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By Kenneth John Clarke
Returning to his village of Nam Hkek near Burma’s Salween River, Ko Tat walked through the jungle following the clear stream that flowed into Khem lagoon. As he arrived in an open clearing and stepped off the path to relieve himself under a tall banyan tree, he heard the hiss of a snake. Immediately, he froze. He surveyed the terrain, while he slowly reached for his Dha (a Burmese sword). To his right, about four feet away, he saw a giant fifteen-foot king cobra weaving its head upwards. Feeling threatened, its neck spread into a hood, its curved form swayed hypnotically, and its beady eyes stared directly into his.
He saw each scaled ribbon that crossed the serpent’s neck, enshrouded within its hood of oval rings, in minute detail, and behind this giant snake a number of smaller cobras curled among the roots of the tree. Ko Tat had stumbled onto a nest of deadly serpents. He stood still for a full three minutes, until the cobra, no longer threatened, lowered his head and slithered away to coil among its companions. Ko Tat slowly backed off and returned to the security of the clearing.
Gathering his wits together he continued his journey, planning how tomorrow he would ask U Aung Kalayar, the area’s hereditary chieftain, a descendent of Burma’s ancient sawbwas (former princes), for his daughter Cho Nwe’s hand in marriage.
A sergeant in the Shan United Army, Ko Tat admired his Warlord Khun Sa, the greatest opium and cocaine producer in the golden triangle and therefore in the world. Ko Tat had successfully smuggled many mule caravans of his opium from Burma into Thai and Laos.
Ko Tat followed his warlord’s instructions to the letter. Last month, when he caught two soldiers from his village smoking opium, he shot them without hesitation. Last week he reported a government spy who tried to enlist his cooperation. Yesterday, his commanding officer recommended him for promotion to Second Lieutenant. U Aung should be proud to have him as a son-in-law. One day, he might even make personal bodyguard for his warlord.
An hour later, as he approached the hills towering over the outskirts of his village he heard the sound of the waterfall pouring into Khem lagoon and the high-pitched laughter of female voices that rose from the pools beneath as the village maidens splashed and dived into the cool crystalline waters. Two sparkling streams flowed from the mountains high above the plateau, to eventually pour as a giant cascade into the Lagoon forty feet below. Beyond the lagoon, the waters flowed past the village, to blend with the muddy waters of the Salween River.
Under the lush jungle vegetation, that engulfed the banks of the lagoon lie a delicate carpet of moss and lichen, a haven for the youth from his village who loved to bathe in these cool waters, then relax on the soft cushions of vegetation. During the heat of the afternoon, they frolicked with their friends while their parents rested at home.
Ko Tat, descending the pathway that had worn into the edge of the cliff over the centuries, saw Cho Nwe resting on a smooth boulder, her long jet-black hair spread out behind her drying in the sun. Her wet sarong displayed her lithe sensuous body. Though only fifteen, her figure already showed promise of womanhood, a promise such as fulfilled all of Ko Tat’s dreams and desires.
Beside her, she had her pet monkey Kri Kri. Her father always teased her regarding her love for animals, joking that she had so many around the house that their home rivaled the zoo in Rangoon.
Ko Tat was impatient for the day when he could claim her. He knew her father did not approve of him but surely, his new rank as an officer in Warlord Khun Sa’s army, would change all that. The days of the sawbwas were long gone, and he was rising in the ranks as a member of the new order that now controlled Burma’s states of Shan and Wa.
He called out to Cho Nwe and she waved to him “Ko Tat, Ko Tat, come and join us. The water is cool and refreshing.”
As Ko Tat waded across the pond, she asked, “How long will you be with us this time?”
“Only the weekend, I leave the day after tomorrow Cho Nwe, but this time I intend to ask your father’s permission to marry you.”
“No my love, not yet, papa will not give it. You know how he cannot accept the new order that you represent. I understand how many farmers from our village grow poppies for Warlord U Khun Sa, but papa is very conservative, he says that one day U Khun Sa‘s actions will bring great trouble upon our people. Let me talk to papa again and I will try to convince him.”
“Ask him tonight, and then tomorrow, we can discuss our future together.”
“I will my love. Soon we will marry,” she replied.
Cho Nwe was impressed that Ko Tat traveled into Siam, Laos, and China, while most of the young men she knew never left the village and never would. Ko Tat had promised to show her many exciting places beyond the mountains. With his muscular body and Khaki uniform he was more handsome than most. She was so proud that he had chosen her. Ko Tat and Cho Nwe sat on the moss-covered rocks and continued to plan their future together.
Her father’s friends would visit when he sat on the porch so this evening as he and his daughter required privacy, they remained indoors to talk.
Aung Kalayar loved his daughter and was proud of how she was growing into adulthood. She reminded him of his wife. Soon, he would marry her to the son of a respected village elder.
For some time now, he had listened to her pleas.
“Cho Nwe, I understand how Ko Tat may impress and tempt you with the adventure of distant lands, but you must look deeper into the man. Those two boys he shot last month had been his playmates since childhood; Ko Tat is as violent as his profession.”
“You are everything to me, my dearest daughter. Life in our land is difficult, yet I want you to be as happy as your mother, and I were. Ko Tat will not offer such happiness. Please trust my judgment. One day you will understand the wisdom of patience”
“But papa, Ko Tat loves me.”
“I question his ability to love. More important Cho Nwe, you did not say you loved him. No, my dearest daughter, for your sake, as long as I live I could never bless such a union.” Her father stood and strode towards the door, “Come now, let’s sit on the porch. Tomorrow afternoon I have to visit Ta-Kew Village. As I will return late, you go to the house of your friend Ma Aye Moe and I’ll join you there upon my return.”
Unknown to both of them, Ko Tat had hidden himself outside the house listening to their conversation through the open window. “So be it old man,” he thought, “if I am not good enough to be your son-in-law then your useless life must soon end.”
Early next morning Ko Tat climbed out of bed, and removing his sheet, folded it to line the inside of his knapsack while leaving the center clear.
He left the village and climbed to the plateau above the waterfall, tracing the path back towards the cluster of banyan trees, where he had seen the Cobra nest.
Using a straight branch and cord, he constructed a snake loop, then climbed into the tree and perched directly over the cobra’s nest. Selecting a four-foot cobra, he carefully lowered his loop, guided the noose over its head, and pulled it tight. The serpent squirmed as he lifted it clear. Then returning to the pathway he placed the snake headfirst into his knapsack and watched it curl among the protecting layers of his sheet.
With the snake tethered by the noose, he closed the knapsack, and shortened the protruding handle to two feet. When he arrived home, Ko Tat placed the bag in the corner of his room and left to seek Cho Nwe.
Cho Nwe had decided not to tell Ko Tat everything. “Papa will not approve. We will have to wait a little longer my dearest. Soon he will realize how special you really are.”
Ko Tat frowned.
Cho Nwe returned a smile. “There’s no need for such a long face. Let’s go to the lagoon I’ve prepared a picnic, for tomorrow, you return and I won’t see you for another week.”
For Cho Nwe the day passed quickly, though Ko Tat was preoccupied throughout the afternoon. Later she was confused when suddenly he took her in his arms, kissed her, and said, “I must go now my love, I will see you tomorrow morning.”
Without another word, he left her at the lagoon to rush home.
After supper, as the shadows of evening set in, he stole towards Cho Nwe’s home. Her father would be late, and she was over at Ma Aye Moe’s home.
The clouds covered the moon as he crept up to the back door, entered through the kitchen into the living room, and almost screamed as the soft brown fur of Cho Nwe’s pet slow loris (a small Asian primate) brushed against his leg in the darkness. He swore that when they were married there would be no animals in his house. There were two bedrooms. Which was U Aung’s? The larger held a double bed that U Aung would have shared with his wife. This was the father’s room, he concluded.
Maintaining the tension on the cord, he carefully withdrew the cobra, pulled back the sheets, and slid the serpent deep under the covers, to watch it slither for a few moments and then settle in its new environment. He smiled knowingly, soon Cho Nwe would be an orphan, and the villagers would be pleased to see them marry. He slinked out the back door to return home.
He was pleased with his work and certain that none could suspect him. Safely in the darkness of his room, he removing the sheet from his knapsack and spread it over his bed. Now nothing remained to associate him with the evening’s events. Tomorrow morning he would pretend grief at U Aung’s death.
The faint slithering movement went unnoticed as Ko Tat climbed into his bed. The sting of sharp teeth penetrated his thigh, and as he rolled away in surprise, other teeth plunged first into his throat, then his chest, his muscles twitched, followed by the excruciating pain of muscle cramps, vomiting, and convulsions, until his whole body was out of control; he thrashed in all directions, as more teeth penetrated every part of his flesh. Golden-yellow venom flowed throughout his bloodstream; relentless seizures left him writhing in agony until the darkness of death engulfed him.
Ko Tat hadn’t noticed the twenty-eight tiny hatchling cobras that had slid from his unfurled sheet into his bed, and was unaware that the deadly poison, they carried in their fangs from the moment of birth, awaited him.
The villagers recognized the extent of Ko Tat’s treachery, when they heard how Cho Nwe and her father entered their home, to the hiss of a snake, and the rattle from the throat of her pet mongoose as it engaged and killed a female cobra, only to discover later that same evening the hatchlings, that killed Ko Tat, under his sheet, and others in his knapsack.
The clues were as clear as the words that roll from the tongue of the village storyteller who would, in future tales, describe this intricate web of both luck and fate as Joss.
1An Anglo-Indian term meaning both luck and fate