Tonio, his Machete, and the Snake

What would seem a simple though perhaps not a usual everyday occurrence can become something you can carry with you all your life.

Photo by Kendra Young on Unsplash

Here at seventy, I recall this memory almost as though it was yesterday. But it happened when I was perhaps three. I was still infant-like enough to be wearing those funny little white baby boots with laces all children seemed to wear.

It was when my family lived in Nicaragua. I was born in Guatemala in 1951, and within the year we moved to Nicaragua.

My parents had quickly located a rental home twelve kilometers outside of Managua, the capital. My parents rented an old, downtown, failing hotel from an American there. They knew nothing of the business but learned by hands-on, everything.

Of course, my mother besides being a natural-born administrator wasn't a slouch in a kitchen either. She made a huge impact on the food operation there, making it the most popular eatery in Managua for years. To be very clear, she was a master Administrator throughout the hotel and for years along with my, Dad ran its multifaceted and challenging dynamic.

They learned on the job. Either do or die, sink or swim, real-time!

It is my understanding that one of my folks found an old book in a thrift store while on a visit to family in Miami titled: ‘How to run a Hotel’.

Our country home was about as out in the boonies as you can get back in those early days. A one-story, rambling affair, which appeared to be a tin roof structure set over a floor foundation which had originally formed a long sidewalk! In fact, it may have been just that before someone decided this could be the part of the floor plan for a house. They slapped walls up over two by fours with the pliable yet durable composite board of the time.

The tin roof assured us we’d hear every raindrop, every sneaking possum, scratching birds, howling and shrieking cats fighting at three in the morning.

The house was well lit during the day because of almost corner to corner walls covered with loose Italian shutter windows. No glass, it was too hot, and no air conditioning. Just metal screens behind the shutters to keep out the bugs, lizards, and mosquitos. As a result, when the earth would shake as it did often as we lived in the middle of a most active volcanic region, the shutters would set up an impossible wood on wood clattering, the tin roof seemed to come alive with metallic give and take. A freight train coming through our living room would have seemed appropriate.

At one end of the walkway were a kitchen and several rooms off from the ‘side’ walk. The other end was my parents’ large master room and the house’s living room, which to me seemed to go on forever.

Outside was a tropical wonder. I realized years later that the huge yard was the principal reason they grabbed the place. Our house, which my parents called Burtonwood, was across the street from a huge neighborhood called Becklands Colony. The Colony was where all our friends lived, my parents had their friends there as well.

The yard was vast, or so it seemed through my three-year-old eyes, even came with a hill that rose in a gentle, gradual slant. Avocados and Zapote trees, along with a small grape- size green fruit called mamones grew on the hillside. Wild coconut trees swayed gently, tangerines, oranges, and grapefruit were abundant as were fruit trees called jocote, and delicious yet worm filled guavas. The occasional plop of a falling coconut accented the general quiet of the country setting with the leaves stirring in the wind.

As children, the only way you knew you’d eaten a wormy guava was if after a bite you saw half a wiggling worm still in the fruit.

Elephant ears, the ultimate ‘jungle’ plant was abundant in varieties and sizes and shades of green stirred gently with every breeze, provided wonderful cover for whatever creature might be there.

Mangoes fell too fast for us kids to eat. One soon discovered that if you eat rapid fire more than say six mangoes, it will act as a violent purging guaranteeing a very clean digestive tract. Oleanders with their small pink buds were throughout. Huge, ancient ficus with their robust trunks and thickly whiskered root systems nestled alongside the house made it easy for me to climb onto the roof. The ficus were also the ‘ladders’ for all the critters that frequented our roof. I recall a raccoon sized possum that fell through my sisters’ closet ceiling one midnight.

Jacaranda trees with their rich purple flowers grew tall and provided a delicious and welcome shade all around the property.

Because it was out in the country and not too far away from the Pacific coast, there always seemed to be a warm, luscious breeze. Though as if it were yesterday, I recall living life with a permanent mustache. A sweat mustache. And squinting. Constant squinting. The Nicaraguan, tropical sun was sharp as broken glass, long before they invented sunblock, which probably explains my melanoma and most of my sibs skin conditions.

One majestic Ceiba tree, a silk-wood tree, grew on the side of the hill. This tree was massive, its enormous trunk had a sitting bench built around its base. When in season the silk tree opened up its seed pods and for about a three-week period it ‘snowed’ soft silk puff balls. The area around the tree was silk covered, as the fluffy stuff gave the place a fantastical, magical element.

At the very top of our hill, there was a towering tree called a Roble. My brother Peder fashioned perfectly balanced arrows from the surrounding underbrush. He’d finish the arrows by heating them and strengthening them over a flame in the yard then affix beautiful feathers to them to guide their flight. The sharp tips he made from thick tin, sharpened razor sharp. One such arrow he’d shot into a high branch and it was my understanding that it was after an Indian attack.

Go easy on me now, remember when this was. I was sure if I got too close, I’d get ambushed.

I don’t need to tell you. My domain was Outside, with a capital O. We had no TV. Me and my sibs did not spend our time indoors. For us to do that would mean that we were down with say an infected foot, or jaundiced eyes, (which was common), or some other minor yet grotesque physical condition thing. Notice I didn’t say a cold. For us, getting a cold was not counted as an illness. Headaches? What’s that? Different times.

I had reason to spend indoors occasionally. One such was my spider ‘farm’. When I was six or seven, I’d gathered orb spiders. Impossibly beautiful diamond-shaped creatures which came in many bright colors, bright red, rich purple, jet black, white, yellow, amazing! Amid the clean colors which were their back, were tiny black specks lending a whole new added feature to their natural beauty. Natural, of course, you say. But I say it to underline, okay, perhaps unnecessarily, nature’s utterly amazing offering. These guys were perfectly happy setting up their webs entirely covering my room ceiling. They were such friendly creatures, too.

On another occasion I recall a scratch I’d gotten on my ankle and it infected. From the angry red patch rose a red stream, just below the skin. I was told it was blood poisoning and that if the mobile red stream reached my heart, I’d be dead meat. My mother had me sit in Epsom Salts for a whole damn month.

It was outside one day that I had an unusual experience. I think to this day that some of my sibs doubt my story but that’s’ okay, it’s what you carry within that counts in life. My first wife called it ‘speaking your truth…’

Tonio, our gardener, had his Colima, a short, very sharp machete, and was cutting up some old roots close to me. In my three-year-old eye, I say it was about four yards away. In hindsight, I realize that he was probably much closer. We were in an arbor kind of area. Overhead there was some rotting wood, white latticework for vines to grow on. A shady place where the previous inhabitants also grew a grove of grapefruit and tangerines and oranges, and because of the shadiness my vision was not optimum.

These fruits were never edible, as the tropics got to the fruits in the way of worms before we could.

I spent all my time in the dirt. No doubt this may explain why I and my sibs were in constant battle with stomach worms and weird little things like fungus and creatures who’d make their home in our feet.

I was always in the dirt and that afternoon I was sitting and digging at something between my legs, perhaps a place to park my toy truck. I glanced up towards my left, movement had caught my sharp, young eye. The biggest snake I’d ever seen was nearly upon my left leg. I simply froze, no yelling or panicking, no time for that.

In what seemed the same instant, Tonios machete flew and landed perfectly on the back of the snake’s head, severing it. I sat mesmerized as the giant, headless snake coiled about wildly, which they understandably will do when separated from their heads. My memory is of the flying machete.

Fast forward. I remember nothing before the snake or directly afterward.

Tonio then performed a death ceremony with the snake. Grabbing the writhing creature and with a coat hanger wire fixed it firmly to the tip of a long pole used for knocking down mangoes. Shortly after, added some old, white rags bound torch-like about the snake. He gestured towards a can which he called ‘gas’, the word for a type of turpentine. Tonio used ‘gas’ as one of his yard tools. We had giant red ants called sampopos that could chew down a yard in days were they not controlled. Tonio would go around the yard filling the ant colony's dirt mounds with ‘gas’ and light them up. The place looked like a damn battlefield to my child’s eye.

I poured some ‘gas’ on the rags, then asked me to hold the pole as he lit a match and set the whole thing aflame. I got to carry the ‘torch’! No doubt he knew what a thrill it would be for me to carry the flame! It felt like we were battle bound Vikings or something like that!

I followed him to a tall mango tree where he then held the still wildly undulating carcass high into the upper branches. Soon handed the pole over to me again, including me into the ceremony. He explained this was important to scare away the snake’s soul and to burn off the ‘ponsonio’ or poison from the snake.

We were eating dinner at our big kitchen table. Outside the dark tropic night had set in complete with the insistent chorus of cicadas, frogs, and night birds. Several tarantulas were, happily, on the outside of the kitchen’s screen windows, chasing something I couldn’t see.

Dinner was family time when my parents asked us for a general accounting of our day.

“How was your day today, Tommy?” My mother asked me, gentle hand on my head, she and my Dad not long before returned from their full day at the hotel. She was the only person on the planet I’d speak English to. My first language was Spanish in those early days. My sibs waited for my response.

Speaking in a low volume so that my horrendous English wouldn’t come under ridicule, “It was fun Mommy, I played with my truck, and a guava had worms…”

They all burst out laughing and I didn’t understand why.




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Tom Jacobson

Tom Jacobson

Discovered the world of Medium some years ago. Amazing! Published first book, romantic adventure in Guatemala and Nicaragua, on Amazon. Title Lenka: Love Story.

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