Lessons from the Serpent King

The moon over the dam is brick red, and pockmarked with deep scarlet indentations by the sea of serenity. But as we make our way back towards to the main road, I look up during a conversational lull to find its color totally altered.

“Hey,” I say, turning from the window to Sasanka’s profile, “how’d the moon turn so yellow?”

If he notices the tone of my voice, like I’ve witnessed a glitch in the matrix, he gives no indication. He barely glances at the moon, swollen and gilded, like a medallion. Instead, he shrugs, unperturbed, as though nothing unusual has transpired. “You’ve never seen anything like that before?” he asks.

We continue driving by the river, which is visible only through the reflections of moonlight that pattern its surface in crenulations. In my mind, a familiar chord is being played, but, like a piece of music intended for one instrument but then rearranged for another, it is just unusual enough that it takes me a second to recognize it. When I finally do, it blossoms like thunder.

On a different evening, we are returning from a day at the lake and, as Sasanka pulls into the gas station to refuel, I notice a fire on the horizon. The dark silhouettes of palm trees are outlined against the growing blaze. The nighttime, like crushed velvet, or black lambskin, is nestled around it, soft, and eerie. Again, Sasanka is nowhere near as mesmerized as I. He coolly points out that, during this time of year, it is not unusual for farmers to burn their excess hay to fertilize the ground for next year.

Inside me, something between mourning and devotion swells.

I think back to a story Satya, whose name means “truth,” told me, featuring Lord Rama and his disciple, the monkey god, Hanuman. (The latter is my favorite character from the Hindu scriptures; fortunately, and unfortunately, I’ve always had a thing for mischievousness in men, mythological or otherwise.) Rama is approaching the natural end of his life, but the god of death will not come as long as Hanuman guards the lord. To distract him, Lord Rama drops his ring deep into the earth and sends Hanuman to recover it; Hanuman arrives at the tunnel’s end only to discover a whole mountain of rings identical to the one that was dropped. When he asks aloud which ring belongs to his Lord Rama, the voice of the serpent king materializes from the darkness to respond: “which Rama?”

The serpent king goes on to tell Hanuman that, in a sequence on constant loop, every generation a ring falls from above, and, when a monkey comes to retrieve it, on Earth, one Lord Rama dies. When I remember this story, I think of myself one week ago, and that mistaken state of mind that allowed me, capriciously, arrogantly, to trust in permanence. But the truth is, my memories of those ninety-degree noons, the peach and cherry-colored clouds casting jagged shadows over the hills, are already beginning to fade. Even the image of Sasanka, with whom I shared the kind of midnight intimacy that language cannot bear to capture, has started to wilt under the weight of an encroaching season of mangoes, oranges, and new obligations of emotion that no longer include my presence.

“Which Rama?” is meant to be a lesson on reincarnation, but, for me, it is most applicable as a lesson on letting go.