On Compost and Mambas

My family has always promoted the organic-free-range-no-high-fructose-corn-syrup lifestyle. I say “my family,” but really I mean my parents; I was usually an unenthusiastic participant in the community gardening and Tom’s of Maine toothpaste purchasing. In keeping with middle-class environmentalist philosophy, we kept a delightfully putrid compost pile nestled in the pachysandra shrubs of our New Jersey backyard. When I asked my mom why I couldn’t just scrape my food into the garbage, she said, “It’s not right.”

There it was: drawn in neat footprints in the snow, carefully outlined, the four-armed body of a swastika.

It wasn’t devotion to this composting mindset that prevented me from reaching enviously across the elementary-school table towards my friends’ Lunchables and Capri-Suns; it was guilt. Lunchables boxes are not compostable. I averted my eyes from the bright packages and bit my lip to pretend I had never wanted them, but even then, I blushed a little. My parents were watching, and they were disappointed.

When I was ten, our family transplanted itself to Gaborone, Botswana, where, coincidentally, all the meat was free-range, and in fact could be seen ranging freely along the dust-lined highways of our new African hometown. Our compost pile traveled with us.My mother carefully dug the shallow hole in the dusty soil of the backyard and adjusted the ugly black plastic compost lid. We faithfully—though some of us grudgingly—toted out the compostable materials after each meal, adding to the pile of old banana peels, vegetable skins and rice that simmered quietly in the heat.

The task fell to me one evening. I walked reluctantly across our pachysandra-less African backyard with our little pail of moldering banana peels, feeling the sandy dirt beneath my toes, and opened the ugly black plastic compost lid, and there, staring up at me with limpid eyes, was a snake.

Even years later, I remember that my first reaction was not fearful paralysis—though that soon followed—but wonder. It was a very beautiful snake. A pale gray color, smoky almost, with pearly scales and wide eyes, and a little divot in the middle of its mouth, which gave it a permanent, curious frown. We stared at each other, the snake and I, and I remember how my eyes fixed on that little divot. I thought for a second how this snake looked like a baby.

It was a baby, we found out later, after the scream tore its way out of my mouth and my father had to kill the creature with a metal rake. It was a baby black mamba.

Surprisingly, after this incident, I did not develop a phobia of snakes. Rather, I have developed a certain wariness about compost. Since we have moved back to the United States, I have yet to take the food waste out to the compost pile. I can’t tell if this is because it is my small, silent rebellion against all of the sandal-and-socks morality that my parents embrace, or if it is the latent fear of opening that ugly black plastic lid to find another pair of equally enthralling eyes.

Whichever it is, there are no ugly black plastic lids here at Yale. There is compost—certainly—and I celebrated with as much vigor as my peers when compost bins were introduced in the dining halls. But there is no walk across the pachysandra, or the sand. There are no eyes; there is no clench of your lungs and sudden overwhelming urge to simultaneously squeeze your eyes shut in some juvenile hide-and-seek and to open them as wide as you can, to drink in the glossy lines of this resting creature. There is no question punctuated with an exclamation point:

“What is this! What is it doing here! Why!”

There is simply a chute, and the compost falls through it into a netherworld beneath a smooth black marble counter, and is gone.
I did not think of the black mamba for a long time. In college so far, I have indulged a secret fascination with the foods that for so long were only distant visions across the table; at Walgreens I purchased my very own Lunchables and ate it with bite-sized relish and secretive ecstasy. I dutifully scrape my uneaten food (of which there is little) into the circular compost hole, and down it goes, into the depths, out of my sight.

I did not think of the black mamba until this evening.

This evening it snowed. I walked across Old Campus in boots, nearly slipping several times. There was just enough snow to make footprints on the grass. Beside the Theodore Dwight Woolsey statue I stopped, and wondered why I had heard a sharp intake of breath from my own lungs, and there it was: drawn in neat footprints in the snow, carefully outlined, the four-armed body of a swastika.

Swastikas have little to do with compost. I say “little,” but I mean nothing. Yet in the graying darkness I looked down at it, the swastika in the snow, the line drawn by someone’s finger in a neat circle around the crooked arms, and I felt the whoosh of the exclamation points in my head, the paralytic repulsion, the knocking of air from my chest. Theodore Woolsey was unperturbed; I felt my eyes widening in the chill.

For it was oddly beautiful, these converging geometric lines in the snow, inside a circle under the stars. And my own fascination frightened me. The black mamba, with its lacquered scales and baby mouth. The swastika, with its symmetry and unity and terrifying grace, rising out of the earth itself.

“Why!” the darkness whispered, and it was a question tome.

I did not answer it. My foot extended almost against my will and wiped the swastika from the snow. It had been for my eyes alone, and the eyes of the black mamba, and the eyes of my parents, who now watch me through my own eyes.


Originally published in the Voices section of the Yale Herald.