The Watchful Cell
C J Stark

What if, like me, one day you inexplicably found yourself restricted to a cell that was small, sparsely furnished and confining. One corner of this room, you notice, is occupied by a sleek, black, glistening snake quietly coiled and lying very still. It might be any snake but for it’s hooded throat. This observation proves, only too clearly, it is not any snake, it’s a cobra. The cramped quarters of the cell, the oppressive closeness and lack of light or air by itself are enough to cause some tense anxiety. And with the presence of a cobra in there with you as a cellmate, well, I damn near soiled myself at this prospect. At first, I figured I’m as good as dead. But, shortly, I think to myself, it’s only a snake, and not a very large one at that. The actual problem here, clearly, is the bite. It’s only the bite that’s to fear. So, as long as the snake lives in his corner of our communal cell, and I live, respectfully, in mine, why be overly concerned? If I should notice the snake sliding over to one of the nearby corners, I just move myself, gently, to the far side from that one. In a way, it all almost feels dreamlike.

There are times, of course, at night, in the dark, I know the cobra knows exactly where I am from the warmth of my body. Snakes are like that, you know. And I can almost feel where he is in the dark, from the icy cold stare of his beady, yellow eyes, which are always open in a stare-like gaze, even while he sleeps. Sometimes, in the early dawn glow of our mutual cell, I can see one of those yellow eyes fixed on me in a stare. Cobras always stare. They’re like that, you know.

This cobra is potentially dangerous, as any cobra might be. I could, if I chose, attack and kill it. It’s only a snake, you see and, as mentioned, not a particularly large one. But this would, of course, expose me to his bite. I would quickly vanquish him, but then would begin a long, slow, painful demise of my own from his venom. No, this arrangement we’ve come to at present, seems to be the best. He knows I can harm him and I know, of course, what he can do. We just move from corner to corner, cautiously, gently, as in a dance, with full and free run of our limited, shared environment. We, in our communal cell are linked, are one.

Soon, as we become familiar with each other, he becomes not just any cobra, he is my cobra. Respect takes on a whole new meaning. Fear is reserved for other places, out there, in the outside world. Now, I can’t say that we’re exactly friends, the snake and I, but we do have a common interest and concern; to keep an eye on each other. Some have encouraged, even insisted, with all good intentions, I’m sure, that I kill the snake, cut him out, use fire to scare him off. “What if I cut myself?” I say. “Or get burned, or burn my cell down? I could even get bitten in the process, there’s no guarantee about that, is there?” No, I prefer diligent caution, I tell them. I know my snake, sort of.

I have been told, though, that no matter what, at some point, the cobra will bite me. In spite of my watchful, cautious concern, it is just a matter of time. He will bite me. It’s what they do. Snakes are like that, you know. I’ve thought about this and have decided that cobras may, indeed, be like that and there is nothing I can really do about it. There are so many other concerns and dangers to manage. Just crossing the street without looking, can be fatal. Or, eating poorly and not exercising can precipitate high cholesterol or high blood pressure. These are killers, also. You could have liver or kidney failure or a heart attack without ever getting a clue beforehand. And these things can sometimes happen suddenly. The list of dangers is frightening.

Surely, my snake is a problem, and a cause for some serious concern, but his bite, should it happen, will hardly be a surprise. And the results of the bite will be slow, if predictable. So, now that we have our understanding, I’m hoping he does understand, my cobra is essentially, not as frightening as he had been at first. At least, here, I know where this one particular threat resides. And he has actually made me more aware of other dangers; he’s sharpened my focus. But this isn’t, as I said, any cobra, he’s my cobra. I just don’t pet or feed him. Should someone come to visit, and ask, “What is that snake?” nodding toward his general direction in the corner. I answer, “Don’t worry, he’s with me. We share a cell.”

Sometimes I even smile at our partnership, it being more curious than funny. I can only do what I must do and encourage my cobra to do his part in this uneasy arrangement. We have awareness, the snake and I, of what our place and movements should be. We move around each other with a fair amount of comfort. I know what he’s like and am constantly aware of where he is. At this point, I never take my eyes off him. It’s what I do, now. I’m like that, you know.