Choctaw people tell a story about poison and how it came to be spread across the earth. My Great Aunt Irma told me the story when I was a little boy. I understand the story better now. I know it isn’t really about poison.
In ancient times, the story goes, the Choctaw people lived along the banks of a gently flowing stream. The stream provided water for cooking, for drinking and for bathing. It was the life-giving resource which contributed most to the prosperity of the community, but the precious flowing water concealed one danger which, from time to time, ensnared a hapless bather.
Just inches below the water’s surface, hiding quietly near the bank, grew a vine-like plant with poison leaves. Even the slightest brush of the leaves against the skin produced a painful sting, inflaming the skin with a fire that lasted for days.
The plant was friendly and congenial and wished more than anything to be a friend to the people. It regretted the poison in its leaves and looked constantly for ways to warn bathers who approached. It especially regretted the stings it gave to children, and even to mothers with child, but it could find no way to warn bathers away.
One summer day the plant was in conversation with a dragonfly, discussing the problem of its poison leaves. The dragonfly suggested that the plant might get rid of its poison in some harmless way, perhaps giving it away to others who might use it for a beneficial purpose.
“You might give it to the little ones who are often stolen from and trampled upon. They might use it for their defense,” suggested the dragonfly.
“What a great idea,” the plant responded, “but I should want it used only for self-defense—never for aggression. Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if the harm the poison now causes could be turned toward good purposes and peace!”
“I’m sure the little ones can be trusted to use it responsibly,” the dragonfly continued, “and only for peace. Shall I ask which of them might wish to have some?”
“It is a wonderful idea,” the plant enthusiastically consented.
Over the next few days, several of the little ones came calling at the stream, each taking a measure of the plant’s poison, and each vowing to use it only for defense and as an instrument for peace.
First came the bee saying, “My honey is stolen, and I am defenseless to stop it! A little of your poison will help me drive away the thieves, but I shall always warn them first!”
Next came the wasp who said, “Our homes are destroyed by mischievous boys, and sometimes they kill us with sticks. We will keep the poison in our tails and use it only in defense of our lives and homes, and only as a last resort.”
After the centipede, the spider and others of the little ones had taken a pinch of the poison, the rattlesnake called upon the plant. “I would be happy to take such poison as remains,” he said. “I am often trampled upon both by men and beasts. I will keep the poison in my mouth, and I vow to use it only to protect my life. I will never use it but that I first give a loud warning with these rattles on my tail.
“Your mind may be at rest,” the rattler continued, “knowing that so great a measure of poison will be in my responsible care. I am, as you know, a creature of peace.”
Content that she had done a good thing, and excited at her new found liberty to be a friend useful and true to the Choctaw people, the plant relaxed and spread her branches in the water. The cool water felt good upon her leaves, and the people laughed as her leaves tickled their skin.
And so it was. Laughter danced upon the water while poison spread throughout the earth.