Cover page.


  • Nest
  • A Murky Part of the Wood
  • Lord of the Dance
  • Mouse Leap
  • Doors
  • The Gandhi in Tavistock Square
  • Venom Extraction Day

Pages 3-7

Rainforest, in the dry season. If had looked closely at those black zigzag lines under green bamboo, you would have seen they were not the shadows of overlapping leaves bit edges between the charcoal-grey scales of her head. You would have admired the bronze shadows in each honey-flame iris, the pearl-pale ring encircling each black pupil, and maybe have seen the while of her- a dark knot in a double-decked mound of dead bamboo leaves, high as a man's thigh.

The only movement was a luminous ant exploring the underside of a leaf and a few mites like red full stops, sampling her interstitial scales.

Suddenly, far-off, there was a rasping cry: a leopard calling cubs maybe. She part-spread her hood. She had no external ear, she would it have heard us talking beside her, but this low-frequency call hit the side of her skull, travelled form skin into jaw muscle and quadrate bone and flicked her inner ear. She dabbed out her tongue. The prongs, two tubes of glistening black shading to grey-pink, waved in different directions, tasting the air, decoding the scents and calling them into cavities n her mouth which was lined with nerve endings, To her as to all snakes, taste and smell were one.

A small brown babbler flew to a lower branch, displacing a leaf, and her eyes were on that leaf before it reached the ground. She was on guard. But she was very thirsty. Making a tumulus and laying thirty eggs in it is hard work.

She was young; this was her first time. Evolution had not let her down, a million years of it had been at work in her as she made the incubation chamber. Her eggs required specific heat and humidity for two months and they’d get it, no question. She was not one degree out. But she needed water.

Afternoon light shone through translucent flanges either side of her head and on the gold horizontal throat scales. Her throat would have seemed curiously thin and flat, like a twist of sugar-paper, if you'd have looked at her from the side.

And someone was looking. A slight, bespectacled man, utterly silent, whose palms were hot and rather wet. Her heart had three chambers, he knew that, he was a biologist. His own had four and he wanted the blood to keep going safely through them all, which it would stop doing if it came into contact with one drop of the neurotoxin being manufactured twenty feet away by salivary glands in her head...

In that electric moment when human meets king cobra eye to eye, each is liable to confuse the other's motive. Keep still, he thought. Be very still. The forest was utterly still, except for the beating of his still healthy heart. The leech wriggling over his shoe might be surprised bin a minute by what was happening to the blood it was so keen to reach. Every snake venom is a unique cocktail of enzymes, polypeptides and glycoproteins which act on different systems of the body: nerves, breath, muscles ad blood, Neurotoxin, the main component in king cobra venom, would bind instantly to receptors on the surface of his muscle cells, block communication between his nerves and muscles, severing the impulse that made his muscles contract, meanwhile, tissues round the bite would swell and necrotise, haemorrhagin would crumble his capillaries and his own blood would circulate to the rest of the body the proteins causing all this havoc. Within minutes, the neurotoxins would stun his nervous system and slow his breathing. Paralysis would follow, as the textbooks said, very fast. Looking down at this feet like a boy confessing to a broken rule, Richard stood immobile for what seemed a very long time, he concentrated, as only a scientist or a poet can, on precise names for the leaves he was looking at. He felt her eyes upon him. He was in the hands of the living god, of neurosynapses in a reptile brain.

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