(Written at Ranthambore Tiger Preserve in Rajasthan while waiting for the fever to go away...Apologies to Kipling)
Bagheera the Panther lay on his side in a sunny spot beneath the jungle canopy. Yawning lazily, he arched and stretched his body out against the ground, looking at his claws critically as he unsheathed and retracted them one by one. Satisfied, he made a deft swipe at a lianna vine, slicing it in two with barely a movement, before rolling over on his back to scratch his tightly muscled shoulder against the rocky ground. Looking over through half-closed eyes at Father Wolf, who sat on his haunches nearby sniffing at the air occasionally to stay aware of any threat, he growled softly, “And what dost thou hear from our man cub Mowgli? Long has it been since he stood with his brothers at the council rock. How does he fare since he went down to the village of men?”
Father Wolf looked into the distance and paused a moment before replying. “I am concerned that I have not had word from him. His pack brothers see him at times in the village of men and we know that he is unharmed but still I find myself worrying.” Baloo, the great bear, sidled up at that moment and dropped heavily onto the ground between them. “Don’t worry about the man cub, my brothers, we taught him all that we know. He will not forget the lessons.”
From a darkened cave mouth several meters away, a reedy, nasal voice called out wretchedly, “What, my big shot man cub you speak of? He never calls. He never writes. Feh! I could curl up and die, what would he care?”
Bagheera and Baloo glanced at each other uncomfortably and then up at the trees, Nakhri the Kite circling overhead or anything other than Father Wolf, who hung his head for a moment before calling out, “Sylvia, why don’t you come out and sit in the sun? It will warm you.” “Don’t worry about me, “ came the grating reply, “I’m fine. I’ll just sit in the cave all by myself.”
After an uncomfortable moment, Baloo broke the spell by rising up. “Well,” he rumbled, “If you gents will excuse me, bear in the woods and all… I’ll be back.” The great bear padded off behind the shelter of a nearby banyan tree, the latest issue of “Ursa Minors- Triple-X!!!” tucked under an arm.
Suddenly, a great commotion woke the jungle folk as a roaring sound tore through the leafy expanses. Sounding like the trumpeting of distant elephants, it drove the easily panicked monkey people before it. They leapt through the trees chattering in fear. The green parrot folk and Khasri the Boar ran before it. Above the leafy canopy, Nakhri the Kite widened his circles as he rose up higher in the sky.
“Look, people, here is the jungle before you!” came a loud voice, strange and yet familiar at the same moment. “Here is the dangerous panther and the sly wolf! Keep thy hands in the jeep lest they be bitten right off. See the wild beasts even as I have promised thee.”
“Mowgli?” mouthed Father Wolf and Bagheera silently glancing at each other.
“And there, behind the banyan tree, is the great bear. Who knows what dangerous business he is about. Please stay in the jeep lest he come at you!”
“Hey,” came an aggrieved roar from behind the tree as Baloo stumbled out, guiltily hiding the magazine behind his back. “Bear in the woods! How about a little privacy?”
“Oh, my friends, thy jungle adventure is not over” the voice continued, now clearly belonging to an oddly dressed Mowgli who stood in front of a great machine from the village of men. It was packed with people of a kind not recognizable to the jungle folk. They looked all about them, pointing and chittering, much like the monkey people. “For there, upon the hill can you see Shere Khan, the dangerous tiger. Great and powerful killer, he rules all in the jungle!” The people shivered in delighted terror.
Bagheera and Baloo looked at each other in confusion and then up at the hill where the old, toothless Shere Khan was silhouetted against the clearing, growling asthmatically and waving an arthritic paw at the empty air. “Growl…” he coughed, “Growl, I said. Beware lest I leap upon and devour thee for I am the great Shere Khan! Now, get the hell off my lawn!” Exhausted, he plopped to his belly..
“Stay in the jeep, O my brothers, for only I may come near the great tiger unharmed” Mowgli called over his shoulder as he approached the bemused beasts before him. “Nice work, Khan” he whispered under his breath as he dumped the contents of several happy meals furtively from his bag before the starving old cat. “Same time tomorrow. If you’re very scary, there may be McNuggets in thy future. Hey, Pops. Baloo , Bagheera, I trust that they are hanging well for all of thee?”
“Is that my man cub out there?’ came a wheedling voice from the cave mouth. Mowgli looked up alarmed and waved a single finger, imploringly, before his face.
“Mowgli“, cried Baloo, “why do you bring people from the city of man into the jungle? It is forbidden!”
“Relax, Yogi” laughed Mowgli, “much have I learned since going down to the city of men. For instance, I can make a fat fortune off the eco-tourists. Now play along and you can all be getting some nice, regular kibble.” Looking back over his shoulder at the jeep, he called out theatrically, “Stand thee back, oh my brothers, for is it not written that the company is not responsible for any injuries incurred should thy feet stray from the vehicle provided? Jason, get back in your seat!” he called to a small, blonde haired man cub who was sitting on the mortified Shere Khan’s back, pulling at his whiskers and yelling “Horsey, horsey!!!”
Father Wolf growled urgently at his son, “Mowgli! This is not right. These humans should not be here. They must be driven from the jungle!” “Yes” chorused Bagheera and Baloo, “Drive them from the jungle!”
Mowgli paused a moment, hanging his head. “You are right of course…” Then he turned back, to the jeep and called out brightly, “Okay, everybody back in your seats. It’s time to drive back to camp for the buffet lunch, which is included today. Try the chicken, oh my brothers!” Piling into the machine from the village of men, the roaring slowly receded as Mowgli and the man machine drove out of sight.
Baloo, Bagheera and Father Wolf sat in stunned silence for several moments before finally speaking. ”This is not my man cub. A madness has come upon him” hissed Father Wolf. “It can not be allowed to continue like this” Bagheera said quietly as he looked over at the wretched figure of Shere Khan, who was tucking shamefacedly into his third Quarter-Pounder. “What?” he whined, defensively, “A tiger has to eat. Plus,” he added miserably, “I only need one more Transformer action figure and then shall I have the complete set…” His voice trailed off as he hung his toothless head and slunk off into the gloom of the jungle, listlessly gumming through the last of the fries.
Father Wolf and Bagheera turned again towards Baloo.
“But what can be done, my brothers,” protested Baloo helplessly. “Is this not Mowgli, our own little brother who we ourselves sent down to learn the ways of men? What can be done?”
“Let him face judgment at the council stone!” cried the young wolves from the safety of the clearing perimeter.
“Let us fling poop at him!” called the Monkey King, knuckling quickly forward, excited at the chance of being included in the proceedings.
Hahrdri the Hyena slunk forward. “He has trespassed against the law. Let him be killed and laid upon the council stone like transgressors before him!” he chuckled before circling back the way he came.
“And then we fling poop at him?", the Monkey King suggested hopefully, though pretty much sensing the moment had passed. The Monkey King is pretty messed up and the jungle folk don’t hang with him much. Not even Ghitra the Vulture who’s no picnic herself, I can tell you.
Bagheera gave Baloo a hard look. “My brother thou knowest what must be done!” Baloo paused a moment before finally dropping his chin and nodding sadly. “Yes, I know. I will go speak with Kaa.”
In the village of men, Mowgli sat contentedly at a table next to his home. Above him Nakhri the Kite circled ceaselessly. (Yes, still. It‘s sort of his thing.) In the bushes Timmy the Mongoose laughed idiotically at nothing in particular as Morris Rosen the CPA snapped his briefcase closed, winked approvingly at Mowgli and sauntered off down the driveway. Poolside, Phyllis the Trophy Wife lay in a chaise lounge snoring prettily beside a half-empty pitcher of melon margaritas. Close by, Senor Pepe the Chihuahua shivered miserably in the heat of the mid-day sun.
Mowgli had just nestled back into the cabana chair with a fresh mojito when a shadow fell across him. Looking up, he found himself surrounded by all the beasts of the Jungle Council. Hahrdri and Ghitra loomed over him, grinning unpleasantly. Nakhri circled pretty low for a change and waved. The Wolf brethren paced back and forth on all sides. Mowgli looked quickly about and was calculating the distance to the patio door when Father Wolf, Baghera and Baloo moved into the open space before him, cutting off any route of escape.
Recovering quickly for a kid who’d been raised by wolves, he smiled winningly. “Oh, my brothers! How nice to see you! For did I not just tell Phyllis that we needed to have you all down for a visit. Did I not just say that, my wife?” Phyllis, however, being pretty quick on the uptake herself, was already back in the house packing up anything valuable of a portable nature and planning out various possible futures that didn’t include a house full of jungle.
“Thou hast transgressed against jungle law, man cub.” Baloo rumbled sadly. “I take no pleasure in what must follow but it is upon your own head”
“What do you mean..” started Mowgli, who then faltered as he followed Baloo’s glance rise up and behind him. Mowgli turned slowly around and froze.
There, looking down at him, was a great, yellow-scaled head with dead eyes the size of fists and a crimson forked tongue that darted about tasting the air. It moved side to side rhythmically, hypnotically.
“Kaa the Snake”, Mowgli whispered.
Kaa closed his eyes and bowed briefly in a mocking salute. “Yesssss, man cub. Thou rememberssst me. Know, then, that I am now Kaa the Attorney; having taken sssome night courssesss at open universsssity. I believe thou knowssst my new paralegal?”
The Monkey King scampered forward, chattering self-importantly. In his arms he carried a briefcase and several stacks of papers, all liberally poop-stained, which he lay between Kaa and Mowgli before retreating several feet and glancing about, anxiously, at the other animals for any sign of approval.
“My clientssss have retained me to assssure that their interesstsss are being obssserved. Now, man cub, let usss ssspeak of licensssing agreementsss and marketing rightssss.”
Mowgli opened his mouth to scream but was drowned out by the sounds of the beasts as they all began shouting as one. A flight of green parrots broke noisily from the trees as the Monkey King began hooting excitedly. Hahrdri and Timmy joined in loud, mirthless laughter. Above them all, Nakhri the Kite flew lower in a tightening spiral as the ring of beasts pressed in upon Mowgli.
Watching impassively from poolside, Senor Pepe shivered miserably in the heat of the mid-day sun.