say, right over the vessel. Isn’t it peculiar how a little thing like that, at such a time, can give a fellow such deep satisfaction?

Next I peered cautiously out from behind the trunk, just as in a game of cops and robbers, and saw that the mamba was still there, still waving. But now I was confident she couldn’t see me. And so, keeping that big old friendly fig between me and the snake, I started edging away, backing off towards the airstrip until I was out of the woods. Then I took off like the dickens straight up the runway for home, hopping on one leg all the way. It was crazy––I shouldn’t even have been moving, let alone running––but I bet I ran faster on one leg that day than I ever have on two! And so many thoughts crowded my mind, I cannot tell them all. But I wanted to see my wife, for one thing. And I wanted to die in my own home and not on top of some mamba’s lair. And I certainly didn’t want my eyes chewed out.

Yet one idea, strangely enough, never occurred to me, not even for a moment. And that was the thought that I might survive, that the Lord might save me. I cried out to God with all my heart, naturally. But only because death already had me. With paralysis already setting in, I tore down that runway like a man who had one final act to perform in this world and then the struggle would be over…

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