Snake Musk and Moonlight: An investigation into
“For pleasant it is at a feast and rich banquet to tell
delightful tales, when men have had enough of feasting; and pleasant also it is
to know a clear token of ill or good amid all the signs that the deathless ones
have given to mortal men.”- Hesiod, Melampodia
Interrupting snakes in coitus is bad luck. Tiresius of Thebes did it on Mount Cithaeron and was promptly transformed into a woman. He eventually reverted to gender, but his transformation certified him to mediate an argument between Hera and Zeus about which gender derives the most pleasure from sexual intercourse. “Of ten parts,” Tiresius pronounced, “a man enjoys one only; but a woman’s sense enjoys all ten in full. Hera, a poor loser, struck him blind on the spot. In compensation, Zeus granted him with long life and the gift of prophecy. Big deal. He also got a staff as a consolation prize to feel his way around and bust up snakes that trespassed the jogging trail.
One bright February afternoon 6,000 years later, as redbud begins to splash through the woods, podiatrist Glen Dowling sets out five clear plastic cups, full of apple juice that he declares special in some way connected to his wife’s family. He also sets out a bunch of quail for me and Jimmy Jacobs to hunt down and shoot. The empty cup in the center, Dr. Dowling declares, we will fill with memories of the hunt. We are entertaining Jimmy Jacobs, editor of Georgia Sportsman, so he’ll publish some marginal stories Tom Seegmueller and I wrote.
“I can’t promise birds,” Dr. Dowling says, lifting his apple juice, “only the prettiest place in Georgia to hunt them.”
Tom, who looks like Paul Gauguin on a bender, takes off his hat and squints while we pray for fellowship, safety all that. Then we put a piebald bird dog down, and after two or three “kennel points” he finds birds. We dismount the jeep, load our guns and walk toward the rigid dog, Tom fingering his flail. About halfway to the point, Seegmueller starts galloping in place. “Hot Damn! Snake!”
Actually, there are two glossy black hog-nose snakes the gibbous moon has deceived into early copulation. Tangled and joined at the cloaca, they hiss and spread their necks like cobras. Tom lifts them by the female, the smaller male hanging by his hemipenis as Jimmy and I move in for a closer look, the pointer still rigid in the background.
The snakes fall apart when Tom puts them back down. They writhe, twist their heads into fulcrums, coil, jack over belly up and evacuate. Their forked black tongues hang from inverted smiles. “They play dead when frightened,” Tom says. Also protruding is the smaller snake’s astonishing talliwacker, the damnedest thing we’ve ever seen- the end is a wide bluish lobe, prickled like a cactus with curved cat claws. We can’t understand how they came unplugged without ripping the female inside out.
Dr. Dowling wants to dispatch the snakes on the conviction that snakes eat quail eggs. I argue mercy on grounds that killing snakes is bad karma, citing the case of Tiresius. I’ll remove the serpents from Dowling’s Edenic shooting preserve and place them in the custody of an 11-year-old friend, Theime Hall. Well, OK. Dr. Dowling slits a milk jug and cloisters the unhappy lovers in the dog box. Meanwhile I miss birds as if I’ve been struck blind. It’s hard to hit a quail if you’re watching the ground, a rationalist might argue.
Some of Dr. Dowling’s birds fly like bullets, some like butterflies. Some birds the dogs snatch from the air; one Tom accidentally decapitates with his flushing flail. One cock lights in a pine sapling and stubbornly refuses to fly until our guide bows the tree and catapults the cock into pell-mell, feather-sloughing somersaults. Jimmy and I both miss that bird, but I’ve missed every shot since we found the snake. I know it’s because Greek myth is grounded in scientific truth. I worry about changing into a woman or going totally blind. “How come you’re not jinxed?” I ask Jimmy, who’s killed a respectable tithe, blinded maybe in only one eye.
“I stayed away from those darn snakes,” he says, swishing through the wire grass.
Sometime during the hunt the fickle male snake abandons his consort and escapes, slipping out and plopping into the broom sedge God knows where. That night I go to Theime’s with the female remainder and sneak through the back door into the sleeping house.
“I’ve trained a snake to roll over and play dead,” I whisper, dragging my young friend from his top bunk.
“What’s going on?” his mother croaks from the master bedroom. Her disheveled bob slants through the crack in the bedroom door. She clasps the collar of a terry cloth robe beneath her chin. In the harsh shaft of moonlight, her pretty eyes are clenched into hormonal slits. It's that damn Vic Miller,” she hisses. “He can’t find anybody his own age to play with at midnight.”
“Betsy, since you’re up, watch this.” I announce, “I’ve trained a snake to roll over and play dead.” I wink and settle the snake on the oriental rug, tapping its nose. The reptile flips over and shits butterscotch meringue on Betsy’s carpet. An acrid musk saturates the air.
“Pee yoo!” cries Theime. “That stinks!”
“That’s, uh, the way snakes attract each other,” I explain. “Their perfume.”
“Pour him a drink in a go-cup and get him out,” Betsy snaps to her husband.
“Yes dear,” Chip lisps.
I have a theory that the moon in perigee temporarily magnifies the polarity of gender, causing males to puff with testosterone and females to fizz with estrogen. Then pheromones suspended in moonlight, are sniffed into the nostrils and absorbed through mucus membranes into bloodstreams of the opposite sex, causing humans to mate with hysterical abandon and slash each other with butcher knives. A surgeon friend of mine, Dr. Mike Roberts, assures me that he treats far more fellow citizens for stab wounds and bullet holes during the full nearest the vernal equinox, but the biggest threat in moonlight is chromosomal alteration. Moonlight vaporizes estrogen, increasing the danger of heterosexual metamorphosis- the actual transformation from one sex to another. It’s tempting but dangerous to mess around with the opposite gender on a full moon, when opposites are more attracted and less tolerant. Of course, the hazards of gynecological contagion are compounded by the number of heterosexual females living under the same roof. Clashing hormones echo and amplify, clanging like Moscow bells.
Before Mother divorced him, my father used to dress up as a half-man/half-woman at the annual Radium Springs Costume Ball. Mother would go as Madam Butterfly. Daddy would shave at midline the right side of his face, chest and legs. He attached a fall to his crew cut and tied in a red ribbon. At the ball, he’d wink a single false eyelash and limp around drunk on one high heel. For some reason, the Costume Ball seemed always to fall on a full moon. Everyone laughed like hell when the old man went to the country club in drag. A dress always hung in my father’s closet. I couldn’t wait until my right foot was big enough to fill his high heel shoe.
Of course, when I was a kid I saw plenty of girls who acted like boys and boys who acted like sissies. We figured it our duty to beat up sissies every time the teacher’s back was turned, for their own good, we decided, and to maintain healthy sexual polarity, although in those days boys and girls didn’t look very different anyway. Gender was more behavioral than hormonal, except for my homosexual schoolmate Mickey Bliss.
Mickey’s feminine inclinations so horrified his macho father that Mr. Bliss took Mickey to the family physician and had him injected regularly with hormones. Mickey got hairy as a tumbleweed without changing his persuasion one iota. The only kid hairier than Mickey was “Poodle” Prince, whose testosterone was indigenous. Poodle bubbled with natural hormones that made him as hirsute at fourteen as biblical Esau, but since Mickey Bliss was hairier at 12 than our fathers, we scapegoated Mickey for oedipal hostilities and phobias of sexual ambiguity alike. Once gender synthesis gets started, it’s hard to reverse. The ‘50s wasn’t the unisexual utopia we endure today.
Chronic exposure to airborne hormones also cross pollinates the sexes gradually, so with or without moonlight and snake musk males over time become more feminine and females more masculine, making monogamy at least theoretically possible. Gender contamination causes married couples together start looking like each other and acting generic. Old folks have less immunity to this molecular exchange. Men’s breasts get flappy and women grow beards.
As we have seen, the presence of snake musk, for some reason, catalytically accelerates this process. Southeastern Indians knew snakes squirted big medicine out their cloacas, which accounts for the Redskin taboo against screwing around with copulating reptiles. Indians treated snakes respectfully and charted the stations of the moon. They also understood the sociopathic danger of female pheromones riding around on moonbeams in night air, where they contaminate important male projects like beating tom-toms and chunking rocks. Indians segregated the sexes during “moon time,” when men were excessively male and women too purely female for the community welfare. They knew gynic mist in lunar light had the power to transform gender.
Like the Indians, Dr. Roberts and I practice sexual segregation on either side of a full moon. I maintain an Airstream trailer on the cardiovascular surgeon’s farm, Thoracic Park. Every full moon finds Mike’s property infested with exiled doctors who fear gynic contamination and gender reversal. Dr. Roberts generously provides this cloister for his married friends but is often present himself. Though he’s currently single, Dr. Roberts’ life is not without gynecological predicament.
After Daddy left home in 1958, women dominated my childhood and adolescence, and from the formative frying pan I leapt into matrimonial fires. Darton College is dominated by women, whose airborne estrogen has diluted my testosterone. At 55, my morning voice sounds like a Stradivarius slung face down on asphalt, and my professional problems are compounded by the fact that virtually every female in my life is beautiful. My boss is a woman, my colleagues, my editor, my agent, my wife. My classes are predominantly female, my children predominantly daughters. My dogs are bitches, my goats does. Even as I write, two female cardinals are driving a bloodshot male from the bird feeder outside my Airstream travel trailer, where I cower during every ascending moon because I fear gynic contamination. Estrogen is chemically contagious.
Two days before the full moon of the vernal equinox, my 18-year-old stepdaughter, Mary Catherine, throws a hormonal tizzy that stands me in awe. She wants a doctor’s excuse to cut school and get her hair colored. My fourth wife Claire, unwilling to pen a bald-face lie, insists that Mary Catherine at least go by and stick her newly colored head in Dr. Dowling’s or Dr. Roberts’ waiting room. Maisy, 14, sides with Mary Catherine. I become frightened that they’re fixing to spark off a heterosexual metamorphosis. They don’t wonder what the teacher will say when Mary Catherine shows up with a podiatrist’s excuse and eggplant hair. The altercation rises to crescendo and the girls scatter to their respective rooms. Slam, slam, slam. « Come on Geeche, let’s get out of here.”
“Not you too!”
When I arrive, Dr. Roberts has been driving around Thoracic Park in his truck looking for snakes to shoot out the window with his Glock. He figures he can kill all the reptiles and prevent the combination of snake musk and moonlight, preserving a cloister where boys can remain boys. I hate it when he kills snakes, but the Park is the only place I can go to escape gynic contamination. Also my association with heart surgeons and podiatrists lends scientific respectability to my views, although I think his snake extermination program is counterproductive in the evolutionary light that threatened species reproduce more vigorously. Trying to eliminate populations is like pouring coal oil on a grease fire. I predict Dr. Roberts is going to wind up ass-deep in rattlesnakes.
When he was a kid, Mike’s mother told him if he could kiss his elbow he’d change into a girl, wishful thinking on her part. He didn’t really want to be a girl, but he figured the theory merited investigation, deducing that if he could ever manage to kiss his elbow once he could do it again and revert to his own nature. He never worried about getting stuck in a gender warp since girls are more limber. He spent a considerable percentage of his childhood writhing like a contortionist, his face fixed into a painful pucker.
Now, he’s sitting on the Airstream sofa greasing his Glock. I ask him if he can give me a group rate and spay every living female at 189 Sandy Beach Rd., girls, dogs and goats. “I’m worried about hormonal cross pollination,” I confess.
“You’ve got to learn to go with the flow,” he says.
“Well, I don’t mean to pun,” he explains, “but one reason men can’t endure hysteria is because man is born of woman and all male blood has coursed through female veins.”
This corpuscular ambiguity, according to Dr. Roberts, accounts for the clash of gender that ding-dongs through the molecules of every man since Adam, reverberating through generations of fathers and sons.
I go with the flow all right. I flow up the Kinchafoonee to Thoracic Park for every round moon. Mike finishes his dictum on hysteria and starts bragging about killing two snakes with one shot. “I wish you’d cut that out,” I tell him.
His eyes narrow and yellow in the intruding moonbeams. He flies into a volatile rage. He screams that what he does on his own damn farm is his own damn business and if he sounds like he’s bitching, it’s just, well, it’s just BECAUSE ... NObody ever appreciates ANYthing he does ... and EVERYbody ALways works against him ... and the mere sight of one more greasy pot in the Airstream sink or one more pair of dirty jockey shorts flung around the camp is going to send him up the wall ... and, well, just because ... dammit ... just beCAUSE.