Alan finds a glade with no overhead branches that might come crashing down if winds blow up. But hard ground, rough with exposed pebbles, frustrates him. Clay base baked so hard he can’t drive in tent pegs. He looks around for any rocks to use either as a hammer or just to stabilise his tent. Isn’t a rock, bigger than coin sized, within fifty miles of this place. He must make do with ropes. After a couple of tries, he gets a double half hitch knot right and secures his tent on long lines between tree trunks. Not the best job but will have to do. He’s worked up a sweat, getting this done, and here he is, right next to a river. Perfect. Mum asked him to come here, he reminds himself before looking around and stripping off.
Brown water reflecting flecks of blue sky, slivered trunks and grey-green leaves, as sprawling river red gums mirrored positions on concave banks. River water low and lazy. He scans surfaces thinking of all the fish, turtles, eels, yabbies, grubs, waters teeming invisible life. How different from searching high tide marks for bluebottle jellyfish bodies. Watching not to step on a stingray basking in shallows. This is not idle contemplation – he’s also looking for snakes. Crouching close, looking for signs. Tracks of woven slight depressions forming undulating patterns. Head tilted to one side to cut out reflections like his mother taught him. She made sure basics – Kangaroo, Emu, lizard, snake, seagull, turtle – were all recognizable.
Between river gums, banks are a chaos of fallen trees half submerged. Broken boughs and strewn branches must have been one hell of a blow recently. Maybe his mum has been hosting some sort of ghoulish party?
Been a while since last time he honoured Mum’s dying wishes. Sure, is peaceful here, she was right to insist, make time to come see my billabong.
Growing around and through dishevelled giants are saplings with slender trunks and round, blue-green leaves. Lucky to find such a good spot for the tent. High above him in gum trees partially unseen are perched hundreds of sulphur-crested cockatoos resembling blossoms. He can hear their communicative faint squawks, the occasional flower cap fall. The cockatoos must be waiting for something interesting to happen. Wrong to stop paying attention to birds, they often signal danger. Also, be a mistake to take relative lack of movement for granted. He heard himself promise not to take anything on face value.
Away from the coast, Alan feels a tension, recalls bunyips stories, events such as Uncle Graham sneaking around in darkness, emitting a low growl, lifting fine hairs on behind his neck while Alan tried not to whimper or wet his sleeping bag.
Time for a swim to wash away those memories bound up in fantastical creatures.
There’s a bit of a beach on his side of the river but on opposite, the water is deep and cool. A steeper bank faces Alan. He splashes around here for a while in big gum tree shadows. Kicking up enough white water to keep snakes away. As distinct from keeping splashes and surface tension vibrations to a minimum, hopeful not to attract sharks. Here you can’t really strike out and swim any distance because of snags from fallen trees and branches. Again, a variation on avoiding shallow areas around inshore reefs, or taking care not to let waves, tidal currents or general water movement push you onto weedy rocks. Floating, keeping himself in position with one arm hooked around a branch, watching sunlight play on ripples and sky reflections, he is suddenly, deeply happy.
Alan sees two Willie Wagtails, his eye drawn by their flickering dance, a sharpness of black and white low down at water edge trees branches. A curious bird capable of reaching out to others. He’s seen pictures of Willy Wagtails on crocodile’s heads. Best not dwell on crocs here. His Mum used to unravel complicated stories. That one’s a bully, disliked so much others suspected he’d been feasting on human flesh. When they found out the truth, they sung over him until his back was broken, and he became a little bird unable to straighten his tail… Another version: a gossip monger, brought bad news about illnesses, falling out of love, unfaithful women. Those sorts of things. Watch out for your words around him. See his eyebrows, old wizard face, hear little clicks, he’s listening. But respect. Direct links to other spirits right there in his waggly dance. You can’t possibly know what his dance is saying. Pity this bird hadn’t brought news of her impending death.
Isn’t until another bird moves, he understands causes for Wagtail’s agitation. A small owl disturbed in its roost. Dark rings around its eyes, like spectacles. A mopoke, he thinks, although too early, knows this sound from most sleep-out nights. …Bad tempered, selfish man, not keen to share; don’t be like him. Spirit disguised as a man change him, so now his empty call, shows regret, sadness. Careful you’re not like him regretting any could-have-been. He’s one dark being too, cover yourself, and watch out for night-time things.
The owl swivels its head but otherwise makes no move to avoid wagtail harassment. Weird how such a little bird should torment another much larger threat. Then, as he watches, mopoke swoops from this roost. A single heavy wing flap, a low curving flight over water and out of his perspective. Leaving an image of broad, brown-grey mottled wings – solid less real against more tangible pale silver tree trunks and sky-shining water.
Owl. Another symbol of death, or wisdom? Messengers of letters from home in Harry Potter’s world. Which mythology should he take?
Alan closes his eyes, lulled by water movement against his body, sounds of branches shuffling high up, eucalypt, faintly lemon scents of bush all around.
A physical shock, bringing him upright, wide-eyed and gasping, breathing in mud fused river water, when overhead cockatoos suddenly take flight. Their noise of rusted machinery forced into action screeches, resembling throat-bleeding panic-born screams.
Is someone else coming down the pathway? This late, unlikely. Must be a reason for their instant noisy alighting in flight. Mind playing games. Maybe they detect signs of a predator. What feeds on cockatoos? Monitor lizards, probably, because no dingoes around here, too close to towns. He’s seen those birds swinging upside down from various roadside objects just for fun. Must be able to perceive air pressure, or some secret lore. No way to explain the reason for their taking off.
Alan is passing beneath a black box tree. Fallen branches and piles of dead wood are snake hidey-holes. He crackles through twigs. Eyes continually scanning ground for any sudden movement, stirring or quick slithering. Sticks growing scales and taking on breath, blood, and venom. Morphing from an inanimate object, gaining colour, red belly, yellow stripes or a copper sheen.
It’s not the snake you see that you have to worry about; it’s the snake you don’t.
Why instruct me to come here, a place so laced with danger?
The bite comes straight through his thin cotton trousers. For a second, he thinks he’s caught a jagged twig edge of a twig, but then he sees. Confronted with a rearing, hissing head, neck flattened and spread in cobra-style outrage.
Not a twig! Alan freezes.
Full realisation trickles down his spine and panic begins to beat wild wings against the dumb cage of his body. Nope. Not a twig.
Alan stands as still as a tree, for snake departure. Reptile in no hurry. Done its job.
Doing his best to focus, but there’s not another soul in sight. No one else close enough to any buildings capable of raising an alarm when he doesn’t come home and here, he is with a tiger snake bite low on his leg. Things aren’t looking too good. Will Jenny, his downstairs neighbour, notice an absence tonight at light illumination time, when she’d normally hear his movements? Will she wonder where he is? Did he tell her of his plans to walk into where his mother’s ashes are scattered? Will she send Frank out to find him? It’s a chance. A slim one, but it’s a chance. How long till dark?
Slowly, very slowly, each movement made with minimal effort, painstakingly away from snakes. Head for the vehicle track.
You have so little time.
Be more if you carried a snake bandage.
Movement pushes venom around his body. Must move a little as possible. He looks at a skinny half-overgrown trail closer to river edges. Can make it so far, but could he go further? Which is shorter? Back to a house, find a telephone. Should he risk it? No. He won’t make it. Too far, the effort wiping out any chances. Get to a vehicle track. Do what you know you must. Before he leaves tree shade, Alan picks up four long, thin sticks.
Out here in full sun, but at least visible, if there’s anyone to see. His leg is beginning to tingle, his toes cold. Imagination? How quickly does anybody respond to toxins? Depends on how long since last snake’s strike, age of the thing, doesn’t it? Is this a dry bite? Not a hungry snake, rather a defensive one. Would this reptile need to poison him?
He unfastens his trousers and steps out of them. Lowering himself onto dusty earth, track side. Then winds his pants in a clumsy bandage, tight as he can, strength vanishing, up the leg from snake bite to thigh. Fastens it with his belt, firmly. Concentrating hard. Sweat breaks out on his forehead and runs into his eyes, stinging. Takes off his shirt and spreads it over the other leg to keep sun off his skin. His red T-Shirt will protect the upper body to some extent. Sunburn least of his problems but Alan tries to give himself the best chance.
Can’t just give up. Seen too many of his cousins go that way.
Breaking up collected sticks, he lays out a word TIGER on the flat track. If anyone does happen to come along and find him, they’ll know immediately what his problem is. Or was. Wonders how long he’s got. Reactions to tiger-snake bites are highly individual.
There’s an inch, no more, left in his water bottle. Why didn’t I refill from the river? He drains it and lies down, pulling his hat over his face and hearing his mother’s words from a long time ago.
If a tiger snake gets you and you can’t reach help, lie down and keep still. After four hours you’ll gradually begin to recover your strength. Or you’ll be dead. Either way, you’ll be through the worst of it.
Not funny now.
Tears prickle behind his eyelids. Is it possible to weep away poison? Waves of nausea roll over. He feels clammy and shivers a little. Stay calm, Al. Keep still. There’s a thick coil rolling and curdling of his stomach. Fear or venom?
From somewhere over by riverbanks come sounds of a kookaburra’s echoing hysterics. Raising a warning? Bringing help? Mum used to say, signal of coming rain. Alan finds thoughts hopeful this bird call is about celebrating eating a snake lunch.
He cannot move. Cannot even move his little finger, not even tiny wriggles. Consciousness retreats to a pinpoint, a space of quiet astonishment in a body without boundaries.
Someone is whispering. His mum?
Don’t die, don’t let him die, oh please, don’t let him die…
Who is pleading?
Cannot open eyes.
Over and over again, a dry whisper comes, mumbled, semi-words, brushing like hot dusty breezes. Rather than bristling with Indian Ocean currents, belonging to vast inland solitude. Yet grains lifted, airborne and sticking to dark, dancing feet.
Danger. Everywhere. Never find me here. See! Nothing. Will never find me; I am part of land. I am already gone. No, you are still separate from this place, you are not dead.
Sun moves on. Flies drone and crawl on him, can’t feel their legs, their regurgitation, because he is not there. Roaring fills his ears; wind, dry salty oceanic, brushes unbearably over his body in a rush of whispers and faint onion scent. Singing, chanting, scraping.
When Alan comes to, he is in a hospital bed connected to a drip and experiencing the most dreadful headache of his life. As nausea subsides for a moment, he feels about to locate a bedside buzzer and press it. Someone will know what happened. How he was saved, and by who? Cannot shake off sensations of his mother’s hand squeezing his fingers.