snake charmer - excerpt

One of the most telling documents of the expedition is a photograph of Joe standing in a patch of sunlight, wrangling a many-banded krait. The ostensible purpose of the photograph was to serve as an archival record of the specimen, but the shot also powerfully conveys Joe’s confident mastery of the situation. The children of the village came out to gawk as the pale- skinned visitor, taller and stockier than the malnourished men who lived there, free-handled the dangerous serpent they called ngan taw kyar (“royal tiger snake”) with cool bravado. Their parents hung back, looking over a twig fence, watching in astonishment as the krait twisted and wriggled in the stranger’s expert hands. Joe was a brilliant biologist in his prime, but he took a visceral, almost rapturous delight in handling snakes. This pleasure shines through in the photograph, captured in a glorious interlude of sun: The light gleams on Joe’s mop of tawny hair and goatee, glinting penny-bright.

At thirty-eight, Joe’s life was riding a dizzying upward arc. Four years earlier, he’d been toiling in a dead-end job as a lecturer at a small university in Louisiana; now he was among the most respected and influential herpetologists in America. A few days before Joe left San Francisco for the expedition, the National Science Foundation had awarded him a grant for $2.4 million—the largest public research grant the California Academy of Sciences had received in its 148-year history. By year’s end, he would take over the chairmanship of the herpetology department at the Academy, the premier natural-history museum in the American West. And Joe was in love—unexpectedly and passionately in love—with a beautiful woman he’d recently met in San Francisco. With the toad middle age squatting in the middle of his path, leering, he was thinking of settling down. In Burma, Joe dreamed of Sandy.

That evening, the group received bad news. Runners from the next village on the expedition’s route arrived in Rat Baw, reporting that mudslides had closed roads, and floods had washed out bridges on the trail ahead. Joe had planned to press on soon into the Himalayas, even more remote terrain; now it appeared that the journey onward would almost certainly have to be canceled.

Yet the next morning Joe rose early and bounded out of his sleeping bag into the gray mist of first light. He found his Burmese assistant already hard at work on the porch, attempting to bring some order to the specimens collected the day before. The snakes were in cloth bags, lined up on the assistant’s worktable. Every now and then, one of the bags would wiggle and thump.

Joe asked about a particular specimen, and the assistant handed it to him, saying that he thought it was a Dinodon.

Although it was still too dark to see well, Joe absentmindedly thrust his right hand into the sack to extract the specimen and have a look. Immediately, he winced with pain and yanked out his hand. A tiny black-and-white banded snake, less than ten inches long, was dangling limply from his middle finger, its fangs still sunk into his flesh. Joe looked at it in quiet horror. Without the hope of a doubt, he said, “That’s a fucking krait.”