“Stop it, dog! You’ll trip me!”
Lalitha is carrying a load of just-washed-in-the-river laundry up the hill to her small home in Peradiniya, Sri Lanka. It is early morning, and the heat is already here. Her hand under the basket is slippery with sweat and she shifts the load from her shoulder down to her waist, awkwardly kicking at the dog that is ceaselessly barking as he runs up to the house and back again, frantic about something. She stops near a mango tree, halfway up the hill, to put down the laundry for a moment and address her half-crazed dog.
“What in the world is wrong with you? Is something in the house? Is there an animal?”
The dog wags his tail and barks loudly, twice.
Lalitha frowns. Her 5 year old son Neil and her 7 year old daughter Manel are alone in the house. The dog barks again and bites on Lalitha’s skirt, pulling her towards the path.
“OK! OK! Let’s go see what’s wrong!” Heaving the laundry basket back up on her shoulder, Lalitha runs, holding her skirts up with her free hand, slipping on the loose rocks that make up the 187-step staircase from the Mahaweli River to the mud home she and Heenbanda built by hand.
The dog beats her to the door, wagging his tail while he emits a growly whine. He shrugs his shoulders up near his snout and slinks down to his front paws, pressing his ears back and staring at the single bed near the Buddha statue. Neil is softly snoring in that bed, and Manel is sitting by the cook fire, facing the door.
“Doggy, what are you doing?” shouts Manel. “Come over here!”
Manel’s shout wakes Neil, who stirs and yawns. The dog doesn’t move, preferring to guard his mistress who is now standing behind him following his gaze.
Neil sits up and stretches, kicking off his light cover as he sits up. Lalitha sees the snake just in time to stop her young son from putting his feet down right next to its angry, expanded head. She whispers loudly.
“Stop! Stay on the bed!”
“Hisssssss…” The cobra is frightened, hissing to scare off these people, who seem intent on invading his cozy sleeping space under the bed, found last night when he slithered into the house silently, trying to find a hiding place from a relentless mongoose.
“Momma, what was that noise?”
Neil’s eyes look so big. Lalitha is afraid too, but knows better than to show her fear to the cobra. She is a small woman, and a cobra can bring down an elephant with a single bite. Even though she is afraid, Lalitha will not kill this snake or harm any living being. She is a Buddhist, living according to the precept that tells her to cause no harm to another being. The smell of the milk on the cook fire behind her reminds her that she can use kerosene on a stick to frighten off the snake.
Looking straight at the snake, she backs up closer to her daughter, who is still sitting by the fire, her back to the bed. Manel is sleepy this morning and did not hear the cobra. The sound of the snake’s hiss was absorbed into the thick mud walls.
Lalitha is concerned that the milk will burn. As a mother in 1971 in the jungles of Sri Lanka, her main concerns for her children are food and safety. Each is equally important.
“Manel, please stir the milk!” Lalitha says, trying not to alarm her daughter. Manel obediently picks up the ladle from its resting place near the fire and scoots around to the other side of the pot, where there is a log set down. She sits up on the log and leans over to stir the milk. As she is lowering the ladle into the pot, she sees the snake. Manel freezes with fear, and drops the ladle.
Lalitha hears the ladle fall. She does not turn around, knowing she cannot take her eyes off the snake.
“Momma!” says Manel, “Momma, there is a cobra!”
Now Neil understands that this is not some garden snake under the bed, but a cobra. He turns pale with fear and backs up against the wall.
Lalitha uses her Buddhist practice to stay calm. She does not panic. She breathes. She remembers that she is in charge of her experience of this. Sweat drips onto the bridge of her nose and she resists the urge to brush it away, sensing that she and the cobra should maintain steady eye contact. She swallows and takes a deep breath.