The snake paused in its lethal constriction, long enough to let the wood mouse gasp and speak whatever words it had been struggling to say for the last three minutes. It had at first squirmed and wriggled betwixt its coils, as prey so often does when it is first snared; tried biting (he was used to that); tried screaming (that was his favorite part); and as the life was drained from them, in asphyxiated pulses they scrabbled, the remains of their brains triggering the final, instinctual twitches, claws stretched out to grab and rake whatever is available, was the usual course of this affair – but not for the wood mouse. After the screaming he became desperate to tell the snake something. The snake could see it in his eyes. Not a plea for life (which he rather enjoyed) but the same pushy glint that can be seen twinkling in a used goods salesman’s eye.
As he crushed the mouse, the snake remembered back to the day the salesman had stumbled (on safari he was, with his family and kindred knee-socked tourists) into his hanging coils. The snake had never seen a salesman before, nor since, but the expression stuck with him. He wanted to say just one more thing, just one more thing. “Just one more thing!” he’d wheezed, and choked. He wondered if the mouse would do the same.
He loosened his grip and the mouse filled his peewee lungs.
The snake watched him gather his wits. He tasted the air, feeding on the frightened juices the mouse’s body was producing, tasting the heat from his hands and head, the surrounding odors in the jungle. The mouse gulped some more of it down. It was not a sight the snake was often privy to, this sudden reprieve from death. It induced an abulia, sometimes permanent, in the victim, a complete senselessness. The body survives but the brain checks out, and the mouse, once so insistent to be heard, made no more enlightening sound than a squeak. The snake prepared to resume his strangulation when the mouse swiftly returned to himself, and the matter at tail, and smiled at him. (A mouse cannot smile, to be sure, but he shivers his whiskers in such a way that the gesture is understood.)
“Thank you,” said the wood mouse.
“What do you want to say?” hissed the snake. He was almost already bored, and he would soon remember he was hungrier than he was curious.
“I have just left my nest,” said the mouse. “I’ve had a litter, my wife’s had a litter, a wriggling mouthful of baby mice.”
The snake flicked his tongue. “Yes?”
“You could eat them, and not me,” said the mouse.
“I might do that,” said the snake. “I might eat you as well and search for the nest. I could find it, you know.”
“Oh, I have no doubt of that,” said the mouse, “but I could lead you straight there, sir snake. So quickly. You snakes love an efficient job, don’t you?”
“Snakes are very efficient,” said the snake. “But you might live far away. And you are likely to run away. Prey runs away when you let it go.”
“Wise,” said the mouse. “You are very cunning, sir snake.”
“I know,” said the snake.
“But my babies are so very fat.”
A bit of dribble leaked from the snakes’ scaly jaws. “If what you say is true, I will let you live. For today.”
The mouse danced out of the snakes’ coils. “Oh, thank you!” squeaked the mouse. “I shall lead you to my children! You shall savor their soft, pink flesh and you will let me live. You are a beautiful snake!”
“I know,” said the snake, and slithered after the scurrying mouse.
They reached the edge of the hollow when, from above, a haughty screech and a blur of black swooped, scooped and crunched the wood mouse. The falcon flew toward the canopy, laughing hysterically. And the snake watched him fly. He imagined the falcon would climb to the top of the jungle and pick apart the mouse at his leisure. “I shall fly to the tallest tree and pick apart this mouse at my leisure!” the falcon crowed.
The snake flicked his tongue. “I know,” he said. But the falcon did not hear him say that.