When I was a kid monsters fascinated me. I was terrified almost constantly, and exploring and making friends with the dark things was the only way through it. I would write short and terrible horror stories, or come up with imaginary friends that were vampires or grotesque aliens.
On a school trip to a Warrego Water Park in grade 2, after exiting the women’s bathroom because I was too scared to use the men’s, one of my classmates shouted out. There was a brown snake on the path. The crowd beat a hasty retreat as the snake meandered towards the bush. I followed it to the edge, leaned into the tropical shrubs to try and see it. I distinctly remember being very calm. I was curious about this monster that even the adults were afraid of.
When Mum moved our large, single parent family out to the country, we rented a house on ten acres of bush from church friends. There were a hundred ways to die out there. Venomous snakes and spiders, being trampled by cattle, or falling from the branches of the pine trees at the top of the yard. Even the bush itself, the twisted maze of lantana and tall, alien prickly pears, seemed malevolent. Out alone in the yard, the ways back would twist on me, and strange noises would echo through the trees, getting closer and closer until I bolted back to the house, heart leaping with my bounding strides.
Mum bought us a box of ducklings to add to our growing collection of animals, and we housed them in the chicken coop next to the corrugated iron barn, near the frog-infested water tank. In the barn there was a giant snakeskin running up the wall, along its entire length and back down the other side. It had been there longer than the previous tenants, mythical, like a Dreamtime story.
The ducklings didn’t survive long. One by one, a carpet python picked them off during the night, after we took turns walking up the hill to feed them and change their water. It swallowed them whole and crept back out under a gap in the scrap-wood wall.
On my older brother’s turn for feeding the ducks, he trekked up the hill at twilight with an ice-cream tub of vegetable scraps. He pulled out the crusted pitchfork holding the coop’s door closed and saw the python. It was monstrous and ancient. My brother was a runt at the time, scrawny, pale and shorter than everyone in his grade. He swung at it with the pitchfork. The python reared and my brother stabbed down on its middle. The beast fled into the darkening bush, and never returned in the time we lived there.
Mum met Greg through my little brother. He was the father of one of my little brother’s friends at the remote country primary school we attended. We all loved him at first. He had a PlayStation instead of an ancient, dog-chewed Super Nintendo. He had wild stories about the army, or bikies. He knew martial arts and let us swear whenever we wanted. I think most of all we loved him because we felt he meant stability. We’d been moving from rental to rental, jumping schools and feeling uprooted since my parents divorced.
Our families merged. Greg had three children to add to Mum’s four. We moved to Greg’s tiny brick house in a cheap housing estate halfway between Ipswich and Toowoomba. There were only three bedrooms to house nine people, three dogs and an assortment of poultry. My older brother and I slept in the shed and my sister, the oldest, camped out in a disintegrating caravan.
One summer, rats infested the shed, stealing underwear and loose paper and hoarding it in the makeshift plywood walls. Soon they became prey to things more dangerous. Brown snakes started crawling into the shed, hiding among the piled up toys and motley assortment of broken furniture.
I woke one morning to find a brown snake had cut me off from the door to the shed, a primal shock and revulsion coursing through me at the sight of it’s dun-coloured scales sliding across patchy carpet. I struggled to build up the courage to call out, knowing I was unlikely to be heard from the house across the yard. I waited till someone came looking for me, hearing the screech of the corrugated iron door as Mum entered. I yelled out and mum stopped sharp.
Mum had to call our usual “Snake Guy” in. His looks, demeanour and dress sense could only be described as Irwin-esque, wearing khaki stubbies and an Akubra, always half-shouting with effervescent bogan energy. By the time he got there, the snake had crawled out of sight.
Trapped up against bending plywood, I watched as he dug through the trash of my hovel. I was silent and my muscles had frozen and locked. Every second had a sharp edge, like standing on broken glass.
The Snake Guy leant to look under a bed-frame, knocking a toy onto his shoe and leaping clean on top of the chair, agile as a movie stuntman and eyes wide with shock. I laughed hard and he didn’t seem to mind. He freed me from my prison first, then found the snake and placed it carefully in his canvas sack to be released in a safe patch of wild.
Things were hard at that place. Greg worked a shit-kicker job at the abattoir while mum finished her psychology degree. The veneer of worldliness on Greg wore to reveal the deep-seated anger in him, as he worked night shifts on a job filled with danger. The violence of his occupation worked its way back to the house, and we grew to dread the late nights mum would have to spend at the uni, a long drive west to Toowoomba.
The stress at home, coupled with isolation and bullying at school, slid me into a deep depression. At home or school, the ground I walked on was snake-filled grass. Every step was hesitant and marked by hidden dangers. I stopped sleeping properly and forgot what it was like to relax.
We moved again, to a ten-acre property out the back of Lowood. The ramshackle, prefab house had almost enough bedrooms for all of us, and sat at the top of a hill on a floodplain that stretched out to the mountain range on the horizon. The yard was overgrown with grass taller than a person. At the back, a steep gully led to a dried up and overgrown riverbed. During the flood season the river would spill its banks, and turn the hill into an island in an ocean of turbulent brown.
The riverbed was a blind-spot perfect for childhood mischief. We would trek down the steep, tangled banks and duck through spider webs, or build deathtrap cubbies in overhanging trees. Our roll of animals increased to a few cows and horses, as well as about twenty chickens and ducks. The dogs would follow us on our adventures, until they started escaping the yard and we had to fit them with electric collars to keep them in the fence line.
Anxiety grew to run my life as I entered late high school. I became scared to venture out the house at night, scared to talk to anyone at school. The sleep deprivation caused me to suffer hallucinations and delusions about ghosts and demons. I only ate at dinnertime, and started to waste away. Fear was draining me.
The long drought broke, and rain filled the riverbed once more, driving the wildlife further up the hill. The bare patch of worn grass at the top of the yard revealed monstrous taipans, tiger and brown snakes as they sought higher ground. The wall of head height grass at the bottom of the yard became a barrier, to cross it was death.
Greg told us to kill any snake we saw. We had younger siblings and livestock to protect. He showed us the best way to do it, a quick whip with an old curtain rod will instantly break the animal’s spine. Wear long pants and boots while marching through the scrub. Search every blind spot, check under stairs and logs when moving between the back door and the carport.
On one afternoon a true monster crawled up from the long grass, a brown over six-foot long. It looked more like a jungle python than the swift serpents were used to. Greg saw it first, and strode down the hill, shirtless and shoeless, bikie tattoos painted on ruddy skin. He wielded one of the deadly curtain rods, ready to show his family the kind of protection his violence had to offer.
We watched the epic struggle from the verandah, our hearts churning with excitement, fields around tinged by a blood coloured sunset. The snake reared to chest height on Greg. It struck at his arm and he pulled out of the way at the last moment. Swinging back at it, Greg smashed the snake until the chipped curtain rod bent. He hung the snake’s corpse over the rusted-through tinny in the yard. It rotted there for days, a rural Queensland equivalent of a spiked head on the battlements.
The battle spurred us on to greater acts of violence. We would form raiding parties, armed with assorted weapons and armoured in ill-fitting hand-me-down pants. Striding in single file through the maze of grass, slaying any beast in sight.
On a blistering Sunday morning we woke to several baby taipans crawling over each other on our back steps. Greg smashed all of them with his heavy work boot, almost taking a bite to the ankle as one rushed him from under the stairs.
My older brother and I searched the shed for their mother, pulling out the bricks that lined the floor one by one and checking the holes than ran through them. Every brick was nerve wracking, and we jumped each time a frog leaped out at our faces. By the time we got two-thirds through the unlit corrugated iron hotbox, the mother taipan made a break for it. I stamped on its head with my cheap Velcro sneaker, and my brother stabbed down on its back with a shovel. We piled it into a bucket with the others.
My anxiety and depression festered and evolved into rage. I would spend hour-and-a-half long bus rides fuming and clawing at my knees as loud kids argued and swore around me. The anger was a wall around me, I stopped thinking about girls, or assignments, or any life after high school. All I wanted to do was take this twisted, wrenching knot in my chest out on something.
The snakes kept coming. Hiding in the septic tank next to the house, gorging themselves on frogs, only coming out to scoot between holes in the grey-water soaked earth. The septic tank was between the house and the chicken coop, a main thoroughfare for my younger siblings when feeding the animals. So Greg, my older brother and I waited in the open, armed and bloodthirsty, until the beasts reared their heads.
We banged on the sun-bleached plastic lid of the septic tank, and a brown snake dashed out. We swung at it, kicking up foul-smelling sods with the ends of our curtain rods. The snake wove between us, making for another hole to crawl into. It got half of its five-foot length into the hole and I grabbed its tail. It pulled against me, reefing my arms, and I heaved back. I pulled it clear out of the ground and it flailed in the air. It landed and pulled again, this time so hard that the end of its tail came off in my fist. I smacked it with my curtain rod square on the back. Hit it again and again until it stopped moving.
Greg took a photo of me holding the length of the snake out next to my awkward skinny frame, curtain rod resting on my shoulder like a rifle. I wish now that I’d felt anything other than pride.
That was the last snake I killed, at sixteen years old, not long before I moved out of home and into the city. Before I learned a lot of things, before I learned that violence is a rarely sought-after quality in a man.
Years later, after a DV case, death threats and several police incidents, Mum served Greg divorce papers. When he got them he had a literal stroke. Wound up in hospital with his past life completely destroyed. Left alone with his anger.
I know now that he had always been scared. Scared of how much he had to lose. Nobody taught him what to do with fear, just like nobody taught me. We have to find our own way through that fear, and long since I have learned again how to make friends with it.
I still hold all that fear inside me, still sleep with the light on when I’m alone. You can’t lose fear, but you can use it. You can turn fear into understanding, and that is the only true protection you can have. Monsters are just scared animals, and it’s only alone that we truly get to decide whether we become them, or something else.
Samuel Maguire is a Brisbane author and trade-certified hot mess. His first debut novel ‘No Point in Stopping’ was published in 2018, and when not imprisoned by casual hospitality, he works as a commissioning editor for Tiny Owl Workshop. You can find his work in Scum Magazine and Scratch-that Magazine, as well as on his blog Skydekkerix.com.
Anastasia Notaras is an emerging artist based in Brisbane. She is currently in her third year of BFA in Drama at QUT. Her work has been published in ScratchThat Magazine and can be found on her Instagram @anastasianotaras. Her creative work is multidisciplinary as she delves into painting, collage, script writing and performance.