Takura House, back then, was not surrounded by other properties like it is now. Instead, across the brick back wall that lined the property, there was a patchwork of rice paddies and zig-zag paths traversing the short distance to a narrow brown monsoon river that flowed, when the rains raged, even back then, with refuse – organic and otherwise – like a snaking drain through our corner of Kathmandu.
We had tried to raft that river, my brother Zach and I, in a small inflatable boat, accompanied by a troop of Nepalis, younger than we, and less accustomed to concepts such as rafting, let alone inflatable floatation (Zach and I, conversely, were less accustomed to concepts like typhoid fever, which he promptly acquired, losing his hair in bunches and laying feverish and emaciated in his sweat-soaked bed for weeks). We carried the raft above our heads through the paddies, along the narrow pathways dividing the flooded fields, careful not to trample the young rice stalks and careful to look out for small fish and big snakes, who, although I had never seen them slithering through the wet paddies, certainly maintained a formidable presence in the grassy tufts between.
These were long creatures, five and six feet at times, black and brown and gray, who made their way into everything in Nepal – from the fields to the folklore to the holy gods themselves. Lord Shiva lay on a bed of serpents in a monument not far from here, and charmers coaxed cobras from baskets in Bakthapur and Patan, even, on occasion, for the sake of tourists, at the end of New Road, were I bought my first cassette tape (Bon Jovi, although I don’t think I knew what that was when I bought it – pirated and sold on the street with a photocopied cover of a girl washing a car: Slippery When Wet). The snakes made their way into the thanka paintings and dramatic Indian prints of the multi-headed gods. The Kathmandu valley, after all, had once been the dominion of massive water serpents before the gods came, according to legend.
Even now I can’t think of snakes without remembering Popper, spotting a five-footer in the yard and approaching it with a rambunctious and stupid puppy’s naïve curiosity, barking and hopping around it, to-and-fro, wanting to nudge it or toss it playfully, but somehow restrained from contact by some better sense I never guessed he had. I knew about Blue, my father’s favorite dog from many years ago, and many miles away, who had died swiftly after being bitten by a coral snake in Swaziland. I had never known Blue, but I certainly knew of his demise, and Popper was coming awfully close.
Popper should not have survived to taunt the snake, nor should he have survived the taunting of the snake, but perhaps that explained his fearlessness, or alternatively, perhaps his ‘fearlessness’ was born of a lack of plain good self-preserving sense that had, at least once already, when he was just a pup, nearly killed him. He had some stroke of dumb luck, some serpentine god of his own, watching out for him in those early years, before he met, ultimately, his unfortunate end. Perhaps it is fitting that it was a venom, of sorts, that precipitated his demise. Was this early snake only a foreshadowing of death yet to come, a poisoning of the blood that ultimately would spell the end? I speculate in hindsight, but at the time, the year of the yard snake and river raft, Popper was still recovering from his first brush with death, and he wore the scar like a belt, traversing his small body, black and hairless.
Popper was a bona fide mutt, a mongrel, a sour mix of street dogs, hunger, hardship, and pity (our contribution) that manifested in an awkward and unbalanced canine form – one ear regularly poised upwards, the other flopped down. He couldn’t even seem to get that right. His fur was blond or brown, depending on the observer and the vantage point, and his gnarled body kept no excess weight. He was a skinny, but happy, dog and he ran his domain in regular circles, sleeping at night outside the guards post at the main gate, as the guard also dozed between leaf-wrapped tobacco beedee’s, over his nauseatingly strong-smelling kerosene heater, bundled in scarves. Zach had once exploded a string of firecrackers in that small guard shack, leaving him believing he would be deaf, and potentially fingerless, for the rest of his life.
Popper was a dog’s dog, whatever that might mean. He indulged in dog-ly behavior with relish, bounding out the gate when he could and chasing tennis balls at Sherad’s red-clay tennis court across the short drive, disrupting lessons and startling the towering and filthy cows that grazed the strip of land between our gate and the court. He scratched and gnawed wildly at himself, growling at his own torments during dinner parties, and lazed in the lawn during the long summer afternoons. He paid no mind to the chickens and ducks, but barked wildly at passersby behind the wall, whom he never saw.
Popper had been born of low-caste street stock. He was no uptown dog. As a puppy, he played with his siblings (I can only imagine he was part of a surviving litter, although I don’t actually know), in the muddy yard of a humble family carpenters home just beyond our back wall. The carpenters had built their business into the ground floor of their brick home, and the squeal of the table saw was so regular in the afternoons that I rarely even noticed it. Although I wasn’t there, I can imagine the scene when Popper strolled into that table saw as a newborn. I imagine the shock of the carpenter, and a yell, perhaps even a scream. I imagine an ungodly sound from popper himself and a considerable amount of blood. Popper had very nearly been sawed completely in two, through the middle, before he had seen through his first year. When we found Popper his wound had not yet healed. A deep red and blackened gash stretched from his spine to his stomach, half an inch wide, many inches long, and crusted with scab and dirt.
The wound healed, however, and Popper soon forgot it altogether as his thin fur grew to cover it and his body grew to outsize it. His body was whole again, no place for excess demons to escape. And perhaps that is unfortunate – perhaps, if only that gateway had continued to exist long into his life, the poison trap set for him would not have succeeded in overcoming his canine body. Perhaps the toxin would have leaked out his side, dripping into those rice paddies and flowing down that brown monsoon river, off into India and beyond.
But instead I imagine Popper and the snake, dancing and writhing in some distant place, and maybe, if the gods do exist, Lord Shiva is the one worried about him now, tut-tuting his playful advances towards the serpent, knowing he is again, in that distant and colorful land, tempting fate.