Take a Photo
Alan finds a glade with no overhead branches, stops and takes a photograph. If Winds continue to blow branches might come crashing down if winds blow up. Legs burning from walking in, focused on his mother’s presence. He finds it impossible to stop remembering her words.
‘Won’t be easy, but after you’ve spread my ashes, you will be caretaker for this place. Visit me, occasionally.’
Underfoot only hard ground, rough with exposed pebbles. Surface sand aright, but a clay base baked so hard he can’t drive in tent pegs. After fussing and fluffing around Alan made do with ropes. Took a couple of tries, before he secures his tent on long lines between tree trunks. Standing back, he imagines the contraption looks like a canvas carcass strung up. He’s worked up a sweat, getting this done, and here he is, right next to a river. Perfect for a cooling dip.
Brown water reflects flecks of blue sky, slivered trunks and grey-green leaves, as sprawling river red gums are mirrored. River water low and lazy.
Perhaps being paranoid he begins scanning banks looking for snakes. Crouching close, looking for signs. His mother always said to look out for tracks of woven slight depressions forming undulating patterns. Keeping his head tilted to one side to cut out reflections, like his mother taught him. She made sure Alan recognized all the basics; kangaroo, emu, lizard, snake, sea gull, turtle. Gave him a head full of signals about endemic wildlife.
Between river gums, riverbanks are a chaos of fallen trees half submerged. Broken boughs and strewn branches, cause Alan to think, 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 honored Mum’s dying wishes. A peaceful ambiance makes Alan suck in deep relaxing breaths. His mother was right to insist, make time to come see my river bend.
Growing around and through disheveled giants are saplings with slender trunks and round, blue-green leaves. High above him in gum trees partially unseen are hundreds of sulfur-crested cockatoos perched resembling blossoms. He can hear their communicative faint squawks. See occasional flower cap fall. Alan concludes cockatoos above are waiting for something interesting to happen. Be a mistake to take relative lack of movement for granted. Heard himself promise not to take anything on face value, ever again.
Away from the coast Alan can’t help feel 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.
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. Reminds himself, 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, but something greater will read its message. Pity this bird hadn’t brought news of her impending death.
Isn’t until another bird moves, he understands cause for Wagtail’s agitation. A small owl takes flight, disturbed in its roost. Dark rings around its eyes, like spectacles. A mopoke, he thinks, although he concludes it’s too early in the day for identifying calls. Alan knows this sound from most sleep out nights and remembers more of his mother’s stories …Bad tempered, selfish man, not keen to share; don’t be like him. Spirit disguised as a man changed 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. Sort of like a skinny runt, primary school kid taking on a fully professional full forward, trying to steal a footy.
As he watches, the 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 yet less real against more tangible pale silver tree trunks and sky-shining water.
Owl. Another symbol of death, or wisdom? Messengers bringing letters from home in Harry Potter’s world. Alan wonders which mythology should he take?
Overhead cockatoos suddenly take flight. Their noises, a screech of rusted machinery forced into action, resembling throat bleeding panic born screams. Causes a physical shock, bringing him upright, wide-eyed and gasping. Is someone else coming down the pathway? This late, new arrivals are most unlikely. Probably a reason for their instant noisy alighting into flight. Maybe they detect signs of a predator. Alan considers what creature feeds on cockatoos? Only one pushing itself into his brain is a tongue flicking monitor lizard. But it must be difficult for such a reptile to rely on cockatoos, they are difficult to catch. Remembers he’s seen those birds swinging upside down from various roadside objects, chasing each other around his washing lines, just for fun. Always on the move, he concludes these are attention deficient members of parrot species. Flashing feathers able to perceive air pressure, or some secret lore. He comes to a conclusion there is no way to explain or find reason in cockatoo actions.
Alan is passing beneath a black box tree, registers in part of his mind, fallen branches, and piles of dead wood as 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 color, red belly, yellow stripes or a copper sheen. Tells himself to back off, and relax, chastising borderline paranoia.
It’s not the snake you see to worry about; it’s the snake you don’t.
Why did his mum instruct Alan 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.
An invader in this paradise. When really, trespasser status belongs to him.
Full realization trickles down his spine and panic begins to beat wild wings against 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. Not another soul in sight. No buildings nor anyone else close enough. Nothing capable of raising an alarm if he doesn’t come home. Here he is with a tiger snake bite low on his leg.
Will Jenny, his downstairs neighbor, notice an absence tonight on light illumination time? When she’d normally hear his movements. Will she wonder where he is? Like she knew Mum was gone, fronted up on his doorstep, held his shaking limbs, her tears dampening his T-shirt. Let Alan know he needn’t shoulder grief on his own. Did he tell her of his plans to walk into where his mother’s ashes are scattered? Will she sent 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 snake habitat. 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. Place he used to vanish, getting space from an uncle or some pesky cousins. 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. And efforts wiping out any chances. Get to a vehicle track. Do what you know you must do. 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 beginning to tingle, and his toes feel 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? He’s heard of dry strikes.
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 late afternoon 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.
Strung out, tired from fighting against booze, drugs, even cigarettes, until they can’t resist anymore.
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 detects thoughts hopeful this bird call is about celebrating eating a snake lunch.
Discovers he cannot move. Cannot even move little finger 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 my eyes.
Over and over again, dry whispers comes, mumbled, semi-words, brushing like hot dusty breezes. Rather than bristling with Indian Ocean, long way out there before another land mass, air currents here belong to inland vast solitude. Yet grains of dust lifted into air conjure images of 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, or 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, overhead light pinches behind his eyes, turns his head to see a connection with a drip and experiences the most dreadful headache of his life.
As nausea subsides for a moment, he gropes 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.