My freedom from certain fears does not include tolerance of snakes. From infancy my elders implanted in me: their own fear of these reptiles and it took root and grew to an unconquerable revulsion. Even pictured snakes horrify me; the presence of one where I could not escape it would surely reduce me to a paralyzed jelly in terror. Today in areas where snakes are not known the slightest rustle in grass or underbrush will cause me involuntarily to spring away from it.
‘Dear me, what a state your nerves must be in!’ someone will remark, but it is merely that revulsion has become a reflex action.
Ours was not a snake-infested region, though in summer a week would seldom pass without seeing one or sometimes several. Those acquainted with Lakes Cargelligo and Illilliwah and such inland areas would reminisce of innumerable snakes. Thousands would be slaughtered without perceptible decrease, so that one wondered what they lived on, for they are not discredited as cannibals. It must have been hard on the frogs. I am thankful that I have not had to reside in those parts of the continent where pythons or carpet-snakes are valued as mice-killers and kept in storerooms as pets. A Queensland girl friend told me she was so fond of her carpet-snake that when she found it coiled on a flourbag in its residential quarters she would stroke it in passing as one does a cat. Our north is afflicted with the taipan, whose deadliness is increased by his aggressiveness, and fills me with terror of going to those fair regions.
Ours were of the shy variety, clever as conjurors in disappearing. They never attacked unless molested or cornered. I know of few horses or dogs that died by their fangs and fewer human beings who have been bitten. When picnicking we’d sometimes find their last year’s sheath, a complete replica, even to scales and eyes, in what looked like cellophane. So unrelaxing was the war against snakes that the settlers would nearly tear their houses down to dislodge one from the foundations or the eaves where they liked to take refuge. It was disconcerting to see a snake’s head come through a crack in the veranda or protrude beside your legs if sitting on its edge. A settler near us one day saw a deadly tiger-snake extrude its head onto the doorstep, whereupon she got the carving fork and firmly spitted him to the board. The reptile coiled around her aIm but she kept the head nailed through a roasting summer afternoon till her husband returned from work to rescue her. Every man’s hand was so against the poor creatures that it would be said of a no-account character, ‘That fellow, he’d let a snake get away!’
Many women were courageous and adept in snake-killing and kept a snake-stick at hand. This was often a sucker, that had sprouted tough and supple from a stringybark or gum stump, with a knobby end to smash the delicately articulated spine of the snake. One of my aunts, finding herself in the entrance hall when a snake came to call, took the loaded shotgun which stood in the comer ready for orchard or chicken marauders, and blew the intruder to pieces on the hardwood floor and found it very like an exploded fish. Even land snakes are good swimmers and undulate through the water with the same ease and grace as on land. Once a hunted snake at Bobilla* escaped past me down a slope in such wide curves that he was almost straight and seemed to be gliding a foot above the ground without touching it.
Few snakes have been familiar. I have never had one in my hand, and could not bring myself to touch even a dead one. The only time I was touched by one was when hanging some laundry on the line. I felt something rubbing round my stockinged legs lightly as my pussy was in the habit of doing. I glanced down so as not to step on her and saw a long fat leaden-coloured snake. I sprang away with a screech that brought my father who was digging a bed in the flower garden. He killed the creature with his spade: ‘I never saw another snake act like it. It really seemed as if it wanted to be friendly. It neither slithered away nor showed fight. It seemed cowardly to kill the poor thing.’
On one of those soft dark summer nights without moon or stars in the sweet cool of the flat near the waterholes I trod on something the size of a hoe handle that was resilient, and my foot thus rudely spoiled the snake’s as well as my own sortie.
I had a lovely tabby cat adored by me and suffered by Mother till she became a menace. I had smuggled her to bed as a kitten, which was forbidden on the grounds of hygiene, but what child can resist the cuddlesome allurement of a kitten, or of a cat of any age? The most seductive and house-broken of all domestic animals, the only one who can command complete social equality with man. Ning loved the bush as much as I did. She took to roaming in it and to finding her own food there. She became a snake-killer, whether for sport or sustenance, who can say? For some time after reversion to type she would return through the window before dawn for a snooze on the foot of my bed. She occasionally saved a snake’s head for me. We had not guessed her proclivities till one morning I found the abhorrent object on the mat beside my bed. Articles in the papers had stated that the skeleton head of a snake could retain poison in the fangs and if stepped on by bare feet could have serious consequences. I would lie awake sick with fear of Ning’s approach lest when she inspected me by putting her face so close to mine that her whiskers tickled me and I could feel her breathing, she might deposit her odious trophy on me. I would close window and door on sweltering nights for safety.
Three snakes have prominence in my memories of Ajinby.* One day I chased a spotted butterfly to where it alighted on the apple blossoms. I bounded through clumps of garden escapes which contributed their share of colours statis, lupins, calliopsis, pincushions and many others. The orchard was in full bloom. An orchard so decked on a warm spring day is a heaven of beauty and perfume. My grandma’s was the most loveable orchard in the world, but it must await a later paragraph. The snake has priority in this. At the foot of the great apple-tree a snake was coiled like a whip with about a foot of the head upraised as straight as a walking-stick. I fled wildly and said nothing of the incident, for I was supposed to be studying my lessons on the veranda. Still I can see that snake in its dangerous attitude ready to strike. The only coiled snake in my experience outside of a zoo.
One day later during my farewell sojourn in paradise, my youngest aunt yielded to my plea to go for a walk to pick flowers. I had not outgrown the greedy desire of children to grab flowers suffocatingly in their fists. No native flower was then used in house decoration. Their elfin grace could not compete in favour with the imported riches of the garden plots. The cattle paddocks were bright with bloom, and, seeking variety, we followed one of our swiftly running home creeks, lovely as a fountain, through several fences to the hills. A big black snake lay full-length at his ease beside the water in the thin fringe of maIdenhair ferns that were sprouting after winter retreat. The creatures forked tongue flickered rapidly in and out, his new skin gleamed blue-black with peacock tints, a little of his underside was showing like blended scarlet and pomegranate. I stood a fascinated moment and fled to my aunt. She went back seeking the snake but it had dissolved leaving no trace.
The experience was not startling, merely surprising. Then why should that snake have persisted in my consciousness for over thirty years? As I have sat in some great congress in one of the major cities, or in a famous concert hall, or eaten green almonds on a terrace in Turin in the early morning, or worked amid the din of the Krupp guns on an Eastern battle front, or watched the albatrosses in stormy weather off Cape Agulhas, or have been falling asleep in an attic in Bloomsbury, that snake has still been stretched in the ferns beside the creek, motionless except for the darting tongue.
There came a day when the bone-ache for my birthplace was being sunk in the rapture of return. It was the last time I was to see the old place in family ownership with my uncle and aunt and some of his family in residence. My adored eldest maternal uncle (all my uncles were adored and adorable, though some slightly more so than others) and I were riding away from the homestead towards the four-mile gate. I reminded him how I had gone with him along that track on the occasion of a first. I was four and he had taken me for a ride for the first time without a bearing rein. I remember the brown pony I rode—yes, a pony for once, but she was quite thirteen hands, in fact a smallish graceful horse, easy and trustworthy.
‘Now, off I go and you follow!’ said Uncle, breaking into a brisk canter. I was disrupted at being left behind instead of riding level, and demurred.
‘Now, come on! You can’t fall off. Cling like a spider,’ cried Uncle.
‘We’ll have a race.’
Instantly I had a feeling of power and self-confidence. After that it was necessary to forbid me excessive speed.
I had reminded Uncle that a generation earlier, infant though I was, sartorial conventions had been strictly enforced. I then rode on a sidesaddle with my small form from the waist down encased in an adult’s riding skirt. It was dark blue of some soft woollen material, a souvenir of my young aunt’s governess. I felt noble and grand in it as the little girls do today in suburban streets as they play at visiting in their mother’s cast-off clothes. Shortly after this mother made me a habit of my own. It was of black serge. It had a tidy spare-cut jacket, braided, and the regulation skirt trimly to floor length, which had come in to replace the long flowing Queen Victoria equestrian robes. At the right side the skirt was enlarged for the knee to go over the pommel or horn exactly like the smartest models for grown-ups. This had to be held up with the right hand when dismounted. I was such an exact replica of Mother that my appearance to take my place on a full-sized horse never failed to excite astonished admiration from strangers. On this later day I wore shirt and breeches with top boots and sat astride.
I went doting and gloating on every rise and hollow of that cherished way that view where the river curves in a wide bend confined by the hills that lean on the sky. The voice of some mild rapids came from the distance. There Great-grandfather had first set his home. The funny old buzzard had disliked the river’s symphonic song as too noisy and moved farther up its banks to be quiet. I was filling with healing nectar. I wanted to get away by myself to indulge and savour emotions, releasing, relieving and beyond communication. This view had nothing to outmatch dawn in the tropics, with the verdure and colour of the volcanic islands rising above the ship, and the boom of the combers on the coral, once heard never to be forgotten; or the sky-line of New York challenging God and Nature and compelling obeisance from man, with the rising sun setting the glass in its arrogant towers aflame; nor the satisfaction of the spires of Oxford, the Cambridge Backs, of the dear familiar outlines of London filtered through racial consciousness since the Norman Conquest via our language and literature and direct parentage; nor the haunting mystery of the Giant’s Causeway and Glendalough; nor Paris irresistibly enticing, nor that petrified austere majesty of the Alps, of Rome, of Mt. Olympus. Yes, they are all a part of human consciousness; but this obscure view had something that watered existence with the more intimate ecstasy of possession.
‘Now,’ I announced, ‘I want to look at the creek where Aunt Alice and I walked when I was little and she a young girl in her teens.’
‘There’s no gate there now. You can’t get on the home track again from that corner.’
‘All right. I’ll just canter around and come back to you later.’
I sought the spot where the snake had lain in my memory for so long. The dense grove of the quick-growing brittle acacia, with a broad leaf, that loves watery ground, was gone. Brambles and underbrush had been cleared away. Sheep had succeeded the cattle and horses and cropped everything close. The place was bare and flat and unrecognizable; the creek was stripped of its exquisite shrubs, but it had not changed its course. That was the same as when it had turned the mill put on it by some of the forebears who otherwise had to grind wheat for their bread in a quern in the evening when they desisted from felling and grubbing and fencing to establish agriculture. But the spot I sought was actively in my mind and the new rabbit-proof fences followed the old lines so that I could be sure of it. And there was the snake! He lay in exactly the same position full-length in the sunlight on the right bank in the short grass, headed up-stream, motionless but for his forked tongue. His blue-black coat glistened in the sun, his carmined underside was partly discernible. It could have been the same creature lying there bewitched while I had travelled in far places from infancy to middle age. I was smitten to timelessness by something beyond my groping powers of expression. He lay supine. His fellow long ago had disappeared when I turned my back. I reined-in to consider him. There was no coverage as of old, the stream was naked. I sat. I could have sat till the snake thought fit to depart. But Uncle, having inspected a straying sheep, came on to see what was detaining me. The snake did not depart as I expected, as I had hoped. Uncle drew a girth from his saddle and dismounted.
‘Oh, Uncle! The poor creature! Let it go for old sake’s sake!’
‘You must have gone soft in London among the Pommies and Yanks,’ he laughed, as he skilfully mangled the snake.
‘No, it’s only that there was a snake there, in that position exactly, when I was tiny.’
‘You don’t think it would be the same one waiting for you to come back!’ remarked Uncle jovially. ‘Snakes are not travellers. You’ll always find them or their progeny in the same place year after year.’
We rode away, I mourning the snake, and his ancestor of long ago, which must now also be blasted from my consciousness, while Uncle related how he used to spring from his horse to seize a snake by the tail to break its back by cracking it like a whip. ‘I gave it up a few years ago when one came within a flash of getting me in the wrist. You lose your speed and suppleness after fifty.’
On the following afternoon I rode alone along the old tracks to join Uncle and there in the same direction lying in the sun was another black snake to complete the trio. A lethal stick was handy. I was a little too timid physically to be worthy of my relatives and upbringing: I apologized to the snake for what had happened to his contemporary on the previous day and was relieved to leave him undisturbed in enjoyment of his native earth, which he perhaps was worthier to infest than I.
This is an extract from Childhood at Brindabella: My First Ten Years, an autobiography by the late Miles Franklin (1879 – 1954)
* Talbingo, the homestead of Miles Franklin’s grandmother, Mrs. Oltmann Lampe.