Man and Beast: Snake Dog

 

Book cover: Man & Beast, edited by Andrew Rule

 

Man and Beast, a collection of essays by various contributors including Anson Cameron, Tony Wilson and John Harms has just been released. Here is Anson’s piece:

 

 

Snake Dog

by Anson Cameron

 

The old man called me into his office and told me we were buying a horse. Something I could learn to ride on. He’d found a mare in Stock & Land and rung the owner and arranged to go for a test ride on the thing, he said. Come on, a lunchtime excursion. Dad was wearing his aubergine business suit. He pulled on his RMs and we got into his HD ute and drove out past the north edge of town to the 10-acre hobby farms of Bathurst burr, car bodies and lone sheep with Christian names.

We pulled up at a yellow brick veneer with a weed yard. The horse was right alongside the house in a treeless paddock. A lean chestnut mare. She looked sparky, alert. We whistled her up with a handful of lucerne and I fed her through the fence as Dad got the saddle from the ute. He cinched it tight and began to ride her around the paddock.

I stood whacking the fence wires with a stick, Jimi Hendrix on a colossal five-string. I stopped when I saw the horse’s owner peeking from behind his blinds, watching Dad kick her to a canter and test her flightiness by throwing his hand in front of her eyes. A lot of people were wary of talking to lawyers, broad daylight, face-to-face. They thought it might cost them—money or dignity, they knew not which—but somehow it would cost. So I understood why the guy didn’t come outside. His horse was being ridden by a legal eagle in an aubergine suit. No need to get involved in that.

Dad rode the chestnut mare clockwise and counter-clockwise round her small paddock, taking her through all the gaits. She moved like she was auditioning for a life of wide spaces, hills, the bush, dawn journeys. He unsaddled her and I gave her an apple and we drove away with me wiping her slobber off my palm onto my bare thigh. He was impressed with the horse, though the owner was shifty. The horse was at least two years older than advertised. ‘I could see the guy watching us from inside his house,’ I said.

‘Did he look shifty?’ Dad asked. ‘Furtive,’ I said.

‘Furtive.’Dad rolled the word round his mouth. The furtive are a favourite hors d’oeuvre of lawyers.

When we got back to his office, Dad phoned the owner and told him his horse was okay, she might do the trick, she was older than he’d said, of course, but she had a light mouth and wasn’t skittish.‘How … like … how would you know that?’ the guy asked. ‘We  came out just now and rode her,’ Dad said. ‘You must have been out.’ He winked at me.

‘Not my horse, you didn’t,’ the guy said. ‘I been with my horse all day.’

Dad had got the wrong address and saddled up some stranger’s horse. Had ridden some citizen’s pet … put the steed of some housebound innocent through its paces.

These years later I still see that guy peeking out from behind his blinds. What did he think we were? Joyriders? People who stole horses a quarter-hour at a time? How did he explain us to his missus? ‘A guy in a purple suit saddled up Joybelle and rode her round the paddock today.’

‘Bullshit.’

‘True. Canter, trot, gallop, like … I don’t know … maybe he’s driving past and wondering how she rides, so he pulls over and he rides her to see if his speculations is on the money. Just curious.’

‘And you didn’t stop him?’

‘I told you … he was wearing a purple suit.’

Next day we drove north again and Dad rode the advertised horse. It was thick-coated, thickset, and looked like it should  be pulling a bucket, working underground. The sort of horse to make a prospective buyer umm and ahh and grimace. Given the umms and ahhs and grimaces, the woman there said she’d throw in a puppy. Her Australian terrier bitch had just had a litter of puppies. Terriers of tangled genealogy, Dad called them. Which she winced at, but he said was most Australian. He got me to choose one while he bought the horse. We gave the pup to my sister Vicki as a birthday present. She cooed over it, named it Bindi, bathed it once or twice, and then left home.

I never had a dog of my own. Legally bound to me—naming rights and feeding duties. Bindi was an absent sister’s dog. She probably didn’t know that, but she was. And a bitch. We didn’t care for each other early on. Who, with any male dignity, with any plans to hunt mega-fauna and track Navajo, would want a puny, female dog as sidekick? She smelled my disapproval, but began to tag along on my expeditions when she learned there would be blood, speedy getaways, warm things falling from the sky.

We lived out of town on the Goulburn River, in snake country. The first serpent she engaged was a large eastern brown on our doorstep at night. Enough poison there to kill a congregation or a Samoan. By the time I answered her squeals they were joined.

I was to learn that if you could catch her in the early phase, while she was circling the serpent wailing, being drawn closer by the vortex of her bloodlust, you could snatch her up and stop the fight, save the snake … or dog. But there’s  no way to unlock     a snake and canine once they’re fully involved. It’s personal by then, and you’ll be bitten by either or both for interfering. Bindi soon got a lock on it behind its head and shook it lifeless. And was thereafter hooked on battle. Tiger snakes, brown snakes, black snakes … and one blue snake.

Wolves don’t attack bears front on. Jackals don’t latch onto lions. A cougar avoids a rattler. Snakes flee from all things. Nature is circumspect. You think a leopard swaggers and hums the ‘Eroica’ on its rounds? It proceeds like Stalin’s proctologist— gently, gently, any slip death. Each wild beast throbs with the knowledge of its own fragility.

Not a terrier. They are impervious to prudence. We have bred prudence from a terrier’s brain. The sensible were spayed. The peaceniks were neutered. We have crossed kamikazes with cra- zies and enticed the foolhardy to fornicate with the hotheaded. We have made a canine Scotsman. These small dogs are a type of homicidal lemming. One does not expect to see a country terrier with a trim of whitened fur around its muzzle. Geriatricism is as rare, to them, as honesty to a cat.

She was bred to play a charging Capulet to slithering Montagues, a snarling Hatfield to hissing McCoys. No other role and no chance of peace. A snake is a peaceable creature. It doesn’t want to fight a dog. But she couldn’t not. She was a duellist. Everything on the line every time. You only ever lose one duel.

She fought many snakes.The rebel yells calling up her courage, before the silence of battle. Each time, afterwards, Dad would scratch her neck and say, ‘You won’t make old bones.’ He was saying it for me to hear.

One summer day I jumped onto the front seat of a car that had been years abandoned in the bush near our place. Alongside me was a massive tiger snake, curled, head raised, leaning back ready to punch forward. Its back was iridescent blue, sparking sun like a badass Harley. I was a skinny boy wearing footy shorts. Bindi came in through the driver’s door across my lap. No cir- cling, no overtures; blue chrome scales and black and tan fur and screech and hiss. I was out in the dry leaves swearing when that war finished.

She came to me and lay at my feet. Was she sedating as the adrenaline ebbed from her? Or being put out by neurotoxins?    I was still on a combat high, my voice loud and my sentences full of ‘fuck’. Fuck this and fuck that and Jesus Fucking Christ  a tiger big as a fucking Harley. When I came down I lay beside her and scratched her belly. She was just tired. By now I realised that the snake that got her got us, so I told her, ‘We won’t make old bones.’

In the afterglow of adrenaline there was always a brief season of serenity. I came to expect it, to wait for it and relish it. A sur- prising fifteen minutes where we lay zonked in the dry leaves and stared at the sky, her tucked under my arm and the sun hot on us. Hideous Death had taken its shot and fallen short, and I felt dreamily immortal, as if all big battles would be won. Lying there I’d even feel a tinge of sorrow for the dead thing, and this sorrow was the sapphire set in the crown of survival. We pitied the fallen. There but for the grace of God … These were our closest moments. These little pools of serenity after the adrenal high of battle. We had waged soldierly campaigns and our cause was just. I’d    fallen in love with a thing that had a terminal addiction.

Dad and I walked miles of bush calling her name, longingly, angrily, half-heartedly. You only ever lose one duel. She’d lost hers. I forked my fingers and whistled whistles as artful as prayer out through the box forest, hoping to reincarnate her. Knowing the whole time if she could come she would have come by now. Hack her kennel to kindling. Chuck her collar to the back of the outside cupboard among the junk. Hard to kill a missing dog, though. For long weeks the bush around our place held her live presence. And I whistled her when there was no one else around to hear.

Until, two summer months later while riding my bike, I glimpsed a swatch of jerked hide wearing telltale tufts of black and tan in the table drain by the wooden bridge over the Sevens Creek. I turned away so it never got to be more than that.        A glimpse. A question. Not an answer. I told no one.

Because … because great warriors die in combat. Great beings wander off to an elephants’ graveyard and sink slowly to the earth, their tasks fulfilled. They don’t lie in ditches with their backs broken by Monaros. Bindi wasn’t knocked over by a car. Bindi lies coiled in the infinitely ribbed helix skeleton of her enemy. Its throat is in her jaws, its fangs in her hide, and the fur-raising frisson of battle sings in her young bones.

 

This is an extract from Man & Beast (MUP, RRP $29.99, eBook $13.99), an anthology edited by Andrew Rule, available now from https://www.mup.com.au/items/198605.

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