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Edition 42

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Fiction

Snake in the grass

Selected for Best Australian Stories 2014

I BAKE ON the smooth clay of dried creekbed. Soak in light the colour of sandstone. Sun-heavy air. Heat-hushed noon. Stillness, silence, warmth are the things I love. I'm a length of sun-powered muscle, arrowing one way, looping eternally. I love dry country but must drink sometime.

I smell water but as I slide over packed earth to sip from a bowl the scarred dog, who was safely on his chain as Mr Lawson said, breaks it and dashes at me, slavering. His barking, the whirl and stamp of your children, pound through the hard earth, rattling my spine. The children scream and flail at me with sticks. I slip into the woodpile, turn and peer out from its dark safe hollow. Will you, gaunt, sun-browned bush woman, drover's wife, take it apart, drive me into the open? I can't risk it. Just as the dog's jaws snap on air where my tail was, I vanish under the house. With my jawbone earthed I can hear the dog digging. The digging stops. His sounds all come from one spot now; you've wrestled him back onto his chain.

A dish of milk appears next to the wall. Do I like milk? I have no idea but I'm not foolish enough to be lured into the open so you can break my back with a stick. The myth that we milk your cows shows you see us as sneak-thieves gifted with supernatural cunning. We come into your barns to eat the rats and mice lured there by grain and slop, not to steal your milk. You brought that story with you from another country.

You see nothing but the maze of mirrors you've built, reflecting your own stories at you, stories that wall you within a tight circumference, chain you like your dog, eternally circling the same spot. Stories that blind you with their dazzle, the second-hand light thrown off by eternal reflection. Do you never tire of your endlessly refracting, distorting stories? Do you never want to see what's outside? Do you neverwant to break the glass?

I can tell you one thing: your snake-dreaming is from other deserts and describes very different snakes but you know nothing of the differences between snakes. You tar us all with the same brush.

Come out you evil black brute, you mutter. To you I'm satanic, cunning. If I seem surprisingly literate, well you said yourself in your sacred book, Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made.

Come out. Believe me, I'd like nothing more than to get away but my only safety lies in waiting. I am good at waiting, unlike you hot-blooded scurrying mammals, darting here and there, barking, yelling, talking, playing, wasting more energy in a day than I'd use in a month. No wonder it's hard for you to survive out here, your bodies shedding white heat like stars, burning through your fuel. You need so much food! I could eat three mice or rats a week but often don't. I can make do with much less.

As heat fades from the day I sink into torpor. I will wait here under the house 'til you sleep and then with the last of the day's warmth in my muscles I will slip away.

I've miscalculated.

A storm is blowing up and twilight has fallen sharp and there's so much cold air falling to earth, churning away the day's heat too fast. Usually I have hours of sunsoaked stone and earth to power me. Energy drains from my body; now I'm too slow to dart away to safety. I must keep waiting. I hear you moving your children and dog into the big bark kitchen.

Then I smell it, sense it with every scale and muscle fibre. A little yellow sun crackles and smokes, throwing off energy that radiates into the room and away into the sky. You've built a fire. I need that heat. I slide behind the kitchen wall, watching you through the cracks. The dog turns his head. I freeze. Warmth flows in through the crack. I doze, waiting. You lot must sleep sometime.

No?

No. Adrenaline pulses from you, I taste the metallic taint of it on the air. Your fear keeps you awake. What do you think I will do to your children? You know I can't eat them. Too big a meal for me. We have many hours ahead. If only I could talk my way out of this.

Do you have a name for me? Some call me a King Brown.

Class: Reptilia. Order: Squamata. Suborder: Serpentes. Family: Elapidae. Genus: Pseudechis. Species: Australis.

A complex naming but I kind of like it. It's so grand it seems respectful and part of a more hopeful story than the one in your Good Book, in which I am The Father of Lies. And I'm no Father. Like you, drover's wife, I'm a mother. The difference between us is that you want to kill my young.

You should have been an ally. My sister. Another mother.

You've been slandered by the same lies spread about me and my kin.

It is useless to speak. A forked tongue can only tell lies. But even if you could listen to me, you could not hear.

And the Lord God said unto the serpent…I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed…

What do you, drover's wife, think I am going to do? You think I'd waste my precious venom on your children for…what? Sport? That's your thing. Not mine.

So we've a long night ahead. A night of fear for you and near torpor for me. A long night in which I could plead for my life, a long night in which I could try to persuade you not to kill me.

Could others speak for me? Perhaps the men who worked the 'Snakepit', where snake-handling shows went on for over a hundred years? Mr Lawson would have known these snake-men in their battered hats and dungarees, their hessian bags and hooked poles. Families flocked to La Perouse on a Sunday to be horrified, thrilled, amazed. They never forgot those shows. The showmen circled the pit, pacing between legend and reality, telling stories of good snakes and bad snakes: my cousin, the Red-Bellied Black, is the good girl who eats Brown Snakes and Tiger Snakes and keeps you safe. They talk up the danger, then play it down, draping pythons over the shoulders of little girls, handling Tigers and Taipans.

There are those who tell stories. Writers. Artists. Scientists. It takes a story to counteract a story. An antidote if you will. Antivenom.

The venomous snake in the paddock is tolerated,
it is snakes in the home yard that are loathed.,
– Geoffrey Lehmann, 'Supper with a black snake

You cannot know what it costs me to make my venom. Like the spider's web, it is drawn from my body's wealth, made from complex proteins. I cannot waste it. The spider, hated almost as much as I am, must eat her web if it is ruined. She cannot spin it out of nothing.

You call me King Brown but this name is not helpful as I'm classed as a black snake. Should you be silly enough to be envenomated by me, you'd need black snake antivenom, not brown.

The Drover, your husband, would likely call me a Mulga Snake. His mates further west would call me a Pilbara Python. My mob ranges over more of Australia than any other snake and in some places we look black. Such a drab description tells you nothing of my subtle beauty, of the way each scale is lighter-toned at the edges, netting me in gold. Enamelled, I shimmer as I move.

Sun glazed his curves of diamond scale,
And we lost breath to watch him pass.
– Judith Wright, 'Hunting Snake'

Average length: 1.5 metres up to maximum exceeding 2.7 metres. Description: Broad head, bulbous cheeks, large scales. Colour: Varies from light to dark brown, coppery red to almost yellow. Southern specimens darker, sometimes nearly black.

We park at Hargreaves Lookout. Alone at the lookout, I stare down into the blue-green valley framed by pink cliffs. I turn to walk back and stop. About five metres away a large snake lies right across the path. Must be a King Brown. I've seen my share of Red-Bellied Black Snakes but this snake is brown-gold and big. I'm not afraid but I'm not about to step over it either. I wait, watching in fascination as it basks on the warm sand. After a few minutes the snake glides away into the bushes. A few weeks later I learn this snake is indeed a King Brown and a celebrity.

Venom: LD50 = 1.9 yield: 180mg. King Brown snakes can express enormous quantities of venom. The actions of the venom are mainly haemolytic (destructive to red blood cells); cytotoxic (poisonous to cells); and also mildly neurotoxic (poisonous to nerves) and mytotoxic (poisonous to muscles).

Specific antivenom:Black Snake.

Initial dose:18,000 units.

Special feature:King Brown snake venom has a devastating effect on other venomous snakes but the King Brown appears to be immune itself to the venom of other snakes. It is not immune to the Cane Toad.

Food:Rats, mice, lizards, other species of snakes. Eggs. Birds. Carrion.

I learn more about this King Brown from a story in the local newspaper. The snake is a mother well-known to locals, who often see her at the lookout. Their unobtrusive respect leads to her death. Despite the King Brown's fearsome reputation, she is known to be inoffensive. But as happens to many wild animals who learn not to fear humans, this snake was unafraid of the wrong humans, men who kill her, breaking her back, destroying her eggs. I grieve, having seen her so briefly. Our untrustworthiness is even more shameful than our cruelty. If we were consistently kind – or even consistently aggressive – she might have survived.

Venom toxicity rating: Lethal Dose (LD) calculated as the dose resulting in the death of 50 per cent of test subjects. Which are mice.

You boast we're the world's most venomous snakes. It's true Australian snakes are very venomous: to mice and rats. You don't have a good way of testing how toxic my venom is and so you test it on rodents. Not surprisingly, my venom is fatal to them because they're the very prey it was designed for. I doubt I'm as dangerous to you; mice are not necessarily a good guide. After all, adult mice don't react to funnel-web venom. I wouldn't rely on that mob if I were you.

We're the demons alright. We've even been used to strike fear into the hearts of refugees. Your government made three videos to show people who might try to sail to Australia the horrors of a land surrounded by sharks, burnt by fire and infested with venomous snakes. I feel such videos say more about you, Drover's Wife, than about Australia. In countries where people have lived with snakes for a long time, they coexist well. The cobra coils under the house, the python sleeps in the rafters, keeping down the rats.

Cobra venom is rated 1 on the scale of toxicity. My cousin, the Inland Taipan, is rated 49.5 or nearly 50 times more venomous than the cobra. I myself am thought less dangerous only than the Taipan, not for toxicity but for the amount I inject. Our reasons are good for having so much venom and making it so potent. We used to be massive constricting creatures, like the anaconda or the boa. We don't need all that muscle now; our venom means we can be lighter, faster.

Just as well your mob never met wonambi; those fellas grew up to six metres long, as long as a small bus. They lived in Australia from 100 million years ago until about thirty thousand years ago. Some say wonambi inspired tales of the rainbow serpent.

Then there's Titanoboa, a monster rivalling Leviathan, Typhon, the Midgard Serpent. A prehistoric South American snake 43 metres long, or almost as long as an Olympic swimming pool, she weighed in at a mighty 1140 kilograms. You might want to consider this though: as the climate warms we snakes grow larger.

If those fellas were still around you'd really have something to be scared of.

Another reason our venom is so potent: we are not vipers.

That wouldn't mean much to you, Drover's Wife: a snake is a snake is a snake… But vipers, which don't exist in this country, kill many more people across the world than Australian snakes do. Vipers have folding teeth. They pack them away neatly in their mouths and then when they strike the fangs spring up and out, a far more efficient venom delivery than my cousins and I use.

Our fangs are fixed so we must bite our prey. Some part of its flesh must be between our upper and lower fangs for the venom to be injected. Would it help if I told you my teeth are quite small? They can't penetrate jeans or shoes. A simple strike will not do for us. Many of our strikes fail or are intentionally 'dry'. We're just warning you. Go away. Leave us alone. Don't tread on me.

Huge, high as my waist,
Rearing with lightning's tongue,
So brown with heat like the fallen
Dry sticks it hid among,
– Douglas Alexander Stewart, 'The Brown Snake'

Which brings me back to you, Drover's Wife. Do you have a name? You call me a black brute – seems to me there are quite a few black brutes that you and that Drover husband of yours would prefer not to have around cluttering up the landscape. I am also described as having 'an evil pair of small, bright beadlike eyes'.

You should have been an ally.

The same snake-hating religion that said you were the door for all evil into this world said the same of me. I'm a snake, no symbol for anything. You are a woman, no symbol for anything.

Snakes are like a line
Of poetry; a chill
Wind in the noon, – David Campbell, 'Snake'

I am curled up behind your wall, not inside your kitchen. If I come out at night to hunt I won't bite you or your babies. I can smell where you are and though I'm no pit viper, with their oh-so-fancy heat-locating facial pits, I can still feel your heat. That's how I know your size and that I can't eat you. If you stopped to think about it, Drover's Wife, you'd see I'm a blessing to your hut, to your shed, to your barn, eating the vermin, the rats and mice that destroy your food and spread disease. Your farmers are finding that the more of us they kill, the more severe the plagues of rats and mice eating their crops. You protect your crops in one way, destroy them in another.

People in India live with cobras under their homes. Cobras are powerful, good luck. If you can't see us without a symbol standing in between us, let us be like the cobra. Let us be Shiva, destroying, regenerating. Let us be protectors of the Buddha, bringers of rain, thunder, fertility. Carved in Hawkesbury River sandstone, we will guard the entrances to your temples, your churches. Your churches! Imagine. You could celebrate the lunar holiday of Nag Panchami and refrain from your plowing and field work out of respect for us.

We are cosmic, ranging across the universe. Scientists recently described the Milky Way as 'a pit of writhing snakes.' Giant rivers of turbulent gas, coiling their way across the deep, show up on a radio telescope image as 'gas snakes'. Your scientists are persistent, I'll give them that. Took them thirty years to capture an image of the gas snakes. Cosmic gas snakes help stars form, make the galaxy and the universe magnetic and spread warmth around. How appropriate. We snakes all need heat from the stars.

To bring things down to earth: bushies say the other deadly King Brown is the 'shearer's glass', a big bottle of beer. Men are bitten when they try to kill one of us while drunk. One man lost his arm and said I made the stupid mistake of grabbing a wild King Brown with my left hand because I was holding a beer in my right one!

You mammals are not rational creatures – too hotblooded. A thousand things in this land are more dangerous than I. The sun itself invades your skin, poisoning your cells. Men that pass your hut. Fires, floods. A picture on a page stuck to the wall of your hut shows Mary, infant in arms, crushing a serpent beneath her heel. Do you see yourself this way? It is you yourself you crush.

Mr Lawson said my eyes were evil. Evil to him who evil thinks.He said that wretched dog shook me as if he felt the original curse in common with all mankind. The same curse that oppresses you then, woman, vessel of evil? Crushing me, you side with those who hate you. I am not an enemy nor The Enemy. I expected more of you.

How do I shed
this fusty skin of fear
and walk with artfully
reckless bared ankles?
– Dorothy Porter 'Snake Story'

At least when Mr Lawson wrote there were no cane toads. Some say up to 90 per cent of my mob are now gone because of cane toads. Others say toads make us adapt, that evolution is proceeding swiftly because of this pressure.

The writers who followed Mr Lawson, the man and woman who took up the story from him, understood me no better, I feel. The man said my grace and beauty symbolised a human penis; the comparison leaves me speechless. The vainest man alive could not be so arrogant. What could be more feminine, if it comes to that, then my shining flow?

No one who has seen our coils loop one on another so effortlessly could think of such a thing without laughing. I've been here harmlessly behind the wall before, enjoying the heat from your tiny captive sun. You never knew I was there. I saw you and your Drover begetting one of your urchins. Perhaps we're agreed on saying no more about that. It was nothing like my languid entwinings with my mate. That Drover will never waste five hours winding himself around you. As in all things, you are too quick, your racing heartbeats, the roaring furnace of your overheated greedy metabolisms, driving you on. This land has heat to spare. I soak in its energy, energy raining from our star, radiating from our stones. I'm the original, efficient solar-powered creature.

The other writer, she had a few points. She said Mr Lawson could only write of your strength as it seemed to him like a man's strength, killing snakes and fighting bushfires. And yet you do not need to do the one and don't know how to manage the other.

You are outside, scrabbling at the skin, scratching in the dust. You do not get in to where the country can talk to you, tell you where you can go, where you should stay away. I am black. Black like Black Mary, black like the man who didn't build your woodpile well enough, the man described as a 'stray blackfellow' as if he were a dog and yet also 'the last of his tribe and a King'. How do you know he was a King? Did he sport one of those half-moon copper or brass King plates like 'King Billy, king of the Barwon Blacks' or 'King Mickey Johnson', crowned at Wollongong, 30 January, 1896? Am I a King Brown in the same way? In some sense I'm a King. Or Queen. I belonghere. I've been here for twenty million years.

Take time to look, look again – feel the land through your feet; the Snake will not harm those who show the proper respect. Those who rush in must be strangers. – Billy Marshall-Stoneking, 'Singing the Snake'

Every spring your ABC reports that I and my cousins will be out and about, so watch out! You could try leaving me alone. I will show many signs of distress before I bite. I may whip my tail like a rattlesnake. If you don't walk away then, I'll show you how big I am, flattening my head. If you still don't get my message, I'll raise the first part of my body from the ground and feint at you, practising mock strikes. Could speech be clearer than the language of my body? My first strike will just be bluffing you. Then I'll put my head down, looking at you with both eyes, measuring the distance for my strike. Even now you can walk away and be safe.

I glide out from the wall. If I can just reach the other side of this kitchen I will flee into the grey dawn, the heat from the fire giving me strength for just long enough to get away.

This time the story will have a happy ending. This time, I'll escape.

That devil of a dog stirs. I've made no noise, how is it possible he's awake? His growl wakes you and you grab your stick. One metre, two metres.

This time, freedom is so close. Maybe this time it will be different.

Snakes are guardians. If you can't understand me, you can't understand anything here. It is your fear, not I, that keeps you on the outside. If it had not been me, it would have been something else and perhaps finally the terror of the empty sky that drove you mad.

The dog springs, his jaws closing on my back.

You should have understood.

Perhaps on another day there will be another story.


From Griffith Review Edition 42: Once Upon a Time in Oz © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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