They saved the king cobra for last, and they were excited. Never mind that the rest of the zoo had been a hot, smelly, sad affair, that the baboons had frothed at them in a primal fury and the alligators had barely moved in the heat of the day, Akhil and Amina had high hopes for the king cobra, which had been painted at the entrance to the zoo with a hood as wide as an umbrella and a busty young woman riding its back.
“They can grow up to eighteen feet,” Akhil said as the kids marched the dusty path to the terrarium, mothers trailing behind them. “And they can make a third of their body rise up when they’re scared, so that’s like, as big as Dad. And when they hiss it sounds like a dog growl.”
“Mikhil,” Itty nodded gravely and Amina wiped her already damp palms down her blouse.
Outside the sad brown building, jagged black letters cried, “Most Poisonous Snake on Earth!” Underneath a set of “Fun Facts” were listed in alternating red and yellow:
Enough venom to kill an elephant in one bite!
Only snake which build nests for their young!
Can live up to twenty years!
“My God,” Kamala said. “Who wants to kill elephants?”
This is a FEMALE KING COBRA caught in the NILGIRI HILLS. She is approximately 12 YEARS OLD and weighs 5 KILOS. King Cobras are known to EAT OTHER SNAKES and sometimes LIZARDS and SMALL MAMMALS.
“You’re a small mammal,” Akhil told Amina.
“You all go in.” Divya stopped in front of the door and mopped her upper lip with the edge of her pullav. “I’ll just wait here.”
“Don’t you want to come?” Kamala asked.
“I am not liking snakes?” their aunt said apologetically, as though snakes were something the rest of them were related to.
“Should Itty wait here, too?” Amina asked.
“Oh no, he can go.”
The room was cement, uneven and unpainted, with a large pane of smudged glass separating the viewing area from the terrarium. Behind the pane, the ground was at least a foot higher, and Amina swallowed back a half-buried feeling.
Leaves. Branches. A small, empty pool of water. At the top of the room, sagging chicken wire hung in place of a real ceiling.
“Do you see it?” she asked.
“Hullo?” Itty pressed his nose to the glass.
Akhil scanned the room from side to side, slowly. “That must be the nest!” He pointed to a bundle of sticks and leaves arranged underneath a log.
“Where are the eggs?” Amina squinted.
“There are no eggs, stupid.”
“Duh. There’s no one for her to mate with.” Akhil tapped the glass and backed up, waiting.
“Poor thing. “Kamala scanned the room sadly. “What a life.”
They waited. Nothing happened.
“I don’t see it.” Disappointment tugged Akhil’s voice down.
“Well,” Kamala said brightly. “Now you know when the king of the jungle lives! That’s something isn’t it?”
“Maybe it got out?” Akhil looked at the chicken wire hopefully. “Maybe they don’t even know yet?”
Suddenly Itty screamed.
“WHAT?” Akhil whirled around. “WHAT?”
“Nnnnnnnn!” Itty pointed toward the glass, his eyes bugged.
“Where!” Itty’s finger shook a little and Akhil followed it, gasping.
“Oh. My. GOD.”
“What? Where?” Amina looked frantically.
“THERE. By the LOG with the THING on it. You SEE IT?”
Amina looked and saw the leaves, the log, the rock, the branch. The branch! It flexed suddenly, rippling into a sinew of brown and green and yellow, thick as her thigh. All three of them screamed as it moved again.
“STOP THE SCREAMING!” Kamala screamed. “WHERE?”
Akhil pointed and the snake moved again, coil after coil unspooling as it slid behind the rock. Itty, overcome, ran around the room tugging at his hair and shrieking.
“I don’t see it!” Kamala said.
Amina grabbed her hand and pointed, understanding from the sharp intake of her mother’s breath that Kamala had finally seen it, too. Together they watched until the snake was nothing more than the dark tip of tail pulling slowly out of the air, leaving a terrifying emptiness in its place.
“Poor thing,” Kamala whispered. She took a step back from the glass, straightening her braid and squaring her shoulders. “Okay.”
“It could come out again in a minute.” Akhil said. “Can we wait and see?”
“No need.” Kamala turned to leave. “We saw.”
“But we just got here! And we haven’t even seen the face. ”
Kamala looked back at the nest.
“Who needs to see the face?” she asked.