The Snake Charmer
Behind the house was the vegetable patch where pumpkins grew from ash gourd seeds, and behind the patch was the abandoned pond almost hidden under algae, the shape and color of cobra heads. No, not snakes really, they only look so. The real ones — they live in the thick grove behind. No one ever saw a snake in the forbidden forest where peepals and mahoganies bristle against each other, sharing stories of horror from centuries ago and smirking at the mortals who tread into ankle deep profusion of dry leaves and snake skins.
There was a day, mother says, when a girl, our great-great grandmother or the one before that, all of 15, walked into the holy abode of the snakes, her anklets tinkling, her bosom bursting with femininity, blood between the legs. The trees warned her, the whisper turning into a grinding noise, as if they were grumbling, and crunching their teeth. Go back, they pleaded, then ordered and finally shouted, causing a wind that no one outside the sacred grounds could feel. Naïve, curious, she walked on and on to meet her doom, a drop of her menstrual blood flowing down her thighs and ankles and touching the ground.
Perhaps the snakes were all male. Perhaps female snakes did not menstruate. Perhaps we are all the same, the snakes and the humans.
The curse that rose up the air — invisible powerful, horrid — settled on the bells on the silver anklet on the girl's feet and remained.
Through the fever and the dark ugly sores that rose on her body, the girl shed her skin 17 times, each time a new layer growing back, darker and uglier. On the 27th day began her next red-wet days, when she jumped into the pond which then did not have algae shaped and colored like cobra heads, but real cobras, shaped and colored like algae.
The pond water turned red, pure and impure blood mixing indistinguishably.
There was another day, mother says, when the snakes were raised to the status of Gods. Fear, was the reason. From their land desecrated by a girl, who was now buried under the stinking mud of the wild pond, they crawled into the house, sat where the men sat, slept with the kids, tangled themselves around the arms of the women who tucked their hands into the clay pot that held pickled mangoes and lemon. Appeased by a pooja that lasted 27 days, performed by 17 virgin Brahmin boys, who adjusted and readjusted the thin white threads across their chests, who scooped the dry leaves into a raging fire and who incessantly chanted mantras that none other than the snakes could hear, the snakes became Gods and we became trespassers.
We lighted lamps for the Gods of the temple, who now had a wall around them, a gate and a padlock, which was opened once a month, on the star of snakes, when the same virgin Brahmin boys appeared, bathed the mounds in turmeric and left silver cup of sweetened milk near the hills for the snakes to drink through the day.
There was yet another day, mother says, when we rendered the snakes homeless. The virgin boys now were a different batch, the old ones replaced one by one as soon as they ceased to be virgins. The newer ones sported thin moustaches, wore Rolex watches, removed their Nike shoes near the entrance of the temple and spoke to the Gods in plain English. It is time to move, they told them, lured them into stone idols, wrapped and tied the idols in sacks that once held cement and rice and yam seeds, carried them on their shoulders to a bigger, holier temple far far away. They are all gone, the lead virgin Brahmin boy told us. The land is free of them now, walk through it, claim it as yours, they prompted us. In a day, the gate was wrenched off the hooks, the wall was broken down and we walked in, to the grove, where the trees still whispered and mocked us.
Are they gone? I ask mother. They are, she says.
If so, who leaves the dark trail of snake excreta on the tree trunks? Why does the mound of sand that was pulverized and washed away at least a dozen times or more grow back? What is it that slithers over the feet every time you walk through the forest, where the layers of dry leaves are still ankle deep? Why is the foliage scattered with shed snake skins that look as if they were left there just as you stepped in?
They are in there, and they are waiting, for the next day.
Based in the God's own country of Kerala, India, Vidya's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The feminist Review, So to speak, Switched-on Gutenberg, Shot glass journal, The new verse news, Silver Birch Press, Three line poetry, Aberration Labyrinth, Bangalore Review, 4and20 poetry and several others.