The crawler [by P. R. Stephensen]

[Editor: This is a short story from The Bushwhackers: Sketches of Life in the Australian Outback (1929) by P. R. Stephensen.]

The crawler

A terror-full silence had fallen, chilling the hot afternoon. Young Mrs. Williamson, sewing on the verandah, had looked up suddenly into the cold black eyes of a snake. The snake was advancing towards her feet, dragging its scaly length across the floor-boards, seeking cool shade perhaps from the beating heat outside. Already its flat head, rippling without effort, had reached a white bundle lying upon a rug near her feet. The bundle was her first-born baby, asleep. Young Mrs. Williamson did not scream.

She did not move. The snake’s head reared inquisitively across the child’s coverlet, and swayed uncertain, with tongue flickering, at the movement of breathing it could feel beneath its scaled belly.

Still the mother, though her limbs were clammy, did not move — not even her eyes. One movement might have terrified the snake into striking : a movement from her, or a movement from the bundle; this much she knew, though the world was going black behind her eyes. She watched, unblinking, for eternities. And the babe slept on.

The snake was thirsty and hot. Torpor was settling inside his six feet of innards, the torpor of digestion, for he had just killed a bird — his morning’s work. At the other end of the verandah he could hear the cool drip drip of a water-tap, where wasps buzzed. In the absolute silence and stillness the water-drips sounded like bells tinkling. The slow, black length began to drag lazily forward across the breathing little bundle on the floor. Young Mrs. Williamson, numbed, watched the sinister black head, with its beady eyes and nervous tongue, steadily creep down the hillock of the child’s flank on to the rug, on to the floor-boards beyond. A moment’s lazy pause, then the sinuous coils behind that flat black head began undulating across the child’s belly, rippling and rippling forward as the snake crawled by her feet towards the drip of the water-tap.

She did not move, and the sleeping child did not move, while endlessly that crawler slid over the coverlet, half-way now, three-quarters now, tip of tail now, off the child’s heap now, off the rug even at last, slowly and smoothly dragging across the hardwood boards within a few inches of her feet; till at last its head lay, tongue flickering brightly, beneath the tap-drip at the end of the verandah.

Then the child moved uneasily, and moaned; and young Mrs. Williamson, screaming with fear, caught up the white bundle and ran stumbling into the paddocks to tell her husband what had happened.

P. R. Stephensen, The Bushwhackers: Sketches of Life in the Australian Outback, Mandrake Press, London, [1929], pp. 62-65

[Editor: Corrected “slided” to “slid”.]

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