The man stood frozen in fear. Even his innards seemed to be frozen. He wet his lips and wondered what else fate had in store for him. Was he destined to die like this, naked and alone in this dense forest, swallowed by a snake? He, who was the scion of a most noble line, who had been the envy of even the Gods? And he had been reduced to this! This man who lost his kingdom, his possessions and even his clothes. He had to steal his wife’s Uttariya to cover his nudity and to leave her in the midst of the forest, so whatever ill luck plagued him would not follow her any further.
But it was all for naught, thought he, as he stared into the eyes of the huge serpent, as if mesmerized. There was something strangely hypnotic about its eyes. He could not look away. The swaying movement of the snake’s head was almost seductive. For one wild moment, Nala, the rightful King of the Nishadha Kingdom, wondered if being killed by this snake would be better than the life he had now. At least, without him, Damayanti, his wife, would have a better chance at happiness.
But then, reason returned. Damayanti might be better off without him, but he also knew she would never see it that way. He had left her for her own good. But to get himself killed so ignominiously might be the worst service he could do her.
He tried to move sideways surreptitiously, the snake’s eyes following him. Yet, it made no move to strike. Nala gained confidence and took one step back. The snake did not move. Nala took one more step back.
Then he saw the orange glow of the fire. The forest was on fire! He knew he had to escape now. He took one more look at the snake and realized that it was caught in a net, a net whose strands were so thin as to be invisible in the gloom. But in the orange glow of the fire, he could see that the snake was trapped.
He looked at the fast approaching fire. The snake was certain to burn to death if he left it there, but the fire was spreading fast. His face grim, he strode forward, grasping the edge of the net and freeing the snake in one smooth motion.
The snake reared and struck.
Far away, in another part of the forest, Damayanti screamed as the coils of a great snake tightened around her.
“Oh Nala!” She whispered, even as she struggled, tears pouring down her face. “Will I ever see you again?”