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My last cobra: stalking the wild prevarication.

The trouble began on a bird-watching expedition to India and the mountain kingdom of Bhutan a year and a half ago when I developed an aggravated bursitis condition in my left elbow. Fortunately, a doctor was on the expedition, and one evening he lanced my elbow, which looked as though a Ping-Pong ball had been inserted in it. But the relief was only temporary. When we came out of the Black Mountains of Bhutan, my arm had swollen to such proportions that I was forced to loosen my watch strap a couple of holes. At the Adventist Hospital in Bangkok, the elbow, now almost the size of a tennis ball, was lanced again by my doctor friend.

Back in New York the elbow was lanced yet again and my arm set in a cast and a sling. Around town, when asked what was wrong, I replied, "Oh, it's an aggravated bursitis condition. Nothing serious."

Then I made a mistake. It occurred at a cocktail party given by Alexander Chancellor, then the editor of the Talk of the Town department of The New Yorker. The usual inquiries were being made about my arm. I thanked those who asked and said it was nothing to worry about--a simple aggravated bursitis condition. Sometimes, if they stayed around, I talked about the cranes we'd seen in India--the rare Siberian, and the Sarus cranes that stand as tall as a man. If the guests stared at my arm in its sling, I talked about the low medical costs in Thailand. (The cost of the facilities given my doctor for the procedure, including nurses, syringes, antibiotics, a sling, and a safety pin to hold it: $40.)

About midway through the party I caught sight of Jason Epstein standing by the door putting on his coat to leave. He is a senior editor at Random House. He called out, "Hey, George, what's wrong with your arm?"

Suddenly, it seemed too boring to give the usual answer. So somewhat to my own astonishment I found myself saying over the chatter of the party: "Well, Jason, the damnedest thing. I was lying in some tall grass at the Bharatpur Reserve, peering at a pair of Sarus cranes through my binoculars, when I sensed some movement to my left. I turned, raised my arm, and was bitten in the elbow by a small cobra!"

Jason's eyes widened. "My God!" he exclaimed. His date, standing beside him, said, "Hey, Jason, we're late!" and before I could admit I was joshing him she had propelled him out the door.

My immediate reaction was one of dismay. Jason is a familiar and popular figure at various social and publishing functions and watering holes around the city. It was inevitable that the cobra story would quickly get about.

Two days later the phone rang, and a man I didn't know came on. "Hey," he said. "I was having lunch with Elizabeth Sifton, the editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, today, and she tells me that you've been bitten by a cobra." By the most extraordinary coincidence, it turned out the caller was a doctor of considerable reputation, formerly the head of New York City's Roosevelt Hospital, and an expert on poisons and toxins, including snake venoms. He would be most pleased if I could have lunch with him to discuss what had happened.

This would have been the appropriate time for me to admit that I had been kidding about the cobra. Instead, my heart pounding and my face reddening, I told the doctor that it had been a small cobra, really nothing, that my recovery had been swift, without complications, not much to report...

"Oh no!" the doctor said, insisting that anything I could tell him about the incident would be of great value to him. "Please."

I couldn't get out of it. I said that if he really wished, I'd be delighted to have lunch with him in three or four weeks--setting a considerable period of time so that in the interim he might forget that we had a date. We chatted for a while about Gaboon vipers. He sounded as though he could hardly wait for our lunch.

His was the first of a number of calls, enough to make me realize the situation had truly gotten out of hand. I decided to explain matters to my mother, who is ninety-three. She is active in New York social circles--bridge clubs, charity luncheons--and soon enough she would hear that her son had been bitten by a cobra.

So we had lunch. She noticed my arm sling but didn't seem especially curious about it.

"Mother," I said. "You're going to hear about this arm of mine...that I've been bitten on the elbow by a small cobra." I waited a beat. I couldn't resist it. "Mother, it's true."

"Stuff and nonsense," she said. "You have an aggravated bursitis condition."

Astonished, I asked, "How do you know?"

"Why, I saw your doctor at a concert two evenings ago," she said. "You might have told me when you got back from India," she went on reproachfully. "It's awkward to hear about such things from others."

The next day my sister called. "Hey!" she said. "I hear you've been bitten by a cobra on the elbow."

"Who told you that?"

"Mother," she said.

It turns out that my mother rather liked the cobra-bite story. I could imagine her sitting down at the bridge table, shuffling the cards, and getting ready to tell her friends, which she does by clearing her throat to get attention.

The cobra story was not only hers to tell. It got into the newspapers. New York's Daily News had an item in its gossip column. One paper reported that I was recovering in a hospital in Nairobi, Kenya, from a dangerous cobra bite suffered while on safari in Africa.

What was curious was that as time went on, the cobra experience began to become not only clear in my mind but secure, as if it had actually happened. I could almost smell the marsh grass on which I was lying, the feel of the earth against my belly, the faint movement of something off to my left. "Oh yes," I would say when asked, invariably emphasizing that it had been a small cobra. To my shame, I felt no qualms about perpetuating the untruth. After all, I reasoned, it was verified in the nation's press--it had gone out over the wire. The item was now tucked away in countless newspaper files, perhaps to re-emerge at my demise: MAN WHO SURVIVED COBRA BITE DIES.

The only individual I promised myself to come clean with was the doctor from Roosevelt Hospital. He had telephoned a few times since his last call and had not forgotten our luncheon date. Worried about his reaction, I had the inspired thought to have our lunch on April Fools' Day, hoping that he would accept what I had done in the spirit of that occasion. My plan was to lead him on throughout most of the meal...until the coffee, say, at which point I would lean forward and, in that sly, unctuous manner of the practical jokester about to break the news, ask the doctor if he realized what day it was.

To prepare for our meeting, I called up the Bronx Zoo to speak to someone in the herpetology department and find out what does happen to someone bitten by a cobra.

The scientist was very forthcoming. "There's probably a burning sensation where the cobra bit," he said, "a tingling up the arms, on the lips, as well as evasive saliva..."

"Evasive saliva?"

"Drooling, if you will. There have been reports of euphoria... hallucinations, and, of course, local neuropathy, especially around the lung area. That is how people die from a cobra bite--the neural system that works the lungs fails."

"The euphoria does not last for a long time."

"Absolutely not."

"Anything else?"

The scientist paused. "It appears that the vision is affected," he said. "Green leaves in a tree might appear to be red. Vision is likely to be blurred. Of course, all this depends on the severity of the bite..."

The scientist didn't ask me why I wanted the information. I had planned to tell him I was working on a murder thriller in which a cobra is dropped through a trapdoor into a victim's bathtub. Lying was becoming appallingly easy to do.

The doctor and I had lunch at a midtown club. We sat at a window table for two. He was a large man, with a smile so friendly that I winced thinking what was going to happen to it once the news sank in.

Though the doctor had never traveled to Africa or Asia, continents with a plethora of cobras and other poisonous snakes, it turned out that he was the foremost authority in New York City on snakebites. "As a consultant to the City Department of Health, I'm okayed only for snakes," he told me. "It's not kosher for me to handle bites by lionfish, poison frogs, or any other deadly critters. Only snakes."

He had plenty to keep him busy. He said I would be surprised how many amateur collectors would take "difficult" snakes out of their herpetoriums to see how they'd get along on the living-room carpet. He described a baggage handler at JFK airport who, noticing a mild turmoil in a mail sack, had gone over to investigate and had been bitten by a king cobra through the canvas.

"Wow!"

"Astonishing to think you can order snakes through the mail," the doctor said. "You can find advertisements for this in magazines like Field and Stream. Here's an interesting case. A woman bought a leather coat that had been made in Okinawa. She developed a severe pain in the arm, and it turned out she had been bitten by a kind of Asian copperhead--a habu, it's called."

"A what?"

"A habu. It apparently was living in the lining of the coat."

"Wow!" I said for the second time. "How long do you think the habu was in there?"

"Quite a while, I would judge." The doctor smiled. "These creatures are very self-sufficient. We had a case of someone who decided to help a cottonmouth shed its skin. They've been doing it successfully for 300 million years. The kid thought the creature needed help and got bitten for his pains. Isn't that a beauty?"

By the time we'd finished the main course, the doctor had described a number of other instances, including an encounter between a biology teacher "who should have known better" and a saw-scaled viper, a Middle Eastern "creature."

"When this viper moves," the doctor explained, "its scales slide one over the other, which makes a quite distinctive sound...rather like the sound of Wheaties being crushed between the fingers, though, mind you, that's not a scientific description."

The doctor took a sip of water. He continued: "Anyway, that's why the biology teacher had this creature--an auditory pleasure for him--and when he poked it into motion so he could listen to it, it got him. Caused a severe blood disorder. Almost killed him."

"Wow!"

As the dessert arrived, the doctor leaned back in his chair, joined his fingers in a steeple, and asked me to tell him about my cobra. I cleared my throat. "Well, doctor, I was lying in some grass looking through my binoculars at a Sarus crane when I sensed some movement to my left and was bitten in the point of the elbow by this small cobra."

We discussed what kind of cobra it was.

"Small," I said. "Really quite small. You don't suppose it could have been a krait."

"Oh no," the doctor said. "Hardly possible. Almost undoubtedly, considering the area, a spectacled cobra."

I thought of the distinctive eye pattern on the back of that particular species' hood and shivered slightly as I reached for a corn muffin.

"And then?" The doctor's eyes glistened behind his glasses.

"I didn't run."

"Capital!" It turned out as our conversation progressed that "capital" (along with "creature" or "critter") was a favorite expression.

I continued: "My friend Peter Matthiessen was a half mile down the spillway, hoping to spot the Siberian crane out there in the marsh. Not much he could have done anyway."

"Of course not."

"So I sat down on a sort of knoll and took off the moleskin shirt I was wearing. I looked at my elbow and I could see that the bite was not so much a puncture as a small tear. There was discomfort, as if acid had been splashed on the wound, but this was counteracted"--I gulped slightly--"by an odd feeling of...what?...Exaltation? Euphoria?..."

"Capital!" the doctor exploded.

"Then I noticed something quite curious. The leaves--"

"Yes, the leaves," the doctor interjected.

"--the leaves on the trees overhead had turned reddish, a kind of autumnal color. Quite odd."

"Oh, this is truly splendid," said the doctor. The reason for his excitement--he went on to explain--was that a long-standing disagreement exists about the working of cobra poison on the human system. The question is whether it works its way up the brain stem and affects the brain itself. Many authorities believe it doesn't, that it simply does its damage below the neck. My description of the discolored leaves supported the doctor's hypothesis that the brain was involved.

"Go on," he said eagerly.

I couldn't bring myself to tell him that sitting there on the knoll I had begun to drool. Besides, the timing was perfect for me to lean forward and let him in on the gag. All I had to do was to remark somewhat roguishly, "Hey, doctor, do you know what day it is?"

I could not bring myself to do it. I have wondered since why I did not fess up. Perhaps it was because I feared that, at what Aristotle referred to as the "moment of recognition," the doctor would rear up out of his chair, aggrieved, with a terrible howl that would turn heads in the august and subdued atmosphere of that midtown men's club.

The other possibility was more up-setting: that I simply could not let it go. I truly liked the fact that my mother was spreading the story at her bridge meetings: "One spade. Have you heard what's happened to my son?"

I can't recall much more about the lunch other than the palpable delight the doctor showed on being told about the chameleonlike leaves.

Almost a year to the day after our April Fools' lunch at the club, I got a letter from the doctor. He said he was writing a long essay or perhaps a short book on his experiences with serious snakebite in an urban setting. Could he use my experience as an anecdote? Presumably he was going to enlist my evidence to support his views on the effect of cobra poison on the brain. I stared at the letter, appalled.

Eventually, a solution came to mind. I would write an account of everything that had happened: the bursitis condition in Bhutan, the arm in the sling, the cocktail party where I'd sprung the cobra-bite story on Jason Epstein, my mother's reaction, the call from the doctor--all this in careful detail, including a harsh look at my own lapses of judgment. When it was all typed up and given a title ("My Last Cobra") I'd send it off to the doctor, making sure that it got to him at some point on April 1. It occurred to me that it might be wise to send a bouquet of roses along as well.

All that was required was an envelope and some stamps. I had the good doctor's address. And yet there was this curious reluctance to let it go. What greater substantiation of what happened to me in the sedge grass at the Bharatpur Reserve than to have notice of it in an essay published, say, in a distinguished medical journal! I was tempted to send the doctor a wire: By all means use what you wish stop delighted to contribute to medical knowledge stop please send copies of article when published--this last so I could carry clippings from it around in my wallet to bring out at suitable occasions.

I did send the package, of course. In the days following I expected the doctor to write or call--either to express chagrin or, I hoped, to admit he'd been duped but no harm done. A month went by. Then another. An eerie silence. I don't dare call. I have been avoiding the club where we had lunch. If a package arrives in the mail, I shake it slightly to make sure that from within I don't hear a hiss, or a rattle, or, especially, the sound of Wheaties being crushed between the fingers...
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Title Annotation:hoax narrative
Author:Plimpton, George
Publication:Harper's Magazine
Date:Sep 1, 1994
Words:2816
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