For all the readers who have enjoyed my blog this year, and all those writers, illustrators and publishers who have so generously helped to make Feathers of the Firebird as interesting and informative as it can possibly be by giving of their time, expertise and experiences in fabulous interviews and guest posts, I’d like to thank you by offering a literary gift of mine for the festive season. And in the tradition of the season, which likes to weave in some delicious chills amongst the festive jollity, it’s a spooky story! Set amongst the pulsing heat of an Australian sub-tropical summer, this story, Mel, brings the shiver of ancient myth and legend into the everyday…
Enjoy! And very best wishes to all for a wonderful Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year and all other seasonal festivities!
by Sophie Masson ©
Every summer evening, we village kids used to meet down at the creek. Most days, you could strip off and have a swim, or if you didn’t feel like that, just lie on the grass and drink Coke out of paper cups, and talk. The creek was a great place, really private, with high banks and tall trees growing right to the edge of the water. All of us used to come–from the smallest Grant kid to Mary, my sister, who at 18, and apprenticed to a hairdresser in town, considered herself rather above us all.
Last summer was a really hot one, one which started early. A corrugated iron sky, a sunflare of white fire. A bit of a disaster for our parents, whose avocados and bananas were shrivelling up before they could be properly formed. A bit of a disaster for school, because the teachers were all as unpredictably shrill as cicadas. But a wonderful time for our creek meets, for in that place, the tall trees shaded us from the worse of the glare, and the water was always there, cool as a magpie’s call. We spent as much time as we could down there, eating huge slices of watermelon, drinking huge slices of watermelon, and talking our heads off. Sometimes the little kids would come and drip coldly on to us, and then run away, yelling with laughter, but it didn’t stop our talk. There was more than usual to talk about that summer. Well, the heat, and the strange feeling of heavy waiting in the air, and a tiny prick of danger at the thought of the snake.
We were used to snakes, we sub-tropical North Coast kids. Some of us even kept carpet snakes as pets. But the one we were talking about, then, was different. It had already bitten a couple of people,two middle-aged women from the surrounding area. Both had died. .
Taipan. One of the deadliest snakes in the world. Not supposed to live this far south, it wasn’t, but this one had somehow found its way. It had bitten its second victim one hot night, as she walked barefoot over the grass to the outdoor toilet. Her husband had seen it, rearing, its bright body twisting. That’s how they’d known it had been a taipan. But since then, no-one had seen it, or come across it at all. Taipans were quiet snakes, kept out of the way, experts told us. But if they were cornered, or if you came on them unawares. .
The creek bank was beautiful, not only to us but to other creatures. We knew that snakes came down there to drink, in the cool of the evening. It had never bothered us before. But that summer, we were all a bit jumpy, and the gossip that filled our mouths was sharp and a bit spiteful. If Mary, my sister, wasn’t there, the others would start on her, on her impossible beauty, her impossible haughtiness, her impossible impossibility. And Mary was impossible. When she came down to the creek, she would lie there in her white bikini, her bright, fine hair like red ferns on her brown shoulders. She paid no attention to us. She just wanted us to admire. I know that, even if I am her sister.
Ever since I can remember, people had flocked around Mary. Teachers gave her silver stars simply for being who she was. Strangers in the street stopped and said, ‘Oh, what a lovely child!’ their glance sliding past me, fat little baby and plump toddler that I was. My parents gazed at her sometimes as if they couldn’t believe their eyes. And as she grew older, boys came to her, blundering like moths around a light. And they burnt themselves, too, I can tell you. For our Mary is bright and pitiless as a flame. Sometimes, she’d talk to me, late at night, and giggle about the latest moth that had knocked itself out, and even though I was flattered to be confided in by Mary(see, I was bitten by the same bug as everyone else!)I couldn’t help squirming. There was something sad and embarassing about the thought of those boys, something which I knew Mary couldn’t see. And the strange thing was that I started to feel afraid, somehow, for Mary. I couldn’t have told you why I did; I suppose it was some sort of vague feeling that she was going too far, was tempting fate, if you like. . .
One day Mary turned up with a boy–actually, more a young man, whom none of us had seen before. He was tall, his cap of hair the colour of honey, his eyes a light, rich brown. He was beautiful. I’d never seen such a beautiful person before–except for Mary. Together they stood, seemingly serenely unaware of the effect they were having on the rest of us.
Naomi from next door nudged me painfully in the ribs. ‘What a hunk, hey!’ she mouthed. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want anyone to say anything. I could just stare at him, mesmerised, and as if he knew, he gave me a little corner smile that vanished almost as soon as it had appeared.
‘This is Mel,’ Mary said. ‘He’s come to live in the old Stevens place. ‘
That dump! It was an old house that had not been lived in for a long time. When we were little, we used to sometimes go up there to play games of let’s pretend. Now, hardly anyone used it, because the forest had just about taken it over, and there was something odd about the place, something that kept even the secret smokers or lovers away. I think it was because it was almost house, almost forest, not quite one or the other, just something in between, that you couldn’t put a name to. . Fancy anyone wanting to live there!
‘I inherited it,’ Mel said. He had a soft, slow voice, and I let its softness wash over me, like a wave. ‘I like it there. It’s very quiet. ‘ Continue reading