“It’s very bad luck”, my grandfather said solemnly at tea time one day, “to kill a Cobra.”

As a compassionate little girl who deeply believed that everything alive had a right to live, I was firmly behind the principle of his statement, but wondered aloud where the luck part of it came into it. I had a vague idea that it had something to do with Shiva, one of the gods in the Hindu pantheon who is always pictured with a cobra around his neck.

“You mean bad karma”, I corrected a little sternly.

My grandfather helped himself to more tea and shook his head. “No, it’s bad luck”, he insisted.

In response to my insistent whys he elaborated. Cobras, he said, mate for life. “When one is killed the other never stops searching for it. In fact, I’ve seen cobras take revenge on humans who kill their mates.”

It happened a long time ago in the fields surrounding my grandfather’s rambling village home where he was born. A pair of cobras moved into the fields, terrorising the villagers, although, as my grandfather explained, they were probably there because the tall dancing grains hid little mice and frogs – food the cobras like to prey on. A long dry hot summer meant that they had moved into the fields from the forests that surrounded them. Perhaps they intended for their sojourn into human territory to be a brief one. Perhaps they had been there at night and then just neglected to go back into the forest and the dawn had crept up on them. Nobody knows for certain. But a young boy on his way to school saw the snakes and came tearing back to the village to report their presence in the fields.

My grandfather, a boy himself, remembers the tale. It had been an exaggerated one. Longer than ten men put together, the boy had said. Thicker than a wrestler’s thigh. Taller than a house. When they had flared their hoods at the boy, he had felt a malignant breeze on his face. He had run all the way home, pursued, he said, by the snakes. Everyone in the village square had turned to look at the path that led to the fields. Everyone had shivered and shook. Everyone had decided, almost to a man, that the snakes would have to be ‘got rid of’, and they had gone to the fields with big sticks; sticks as tall as men; sticks as thick as trees.

Cobras are armed with powerful defence mechanisms; they are strong snakes; they are survivors. But nothing survives against humans who want them dead. Those cobras didn’t stand a chance. Surrounded on all sides by shouting men, screaming, beating them with sticks, one cobra – the female – died. The other managed to bite a man, injecting its powerful venom into the foot of an enemy that was closest to it, before escaping the sticks that rained blows down on it. It slithered into the forest, pursued by half the men who had come to destroy it, while the rest carried the injured man to the local hospital. The body of the female cobra lay at the scene of the crime.

“Surely they buried it?” I asked, tears in my eyes. My grandfather shook his head. “You or I would bury the body of a fallen creature”, he said, “but those men were different. All they cared about was death. They had achieved the death of one half of the pair.”

“It’s not fair”, I sobbed.

“No it’s not”, said my grandfather. He went on to explain that snakes are beautiful and misunderstood creatures; they mean no ill will towards humans. They just want to be left alone. “In fact, they go out of their way to avoid contact with us”, he said. I couldn’t blame them, I thought. In their place, I would have done the same.

Later that day, in the evening, my grandfather’s older brother went to look at the dead snake’s body. He had been in school when everything had happened, and he was curious. He had not been quiet in his approach, assuming that the other snake was nowhere near where it had undergone so much trauma. Imagine his surprise then when he saw the other half of the pair, the male Cobra, poised protectively over the body of his dead mate. At my grand uncle’s approach, the Cobra had ‘whipped around, suddenly, threateningly’, and flared his hood, raising himself up to ‘a great height’. My grand uncle had turned and fled, stopping only once he got home. He told his brothers about his experience, but chose not to mention it to anyone else. The next day, the villagers had tossed the dead snake’s body aside, near the borders of the forest, a warning to any other lurking snakes, they thought. Nature went to work and her body quickly decomposed in the summer sun, returning to the earth.

From time to time, for many years afterwards, the male Cobra was often seen on his own, in the exact spot in the fields where his mate had died. The bitten man survived, but endured great agony, and his leg was never the same again. But this is where the story takes a turn for the bizarre. Every man who had been involved with beating the female Cobra to death, my grandfather said, developed a scaly skin on their arms. Fascinated, I asked him what he meant. “Snakelike”, came the answer.

“No way”, I interjected. My grandfather glanced at me. It had happened, and he had seen a few. Those men had spent the rest of their lives wearing full-sleeved shirts to hide the horrors of the skin on their arms. They had felt remorse then, for what they had done, but only because it had personally affected them. I wondered aloud if they had contracted a disease that had given them scaly skin, but my grandfather knew better.

“It wasn’t a disease. It was a curse.”

I loved a good story, and I adored this one; like every good story it had made me emotional; it had made me angry, then sad, and then triumphant that somehow evil had been punished. Even though a part of me wondered what really happened to give those men scaly skin, a part of me was happy to accept that it was a curse. Bad luck, bad karma, bad form all-round to kill snakes, but especially Cobras who knew such deep love for each other that they forever mourned the other, forever sought the other, forever spurned others because they had lost their mates. The story was many things, but it was also, at its base, a love story, and I was already a romantic.

So last week when I heard that two cobras had moved into the compound next to my mum’s house, and I heard that they were slashing at the undergrowth closest to mum’s wall, I reminded her about this story. “Don’t hurt the snakes”, I told my mum on the ‘phone. “Oh, I’d never do that”, said my mum. “Remember the story?” I asked, and we reminisced for a while about my grandfather, the stories he would tell, and life as we had known it. The next day she called to report that the snakes had moved to the other side of the compound where there was still massive undergrowth. “Let them be, mum”, I said.

“We’re leaving them alone”, said my mum. “It’s very bad luck to kill a Cobra.” I hugged my knees on the other end of the ‘phone and rested my chin on them. “And very bad karma, too”, I murmured.