My snake won’t eat.
I’ve always kept snakes as pets. There’s something wonderful about their smoothness, their cool skin. The way they sleep for days on end; the way they glide over the backyard through cracking palm fronds and dust.
But Belle won’t eat.
I didn’t notice, at first. Snakes don’t eat very often. Some pythons go for years without a meal, readying themselves to eat animals as big as kangaroos. Belle is a carpet python. Once a month I’ll feed her – rats, mice, hamsters – and watch as she dislocates her jaw and sucks the creature in. Her body takes weeks to break down an animal, the carcass thickening her silhouette as it treads through its chain-metal tomb.
Snakes have a place in nature. Unlike cats and dogs and rabbits, which aren’t made for our country and unsettle our lands. And snakes make great pets. I take Belle out of her tank each day and hold her, feeling her coil around my body – draped like a shawl. Sometimes I let her rest on the bed beside me, where she knots herself on the pillow and we watch each other, peaceful. But lately Belle has been stretching herself out on the bed – long and thin and flat like an empty fire hose. She lies still. Sometimes she lifts her head and swings it slowly, like one of those metal detectors the tourists use on the beach.
So today I’m driving her to the vet, to tell him that Belle hasn’t eaten for months. She’s getting longer and thinner and flatter by the day. He’ll ask me why I haven’t been to see him earlier, and how long it’s been since Belle has eaten, and I won’t know.
Well, that’s not entirely true.
I decided last night to come into town. I sat outside, lost in sultry, dripping isolation. Cicadas screeched like broken violins and moths suicided at the porch light. I realised I hadn’t left here for months. Usually I make the two-hour drive once a week into town, where there’s a shopping mall, the doctor and the vet. It’s also where the nearest beach is, the tourist beach, fringing the earth in slits of yellow. When I went to bed I dreamed of Belle. And Max. Maybe Belle has stopped eating to force me to leave our land – to see another person. Or maybe she’s just had enough.
Solitude has become an easy venom.
I may as well say it: the last time Belle ate was just before Max left. Four months, he’s been gone, and nine days. I still don’t know why he left and it’s this, I think, that stings most. All he said was, ‘I’m leaving, Emme. Soon. Maybe we’ll talk more tonight.’ His profile yawned and he was gone.
He never came back.
This house is so empty. I should move, perhaps, but I won’t. It’s the perfect house for these parts – it keeps cool through the summer and dry in the wet season. The veranda smells like rotting wood; the air is thick with fruit and heat. When the storms come, rain drapes the windows in rippling curtains and the roof pounds like a thousand drums.
I haven’t moved his things. His socks are in my drawer, his razor by the sink, his beer in the fridge. I still smell him sometimes. He smelled sweet, like sap. I used to wonder why, but once I caught him sneaking through the sugar canes on our neighbour’s land, so maybe he used it as a short cut home. Home from wherever it was that he went. I was scared when I found him – there are so many snakes around here, not all of them friendly. ‘Don’t walk through the canes, you’ll get bitten!’ I said. He shrugged as he flashed me his bachelor smile.
It’s hot. As I drive I feel sweat scaling each pore of my body. Dust from the road puffs up like a sandstorm. My old Ute scorches; my hands sear on the wheel. The drive is long. The heat makes time slow down and drip like small rain on a tin roof. I think it’s my fault that Belle won’t eat – for she knows me, she senses my moods. She knows that ever since Max left, I’ve been withering like shed skin. I don’t do much with my days and the hours are dry, coarse, like the soles of my feet. And they rub.
Max always had money. I don’t know where he got it, but he always had it. We don’t have much use for money in these parts, but he would always find something to buy. Beer, weed, cigarettes. He’d buy gadgets and play with them, never telling me what they were for. He used to take things apart just to see what was inside them. He didn’t always put them back together. Things and people. I miss hearing his voice as he came home at night, ‘Time for a beer, Emme?’ It was a voice that leaked secrets, a snail’s trail – glistening. He was never around. He would vanish during the day and I never knew where he’d been or what he’d done. He seemed to dance between lives as though one wasn’t enough.
I haven’t eaten much either, these past months. We’ve always grown bananas on our land – fields of palms with colubrine fingers. I’ve been eating those and whatever Max left at the house. Not much. I think Belle has seen my sadness and has become sad too. I think she has watched me grow thinner and has mimicked me, as a child might mimic her mother. I think the vet will tell me this is my fault. Nature or nurture? he’ll say. He’ll say nurture and I’ll disagree. For we are nothing but our natures – our instincts – and Belle is shedding her instinct to survive.
I’m crying now. It’s hot and I’m crying. I want to go home. I want Belle to eat. I want Max.
I reach town, passing the swarms of tourists who infest the blistered north like a plague. They crawl around with their hats and their sunscreen, skin raw as morning. The shopping mall looms on the left, a prison for souvenirs, cushioned by dead grass and dust. From somewhere, the sound of shouting and laughter.
I pull in at the gravelled driveway, unsettling crowds of insects. I get out. The air is like syrup and Belle is asleep. As I walk to the door I feel the wet season beckoning, the smell of growth and decay rushing into my lungs. Inside I go.
I sit in the waiting room for what feels like hours. Belle is still asleep. I’m hot. I stare at the walls, at the posters – how to care for your pet frog, how to keep the cane toads out. I see a sign on the wall about smugglers. There are plenty of smugglers around these parts, stealing our wildlife to sell to foreign zoos. Last year a snake smuggler almost died from snakebite. Someone found him collapsed in the sugar canes and called for help. Max threw back his head and laughed – ‘Serves him right.’
The vet is waiting for me in his air-conditioned room. He looks up as I go in. Belle stirs in her box like a whisper, like the faintest shuffle of cards.
‘Emme,’ the vet says. ‘What can I… Are you all right?’
I say nothing and he eyes me. I know how I must look – thin and small and gaunt. Since Max left, I’ve been shrivelling by the day.
His voice is gentler now. ‘How’s Belle – what can I do for you?’
So I tell him.
Everything. About Belle, about Max, about me. I think the details might be important – I think he’ll tell me that Belle will get better when I do. I speak quickly, the words spooling out like twine, curling around the room, around my throat.
‘I see,’ he says. ‘And you say that Belle won’t eat, but that she’s getting longer and thinner and flatter, and that she stretches out next to you on the bed?’
‘Yes,’ I say, certain he’s going to tell me that Belle has sensed Max is gone, that she’s trying to help, trying to replace him. My hands are clamped like a jaw.
He says nothing for a moment and his eyes slink away like shadows.
I start to cry. ‘What is it? What have I done to her? Is she going to die?’ I’m screaming now, standing and screaming. I don’t think I’m screaming at the vet.
I stop. All I can hear is the whir of his fan. I’m cold now, but still I’m sweating. The vet is staring at me, his knuckles white as teeth.
He clears his throat. ‘No, Emme.’
Above us the fan whirs.
‘Belle’s preparing to eat you.’