BY MICHAEL JOLL
Copyright is held by the author.
IT WAS Dudley’s fault.
As it usually was.
And parachute jumping was only the start of it.
“I’ve got a great idea,” Dudley announced. “We’re going to fight Communists.”
“Sure,” replied the unconvinced Mikey.
“My dad says Senator McCarthy is right. Commies are dangerous and un-American, and we’re going to help get rid of them. We’ll parachute into enemy territory. I’ll show you how.”
Mikey put down his comic book, resigned to going parachute jumping.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” Dudley said. “But you can’t tell anyone. It’s a most real, absolutely secret, secret.”
If Mikey had misgivings at the mention of secrets, he didn’t let on.
“My dad’s a secret agent,” Dudley whispered behind his hand.
“Never!” Mikey gasped.
“It’s true,” Dudley insisted, then stopped to think for a moment. “But don’t ask him or he’ll want to know how you know his secret.”
“If it’s a secret, how come you know?”
“I found out,” Dudley said, looking smug and superior. “My dad parachutes into Communist territory every day of the week. Except Sundays.”
“Wow!” Mikey said, his eyes widening.
“He spends Sundays at home.” Dudley stood and stretched. “First thing,” he said, “is to find some parachutes.”
Digging through the bottom of Dudley’s bedroom closet, they unearthed two school backpacks. Rolled-up comic books stuffed into the packs became instant silk parachutes, and with the backpacks strapped to their skinny shoulders they climbed onto the rail of the raised verandah. There, unsteadily but heroically, they clung to the open door frame of their impromptu spy plane. The cool air of the slipstream ruffled their hair as they stared down at the desert sand far below.
“It’s only 8,000 feet,” Dudley announced. “I’ll jump first. Watch me, and roll when you hit the deck. My dad taught me how.”
With a yell of “Geronimo!” Dudley leaped spread-eagled outwards into the great void. As he hit the sand he rolled professionally and stood up all in the same movement. Mikey admired his friend’s derring-do, and with an ear-splitting shriek of “Geronimo!” the fledgling spy launched himself feet-first to join his comrade-in-arms in Communist-held territory.
Mikey rolled on hitting the drop zone. He would have stood in one motion as Dudley had shown him, except for the rock buried just beneath the sand that broke his ankle. The subsequent weeks spent in a plaster cast put an end to parachuting jumping, but did not place the boys’ anti-Communist activities entirely on hold.
“I’m bored,” Dudley announced, throwing his comic book aside. The desert heat and the brutal humidity that precedes the monsoon hung like a damp pall over the pair, lounging in the shade of the verandah of Dudley’s parents’ beach house on the Arabian Gulf outside Karachi.
Mikey drained the last of his bottle of Dr. Pepper. “Me, too,” he agreed uneasily, wondering what Dudley had thought up to relieve their boredom this time. And whether it would involve another trip to the hospital. He squinted at his friend through the red and green cellophane lenses of his 3-D glasses, until that moment happily engrossed in the latest instalment of Captain America. Mikey wriggled his toes sticking out of the plaster cast that stretched to his knee.
In spite of the parachute incident, Dudley and Mikey were still best friends, inseparable halves of a pair of dauntless, nine year old, gum-chewing adventurers. Dudley was two months younger than Mikey, but had appointed himself as their leader within minutes of their first meeting. At an age when birth dates mattered, this nettled Mikey. Dudley’s father, however, was a United States Army Air Force Colonel, so Dudley pulled rank and it was settled. It was the first time that their friendship was tested. But not their last.
As the sun neared the horizon eight weeks after Mikey’s last trip to the hospital, the two boys dragged themselves to their feet and, armed with Dudley’s Red Rider BB gun, they set off to scout out the garden, bent on inspecting every cranny in the hope that they might unearth a Communist, or at least a scorpion, or a tarantula. That neither boy knew what a scorpion, a tarantula or a Communist looked like failed to deter them: they knew without question that they would recognize one when they saw it, and that it would undoubtedly make a fine pet. Or prisoner.
They shared their suspicions about the mali, the native Pakistani gardener shadowing them like an inept secret agent around the desert scrub that passed for a garden. Their search, though diligent, failed to turn up anything that could possibly have been a scorpion, a tarantula, or even a Communist. Lizards sunning themselves on the walls, and fat horseflies stuck to donkey dung, too lazy to buzz in the stifling heat, provided the only glimmer of life. Though disappointed with the result, the boys could declare with confidence that, with the possible exception of the mali, the garden to that point was scorpion, tarantula and Communist-free.
They arrived at the far end of the garden where a high wall divided the beach house from its neighbour. Against this wall a previous occupant had built a roofed pen of lath and chicken wire. In the centre of this enclosure hung a flimsy wire door, fastened with a length of twine. The coop was the last stop on the boys’ reconnaissance tour.
Looping their fingers through the wire they shook the mesh, hoping to flush out a scorpion or two. Instead, only a few undersized moulting chickens pecked at the sand while half a dozen rabbits panted in the shade of a row of nesting boxes stacked against the rear wall. On completion of his inspection of the hens and rabbits, Mikey was about to turn away when he spotted movement. He grabbed Dudley’s arm, pointing to the nesting boxes. Behind one of the boxes a brown and sand coloured shape insinuated itself, barely moving.
“Look,” Mikey pointed at the snake. “You can see its forked tongue flicking.”
“I bet it’s a cobra,” Dudley whispered. “Or a python.”
“It’s too small to be a python,” Mikey whispered back. “So it must be a cobra. Or a viper.”
Dudley raised his air rifle to his shoulder, squinted down the sights, drew a bead on the snake and squeezed the trigger.
“I could have shot him if my dad hadn’t confiscated my BBs.” With a shrug Dudley lay down his gun, picked up a piece of lath lying outside the wire door, and untied the twine.
With a mixture of fascination and awe, Mikey looked on as his best friend entered the enclosure and, with his stick held out in front of him, approached the snake.
The snake disappeared behind a nesting box, re-emerged on the other side, and froze, eying Dudley. Unflinching, Dudley eyed the snake. It slithered an inch forward and stopped again, the flat, triangular head and blunt, rounded snout barely off the sand sensing heat, the eyes gauging distance, the brain appraising Dudley. Dudley held his ground.
Dudley ended the stand-off by lunging at the snake with his stick, striking it with a sharp downward blow. The snake coiled its thick body, reared its head a few inches off the sand, mouth open, hissing. His stick held warily at waist level like a fencer, Dudley advanced two steps. He stabbed and missed, losing the advantage of distance. The snake struck. Off balance, Dudley leaped back. Taking a desperate swipe as the snake lunged, he landed a glancing blow on its body, just enough to divert the deadly, needle-sharp fangs.
As the snake slithered quickly towards him, Dudley scrambled backwards and crashed into Mikey who had been leaning on his crutches in the open doorway, intently watching the contest.
Caught off-balance, both boys stumbled and fell in a tangled heap, the impact driving the breath from Mikey’s lungs and sending a crutch spinning from his grasp.
Leaving shallow zigzag ripples in the loose sand, the snake slid closer. It raised its head, wide-mouthed, bared its two long, rear-pointing fangs, and fixed its tiny, expressionless black eyes on the boys. Dudley screamed and rolled. With a loud hiss, the snake struck. Lightning-fast, the fangs slashed down into the cast protecting Mikey’s ankle and left venom dribbling from the plaster. The snake reared to strike again. From flat on his back Dudley took a desperate swipe at it and pushed it aside.
Undeterred, with another angry hiss the snake slithered toward Mikey, and stopped. It coiled its muscular body into tight S-shapes for the coup de grâce. Mikey poked feebly at the snake with his remaining crutch. Like a spring, the snake recoiled, poised to attack Mikey’s other, unprotected leg. Paralyzed with fear, Mikey watched the serpent open its jaws so wide that he could see past its fangs and its glistening teeth down into its never-ending gullet. Surrendering to his inevitable fate he clamped his eyes shut.
Mikey sensed the darkness of the shadow of death loom over him. He dropped his remaining crutch and, clasping his hands together over his eyes, tried to pray before death’s scythe claimed him.
A hiss: the snake struck. Mikey felt no pain. He knew his soul would rise from his body at any moment and go to Heaven, as his Sunday school teacher had promised. He prayed that he had been good enough.
Shouts broke through death’s silence. Mikey opened his eyes to see the mali standing over him, hacking at the snake’s severed body with a spade. Blood spattered the sand around him. Chunks of the snake’s body writhed and twitched by Mikey’s head, its nerves still alive; its venom still deadly.
Glued to the ground, Mikey watched Dudley swatting at the remains of the snake with his stick and stomping on any bits that still moved. The mali grabbed Dudley roughly by the arm and screamed at him in Urdu. From his back, Mikey stared up at Dudley towering white-faced above him, as rigid as a marble statue. A violent tremor seized Dudley’s slight body. His legs slowly buckled and, as his knees hit the sand, he doubled over and vomited.
When his retching subsided he stammered in a voice barely above a whisper, “Could you tell the mali not to tell my father?” Mikey was too shaken to reply.
When the mali had finished chasing the escaped chickens and rabbits back into the pen and latched the door, he turned to Dudley and said, in English, “I tell father.” For the first time in their friendship Mikey saw fear in Dudley’s eyes.
Dudley squirmed, and began to cry.
Mikey struggled to his feet as realization of his narrow escape sunk in.
Lightheaded and swaying on quaking legs, he glared at the severed flesh, slime and guts of the snake at his feet. The snake had intended to kill him. It had almost succeeded. Only his broken ankle had saved him the first time: only the mali the second.
He turned to face the mali and pointed an accusing finger at the man’s chest. “You will not tell Dudley’s father about this,” he said in Urdu, “and we won’t tell him about . . . ” Mikey grasped desperately for anything that could be used against the gardener. “. . . The missing chickens.”
The mali’s head jerked up, and for the second time in as many minutes Mikey saw fear. The mali nodded once, slowly.
“Ji han, sahib,” he said. “Yes, master,” he repeated in English.
“It’s definitely not a cobra,” Mikey told Dudley with an air of authority after the mali had cleared away the remains of the snake. “Cobra’s are dark; this one’s a sandy colour with brown zigzags down its back.”
“Maybe it’s a rattlesnake,” Dudley sniffed, refusing to look at his friend as the tears dribbling down his dusty cheeks etched clean channels on his ashen skin.
“I think it’s a viper,” Mikey said. “Whatever it is, I never want to see another one.”
They fell into a long, contemplative silence. “What did you say to the mali?” Dudley eventually asked.
“I told him I’d tell your dad he was stealing chickens if he said anything.”
Dudley looked up. “How did you know he was stealing chickens?”
Mikey wasn’t about to admit his bluff. The torch of leadership had just changed hands.
“I’ve lived here longer than you,” Mikey said. “In Pakistan, all malis steal chickens.”
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