by Amitha Jagannath Knight
Once, I was a human girl.
You wouldn’t know it to look at me now, but long ago, when devas and demons roamed the earth, I was a human girl who dreamed of being a dancer.
The rains had finished, and the Kaveri River swelled threateningly close to the outskirts of the village. In no rush to return home, I sat idling by the riverbank in the marshy reeds, my toes in the water, dreaming of dancing. I wanted to feel the rhythm of the drums in my body, of the high flute winding around my skin. More than that, I wanted to be free of my family.
But instead, that was the day I would meet my future husband. My family was eager to marry me off. I had heard them say as much that morning. My father had been out working the fields, but Amma and Paati had sat just outside our dung hut preparing for the meal while I was inside sweeping.
“If this boy doesn’t marry her, there is no one left to take her. Useless girl.” Amma’s stone pestle ground forcefully into the idli rice and even from inside I could hear it sloshing.
“Don’t give them a choice this time,” Paati advised. “Just pay them off and be done with it.”
My face burned with fury and embarrassment. No matter how clean this room was, they would never be satisfied. I was done with this place. I was done with my family. Tossing my hand broom aside, I rushed outside.
“If no one wants me, then offer me to the temple dancers!” Temple dancers were married to the temple. They only took a spouse if they chose. Their role was to tell the stories of the gods and pass them down to the common folk so that we could understand our history. I wasn’t keen on the idea of performing for anyone, not even the gods, but if that was my only choice, so be it.
“Chee!” Amma said. “Don’t be ridiculous. I will not sell my daughter to that life.” With a thud, the pestle dropped as she rose to face me. “Those women performing for some dance master under the same roof as those priests. What do you think happens? How do you think that looks for us?”
“Shameful,” Paati said. She took up the pestle and continued the grinding.
I crossed my arms. “How could that be any different from being sent with a dowry to live under another family’s roof, betrothed to some village boy who has rights to my body?”
The slap came so fast I didn’t even have time to blink.
“Go collect water and don’t spill half of it like you always do.” She sat back down, muttering, “Girl wants to be a dancer. She can’t even walk without tripping over her own feet!”
“Shameful,” Paati repeated.
And so I sat, with a hand on my still-stinging cheek, with only the Kaveri River to comfort me. If I wasn’t wanted at home, I would go somewhere else. I would leave this place. Sighing, I slipped my feet into the cold water and wiggled my toes beneath the rippling surface. A beam of reflected sunlight struck my eyes, and I suddenly felt a sharp bite of understanding, that my toes were wrong somehow. There shouldn’t be ten toes. No. Ten was the right number, but not for toes. My legs were wrong too, my whole entire body was wrong. I could feel it deep into the marrow of my bones. I wasn’t meant to look like this. I wasn’t meant to be this. I slipped my whole body into the water until I stood shoulder high in the pulsing waves of the Kaveri River, the rushing water closing in around me like a mother-in-law winding a sari too tightly around a bride. My limbs pressed in close.
“No!” I cried as my limbs fused together to my body. “This was a mistake!” I thought I would be squeezed to death, but then my muscles pushed back, thick and strong. I was expanding, growing. My warm brown skin itched as it changed to green gray scales. Painfully, my whole body stretched and stretched until I was longer than the tallest trees in our village. My dark hair fell out, but then — my head split ten ways. I could hear, smell, and taste things I had never even dreamed of before. The human inside me was confused and frightened, but I soon realized that I had ten times the intelligence, ten times the keen eyesight, and ten tongues to talk back to anyone who would insult me.
I was a glorious serpent such as the world had never seen.
A voice came from the river, deep and low, but sweet. “A new body needs a new name. What shall yours be?”
Kaliya, I thought, the name pushing its way to the forefront of my mind. My name is Kaliya.
As though in rebuke, I heard my father calling my old name. He had come to fetch me. With a smile, I ducked beneath the water.
“Where are you? Stupid girl. The boy will be here soon, and you haven’t started the lunch!”
Spotting my clothes along the river bank, he gasped. “Aiyo!” He assumed the worst. “Swimming naked so close to the village?” he cried. “Anyone could see! Your reputation will be ruined! Come out of there now and cover yourself!”
At the sound of his voice, my insides quaked. I could feel my frightened human form threatening to reemerge and split my tail in two. I am no longer human. I reminded myself. I am a snake. I am sleek and strong, and I dance for no one.
Especially not my father.
I reared up my body to its full and glorious height. At fifty feet tall, my luscious serpentine scales glittered with water that rained down into my father’s eyes.
“Yessss, Appa,” I hissed. “I am naked. Naked and FREE!”
He screamed in horror. And then… well. Let’s just say a girl gets hungry after a good shape shifting.
I returned to the village and ate every single person who had ever wronged me, starting with my family, and then the boy I was supposed to impress and the woman who hoped to be my mother-in-law, until finally I had devoured my entire village. As I swallowed them all down, ten at a time, my esophagi squeezing their bodies, I felt their poisons leeching out into my veins.
I wasn’t originally a venomous snake — it was them. It was their bitter poisons that ran through my body.
From there I traveled downstream, from village to village, seeking out fresh victims: people who poisoned girls and tried to keep them in their place. People who wanted girls like I had once been to be nothing but snakes in a basket — kept and called out on command, dancing and swaying to someone else’s music. I devoured an old man whose three daughters he kept chained to the house, and I snapped their bonds as they whimpered with fright. An auntie who taunted young women and goaded them into marriage twisted her way down my throat. I even ate a priest or two. Or ten. And anyone who dared ask who was I to swallow entire villages, I told them:
I am Defender of Women. Nightmare of the Patriarchy.
I am Kaliya. Queen of Snakes.
My old name, the weak human one chosen by my parents, was long forgotten, shed like a dried-up old skin. I swam up and down the Kaveri and people fled from the sight of me. I understood that perhaps it could be frightening for a giant snake to appear and swallow down your tormentors, but I expected a little more delight. Gratitude even. Stories of my exploits spread far and wide. I was feared and reviled though I saw myself as a liberator of the weak and defenseless.
Discouraged and frustrated, I soon tired of revenge. The waters I swam were no longer clear and fresh, but putrid and roiling with the poisons of my kills. Not only that, but… well… I grew bored. Lonely, even. I almost missed my family. Almost.
I invited those I rescued to join and follow me, but each and every one of them refused. I was too frightening, too powerful. They ran away with horror. What I wanted were people who understood me, a life with joy and music and freedom.
It is lonely being one-of-a-kind.
I had once heard stories about a land for snakes — a place where they lived free of humankind. I slithered my way there, eager to meet those who would understand me. Understand my need for freedom and community. Was it possible to have both?
For months, I swam, traveling from river to sea to river again until finally I found my way to the end of the world, to the churning ocean of milk. And there was Ramanaka-dvipa. The haven for snakes, created by the gods.
The island was filled with groves of fruit trees, branches heavy with ripe mangoes, guavas, and colorful birds with sweet voices. Large mansions dotted the landscape, each with a tank of lotus flowers at the front. Truly I had found a serpentine paradise.
Eager to meet a like mind, I slithered to the first door I found, and pushed. But the door was locked.
What kind of paradise had locked doors?
“What is this?” I called out. I slammed my heavy tail against the door. “Who is inside? Where are the snakes?”
A harried voice whispered from the other side of the door. “Take cover! Garuda will be here soon!”
“Yessss!” he hissed. “Put out an offering so you may be spared.”
“Offering? What offering?”
An emerald snake peered out of a window. “I haven’t seen you here before.”
“I haven’t been here before,” I said.
“Then you won’t remember Garuda’s voracious appetite. Every month we give him offerings in exchange for him promising not to terrorize us again. If you have children, offer them now, or else you may be eaten yourself!”
With that, the snake disappeared inside, banging the window shutters behind him.
Seeking more clarity, I went to the next mansion, and the next and the next. And then, I saw it: A large golden statue of an eagle in the center of the village. An idol of the one who had subjugated them. And on the stone steps before it, a basket, filled with baby snakes. Most of them girls.
Even here, the kingdom of snakes, girls were nothing but bodies to be given up, given away. Discarded. Just as my parents had wanted to do with me. Before fury could wrap its hot fingers around my cold-blooded veins, I heard it — a great rush of wind that shook all the fruit from the trees.
Peering up at the sky with all ten of my heads, I saw a large bird with a wingspan as long as my body circling the cloudless azure skies. Instinctively, I hid behind a wall before Garuda could see me. His golden feathers shone majestically, his beak as sharp as my fangs. Like all birds, his eyes were beady, but keen, and he swooped down, alighting on the idol.
Before me was Garuda, King of Birds.
As a human, I knew Garuda only as Lord Vishnu’s courageous vahana. He was someone to be revered and worshipped. To the snakes of Ramanaka-dvipa, he was someone to be feared and obeyed. But I was Kaliya. I was sleek and strong, and I danced for no one.
Not my father.
And certainly not Garuda.
Flicking out my tongue, I could taste his scent — molting feathers and bird droppings. Not scents of courage, but of flawed mortality. He said nothing, he simply lunged for the offerings, ready to devour the baby snakes.
But I got there first.
With my ten gaping maws, I swallowed every last one of them, sending their little bodies wriggling down my throat. Then, I swam hard for the ocean while Garuda was left frozen with shock.
I coughed up the babies, releasing them to the waters. “Swim!” I hissed. “I’ve rescued you.” But they only gaped at my gigantic ten-headed form with confusion and terror on their faces, mirrors of all the human girls I had saved.
By now, Garuda had recovered, and his strong wingbeats blew powerful waves through the water. “Who dares steal the offerings intended for the great and mighty Garuda?” He flew down, setting his powerful claws before me on the sand.
“It is I, Kaliya, Queen of Snakes! Begone from here! You will no longer terrorize this place.” With that I struck, sinking my venomous teeth into his breast.
“Fool!” he screeched. “You are no match for Garuda!” Quicker and fiercer than my mother’s stinging palm, he had wrapped his talons around my throat. He sailed into the heavens, carrying me in his tight grip until he suddenly let go, and I plunged towards tall mountains.
I was certain I would die as soon as I hit the rocks.
But when it happened, and my body struck stone, only my breath was knocked out of me. That was all. I still lived. My glorious scales were even tougher than I had imagined.
“Let this be a lesson to you!” he announced, as he saw me move, his voice resounding on the hills. “Tell the serpents—”
Before he could finish whatever insipid pronouncement he had prepared, I reared up and with all my might, I leaped for him, wrapping my body around his. We hurtled to the ground, but this time when we fell, I was prepared. As he let out a cry of shock, I squeezed tight, so the breath could not return to his lungs. I sprayed venom into his eyes. He screeched weakly in protest. I squeezed harder, eking his very last breath from his lungs. Writhing in agony, he snapped his beak this way and that, and in doing so he managed to grab hold of one of my tongues and bite it clean off.
Blood spurting from my mouth, I released him and hissed with pain. With a great inhale, the air rushed into his lungs, and he shot back up into the sky. There he screeched, circled around once, and then suddenly dove back down. I will not lie; I trembled seeing that great beak like a deadly arrow from the heavens aimed straight for me. As fast as I could, I slithered away, heading back to the beach, using all my strength to try to escape and reaching — just barely reaching — the waters when I felt his beak close down on the tip of my tail.
Like a fisherman, I reeled him in towards me, into the ocean where I now had the advantage. I lunged, ready to wrap myself around him again, but he let go and flapped his great golden wings, sailing away overhead again.
“There is one who will find you yet!” he cried. “Vishnu has been reborn!”
His words echoed in my ears like a prophecy, but I failed to grasp the significance.
What did Lord Vishnu have to do with me?
I returned to Ramanaka-dvipa, ready to be welcomed as a heroine, a savior of serpents. But instead, I faced an angry mob prepared for revenge, behind them the children I had rescued.
“YOU!” They screamed and charged at me, but I was bigger than all of them, the height of ten of them combined and even battle-weary I knew I could take them. As they slithered towards me, I separated my heads to increase my size, looming even higher above them. Frightened, they stopped in their tracks.
“Garuda will be angry!” one spluttered.
“He will exact his revenge!” someone else said.
I hissed. “I have defeated him, and he has flown away in disgrace. He’ll not dare return so long as Kaliya, Queen of Snakes, is around.”
But the serpents continued to argue. “You are no queen of ours!” they said.
I spat venom at their feet, and then with one mighty swipe of my tail, I toppled the Garuda statue they worshipped. Then I slithered away, heads held high.
If they did not appreciate my help, then I would leave them to their fates.
I returned to my itinerant life of devouring cruel people who deserved it, while being reviled by every woman and child I helped. It was a satisfying, yet incredibly lonely, life. I reassured myself that at least I was with the one person who knew and recognized my worth.
That was better than marrying some village boy my parents chose for me, wasn’t it? Was it?
* * *
One day in the Yamuna River, as I was dozing beneath the waves after a large kill, I heard fishermen gossiping above me in their raft.
“Krishna sucked the life right out of her as she fed him milk. Apparently, she had meant to poison him, just as she’d poisoned all the other babies. But this time, she was the one who died.”
“No!” the other fisherman gasped. “Is it true?”
“And he charms everyone he meets. The gopis in his town forget their cows and dance with him all day as he plays his flute. They go home filled with stories of Krishna.”
I listened as the tales of this Krishna continued. Who was this young man who both killed and dazzled women? Was he the next man who deserved a lesson from Kaliya?
“They say he is Vishnu incarnate.”
Thrusting out of the water, I asked, “Where is he?”
The fishermen nearly fell out of their boats from fear and the force of my wake. They cowered, whimpering.
“Answer me!” I demanded, leaning in closer. “Where is he? Where is this… this… Krishna?” His name came out a hiss, and I flicked my tongues in their faces. They cowered and whimpered until one of them finally spoke.
“Go- Gokul,” he stuttered.
I dove back into the water, not even looking to see if the fishermen had been flung out of their boats. There was no time to waste. Gokul was less than half a day’s swim upstream. If I was going to be killed by Vishnu, so be it.
Once in Gokul, I decided to take things slowly. I bided my time in the water, letting him come to me. I grew hungry waiting, feeding only on fish, not wanting to alarm anyone and thus alert them to my presence. The next day, though, I heard it: his flute, high and fluttering. The notes winding around my heads, finding the way to that human heart that still beat inside of me, nearly forgotten. The music resounded through my body, and I could feel the warm blood of the young woman beneath my scales responding.
I dove back into the water. This was dangerous. His flute was hypnotic, and I refused to succumb to its wily powers. When the music stopped, I cautiously sent only one of my heads to peer above the surface of the water. There sat a group of young people, all about my age, talking and laughing. Flirting. What was this? I had never seen people like this before with such ease around each other and such freedom. Didn’t they have chores to do? Duties to perform? Families to answer to? My village had been nothing like this. Nor had the many villages I had visited since. To live with such ease and laughter and music was almost incomprehensible. What kind of magic did this Krishna have?
At first, I didn’t see him, because he was at the center of the group, but when he took up his instrument again, everyone sat down to listen. And suddenly there he was.
Gracefully he held the flute to his lips. His skin was an unusual color, so dark it was almost black, though with a dark blue hue when the sunlight hit — like the dark beauty of the ocean spreading beneath a night sky. When his eyes met mine, I saw that he knew me, just as he knew everything, and then, I knew everything. This was no mere boy. This was a divine being who could see that my life was as divine as his. And I also knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I could not kill him. An odd sense of peace and finality overcame me then, knowing, deep in my soul that this was a powerful being worthy of my presence. Limitless in his powers, unencumbered by the fragility of his human frame.
Seeing that something in the water had caught Krishna’s attention, the others soon began to look as well. There was no point hiding now. As I expected, everyone screamed at the sight of me as I reared up my body. They all shouted their warnings.
“She has poisoned the waters!”
“She fought Garuda and won!”
Krishna didn’t speak. Without a moment’s hesitation, he dove into the water. He floated there before me, and wordlessly we looked into each other’s eyes.
One of my brains told me that I should run away. Now. For this was Vishnu incarnate, and as Vishnu incarnate, he could not be killed. Not by me, not by a woman with poison smeared on her breasts, not by anyone.
He held out a hand, indicating that he meant no harm. Slowly, he made his way towards me, and I stayed still, unsure what to do or what he wanted. He wrapped his arm around me, pulling me gently beneath the surface. Music filled me then, the rhythm of the river, the rhythm of all the rivers, the oceans, the universe, all surged through my body.
Skin to scales we danced. We glided in the water. Without words we reached an epic union of souls that I still cannot explain.
Underwater, where none but us and the voiceless waves could hear, he whispered to me. I too am a shapeshifter, he said. And he told me of his life as Matsya the fish, of his life as Kurma the half-tortoise. He said he understood what it was to be both human and animal and yet also divinity itself.
The people are scared of powerful women, but I will teach them, he said. He released me from his hold. Before we part, I need you to do something for me.
“Assssk and I shall follow,” I said, the words rushing from me so fast they came as a shock when I heard them.
Dance for me above the waters. Show the humans they have nothing more to fear from Kaliya, the Queen of Snakes.
This made me stop. Had his honeyed words been nothing but music meant to hypnotize a serpent? To convince me to come out of my basket?
I was Kaliya, Queen of Snakes. I was sleek and strong. I danced for no one. Not my father, not Garuda, and not even Krishna, avatar of Vishnu.
“No,” I said forcefully, not caring that I was talking back to a god.
Krishna took my refusal in stride. I am currently human, and thus I have been reborn, but—
I twisted away from him. While I could not hurt him, that didn’t mean that I was forced to listen to him either.
He was a fast swimmer and easily caught up to me.
But, he continued, as Lord Vishnu, I can grant you that which you desire most.
“And what is that?” I spat back.
“I HAVE freedom,” I retorted.
Let me finish, glorious girl. I will find you freedom AND companionship.
I glared at him. He came towards me, putting his arms around me again. Skin to scales. I listened to the sweet words coming from his lips. Even I couldn’t stay angry with this divine being. I could feel all the venom, all the hatred I had swallowed begin to dispel. The waters around me began to clear as his music played in my soul. Part of me was skeptical, part of me wanted to run, and hide, and ignore his slippery words, and his slippery promises.
“Where will I go?” I asked, voice hushed.
Return to Ramanaka-dvipa, the promised home of the serpents. You will be their Queen.
“They threw me out!” I said.
I have heard what happened, but I promise they will have you now. Garuda follows my command and thanks to you, the serpents will live in peace so long as you reside there.
“No,” I said. “I cannot be their queen if they do not accept me as such. I will not force my rule on anyone, or I’ll be no better than those I have swallowed.”
Then I will grant you a new home, a place worthy of you, my queen. You will be Krishna’s first wife.
“Wife?” Did I want that?
I will not live with you. I will not rule over you. I will visit when you call me. I will stay when you like. No one need know but us. Kaliya will be the queen of Krishna’s heart. I am yours.
His promises were tempting, but I wanted more.
A voice came from the river, deep and low, but sweet. Kaliya, you deserve the community you seek.
I looked around, but I saw no one.
“Who was that? Who are you?”
I have been with you since the beginning, said the voice. In a way, you could say I am your real amma.
“Show yourself,” I demanded.
You know me, the voice said. I made you what you are.
I thought back to that day on the riverbank… who had made me? Then it came to me — “Goddess Kaveri!”
As I spoke her name, the waters around me began to coalesce into a womanly form who bowed before me, her eyes sparkling in the sunlight. Her blue green hair flowed all around her, enveloping Krishna and me into her bubble.
“Kaveri Amma! Thank you,” I said, putting my hands together reverently and bowing. For she was my true mother, she had created me, and allowed me to thrive in her waters.
I have followed you these past months, and I have seen how you thanklessly defend women. While I do not always approve of your methods, your purpose is true, but you must remember what you are.
“And what is that?”
You are Kaliya, a snake with a human soul. A human soul who deserves the community she seeks.
“Yes, but what community?” I asked. “How can I find them?” The Goddess’s form dispersed into the waters of her sister river. “Wait!” I shouted. “Kaveri Amma! How can I find them?” I groaned with frustration. Had she told me anything I didn’t already know? I felt like I was right back at the beginning of this journey — a serpent with no friends, no family, only vengeance to fuel her, but I was tired now. Too tired to continue on that lonely life. I needed love and had found it, but I also needed friends, I needed a family. I needed a community.
But how could I convince anyone to join me if they were too scared to even look me in the faces? And then a pair of eyes met mine. Krishna, avatar of Vishnu faced me. And suddenly, I understood.
Krishna had offered himself to me.
“Help me,” I said. “Your flute draws people towards you. Use your music to tell my story. We’ll find others like myself, women and people seeking a community. Let us lead them to this new land you promised where I will watch over and protect them as my parents never did for me.”
Krishna smiled and bowed. Taking that as his acceptance, I gripped his tiny body with my tail and like a toy, I placed him atop my head. Then, I lifted him up into the sky, where all could see him. His human friends, the cowherds and gopis gaped as I rose up out of the water with his small form.
Before everyone, he performed for me, playing his flute and dancing. The music and the rhythm of his life thrummed though my entire being. My soul danced with him, feeling the song that is the deepest sound of the universe play through both of us, connecting us. My body bent and bobbed in time to the music.
Through our dance we told the story of me. Of how I had been mistreated, of how I had become a snake, of how I had fought for others, of how I had battled Garuda.
All along the banks of the Yamuna River, people flocked to watch, and soon they followed. At first, it was only a trickle of people, girls I had saved who now understood what I had done for them. Then came more — people who needed a savior, who like me, had longed for a different life. Eventually they came in streams and rivers and oceans. Even the snakes found us, intermingling with humanity. Krishna granted us a new land, even bigger and more abundant that Ramanaka-dvipa.
There we lived in harmony, and I finally became who I was meant to be:
Kaliya, Queen of Peace.
I am sleek and strong, and when I dance…
…I dance for me.
* * *
About the Author
Dr. Amitha Jagannath Knight is an award-winning children’s author and a writer of poems and stories for people of all ages. She is a graduate of MIT and Tufts University School of Medicine and was also a former social media manager for We Need Diverse Books. Her previous publications include: Usha and the Big Digger, a picture book which won the 2023 Mathical Honor Award and “Locked In,” a flash fiction piece published in Luna Station Quarterly. While her parents were originally from South India, Dr. Knight grew up in Texas and Arkansas, and now lives in Massachusetts with her husband, kids, and cats. Find out more about her writing on her website at www.amithaknight.com.