Tuesday March third. In the garden, up by the washing line, a small space hemmed by the walls of two sheds. A large brown, something like two metres, writhing slowly across the path between Meredith and the house. Meredith froze, as you would; well, as perhaps you would: other options include screaming, going into the small shed and locking the door and staying there until she was sure the snake was gone, or taking a shovel from the shed and trying to kill the damned thing. And a few others. Meredith wisely chose to freeze.
In her left hand she was holding the corner of a king-sized sheet, the rest of which was in front of her legs in a wicker basket. In her right hand Meredith held a wooden clothes-peg, with which she had been about to secure the sheet on the line.
It was a clear, warm morning. Meredith could hear a dog barking somewhere, some distance away. A small flock of goldfinches was hunting through the trees bordering the garden, twittering continuously as they did so. The sound of traffic from the highway three blocks away seemed only to emphasise the quietness of the morning.
The snake paused in its writhing and seemed to look at her. It was about three metres away. It raised its head and moved it from side to side, its tongue sliding from its mouth and flicking this way and that. Meredith held her breath. Surely, she thought, it was sniffing in her direction, working out what it was in front of it. Meredith wondered what it would make of the perfume she had used that morning.
Apparently satisfied, the snake lowered its head once more and began to slither towards her. Snaking towards her might be a better description, the head weaving from side to side and the body
following it. Meredith relaxed. It gave no indication of aggression. She was intensely interested in what it would do. The snake was almost at her feet when it stopped and raised its head again, and once again the tongue tested the air around it. Meredith, wearing sandals, felt the tongue touch her skin. It’s licking me, she thought. The head lowered once more and the snake slithered between her feet, turned behind her and brushed against the outside of her left foot. It felt cool and silky.
Why am I not frightened? she wondered. She knew it was a big Eastern Brown, one of the most venomous snakes in the world, yet she was relaxed and interested in it, rather than appalled and repulsed. It won’t hurt me, she told herself, as long as I don’t frighten it or move too suddenly. She had no idea how she knew this, but she was completely confident that it would be so.
Wrapped around her left foot, the snake paused and tested the air once again, its head raised and tongue flicking, then lowered its head to the the top of her foot and seemed to rest there, as though waiting.
From somewhere amongst the tall grasses beside the pond, a frog called, sounding as though two stones had been hit together. The snake seemed to ignore it.
Of course, Meredith thought, it can’t hear sound. Not like we do, anyway. I wonder how long it’s going to rest here? Slowly, she lowered her hands, tired now after holding them high for so long. Though the wet sheet folded itself into the basket beside it, the snake seemed relaxed, and didn’t move. Meredith could see its sides move slowly in time with its slow breathing, and matched her own breathing to that of the snake.
The screen door at the back of the house banged and Charlie called. ‘Where are you, Merry?’
Bugger, Meredith thought. Might be a bit awkward. Don’t come looking, Charlie. She could guess what his reaction would be if he found her with a brown wrapped around her feet. Best if he kept away. She wasn’t going to answer anyway. Not right now. She’d have to think about whether she should tell him at all. Though of course with Mia around the house she’d have to do something.
The screen door banged again, and Meredith hoped that meant Charlie had gone back indoors. The snake seemed happy to remain as it was, and Meredith, too, was happy for it to remain there as long as it wanted to. Up to a point, of course: the sun was hot, the morning was passing and Charlie would soon be worried about where she was. On the other hand, there seemed nothing that she could do to encourage the snake to move away.
The frog by the pool called again, and this time Meredith was sure she felt the snake stiffen. It raised its head yet again, and the tongue lashed the air for a second or two. Its head twitched twice, side to side, then Meredith felt the snake moving over her foot, a strange, wave-like motion as every inch of it slid over her foot, the snake heading quickly back down the path. Meredith watched, fascinated, as it disappeared into the grasses. The frog called again, just once.
What an experience, Meredith thought. Amazing. Of course, I can’t tell Charlie or he’ll be out thrashing around until he finds the snake. And, knowing Charlie, it’ll be him that gets bitten, rather than the snake being killed.
She bent and picked up the corner of the sheet that she had dropped, and pegged it to the line, then lifted the rest of the sheet and pegged it, too. The frog was silent.
Mia was a problem, of course. It was one thing not telling Charlie, who would have immediately wanted to kill it. But Mia was too young to understand a warning about the snake. So what should she do?
There was always the snake man, she knew. She could give him a call and get him to come over, to find and capture the snake and release it somewhere far away. But Meredith was reluctant to do that. The snake, she felt, was hers. Well, maybe not hers, exactly; not like a pet might be hers. You can’t have a pet brown snake. No, it was more that she felt an affinity with it, that it would never hurt her. But Mia might be a different thing altogether. At three, Mia wouldn’t be able to understand at all. If she saw it she’d want to pet it, to reach to it. And Meredith knew she couldn’t put Mia in that position.
For the rest of the week Meredith kept an eye out for the snake; she saw no sign of it. But the frog continued to be silent. Poor frog, Meredith thought.
In fact it was mid-February before she heard the frog again. Well, a frog, anyway. She supposed that it must have been another one, attracted by the pond. And a day or two later she saw the snake again. She had been working in the garden, her laptop on the table, the big umbrella shading her. Mia was at pre-school, Charlie, of course, at work. It was approaching mid-day.
From the corner of her eye Meredith spotted a movement below the steps leading to the driveway, and as she turned her head she watched the small brown head moving slowly towards her. Was it because the pavers were so hot under the sun that the snake kept to the shade of the verandah? Maybe, Meredith thought. She watched its approach calmly. She was wearing shorts and a tee-shirt, and her feet were bare.
The snake paused and looked at her, its tongue flickering, sampling the air. It crossed the patch of sun and came into the shade not far from her, pausing again as though uncertain. Slowly it approached, tongue still flickering until it was at her feet, and, as it had that last time under the washing line, the snake seemed to lick her feet, the tongue lightly moving over her skin.
Meredith didn’t move, just watched as the snake once again wrapped itself around her feet, both of them this time, then stopped and lowered its head as before. As before the snake felt silky and cool, and, as before, Meredith matched her breathing to that of the snake. It felt, somehow, right.
Meredith turned her attention back to her laptop. She opened a new file, and entitled it ‘Brownie’, and began an account of her meetings with the snake. ‘Brownie seems to understand me,’ she wrote. ‘Or maybe it’s me that seems to understand him.’
Him? Meredith had no idea whether Brownie was a male or a female; but she felt as though he was a male, and that a sort of relationship was developing between them.
The two of them sat like that for some time, unmoving. The frog had been calling, but Brownie was ignoring it, or simply unable to hear the sound. Meredith wrote and contemplated, and felt ridiculously happy. ‘He’s picked me out as a companion,’ she wrote, realising as she did so that this was utterly stupid. The realisation did nothing to stop her happiness; but she went on, ‘Of course, anthropomorphism is the most infantile of human behaviours, but it is hard not to do it. Brownie seems to have an affinity to me that can be nothing but human.’ She paused, considering what she had written. ‘Hang on,’ she continued, ‘let’s not get carried away. Perhaps not human, but more dog-like. That’s what Brownie is doing, behaving as though he were a dog. I wonder what would happen if I was to pat him?’
But at that moment Brownie lifted his head, flicked his tongue
and slithered away. The frog was still calling, and Meredith assumed that Brownie had at last sensed it and was going hunting; but he headed instead for the steps where she had first seen him, and she watched as he disappeared down the drive. The frog continued to call.
‘What do you know about first-aid,’ she asked Charlie that evening.
Charlie was doing the washing up and watching the news on the television. ‘What?’
‘First aid. How much do you know about it?’
Charlie considered. ‘Bugger all, really,’ he admitted. ‘I can put on a sticking plaster, and put cream on sunburn.’
‘Well, I just thought we ought to have some idea what to do in case of an accident.’
Charlie wondered what had brought this on. ‘I suppose so. Couldn’t hurt, could it? You going to enrol somewhere?’
‘I thought we both could. There must be classes somewhere.’
‘What’s brought this on?’ He switched the TV off.
Meredith was finishing the last of her wine. ‘Mia, I suppose. She’s going to have lots of accidents before she’s grown up.’
‘Right,’ Charlie said doubtfully. ‘So why don’t you find out about classes, and we’ll see.’
The following day the frog was silent. Meredith sat once more at the garden table, her laptop open before her, and willed Brownie to appear. He didn’t.
She started her research: snake bites. She read the advice carefully, then sent the page to her printer, checking for other advice on other sites. No cutting open the wound, then. No sucking poison out. Crepe bandages instead. She left the garden and checked the box that held what they called their first aid kit: sticking plaster, sunburn cream, blister patches left over after that walking holiday, insect-bite cream. No crepe bandages. Well, that could soon be remedied.
She went back to her computer and searched ‘first aid kit’, made notes and went shopping.
‘Did you know there’s even an app for first aid?’
‘An app. You know, for smart-phones.’
Charlie didn’t seem particularly interested. ‘Don’t have a smart phone. In fact, my bloody phone is down-right stupid.’
‘Mmm,’ said Meredith. ‘But it’s amazing, don’t you think?’
‘What’s amazing, smart phones or the first aid app? And incidentally, what’s all this with the first aid stuff?’
Meredith looked at him defensively. ‘We talked about it.’
‘Yeah. But what’s got you so worked up about it?’
‘I don’t know. Nothing, really. Except that we’d both be hopeless if Mia had an accident.’
‘Isn’t that what hospitals are for?’
‘Well, yes. Of course they are. But that could be too late. What about heart attacks? You need to do something immediately.’
‘Oh, I don’t know. But that’s just the point, isn’t it? We don’t know? And maybe we should.’
‘Right. And you were going to look into it.’
‘That’s the point I’m making. I did look into it, and here’s a list of classes, see? And I just mentioned that it’s amazing that there’s even an app to tell you what to do in any situation.’
Charlie smiled. ‘Great,’ he said. ‘If we had a smart phone we could ask it to tell us what to do.’
‘Well... I thought it was interesting.’ Meredith put on her crestfallen look.
Charlie grabbed her and hugged her, kissing the back of her neck.
‘And I do too,’ he said. ‘If ever anyone buys us a smart phone, we’ll get the app.’
Over the next six months Meredith spotted Brownie only four times. Each time she was alone in the garden. Was this because of noise? she wondered. When Mia was with her it was rarely peaceful, the child running up and down the drive, throwing balls, chattering away. If Charlie was there too it was even worse. But when she was alone in the garden, either working or gardening, she moved slowly and softly, ever aware of the possibility of Brownie appearing.
They had attended the first aid classes, she and Charlie. And she had improved their first aid box, not only including crepe bandages
against the possibility of snake bite but also making it generally useful, rather than just a collection of sticking plasters. She was certain that Brownie would never bite her, as long as she was sensible; but she couldn’t warn Charlie and Mia without endangering the snake.
‘There’s a bloody big brown by the pond,’ Charlie told her. ‘Where’s Mia? For Christ sake make sure she doesn’t go outside. Look, you’d better lock the door.’
‘What are you going to do?’
‘What do you bloody think? I’m going to kill the bugger.’
Meredith put her hand to her mouth. ‘No, Charlie. You can’t. It’s against the law.’
He looked at her in disbelief. ‘You mean you’d be happy to have a live snake out there? Christ, Meredith, what about Mia?’
‘But you can’t just go and kill it. You don’t know how, anyway. What are you going to do, hit it with a stick?’ She put a hand on his arm. ‘No, Charlie don’t go out. You’ll get yourself bitten.’
‘Well I’m certainly not going to just leave it there.’
‘What else? Perhaps we should call the snake man.’
Charlie looked at her. ‘You’re serious, aren’t you?’
Meredith nodded. ‘Yes, I am. Look, there are snakes around us all the time. By the time the snake man comes he will have gone. Just… lock the back door, keep Mia indoors and forget about it for the time being.’
‘Jesus,’ Charlie said. ‘I can hardly believe you’re saying this.’
She leaned towards him, resting her head on his shoulder. ‘Charlie, I just don’t want you to get bitten. Do you know what proportion of snakebites happen when people are trying to kill the snake? Something like 90% I think.’
Charlie shook his head. ‘You’re really something else, Meredith.’ He put his arm around her shoulders and hugged her, leaning forward and kissing the top of her head. ‘Okay. But I’m going to call the snake man now and see what he says.’
The snake man came, and of course Brownie was nowhere to be seen.
‘Perfect spot for brown snakes,’ he said when Charlie led him into the garden.
He looked too young really, too young to have enough experience to deal with brown snakes in the wild. True, he was wearing gaiters,
leather boots and blue jeans, so he was clearly prepared for the worst. He had shoulder-length blond hair and very blue eyes, which simply made him look younger.
‘Look, you’re asking for trouble with a setup like this. You’ve got the park opposite and the hillside beyond that. D’you know how many brown snakes live on the Hill? Bloody thousands.’
‘So what d’you reckon we should do? Rip out the ponds? Get rid of all the grasses? Perhaps we should concrete the whole garden? That would be safe, wouldn’t it?’
The snake man looked at Charlie, taken aback. ‘Keep your shirt on, Mate... I was just trying to help.’
Charlie leaned towards him, and poked him in the chest. ‘Look, mate, I only called you because the wife insisted. If I see the bugger I’m going to get him. So go on, have a good look. If you find him you can take him away. But if you don’t, and if I see him again, I’m going to kill the bugger.’
The snake man shrugged. ‘Well, I can’t stop you, can I? But be careful. Most people who get bitten were trying to kill the snake.’
‘Right,’ Charlie said. ‘Reckon I might be a bit smarter than the average brown snake, eh?’
The snake man couldn’t quite keep the contempt out of his voice. ‘Yeah, sure,’ he said.
‘Oh Charlie,’ Meredith said when he told her. ‘Really. Is this just a macho thing?’
‘This snake-killing idea of yours.’
Charlie looked at her. ‘No,’ he said slowly and deliberately. ‘No, it’s not just a macho thing. It’s called protecting your family. It’s called looking after your children.’
She was tempted to laugh, but she knew that if she did he’d get mad. She put her hand on his shoulder. ‘Charlie, I love you. You’re such a goof. If we see a snake we call the snake man. Simple as that.’
‘If you see it you can do that if you like. If I see it, I kill it.’ He stared at her for a moment, daring her to argue.
All he saw at first was the tip of the tail poking out beside the big rock beside the tap. He had been about to reach into the grasses to turn the tap, to top up the pond which was a bit low from evaporation.
Instinctively he jerked back, taking a step backwards on the brick path. The tail didn’t move.
He assumed it was that bloody snake again, though of course he couldn’t be sure. The tip of a snake’s tail looks very much like the tail of a skink, or a lizard, except that it was bloody big. From where he stood on the path he could see that it wasn’t moving.
Fortunately he was alone in the garden. Meredith had taken Mia into town. They wouldn’t be back for a while. Charlie took another step backwards, then headed up to the gardening shed at the back of the garden. As quietly as he could he opened the shed door, then stepped inside. He had a choice of weapons: a spade, a shovel, a big gardening fork or a wrecking bar. He chose the spade.
By the time he got back to the tap, the tail had disappeared. He had guessed it might. He thought about it. He wasn’t going to start searching in the grasses. They should have kept them more under control, but the idea had been to create an area around the ponds which would attract birds and insects. Some of the clumps of grasses were more than a metre high, armed with thorny seeds.
But the ponds were completely surrounded by paths, so if he simply kept an eye on those paths, he’d be bound to spot the snake as soon as it left.
No sooner had Charlie thought that than the head of the snake appeared on the other side of the ponds. It seemed to be in no hurry. Charlie gripped the handle of the spade tightly, and moved towards it as silently as he could.
Meredith is in the garden. On her lap is Mia. ‘Just hold still, Darling’, Meredith says. ‘He’s not going to hurt us.’
‘Is that the one that bit Daddy?’
Meredith sighs. This is going to be difficult. ‘Well, it could be. But you see, Daddy was attacking it, and it was just protecting itself.’
Mia draws her feet up higher as the snake approaches. She is clearly frightened. ‘I don’t like it,’ she says to her mother.
Meredith strokes Mia’s hair. ‘If you’re quiet,’ she says, her mouth close to her daughter’s ear, ‘he’ll be your friend.’
Mia squirms around, hiding her face in her mother’s shoulder. ‘I don’t want him to be my friend,’ she says, and Meredith can tell she’s close to tears.
‘We’ll just sit here and see what he does,’ she tells her. Her feet are naked. The snake flickers its tongue towards her. ‘See,’ Meredith says, ‘he’s just finding out about us. I think he likes us.’