The Serpent

Originally published in The Wrong Quarterly

Foster’s Bend, Vic.

Dad took us to the party, out along the Ballarat road in his red car. It was Australia Day weekend, 2002, and hard to know whether he was being helpful or just overprotective. We listened to the radio and people talked in raised voices about whether we should be concerned terrorists might bomb our Australia Day events.

My boyfriend was a Politics major, so I asked him: ‘Should we be worried about it?’ and he said no, we definitely shouldn’t, so I didn’t. Just sat there in the back seat and let him curl his long fingers around mine.

The roadside was burnt crisp, dry paddocks all around us. Dad had the aircon on but the road was scorched, bits of tar all melting and birds getting their feet stuck right in it. People drove around them for the most part but there were cars coming down the other lane so sometimes they got cleaned up, heads clipped right off.

We were headed to Foster’s Bend, three hours west of Melbourne in the valley behind Ballarat. He was a scout, my boyfriend. Nick the Scout. Everyone who went to that private college got chucked out the other end a Scout and a Cadet and a Dickhead. He had packed a small tent and a propane stove and a steel frypan he said he’d taken on his school’s trip to Nepal (where their tiny plane had nearly flown into a mountainside with him in it, and wasn’t that something compared to my school trip, which was only riding camels in the outback?). We had pancake mix and condoms and a little foil packet he had hidden in the space between his sock and his toes.

Dad didn’t like him. Kept peering into the back seat and looking at our fingers twisted together.

The party was Scorched Earth — three days of roughing it in the great Australian wilderness. We’d done a trial run the year before, spent one night turning glow sticks under UV lights in a suburban forest. It wasn’t my scene; I was a black-coat, eyeliner, big boots girl but I liked this guy, and getting munted in the countryside was part of the deal.

After two hours on the road, we bounced over a stock grid and Dad’s car bottomed out. Foster’s Bend wasn’t a place at all, just a wide field with clusters of browned trees. ‘You’re sure you want to be here?’ dad said, and I wasn’t but our mates were there, then, with beers in their hands and fisherman’s pants slung low on their hips. A thousand thirsty strangers determined to grind against each other in a dust bowl.

Dad’s face was pinched.

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Of course.’

And he left, surely wondering if he he’d never see me again, if I’d be lost to the party and the squares of acid.

A creek ran through Foster’s Bend. Started somewhere near the road and curled down into the belly of the party, out again through the cattle gates and the horse troughs. Our friends had set up camp near the fence. A dozen tents with people falling out of them, circles of their dads’ folding chairs. Nick wanted to be further away. He said you couldn’t feel the music properly if you were all bunched in like that, said the polyamide fabric blocked the vibrations. He wanted to set up our tent close to the water, but not too close. If it rained, the water would come barrelling through and we might not get out in time, might just get carried off into the wilderness.

‘That won’t happen,’ I said, and he said, ‘Don’t be naïve.’

The sky was broad, cloudless. But he was a Scout and I was only a Camel Rider, so we pitched under a tea-tree and in the afternoon a fire truck came around and hosed us off, handed out scoops of frozen ice in paper cups.

‘What do we do now?’ I said.

‘Wait for the party to start,’ he said, so we zipped the tent and fucked in our own sweat until the sun went down.

Melbourne, Vic.

Dad sat on his couch and watched a documentary about Queen. Brian May standing in front of a hundred thousand people at Wembley Stadium, playing guitar as though his friend had not just died. He picked up his phone and pressed the numbers. Knew I was out of range but dialled anyway, watched Roger Taylor on the television. Worried about the psytrance and the rain.

Foster’s Bend, Vic.

I hadn’t known any of them long. Nick lived in a Fitzroy warehouse. Not the fancy converted kind with loft ceilings, but an actual factory with site offices around the top and a void between. He slept in a box attached to the ceiling, and each night we climbed a vertical ladder and slapped skin to the ring of the Nicholson Street tram.

It seemed far away, now, under the hot bloat of the mid-summer night.

We sat for a while in the mouth of the tent, watching the people in their microcosms. Their pants were loose and from them they had hung feathers, beads, jewels, bits of silver mechanism. The really serious ones had thick dreadlocks, some tied back with another bit of dreadlock, suspended there. They walked with their hips first, legs stretching away from their bodies like backward-kneed birds.

In the late evening we went down into the marketplace. A few stalls had emerged in a half-circle, one of the dreadlocked men stirring a vat of dhal at its centre, seasoning the lentils with his sweat. A friend of Nick’s came over and we split a bowl of noodles between the three of us, took a couple of beers out of the friend’s small cooler and clinked them together. The sun dropped low. Shot its red fingers out to grab us. The air was warm and wet.

At 11pm the music started. We found a spot in a teepee, stared into the fairy lights that rose into the ceiling. Nick had a joint and we passed it between us, our lips dry on the paper. A guy we knew brought out a pair of pois and the flames looped in their infinite revolutions, catching the tips of the burnt grass, and another guy followed close behind to stamp out the spot fires.

At midnight he took the foil package from his shoe: two blue dolphins in relief, scored on the back. He took one pill and washed it back. I watched his throat move as he swallowed, felt his hand under my thigh.

The heat did not shift. When we moved, our skin peeled slick from the next person’s. People kicked up the dust as they danced, drew shapes in the sky with fluorescent green plastic. Nick’s body churned next to mine, his skin lit up in goosebumps and his jaw clamped.

‘Having fun?’ I said, voice dull behind the music, and he nodded and his eyes had never been open so wide. He rubbed my hands between his. Pushed my hair away from my face. Stared right at me and said, ‘I love you so much,’ then said it again to the next person before I’d decided whether to say it back.

The music was everywhere. None of the earth sounds, the bird calls or the slap of the water in the riverbed. Not even our own breath; just the music shaking our bones with its black-lit fists.

When dawn broke we went down to the makeshift market with its hemp wallets and vegan food carts. Breakfast was pita with chickpeas, or fake-on with duck eggs. We bought two omelettes and ate with our backs against a wire fence, watching the clouds. He was edgy, nervous, angry. I went for his hands but he yanked them away. We didn’t speak, just breathed our egg-breath until our mates came and someone made coffee, fried real bacon in the Scout skillet.

‘Clouds look nasty,’ someone said.

Nick breathed his pained air. ‘I said this would happen. I said it.’ His skin was electric, hair standing on end in the hot morning.

Melbourne, Vic.

Dad stood on the verandah with tea in his hand. Across the hills, clouds gathered in their dark watercolours. The wind had hardened and it skated over him. He licked his finger; its direction had changed. Charging south-west in its armoured plates. He dialled the numbers again, held the phone close to his cheek.

Foster’s Bend, Vic.

In the daylight it was a village of sorts, a quadrangle of handmade marquees with decorations we’d later decry as cultural appropriation: feathers and warhorns and dream catchers with glass beads. Those of us who weren’t coming down attended sessions in the craft tent. We sat in circles on the hard dirt and wove baskets out of dried grass, smoked hash oil from a silver pipe. Our instructor filled clay bowls with lentils and we bought hats made from polyester animal fur, lay on our backs and blew cigarette smoke and pointed at the shapes it made.

A girl from the warehouse sat next to me. Someone Nick had dated once. I remembered her from the New Years’ party, her slender fingers and clipped nails, the way they wrapped around a needle.

‘Hey,’ she said, fingers going round and round. She stitched purple ears to a cat-shaped hat, pulled it hard on to her skull and wheezed out a laugh. ‘Sewing, right? Fuck.’ She took a resin cigarette case from her bra, pinched the dart firm between her lips. I took my basket and left her there in the haze.

The morning was long and slow. People moved as though through liquid, trailing their trinkets and their primal hairdos. Laughter caught on pockets in the air but fell again, heavily into the dirt. They whispered, hummed, meditated. A child clung tight to a spider web net. A couple fought at the edge of the forest. The dhal man grunted under his rotating workload.

I took my basket back to the tent, unravelled Nick from his foetal position. His hands were like claws, closed tight into fists. I tried to pull them open, stretch out his fingers so I could loop them into mine.

‘Where are the others?’ I said, and he looked right into me and said, ‘Hiding.’

I lay next to him, stroked the skin on the back of his neck with my fingernails. Outside, magpies called to one another with their throats full of marbles, back and forth across the creek. I leaned into his erratic breaths, expelled against their will. He smelled of sweat and fire and ash.

I rubbed his back with one hand, pulled open the tent flap with the other. The day was blue and cloudy, almost buoyant in its white baubles, but the wind had picked up a bit and people were scrambling, hammering their pegs back in with their hair in their faces.

In the distance, the low caw of thunder. The grey came quickly across the sky. Swept there from some godly painting. Grey and black and purple, a great developing bruise. Nick’s body shook, pulled in closer to itself, bunched away in the corner of the tent with its head against the hard earth, skin spitting with panicked electrics.

‘I told you,’ he said with his teeth closed.

‘You scouts,’ I said, but he wasn’t laughing, and the sky became black as the crevice of night, and summer cracked right open and it rained.

People danced in it, at first. That was their natural response to things, to find the music in them. The ground turned to clay and then to mud, and when the lightning came it lit up the dance floor to admire its reflection.

The creek filled with water, pulsed and dashed and throbbed with it, and the dancing stopped, and we stood on the banks that had turned into mudslides and watched the tents wash away into the fields, one after another like a morose lantern festival.

‘See?’ Nick said. ‘I fucking told you,’

Then a guy was shouting, standing in the burgeoning river with his arms waving in the air. He had lost everything, they said, all his stuff zipped into this temporary boat that could be in Ararat by now. Nick’s eyes moved so fast, flickered, wide as moons.

‘I jinxed it,’ he said. It’s my fault his stuff got washed away.’

‘That makes no sense.’

‘He’s gonna be so pissed when he finds out.’

He dug into his pack and found a fresh jumper, boiled tea on the propane stove with his claw hands. We found the guy who’d lost his stuff and invited him to sit in our tent city, apologised because we’d smoked all the good cigarettes, but someone had swapped a pill for a couple of packs of Marlboro Reds, and we burned our throats with them.

The ground was mud. Across the field, the music started again and we danced right there by our tents, barefoot and paranoid.

Melbourne, Vic.

Dad pushed a towel against the door. It had been that way for ages, water coming in underneath. In the summer storms it swelled and wouldn’t open, fat and wet inside its architraves.

Foster’s Bend, Vic.

‘Where’s Piotr?’

A crowd had gathered, then, by the cattle grid. Dirty faces. Teeth ground down to their roots, nerves exposed. It was restless, moved as one entity as though powered by the music that still beat away down the hill. Under the storm it was impossible to tell one person from the next. Their chewed skin looked the same. Floodlights cast the falsehood of daylight across the camp.

‘Where did you last see him?’ A pitched, woman’s voice.

‘Wasn’t he in the tent with you?’ Two men talking at once.

‘I thought he went to the basket thing.’ That one was familiar, somebody’s housemate.

Speculation danced around us. Accusation, too, between the words. People looking into the trees, at the way their branches wove together, the way a person could be lost in them. No one talked about the water in the creek. At the elbow, where it turned out to the paddocks, the banks had burst. Water up to our ankles. I thought of the fire engine spraying us, the way it hadn’t penetrated the dry earth at all.

‘Let’s split up.’

They were all off their faces, or had been, but they disappeared into the cracks in the wilderness and his name shot around, the sing-song note of it betraying the fact of his missing.

Piotr had been wearing a blue jacket, someone said. No, a green jacket. A jacket, though, or maybe a jumper. No one could remember if it had buttons or a zip, or maybe it had both. He’d taken his phone with him, they said. It was going straight to voicemail, but maybe that was just because the reception was so bad, or maybe it had fallen from his pocket into the water.

Each of them had the answers, and none of the answers. They bickered and shouted. Someone cried and two others put their arms around her. None of them had names, just faces I had seen in the Fitzroy warehouse in the early hours of a different day.

‘Let’s split up,’ a couple of voices said at once, and the laughter was awkward and then we were separated. We looked through the night and into the morning, and I tried to focus on looking but he wasn’t my friend, just a friend of a friend of a friend, and the wet grass was sharp on my skin and the countryside suffocating. Others had been awake for two days and they paused to cut lines of meth on mirrored compacts, pushed forward through their post-nasal drip. In the post-storm morning, the sun broke apart and it was electric and it set the city of tents ablaze.

‘Do we call the police?’ someone said, and they murmured and dispersed and did not call the police. Nick clung to his own body, drawn out tight as a string bean. The basket weaver’s van pulled away from the village. The labne woman folded away her wares. On the paddock across the way, sheep began to move.

‘They’re going to kick us out,’ I said.

‘Out? We’re not anywhere.’

‘Everyone’s leaving.’

‘I have to look for him. It’s my fault. The rain, the river.’

‘The others will call if there’s news.’

He blinked. ‘There’s no reception.’ And he was gone, pale and dusty back into the bush.

I got a lift in someone else’s car, a blue Ford with McDonald’s wrappers for carpet. We stopped in Beaufort. Bought real cigarettes from a shady milkbar and smoked them under the war memorial. The rain had passed, left behind its muddy shimmer, its snail trail.

Melbourne, Vic.

Dad took me for pizza. I didn’t tell him Piotr was missing, but it was in the paper anyway. Afterwards I left my phone in the drawer by my bed, watched TV with the volume right up.

Nick came home a couple of days later, hitched a ride on a party bus. He sat with me on the back step at his parents’ house and threw stones into their fishpond, and said, ‘I don’t think this is going to work out.’ I wondered if he’d ever hit one, ever clocked a goldfish in its eyeball.

Foster’s Bend, Vic.

The call about Piotr came that night. The creek got him, the winding, unsteady water. They found him downstream with his face in the mud, music in his bones.

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