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Into the pit

From the LabLit short story series

Matthew Perryman 11 May 2014

'It's the Mangrove viper. It has to be.' I have never felt any pain like this, of all the bites I have experienced

Editor's note: We are pleased to present the conclusion of a two-part story by Matthew Perryman. Use the navigation bar on the upper right to catch up.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

The snake runs around my fingers in a single coil. A perfect circle, like I'm about to apply the world's most dangerous hair band. Not that all men of science have long hair. That is a stereotype as cruel as the ones about snakes. The scales of this species are not patterned as such, but an iridescent mess of bright greens, purples and earthy browns, so delicate and complex that they seem to flow under the sun. Its head bobs; it is evaluating me, through the heat pits under its nostrils. I am a red and black matrix, a fluctuating heat signature, like the displays in war film submarines.

It was almost invisible in the mangrove roots – fifty centimetres exactly, weighing one hundred and twelve grams. My gloves allow freedom in handling, but you couldn't don just any pair. These gloves are woven with Kevlar fabric, and seem more suited to warfare than ophiology. Their thickness limits movement, but otherwise the fangs would slide straight through. Gustav takes the animal by the neck, firm between his fingers. It flails but quickly subsides and wraps around his arm. Gustav's charm is undeniable.

I produce a plastic cup, topped with a polythene film affixed by rubber bands. I hold it to the snake, who deems it enough of a threat to strike. It locks into the film after three attempts, expunging droplets from its fangs. They dribble down the side of the cup, and it watches us the whole time. Its eyes burn like stars that leap with solar flares, each severed by a sliver of a pupil. I draw over two hundred milligrams. This specimen is particularly voracious. Vipers expel the most venom relative to body mass. There's a reason that these tiny things, more like worms than snakes, are the most feared of all.

Harang and Benny have many tests to conduct. They will determine gender, age and health.

They will take tissue samples, faecal samples and give an identifying tag. Then it will be placed with the other specimens, where each will be milked ten times before release. Our work could not be going more smoothly. Not only have we saved a life, but we are set to save a million more. The pool is building. I document the new specimen. It is what we have come for – the final key. Cryptelytrops purpureomaculatus. The Mangrove pit viper.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

The tendency to rest on one's laurels is a lifelong trait. Self-congratulation is in our nature. When we see we are ahead of the curve, we make the most of it. Now we have worked for ten days, though the jet-lag makes it feel like twelve. Amir, growing more restless at each camp, now guides us around the edge of Temenggor Lake, thirty miles from the Thai border. Temenggor is the last open water before the furthest catacombs of the mangrove deltas. We are taking “a day off”. Our dinghies bob along the waters, though it feels more like riding a buffalo than an actual boat.

'We are looking for clouded leopards,' says Amir. This is his time to shine. He is touted as the best wildlife guide in all of Western Malaysia, and he knows it. 'The clouded leopard is the rarest cat in the world.'

'What about the snow leopard?' says Benny.

'And the tiger?' I say. 'The Xiamen tiger? The Amur tiger?'

'Or the Sphinx?' says Sara.

'Fine,' says Amir. 'But the clouded leopard is undeniably the most beautiful in the world. This, I will stand by.'

Whatever Amir lacks in factual knowledge, he makes up for in enthusiasm.

'But what about the Dragonsnake?' I say.

'What about it?' Amir gives me a glare. He has been short with me since I proposed our new route. It's not my fault the others agreed.

'Xenodermus javanicus. More rare and more beautiful than any cat.'

'Never!' cries Benny. 'The most beautiful snake is easily the rough-scale bush viper.' It is an excellent suggestion, and I immediately change my mind. Now all I can see are its keeled scales like thistles, flaring out like it's on fire. Beautiful.

'Please,' says Amir, eyeing the tubs of snakes tied to his dinghy. 'Let's spend one day without thinking of them.'

'What do you think, Gustav? Why so quiet?' He looks like he's just woken up. His hand trails in the water, and he looks up at the sky. The clouds make his face even darker.

'Which is your favourite?' says Benny. 'Cobras? Kraits? Maybe a Taipan?'

'They are all beautiful.' A smile returns to his face, and for some reason everybody feels better. 'I don't think I can pick a favourite.'

'You might as well,' says Sara, 'or we'll never hear the end of it.'

She's right, for once.

'Fine,' he says. 'Hydrophis belcheri.' Everybody looks to me for confirmation.

'Belcher's sea snake.' An odd choice, by an odder man.

'Yes. Three years ago, I was diving for another species – Dubois' sea snake. You must know it?'

'Of course – Aipysurus duboisii. The most venomous on the planet.'

'Technically. It reigns in potency, but loses out in dosage per bite.'

'So why the belcheri?' says Benny. 'Dubois' is much more venomous. And far more beautiful, if I recall.'

He's right – Belcher's sea snakes look exceptionally dull. Gustav clears his throat, and even Amir stops muttering about potential leopard hotspots.

'We were diving in the Balai, off North Sumatra. A scientist commissioned me. We went to document the habits of the Dubois'. We found a lot of information, but it was not as expected. The belcheri were thriving on the duboisii. Eating them.'

'That's easy,' says Benny. 'They're basically vaccinated from birth.'

'You miss the point. It was how they did it, and the grace they did it with. They swept in like tornadoes and consumed them. And then, after it all, they swam around me. I felt like a marine biologist must, when he first swims with the seals and they dance together and he realises that they are more than just animals. I was riding high on that excitement for weeks. I even wrote a poem about it. Would you think of that? Me, a poet? I thought it was great, but I could never get the tetrameter to work.'

Sara looks over to me. 'Seems like you are not the only Oxfordian here.'

Gustav spits in the shallows. Benny urges him to recite his poem. He is not the only one.

'I cannot remember. And even if I could, it would bear nothing to the reality of it.'

'Quiet!' We look over, and Amir is poised with his hands out, a wind-up toy about to explode. He holds his finger to his lips and motions up. There is just the mesh of mangrove branches curving around us, concentric riddles against the clouds. But then our eyes adjust, and the mangrove blur sharpens. Crouched forms huddle in them. You can smell the sweat. You can see the whites of eyes embedded in the silhouettes. They are all around us, hungry for us – a pack of clouded leopards, inspecting us. A deep growl resonates, growing louder as more join in. They lie with their bellies on the branches, pawing at us. Amir is silent. He doesn't need to speak – the grin on his face says it all. But it feels like we're the prize at a carnival game. I look to Gustav, and I know he shares my sentiment.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

It's not over until it's over. Amir and Sara couldn't stress that enough. It was the first thing they told us, before the plane even took off. But it's one of those things that people like me will only appreciate when it's too late.

I don't know who the screams belong to, but they certainly wake me. A final monsoon has savaged our camp. The awnings channelled the wind, in from the east and right through the point where the animals were kept. A dinghy hangs above me, speared by the mangroves. The other has vanished. The animal tubs are all scattered – forty-four venomous snakes across a mound that is barely fifty feet wide. No plot of land could be big enough now. Torch lances flail in the blackness. Water courses through the camp at ankle level. Benny stumbles past me, and Gustav and Amir clutch at the food crates that are trying to escape. I slip in the mud and slide down, landing flat against the mangroves. There are more screams as the battle cries of elephants ring out. They tear past the island; trumpeting as they thrash through the waters. They are followed by a blur of other large mammals, all intent on finding new land. I grip the branches, and hold myself low to avoid the stampede.

'Rhino!' bellows Harang, but his voice is lost in the shrill cries of birds and howling monkeys. My body is aching, and I have twisted my ankle in the fray. I return to camp, and it is ruined. Tents and equipment strewn everywhere. I seize Benny by the shoulders and scream at him.

'Where is my work? My extracts! Have you seen them?' But he cannot hear me over the thunder.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

It takes until morning to salvage camp. There was much to do. I ignored the pain, but now I have collapsed. Gustav has boosted me three times, but it's not working. The monsoon has ransacked my antivenin stores. Only the wrong vials remain. The pain is lighting up my entire leg, and the necrosis will soon work its way to my gut.

'It's the Mangrove viper. It has to be.' I have never felt any pain like this, of all the bites I have experienced. I heave myself up to my elbows, but Gustav puts his hand on my chest.

'No, you don't want to look.'

'We need to shock my system.' My mouth is sagging; the words come out in bubbles. 'I need adrenaline.'

'They are looking.' Benny rifles through the shell of my tent. Harang lies close by, wheezing through his punctured lung.

'Two hours,' says Amir, striding over with a satellite phone.

'He'll be dead by then.' Gustav speaks low, but I can hear it. The senses are never stronger than right before you die. His hand is still on my chest, like he thinks it will soothe what's coming next. It even looks like there are tears on his cheeks, but it's the humidity.

'We have to amputate, my friend.' He's right. My insides will soon liquefy. The toxins will meet my stomach lining, which will rupture, and bile will swill around me. My mind is storming more than the clouds above us, and it feels like a chemical weapon has detonated inside of my thigh. Gustav draws a bone saw from its sheath.

'There is no morphine, my friend. Chew on this.' He pushes kratom leaves into my mouth. My eyes flutter as delirium sets in.

'Funny the first aid bag never gets lost,' I say. My vision is already vibrating; my brain shrivelling up. The cobra boy appears, lit by fantastic lights. He looks concerned, but pulls with him two gigantic boa constrictors, glowing against the darkness as they rear up to the canopy, jaws dislocating as if to swallow me. But their lips continue to peel and roll back until beings made entirely of light begin climbing from their flayed husks. They bend to me with faces like suns, and they breathe with an incredible hum. The primordial electricity around each body licks at me, and they speak without words – vestibular murmurs that tell me I've reached too far. What is this framework I have created? It is meaningless – a shroud I have made of light that is even more blinding than darkness. The noise escalates until it rattles my entire body, with shrieks like fossils grinding together.

Then Annuk appears. Joseph is there, too. The others can see him. Harang hands them Setawar bark, and Benny a writhing bag. The old man crouches beside me, snaps the neck and twines the snake tight around a stick. He flattens the body, draining the insides into the bowl of bark that Joseph is preparing. Amir watches from a distance with his chin on his fist. Benny sobs and Sara hangs her arms around him. Gustav still grips the saw. Annuk wipes a dab of the mixture onto my wound, and it burns like nothing on earth. I want to push him away, but the Orang Asli have many secrets. They have been playing with snakes since the dawn of time.

'I suppose it is now me who is Asclepius,' he says, pointing the stick. The broken viper laughs at me, its tongue lolling about. My vision becomes clear, but the two beings remain. They hover behind Annuk's head, and the bald curve begins to roll like my father's maple globe. The sparks from their bodies cling to me, and I feel them pulling away all the ladders I have built in my mind. I don't fight it – it is all gone, anyway. It has washed away, and I will return empty-handed. I manage to grin at Annuk and he returns it, baring amber teeth.