STRANGE BUT TRUE – THE UNWELCOME VISITOR – By Bernard VanCuylenburg.
As an introduction to the crux of this story, I have to part the veil of time and go back to the early sixties in Ceylon, when a friend of mine and I went to the Trio Cinema in Slave Island to watch what was then rated as one of the best horror movies of its time – “Cult of the Cobra”. Directed by Francis D.Lyon, this film was about six GI’s stationed in India, secretly photographing the arcane rituals of a group of Cobra worshippers ! In the film which the GI’ s were making, the bizarre climax was that some of the cult worshippers participating in these rituals turn themselves into snakes ! What was more horrifying was the High Priest of this cult of snake worshippers, catching the GI’s red handed in the act of filming, and throwing a curse on them which could turn them into snakes !! After they return to the USA a mysterious woman enters their lives, and accidents began to happen resulting in the deaths of these GI’s. And before each death, a shadow of a cobra can be seen. This opening paragraph will have relevance in the concluding paragraph of this story when a slithery visitor from the reptilian world – the world of the Elapids – decided to announce its presence to a humble housewife.
Mr.and Mrs.Clarence Palmer were a quiet Burgher couple who lived in the suburb of Mt.Lavinia in the early fifties. This was a time when life was easy paced, people had time for each other, values were simple, and the “Pearl of the Indian ocean” lived up to its reputation. Mr.Palmer was employed by the postal department and Mrs.Palmer was a housewife looking after hearth and home. Mr.Palmer was a model employee and well liked by his bosses. One day he received a registered letter from the department confirming a well deserved promotion which made them both very happy because they could use the extra income. However, this promotion came with one major condition. His new position was at the main post office in Kandy which meant a transfer. Having lived in Colombo all their lives, transferring to Kandy was the biggest move they had to make. Stoic and calm as ever Clarence and his wife visited Kandy beforehand in good time before the commencement of his new job, and were able to rent a small house for a very reasonable price in a small hamlet close to Kandy called Aruppola. Getting a house in the town was beyond their means as far as rent was concerned, but the small house they obtained suited them both. A week before he began work at the Kandy post office, the couple moved into their new home.
Today, this little hamlet has paid the price of progress and is crowded beyond imagination. It once was an idyllic place abundant with a variety of trees and lush vegetation, blessed by Mother Nature’s bounty. The temple was the most important building in the area, and the sound of the temple drums with their pulsating rhythm added an air of sanctity to the bucolic landscape. The good folk of Aruppola were salt of the earth human beings and made the newcomers very welcome. The couple settled in beautifully, and the bracing climate was a boon after the heat of Colombo.
Life was good until one Saturday morning while working in his garden, Clarence Palmer saw something which filled him with terror and shifted the tectonic plates of his calm demeanour ! A few feet away was a large cobra slithering its way very slowly by the small path in front of his house ! The reptile was in no hurry and went along at a measured pace. Clarence reacted as any human being would on perceiving a cobra – any snake for that matter. Cobras are venomous and potentially dangerous to human beings. Cobras are Elapids – a type of poisonous snake with fangs fixed to the top jaw at the front of the mouth
and is famous for one of the most iconic displays of snake poses – the rearing hooded display, hissing and raising the upper portion of their bodies to stand erect. This defensive display is one of the most distinctive characteristics of the cobra, and is purely an intimidating gesture to any potential enemy. My Dad was a tea planter and during his career he had a few close encounters with cobras and I was witness to two which I remember to this day.
But despite its fearful reputation the cobra is generally a shy snake avoiding confrontation with human beings as much as possible. Of course this is something which would never cross the mind of any human being when coming face to face with a cobra or any snake !
Clarence Palmer’s first thought was of the gun he kept in his house. This gun was given to him by his father and was hardly used. It was more of an heirloom. He surmised that in the time he took to get the gun, the snake would have vanished into the undergrowth. Vowing to keep the gun loaded and ready the next time this snake dared to pass his house, he immediately told his wife about the snake. But when he mentioned the presence of the cobra to his neighbour and word quickly spread in the little hamlet, the reaction of the good folk of Aruppola surprised him. They told him that this cobra lived close to the temple, was a familiar sight in the area, was completely harmless, and had been roaming this neck of the woods slithering its way through life as long as the older residents could remember ! Then came the warning that ill luck would befall anybody attempting to harm or kill this snake. Clarence was advised to ignore the snake whenever he saw it again and the reptile would do him no harm. Feigning acquiescence he listened to their words of advice, but in his heart he was determined to send the snake to eternal damnation the next time he saw it !
Time passed, and amidst the waft and web of life, the cobra became a distant memory. But fate had other plans and it seemed that the cobra and Clarence were destined to meet. The fatal encounter came one afternoon when Clarence went to his backyard to retrieve some washing which Elsie his wife had put out to dry. Close to a lump of firewood at the edge of the yard, was the cobra stretched to its full length on a rock in all its majesty, basking and enjoying the sun. Maintaining his composure, Clarence stepped back into the house and told Elsie to keep an eye on the snake while he fetched the gun which was fully loaded. It all ended like the proverbial gunfight and “draw” in any Western movie ! Gun in hand he stepped out into the yard very quietly, aimed at the snake squarely in his sights and pulled the trigger. Apart from blasting the snake to pieces, the sound of the gun broke the tranquility of the peaceful countryside and in a short while brought many of the folk in the vicinity to his front door to ascertain what had occurred.
Clarence informed them that he shot the snake because he could not take the risk of having it wandering about his property specially when he was away at work and his wife was alone at home. While understanding his predicament, the good folk of Aruppola seemed very agitated. They warned Clarence to take extreme care because he had killed a ‘sacred’ snake and dire consequences would follow……In good faith they told him that some form of retribution would eventuate sooner or later.The warnings came more in sorrow than in anger. Despite maintaining a steely sang froid in the face of these dire predictions, Clarence had an uneasy sensation he had not felt in a long while – fear. That night he retired to bed with a huge dent in his confidence and for some inexplicable reason, a feeling that all was not right in his world.
The following day Elsie and Clarence spoke about the unpleasant experience of the day before, but consoled themselves with the fact that at least they could now live in peace. There were other things to worry about in life than a dead snake ! The day of destiny came exactly three days later. Clarence as usual left for work at 7.30 am and returned about 5.30 each evening. Until he returned, Elsie was alone at home. He once told her that under no circumstances was she to open the door if anybody knocked. There was a room in the house from which the main entrance could be seen through a window. He told Elsie if a caller was expected, she was to go to this room and gently parting the curtain assure herself that it was the caller she was expecting. One day when Clarence left for work she attended to the housework and after lunch decided to rest awhile due to a slight headache. Around 2.00 pm. she went to bed hoping to get some sleep. She had hardly dozed off into slumber land when she was awakened by what she thought was a distinct knocking on the front door. Hoping that whoever it was would go away, she decided to ignore the sound. A few minutes later there it was again – a steady knock. This time she decided to answer the door and get back to sleep. Remembering her husbands advice, she first went to the room to see who could be calling at this time – it was round 2.30 on a sunny afternoon. She consoled herself with the thought that this could be the postman with a special delivery. Gently parting the curtain she had a good view of the main entrance.
It was then that the blood froze in her veins. The sight which met her disbelieving eyes nearly sent her into an apoplectic fit ! It was a scene from her worst nightmare or better still, a scene direct from the film to which I alluded in the opening chapter of this article – The Cult of the Cobra. There before the front door was a cobra. She watched in horror as the reptile half erected itself into a standing position and knocked its head on the front door as if wishing to enter ! It would then allow a time lag of about three minutes to pass before repeating the motion. I crave the readers indulgence if I digress at this point. Numerous are the well documented cases of animals grieving the loss of their owners. There was a famous case in Italy, where the owner of the dog concerned worked in the railways and always returned home by train in the evening. Since he lived close to the railway station, his dog went to the station every evening to meet and greet its Master. One evening the Master did not return home having died at work. For four years this dog went to the station every evening awaiting the Masters arrival and the canine companion became a familiar sight to travellers. He maintained this vigil faithfully until he too died, probably of grief. There was a similar case in Japan. The “Readers Digest” featured both these stories in their editions.
About ten years ago there was the famous story of the “Truckie” in Australia who lost his dog somewhere near Alice Springs during a meal break. Since he had to maintain a rigid schedule he had no time to search for the animal and broken hearted continued his journey. Imagine his surprise when three weeks after the dog disappeared, it suddenly showed up at his home in Broadmeadows one evening looking none the worse for wear ! Words will not adequately describe the joyful reunion between dog and Master. It transpired later when the story was investigated that many pub owners and passers by etc. had fed this animal on its long journey South.
There are many cases where dogs refused to leave the graveside of their Masters, and cats that went missing finding their way home, one after five years ! This was in the USA. My logical conclusion is that the cobra at the front door of the Palmer house was the mate of the snake that was shot, and with that instinct common to animals and reptiles, sensed this was the place that her mate was taken from her. The desperate knocking on the door was its manner of “demanding” that her mate come back. What other reason was there for this snake in all the wide world to make its way to the front door of the Palmer’s residence and then proceed to knock as if “demanding” for answers ? Meanwhile, Elsie watching this bizarre display by the cobra at her front door seemed to be in some form of “Rigor Mortis”, and was completely paralyzed overtaken by cold fear. It seemed that life and time were suspended and reality had spilled out of its boundaries. Frozen in fear, unable to move she watched as the cobra after a few more “knocks” at the door, coiled and stayed awhile at the doorstep in resignation. Then, after what to Elsie seemed an eternity, it moved very slowly away from the door and slithered away into the bush. It took a long while for Elsie to recover after the snake had gone. She thought meeting a ghost would not be so bad ! But to see a snake behaving in the manner that the cobra had, was a sight that would haunt her forever. She had just experienced a scene of horror from the deepest pit of hell.
When Clarence returned home and Elsie told him of her ‘ordeal’ he decided that staying in this house further was beyond question. When a cobra came calling, it was time to move on ! At work the next day he spoke of this incident to his boss, a very influential gentleman with useful connections across the hirearchy of Kandyan society as he was a Kandyan himself. Three weeks later he informed Clarence that there was a suitable house for rent in Mahiyawa which was almost in the heart of Kandy town. The owner of this house was a childhood friend of Clarence’s boss Mr.Shelton Pethiyagoda. On the strength of this friendship he decided to give the house on lease for a very reasonable rent as a special favour.
Within a month, Clarence and Elsie moved into their new home, and to give this tale a happy ending I have to resort to the old cliche that “they lived happily ever after” until Clarence retired from the postal department after many years of service. Three years later they migrated to Australia.
There is one unavoidable fact in this story. In this wide world of creation with its myriad complex and fascinating life forms, man as a species is not the alpha and omega in the animal world.
Snakes like all living creatures are a part of life’s dazzling tapestry. The best way I can express my sentiments in this regard is to quote the famous verse of the Red Indian Chief White Cloud, one of the greatest conservationists who ever lived. He was born in 1784 and died in1833, one of several tribal chiefs of the Ioway (Iowa) tribe, a hero to his people. His verse titled THE CIRCLE OF LIFE is literary gold. Read, digest and treasure the words of this savant. The world today ignores his words at its peril. Chief White Cloud had the gift of prescience to the highest degree, because his words are a clear warning of what is happening in the world today as far as respect for the environment and other living species are concerned.
THE CIRCLE OF LIFE.
“Man has a poor understanding of life as he mistakes knowledge for wisdom. He tries to unveil the holy secrets of Our Father, The Great Spirit. He attempts to impose his laws on Mother Earth. Even though he himself is a part of Mother Nature, he chooses to disregard and ignore this for the sake of his own immediate gain. But the laws of nature are stronger than the laws of mankind. Man must awake at last and learn to understand how little time there remains before he becomes the cause of his own downfall. And he has a lot to learn – to learn to see with the heart. He must learn to respect Mother Earth, she who has given life to everything – to our brothers and sisters, the animal and the plants, the rivers and lakes, the oceans and the wind.
He must realize that this planet does not belong to him, but that he has to care for and maintain the delicate balance of nature for the sake of the well being of our children and future generations. It is the duty of man to preserve the creation of The Great Spirit, mankind being only a grain of sand in the Holy Circle which encloses all of life. Only when the last tree has been cut and the last river and lake poisoned, will man realize that money cannot be eaten. “
Relentless hunting, adverse climatic conditions such as prolonged drought, and lack of protection have driven certain species to near extinction. To save endangered species it is essential to protect their habitats and understand the vital role of each species within the earth’s ecosystems.On a trip to new Zealand a few years back which involved some interesting travel in the North and South Island, I heard of the Maori Tribe living in the Whanganui River region who had a very interesting saying in their relation to the land, in particular to this life giving river. It is “I am the river and the river is me”. They nurtured the land in the ancient knowledge that nature has to be respected. Snakes, like or loathe them as they slither their way doing the horizontal belly dance through life, are a part of the flora and fauna of creation. It is their world too. It is never too late to appease Mother Nature – for all our tomorows.
Acknowledgements : I am very grateful to Clarence’s nephew a personal family friend who discussed this story with me at a family function a few weeks ago. He gave me the details for this story. Clarence and Elsie passed away in Melbourne many years ago. They have a daughter who lives on the Gold Coast and another daughter living in Rockhampton.