He was a young boy who lived in a shack in the bush and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a snake. The five of them lived in the shack: the boy, his mother, his brother and his two sisters. It was very hot and the children played in the dust while the woman washed up inside. There was bush all around, with hills like red kangaroos in the distance. On most days the boy looked out there for a snake, and on other days he looked out there for something else, but he didn’t like to think about that.
“Say, Nick,” his brother said.
The boy took a swig from the tin cup of water and wiped his lips with back of his hand.
“I saw somethin’ move over there. Across the creek and into the trees.”
“Sure you did.”
“Sure, Nick. Sure. I didn’t mean nothin’.” His brother grinned nervously. The boy waited a moment, shrugged, and went round the corner of the house. The snake was basking in the sun. It was black, and long and looked up at him. The boy swore, without heat, and took two slow steps backward. There was a stick on the ground they had been using to play ‘soldier’s home’ and he squatted down to reach for it.
“Snake, Ma! Here’s a snake!” It was his brother. A moment later the woman appeared, highball in hand. She might have been pretty once, but she was not pretty now.
“What have we here?” she said.
“Oh, cut it out,” he said. “You know what it is. Let me kill it.”
“Alligator!” the woman called.
“He’d let me kill it,” the boy said.
The woman looked amused.
“He’s not here,” she said.
The dog came round the corner. It was a yellow dog, scarred and old. The boy loved it with a terrible, secret love, and now he was afraid for it, and ashamed of his fear. The dog growled and snapped at the snake, and the snake disappeared under the house.
“Well, isn’t this too wonderful,” the woman said.
“Would you do something for me now?” the boy asked.
“I’d do anything.”
“Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”
It was now dinner-time and they were all sitting around the kitchen table pretending that nothing had happened. It was a clean, well lighted place and from its windows you could see the clouds gathering.
“I’m going to lie awake all night and smash that God damned snake,” the boy said.
“How many times have I told you not to swear?” the woman said. She put the children into bed.
The boy had his club with him under the bedclothes.
“Ma, Nick’s skinning me alive with his club. Make him take it out."
"Shut up you little louse! Do you want to be bit with the snake?"
Jacky shut up.
“If you get bit,” said the boy, after a pause, “you'll swell up, and smell, and turn red and green and blue all over till you bust.”
“Now then, don't frighten the child. Go to sleep,” the woman said and she went out of the room and fetched herself a tumbler of whiskey.
“Will you wake me if the snake comes out?” the boy said. He wondered if he had succeeded in keeping the pleading from his voice.
“Yes. Go to sleep,” the woman said. She blew out the candle. After a while Jacky said, “I can’t stand to think about her waiting in the room and knowing she’s going to get it. It’s too damned awful.”
“Well,” the boy said, “you’d better not think about it.”
He was awake. The dog was barking and the boy leapt up, grabbing his club. His mother struck at the snake, and the boy ran to help her, but she held him back. The boy knew then what guts meant; grace under pressure. She lifted the snake on the point of her stick and threw it in the fire and watched it burn. The boy and the dog watched too. After a moment he looked up at her, and saw the tears in her eyes.
“Mother, I’ll never go droving. To hell with me if I do.”
The dog raised his ears.
“Yes,” she said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
And she embraced him and kissed him as the sickly sun rose.
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