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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 7753

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


But the sense of awe inspired by a tropic forest is certainly greater than the mystic fear which any wooded wilderness of the North could ever have created. The brilliancy of colors that seem almost preternatural; the vastness of the ocean of frondage, and the violet blackness of rare gaps, revealing its in conceived profundity; and the million mysterious sounds which make up its perpetual murmur,-compel the idea of a creative force that almost terrifies. Man feels here like an insect,-fears like an insect on the alert for merciless enemies; and the fear is not unfounded. To enter these green abysses without a guide were folly: even with the best of guides there is peril. Nature is dangerous here: the powers that build are also the powers that putrefy; here life and death are perpetually interchanging office in the never-ceasing transformation of forces,-melting down and reshaping living substance simultaneously within the same vast crucible. There are trees distilling venom, there are plants that have fangs, there are perfumes that affect the brain, there are cold green creepers whose touch blisters flesh like fire; while in all the recesses and the shadows is a swarming of unfamiliar life, beautiful or hideous,-insect, reptile, bird,-inter-warring, devouring, preying.... But the great peril of the forest-the danger which deters even the naturalist;-is the presence of the terrible fer-de-lance (trigonocephalus lanceolatus,-bothrops lanceolatus,-craspodecephalus),-deadliest of the Occidental thanatophidia, and probably one of the deadliest serpents of the known world.

... There are no less than eight varieties of it,-the most common being the dark gray, speckled with black-precisely the color that enables the creature to hide itself among the protruding roots of the trees, by simply coiling about them, and concealing its triangular head. Sometimes the snake is a clear bright yellow: then it is difficult to distinguish it from the bunch of bananas among which it conceals itself. Or the creature may be a dark yellow,-or a yellowish brown,-or the color of wine-lees, speckled pink and black,-or dead black with a yellow belly,-or black with a pink belly: all hues of tropical forest-mould, of old bark, of decomposing trees.... The iris of the eye is orange,-with red flashes: it glows at night like burning charcoal.

And the fer-de-lance reigns absolute king over the mountains and the ravines; he is lord of the forest and solitudes by day, and by night he extends his dominion over the public roads, the familiar paths, the parks, pleasure resorts. People must remain at home after dark, unless they dwell in the city itself: if you happen to be out visiting after sunset, only a mile from town, your friends will caution you anxiously not to follow the boulevard as you go back, and to keep as closely as possible to the very centre of the path. Even in the brightest noon you cannot venture to enter the woods without an experienced escort; you cannot trust your eyes to detect danger: at any moment a seeming branch, a knot of lianas, a pink or gray root, a clump of pendent yellow It, may suddenly take life, writhe, stretch, spring, strike.... Then you will need aid indeed, and most quickly; for within the span of a few heart-beats the wounded flesh chills, tumefies, softens. Soon it changes or, and begins to spot violaceously; while an icy coldness creeps through all the blood. If the panseur or the physician arrives in time, and no vein has been pierced, there is hope; but it more often happens that the blow is received directly on a vein of the foot or ankle,-in which case nothing can save the victim. Even when life is saved the danger is not over. Necrosis of the tissues is likely to set in: the flesh corrupts, falls from the bone sometimes in tatters; and the colors of its putrefaction simuulate the hues of veg

etable decay,-the ghastly grays and pinks and yellows of trunks rotting down into the dark soil which gave them birth. The human victim moulders as the trees moulder,-crumbles and dissolves as crumbles the substance of the dead palms and balatas: the Death-of-the-Woods is upon him.

To-day a fer-de-lance is seldom found exceeding six feet length; but the dimensions of the reptile, at least, would seem to have been decreased considerably by man's warring upon it since the time of Père Labat, who mentions having seen a fer-de-lance nine feet long and five inches in diameter. He also speaks of a couresse-a beautiful and harmless serpent said to kill the fer-de-lance-over ten feet long and thick as a man's leg; but a large couresse is now seldom seen. The negro woodsmen kill both creatures indiscriminately; and as the older reptiles are the least likely to escape observation, the chances for the survival of extraordinary individuals lessen with the yearly decrease of forest-area.

... But it may be doubted whether the number of deadly snakes has been greatly lessened since the early colonial period. Each female produces viviparously from forty to sixty young at a birth. The favorite haunts of the fer-de-lance are to a large extent either inaccessible or unexplored, and its multiplication is prodigious. It is really only the surplus of its swarming that overpours into the cane-fields, and makes the public roads dangerous after dark;-yet more than three hundred snakes have been killed in twelve months on a single plantation. The introduction of the Indian mongoos, or mangouste (ichneumon), proved futile as a means of repressing the evil. The mangouste kills the fer-de-lance when it has a chance but it also kills fowls and sucks their eggs, which condemns it irrevocably with the country negroes, who live to a considerable extent by raising and selling chickens.

... Domestic animals are generally able to discern the presence of their deadly enemy long before a human eye, can perceive it. If your horse rears and plunges in the darkness, trembles and sweats, do not try to ride on until you are assured the way is clear. Or your dog may come running back, whining, shivering: you will do well to accept his warning. The animals kept about country residences usually try to fight for their lives; the hen battles for her chickens; the bull endeavors to gore and stamp the enemy; the pig gives more successful combat; but the creature who fears the monster least is the brave cat. Seeing a snake, she at once carries her kittens to a place of safety, then boldly advances to the encounter. She will walk to the very limit of the serpent striking range, and begin to feint,-teasing him, startling him, trying to draw his blow. How the emerald and the topazine eyes glow then!-they are flames! A moment more and the triangular head, hissing from the coil, flashes swift as if moved by wings. But swifter still the stroke of the armed paw that dashes the horror aside, flinging it mangled in the dust. Nevertheless, pussy does not yet dare to spring;-the enemy, still active, has almost instantly reformed his coil;-but she is again in front of him, watching,-vertical pupil against vertical pupil. Again the lashing stroke; again the beautiful countering;-again the living death is hurled aside; and now the scaled skin is deeply torn,-one eye socket has ceased to flame. Once more the stroke of the serpent once more the light, quick, cutting blow. But the trionocephalus is blind, is stupefied;-before he can attempt to coil pussy has leaped upon him,-nailing the horrible flat head fast to the ground with her two sinewy Now let him lash, writhe, twine, strive to strangle her!-in vain! he will never lift his head: an instant more and he lies still:-the keen white teeth of the cat have severed the vertebra just behind the triangular skull!...

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