The Mouse and the Snake, by VIKRAM SETH

One fine morning two small mice,

Much against their friend's advice,

Visited a room where grain

Undisturbed for months had lain.

Other mice had entered; none

Lived to eat and tell--not one.

But the two friends, unpoliced,

Broke in and began to feast;

And their laughter fell and rose,

Till their blood with horror froze.

Gold and shiny, vicious, long,

Venom-fanged, hypnotic, strong--

Slid a snake towards the pair,

Swallowed one right then and there,

Hissed obscenely at the other:

"That's the first; and here's another!"

And, when she stood shocked and still,

Sprang at once to make his kill.

Glared at him, and twitched her nose.

Every time he slid or sprang,

Dripping venom from each fang,

Out beyond his reach she leapt,

Till the snake, grown tired, crept

To his hole, slid first his head,

Then his gleaming, overfed

Trunk in, so that just his tail

Jutted out to thrash and flail.

Swift as rage the little mouse

Rushed towards the killer's house,

Bit his tail once, twice, again,

Clung to it till, wild with pain,

Hissing wrath, the snake backed out,

Swerved his body round about,

Lunged towards the mouse and tried

Swallowing her--but she leapt wide

Every time he lunged, till he,

Wriggling back exhaustedly,

Slid inside his hole once more.

Then, exactly as before,

Down she clamped with might and main

On his tail till, mad with pain,

Yet again the snake emerged.

This the battle ebbed and surged

And the mouse fought on and on

Till her strength was almost gone

--When the snake, without a sound,

Spat the dead mouse on the ground,

And, with mangled slither, stole

Unopposed into his hole.

Then the mouse came up and cried

Bitter tears for her who'd died.

Squeaking sadly, and bereft,

Corpse in mouth, she sobbed and left.

This was seen by Mr. Yang.

When his friend the poet Chang

Heard the mouse's story later,

Eager to commemorate her,

As he walked back to his house,

He composed "The Faithful Mouse"--

Where in elegiac metre

He extols the Snake-Defeater

And in couplets sad and stoic

Celebrates her acts heroic--

Acts that prove that shock and pain,

Death and grief are not in vain--

Which fine lines, alive or dead,

Neither of the mice has read.

From "Beastly Tales From Here and There" by Vikram Seth (HarperCollins: $15).

1994 Reprinted by permission.

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