‘The End,’ I typed. The book that had taken me 14 years to write. I rose from my desk and stretched; outside, go-away birds glowered down from the fever trees and a dust devil coiled across the valley. ‘A walk at last!’ I grabbed my cattle stick — and up leapt the labrador, the collie and Potatoes, the mongrel. In a riot of tails, the dogs rushed out of the open front door with me striding in pursuit and there, on the front porch, I came face to face with an eight-foot long spitting cobra.
‘Look, and be afraid!’ the cobra Nag hisses at Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. But unlike Kipling’s mongoose, on our farm we adore snakes. I lie in bed watching delicate little brown-lipped house snakes in the coconut thatch above, hunting for geckos. Once, on the porch, we found a harmless rhombic egg-eater, with its diamond skin. We have the iridescent-blue grass snake and sand snakes with brown go-faster stripes. For sure we have puff adders. A few weeks ago, a black mamba slithered into the office, rose up and flattened its hood at my wife Claire while she was on the phone before I drove it away with my gumboot — but venomous serpents rarely drop by.
Our farm is home to the world’s largest spitting cobra, the giant brown or Naja ashei, named for the late but wise Kenyan herpetologist James Ashe. Occasionally an ashei will raid the chicken coop and kill a rooster. Recently a cobra swallowed six eggs from under a broody hen. Luckily we had Charlie staying, a friend who has trained in Ashe’s snake park, and he is a great cobra lover. While I shone a torch, Charlie grabbed the snake out of the coop, secured him by his head — the size of a man’s fist — and then we popped him into one of Claire’s John Lewis pillowcases, knotted this up with an old silk tie of the sort I once wore in cities and put the struggling package in a bucket overnight. Next morning we released him among rocks a mile away.
The venom from one bite of the ashei is enough to kill up to 20 large men like me and now, outside the front door, Charlie was not here to advise me. It is a neurotoxin that affects speech and swallowing, causes pain, vomiting, respiratory failure and death. The ashei also spits.
The labrador, beloved of my son Rider, had decided to take the cobra on with a full barking and snapping assault. The collie, beloved of my daughter Eve, was set on helping him. Potatoes, beloved of me, wisely hung back. The cobra was looking at them, not me, and made several lunges while spitting. I roared at the dogs to get back. They did not listen. I swiped at the labrador with my long cattle stick. He kept coming for the cobra. I shouted at the collie. She ignored me. There was nothing for me to do except stand between the cobra and the dogs and now I used my cattle stick to wallop the labrador over the head. He yowled and backed off. I now walloped the collie over the head and she retreated too.
I looked down and a thick brown rope wriggled between my legs, heading towards the dogs. When I raised my eyes, there before me was the cobra, rising several feet above the ground, facing me with her hood flattened out around her head, her eyes looking straight into mine. This stand-off had unfolded very quickly and suddenly it seemed quite serious. In a millisecond it occurred to me that Charlie had put Kipling’s male Nag in a pillowcase and so here was his wife Nagaina.
I wondered where all our mongooses were: we have a gang of dwarf mongooses that live in the garden and rather than ‘Rikk-tikk-tikki-tikki-tchk!’ they make a sound like ‘Churr!’ But they were not here.
The dogs were barking. I realised there was nothing for it. I must act. As I raised my cattle stick, Nagaina and I looked deeply into each other’s eyes. I saw her mouth open, the circle of her tongue — and then my vision was blurred. She had spat a great quantity of warm liquid into my face, aimed across several feet very accurately into my glasses. Myopia saved my sight, because the venom causes blindness. At that instant my stick came down on her head. I killed her. My face was hot with venom. I washed my skin but found the plastic lens of my glasses had become foggy. The labrador had also got a dose of poison in his eyes and as I washed these out with milk for an hour, I wondered if the story of my book was really over just yet.
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