The Viper turns so quickly that Father’s grabbing hand now faces its head instead of its tail.
We are the Irulas. Scars from snake bites form a pearl necklace on Father’s hand. At social gatherings, while Mother shows off her gold, Father flaunts his scars.He remembers every dot, the date and the snake.
He hunts snakes, the poisonous ones. He likes their poison; squeezed out and sold, it brings food to our plates.
I like it when he asks me to come along. On our snake walks.
“People here work in pairs,” he tells me. I beam, my teenage head barelyabove his waist.
He looks at the soil, stares at a spot for a few minutes, and nods. “Do you see the faint scrape marks?” he asks. I don’t, but say yes. He winks at me in response and hunkers down. With his bare foot, he sweeps aside a weedbush, exposing a shapeless hole. He dips his crowbar inside the hole and fills it with mud. Now, he feels for something he doesn’t even see. The soil rises and falls. Within a few minutes, I watch him bring out a confused and angry snake. “King Cobra,” he whispers. The snake swishes and hisses, expanding its muscular hood, eyes shiny like glazed marble.
Whatever he does,Father does with passion. Pressing its mouth open, its fangs glistening, Father brings the Cobra close to his face, locks gaze, and pecks at it between its nostrils. Like the way he pulls at Mother’s locks and tilts her head back before kissing her.
These are better days. Father is famous. And sober.
Two years ago, he was a snakeskin seller who was asked to stop hunting snakes. He sat at home all day surrounded by his empty liquor bottles, hissing in anger, while Mother sulked, her skin tainted with Father’s fury.
Till he was asked to go get them again, this time for their venom.
He tells me about reflexes. Curving his palm like a snake, he asks me to grab his wrist before the tips of his fingers strike me. I try. But his hands are too fast. “You get them before they have time to think,” he says.
He hastold me about Cobras and Kraits. But never a Russell’s Viper. He doesn’t like them. My mother says one killed his father, whose lifeless body was found after three days, decaying in a rice field. She says Father always wishes he had been there.
Which is probably why I now see tiny beads of sweat break out around Father’s temple, his gaze too close to the viper, crouch too stiff to be his own. The viper comes down on his forehead. But his fangs stop mid-bite, limp from Father’s agile grip, his fingers coiled around the neck, just below its head.
There is no hurray from Father this time. Silently, he pulls out his glass container and sticks it under the snake’s upper jaw. Milking the deadly viper, Father watches the venom drain from its fangs, one drop, then another. Perhaps thinking about how powerless Grandfather must have felt lying in the field, not a soul around, life eking out like memory, slow, certain.
Dropping the snake into his cloth bag, he slumps to the ground. Then, motions me to sit next to him.
“Russell’s Viper,” he says, placing his hand on my shoulder.
I just nod.