King Cobra returned to the jungle bearing the scent of milk and sandalwood. He searched for his nearest subject, and found Spitting Cobra.
“My festival has ended,” he said. “Gather my subjects.”
Spitting Cobra bowed his head. “Namaste, Raja” he said, and then set off on his duty.
King Cobra coiled before the entrance to his termite mound burrow and waited.
He felt the vibrations made by his subjects before he saw them. Snakes of every length and color poured out of the undergrowth to take their place before his throne. All were accounted for except that most arrogant of constrictors, Python, who never responded to the summons. King Cobra had publicly banished him for his disrespect years ago, but in secret he hoped the traitor would regain his senses and come crawling back someday.
King Cobra rose above the gathering and spread his hood. Fear and reverence flashed in unblinking eyes. “Another Nag Panchami gone,” he said. “Again the humans showered me with their respects. I drank deep of the sacred milk. Their prayers shall be answered.”
Serpent heads rose and bobbed to the ground. “Namaste, Raja!” they chanted. “Hear our prayers also! Are we not worth more to you than your human subjects?”
King Cobra’s hood flared wider as pride swelled his heart. Looking over his subjects, he noted how many brought offerings. A queasy feeling rose in his stomach. He had yet to recover from his drink, if having a human press your mouth into a deep saucer of milk while you thrashed for freedom could be called taking a drink. He wondered how many of his subjects fantasized about sharing that “honor,” and suppressed a laugh.
The presentation of tributes began.
Krait approached and set a small lizard at the burrow entrance. “Namaste, Raja,” she said. “Would you give me a bountiful clutch of eggs this year?”
“It will be done,” King Cobra said.
In secret he chuckled to himself. Krait’s mate was old and growing weaker by the year. If she only had the sense to replace him with a better male she would start seeing results. Such a foolish female.
Indian Cobra approached and set a rat beside the burrow entrance. “Namaste, Raja,” he said. “My burrow was badly flooded by the rains. I have decided to seek my fortune in the fields, where there are rumored to be many rats. Would you offer me protection from being trampled by humans?”
“It will be done,” King Cobra said.
In secret he marveled at the foolish request he had just heard. Any snake that could not feel a human coming and get out of the way deserved to be stepped on. Silly little cobra.
Rat Snake approached. He had nothing to leave at the burrow entrance. “Namaste, Raja,” he said. His ugly, bulging eyes darted back and forth, never resting on his king. “I have been ill. I missed on the last few strikes and am getting very hungry. Would you offer me luck in hunting?”
King Cobra flicked his tongue. The scent of his sick subject tempted him, but he was still not ready to eat. “You displease me,” he said. “I can hardly start offering luck to those who bring no tribute. How is that fair to the others? You had better have something for me the next time we meet, or you can consider yourself tribute!”
Rat Snake’s eyes grew wide and he slithered away as fast as he could.
The rest of King Cobra’s subjects presented their tribute and went on their way. He crawled into his burrow for a nap.
Things were as they should be for many days, and then the humans came again. They tore down the termite mound’s walls and sent rubble crashing over King Cobra’s head.
He rose from his den, hood spread and hissing with indignation. “You fools!” he said. “Do you think it is time for Nag Panchami again already?”
The humans were swift. King Cobra could not bite them or scare them away. One male grabbed him by the tail. He lifted his head and struck, but the human backed away too quickly. They continued this disgraceful dance for several minutes, but although King Cobra was growing tired the human’s speed never wavered. The man pinned his head to the ground, grabbed him by the neck, and put him in a bag.
He felt the familiar vibrations of a human’s metal servant, as he had before while being taken to Nag Panchami. The journey was much longer though, and the next time he saw daylight it was in an unfamiliar village. The young humans took him into a human den and held him while an old male with a beard looked him over. They made broad, excited gestures with their gawky limbs. King Cobra wondered if they were planning some especially grand celebration in his honor. The old male brought out a needle and thread, which he used to sew King Cobra’s mouth shut.
King Cobra’s new den was a small basket. When the humans left him alone, he pretended he was back in his termite mound. Soon it would be time to seek out his mate and wrestle her suitors to prove once again that he was her Raja. He loved the playful way she said that.
Then the old male would take the lid off the basket and the dream would end. King Cobra would rise and see him, sitting with those awkward lower limbs crossed, waving a long stick in his face. Other humans stood in the background, watching. The first time this happened King Cobra decided that the stick may in fact be a part of the human. Perhaps they could add and shed limbs to their liking, though why they would want to grow limbs from their mouths he could not guess. He flared his hood and struck at the stick-limb, which bobbed just out of reach.
The threads stretched but would not give way. Even a successful strike would be rendered impotent. The pain in his mouth was matched only by the pain in his stomach, which soon surpassed it with each week he went without food.
Still the human taunted. King Cobra’s strikes grew slower, but he refused to give up. He demanded respect, and he was going to fight for it even if it killed him.
The day that he felt another basket being set beside his and tasted the scent of an unfamiliar cobra he realized he had done just that.
The last thing he saw was his reflection in the knife the old male lifted over his head.