One day, an old Burmese python was slithering through his jungle home when he passed by a pool of water. The snake turned back toward the pool to take a drink and as he approached it he saw a small, red-furred animal, eating a nut, in a forest on the other side of the water. Reflexively, the snake struck at the creature, through the water, but was abruptly met by the muddy ground beneath it. After taking a moment to come to his senses, the snake slithered around to the other side of the pool, closer to it. He carefully dipped his head into the water, but once again saw only the muck-ridden floor of the pool. As the snake was shaking his head dry, he saw the animal lift her head from her meal. The squirrel seemed to peer directly at him through the water.
Distracted, the squirrel carelessly dropped the plumpy nut it was treasuring. The tasty morsel fell off and rolled down into the water. She raised her tuffs in surprise, emitted a small cry of disappointment. In an attempt to retrieve it she decided, against her better judgment, to bend closer to the stretch of water, where possibly the snake was still lurking. The surface of the pool was perfectly still, even slightly opaque. Yet, the serpent was staring directly into the rodent’s eyes as if trying to establish contact despite its threatening aspect. The squirrel blinked so as to better capture its surrounding environment to focus on the sounds. She heard a hiss that was more sonorous than it was announcing danger. She tilted her head, still trying to figure out how to interact with this creature that her grandmother claimed she had met in the shades of a bush in Southern California while visiting a relative ground squirrel. There he was, a snake, towering over her.
“What are you?” said the snake to himself, confused by the odd-looking creature.
It took the squirrel a moment to realize that the hissing was actually developing into an utterance.
“By your standards, I’m a ready-made meal, the only difference with a field mouse is that I’m a talking orange field mouse,” interjected she.
“You can hear me?”
“No, you know I have a tendency to talk to myself. Might want to visit a shrink someday. Did you know that skunks are actually good counselors?”
What’s a skunk? It sounds like something I might want to avoid.”
“Skunks are smelly little pedantic creatures that wouldn’t be noticed in a black and white photography class. You’ve never seen one? Just where do you come from?” she wittily replied.
“Then it sounds like I was right. Why on earth do you put up with them?”
“They offer free counseling. The doctor’s in, you know. The poor lad thinks he’s good if you actually bother to visit him. Plus, he offers nice hazelnut cakes, and do you think I could resist homemade cakes with nuts? But you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?” she sighed.
“Seems like this … skunk, would serve better as a meal than some nuts in a … what did you call it?”
“By the old gods, a cake? Do you… What do you know about anyway? You skipped my first question, by the way.”
Her eyes lit up. By now she was rather amused. She shifted her position and sat on her hind legs, prompting the snake to adopt a similar, friendly attitude.
“What question was that?”
“Do you have, like, an ounce of memory? I merely inquired about your location. Please, tell me more about you.”
“I’m from … here” said the snake, looking to each side of himself to indicate the jungle behind. “What else would you like to know?”
She rolled her eyes in playful exasperation. “Thank you, Sherlock Holmes, that’s very helpful. I’m asking you about your current location and all you have to say is that it’s behind you. Come to think of it, you might want to visit that skunk. Let’s start with the basics. What’s the one defining feature about your environment?”
“Humidity.” he replied.
She rubbed her nose, sniffed the air as if to acquaint herself with his “humidity” and after a moment said: “You mean like, a jungle of sorts? And you’re out here alone?”
“Of course I’m alone, I’m a snake. I was hunting when I saw you. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to reach you, otherwise I wouldn’t be hunting anymore.”
“Meaning I’d be on the menu? See, that’s mean. I’m trying, and I do mean really trying, to establish contact here, and all it boils down to, in your head, is what seasoning you’re going to use on me.”
“You seem rather young and tender, I’m sure you wouldn’t need any seasoning.”
“Okay so NOW you know what seasoning is, but didn’t have a clue about a cake earlier? Pray tell, just how did you end up here? You’re rather benighted or very witty and mischievous.”
“Context, my dear … whatever you are. You referred to seasoning in the context of eating you, so it makes sense that it would be something to put on you. I’ve never heard of cakes before and all I can tell is that they have something to do with nuts. And as far as how I ended up here, it’s my jungle. How did you end up there?”
She took some time to register his logorrhea, establishing that he was a funny one. She picked up on the word jungle and it confirmed what she had deduced about him. She rubbed her paws in satisfaction and concentrated on giving an accurate answer.
“I was born in a tree trunk, first of my name. My burrow is currently around a canopy of chestnuts. You might see some of the mightiest specimens of the forest behind me.”
With that she moved to the side so the snake might have a chance to catch a glimpse of what she was describing. She hoped he could see her surroundings, not just her. He occupied much of her field of vision.
“In a tree trunk? That must have been quite the fall. How would something as small as you hold onto a tree?”
“That might work if I… let’s see… were a squirrel.” she chuckled.
“A … squirrel? What on earth is that? You look like some kind of wingless bat with an oversized tail.”
It seemed like she could have fallen down from laughing, but she was a proper lady and realized he… understood next to nothing. With resolve she slowly articulated:
“Can you see me alright?”
“I see a red ball of fur with an enormous tail and oversized ears. Is that accurate?”
“Close enough. You’re looking at an endangered red squirrel right through that pool.”
“If I could get close enough, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
“See I don’t know if your approach is friendly or downright sadistic, if it’s meant to trigger me, it’s working.”
“My approach is hungry. As I said, I was hunting when I saw you.”
“My good snake sir is too kind to delay his meal to talk with a commoner like myself. That begs the question, why are you still here?”
“That’s a good question … you’re a curiosity I suppose. I’m intrigued.”
“Oh well, the museum’s exit is down that hall, if you please. Unless you want to admire the rodent section a bit more? Seriously, how did you manage to survive with such a posh approach? Do you hear yourself talking? Why do you think I’m still here?” she replied, highlighting the I’m.
“Well, I don’t usually talk to my food and I suppose you’re still here for the same reason I am, curiosity.”
“Implying and inferring at the same time. You’re head over heels, that, I can tell you. Don’t you think that life is a bit less dull than hunting or being hunted?”
“If I don’t hunt, I don’t eat and if I don’t eat … well. This is something I haven’t experienced before.”
“Like I said, hazelnut cakes from the shrink-skunk. Half of your problems might be solved that way.”
“Those hazelnuts sound like they might cause more problems for me than they would solve. I prefer my food to be breathing.”
“Oh yes, they’re definitely harmful to you. And I’m practically made of them. Stay away from me– it’s not like you can reach me though– for all you’re worth. You’re more entertaining than a lusterless nut.”, she pouted.
“Speaking of reaching you, are we just going to ignore the fact that I’m talking to you through a pool of water?” he asked.
“From what you’re telling me, I don’t have the slightest reasons to believe
finding an improbable way to reach you might be a safe bet for me. But sure, you’re talking to a reflection of a squirrel, that might be a material for a human fable.”
“I’ve already tried reaching you and I wouldn’t recommend it. Although, at your size, you’d probably drown anyway and then someone would be out of a meal.”
“A not breathing one, at that. Well, I can try to jump into the pool, see what happens?”
She jolted upwards and ran up to the nearest chestnut, leaving only the green canopy for the snake to see. Then there was a splash and the squirrel came out of the water, all muddy and wet and looking rather defeated. She licked her hairs for a while, seemingly happy to take a break from all that animalistic interaction.
“I can swim, thank you. But it’s still a failure.”
“That was disturbing. You fell toward the water and just disappeared. I gather your landing was about as pleasant as mine when I tried it.”
“A snake presumably on a hunt being concerned about the safety of its prey. You wouldn’t be starting to like me, I trust?”
“Well, you’re clearly not going to be prey, at least not for me and you are … interesting.”
“You should have hissed to make that more dramatic. I’m disappointed in your acting skills.”
“Acting … what do you mean?”
“Pretending to be someone you’re not?” she tried.
“I know what the word means, you insolent, little ball of fluff. What makes you think that I was acting?”
“I’ve got to tell you you’re rather… Unverving, to say the least.” She paused for a moment and declared: “Oh I know, you’re an ordeal that that skunk sent me. To see how long I would put up with you.”
“You seem to be a bit obsessed with that skunk. I think that you should probably talk to him about it.”
“Humm, he’s not really a skunk. Or a shrink, for that matter. We use that nickname but it’s a joke. Partners, you know. You surely have a belle your side?”
“Now I’m thoroughly confused. If he’s not a … skunk then what is he?”
“I think you came across enough animal names for today. He’s neither a skunk nor a snake. He can be just as smelly or slithering, sometimes, granted. But that’s about it.” she playfully replied. She paused again, seemingly distracted. She heard a flutter behind her and her voice went down a bit.
“Speaking of the devil…”
A red panda approached from behind the trees. He looked up and saw a very tempting stem of a bamboo and lazily climbed up to it and chewed on it with a zen attitude. He looked down on the squirrel, knowing she was crazy but not that crazy to talk to a pool. He laid back and relaxed, was soon snoozing.
“He looks familiar. I think I ate something like him last week.”
“Can’t you think out of the eating sphere? Don’t you question the fact that there’s a snake, – a python, I’ll take a wild guess– , a squirrel and a panda, *together*?, as in, in the same environment?”
“How am I supposed to not think about eating, I’m a mouth on a stick. And I have no idea what’s normal where you are.”
“I saw a kid one day who dropped a geography book. The planet looks way bigger than this… zone we seem to evolve in. I think we’ve probably been sharing the same environment this whole time.”
“So, there are humans around you?”
“The janitor comes in every day. Mister panda gets his nuts from him. He’s a real star, here. Did you not pay attention? I did say I was an endangered species of squirrel. And panda is, too.”
“And they feed you …”
“Yes, I wonder how you’ve been getting your food this whole time. I should consult a shrink but you should get your eyes checked. The food that gets thrown in is dead, silly. You probably thought you were a great hunter, well, sorry to disappoint you.”
“Are you enclosed, by any chance? Are there walls around you?”
“Why, yes, but I can easily get out if I wanted to. I enjoy catching a glimpse of rare animals. I can’t wrap my head around the fact that I’m only seeing you just now.”
“Oh, my dear little furball, you’re in a zoo. You’re on display for the amusement of humans.”
“I came here out of my own free will. You’re in a movie talking to a stupid kid and hissing shenanigans. Talk about display and amusement. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if you said your name was… Nagini.”
“Do I look that evil to you? And do you mean I’m in a movie?
“You did try to eat me.” And you’re in a movie, yes. But I am too. Humans enclose us in cells and behind cameras. I’m lucky not to have drawn my first breath in captivity, but what about you?”
“I’m not enclosed, I have an entire jungle at my disposal.”
“Is it a habit of yours to elude tough questions? So you’re from here, you’ve been here this whole time.”
“I broke out of my egg not far from here and began hunting. There’s really not much more to it.”
“You don’t question anything? See, I’m free. I can leave if I want. I value my liberty. Some folks erected a statue for it, my grandma told me. But you don’t seem to have a choice and will probably not get to know more trees, more environment and varied preys than what you have here, as you said, at your disposal. In fact, make it count, this is probably the most unusual moments of your reptilian life.”
“You can leave if you want? Oh furball, I think you misunderstand the concept of walls. And why would I want to leave my home? It’s warm, there’s plenty to eat and no one is spying on me … well, until now.”
“Oh, that panda up there has already gone out like a light. And yes, I can leave. There’s a slightly damaged wire fence to the left, that no one knows about.”.
“Then why do you come back? Are you so lazy that you don’t want to find your own food anymore, be free to sleep wherever you please?”
She pouted and flipped her tail.
“Why, how do you think I get that glow on my whole fur? It’s thanks to walnuts that I fetch miles away from here, that never grew behind bars.”, in an excess of pride.
“Now who’s dodging the question … why do you come back?”
“Because panda here can’t get out, he’s trapped here. I grew to like him and I’m trying to enlarge the hole I told you about so that maybe we can all escape. You could sneak in and flatten the ground, you know. But that would mean leaving your seemingly endless food supply.”
“As I said, I tried to get there and it didn’t work. My snout will be reminding me of that for days. However, I do know a thing or two about getting through tight spaces. Maybe I can be of some assistance.”
“Part-time actor, full-time plumber. Looks like you look the part to me.”
“First an actor now a plumber? … I think you’ve seen too many movies.”
“Probably. I talk to a human girl a lot, she’s attended many literature classes. You’d like her, she feeds animals.”
“And you’ve even learned their language. We really do need to get the two of you out of there.”
“Adaptation is a squirrel’s credo, silly. Cats did it too. They adapted their meows so that humans could hear it. And now they’re about to rule them all.”
“There’s a difference between adaptation and assimilation.”
“Yeah well, morning is approaching. If we want to get out of here by night we better start digging. I can help, with my paws.”
“It’ll take more than one night to dig your way out. Have you taken a good look at the bottom of that pond? If you’re in a zoo, I’d be willing to bet that it’s fake.”
“I did say that you were a plumber, after all. Care to elaborate?”
“Meaning that there’s probably a drain under all of that water. It might lead out of there, if you can hold your breath long enough.”
“I can swim in a survival situation, not for a diving contest. Hold on, I’m going to try.”
She climbed up a tree and went a bit higher than her last attempt, hoping that it might make a difference. She took the plunge and focused on her hind legs to get some propulsion. Holding her breath, she managed to reach the bottom of the pool and made out the outline of two big silver tubes and guessed that the panda could actually pass through it. She resurfaced and dove again, this time determined to make it to the other side. When she emerged, all wet and muddy, she looked exhausted as if she had toured the world. Her vision was still a bit blurred and after a moment she distinguished her surroundings and the one and only snake she had encountered, facing her.
The snake watched in confused amazement as the squirrel, wet and mud-encrusted emerged from the pool in front of him. For a moment he was tempted to claim the meal he had been denied earlier, but then felt a pang of guilt.
“What are you doing here?”
“Have you been following the course of events at all? I’m here, I passed through the pipe that was at the bottom, like you suggested. I see you’re delighted to see me, as your late meal, it seems. I trusted you and came all the way here, only to walk into your ravenous mouth. I’m not going to make a scene, but you’ve got quite the nerve.”
“I just thought that the pipe would lead out of the zoo, but if it led here, then that must mean …”
Suddenly, the snake had a horrifying realization … He was also trapped in a zoo.
To the squirrel, it looked like the snake was about to get eaten as if his heart had visibly skipped a beat. She surveyed their surroundings. She had to adjust to the fact that another animal – a predator was standing before her, but against her better judgment, she wasn’t afraid. By now, she could tolerate him, he had become a friend, not just an acquaintance anymore. Yet, the silence of the reptile was off-putting to her. She addressed him:
“And so, that party’s a bore. Please, refund my ticket and travel expenses.”
“We’re both in a zoo … I’ve been in a zoo all along …”
She saw that he still had not come to terms with this new information so she tried to comfort him by curling into a ball that he was currently enclosing. She felt safe, she noticed he ticked when she did that. That embrace ought to be soothing, to him, she thought.
“What are you doing, furball?”
“Do I really have to explain everything to you. I had hoped that getting closer to you could actually calm you down. I’m sorry if my behavior upset you.”
She reluctantly stepped away from him and kept her distance, her back turned away. She was flipping her tail rapidly and chirping a bit, her way of saying that this individual wasn’t a piece of– nut– cake.
“No, it was nice. Come back.”
“You’re one step closer to admitting that you like me, you know. There will be consequences.” She winked and happily scooted back to him.
“This changes everything, what am I going to do now?” he said
“You don’t have to do anything, in fact, you can just accept the fact that it’s the first time your prey hugs you and that despite your upbringings, cold-blooded creature, you like it. “
To emphasize her point, she rubbed the softest spot of her tail at the top of his head.
“I was referring to the fact that I’m in a zoo, but I suppose you’re still right. I don’t have to do anything, nothing has changed. I’m still where I’ve always been.”
She laughed and added: “Work it out, genius. If I can go back to my spot, so can you, and from there, you can slide out of that zoo, and decide if we part or stick together.”
“And I can help dig out the hole under that fence so we can bring your friend with us.
“Did I just hear ‘us’? You mean that you’re actually embarking on an adventure with a panda and a squirrel? How does your rationalistic mind process this?”
She looked at the sky and as it was getting darker, she got out of their embrace and started to walk back to the pond. Her fur was getting a bit too wet to her liking. She looked back to see what the snake was doing.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, furball. I’ll help you escape and we’ll see what happens after that. The point, my soggy little friend, is that there’s always hope.
“Yes, obviously, but traveling would mean expanding your diet range and you’re not getting an ounce of my panda if that’s what you’re after. You know I could actually gnaw at you if I fancy it, so while we’re there, watch out. And now, we’re even.”
“Good night, furball.” said the snake and he fell asleep.
“That’s it, you’re going to leave me like this? Inhospitable individual!. Well, I’m just going to explore your area, if you don’t mind. Maybe bring back a new language, or two. “
And with that, the squirrel scurried off to explore the newfound environment, leaving the snake to sleep off the remarkably strange day.
Written by John Maloney and Appoline Romanens from May 29 to July 3, 2018.
New Jersey and Lyon.