Translated by V. Ramanan
He had not known anything about rearing hens, neither were the hens elated in his captivity. He knew that it was not a calling befitting his Senior Certificate Second Division. At least, he did not have to take orders from others and if lucky, could make some money for himself.
Though this was the ostensible reason, the real one was different. If he kept hens and remained in the village, Emily had agreed to come with him. The exhilaration as a result of the aforesaid proposal blinded him to other options.
He had an assistant by the name Inchreko, an old man. He knew something about rearing hens for a living. Working along with him , he fed the hens, provided water, spread saw dust, swept and cleaned the pen and in short bent his back and work hard. After all, if you have a secret lover the other side of the river, you cant but learn to swim.
Everything went on well, till the snake came along.
It was a crafty pest. He tried to fence its path with wire mesh. It made no difference; the snake always found its way in. It was always a mystery how it managed to slip in and out of the enclosure.
The more Mwangi and Inchereko toiled, the more did the Snake enjoy the fruits of their labour. As days went by, the Snake grew in girth and its skin became shiner. Apart from feasting on the eggs, whenever its protein in take was insufficient, it also preyed on the chicken and generally took good care of its health.
In lands close to a water source, Fever trees grew in abundance. Its yellow bark was smooth and a stick made out of its broken branch sturdy. Mwangi procured one and kept it handy. It was strong, easy to fling and yet flexible, right tool to put the snake in its place.
He kept the stick always by his side, in his bed. He would frequently take it out and swing in the air , just to remain in practice. He would run his hand over its smooth long surface. He will speak to it in a consoling tone. He was thus keeping himself ready for the fight.
Not that Emily was impressed with all these empty gestures of animosity, her 2 year old child had started to run out and play. She was worried the child might get bitten by the snake. She did not approve of his nocturnal hunting expeditions with a torch in one hand and the stick in another either; she was afraid he might step on the snake and get bitten.
Mwangi paid no heed to her. He came so obsessed with the snake that the hens became a secondary concern. As days went by, his spent the whole day thinking about the snake and how to kill it, to the exclusion of other things.
However, not once had he seen his great enemy face to face. Neither the snake wished to see its benefactor. All he could see were tracks of snake movements on the soil and significant reduction in eggs.
One day providence brought the enemies face to face.
It was Joseph, his neighbour who saw it first. He called Mwangi immediately. May be the snake had grown a little too used to stealing an easy meal of eggs every day and its hunting instincts and skills had got blunted. May be it was a bit bored too. It had slithered out into the mild evening sun and was lying motionless. Though a free meal, a full stomach does call for some rest.
Mwangi came out and stopped in his tracks transfixed. What a beautiful sight. What a desultory, unconcerned look, as if to say “lets talk about it tomorrow”. He sprung back into his hut and came with his stick in hand, holding it high like a Masai warrior.
The snake took full notice of it. It understood that his intentions were not honourable.
It hissed and lifted itself up, its eyes like shining beads. They looked too large for its small head. Its was letting out its blood red split tongue as if checking the air. It then spread its hood and showed it true propensity for violence. Suddenly, it is difficult to say what crossed its mind, it shrunk itself and slithered into a pile of bricks. It failed to give due respect to an equal foe.
Mwangi did not acquit himself well too. He had behaved in an uncivilized manner. The foe , however formidable, was there in front but without any defence. He ran around the brick pile like a mad man brandishing his stick.
Mwangi had his reasons for behaving like that. He suspected it to be the spitting cobra very common in those parts. The spit of the snake can travel for up to 10 ft and hit the human eye causing permanent blindness. It takes lot of skill to kill a spitting cobra. He was trying to position himself facing its tail. Now at least he knew it was not the spitting type at all.
Thus his first encounter with his enemy ended in a fiasco.
The snake did not like it one bit. It felt some third party was imposing himself in its secret pact with the hens. It was waiting for the right opportunity to show its displeasure.
Next day, Mwangi found that the snake had , after swallowing the contents of the eggs, spit the shells. Now, at least, there was no need for him to pull his spring like hair to count the eggs he had lost. The shells started appearing in regular frequency-as if the snake wanted to mark its attendance.
Mwangi steeled his resolve.
He could not sleep that night, his mind always thinking about the snake. He was lying in their cot covered with cow hide. By his side was Emily, her breasts going up and down in a rhythm. He could smell her close presence from the familiar musty smell of heat emanating from her body.
There was also the unmistakable smell that comes after you eat Sukuma Wiki. She smelt of it more than her usual. It roused him somewhat. His fingers searched for the knot on her Lasa. It took some time for him to find it and pull it free.
She murmured “vacha, vacha” , and shifted herself to a comfortable position against him, her hand falling suggestively on his thigh.
That was what he liked about Emily the most. She never refused, though she would say, “large hearted women forever pregnant” , just to chide him.
Emily’s son was 2 years old. They were planning to marry when he became four. Emily wanted a grand marriage. She wanted to wear whites for her marriage like a fairy, gloves up to her elbow, a veil covering her face and walk to the sound of music in front of guests. She imagined her 4 year son carrying a bouquet and walking in front of her.
She had some decent savings kept aside for her marriage. If Mwangi also saved some more, they would be able advance the celebrations. However, this business of snake was not helping that cause.
It suddenly occurred to Mwangi. The snake was about 14 feet long with shining eyes and small head. Its skin had a black sheen. It was the great African Mamba.
It was capable of climbing trees. It was climbing trees, getting on top of the roof and then getting in. What was the use of ring fencing the pen and blocking all the holes on the doors , if it could come from above?
He again left home fully armed and with the torch on hand in pursuit of the snake. The snake had become quite a challenge indeed.
He tried all that he could do. He pruned the branches of trees around. He poured kerosene around the trees, applied tar on their bark and riveted tin plates on their trunks. He kept the lights on through the night. He tried all his Senior Certificate Second Division brain could muster.
The snake was proving to be too smart for him. All his entrapments were in vain. He was getting exasperated; he who lost his horse will search in the depth of the pond and on top of the roof; he who wears the shoe know where it pinches. He was at his wits end.
Will anybody search for solutions to scratch the back if they have a porcupine cuddling against them ?
The next door Joseph was after all an expert in snakes. He thought his idea was worth trying, finally.
He had enough love for Emily that could last for next one year. However, he found her stubbornness exasperating. Some times her stubbornness was no less than that of a child.
It was his wont to move about nude when at home. She had strictly forbidden that. Though it posed him problems, he had managed to follow her strictures in this respect.
Her other foible was even more irritating. There was a small raised platform in the kitchen. Once she gets behind it, no amount of entreaties would make her budge from it. He had put up with all this.
Suddenly she no longer liked to live in this house. She was afraid for his son. The Black Mamba’s venom is lethal. Once bitten, nobody survives for even a few seconds. She thought Mwangi was taking his fight with the Mamba too lightly.
Her grouse was that he was not progressing anywhere with his fight with the Mamba. That was the reason for her anger. The earth under the kitchen platform shook; she was sitting there with her eyes half closed like a flag drooped in mourning, her lips quivered and her legs spreadeagled. She was morose and but busy cutting the leaves of Sukuma Wiki.
In his hurry, Mwangi had draped himself with her Marindha dress. It had big flowers on it. He tiptoed towards her and sat down. He took her hands in his, but she pushed away in protest.
You useless girl , my dear scented flower, look at me. One day all hot water will have to turn cold.
Keep patience. I will certainly kill this snake , that is for sure”, he pleaded.
“I want my son to survive. Everyday when I go to bed, I take a good look at him. I am terrified that next morning I may not see him alive. When flood water reaches ankle high, would you not start evacuating it. Will you wait for it to climb higher ?. So much drama just to kill a snake. I have left my son in god’s custody. I have no more words to say. Kabisa, my prayers.
Her words came out in rapidly. He was running his fingers along her ears, just like a judge would do to the hammer on his table. When she started to moan, he drew her towards himself forcefully. She kept her shoulders stiff. Her upper lips were thick and tasty like yamaso meat.
She smirked and looked at him from the side of her eyes. She felt she had been too far gone into the act to retrieve herself. Mwangi tasted her lips like it was the last morsel of food.
Actually, Joseph’s idea was simplicity itself. It was to buy four ping pong balls and keep them mixed with the eggs. The snake would not be able to tell the ping pong balls from the eggs and would swallow them along with the eggs. That was how they caught snakes in the villages, he added. Mwangi was not convinced. After all the villagers are known for tall stories.
That night Mwangi had taken his torch and gone thrice in search of the snake. He had lost track of time. When he woke up, it was well past dawn. Emily had carried her son away to work.
The morning was cool with a breeze blowing across. The Jacaranda trees had covered the land with purple flowers. As usual, he went round the hens’ coop. Something was amiss. He looked in and found two ping pong balls missing. His heart raced.
He could not wait to look for traces of the snake on the soil. He ran hither and tither looking for any imprint of snake on the soil. He did not believe the snake could be so easily fooled.
Beyond the Fever trees where the elephant grass grew he found it. He found it dead, very dead.
Its long black body glittered in sun light. It small mouth was open and frayed. Blood had oozed out of its head after repeated banging on the ground. Ants were all over swarming its carcass. He could see two balls stuck in its throat which it had unsuccessfully tried to disgorge.
What a lovely length. He could not but admire its beauty. There was not a small injury on the body. Only the head had got disfigured. The tail occasionally moved.
The villagers stream out of their huts to see the snake. They saw the tail moving and took turns to beat it down.
The children went round and round Mwangi with wide-eyed glee. They started to sing:
Mwangi Anayuka Niwaga
Cheeyo, Cheeyo, Muwaka
( Mwangi is a great hero
Killed a snake all by himself)
In all this, suddenly Okila appeared from some where. His presence was indispensable when death occurred in the village. He had to play his part in the final journey of the departed soul. He garlanded himself with the dead snake. Still the head and the tail of the snake touched the soil. Okila bent his legs and stretched his hands and danced his way forward. The children brought tins and old boxes and drummed as the procession went round and round the huts.
The elder folk came and congratulated and praised Mwangi, a little more than necessary. The snake came to eat eggs according to its nature and was caught in a devious death trap. It was a victim of diabolical deception. Now it hanging from Okila’s neck and moving from side to side being drawn across the soil in an undignified way.
The long graceful and majestic body of the snake appeared before him again and again. In the battle between two equal enemies, deceit and fraud had crept in. What is so great about this victory ? The peace you get from a loss was not even there in this victory.
Mwangi was on sitting on his haunches at the entrance of his hut. He was sitting in that pose for a long time, even when Emily returned. When she saw him, she plumped her son on the ground and came running towards him, her two breasts swinging like well grown papaya fruits.
He could not look into her eyes. He stood up hurriedly. Mwangi, Senior Certificate Second Divsion, threw with a heave the stick made from the branch of the Fever tree and bent his neck and head to enter into the hut.
Republished with thanks from the translator’s blog: https://words-are-weariness.blogspot.com/2018/04/enemy-by-muthulingam.html?showComment=1561633568756&view=sidebar
About the Author:
Appadurai Muttulingam (Tamil அ. முத்துலிங்கம்) (born 19 January 1937) is a Sri Lankan Tamil author and essayist. His short stories in Tamil have received critical acclaim and won awards in both India and Sri Lanka. He began writing short stories in the 1960s, with his short story Akka winning a competition conducted by a Sri Lankan Tamil newspaper in 1961. This story was the title story in his first collection of short stories, Akka (“Sister”), published in 1964. Many of his story collections have been published since then. He is actively involved in The Tamil Literary Garden, a Toronto-based charitable organization dedicated to the international promotion of Tamil literature. Muttulingam’s stories are noted for their understatement, reserve and imagery, and focus on moments of small transformation. His stories do not attempt to directly build suspense or dramatic tension, and are instead grounded in realism, particularly in description and characterization.