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An essay by Dallas Lore Sharp

The Dragon Of The Swale

Title:     The Dragon Of The Swale
Author: Dallas Lore Sharp [More Titles by Sharp]

My path to Cubby Hollow ran along a tumbling worm-fence, down a gravelly slope, and across a strip of swale, through which flowed the stream that farther on widened into the Hollow. A small jungle of dog-roses, elder, and blackberry tangled the banks of the stream, spreading into flanks of cinnamon-fern that crept well up the hillsides.

As I descended the gravelly slope, my path led through the ferns into a tunnel of vines, to a rail over the water, and on up to the woods. By the middle of June the tangle, except by the half-broken path, was almost rabbit-proof. The rank ferns waved to my chin, and were so thick that they left little trace of my passing until late in the summer.

This bit of the swale from the lower edge of the gravelly slope to the edge of the woods on the opposite slope was the lair of a dragon. My path cut directly across it.

Perhaps the dragon had been there ever since I had known the swale, and summer after summer had allowed me to cross unchallenged. I do not know. I only know that one day he rose out of the ferns before me--the longest, ugliest, boldest beast that ever withstood me in the quiet walks about home.

It was a day in early July, hot and very close. I was wading the sunken trail, much as one "treads water," my head not always above the surface of the fronds, when, suddenly, close to my side the ferns in a single spot were violently shaken. Instantly ahead of me they whirled again' and before I could think, off across the path was another rush and whirl--then stirless silence.

I knew what it meant. These were not the sudden, startled leaps of three animals, but the lightning movements of one. I had crossed the path of a swamp black-snake, and judging from the speed and whirl, it was a snake of uncommon size.

The path, a few paces farther on, opened into a small patch of low grass. Just as I was getting through the brake to this spot I stopped short with a chill. In the ferns near me shrilled a hissing whistle, a weird, creepy whistle that made me cold--a fierce, menacing sound, all edge, and so thin that it slivered every nerve in me. And then, without a stir in the brake, up out of the low grass in front of me rose a blue-black, glittering head.

I have little faith in the spell of a snake's eye, yet for a moment I was held by the subtle, masterful face that had risen so unexpectedly, so coolly before me. It was lifted a foot out of the grass. The head upon its lithe, round neck was poised motionless, but set as with a hair-spring. The flat, pointed face was turned upon me, so that I could see a patch of white upon the throat. Evidently the snake had just sloughed an old skin, for the sunlight gleamed iridescent on the shining jet scales. It was not a large head; it lacked the shovel-nose and the heavy, horrid jaws of the rattle-snake. But it was clean-cut, with power in every line of jaw and neck; with power and speed and certainty in the pose, so easy, ready, and erect. There was no fear in the creature's eye, something rather of aggressiveness, and of such evil cunning that I stood on guard.

Afraid of a snake? of a black-snake! No. I think, indeed, there are few persons who really do fear snakes. It is not fear, but nerves. I have tamed more black-snakes than I have killed. I should not care a straw if one bit me. Yet, for all of that, the meeting with any black-snake is so unlocked for as always to be unnerving. But let a huge one whip about you in the brake, chill you with an unearthly hissing whistle, then suddenly rise in front of you, glittering, challenging, sinister! You will be abashed. I was; and I shall never outgrow the weakness.

It was a big snake. I had not been mistaken in its size. There is nothing on earth that shrinks as a _dead_ snake; and this one, so far as I know, is still alive; yet, allowing generously for my imagination, I am sure the creature measured six feet. His neck, just behind the jaws, was nearly the size of a broom-handle, which meant a long, hard length curved out in the ferns behind. It was a male; I could tell by the peculiar musk on the air, an odor like cut cucumbers.

Fully a minute we eyed each other. Then I took a step forward. The glittering head rose higher. Off in the ferns there beat a warning tattoo--the loud whir of the snake's tail against a skunk-cabbage leaf.

In my hand was a slender dogwood switch that I had been poking into the holes of the digger-wasps up the hillside. If one thing more than another will turn a snake tail to in a hurry it is the song of a switch. Expecting to see this overbold fellow jump out of his new skin and lunge off into the swale, I leaned forward and made the stick sing under his nose. But he did not jump or budge. He only bent back out of range, swayed from side to side, and drew more of his black length out into the low grass to better his position.

The lidless eyes and scale-cased face of a snake might seem incapable of more than one set expression. Can hate and fear show there? They certainly can, at least to my imagination. If ever hate and fear mantled a face, they did this one in the grass. The sound of the switch only maddened the creature. He had too long dictated terms in this part of the swale to crawl aside for me.

Nor would I give way to him. But I ceased switching, drew back a step, and looked at him with more respect than I ever before showed a snake.

The curved neck straightened at that, the glinting head swayed forward, and shivering through me as the swish of a stick never shivered through a snake, sounded that unearthly hissing whistle. For a second--for just the fraction of a second that it takes to jump--I was, not scared, but shocked; and I slipped on something underfoot. In three directions I wallowed the ferns before I got to my feet to watch the snake again, and by that time the snake was gone.

I found myself somewhat muddy and breathing a little hard; but I was not wholly chagrined. I had heard and seen a black-snake whistle. I had never even known of the habit before.

Since then I have seen one other snake do it, and I think I have heard the sound three or four times. It is almost indescribable. The jaws were closed as it was made, not even the throat moving, that I could see. The air seemed to be blown violently through the nostrils, though sounding as if driven through the teeth--a shrilling hiss, fine and piercing, which one not so much hears as feels, crisping cold along his nerves.

It may seem strange, but I believe this whistle is a mating-call. Even the forked tongue (or maybe the nose) of a snake grows vocal with love. If only the Sphinx had not possessed a heart of stone! No matter about its lips; with a heart to know the "spring running" we should have heard its story long ago. Perhaps, after all, the college sophomore was not mixing his observations and Sunday-school memories when he wrote, describing the dawn of a spring morning (I quote from his essay): "Beneath in the water the little fishes darted about the boat; above the little birds twittered in the branches; while off on a sunny log in the pond the soft, sibilant croak of the mud-turtle was heard on the shore." If we could happen upon the mud-turtle mad with love, I am sure we should find that he had a voice--a "soft, sibilant croak," who knows?

I had long known the tradition among the farmers of the black-snake's trailing its mate, following her by scent through grass and brush, persistent and sure as a sleuth-hound, until at last she is won. I had been told of this by eyewitnesses over and over, but I had always put it down as a snake story, for these same witnesses would also tell me the hoop-snake story, only it was their grandfathers, always, who had seen this creature take its tail in its mouth and roll, and hit and kill a fifty-dollar apple-tree (the tree was invariably worth fifty dollars). I had small faith in the trailing tale.

One day, the summer after my encounter in the ferns, I was sitting upon a harrow at the edge of the gravelly field that slopes to the swale, when a large black-snake glided swiftly across the lane and disappeared in the grass beyond. It had been gone perhaps a minute, when I heard another stir behind me, and turning, saw high above the weeds and dewberry-vines the neck and head of a second black-snake.

He was coming swiftly, evenly, carrying his gleaming head over a foot from the ground, and following hard upon the trail of the first snake. He hit very near the smooth, flowing mark in the dust of the lane. Here she had crossed. Here he was about to cross when he caught sight of me.

For a startled instant he stiffened, threw himself on the defensive, and showed a white patch under his chin, an ugly, blazing light in his eye, and a peculiarly aggressive attitude that there was no mistaking. I had seen this snake before. I knew him. He was the dragon of the swale.

Only pausing, he whirled, struck the track, and sped on, his round black body stretching from rut to rut of the lane. A hundred feet beyond in the grass I saw his glittering head rise and sway with a swimming motion as he trailed the long, lithe beauty that was leading him this lightning race across the fields.

This was not the last time he crossed my path. He never withstood me again; but he thwarted me several times. Once as I was descending the slope I saw him gliding down from a low cedar. The distressing cries of two chippies told me what he had been doing in the tree; I did not need to look at the half-dislodged nest. Then and there I vowed to kill him, but from that moment I never set eyes on him again. His evil work, however, went on. In a clump of briers across the stream was the nest of a pair of redbirds that I was watching. One day just before the young could fly they were carried off. I knew who did it. On the same side, up under the fence by the woods, a litter of rabbits was destroyed. The snake killed them. It was he, too, who ate the eggs of the bluebirds in the old apple-tree along the fence in the adjoining field.

There must be a dragon in the way, I suppose--in the way even of nature study. There are unpleasant, perhaps unnecessary, and evil creatures--snakes!--in the fields and woods, which we must be willing to meet and tolerate for the love within us. Tick-seeds, beggar-needles, mud, mosquitos, rain, heat, hawks, and snakes haunt all our paths, hindering us sometimes, though never really blocking the way.

But the dragon in the swale--ought I to tolerate him? No. There are moments when I should be glad to kill him, yet I doubt if the swale would be quite so wild and thrilling a spot if I knew there was no dragon to meet me as I crossed. But the redbirds, bluebirds, rabbits? I see no shrinking in their numbers because of the snake. A few of them breed as they always have along the swale. There are worse enemies than the dragon, though he is bad enough.

[The end]
Dallas Lore Sharp's essay: The Dragon Of The Swale