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. ‘
Mary looked up at him with something I’d never seen in her eyes before. ‘Mel’s a musician, the best,’ she said. ‘He’s going to compose music, in that old place. It will inspire him, because of the forest and everything. ‘
Mel smiled again. ‘Oh, Mary,’ he said gently, and he put his arm around her, much to our intense interest and astonishment–after all, how long had he known her?
Later, Mary told me, a secretive little smile on her face, that she’d met Mel at the hairdresser’s, where she worked. He’d come in with hair this long, she said, stretching her hand to her shoulderblades, it was wild and ragged, you should have seen it! He’d told her he’d spent a while hitchiking, and camping in the bush, and that he’d just let his hair grow. But now he wanted it cut. . And she said, with a kind of tremulous giggle, that he’d said he wanted her to cut it. . I cut it, she said, the scissors worked hard on all that golden hair, and when it was done, he said, Ah, that’s better, I feel more human now. . And he’d smiled at her, and said, Would you like to have a coffee? And she’d said, Oh, I suppose so. . .
From that day on, Mary could speak of nothing but Mel. It nearly drove us all mad. Jealousy, I suppose. They often came down the creek in the evenings, Mel’s arm lightly around Mary’s waist, and they’d just sit together, and talk a bit. Mel was one of those people who don’t say very much, but whose every word seems loaded with some other kind of meaning. He was always pleasant, smiling, listening to others, even the real drongos, but just once I thought I saw a flicker of something else, in the depths of those honey eyes–an impatience, perhaps. . He talked about his life, and the many places he’d been to in the world, and told us of how much he loved travelling, and the bush, but he could have talked any kind of nonsense, as far as I was concerned. Somehow the words were less real than the sight of him. Mel’s body was as light and golden as his hair, but he never took his shirt off, not even when the weather was so hot that you swore you could have cut the heat into pieces, like metal. We teased him a bit about that, but he just smiled one of those quick smiles of his and said, ‘I don’t like sunbathing in a crowd, I need peace and quiet for that. ‘ He looked at us, ‘And besides, something funny happens to my skin when it gets too much sun. I suspect it’s that old hole in the ozone layer!’ He said this quickly, with raised eyebrows, as if it was some kind of joke. That was one of the things about Mel. The things we took seriously, he seemed to laugh at, without actually laughing, as if they didn’t apply to him. Mary said he was a freethinker, a rebel, not one to fit in with the crowd, and I thought perhaps that she saw herself in that way, too.
Things went on like this for a while. It was now understood that the moths had no hope, that the chosen one had arrived. Everyone got used to that, to the item of Mary and Mel, and, to tell the truth, quite a few people were relieved–girls and boys!
During the day, Mary and Mel did not see each other, for she had to work at the hairdresser’s, and he spent hours in the old Stevens place, renovating, and making music. I knew that Mary met Mel every afternoon, though, after work. The thought of their love made me breathless and a bit strange, as if Mary was turning into someone quite different, moving away from us all. Sometimes she’d talk to me a little about Mel, and the things he’d done, and how he was an orphan and was alone in the world. That’s what she said, alone in the world, and even though I sneered at the phrase, I found a kind of sadness slipping over me at the thought of it. Mel was too beautiful, too bright and golden, to be alone. I knew Mary thought she’d soon change that. .
Mary never brought Mel around to our place, saying that Mel wasn’t the kind of person who’d appreciate being put on display, that he was someone who didn’t put up with conventions. She said this defiantly, but Mum had seen him,in town, nevertheless, and she’d said to me and Dad, ‘I hope Mary knows what she’s doing,’ in an uneasy kind of voice. You’d think that a mother could broach the subject with her daughter, but Mum, like most people, was intimidated by Mary’s impossible beauty. Dad said mildly, ‘Oh, I expect she does,’ and I could see his eyes were bright, at the thought of those two beauties together.
At last, school was over. The long holidays stretched in front of me, full of lazy days, of creekbank evenings. Next year, I’d be in Year 10. And then there’d only be two years till my final exams, and the complete end of school. I was thrilled by that, but a bit scared, too. What on earth would I do afterwards? Especially when we were at the creek bank, I thought that was all I wanted of life. But then I also wanted to get out, to see the world, to find for myself what lay beyond the borders of my thoughts.
On the first day of the holidays, I was up early. That isn’t surprising, if you know our climate at all. By seven o’clock on a summer morning, your bed has become a sauna. Far better to be up at six, and see the first fresh green and gold amazement of morning, the first wisp of light, the first stream of magpie calls. Mary was up too, splashing about in the bathroom, but Mum and Dad were still out to it. I thought you were supposed to need less sleep as you got older, but that doesn’t seem to apply to my parents. They sleep and sleep and sleep, especially in the summer.
Mary came out of the bathroom. She’d washed her hair again. This morning, it seemed redder than usual, glowing like flame. She saw me looking at it.
‘I put henna in it,’ she explained. ‘As a surprise. ‘
I didn’t have to ask who the surprise was for. A twist of anger rolled down my back. She already had so much. Why did she have to have everything?
‘I’m sure Mel will like it,’ I said nastily. I was jolted to see her faint blush. ‘Do you think so?’ she said. ‘Do you?’
My God, I thought. She’s not sure. Impossible Mary, always so impossibly calm and sure, is not sure! Inwardly, I paid homage to Mel for this amazing state of affairs.
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘Anyone would. ‘
‘Mel is not anyone,’ Mary said. She looked straight at me.
‘No,’ I agreed. Then she surprised me again.
‘Libby,’ she said. ‘Will you do something for me?’
Me, do something for Mary? The world was turning on its head!
‘Depends what it is,’ I said. Playing hard to get, you see. That opportunity didn’t often come my way.
‘It’s Mel’s birthday,’ she went on, not looking at me. ‘ I want to surprise him. I’ve bought him a present, and I want to take it up to him this morning. But. . ‘ she hesitated, then went on quickly. ‘I’ve never been up to see him in the morning, I mean, he’s sort of said not to, and I’m sort of afraid that he might be cranky. I wonder if you can come with me. . ‘
I gaped at her, and her eyes flashed a bit.
‘He mostly does his composing in the early morning, I think,’ she said defensively. ‘But I reckon today might be special. ‘
She spread out her hands and looked pleadingly at me. ‘Please, Libby. ‘ She blushed again, and I could see that this was one of the hardest things she’d ever done. Proud Mary. Sure Mary. Was Mel giving her the moth treatment? But the thought gave me no pleasure. For the first time that I can remember, I did not feel big and clumsy and stupid next to her. I loved her. She was my sister. And I felt a helpless kind of anger against Mel, who had reduced her to pleading.
‘OK,’ I said. ‘Why not?’
Mary smiled. ‘Thanks, Libby,’ she said, and she meant it. But she was back to being the familiar Mary, the very next minute. ‘But you don’t have to walk right beside me, when we get to his place. . ‘
I nearly told her where to put her present, and her stupid request, and all. But I was curious, too, about the old Stevens place, and seeing how Mel lived.
Everything was quiet, as we walked along the path towards the house. The morning was settling into hard edges, the heat already crisping the freshness of it. The cicadas hadn’t quite started, the magpies were silent.
The old Stevens house, from the outside, looked much as I remembered it. Scraps of some long-ago paint still clung to some of the grey weatherboards, the verandah sagged, the roof looked as if it had chicken pox, so rusty was it. And the forest had crept right over it, like something that had watched and waited and bided its time. It was ridiculous to feel scared of this old dump, I told myself, as acids in my stomach churned unpleasantly. But fancy someone as clean and bright as Mel living here!
I could see Mary hesitate, and then, quickly, she said, ‘Actually, you know, he’s never taken me here, he said it would be nicer if we met somewhere else. And I never liked this place, anyway. ‘ She blushed, then, and smoothed down the front of her dress, and suddenly an idea came into my head so that I gaped at her. Surely her shape was a bit rounder. . . and surely a birthday was not enough of a reason for her to come here, where he obviously didn’t want her to come. . . I was about to ask her point blank, but then she seemed to straighten, make up her mind. ‘Come on, then,’ she said.
I shrugged and said, ‘OK,’ trying to stop my mind from whirling. Uh–oh. What would Mum and Dad say, if they found out she was preggers. . . They’d hit the roof, that’s what.
Mary looked at me for a brief second, then she walked up the steps and into the house. I followed her, at a discreet distance, as instructed.
That house stank. It stank of the forest, of secret, green, growing things, as well as something I couldn’t quite place, overlaid with oldness and dampness and neglect. There were rat and mice droppings everywhere, cobwebs and dirt. Mary was stunned by it, I could see. Her Roman sandals seemed to barely touch the floor, so eager was she not to come in contact with it. I was chuckling to myself, thinking of immaculate Mel, in his pale shirts and sleek hair, coming out of this hole, this dump. But he was nowhere to be seen. Not a sign of him, anywhere.
I stopped in the middle of the floor. ‘ I don’t think he’s here. ‘ I said. ‘In fact,I don’t think he’s ever been here. This place doesn’t look as if anyone’s lived in it, for years. ‘
Mary frowned. ‘Don’t be silly,’ she said. ‘I told you he was a rebel, didn’t do things the way other people did them. ‘ But I could see she was shaken.
‘Maybe he’s asleep,’ she said. Her brow cleared. ‘Yes, that’ll be it. After all, it’s still early. . ‘
I didn’t remind her that we were up, and that the air was already oppressively hot. In that place, too, with its little windows, it soon became very warm indeed. I was already sweating.
She was walking purposefully towards a shut door. ‘Maybe this is the bedroom,’ she said. She seemed to have lost her unsureness. Maybe the mystery of the thing was tantalising her with anger. No-one had ever dared try to put one over Mary, before.
There was no-one in that room, either, or in the next one, or the next one. In one room, there was a pile of blankets in a corner, ragged, rather disgusting blankets that looked as if they’d been there for years. I thought, my God, does Mel sleep in that rat’s nest? My moth’s longings were dropping from me by the minute.
We had been in every room in the house, and hadn’t found him. ‘Oh come on,’ I said to Mary. ‘Let’s go. ‘ There was something repellent about this house, something made of the dust and the dirt and the neglect of it, and the way the forest was choking it,sure, but something else, too. A stillness, a waiting, a danger. I could feel my scalp crinkling with it, and for some reason I couldn’t understand, I picked up a piece of timber lying on the floor, and held tightly to it.
But Mary, poor Mary… There was always something missing in Mary–sensitivity, perhaps. She shrugged her shoulders at me impatiently. ‘I have to talk to him,’ she said stiffly, and she opened the back door, onto the back verandah. Then she was still, very still, so still that I was afraid she’d died. I came up behind her, my mouth open on a froggy croak, ready to tell her to come away, to go home. And then, in the split second before she began to scream, I saw what she’d seen.
Magnificent, he was, his long golden body stretched out in the sun. Asleep, on the warm boards of the verandah, twitching a little, as if he dreamt. Beside him were the remains of his last meal, the creatures he’d hunted that morning. Rats and mice were plentiful, in that place. We’d seen their droppings. . . And also, his shirt, flopped over the floor, so that it looked for all the world like half of an empty body. I remembered his half-joking explanation, that time: Something funny happens to my skin, if I get too much sun. And my own skin puckered with the icy realisation of just what it was he’d meant.
He awoke. His eyes opened. In that instant, as his body uncoiled from the verandah, his eyes met Mary’s. Taipan- cold met warm green, acknowledged warm green, with what might almost have been called a touch of sadness, if such a thing were possible, in snake-eyes. And that is the thing that haunts me still. That, and Mary’s whisper,hoarse after her screams, a whisper where horror and grief mixed– ‘Oh, Mel, Mel. . ‘ and then her hand stretching towards him, towards it, and my cry of horror, my jumping forward to stop her, the piece of timber in my hand,and the sudden vanishing of the snake.
And then her grief, her screams, her pounding at me, ‘Why did you do that, why? He wouldn’t have hurt me, he never would have. . ‘ And there was nothing I could do, to save her, remind her of those women who died, make her see that a human could never trust such a creature–for who knew when the snake was he, and Mel was it?
My niece is a very beautiful baby, with clear honey skin, her mother’s red hair, and a quick, darting smile. But what causes everyone to stop and cluck over her pram are her eyes, of a marvellous golden brown. People lean over and say, ‘Oh. . beautiful. . ‘ and then they frown slightly, and shake their heads, as if they’ve caught something else flickering in those eyes. Mary watches the people unflinchingly, an unreachable grief in her eyes, and says nothing. She knows that they talk about her, about how this too-beautiful girl was deserted by a too-beautiful young man, and how, really, they’d always thought she was that type, that they’re pleased, in some way, to see her like this. But that doesn’t touch her, I know it doesn’t. It’s something else which has made me decide to leave this place, as soon as I finish school. It’s the knowledge that most mornings, early, Mary puts her daughter in a pram and wheels her up the track towards the old Stevens place, pushing through the growth that every day seems to overtake a bit more of the human-ness of the house. She hasn’t told me what she does there, but in my mind,I can see her standing on the back verandah, waiting, her eyes searching, for someone who was never really there. And I know that if he came back, as man or snake, I wouldn’t be able to stop her stretching out her hand towards him.
This story was inspired by the medieval French story of the snake-woman Melusine, and also by my own experiences as a teenager on holiday in the ravishingly beautiful sub-tropical far north coast of New South Wales. Beautiful it is, but also full of hidden dangers, such as snakes. One year when we were holidaying there, a taipan terrorised the village where we stayed–and one of our friends, protecting his girlfriend who’d been bailed up by the snake, was bitten and lay in a coma for weeks.