Chapter One – A Serpent In The Dust
This is a memory. I may tell you about it as if you were my close and familiar companion, cognisant of all the guilts and rivulets of my inmost thoughts. Forgive me if I berate you, as I berate myself. We are on the shore, the cusp. Take off your shoes, the sand is a hundred million years of piscean regurgitation, but, for that brute alchemy, quite pure; walk with me awhile.
When this town was new, fat off good rivers, wool and wheat, they built a brick factory and made red bricks of the ochre-red clay of the southern fields to build mansions, town halls, courthouses, prisons. Later, when the brick factory was nothing but a redder stain and two crippled towers canted precariously on the horizon, they built less grand buildings, of clapboard and asbestos sheets, grey and pastel blue and pink, fading into the sunset, for we lesser, sunset people, in the lee of the slaughter yards, in the shadow of those chimneys, curtailed by the mazed angularity of new bitumen and concrete culverts.
How they built the towers, the brick factory, of seemingly the same red bricks that it disgorged from beehive kilns, I wondered, but never understood. A monstrous town, under an obdurate sun; it ate earth and people, and vomited out itself.
One of those dust devil days, you know the ones, where they rise spontaneously up out of the brick and scree littered vacant lots, whip grit like sunlight into your mouth and eyes, blinking and sputtering, as quickly gone.
“Hey, look,” I said, to the craning ghost gums, to no one in particular. It was the colour of watered down honey, interleaved with the fading, dismayed black of dawn, scything determinedly in that sideways way along the bright, mercenary vee of the new-cast gutter.
Serpenting along, I thought. As if the road were its mother.
It was a matter of a few lengthened steps to overtake, for my shadow to bestride it. I scrabbled a red plastic lunch box from my side-slung canvas satchel, peeled off the translucent yellow lid. Flung away a gleaming red apple, the lank slather of of a mortadella sandwich, into the slaughterman’s field, a prize for sleek crows or broken horses, and with one sure but careful encirclement of the snake’s nape, scooped it.
“There is no one left in the world,” it said, looking at me in wise chagrin, tongue flickering over river-pebbled lips, peering from below the half closed lid.
“That’s a nonsense,” I replied, bringing the box closer, to better see the needling, night-lit eyes. “I can see traffic, ahead, I can see the shapes of people.”
“Shapes only, you have stepped sideways. Let me go, and step back. It smells like death and mustard in here. Lettuce and mayonnaise. Pah. Let me go. My mother will be mad.”
“You cost me an apple. And a sandwich that my mother made. I am taking you for show and tell. I shone my shoes. Though they hurt. I shone them.”
“Let me go. My mother made the world. I will give you a pepper tree. I will tell the sun my father to calm his fury.”
“Shhhhhh. I don’t like pepper.” I closed the lid, and held the box close to my chest, and late, ran for school, the still low morning sun still blazing across the watery hide of the Goonoo Goonoo road, the cattle trucks gnashing chrome bright masks, I flinging myself sideways from mouth-wide wheels, almost invisible, into the grit and talc of disgorged brick dust that snaked the verge. I thought; as if that hard, fixed river had on each side twinned rivers moving with that slow remora determination.
Where I fled, none saw; the snake in the box striking ineffectually with upraised perfect fangs against the slick, impenetrable surface, at each enfilading scatter of my heart.
“What sort of child are you?” Mrs Smith asked. I could see in the ghost against the distant dun and blue beyond the window glass, tears had turned the dust on my face into a warning. A claw scraped tiger’s mask.
She was the shape of an old and I’ll-manicured rose. Leaves long curled to husks. Obsidian chips for eyes. Her mouth a long healed wound. Gnarled, grained, bereft, for fast fingers, a cat’s knotted whip cords. I heard her thinking, “How does one beat such a child?”
“ Sorry, Miss. Fell over.” Safely at school, amongst the fast eroding bricks, the colour of broken bottles and dried blood, embedded in the alien surface, like hard watchful eyes, glassy, concave inclusions, people, buildings, the town, could, almost, see me again.
“The Vikings used ice for windows,” she was saying, with the stridency of fraught but determined certitude. “There are runic marks on the rocks in Sydney Cove, so it is thought they came here long before Captain Cook.”
“That’s a nonsense, Miss.” it was the favourite thing I had learned in school; that one person’s harboured absolutes were another’s nonsense. That repeating the phrase, so often repeated to me, was a way of cutting through the obstinate veneer. On the desk, the snake in the lunch box said, “Bravissimo.”
“Shhhhh!” I said, putting my hand on the lid, the shadowed Ouroboros shape circling within.
“If you are eating in class, I expect you have enough for everyone.”
“Let’s see what you do have, then.” She came striding forward, like a cavalry charge. Cannonade heels, eyes like Medusa, hair flailing, grabbed the box, held it down against the desk, perhaps, in case it escaped. With that invasive, indrawn vacuum sound, of necessity’s abhorrent breath, tore up the lid.
She yelped. Quite empty. Marks like crimson eyes on the soft fore edge of her wrist.
“You stabbed me with a pencil.” Outrage, incredulous. Her mouth moving with a marionette’s jolting, imprecise stutter.
“I’ll die of lead poisoning!”
“That’s a nonsense, Miss.”
The slap came with that God-like fury. Tears, laughter, silence sting. Suddenly sideways through the world. I closed up the box and ran.
By the ordure grimed trap of the slaughter yard’s mazy railed marshalling corral, my chest caught me up in a demand of roaring. Somewhere I had thrown away my shoes. The road was following me. I could see it in the distance, raising up, writhing. The snake in the box against my chest said, “Time to go home, our mother’s calling.”
“I killed her. Mrs Smith. I can never go home.”
“You didn’t kill her. She has just about as much life as she always had. You stepped sideways, little brother. Think of it as a dance. You cannot unstep. Here, I’m hungry. Give me your wrist.”
It suckled for a while.
After, a sate purchase on its lips, it sidled into the yard’s litter of bones and Paterson’s Curse. An apple core’s mangled hourglass. Against my forehead’s irrationed heat, through dry weeds, a breeze still singing.
Before vanishing in sand and scree, the serpent looked back, over broad imagined shoulders, and whispered – something I did not quite hear – something like a winter wind caught in a chimney’s hollow breast.
I plunged my head into the algal stain of a half-barrel concrete trough, mica flickering on the surface, and underneath, thinking; here is where the condemned drink. Shoulders, collar wet. It was cooling, nevertheless.
Heading home. A moth abroad, confused by my moon brightness, deflected from my chest. Fell with bent wings to rust borne earth. Stunned or dead. Misadventure, I thought; am I then an act of god? The penultimate act.
In the near distance are the hunched shapes of clapboard and asbestos houses. Somewhere beyond, the desperate, leaning shards of red brick.
I think; the world is stretched thin. There are monsters. I am at the precipice. About to fall.
The world here is desperately empty.