Venom

 

            My hand rests on the rusting door window, and smoke rises from the warm cigarette between my fingers. I’m reclined in the driver’s seat; the sole of my left sneaker held to my shoe by white threads, visible under faded jeans, and my ankles are crossed on the dashboard. I’ve got that feeling again, and my left hand squeezes the cushioning of the seat, leaving the print of my palm. I close my eyes and allow my head to fall to the headrest, letting out smoke through my teeth. That bastard.

***

            It took my mother forty-five minutes to die. When I was two years old an inland taipan sunk its fangs above her ankle as she clipped sheets to the clothing line. The line ran from our clay tile roof to an orchid encased eucalyptus with soft white bark that peeled from its trunk. Hills of forest, whose lack of underbrush allowed wandering for kilometers, were formed by trees with petal sized leaves that granted no shade, and collided with patches of barren once-farmed land to form my home, Coonabarabran, New South Wales, Australia. As a child, I liked being alone; the cries of kookaburras, magpies, warblers, sulfur-crested cockatoos, the swish of leaves like beads through a rainstick, and the voices of game show contestants at six when my dad got home, were my company. The only exception I made for companionship was Adrianna. She was my closest neighbor at one kilometer away, and from age two to six, her mother cared for me until my dad got home from working at Ford’s Farm. At seven I could look after myself, but I’d still see Adrianna every day. We walked to school together, passed notes during class, traded food at lunch, and played at recess beneath outback sunrays. After school we built huts with rotting wood behind her shed and chased skinks on her patio, though they hid in brick cracks.

I was seven when my father’s girlfriend, Irene, moved in. She was tall, and strands of frizzy hair the color of dry farmland grass fanned from her head, making her taller than my father. Irene was thin, so that when she grasped my wrist her ivory knuckles protruded from pale oily skin. She would look down at me past a nose slightly skewed left, with light eyes shadowed by sharply angled eyebrows, and then look to my father. It was the same look she gave my dad’s old sheepdog Rocco. “Kevin, he’s running around getting shit all ova the house,” she’d say to my dad, and at night tie him up outside, despite venomous snakes.  She always had a meat pie, stew, or sausage roll and Tooheys beer awaiting his return, and she’d wash the laundry and hang it out to dry, scrub our mud splattered floors, and sleep with him at night. My dad listened to Irene .  She would ask him for more milk or new fabric patterns, and he would look to her with the same tired, expressionless face. He’d grunt back with a slight nod of his head, rise slowly from his place before the television, and saunter to the kitchen where an Arnott’s Biscuit tin held his weekly earnings. This faded tin that my mother bought ten years before, allowing herself a rare indulgence in sweet crispy biscuits, was the shape of a squawking rainbow-lorikeet. It was the most important thing in our house.

My father’s tough skin was reddened, with blotches of brown sunspots from years of labor beneath the Australian sun. He had three noticeable wrinkles that were permanent gouges across his forehead, and a few that rippled, sagging from blue eyes. His chin always had a thin beard of newly graying hair, while thick brown hair layered his arms that hung from a rectangular frame. We talked little; he’d ask me to hose down his truck or water my mother’s orchids, and I’d comply, without a word. But once, when I was five, he said, “Jenny, let’s go for a walk.” We walked to a field of parched straw grass, and sat by an ant mound that rose from a splintering fence. Dusk was approaching; the land turned dark red and orange, and a mob of kangaroos leapt from the brush and stooped to chew the grass. “I love watching the roos.” I pointed to the kangaroos and looked up to my dad whose eyes traveled with their movements.

“Your mum did too.” His hand stretched out to me, and patted my knee twice.

I would sleep over Adrianna’s at least twice a week. Her mother was a lean, rosy skinned woman, with loose black curls that fell from her bun and bounced off her shoulders. All day she labored barefoot in the kitchen, caring for Adrianna’s fat one year old baby brother Johnny, and going outside to harvest tomatoes and carrots. She’d feed me and allow me to sleep over. Adrianna would say, “You know, our Mums were best mates, and we are too.”

When Adrianna’s father came home after dinnertime, we played army in her room, organizing ranks of stuffed animals to battle plastic dolls. Her dad would eat dinner cold, while her mother sat with him, knitting to the cracking of carrots and gulping of beer. Her father was ten years older than her mother. Hair matted his head and bristles grew like echidna quills from his chin. Even when he lay in his chair with his legs resting on the coffee table, his thick fingers would form fists on its arms, and his firm swollen belly sat on his thighs.

At night, I lay on a stained yellow-green mattress by Adrianna’s bed, lulled to sleep by her rhythmic breaths. Adrianna’s door never shut all the way, so a column of orange kitchen light would streak my forehead, and I could see the sink and rusty fridge. Every night I heard glass clinking and light footsteps approaching to see Adrianna’s mother lining up empty bottles by the sink. Only once did I hear long uneven shuffles following, like a work horse dragging trees that pull on straining muscle and bone. Her father was ricocheting himself from wall to countertop, advancing on her mother, who was staring at the emerald chain of bottles lining the sink, with her fingers in her black hair like white piano keys on a Steinway.

Her father’s voice always rumbled like a distant storm. “Sheila, have you been hiding things from me?” Her mother pivoted rigidly; her arms were perpendicular to the floor with fingers pressed into fists so that their tips turned scarlet. He slid a foot forward and hunched further toward her, waving an empty bottle at her nose. The bottle came close to her face, so she turned her head to her shoulder.

“What is that?” Her voice was steady and her neck formed a long white crescent to her cheekbones. Her eyebrows moved low to her eyes.

“It’s the gin from your closet. Don’t pretend like you didn’t know it was there.” Her body was still, like a Rose-Breasted Cockatoo that hears a raptor Kite scream overhead. He cocked his head to the side, his face falling beneath her gaze.  “Afraid I’d find it and drink it all down?” She didn’t move; his large fingers wrapped around her shoulders, dropping the bottle, and shards spilt across the floor.

Adrianna’s arm slapped the pillow and her mouth opened and closed, but from the clicking of saliva, I knew she was asleep.

“Look what you made me do!” He pressed her into where the cabinets cornered and pushed off from her, charging from the kitchen. The front door screen bounced against the frame as he left. She slid to the floor with her back against the cabinets like cards falling from a card-tower. She bit her fist as she soundlessly rocked, dotting the linoleum with crimson droplets from glass severed skin.

***

            I avoided Irene, but when my dad got home we ate dinner. I would never fill my plate, and I’d finish all with the speed of a famished stray dog.  Irene’s  father managed a farm in Wollongong, and occasionally she would grab my dad’s wrist and say, “Kevin, the pay is so much higher. We’d be right by Sydney, and away from this dump of a town. He will always have a position for you down there.”

“You know I can’t.” And he’d glance to me; his widened eyes the color of pools that collect from dripping cave water. Irene would look to me too, and I’d stop chewing, and excuse myself.

***

            When I was seven and three-quarters, there was a drought. Rocco and I had to bath in the billabong; but when that dried up, I would hold the red sandcastle bucket my mother had bought me to the silver stream that passed over the newly muddy plateau. Dust was everywhere; it stuck to the skin’s oils so that hands glinted with mica and crystal sand. Each night at six o’clock I would hear the snapping of my dad’s truck upon fallen branches, and exhaust would pour into the house. At six-thirty he would come inside. I’d watch him from the kitchen, sitting with his chest wilted over his knees and his hands supporting his forehead.

“Mr. Ford isn’t holding up well,” my dad would tell Irene as she peeled potatoes by the stove. “The crops are dying. He has hardly anything to sell. And the county’s at an extreme alert status for bushfires.” Irene would raise her maroon fingernails to his face and cup his chin in her hand.

“My poor baby,” she’d say slowly, dramatically; the way Adrianna spoke when she was the Wicked Witch of the West in the school production of The Wizard of Oz. Then she’d bring her mouth to his ear and whisper; and they’d both look at me, and I’d look to the floor like I didn’t notice.

***

            One afternoon, Adrianna and I raced home. We ran ahead of each other, screaming when the lead was lost, holding back the limbs of the rival in front, and calling timeouts, then rushing ahead leaving the betrayed behind. When we reached the tree blackened by lightning, we were halfway home. Our breaths came in heaves and we were unable to talk. We continued, taking long steps, and Adrianna spoke. “Everyone says I look like my mum.” And she did. She had the same dark hair whose strands fell over green eyes. Adrianna was beautiful and I was plain. My hair was a mix of yellow and brown while my nose was colored with freckles like skin splattered with mud. Adrianna left for her house and I continued alone, finding a gray walking stick, hollowed by termites and army ants.

My living room and kitchen were different. The air was stale and dry and Rocco was salivating on the couch. My grandmother’s silk tablecloth, my father’s tarnished spoon collection, my mother’s pewter plates, my father’s fifty-year-old rifle, Irene’s kitten crystal figurine, and the Arnott’s Biscuit tin were missing. I ran to their bedroom. It was empty.

That was the first time I got that feeling. I ran to the kitchen drawer and saw beneath copper pennies and rubber bands the gray of a breadknife. I fingered the bumpy wooden handle in my pink sweaty palms. I could feel heat in my veins and the pulsating of my heart trembled through my brain. I was aware of a strength as all my muscles contracted, and I knew that if I wanted to bash someone’s skull into the boulders by our garage so that blood poured out their ears and fed the scorched land, I could. I dropped the knife and the blade vibrated as the handle spun on the floor. I went outside and sat by my mother’s garden, pulling her orchids from the earth.

***

            It was dark and I was making dinner, when the dull rumbling of tires grew, although I knew it was not my father. Her footsteps were light, and I pictured her feet only brushing the dirt with her toes as she rushed to the front door. She stood in the doorway and stared, and I at her, with Vegemite smeared bread in my hand. Adrianna’s mother never looked so fragile, like our blue tissue paper cranes; so easy to collapse, with one swipe of my fist.

“Jenny.” And that was all she said. She grasped my face in her cool hands, kissed the smooth area between my eyes, and brought me and Rocco home.

That night the clear sun-warmed water bathed me in their tub, and Adrianna braided my hair. “The letter had fallen under that tiny table by our front door. But once Mom noticed it she nearly fainted. No worries though.” Adrianna touched my shoulder so I would turn to look at her. “It said they’d be back soon. It’s only for the next three months, when your dad can come back here and work.” I turned forwards and felt her fingers running through the knots in my hair.

Adrianna let me wear her clothes. They were clean and smelled like bottlebrush. I became Adrianna’s and Johnny’s sister, her mother’s daughter, but her father was not my dad. He never looked at me, though I’d hear my name whispered to Adrianna’s mother late at night, and her mumble back and he whisper louder. I was happy I never became his daughter, because if I was his daughter I’d have a bruised eye or raw backside like Adrianna.

My father was gone for a month when Mr. Johnson came from Canberra. His gelled hair made stripes over his balding head, and he wore sunglasses that reflected a narrowed golden version of my body, a faded olive suit, and black leather shoes. I hadn’t thought about my father. I hadn’t thought about my father living in a clean farmhand flat, yelling at sheepdogs to herd sheared sheep, or sitting before the tele between Irene’s legs and her massaging his neck with her cold fingers; so that when Mr. Johnson told me that their bodies were found Tuesday night in the Wollongong farm, I was surprised. Wind had blown the bushfires South over the Blue Mountains and into farmland, where they sizzled to charred bones.

Mr. Johnson told me this as I sat at the dining table, swinging my legs from the creaking chair. He looked to me and then Adrianna’s mother who stood behind with her hands on my shoulders. And when he finished I walked outside and lay with Rocco on the dusty driveway, listening to their steady mumbles for an hour.

Adrianna’s mother walked Mr. Johnson to his car as he shoved papers into a mustard suitcase. She watched his car back out of the long driveway until his engine blended into the yelling of kookaburras. “You’ll be staying with us.” She reached for my hand and pulled me from Rocco, wiping dirt from my shorts and leading me into the house.

***

            When we were seventeen Adrianna and I rented a three room flat in Sydney. Adrianna cut and French braided hair in “Hair Care” by Bondi Beach, and I worked at Taronga Zoo with amphibians, and assisted the handlers with presentations for school children. I dated my coworker Thomas, a sixteen-year-old boy with dimpled cheeks who shoveled dung, incubated eggs and fed baby animals. Adrianna dated Christopher, who moved around the country to surf and lived in a purple and orange VW, Stephan, who wore glasses, paid for their dates and bought her clothes, Jacob, who lived with his parents and flirted with me when Adrianna wasn’t looking, Tommy, who did fifty push-ups a day and had long mahogany sideburns, and a guy who rode a motorcycle and wore black army boots that reflected the streetlights into my eyes.

She dated Matthew for six months. Matthew had black hair shaved close to his scalp, wore dark jeans ripped below the knee, and was tall with muscles that rounded the sleeves of his t-shirt turned yellow-gray by sweat. He caught Barramundi fish on the “Mermaid” in the morning and at night he bought Adrianna tequila shots at Sherman’s Bar. He called her Ade, just as her father had.

Adrianna would sleep over Matthew’s on the weekend, but one Sunday morning at two am I heard the humming of the bathroom fan. The bathroom light shone from under the door, making the shadow of my motionless, wrapped body appear on the bumpy white wall. I tied my hair out of my face and knocked on the bathroom door. “Adrianna, are you ‘right?” The fan drummed louder, and I knocked again and tried to turn the locked doorknob.

Adrianna opened the door from her seat on the plush toilet cover. Her hands covered her face; she was turned to the tub, and her body folded onto her knees. “What’s wrong?” She inhaled loudly like she did when she was taking her asthma meds. “Adrianna,” I said and grasped her forearm, bending to my knees. Her hands fell from her face and her eyeliner was smudged into gray circles around her eyes; and a red bruise marked her cheekbone.

They went to lunch the next day, and Matthew bought her pink roses. Adrianna told me how he got on his knee in front of everyone in the restaurant, so that the people cheered when she said they’d still date. He kissed her cheek and promised to stop drinking and smoking. “Jenny you just don’t understand,” she told me. “Matthew feels right. You always think the worst of people. Have some faith.”

***

A month later, at seven pm, I was drying Adrianna’s Bondi Beach mug with a brown rag when she came home. She stood in the doorway; her hair was greasy and strands fell from her ponytail across her forehead. Her dark purple eye shadow and sparkly lipstick still stained her face, and she wore a tube top that showed her lacey red braw and was barefoot, holding her heels.

“Jesus Christ Adrianna.” The mug slipped from my hands. I barely noticed when the porcelain shattered, scattering across the floor. I ran to her and pulled sticky hair from her cheek which she gnawed with her teeth. Her shoulders were slightly raised so her arms were stiff against her side, and I took her hand and took her to the bathroom and lowered her onto the toilet seat and adjusted the bathtub tap.

I made soup as she bathed, and once I cut the carrots, I went to check on her. I found her in bed, staring at the ceiling with the sheet crumpled in her fists and pulled to her throat, illuminated in marble moonlight. I sat by her head and stroked her hair though cold shampoo coated my fingers. “Adrianna, tell me what happened. Why didn’t Matthew drop you off like usual?” She rolled away so all I saw was hair like tangled seaweed.

I reached for her shoulder, visible under the pale sheet that was tight against her body, and she jolted from my touch. “What happened,” I tried again, but my hands hovered above her arm, too scared to touch.

She spoke to the wall, and her slimy hair moved with her voice that hissed like a boiling kettle, “Matthew wouldn’t stop. Then she left not caught.”

“I don’t understand, who wasn’t caught? And what didn’t he stop?”

She rolled to me. Her round eyes frustrated like a toddler that doesn’t know how to talk. “Matthew wouldn’t stop. Then she left not caught.”

“Okay but,” I stopped. Adrianna had torn the sheet from her damp skin and grabbed my elbows as she kneeled on the bed. My body swayed under her clutch.

“Matthew wouldn’t stop. Then she left not caught” she screamed.

“Matthew wouldn’t stop. Then she left not caught,” she screamed.

***

That Wednesday I called “Hair Care” and told them Adrianna would not be coming back. That Thursday I brought her to Dr. Bishop and he told me to check her in to Sutherland Hospital. That Friday I drove her to Coonabarabran, and that Friday she spoke for the second time since Saturday, “Mummy.” Adrianna’s mother led her by the hand to the dining table; she served us tea and biscuits and watched Adrianna eat while she rubbed her back.

That Monday I was in Sydney and working. I was scratching the green and brown mold from the Western Swamp Turtle tank with a spatula, when I got that feeling for the second time in my life. At first I just scraped faster at that sticky sludge that coated the glass, but when my hand started to shake so I couldn’t hit the decay I aimed for, I closed my eyes and let it control me.

Before I left, I found Thomas by the breeding area. He was adjusting the heat to crocodile eggs when I laid my hands over his eyes and kissed his prickly cheek, saying, “Guess Who.” I asked him to show me all the baby reptiles and he brought me to a room filled with hundreds of snakes and lizards. He had to get back to work, but he left me to walk through rows of small snakes that writhed and glistened like spilt ink through their glass tanks.

***

The cigarette burns my fingers and I let it fall to the pavement, my eyes opening to the orange brick building with a dying plant on its stoop, barred windows and a tall brown fence. It had been hard climbing the fence, but easy to find an open window on a day like this; when the heat makes it hard to breathe and your skin turns white in the absence of moisture. It slid from the sack right through the bars and into Matthew’s house; it had been squirming all the way here, craving the attack. And when I heard the scream, I knew he’d be dead in forty-five minutes.