The Snakes of Perception
There once was a young boy who lived near the sea. Along the shore was a steep bluff which spanned many miles along the shoreline. The village where the boy lived was just a short walk from the sea since this particular village used a port to ship goods up and down the shoreline to neighboring villages.
The boy was told that he could venture where he wished as long as he did not interrupt the workers and commuters in the port.
“Where there are ports there are thieves! And where there are birds there are wicked snakes. Be wary my son,” his father would tell him. This boy was raised to fear many things, for his parents feared for their boy. However, acting within the bounds of his piety, the boy picked up the hobby of walking up and down the edge of the bluff since he enjoyed the sounds of the sea.
One day, during his routine stroll, the boy noticed a snake. Fearing for his life he reached for the nearest object to defend himself. Fortune was on his side because he found a large branch: a staff fit for a man. With this staff the boy smited the snake by crushing its skull. Overwhelmed with pride, the boy took the snake and brought it to the village.
“Look father, I have killed a wicked snake! Our village need not fear of this particular snake any longer.”
“Well done my son. Now let us take it to the herbalist so we may examine the venom.”
The herbalist was a high-ranking member of the village. She was known to cure many illnesses and she was able to create elixirs which strengthened those who drank them. Because of this the village chief gave her the authority to appoint anyone she wished for the advancement of her practice. The chief also agreed to pay any wage she deemed necessary for her work.
When the boy and his father brought the snake to the herbalist, she drew out some of the venom and mixed it with sheep's blood. Immediately, the blood coagulated and blackened. The herbalist cackled and said, “you have done good boy, this snake would have certainly killed you or someone else had you not killed it! But beware, there are many snakes like this along the bluff. Therefore, I hereby order you to take your staff and kill every snake you find. Bring them to me so I may study them and use their venom for my potions. I shall pay you one silver coin for each snake you bring me. Now go!”
The boy's father was proud of his son. No one in the village had ever been appointed to a paying position at such a young age. The boy was thrilled, yet he felt the sharp tinge of responsibility that power bestows.
As the boy matured into manhood he became very skilled in his craft. It seemed that the more fervently he hunted for the snakes, the more snakes there would be. By the time he was a young man, his duty grew into a necessary role for the protection and supply of the village and the port. There were days where he would collect as much as 70 silver coins for his bounty. Needless to say, this young man became the 3rd wealthiest villager, having only less coin than his employer and the chief himself.
The herbalist learned much by dissecting and examining the snakes. She determined that there were a total of six serpent types; one that caused near-immediate death, one that caused a slow and painful demise lasting weeks, one that caused infertility in men and women alike, one that paralyzed the victim partially or completely, one that caused only deafness, and one that caused only blindness. She found no other type of snake from the thousands delivered to her. From the venom, the herbalist was able to concoct elixirs which healed the ailments the venoms caused, with the exception of death. However, if the ailments were originally caused by snake venom they could not be cured by her elixirs. Additionally, the villagers could eat the meat of the snakes, make apparel out of the skins, and make fertilizer and trinkets out of the bones. The chief was deeply pleased by the results of her practice and gave praise to her and the young man.
This continued until the man's old age, long after his father's passing and long after the herbalist's passing. During this time, the chief also passed away and was replaced by the next of kin. The old man had earned so much respect that no one questioned his authority when it came to killing and utilizing the snakes. He consulted with the new chief about the snake population and he trained the new herbalist in the ways of the old.
One day when addressing the village he said, “the snakes have always come and will continue to come. Despite all my methods the population never dwindles. In fact, on days where I am most efficient, the snakes seem to make up for it in increased numbers. I am getting old and I must train my successor before I am too old. They must be young and without occupation. This is a dangerous job, so consider it deeply if you wish your child to be my apprentice.”
The men of the village brought their sons in droves at the prospect of their heir landing such a lucrative position. Many dragged their kids against their will to the old man. Among the children, he selected ten of the most fit and keen to start their training. As he was heading to his home to rest before the first day of training, a woman approached him with her boy.
“O’ great snake slayer, please take my child with you tomorrow. I am a widow and my late husband was our only provider. Though my boy is weak, he is smart. Please, I beg of you, we are poor and if my son proves himself we will accept a small wage.”
“I admire your boldness in asking me this. But, why should I accept your boy when I dismissed dozens of others who appeared stronger than he appears?”
“O’ great snake slayer, my boy is smart and fearless. He plays along the bluff when no one else will. He knows the land you patrol but he has seen no snakes. It is by your work that he can listen to the sea in safety.”
The old man pitied the woman and admired the boy for sharing his passion of the sea. So he agreed to take the boy with him. The next morning, before the sun rose in the sky, the man and the boys walked toward the bluff. He instructed them all to find their own instrument to slay the first snake they laid their eyes on.
“Do not select your weapon until death is upon you! The opportunity to defend yourself will provide you with your weapon.”
When the sun broke on the horizon opposite of the sea, their sight became keen upon the ground where they spotted many snakes. The ten selected boys ran away in fear but the weakling turned to his master and said, “my master, we are in danger. Give me your staff so I may begin smiting these snakes.”
The old man gave his staff to the boy and watched in amazement as the boy killed seven snakes with seven blows. The rest of the snakes, seeing the fearlessness and might of the young boy, fled to their nests. The boy extended the staff to his master, but the old man refused it.
“Your conquering has rightfully given you my weapon. Keep it and my duties. I no longer need to search for my apprentice. I will teach you in my ways. As for your wage, I am wealthy beyond measure and I have no need for the bounty. You may go home and fill your pantry with these 7 silver coins.”
As for the fate of the other ten boys, four of them fled safely to the village where they were whipped by their fathers for their cowardice. The other six attempted to kill the snakes that were in their path of retreat. All six failed to find any weapons, so they tried their hands at death. One boy died immediately. One died many weeks later after suffering greatly beneath his weeping mother. One thought he escaped the poison of the bite, but died of old age without an heir. One became paralyzed from the neck down and burdened the village that day forth. One became deaf, and the last became blind.
The old man found another staff for himself and spent years with his apprentice travelling up and down the bluff, instructing the boy in the art of killing snakes. The young boy grew quickly and became a strong young man. In his youth, he became rebellious and arrogant which troubled his master. One day, on their routine stroll, the young man cast his staff off the bluff and into the sea.
“I do not need your staff old man, my hands alone are talented enough.”
“You fool,” cried the old man, “that staff killed more snakes than you can even fathom! It was a relic to the village and a prized possession of mine for all my life! A curse on you for your insolence!”
At that moment, a snake rose up and struck the young man's ankle. He fell to the ground and let out a cry. He knew it was not the snake that causes instant death because otherwise he would not have had the time to come to such a conclusion. But as he laid on the ground, weary from his injury, he looked to the ocean as it slowly turned to grey. The waves became blurred and their movement became indistinguishable. Then, all sight left him. He could not even comprehend the shade of pitch black, for peering into nothing is like peering into a perfectly clear window with a thickness that reaches the end of the world. Grief struck the young man as sudden as the snake struck him. He knew he had been blinded forever by the venom.
The old man felt great remorse for cursing his student so he agreed to keep teaching him.
“Your first task is to retrieve your staff without any aid. When you do, bring it to me and I will teach you how to navigate the bluff with the staff as your eyes.”
The young man stumbled along the wet shore for 7 months finding many staffs but none that were his. Then on the 7th day of the 7th month at the 7th hour of the day, he found a staff whose weight and shape gave him immediate comfort and confidence. He walked to the village without struggle and went straight to the old man and knelt at his feet.
“My master, I have found your staff and am ready to begin my training again.”
His master was greatly pleased and so they left the next morning to continue in the ways of killing snakes. For many years the old man taught his student how to navigate the bluff, using his staff as his eyes. He taught him how to hear the snakes and how to strike with accuracy by tuning into the sounds of nature. The young man rediscovered his old talents to such a degree that it no longer seemed that he was blind. This continued until the old man became so old that he could no longer join in the hunt.
“My student. My son. I have devoted my life to the protection of the village and never married to continue my lineage. You are my legacy and so you are my son. Come, let us walk once more to the bluff to enjoy the sounds of the sea together.”
They walked to the edge of the bluff and sat there looking on the sunset as the bright orange orb sunk below the sea. The young man could see the beauty through the warmth of the sunlight that basked his face.
“My master. My father. What do you hear?”
“I hear your voice and the crashing waves, but nothing else. All is at peace here.”
“Master, I hear a snake.”
At once the master rose up, drawing his staff, but he saw no snake.
“Trickery! You have fooled an old man! Shame on you for disturbing my peace!”
The young man reached into the grass and grasped at what appeared to be nothing. The old man pitied his student because he had not seen him stumble in his blindness for a long time. But, to the old man's amazement, the young man pulled up a snake whose scales were the texture and color of the grass that surrounded it. Not knowing the nature of the snake, the old man trembled in fear.
“Kill it! Kill it at once!”
The young man then brought his own arm to the snake's mouth and allowed the snake to bite him. His master was in disbelief at this action and wondered why his student would subject himself to certain peril. Then the young man released the snake which disappeared at once in the grass.
“My master. My father. All of the snakes here taste the same when cooked. Their skins make apparel of equal quality. Their venom is of the same color and consistency. They all move alike and, unbeknownst to you, they all sound exactly the same. My master, these snakes are all the same type of snake. And behold, they are all harmless. Now that your duties are fully mine, I see the snakes as they are and I see them at peace.”
Then the master understood his student and like all masters of all time, he became the student. He knew that his fear as a boy distracted him from the peace within the sounds of the waves. The music of nature threatened no one and now that his reign was over, he could once again enjoy the sounds of the sea.
The two men sat together until the sun sank beneath the waters, listening to the beauty and serenity around them; understanding the true nature of the bluff.