by Vidya Panicker
I can smell snakes.
You might say that I am not unique in that regard, that you have olfactory glands that work as well, that you could also smell a snake out from the canopy of greens or from inside a garbage can if you wanted to.
But you are wrong. What hits you is not the organic odor of the serpent, but the reek of your fear hormones, gurgling inside your gut at the sight of the limbless form crawling toward you that makes you feel the slime in your throat and a movement beneath your feet.
I can really smell snakes: the rotten egg stench of the harmless yellow one that can stand on its tail and grin at you through your window pane, the piercing vinegar odor of the short one armed to its teeth with venom, or the king that stinks like an open wound left to decay.
I sensed my skill at the age of 13 when I was playing with my friends on the common ground of our apartment. Whoever said there were no snakes in the city? Indeed there are, snakes that are all the more vengeful toward humans who built concrete coffins over the land they once possessed. Did you know that this South Indian state was siphoned from the sea by Lord Parashurama with his famed axe and gifted to the kingdom of snakes? If that was his original intent, he could have done the world a favor by simply walking away, singing a tune, biting the thumb nail of his right hand and swirling his axe with the left and leaving the land to the sea where it belonged. But he did not. And due his unmindful act, a great-great-great-grand-snake-child of one of the initial occupants of the land on which we were playing hide and seek, slithered its way toward us. I smelled it long before spotting it.
“Run,” I shouted.
No one paid me any attention. I wish they had. I wish at least he had.
He was brave, we knew. He liked me, I knew. He wouldn’t spare a chance to prove his valor to me. I wanted to grow up, have long hair that I could braid into a tail and decorate with long garlands of jasmine flowers, drape myself in a saree and marry him. I wanted us to parent a girl child who looked like me and a boy who looked like him. I wanted him to stay safe and alive in order to do all this.
“Run! There is a snake coming,” I shouted again.
The killer word has its effect on most of them, but not him. He remained curious.
“Where?” he asked.
I pointed to the car park, under the red Maruti 800 owned by the obese cardiologist who lived opposite to our flat. It had to be there, I could close my eyes, touch my nose and almost gather the snaky gunk between my thumb and forefinger.
He looked interested and excited, like an addict lured toward a pot of opium. He bent down on his knees and watched under the car for a few seconds.
“It is a cobra,” he told me.
Of course, it had to be: the smell of a week-old cadaver.
He came back, and I held his hand for a moment, warning, pleading, explaining.
“It’s OK, I will be fine,” he said.
Stones were hard to find in the concrete mounts of the city. There was no soil except the little bit in the clay and plastic pots that housed dwarfed plants genetically modified to give even more space to the humans. He looked around for a stone or a pebble and not finding any, pulled out a parrys candy, enclosed in bright green wrapper, unwrapped it, took aim and threw it right under the car. Whether the sweet rock hit the snake or if it was the vibration that set it in motion, I do not know. I could not get a clear view from behind the pillar, where I hid with three others. The mighty snake, sensing danger, made a run for it. But he was quick. In one jerking motion, he caught the snake by its tail and smashed it against the wall of the car park. It sounded like crushing an orange or dropping an egg.
Apart from realizing that I was a natural snake smeller, on that day I learned two other important facts. One was that a snake had a brain. Other was that its eyes were silver.
The security person on duty arrived at the scene of commotion and told us to leave, but most of us stayed on. With a long stick, the man nudged out the remains of the snake, carried it like a noodle thread on a chopstick and dropped it into a plastic bag. He said he would throw it away into the municipality truck that carried hospital waste. The snake’s corpse would have shared the truck space with scraped out embryos, amputed limbs, bladder stones, and syringes carrying HIV.
“I could have sold it to someone if it had a head,” the man muttered under his breath.
It was true. A wholly preserved cobra was a treat in school and college labs. My young lover had ruined lucrative options for the man.
Later, with a whole wad of coconut fiber soaked in a bucket of soap water, the man scraped away the red spots of splattered brain and a silver trickle of serpent eye flowing down the wall. By the next morning, all that remained on the execution wall was a light red hue.
But what lingered within me was enormous. I stuttered and stammered in my sleep for days, would not touch anything that was or had strands or threads in it, and pounced at the slightest contact of my skin anything living. I imagined snakes under the bed and the sofa and even on the beaks of all the birds flying above me, willing to unload their catch right on me. I shut my eyes in horror when my mother inserted her hand down the neck of the iron container that stored our rice supply and observed every ant or mosquito bite on my skin with trepidation. After a few days, my father decided that it was time to take me to the gods in his ancestral home.
Displaced snakes were pacified when bribed with the offer of a godly status. Those were the politics of religion. The snakes, elevated in their standards, were barricaded and presented their own homes, with a promise of permanent settlement and turmeric and milk, with a counter promise of not hurting the members of the family and the extended family. My father’s ancestral home had such a snake temple, which had trees the size of sky scrapers, the mass of branches intertwined with each other, irrespective of the species, and the leaves perpetually rustling to each other. If a single snake could amount to a bucket of snake smell, could you imagine how it would be to be anywhere near the snake temple? It was a cornucopia of odors sprayed into an unskinned nose. I wiggled like a possessed human. My grandmother was convinced that the snake gods had cursed me.
It had begun, she explained, with her great grandmother, who once, at the age of 14, unknowingly threw a wad of blood soaked menstrual cloth to the backyard of the house, right into the roaming grounds of a very old upper caste snake. It touched the impure blood from the female body and was desecrated. To slake its anger, the snake cursed the girl and every female to be born in the bloodline. No one is clear of the specifics of the curse, but it included statements like loss of dear ones by snakebite, fear and palpitation in sleep and frequent serpent sightings. The snake temple was an attempt by my ancestors to appease the enraged snakes, which seemed to work until I showed signs of disturbance.
I would not drink from the old house and insisted on being fed bottled water unsealed right in front of me. I knew there was a dead snake in the well, for how else would the water from it smell so bad? They would not believe me, but a week later, my uncle spotted a snake, almost down to a skeleton, floating on the surface of the deep well. At that point, my grandmother whispered to my father that I was not cursed, indeed blessed by the gods who allowed me to spot them before other mortal humans could. The rest of the family treated me with a certain reverence from the moment, nevertheless, my father was annoyed and worried, made us pack our things and leave the village a week ahead of schedule.
I never went there again, primarily because there was no one to take us there after the rains that year. On his way back from the office, my father was bitten while travelling by an auto rickshaw. No one saw the snake. No one could imagine the existence of a snake in the crowded city, where the unrelenting tires of vehicles that never stopped could crush the soggy flesh of a serpent in a few minutes on road. But for everyone to notice, there were the deep fang marks on his right calf, around which the skin had turned an ugly shade of blue. My grandmother surmised that I was the reason behind the tragedy. My father’s family kept me away thereafter.
Throughout the next decade of my life, snakes visited me in several forms and in the most inappropriate occasions. They lurked behind every curtain of my house, blocked the faucets that carried the wastewater from the household and hid inside my laptop bag. I took every step, anticipating the gunky slime beneath my feet, the threat of slipping over or getting bitten by the ruthless serpent. As a mark of final warning, on the day of my wedding, as I spread my bright red kancheepuram saree on the cot to get it ready for draping, three tiny cobra kids slithered out of the fold, hissing and spitting. And as always, no one else could see them, let alone smell them.
My groom was the little adventurer who had grabbed a moving snake to crush it on the wall, who had grown up to be an eligible young man and had in him an unquenchable passion for adventure of the extreme kinds. Perhaps that is why he did marry me, perhaps my presence in his life was to offer him unending adventure.
A year later, during the summer, he patted my growing stomach and left for a trekking expedition with his friends to a highland known for its flora and unfavorable fauna. I was sure he would not return, that he would be returned to me wrapped in a white cloth.
I was wrong. He came whole, smiling, and enclosed me in a hug, almost smothered me as a snake does its prey. The same night, while pulling over the sheet over his tired body, I discovered it. A fang mark on his arm that only one creature was capable of making. He was bitten, yet alive. He was with me to see the birth of our child and to pat her trembling cheeks when she dreamed of snakes like I did. Every month, on the star of the snakes, I left a whole bowl of turmeric powder in the bathroom before he bathed, I fed him milk boiled without a drop of water.
He smelled different, yet familiar.
His odor reminded me of the snake whose brains once decorated the walls of the car park.
He reminded me of death.
About Vidya Panicker
Vidya Panicker, a writer from India, has her poems, stories and translations published or upcoming in journals and magazines including The Feminist Review (London), Muse India, Himal South Asian, East Lit Journal, Indian Review, Indian Ruminations, Raed Leaf India, Femina fast fiction, Contemporary Literary Review of India, Indus Woman Writing, 4and20poetry.com, and Reading Hour Magazine.
She won second prize in the All India Poetry Contest 2014, held by the Poetry Society of India, and is currently an editor on the poetrycircle.com website.