Newcastle Herald short story competition finalist 2018: Original Sin

WORTH 1000 WORDS: Each day we will publish a finalist in the Herald short story
competition. The winner will be announced on January 27. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers
WORTH 1000 WORDS: Each day we will publish a finalist in the Herald short story competition. The winner will be announced on January 27. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

BRETT lacked the will to drive any further. He looked around. Rolling hills, the river bending round empty paddocks. Not a single house in sight.

He opened the passenger door. The bag lay on the floor of the car. There was no sign of life. What had that old woman muttered? Some crap about the devil incarnate? He hated the way she’d judged him. She’d opened the front door and taken in his shaved head, worn jeans and boots. Looked at him as if he was something disgusting she’d found stuck to the sole of her shoe.

And afterwards, she’d refused to pay his call-out fee. As though his time, and his life were worth nothing.

The bag rippled.

You weren’t the only one, mate.

He’d hated being inside her house too. The weight of the old-fashioned furniture, the clutter on the mantelpiece, the musty curtains suffocating the light. They all reminded him of the house where he’d spent his childhood. His grandmother had embroidered several verses from Genesis about how the serpent tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. She’d nailed her framed handiwork to the wall of his bedroom, where it hung like a guilty verdict over his head.

It was as though she blamed him, an innocent child, for what had happened to her daughter. As if he’d been the one who’d got her into trouble. As if he was responsible for her death. His grandmother never used her wooden spoon for baking. Only to beat him like a dirty carpet, to drum out the dust of original sin.

Perhaps that’s why he’d always found it hard to get on with women. Some girls at school had been cruel and laughed in his face when he’d summoned up the courage to ask them out. But later he’d met Jules. At first, he’d taken something she’d said as a put-down. But when he saw the light dancing in her eyes, he realised she was just having fun. They’d gone out for ages and then things got serious. Right up until the day he found out she was sleeping with one of his mates.

Since then, he’d preferred to spend his time with animals. Word soon got around that he had a gift for healing. Farmers rang him when they found a bird with a broken wing or saw a barn owl chick abandoned in a shed. But most of all, he loved reptiles. He had a pet python which ate the rats and mice which ventured into his roof space and was often called out to remove snakes which had strayed into places where they didn’t belong.

The old lady had rung him in a panic that morning. She’d seen a brown snake in her bedroom and it had disappeared under her bed.

Brett turned up at her house with his snake catcher’s bag and hook. She’d led him down the hallway and stopped outside a closed bedroom door. She’d taken his advice and wedged a bath towel in the crack beneath the door.

He slowly swung the door open and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dim light inside the room.

“Can you turn the light on, please?”

He heard a metallic click, then a cone of yellow light fell on to the double bed.

Brett knelt down, lifted the floral bedspread and peered under the bed. There were a couple of dusty suitcases and several plastic boxes stored underneath. He pulled them out one by one and placed them on top of the bed. No sign of the snake there. Where else could it be? Behind the wardrobe, under the dressing table?

He stood and watched. Waiting.

There! The snake had poked its small dark head out from the floor-length cloth which the old woman had draped over a bedside table. Careful not to startle it, he moved slowly towards the snake then pinned its head on to the polished floorboards. Bending down, he grabbed its tail. Picking up the bag with his other hand, he manoeuvred the metre-long snake inside, then securely tied the top.

“The sooner you kill that thing, the better. My Frank would have whacked it with a shovel until he made damn sure it was dead.”

It was as though she blamed him, an innocent child, for what had happened to her daughter. As if he’d been the one who’d got her into trouble.

Brett looked at her with empty eyes. “I take any snakes I catch out into the bush and release them where they can do no harm.” Her lips pursed. “Nasty, vicious creatures. They don’t deserve a second chance.”

The trouble was that people like her didn’t understand snakes. They were brainwashed to think of them as evil and aggressive, whereas all any brown snake wanted to do was to feed, find a mate and reproduce. The only crime this snake had committed was being caught in the wrong place.

He thought about what his grandmother had told him. He’d been in the breech position and his mother had laboured for hours at home before his grandmother finally relented and took her to the nearest hospital. She had an emergency caesarean. He lived. She died. The coroner said her death was a misadventure, but that didn’t stop his grandmother from blaming him.

The bag heaved as the snake struggled to find a way out. Brett reached down and picked up the bag. He untied it then laid it gently on the grass. The snake emerged, flicked its tongue then slid across the verge before disappearing into the long grass.

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