Sunday, April 17, 2011

That is One Brilliant Snake

“There is the well-known story of the snake 120 feet long that was killed in the River Bagradas during the Punic Wars by the Roman general Regulus: 
he used catapults and ballistae as if he were storming a town.”

Pliny the Elder Natural History: A Selection, p. 113. Translated with an Introduction and notes by John F Healy, 1991

“Hey Afanasy!”

“Who is that?”

“I think that’s Ivan.”

“That is terrible news. Ivan the guy who runs the place? He never talks to anyone unless he needs something. He’s going to send me to go kill Swedes or something.”


“Yep. How can I help you, Ivan the third, ruler of all Rus? Are we killing Swedes or somebody? Cause I’m more of a beekeeper and a wrestler. I’m terrible at Swede killing, and there are hundreds--”

“Afanasy, I need you and your creepy forest buddies to go kill a snake.”

“No really”

“No, seriously, there is some kind of snake as big as a village and it is not going away. Go kill it, and we will drink merrily and eat like Vikings.”

“Ivan, if you’re in there, I owe you. Don’t even worry about the eating and the drinking, cause I will just take care of this snake and you can rest easy, okay?”

“It is as big as a village, according to reports.”

“Mmm hmm. You need anything else while I’m out? Some firewood? Mushrooms? A vest?”

“The snake was in Gorodslavl’ yesterday, so it’s probly in a village nearby, and if you are wondering if you’re in the right town, look for terrified villagers and missing cattle.”

“Yep! Okay. See you at dinner, Ivan.”

Afanasy left the high walls of the Kreml’ without having even seen the Tsar of All Rus, Ivan III. There was a high window overlooking the gardens and the spot where the bedpans got emptied, and the voice of the Tsar sang out reedily over the sounds of the girls playing inside. Ivan had paid for Afanasy’s education and a whole bunch of his meals at the Kreml’, and Afanasy had always felt sort of endebted to the old creep. If he needed a snake killed, he would just drop what he was doing and take care of it. How hard could it be?

“That is some snake.”


“Past the birches and the haybales. It looks like a village.”

“The thing with the tunnel behind it? That’s a snake? It looks more like a pilgrimage. Like a bunch of things that happened separately, except that they’re all in the same place.”

“Yep. How are you going to kill it?”

“I’m going to tell it to leave.”


The snake was like a prosperous villager’s entire life moving around, swallowing up goats and cattle and slow-moving babushkas. At least the babushkas were grateful for a change of routine. The goats and the skinny cattle protested loudly. Afanasy enjoyed tearing out a big ol’ birch tree and swinging it round, contacting the snake’s snout with a wet “pock.”

The snake didn’t stop moving forward, but it gave a neat look to the fat man with the tree. It was calculating how many calories the fat man contained, and if it was worth re-routing itself to the other side of the birches and swallowing the striped bald guy with the tree.

That was a terrifying eyeball. Just a sliver of pupil up the middle, and a solid acre of death all around it.

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