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Once upon a time there was a snake named Myrna. Myrna was not a happy snake. She was, in fact, a very lonely snake. All day long she lay in her cage, wondering why she was stuck inside and those humans who took everything for granted were allowed to roam freely in the great big world outside of her cage. Myrna longed for freedom and also for companionship. But, day after day, Myrna woke up to the same four walls with the same little view and the same old food with the same old keeper to tend her. Now, Myrna wasn’t really unhappy with what she had, but she also was not really happy. Each day, the sameness of her life became more and more oppressive until one day, Myrna woke up in despair: she would never be able to get away from this life of four walled enclosure until the day that she died. While Myrna lay on the bottom of the cage, mourning her hopes for freedom, the rest of the world continued on just as it always had done.
All day, the people came and went, taking little notice of the large snake in the small cage. A little while before closing time, when most of the people were straggling to the exit, mothers tiredly pushing strollers or carrying their sleepy little children, a very small boy with bright eyes was still pulling his mother around to the many cages containing exotic or interesting animals that he had never seen before—this of course did not include Myrna. Sighing deeply in despair, Myrna rearranged her coils and settled down for a long night. But just as Myrna was closing her eyes, she saw a flicker of movement near the corner of her cage.
The energetic little boy had finally released his sticky grip on his mother’s hand and was exploring on his own. As he neared Myrna’s cage, he tripped—falling face first onto the ground. Myrna braced herself for the inevitable, pathetic wails, scrunching her eyes shut and tightening her coils. After a few seconds during which no such sounds reached her, Myrna carefully opened her eyes and almost shed her skin in surprise.
The little boy with the bright eyes was staring at her curiously with his hands and nose plastered to the glass wall of her cage. While his mother wearily trudged over to get him, he spoke to Myrna in his strange toddler dialect.
“Hello, snake! You are a really big snake. My brother told me that big snakes eat little boys, but momma says they don’t.” he said matter-of-factly, still staring at Myrna.
His mother was finally standing beside him now, looking at Myrna.
“Well, are you ready to go home yet?” His mother asked.
“Not yet, momma. This snake looks sad. Why is it so sad, momma?” The boy asked with concern.
“Well, I expect that a big snake would be cramped in such a small cage, and also very lonely with no one to play with.” His mother answered.
“Can’t we help the snake, momma?” The boy asked eagerly, looking up at her with pleading eyes.
“I’m sorry, son, but we already have 3 tigers, 4 bears, and an opossum. Not to mention the elephant in the garage. There is simply no place to put it.” His mother answered.
“It could sleep in my bed!” the boy replied.
“I don’t think that would be a very good idea, honey. Besides, I’ve heard that snakes are terrible blanket hogs.” She replied, taking one of his hands. “It’s almost closing time; we have to go home, now.” She said, gently pulling him toward the exit.
The little boy looked back over his shoulder at Myrna and gave her a little wave and—Myrna blinked a few times to make sure she had seen what she thought she had—a little wink before he turned around. Myrna was thankful for the boy’s concern, and realized that there might be hope for her afterall.
That night, with the moonlight shining brightly into her cage, Myrna was restless and couldn’t arrange her coils comfortably. Finally giving up on sleep, Myrna lay watching the sky. One bright star stood apart from the rest, drawing Myrna’s eyes to it. Before she knew it, Myrna was wishing on the star.
“Star light, star bright,
First star I see tonight,
I wish I may
I wish I might
Have the wish
I wish tonight”
Closing her eyes tightly, Myrna wished as hard as she could. Even though Myrna knew that wishes couldn’t come true, it made her feel a little better. Thoroughly exhausted, Myrna soon drifted off to sleep, dreaming of her wish come true.
The next morning, when Myrna woke up, the sun was shining, the birds were singing, and…she was still a big snake stuck in a small cage. Myrna was exasperated, and when her keeper came to feed her and clean the cage, she watched him guardedly from the back corner. Envying the keeper’s freedom, Myrna was curled up and moping in the corner when she realized that this could be her chance. But she had waited too long, and now it was too late—the cage door shut before Myrna could reach it.
Although she had failed this time, Myrna wanted to be ready for the next opportunity. She planned all day, but was unable to think of any method of escape that would be sure to work. Far into the night, Myrna laid awake thinking and planning. Near midnight, she dozed. She awoke suddenly to find a pair of dark, mischievous eyes staring at her through the glass.
For a few moments, Myrna was too startled to move. She was not sure what sort of creature this was; it certainly wasn’t one of the zoo animals. He had a bushy tail and the cutest little nose, and there was a curious white stripe down the middle of his back, breaking up his otherwise coal- black fur. When he saw Myrna staring at him, he quickly scampered away to hide in a nearby clump of bushes. After a few seconds had passed, his little head peeked around the bush to see if Myrna was still watching. The same hide-and-seek game went on between them until the skunk seemed to come to a realization.
He apparently realized that Myrna was stuck in her cage and could not get out or do anything to him. With this thought in mind, he sauntered right up to the glass and confidently returned Myrna’s stare.
“Well, snake, I bet you think I look like a good midnight snack, but you’re stuck in that cage and I am out here, so you’ll just have to stay hungry.” He said, proud of himself.
Myrna had no idea what to say to this boastful little creature, and this seemed to perplex him.
“Hmmm, maybe you don’t speak English, snake.” He wondered aloud. Thinking for a minute, he finally said:
Myrna simply flicked her tongue at him. At this, he jumped back, but then he remembered that he was safe and moved back to the glass.
“Can snakes even talk?” he asked with curiosity “Or do they only eat small rodents and slither away?”
“Well, I wasn’t planning on eating you, but now that you mention it…” she trailed off, sticking her tongue out again. Seeing his involuntary shiver, she laughed.
“Just kidding!” Myrna said. “I don’t even know what you are, and I always like to know what I’m eating, even if it’s only a midnight snack.”
“I’m a skunk.” He said importantly. “But you wouldn’t want to eat me because I would spray you and then you’d be all smelly!” he told her gleefully.
“Well, I suppose I wouldn’t want to eat you,” Myrna said. “but I can’t really smell anything anyway because I am a snake.” She paused. “Do skunks have names, or should I just call you skunk?” she asked.
“No, my name is Erwin.” the little black creature answered indignantly. “I bet you don’t even have a name, snake.” He stated impudently.
“Well, of course I have a name!” Myrna said, offended at this remark. “My name is Myrna.” After a little silence, Myrna realized something. “Why aren’t you in bed, Erwin?” she asked him. “I would think that a little fellow like you would be fast asleep this late at night.”
Erwin seemed to puff out his chest with importance upon hearing this. He then replied, “All the skunks are awake now; we’re nocturnal, so we usually stay awake in the night and sleep during the day.” He explained.
“Then, why are you the only skunk here?” Myrna questioned him.
“Fact is,” he began sadly, “my mother and father both died when I was young, and no one else took me in.” he sighed. “I just have to get along by myself.”
“You must be very brave.” Myrna said enviously. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get along on my own, stuck in this cage, and all.” She said, sighing wistfully.
“You must be terribly lonely.” Erwin said sympathetically. “At least there are other snakes in the zoo.” He said, trying to cheer her up.
“Yes,” Myrna agreed, “but I never get to see them. You can go almost anywhere you wish and meet anyone you want to, but I am stuck here in this cage with only myself for company day after day after day.” Myrna complained.
While Myrna complained, Erwin was busy exploring around her cage. As he walked around to the other side of the cage, a motion-sensor light turned on suddenly, startling the little skunk. He dashed for cover in the bushes, waiting for the light to turn off. Dawn was speedily approaching, and while he waited for the light to go out, he fell asleep beneath the bush. Myrna tried calling to him to tell him that no one was there, but he couldn’t hear her. Eventually, she, too, gave up and went to sleep.
The next day dawned dark and cloudy, but, today, Myrna’s spirits did not match this weather. She anxiously looked forward to the evening, hoping that she would see her little friend once again. About the middle of the day, Myrna’s keeper hung a sign on the outside of Myrna’s cage. Myrna could not see what it said, and she didn’t know how to read. She thought of thousands of things that such a sign might say:
Myrna: Prize Snake
Special Exhibit Containing World-Renowned Snake
A little voice in the back of Myrna’s mind told her that the sign just might hold bad news, but she quickly pushed the thought away. Throughout the day, Myrna could think of nothing but the sign on her cage and what it might say. It was driving her crazy. Each and every person who came to Myrna’s cage (and there weren’t very many) read the sign to him or herself, neglecting to tell Myrna what the sign said. When Myrna had given up trying to figure out what the sign said and was curled up in the corner of her cage, a mother and her two children came to look in her cage. One of the little girls tugged at her mother’s hand and pointed at the sign. For a moment, her mother was confused and then she realized what the girl wanted. She read the sign to her little girl, and, unknowingly, to Myrna.
Limited time exhibit!
Snake will retire by the end of the month.
“Make sure you see the big snake, girls.” The mother said. “It will be gone in 3 days.”
3 days?!!!! Myrna was stunned. She had only 3 days before she retired…and what did that mean anyway? She feared that whatever retiring was, it certainly wasn’t good. Myrna had waited eagerly all day to find out what the sign said, and now she wasn’t sure that she really wanted to know.
That night, with her mind overflowing with worries and sleep nowhere in sight, Myrna entirely forgot about her acquaintance of the night before. While she was preoccupied with her worries, Erwin appeared suddenly in front of her cage, nearly causing Myrna to shed her skin. Once Myrna recovered from this surprise, she was able to greet Erwin.
“Oh, hello, Erwin.” She said, a bit out of breath. “I’m sorry, but you scared me. I wasn’t really paying attention.”
But Erwin wasn’t paying attention, either. He was busy trying to decipher the sign on Myrna’s cage. He squinted his eyes and scratched his head, but couldn’t figure it out. When Myrna noticed this, she told him what the sign said.
Limited time exhibit!
Snake will retire by the end of the month.
“There are only three days until I retire.” Myrna said with a bit of hysteria in her voice. “And I don’t even know what ‘retire’ means.”
Little Erwin thought for a while. Finally, he spoke.
“I don’t know what retire means, but I know what expire means. Retire and expire might mean the same thing. They sound the same.” He suggested.
“Well, what does expire mean?” Myrna asked impatiently.
“I think it means that something is really old and you can’t use it anymore, so you just throw it away.” Erwin replied.
Myrna’s eyes grew wide. “So you think that since I’m too old, the zoo keeper will just throw me away in a few days?” Myrna asked in alarm. “I’ve got to get out of here; escape is my only chance.” Myrna continued, not waiting for his response.
“Calm down, Myrna.” Erwin told her. “We need to plan, not go crazy. Just get a grip and then we can start to think.” Slowly, Myrna calmed herself down.
“Okay, I think I’m ready to plan. What are we planning, anyway?” she asked.
“Your escape.” Erwin said dramatically.
After two long hours of discussion about tactics and plans and timing, they finally had everything under control. Myrna was tired, but confident in their plan’s success. Suddenly, she wondered what she would do once she had escaped. Finally, she asked Erwin about his own life.
“How do you live on your own, Erwin? Isn’t it hard?” Myrna wondered aloud.
“Well, it is hard, but it’s also worth it.” The little skunk answered. And he started to tell her a few of his own stories. Surprisingly, Myrna learned a lot from the seemingly small and defenseless little Erwin. Some of his tales made her wish for freedom more than anything else, but most made her grateful for her own life of ease in her cage. When he told about the time when a very large owl pursued him for two days, trying to eat him, she shivered. He also told of times when food was scarce. He would go days at a time without any food, sometimes nearly starving to death before finding food.
The more Myrna heard, the less she wanted to be a part of such a life. She had no idea how to hunt for food or camouflage herself from predators. All she knew was that her cage was a safe place where she was always fed and taken care of—until now (maybe). She still didn’t know if retire meant expire, and she also didn’t know how to survive in the wild on her own. All of a sudden, escape didn’t sound as good as it had earlier.
“Erwin,” Myrna began, “I don’t know if I want to do this anymore.” Myrna took a deep breath. “I probably wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild and I don’t have anyone to help me to learn how.”
“But you can’t back out now!” Erwin protested. “We made a plan and everything!”
“I know we had a plan, but it won’t do me any good if I just escape and die in the forest.” Myrna argued.
“Well, it won’t do you any good to just lay around in this cage, either!” Erwin shouted angrily. “And if you don’t consider me to be good enough to help you learn how to survive in the forest, I guess your plan won’t work after all!” he shouted, making his way back to the forest and ignoring Myrna’s pleas for him to come back.
Myrna’s helpless cries went unheard in the otherwise completely still night air. After what seemed like hours, Myrna fell into a fitful sleep.
The next morning, when Myrna grudgingly woke up, the first thought in her head was: only two more days. There were only two more days left and Myrna had not only not decided what to do, but also very probably alienated her only friend who also could help her escape. Myrna was depressed, but she resolved to make a decision by the end of the day. Depressed as she was, Myrna couldn’t help thinking : either I die in the garbage, or I die in the forest. All day, she weighed the benefits of each. She could take her chances with retirement (whatever that meant), or she could take her chances with escape to the nearby forest. Either way, Myrna couldn’t be sure of her fate. When dusk approached, she thought of Erwin, wondering whether or not he would come back… wondering whether she would have a choice at all.
Time passed slowly, and Myrna was just about to give up when there was a rustling in the bushes. When a small black head with a white stripe poked out of the bush, Myrna almost shouted with joy. Erwin approached cautiously, a bit embarrassed at his attitude the previous night, and greeted her.
“Hello, Myrna.” He said, waiting to see what she would do.
Myrna knew what she would do the minute she saw his head peek out of the bushes—she was going to…escape.
After many apologies and hours of additional planning, Myrna and Edwin were exhausted. Myrna looked forward to their challenge with nervous apprehension and Erwin looked forward to it with jumpy excitement. The approaching dusk parted the weary friends. Both unsuccessfully attempted to get a few hours of sleep before the big day.
By eleven o’ clock that morning, the keeper was cleaning out Myrna’s cage, just as he always did every Thursday. While he did this, Myrna waited tensely in a corner, knowing that little Erwin was watching from the bushes, waiting for the right moment. The minutes and seconds dragged on and on. Finally, the moment arrived.
The keeper had finished cleaning out Myrna’s cage and was about to lock the closed door when, suddenly…a coyote raced past the keeper, bounding over his feet and stealing his key ring off the ground. The keeper reacted as would be expected and chased after the coyote, leaving the cage door unlocked for Myrna.
Although unknown to Myrna or Erwin, this was an important day at the zoo. Today a television crew from the channel 7 news was coming to interview zoo employees about a new exhibit. When they arrived, they saw a disgruntled zookeeper chasing a coyote holding a key ring in its mouth. They immediately set up their cameras to catch the action.
While this was happening, Myrna was also very busy. She had somehow, with Erwin’s help, gotten out of her cage and onto the ground. Her next big challenge was getting to the woods which were about a mile away. Unfortunately, Myrna was not a fast snake, and the trip took her about an hour.
During this time, the reporters were interviewing the zoo keeper and the zoo manager about both the coyote incident and the rest of the zoo. The keeper had completely forgotten about Myrna. By the time that the reporters and television crew had left, the zoo keeper still had to talk to the manager about the coyote incident. All day long, no one noticed Myrna’s absence. Few people came to her cage, and those who did judged that Myrna had probably retired today.
By the end of the day, a tired but happy Myrna was deep in the woods and far away from the zoo. She owed all this to Erwin. He had planned everything and even gotten his coyote friend to create a diversion. Myrna realized that he was a true friend.
By the time that the keeper discovered Myrna’s absence, she was far away, and doing what snakes do best—hiding. Although they searched and searched, Myrna was never found. The going was tough at first, and Myrna complained many times. When she finally could survive on her own, she realized that even though it was tough to choose at the time, she wouldn’t trade anything for her life the way it was now.
Life grew easier for Myrna and she had many friends in the forest. When Erwin died, she lived on, never forgetting her first friend. In her old age, Myrna took to composing poetry. Realizing how special her friend Erwin really was, she wrote this poem in memory of him:
Friendship is spending time together
Talking far into the night
Wishing for each other
Making up after a fight
Friendship is looking at each other
And knowing both your thoughts
Having the courage to be there
When everyone else is not
Friendship is tears
Mixed with laughter, fear, and regret
Put together, making memories
That you never will forget
Friendship never has to end,
But friendships always do
When time and space and distance
Come between me and you
We sit around and think way back
To the way that it had been
It was something so very priceless
And we wish we’d known it then