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Into the pit: Part 1

From the LabLit short story series

Matthew Perryman 16 April 2014

Once we're done, there won't be a single snake in Malaysia whose bite can't be cured

Editor's note: We are pleased to present the first episode of a two-part story by Matthew Perryman.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The feeling of landing in a seaplane is one that's impossible to love. Even in still waters, it jiggles your insides, and the turbulent seas off Western Malaysia are definitely not the place to earn your stripes. I don't mean any luxury seaplane, either. I'm talking about the wooden boxes on stilts, more like a roller-coaster than any aerial transport. I lift my feet as vomit trickles beneath me. I lift my bags, as well. It's swilling up in the recesses of the floor. We'd better dock soon. There are five other passengers, and I don't need a foot bath.

The wilderness is dense, and dark in spite of the sun. The palms flutter, like the jungle is wailing – but nobody else listens. They are too busy with coughing fits, or desperate rehydration. They rinse their mouths, and the food from their cheeks. The pilot is shouting. I may have mastered the seaplane stomach, but my proneness to jet-leg never ceases. It feels like I'm in a dream, but not for the reasons that brought me here. Final equipment checks are made, the guilty mop the plane, and I recalibrate.

Our guide, Amir, is plotting a map spread across a rock. Sara stands over his shoulder. Across from them are Harang and Benny, Kuala Lumpur Hospital toxinologists on loan. Then there is Gustav, who joins their conversation with gestures more than words. They speak in Mandarin, of which I have only a rudimentary knowledge. Gustav is our expert wrangler; the Swede is the only other Westerner – but he has spent so long in Southern Asia you couldn't guess it. The seaplane takes off, and all of us stop to watch it disappear.

Plotting the route takes hours. Malaysia has over five hundred square miles of mangrove, and though monsoon season has just concluded, you can never be too sure. The waterways here shift endlessly. Islands that are there one day are submerged the next. Without the right guide, you could easily lose your way – no matter how good your bearings. Starvation takes its time, and you would wish for something to end it quicker.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Nobody's happy to be back on the water, but it's the only way to travel. Walking is impossible; you'd develop trench foot within a day. We are travelling down the Kangsar estuaries, inland along the Perak river system. There are no waves, but the dinghies make it just as choppy. No proper boats – just two inflatable rafts. Amir leads us, piloting the first with Gustav and Sara, whilst I man the rear with Harang and Benny. Only Gustav and I exceed ten stone, but our equipment makes up for it. We travel slow, bouncing along mangrove cells like clouds against a stratosphere. Tapirs line the temporary shores, raising their noses in their best elephant impressions. Their dung is pungent but familiar, and reminiscent of the Oxon valleys.

'Beautiful creatures, here.'

'Yes,' says Harang, holding his stomach. 'Shame our subjects aren't so peaceful.'

'Less smelly though,' Benny says, grinning.

'To tell you the truth,' says Sara, 'I've never liked snakes.'

So much vilification can be hard to unwind. Somewhere in that hatred, though – under the religious lies and rewritten myths – is something so alluring.

Sara has been a tour guide for even longer than Amir. Thailand a decade ago, then down to Malaysia – she hasn't thought of Brazil since. She must have encountered many snakes, and her insistence surprises me. At the rear of the dinghy, she has the appearance of their coxswain – and we are right on their tail. Not that they'll ever pull ahead – the two dinghies are tied together, end-to-end. Getting separated is a big worry in these parts.

'Maybe this trip will change your mind,' I say.

'Don't confuse my disgust for delusion. I know they're important. They're vile killers, that's all.'

'I admit they can be problematic. It's what we're here for, after all. Once we're done, there won't be a single snake in Malaysia whose bite can't be cured.'

'And ten more things!' says Benny. 'Pit viper venom may prove vital in cancer treatment – Alzheimer's, too. It's already key for hundreds of other diseases.'

'Besides,' says Amir, 'all of your beauty products contain it.'

'It is an outrage, really,' says Harang. 'You'd go to war to save a rhino, but who fights for the snake?'

'Rhinos are much nicer animals,' says Amir. Harang laughs, shaking his head as if shedding the blasphemy.

'What is likeable for one can be terrifying for another. And who is anybody to say which animals deserve better protection?'

'Besides,' says Gustav. 'If it weren't for the snakes, we'd all be out of a job.' Everybody laughs at this. Snake-wranglers are great at defusing situations.

An hour later, Amir points to a clearing beside us. It is fertile and flat, stretching forever like the lawn of some cosmic being. 'One century ago, the Sultan gathered here with British occupiers to conduct council meetings. The British would ride in on elephants. Boats would bring representatives from every village along the Perak, and they would dock here.'

Benny turns to me. 'Your grandfathers came to make change; now you do.'

'I'm a scientist,' I say. 'I give back to the land; I don't take it. My change is different.'

'All change is different,' says Sara.

'It was a proud event,' continues Amir, 'for the locals as well. It became a festival. For three whole days, they thanked the British. And each year, more came. It's where the Kangsar's name originates.'

Camp is set on an island that is deemed appropriate by being probably too large to disappear through the night. We are one hundred miles from the Thai border, nestled in the mangrove plains under shadow of the Titiwangsa peaks. Dusk settles, and the avian orchestra adjusts, the hornbill choir giving way to the Crested Argus and its odd warble. Amir returns from a solo dinghy trip with a net of fish, and sets about making a spit. I offer him my grill, but he prefers the old way. Harang and Benny's workstation is already dotted with samples – the leaves of various dipterocarps, a young Malaysian water monitor, and a collection of snails like sweets.

'Hey, come here!' Gustav is shouting in whispers, from the edge of the island.

'Nice find. Python reticulatus.'

She is at least fifteen feet long. A big girl. We could probe her to make sure, but with sexually dimorphic species, there's a point after which you just know. She coils around him like a life-jacket, so large it is more like she who is holding him. Harang appears, to document the find. I tell Sara the “reticulated” name comes from the patterning: golden spectacles emanating down from the spine in intricate, mottled links, outlined by white and yellow streaks across the dorsal regions. But she isn't interested. Gustav returns the python to the mangrove roots, where she watches us before dipping back into the waters.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

The young boy is rapidly losing consciousness. Sara found the child and has carried him a mile back to camp. His calf muscle is swollen, and I locate the fang marks. Two other children trail behind Sara, fear spilling from the shallow saucers of their eyes.

'What snake?' I say in Mandarin. The girl looks too young to speak. I can never tell how old children are. Strange; I recognise the growth rate of almost every other organism. The boy cups his hands behind his ears. 'Hood!' he says.

'How big?' The child stretches his hands as far as he can.

'Very big?'

The boy nods.

Ophiophagus Hannah. The king cobra – don't worry, he will be okay.'

Sara leads them away and distracts them with food. The boy is hyperventilating, in spasms upon the ground. It is lucky Sara found him when she did. Perhaps another hour, and his nervous system would have begun to seize, followed shortly by paralysis.

Harang and Benny watch me administer the antivenin, with eyes almost as wide as the children's.

'Look. It's easy.'

People fuss over snake bites more than is necessary. Truth is, any of the most dangerous snakes could bite you at will and you'd be fine. They each have a sure-fire prevention, synthesised and catalogued for future generations. I take one of the many vials from my bag. I purge the needle of air, draw the liquid from the vial and inject it into the boy's thigh.

'Intramuscular administration is essential for cobra bites.' Benny has good knowledge, but his experience in the field is lacking.

'You could probably get away with a standard Naja antivenim – the neurotoxins are almost identical. You might be left with some muscle damage, but it's good for a last resort. The king cobra is especially fascinating – it is not grouped with the same Naja family.'

Benny perks up. 'Because of the occipital scales?'

'Exactly. A suitable crown for such a serpent.'

'Give me Elapidae over a viper, any day!' says Benny.

I agree, but he should remember to be careful. Overconfidence is the greatest killer of all.

'For cytotoxic venoms, you need to apply through the vein. Remember that. You would also have to act a lot faster. If this was a viper bite, the blood would have jellied long ago.'

Benny nods and scribbles in his waterproof notepad. Our patient is fine, after another shot and an hour under wet rags. I show him the fang that came off in his leg. It is almost as large as my little finger.

'Should I throw it away?'

'No,' he says.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

The smell of pork is so heavy that the air is lined by it. Piglet meat is far tangier than that of an adult boar. Fish is just fine, but none of us have smelt anything this sweet for a whole week. Amir agrees, but he wouldn't let you know it. He leans with his chin on his fist, for otherwise he would drool onto the solid, wooden platform where we sit – twenty feet above water level. The decking is littered with colourful rugs and cushions, on which old ladies sit and knit more. We are shaded by a roof thatched with palms and bamboo stems. Children play over at the far side of the platform. Our young patient is showing off his cobra fang. His eyes are alive. They have that intensity you get from going to the edge and back, and I wouldn't be surprised if he turns out just like me.

The boy's name is Joseph. He is the son of Annuk, mayor of this village. Women present me with bundles of food, and fabrics, too – all of which I receive with appropriate grace. We eat, and dinner conversation quickly turns to snakes. The Orang Asli tribes of peninsular Malaysia regard snakes with caution, but their animist beliefs consider them as much a blessing as a curse.

'They only bite to defend themselves,' I say, as Amir translates. 'They just don't like us trampling their territory.'

Annuk agrees. He tells us that snakes are central to Orang life. It is through the serpents encountered in their rituals that Orang elders learned how to use the land. Then, he tells us how the Chinese came through the rainforests and tried to force their beliefs. Annuk's father lashed out, as did many others, but they were eradicated. They made him watch as his father was beheaded. They took his sisters, his mother, and he never saw them again. The Chinese attempted to civilise Annuk, but they only made him more wild.

'Civilisation,' he says, shaking his head. 'That is where real snakes lurk.'

The meal is over too fast, and the Orang children gather round us.

'Your presence is exciting,' says Annuk. He is there too, standing with his hands on Joseph's shoulders. Sara is laden with giggling children. Amir and Gustav, the sportsmen of our party, kick a football with others. Harang and Benny also enjoy the attention, passing flowers and ferns around our audience.

'Look at these,' says Harang. 'These plants will help solve many diseases. The jungle is a great source of medicine.'

'We know,' says Joseph. The other children share his grin.

'We have used the forest for longer than any of us know,' confirms Annuk. 'When people come, it is all they want. But, I am glad science is catching up.' He squeezes Joseph's shoulder. Harang is now sweating. The old man is sharp, his speech unavoidably humbling. His paunch is sizeable, but that's excusable. The rest of his body is taut, with a defined musculature, though there are many scars across his chest and back. His eyes are empty, but they harbour a vast journey. The Cold War was hard on Annuk, but he was harder. He clambers through the walkways with ease, moving with grace when he should be nearing wheelchair age.

'Why do snakes hurt us?' A child has climbed onto my lap, repeating his question and churning the same response from his friends. They chirrup the words of whoever is speaking, more like a colony of little birds than children.

'Snakes do not hurt us,' says Gustav, walking over. 'Respect them and they will respect you.'

Gustav has a way with these children. They hang from his every word. It must be his foreign appearance combined with flawless Mandarin.

'Then why do they poison us?'

'They are not poisonous,' I say. 'A dart frog is poisonous. Eat him and you will die. A snake is only venomous. He uses it to protect himself.' I point to a girl who is chewing on a grilled snake – a fat little royal python, like a winding river on its skewer. 'You eat snakes and are fine, see? In fact, snakes are very good for you.' I rummage through my bag. 'Look.' I hold out a packet of antibiotics, and point to the printed symbol. 'Do you know what this is?' They shake their heads.

'It's an Asclepian staff. It was carried by a famous Greek doctor, Asclepius. He went everywhere with his staff, and a snake was always wrapped around it. He knew how to heal everything, and that snakes were the key to this. To him, and the Greeks, snakes represented new life. They shed their skin, and disease along with it.'

Annuk agrees. 'They are dangerous, yes, but a gift. So we can learn more about our world.'

'Actually,' says Sara, 'that's the staff of Hermes.' But nobody bothers to correct her. The children are enthralled – many of the elders, too. Gustav and I are men of the world; we cannot pass up a chance to tell a story.

'Be like Asclepius,' says Gustav. 'Do not fear the snake. Do not even think of it as an animal. Think of it as a mountain. The climb may be hard, but when you reach the top – you will understand. Then, it is something you have mastered.'

'Precisely,' I say. 'But those who don't climb will never know.'