I scramble through the jungle searching for a neem tree. I know there must be some nearby. Though I can’t find the way back to camp, I recognize this clearing – Baba brought me here as a teenager. My memories blur, straining against the years. My legs cramp, my muscles stiffen, and my head feels woozy. The bleeding has stopped for now, but the wound is contaminated; an infection is festering beneath my makeshift cloth bandage.
I sit, feeling the mud beneath me, no longer caring about my white trousers (I should have known better), the buzz of mosquitos waxing and waning within millimetres of my eardrums. The rains have just come, so it is dark and damp, and the air weighs heavy on my shoulders.
I, overconfident in my navigation abilities, have been away too long, and India’s wildness is not owned by anyone, not even those who spend lifetimes here.
Idiot. Fool. Imbecile. You should have paid more attention.
“One day,” Baba had said, “this could save your life.” We spent weeks in his village, while my mother turned her nose up and checked into a hotel. I am ashamed to say I was similarly unimpressed by my rustic heritage.
My father, simple, sweet, and a tribal at heart, embarrassed me in front of my posh South Delhi friends. My mother plucked him out of the village, dressed him up like a dancing monkey and paraded him in front of her high society friends as a charity case. More like bourgeoisie hell.
I stand up again. And then suddenly I see him. I freeze.
Russell’s vipers are dangerous – one of the most dangerous snakes in India. But more than his breathtaking golden skin, peppered by brown splotches, I recognize his scar.
The last time we saw him, in spite of Baba’s warnings, I had not been able to stifle a gasp. The serpent, wounded at the time, likely from a skirmish with a rival predator, weakly raised his head in our direction, sadness in his beady eyes.
My father, with zero knowledge of veterinary science, walked into the woods, brought back the neem, ground it into a paste and gently applied it over the gash. The serpent put his head down and allowed Baba to touch him without attacking.
They don’t live that long do they? But that scar, it’s him alright. It makes eye contact and my breath catches in my chest. It crosses in front of me slowly, and slithers to the right, pauses, and turns to look at me. In the haze of what must be a fever dream, I understand. I follow him slowly, ignoring the pain. 100 metres in, he vanishes, but there in front of me, is the neem tree I seek.
When they find me the next day, patiently applying the paste into my skin, I mutter something about my golden serpent, which is assumed to be a hunger-induced hallucination. But my Russell’s viper and I, we know the truth.