A central character in The Butterfly Heart is a man called Ifwafwa (which means Puffadder). The children call him that for a number of reasons but one of them is that he has a way with snakes. He is the man that people called to their homes if snakes have got into their house. This idea came to me from a story my dad used to tell us as children – he always told us true stories which took place in Burma, India and Kenya where he had lived as a child and then as an adult.
In this particular story, which took place in Kenya, a large cobra had come into a neighbour’s house and my dad called on a man who he knew could handle snakes. It so happened this man was in the local jail. He was allowed out of jail to come and get this snake. Once he had it he put it into a bag and he went back to jail – with the snake! He knew how to milk the venom from the fangs of the cobra, so he did this on a regular basis. (The name cobra by the way comes from a Portuguese term cobra de capelo – which literally means Snake with a Hood)
Once he got out of jail he used to ride round the countryside on his bicycle and people would pay a little money to see this man with his cobra. He would take the snake out of the bag and handle it – which he could do as there was no longer any venom in its hollow teeth. He did this for many years – it was how he earned his living.
But this man got too comfortable with his Cobra and became lax about milking it. The venom in a snake is produced in venom glands and once those are emptied out (either through biting or milking) they quickly replenish it. One day when he took the snake out to show a small audience that had gathered round him, the snake turned round and bit him. He died about a day later. One of the many sad things about this story is that if he had had access quickly to an antidote he may well have survived, as many victims of a cobra bite do in fact survive, but he was in a small village in rural Kenya and had no chance.
As a side fact – in the US there is actually a job description for a Snake Milker – and to become one of these you would need a Degree in Biology or similar. It’s not a job I’d like.