Anish heard the cobra before he saw it. For a brief beery moment, he thought the hissing was just the sound of his urine falling into the shrubbery. But then he opened one scrunched-up eye, squinting against the gaudy afternoon sunshine, and saw movement. He opened the other eye as well and peered into the leafy dimness of the thicket into which he was relieving himself.
That was when he saw it. The flat, shiny head swaying gently like a banana leaf in the breeze. The beady dark eyes; The tapering stalk of its body; And slowly, drunkenly, he recognized the unmistakeable shape of a king cobra.
He stood mesmerized for several seconds, his urine flow hesitating once, twice, then cutting off abruptly. His bladder was by no means empty—there was still at least half of the six-pack left to go. But the thought of standing with his penis exposed to the swaying head and flickering forked tongue of one of the world's most poisonous snakes was not an appealing one.
A memory flashed through his alcohol-addled brain—the time he had been caught urinating against the wall of a pub in Crouch End, London. He had been fined £200 for that offence. But back here in India where even policemen often relieved themselves at strategic spots on public streets, it was impossible to prevent public urination completely. Which was when he was struck with the idea of planting snakes at tempting public spots. Yes, snakes! The prospect of being nipped in the privates would certainly dissuade even the most prolific public urinaters. Especially since Indian men usually crouched to relieve themselves, which would put the shameless bastards at eye level with the police serpents!
The image of a dhoti-clad bhaiya squatting on a sidewalk, removing his member, and starting to relieve himself blissfully before looking up-just in time to spy the cobra lunging at his face-was so vivid that it sent a shiver of laughter through Anish.
The cobra rose higher, swaying vigorously now, and slowly began to spread its hood. The hissing grew louder, now sounding like rain in a palm grove.
Anish choked on his laughter. The cobra had risen to about six feet, a couple of inches higher than his own height. The spread hook was a deep jade-green, almost jewel-perfect in its colouring and sheen. Two symmetrical eye-like markings to the left and right created the eerie impression of a face staring back at him.
As Anish watched, frozen, it began flashing its fangs at him, its tongue flickering sibilantly. Its swaying slowed until it was almost motionless. Dappled shadows of overhead leaves made it almost invisible now.
Protective colouring, it was called, he remembered.
Only its eyes, glinting in the tiny arrows of sunlight that pierced the thicket, told him where it was.
Suddenly, he had no more memories. No smart ideas. No funny incidents.
Just a dry mouth; Swirling nausea; And a shrivelled member in his hand that he did not have the courage to replace and zip up.
The cobra lunged.
He opened his mouth to scream.
The cobra fell directly at his face, mouth open wide, fangs glistening with venom, jaws spread so wide he could see into the pink-black hole of its throat; into the belly of his death.
He shut his eyes, feeling the world reel in a final vertiginous roll that was as much the result of too much beer and exhaustion as sheer terror.
A searing heat struck his face. His cheeks, mouth, neck, and upper arms and chest-almost bare in the slender cotton vest—were splattered with a surprisingly cold wetness. He felt the burning of the fangs as they sank deep into his cheek. One penetrating the edge of his lower lip with the smooth sharpness of a needle passing through wool.
And then he heard the echoes of the gunshot fading away.
He opened his eyes. And saw the ichor on himself, on his arms. His left eye was blurred by something gooey and icky. His lip was heavy with more of the stuff. The burning on his cheek and lip weren't caused by puncture wounds but by hot viscous fluid. An acrid, ammoniac stench filled his nostrils.
He felt movement to his left and then Irfan passed him, thrashing through the shrubbery to the spot where the cobra had stood. He examined the ground carefully, the revolver held loosely in his hand.
"There," Irfan said, pointing to Anish's feet.
Anish looked down, still too stunned to speak or react.
He saw the remains of several eggs; oddly shaped eggs, longish rather than oval, and almost angular at the ends. He had seen them before in documentaries on National Geographic and Discovery Channel: Snake eggs.
"You fucked up its nest," Irfan said.
Then he looked up at Anish's face. And grinned.
"Better not lick your lips, man. That isn't pussy juice on your ugly mug!"
The other guys roared when they heard the whole story. When Irfan described how he approached Anish from behind and saw him standing and staring into the shrubbery, they lost it totally.
"You should have seen him, man. The behenchodh was standing there with his dick in his hand, winking at the fucking cobra! I think he was trying to make a pass at it! Right, Anish?"
Sanjay slapped Anish on the back, hard enough to make him spill the water he was using to wash himself. "Kya yaar, Anish? I thought you only tried goats and sheep when you were desperate. I didn't know you had a thing for snakes too!"
Anish shoved him away angrily. "Fuck off."
Michael winked at Sanjay. "Come on, man. Have a heart. He just saw his girlfriend being shot dead!"
That broke them up. Sanjay slapped the side of the Mitsubishi Van several times, unable to stop laughing. Michael held his head and laughed till tears ran down his cheeks. Irfan grinned as he reloaded a cartridge into his revolver to replace the one he had shot.
Jaspal's voice cut through their laughter.
"Okay, okay, guys, enough is enough."
He caught Sanjay's hand, as he was about to slap the van again. "Relax, bhai. Maybe the next time you're pissing and a ten-foot cobra jumps at you, we'll see how big your balls are, okay? But right now, give Anish a break. The fact that he's not collapsed shows that he's tougher than he looks. Give him some credit."
Anish looked at him gratefully. Jaspal winked at him reassuringly. The Sikh was as big-hearted as he was big.
A truck rattled past them, heading slowly up the ghats. Anish squinted up at the hills ahead. The countryside was dry brush as far as the eye could see. But at the top of those hills, he could glimpse green; the green of the Khandala plateau where they had been heading before they pulled over for this pit stop.
The guys were grumbling about Jaspal not having a sense of humour.
Jaspal opened up the icebox and cracked open some more beers. Their fourth six-pack. He tossed the frost-encrusted cans to each one. The grumbling stopped instantly, and the sound of cans being popped and beer fizzing filled the air, followed by the tangy rusty-iron odour of chilled beer.
Jaspal offered one to Anish but he shook his head. His lip still felt a little numb where that snake goo had splattered. Although of course, he could use a little forgetful-medicine to take his mind off the incident. He was having a hard time shaking off the memory of the cobra lunging at his face.
Jaspal yanked open the driver's side door.
"Hey, guys, if we've all finished our little encounter here, let's proceed to our destination. We've still got a weekend to spend celebrating!"
Sanjay and Michael whooped in unison and high-fived one another. Irfan grinned at Anish as he got into the back seat of the van.
Anish was the last to get in. As he bent his head to get into the van, he glimpsed something out the corner of his eye. He paused and glanced out at the field in which the incident had happened. Jaspal honked, revving the van's engine.
"All aboard, guys!"
Anish got in and shut the door. He didn't pull it hard enough the first time and had to do it twice more before it caught. His limbs felt weak, watery.
Irfan leaned over him to pull the door firmly into place. He spilled a little beer on Anish's lap. It felt hot rather than chilled, although Anish knew it was ice-cold.
"You okay?" he asked.
Anish nodded. "Just a bit spooked, that's all."
Irfan nodded. "Don't blame you, man. That must have been one heck of a moment. For a moment there, as I came up behind you and saw it about to spring, I wished I had my camera. It would have made one hell of a wide-angle shot."
Anish grinned weakly. Irfan was a cameraman. They worked together a lot.
"Glad you had that instead of the camera," he said, pointing at the revolver lying on the seat between them.
Irfan patted it affectionately. "You bet, man."
Jaspal had waited a few moments to let a caravan of freight trucks pass, heading downwards. The Western Express Highway was the major conduit for goods coming into Bombay from various other states and the heavy vehicle traffic was relentless. When the last of the convoy had passed, Jaspal pulled away from the dirt shoulder. and taking them onto the blacktop, picked up speed as the van carried them effortlessly up the steep gradient.
Anish glanced out one last time and blinked, startled.
For a moment, just a fleeting instant, he thought he saw something long, greenish-black and serpentine, emerging from the grass behind them, at the dirt shoulder they had just vacated.
He turned to Irfan to ask if he had seen it too. And found the cameraman offering him a fresh can of beer.
"Take a brewski, chill," Irfan said.
.... There is more of this story ...