“You know,” my grandmother used to tell me, “that man sheds coats just like any animal in the forest.” I used to laugh at her, as young men laugh at old women and the silly things they say. Now that I am an old man, a man who watches his step on an icy path in the morning, I am laughing less.
I met a man who shed his coats around the time I was thirty-six. This was before I married; and I was spending far too much time hanging around in bars, finessing a pint over two hours and appraising the behinds of the barmaids who skittered around me. As happens in such situations, I fell into conversation with various patrons who called at the bar and this was how I met the man who shed his coats.
It started after I bought him a pint. As he raised it to his lips, his sleeve fell back and uncovered a purple and yellow variegation on his arm—just like some variety of ivy in a garden. I am not a man known for his tact, so I asked him right out what happened to his skin. My working assumption was some kind of accident in a chemical factory, or perhaps a tattoo removal gone wrong. He laughed, very slightly, for he was a thin man, and began to explain how, every five years, his skin moulted away. “Like a snake,” I said. At this, he met my eyes very level and cold and, indeed, quite snake-like, and said: “Yes, I am a descendant of the snake people.” Now, I must explain that my job at the time—I have had many jobs, most of which would have distressed my grandmother—was in a psychiatric hospital. I worked in a trivial support role, but, being well read in psychological literature from the ‘70s and having experimented with LSD, I was more tolerant than most of ideas and people that would usually be dismissed as mad.
So, for me, when a man I had barely met began to describe how his entire skin fell off every five years it was simply another story to listen to. Perhaps the man was psychiatrically ill, perhaps it was an unlikely yarn—perhaps medical science does not know everything yet. Anyway, I kept asking questions and listening to the story. It started, said the snake man, when he was eighteen. At first, he thought he was dying, but the doctors dismissed his concern, though his skin continued to change, and one day he found that it peeled off entirely in the shower. “I didn’t feel bad at all,” he said, rotating the last spume of beer in his glass, “I felt refreshed, like a new man.” From then on, every five years, he welcomed the shedding of his skin; each time, he felt himself a new man.
“And the discolouration?” I asked. “A residue, it doesn’t seem to do me no harm.” I suppose that if you happen to lose your entire skin from time to time, then you become somewhat casual about medical matters in general—never mind a strange splotch on your skin. I kept him talking until closing time and I have made, elsewhere, careful notes regarding the man and what he said; sometime, I hope to publish them. The essence, though, was that man is not the simple race we think him to be; we have serpentine ancestors, and perhaps this is connected in some way to that snake and his penetration of Eden.
So I have learned, quite late, as all men must, that you should listen to your grandmother; not everything a woman prattles about is foolishness, though, I must admit, most of it is about shoes or women that arouse their jealousy.
My snake man was a true revolutionary; he changed his skins with the seasons, and his cycle, so far as I know, has no end. I, however, carry my skins with me.