Poisoned Freedom

            The Moon was high in the dark sky when Naga left her lair to hunt. As most other monocled cobras, she preferred to hunt small rodents and even fish. She lived in the vegetation that surrounded the Ganges River, in a rural zone inside India. Her brown dorsal with white cross brands and the characteristic O-shaped hood pattern crossed the wetland around the Ganges. Some farms, mostly of rice, were built around the river.

            Naga felt a strange presence in her habitat; then she saw three men crossing the wetland a few meters ahead. The one in the middle was holding a rifle, and the other two were holding flashlights. They were looking for something. Odd. I never saw these three around here before. Even with these strangers around, she decided to continue down her path looking for food.

            She advanced just a little when she saw a young tiger lying down among the vegetation, a purple dart stuck on his back. His breath was slow, and his eyes were almost closing.

            “Hey. Snake. Help,” he said with difficulty.

            Naga stared at him for a moment and simply said, “Not my problem.” She turned around and started to move away, but a white light fell over her.

            “I can’t believe my luck,” said a thick voice.

            Naga looked up and saw the three men surrounding her. The man with a riffle was the one who talked. He was looking at her with greedy eyes and an ironic smile.

            “Pedro, go get the tiger,” he said to the man on his right. “Caleb, keep the light over the snake.” He put his rifle on the ground and went towards Naga. As he got close, she raised in attack mode, spreading her hood and hissing loudly.

            He kneeled in front of her, and she prepared to attack, but the man was surprisingly fast and grabbed her before she could react. He held right before her mouth firmly with his right hand as she struggled violently and hissed even louder. He held her tail, limiting her movements.

            “Impressive as always, Erik,” said Caleb.

            “I try my best,” Erik answered, laughing. “Look at this. So beautiful. We’ll get good money with this one. Perfect way to finish this 2019.”

            Caleb walked towards them, holding a dart. “Okay. Let’s put the snake to sleep.”

            No! It’s happening just like momma. Their laughs were the last thing Naga heard before she blacked out.

***

            Naga’s conscience was slowly coming back. She tried to raise her head, but she wasn’t completely awake. “Agh. My head…”

            “It’s alright, dear. Soon you’ll be good,” said a gentle voice, coming from her right.

            Naga then saw her captor. He was muscular, black-haired, with olive skin, and scars all over his body. He was talking on the phone.

            “Yes, an authentic monocled cobra. Right from India.” He smiled at her. “It’s a deal, then. When will you come to get her?” He made a thoughtful expression. “Three weeks? Perfect.”

            Erik got closer to Naga’s cage and said, “Morning, darling.” He laughed. “You’ll make me richer.” He turned back and walked towards the exit, stopping at the door. “Enjoy your stay.” He left and locked the door.

            As the drug’s effect left her body, Naga looked around to where she was. She was in a small room with cages of different sizes. Three lights illuminated the room, and the windows were all blocked, not allowing the daylight in. She saw the young tiger, spiders, monkeys, and snakes. Naga was kept in a snake cage, which she shared with two other snakes. One of them was a black mamba and the other, a king cobra.

            “Feeling better, dear?” asked the black mamba.

            “A little, I guess…” Naga stared at the other snake. “Who are you? Where am I?”

            “Oh, dear. My name is Ithemba,” she said gently. “And you’re very far from home.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “We’re in Brazil, waiting to be sold,” said roughly the king cobra.

            “Don’t mind Jiao. King cobras are too proud,” said Ithemba, hitting Jiao with her tail. “What’s your name, dear?”

            “I’m Naga-”

            Before they could continue their conversation, the door opened again, and Caleb entered holding a bucket. Caleb was a small but strong white man with sharp green eyes.

            “Food time,” said Jiao.

            “Wait. We could attack him when he opens our cage,” said Naga.

            “Dear, it’s useless.”

            “Just accept your loss, kid.”

            “You’re a shame for us snakes.” As she said that, Caleb stopped in front of their cage and opened it. Naga waited for the right moment, narrowing her eyes. She allowed him to put in two rats, and when he was going to put in the last one, she attacked with incredible speed.

            Caleb screamed and then started to laugh. “A wild one, aren’t you?” he said, raising the arm that she bit. “Unfortunately for you, I’m always prepared.”

            Naga realized she wasn’t biting flesh, but fabric. Caleb had a special cloth around his arms to protect him from bites.

            Caleb grabbed her and threw her back in the cage. “Now, be a good girl and eat your rat,” he said, throwing the rat in front of her. He closed the cage and left.

            “Are you alright, dear?” asked Ithemba, getting close.

            “We warned you, kid. Luckily it was Caleb. Erik and Pedro aren’t so merciful.”

            They kept talking, but Naga wasn’t listening anymore. She noticed something they didn’t, Caleb forgot to lock their cage.

***

            It had been hours since Caleb left, and Naga was ready to put her plan into action. While the others were sleeping, she moved to a corner of her cage. She raised herself, and with her head she moved the cover enough to escape. She slithered through the small space and moved down to the floor.

            She looked around for a way out and noticed a rodent hole on the wall next to the door. She moved towards it. She was energetic by the rat she ate, but as her digestion was slow, it slowed her down.

            She went through the hole and reached the outside. She looked around to figure out where she was. The house where she was held captive was one of five on this farm in the middle of nowhere. She passed by a big pool with sharks. It was nighttime and darkness embraced the farm; the only light came from the biggest house in the back of the farm. They must sleep there.

            She moved towards the vegetation that surrounded the farm, keeping her even more isolated. But suddenly she heard a shot and felt a dart on her back. Her vision went dark as she saw Erik come to her, smiling.

            “You almost got it.” He kneeled next to her and whispered, “But no animal can escape from me.”

            With these words, Naga faded out again.

***

            Quando Naga acordou, ela estava de volta à gaiola. Ithemba estava olhando para ela, preocupada.

            “Dear, are you alright?”

            “That was really foolish, kid. Even for you.”

            Naga raised herself and looked at the two in the eyes. “Foolish is allowing humans to enslave us.”

            Jiao sighed, turned back, and went to the opposite side of the cage.

            “Listen, dear. We were just like you. But we gave up.”

            “Why?”

            “I remember when I was a proud black mamba, feared by all.” Ithemba gave a sad smile. “I thought I didn’t need anyone but myself. And for long, it was true.” She looked down. “But when Erik appeared, I didn’t stand a chance. And there was no one there to save me.”

            “But Ithemba, we can’t just give up.”

            “And poor Jiao…” Ithemba continued. “He had the brilliant idea to try to bite Erik. As punishment, Erik took his fangs.”

            “What?! That’s just horrible.” Naga looked to where Jiao was lying down. “I didn’t know.”

            “Don’t worry, dear. But every animal here has its history.” Ithemba looked into Naga’s eyes. “And most of us are too tired and hurt to fight. We accepted our fate.” She caressed Naga’s head with her tail. “And you should too before you get hurt.”

            Naga sighed and looked down in silence. Then, she waved her head, putting Ithemba’s tail away. “No, I won’t accept this.” She raised herself and took a deep breath. “Hey, everyone!”

            All animals looked at her suspiciously.

            “We can’t allow humans to enslave us this way.” She looked at each one of them. “We’re animals just like them, and we deserve our freedom. I’m sure if we unite our forces, we can beat them.”

            “Unite our forces? Just like you did when you left me behind?” said the young tiger, his eyes showing only disdain.

            The other animals just waved their heads, sighed, and turned their backs to Naga.

            “I told you, dear. No one is willing to fight here.”

            “So, you’ll let them do whatever they want with us?”

            “It’s the only way to keep ourselves alive.”

            “Steal my freedom is the same to kill me.”

            “If you keep thinking this way, you’ll indeed get yourself killed, dear,” said Ithemba.

            Their conversation was interrupted by a sudden apparition. Henrique entered like thunder into the house, slamming the door behind him. He was a 26-year-old boy with light brown hair and olive skin. He stared at each animal with his blue eyes, and each one of them trembled. Less of a minute after he entered, Caleb appeared behind him.

            “Sir, you can’t enter in the captivity this way.” He stopped to catch some breath. “Your dad’s orders.”

            “I can deal with my father,” Henrique said without looking at Caleb. “Anyway, I just want to see if there’s any new interesting toy.”

            “Sir, they aren’t toys. They’re dangerous.”

            Ignoring him, Henrique walked around the room, looking at each cage. He stopped in front of the young tiger’s cage and said, “They don’t look so dangerous locked in a cage. See this tiger, so powerful, and yet completely submissive.” He laughed as the tiger looked down.

            “Who is he?” asked Naga to Ithemba.

            “Erik’s son, Henrique,” she said, the contempt evident in her tone.

            “The little prince,” said Jiao, getting close to them.

            “Clearly, no one likes him.”

            “Dear, he treats us like toys or pieces of a collection.”

            “That little bastard takes anyone he likes to his home to be part of his personal collection.”

            “But don’t let his look fool you, dear. He can be as cruel as his father,” said Ithemba.

            Henrique went to Naga’s cage and looked with interest at the new snake. “What’s this one?”

            “She’s a monocled cobra, sir. Your father captured her in India.”

            “Cool. I never saw a snake like her before.”

            Henrique and Naga stared at each other in silence. The tension in the room raised. Then, Naga came up with a risky idea. This idiot could be my way out. I just have to earn his trust. Naga got close to the cage’s wall and, staring at Henrique’s eyes, hissed to him.

            Henrique’s eyes shined, and with a smile, he said, “I like her. I want it.”

            “Not so fast,” said Erik, who just arrived. His presence made all of the animals tremble and step back. “This snake is already sold.”

            “But father, I don’t have a snake like her.”

            “I don’t care about your stupid collection of snakes.” Erik looked at Naga, almost making her back off. “They aren’t toys. They’re dangerous animals who could be sold for a really good price to other fools like you.”

            “Please, don’t bore me with this talk again.”

            Erik grabbed his son’s shoulders and stared him in the eye. “One day, you’ll get yourself bit. Be careful!”

            Henrique pushed his father back. “Okay, okay. Geez. I’ll be extremely careful.” Henrique looked at Naga. “Can I hold her?”

            Erik sighed. “Caleb, give him the protection.”

            Caleb quickly grabbed the protective clothes and gave it to Henrique, who put them on right away. Caleb opened Naga’s cage. “Remember, grab just before her mouth.”

            “I know Caleb, this is not my first snake.” With surprising skill, Henrique quickly grabbed Naga and took her out of her cage.

            Naga stayed still as he looked all around her, feeling her scales through gloves.

            Erik wasn’t looking anymore. He went to a corner to talk business with Caleb.

            “I know why you’re so docile now. It’s my father. You fear him.” He laughed. “And you should. If you do something against me, he’ll kill you. And it’ll be ugly.” He looked at Jiao and smiled. “Your friend there knows that, right?” Jiao gave him a cold stare.

            Naga gave her best to stay calm and act docile, barely holding her anger and disgust.

            “He’s been like that since I can remember. But he got way worse after my mother’s death.” Henrique stared at Naga, who hissed. “She was bitten by a cobra. Girl, he lost his mind. Let’s just say we couldn’t recognize what was on the ground anymore.”

            Naga hissed again.

            “I’m gonna take her.”

            “I just said…”

            “You sold her; I know. But I want her in my collection. Tell the guy she died.”

            Erik sighed. “Fine. Caleb, bring me a small cage to put her.”

            “It’s not necessary. I’ll carry her.”

            “Don’t talk bullshit.”

            “You worry too much.” Henrique took off all protection he had on his arms. “See, these cowards won’t do anything. They’re too scared.” He looked at Naga and said, “Let’s go.”

            As she was carried to the door, Naga looked to the animals around her. Animals she knew that wouldn’t have a chance to escape. They looked miserable, malnourished, and without seeing the Sun for too long. And then she came up with an even riskier idea. Can’t believe I’m about to do this. But I can’t leave them like this. She looked at the young tiger as she was passing by his gate and said, “Trust me.”

            Naga then took advantage of Henrique’s carelessness and, in a flash, spiked her fangs in Henrique’s right arm. He screamed and threw her away. She hit a cage with some birds and fell to the floor.

            “Henrique!” Erik screamed. He looked at Naga with eyes shining with hate. Without giving Naga a chance to react, Erik grabbed her and drew his knife. “I’m gonna kill you!”

            “Stop!” said Caleb who was kneeled next to Henrique, tying a cloth around the boy’s arm to delay the spread of the poison. “We need her alive to get the antidote for her venom.”

            Erik looked to Caleb and his son, holding the knife tightly.

            “She’s an exotic species. No hospital has an antidote ready. You can kill her later.”

            “You can be sure that I will.” He looked back to Naga. “Don’t think you’ll get away unharmed.” He then cut Naga in several places, not deep enough to kill her but deep enough to hurt. The animals, starting with the young tiger, got enraged; they jumped against their cages, making angry, loud sounds. Erik ignored them, put Naga in a small portable cage, and headed out, followed by Caleb and Henrique.

***

            Holding Naga’s cage, Erik stormed into the hospital in Brasilia with Erik, holding Naga’s cage, shouting, “My son was bitten by a cobra!” Caleb and a pale Henrique were just behind him, the place where Naga bit was getting black. This show got the attention of the entire hospital.

            Doctor Campos came to them. “Calm down, sir. We’ll take care of him.” He turned to the nurses behind him. “Take him to the emergency immediately.” Quickly they did what he said. Before Erik could follow them, the doctor stopped him. “Explain to me what happened.”

            “What’s there to explain? This stupid cobra bit my son,” Erik said, violently thrusting the cage at the doctor.

Campos looked at Naga. “I never saw a snake like her. And why is she so hurt?”

            “All you need to know is that she’s a monocled cobra, and she got what she deserved.” He passed by the doctor, hitting him with his shoulder. “Now, if you excuse me, I’ll see my son,” he said, entering the emergency room.

            “Harsh, huh?” said a familiar voice.

            “Hey, Chico. What are you doing here?”

            Chico, an IBAMA agent, answered, “Just a regular check-up.” He looked at Naga. “Strange. She’s an exotic animal. Fortunately, the Butantan Institute has one dose of the antidote.”

            “That’s great. It’ll give us time to prepare more doses.”

            “Anyway, any more info?”

            “Nope, just what you heard.” Caleb passed in front of them, heading to the exit. “But if you follow the driver…”

            “I can find more. Thanks, doc.”

            “I never said anything,” he said, blinking.

            With a smile, Chico left to pursue Caleb.

***

            It had been several hours since Naga was gone. Caleb returned, then headed to the main house. All animals were furious and worried.

            “That fool… If I only had my fangs.”

            “Don’t blame yourself, Jiao. It was her choice. Let’s trust her.”

            Suddenly they heard several steps and screams. Then with a kick, Chico put down the door and entered the room, followed by three cops.

            “Jiao… She did it. She saved us.”

            Jiao laughed. “Never doubt it.”

            Chico smiled and said, “Don’t worry. We’re here to help. Your friend is fine, and you’ll meet her soon. This nightmare is over.”

***

            Months later, the three snakes were kept in a Sanctuary of IBAMA. Erik and his men were arrested, including Henrique after he left the hospital.

            “Did you hear? The little tiger will return to India.”

            “Really, Jiao? That’s great. And what about you, dear?” said Ithemba, turning to Naga; her wounds were healed, but the scars remained.

            “Well, I’m tired of living alone,” she started, embarrassed. “And if you don’t mind, I want to keep living with you here in the Sanctuary.”

            “Of course, we don’t mind, dear.”

            “We learned to like you, little hero.”

            They all laughed and embraced each other.


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Image: https://www.veterinaria-atual.pt/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2020/07/iStock-1154068704.jpg

Alexandre Souza

Alexandre Souza is a Brazilian novelist that writes dark and supernatural stories, and also explores fantasy and historical fiction. He’s earning a BFA in Creative Writing at Full Sail University. He has flash fictions published at Adelaide Magazine and Scarlet Leaf Review. He’s a mythology and supernatural geek and uses this knowledge to enhance his work.

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