Even though I have no siblings, I’m not an only child

My odds and ends table

The black mamba drinks at her shallow water bowl, her jaws working silently, skin gleaming softly in the warm, incandescent light of the enclosure. In the next enclosure, a green mamba watches us from her coiled perch on a branch.

Somewhere in the underbelly of this immaculately maintained mobile snake enclosure, there are mice & rats. These are bred as food for the silent slow moving hunters above.

My son, Jack, asks the snake lady if they have puff adders. She shakes her head. ‘They’re very private: they don’t like being stared at all the time. If we keep them here, eventually…,’ she shrugs, ‘they just give up. We had one who kept burrowing under the mat to hide away. Others never come out of their shelters.’

After an hour in the silent snake world, we leave. I am quiet, absorbing the impact of being with creatures other than those like me: another consciousness, a radically different presence in the world. This slow, slithering single-minded presence. 

Naturally, we look at the world through the lens of our human-ness. But I have an inkling that it’s vital (as in ‘of life’) for us to spend time with that which is other than us. To share our aliveness with different beings and life forms. It’s healthy.

We can’t keep walking this earth like self-absorbed only children. We have siblings: older brothers and sisters who deserve respect, younger ones who need taking care of.

I sometimes put my forehead to our cat Luna’s silky head. In the silence, my head bowed, I feel her warm puffs of breath, the slight whistle through one of her tiny nostrils. It’s an attempt to get a sense of her cat-ness (before she slinks away in irritation).

Years ago, when I taught English to Taiwanese students in Johannesburg, we took them on a field trip to the zoo. A lioness paced up and down the length of her cage, her heavy head swaying from side to side. I crouched down to see her better. As she turned in another endless loop at the far end of her cage, her golden eyes locked on mine, her gaze cold and calculating. In her emotionless regard, my sense of myself shrank and faltered.

My breath hitched as her soft-looking paws, the muscles that flowed beneath her tawny skin, brought her loping closer and closer to me. I couldn’t hold her gaze. Feeling small and silly, I stood up to my full height and backed away. 

A while ago, Jack’s Grandpa gave us an abandoned nest he’d found on the grass. It was a small one, the grass stalks impossibly woven by flighty creatures without hands into a circular concave shape and insulated with small bits of fluff that looked like cotton. I placed the nest alongside sea shells and interesting bits of wood on my odds-and-ends table on the veranda.

That afternoon, I sat on our daybed with my coffee. Two Cape white-eyes caught my eye. They flitted down from the nearby lemon tree onto the table and began to pluck out the buds of fluff from the nest.

This sight jolted me out of the little queendom in my head: my garden, my veranda, my very important thoughts. These small creatures had noticed a new addition to their world, and were now mining it for what they could use. I watched these two inhabitants of the garden going about their lives, using what they could find to insulate their nest, and I was suddenly no longer at the centre of a small, self-absorbed world.

In an instant, I was simply one member of a wriggling, fluttering, slithering family, my toes deep in the soil of the world.