In late summer, Vrinda awoke to her phone chiming beside the agarbatti.
Her son was off, dropping Ma a few texts, scooting early to the airport with his girl, cheers for the extra vitamin m, cheers for helping his mates host a going-away, soz for the mess, he’d see Ma at Chrissy, he’d call her on the al capone if his girlfriend said yes, he would call, promise promise promise, and hopefully fly home from the States with a beyoncé like Ma’d been praying for.
She dropped her phone in her pocket, swung her feet over the carpet and stretched her toes on the rug. Her ponytail was matted, slick, and the night’s sweat shone off her shoulder blades. A wave of cicadas bellowed from the hillside and blowflies twitched beneath the bed, waning in the heat. She took her mug, twirled the dregs of chai with a forlorn finger and rose to inspect the living room.
The coffee table was covered in beer bottles, cans of spiked seltzer and a coconut husk filled with ash. The carpet had turned brown, the color of lentil masala. An upturned suitcase lay by the rice cooker, filled with collared shirts and leather shoes, and reams of silly-string clung to the bronze Nataraja, like the intestines of a rainbow Shiva.
But mostly Vrinda saw the absence of her son. She could not avert her eyes. His presence lingered in the handprints on the fridge, the indent on his bed, the tinny electro music playing from a cracked iPod in the saucepan. The distance between them had already begun to grow, as if nurtured by the excitement of elsewhere, and not here, to the history of this house, and to this woman stuck like a wasp in wax.
Stepping to the kitchenette, Vrinda found a cola can beside the pot of basmati rice, sawn cleanly across in a line. She unfolded a scrap of newspaper beside the can and found a note.
Ma. Here lies one hectic Joe Blake. RIP. I drowned him in the loo.
She peeked inside the can and backtracked to the fridge, bunching her fingers into fists. She peeked again and yes, there he was, a Joe Blake after all, limp and rubbery, as long as her hand, as thin as her finger, deep black scales on a flat wide head, yellow on his belly and amber in his eyes.
But the poor fellow, she said. The poorest and deadest of fellows.
* * *
Vrinda had lived in The Gully for twenty-four years. Her husband had built the house before she left Bombay to marry him. They had spent their honeymoon setting traps for kangaroos and foxes and curling inside each other on the fresh wool carpets. In the nineties, the property had been strangled by wiry eucalypts, thorny blackberries, and boulders as large as elephants, but now the house was cushioned by aboveground pools and manicured lawns.
The Gully was continually dissected and auctioned by creepy-crawly businessmen from the city. She had seen them with her own eyes, hunched in black vans behind tinted windshields, stammering into gleaming mobile phones and smoking stunted cigarettes out their windows.
The building works began but never ended. Every five years a lot would go up for auction, a crowd of men in suits would gather, the haggling would begin, and the documents would shift from one owner to the next. In the yearly cycles to follow, hundreds of tradesman would swarm like orange bees over the scaffolding sets, dismantling the bricks and weatherboards in the perpetual hope of something in vogue.
* * *
Stepping around the Shiva statue, Vrinda nestled her phone on the charger. She loaded her email but there was only a catalogue from the supermarket.
Cricket season is family season, it said. Bowl them over with these yummy Sunday roasts.
She fixed another cup of chai and stood by the tomato saplings, lips pursed, stirring the tea with her pinkie finger. She walked through the backyard, tracking a line of beetles from the bougainvillea to the wattle to the camphor, flattening the insects under her slippers. She reached her naga jolokia, her most prized chili, stroking the apex with her free hand, and then she looped back to the tomatoes, sweeping the busted beetles into the garden bed.
* * *
In the evening, when the February bushfires sizzled in the sky, Vrinda burrowed in her husband’s study among the cardboard boxes.
They were taped across the lid, one meter by one meter by one meter, with instructions in her son’s handwriting on how to ship them to the dump. Inside the boxes were folders, plastic sleeves, loose-leaf binders and envelopes in all iterations of yellow. Her son insisted the documents within were utterly pointless: old gas bills, bank statements, insurance inquiries, prostate reports, airline receipts.
But she needed their security, the loving obsession with which her husband had kept his belongings. He had taught her that these hills were harsh, unquestionably brutal, that even the most sensitive creatures needed layers and defenses. His belongings had been preserved from droughts and bushfires and even death, as here they were, untouchable, seven months since he had left to the next life all by himself.
* * *
That night Vrinda awoke in the study with her hair in knots. She rolled on her side in the dim lamplight, catching a tinny rattling from the back of the house. She held her breath and lay very still. The rattle sounded again. The mold on the ceiling rippled behind the bush smoke and she walked to the kitchen without her slippers, guided by the green LED light of the phone, fully charged, no messages or missed calls.
It was Joe Blake, bopping his head against the rim of the cola can. His tongue lapped over his aluminum coffin. His eye peeked over the ridge.
So you’re here after all, she said. And hungry, yaar.
She ambled to her bedroom and gathered the mugs beside her bed. The flies had stuck to the cinnamon trails around the rim. She plucked the bugs off the mugs and dropped them into Joe Blake’s can.
He gobbled them up, up, without opening his eyes. He caught his dinner with his wiry, forked tongue and lay to rest with his stomach bulging. A laugh escaped Vrinda’s lips and skipped through the bush smoke, the yard and out across the vacant lots.
* * *
Joe Blake ate all the flies and grew very large.
She gave him a red bucket and he curled in a spiral along the grooves on the base. He was nearly fifty centimeters long. She found a lid and attached it to his new house. He slept during the evenings until the dawn, when the sun splayed through the back window and flared along the bucket. He lifted his head, shifted from flat to vertical, catching imperceptible vibrations with his tongue.
After his meals, she clamped the lid in place, checking the latches four times.
While Joe Blake slept, she bought two clocks from the supermarket and set them along the kitchenette, face up, ticking resonantly in the dark. Bedtime at home meant four-thirty am in San Francisco, which meant seven-thirty am in New York. She stayed up by the phone in the charger, crossing her legs on the floor.
In March, when the bushfires cleared and the skies revealed their endless azure, she invited the roaches out from under the fridge with a teaspoon of honey. She dropped them in the bucket, their many legs beating against the plastic, their antennae splitting in pieces. Joe Blake caught them in a single bite, chomping through their husks, dripping hot venom down his neck.
* * *
Construction started on the lot next door. A truck napped in the driveway and men in hardhats shifted metal beams and sacks of concrete across the clay. A new house erupted from the earth, double story, with a concrete balcony and squat pillars.
She heard the manager yelling along the fence and stood at the sink by the beer cans. The manager clomped down the driveway in purple high heels, kicking pebbles and branches out of her path, photographing the busted drainpipe and the ditches scarring the property.
This isn’t good enough, said the manager into her mobile phone. It’s a zoo out here. Can we get someone to tidy this up. Do you have anyone who needs the work.
The rain came, the first downpour of the year, and the drizzle filled the house with a delicate chill. Vrinda shut the window and peered through the curtains as an inspector in red overalls tramped across the site.
The inspector hunched by the drainpipe holding a silver tin whistle. He blew and the whistle rang like a magpie’s scree, and she noticed an aura around his pudgy figure, a shield perhaps, so strong that the rain changed direction to avoid his pockmarked skin.
The inspector waited, tapping his boot, and then he shuffled to a ditch.
She unclenched the faucet and poured a pitcher of water.
The rain stopped and the sun peeked over the hills.
The inspector yawned, revealing the mustard undersides of his molars. He squeaked through the cement belly of the house and she drank, rinsing her teeth, burping, drinking some more, murmuring as the water turned from cold to warm in her throat.
It’s only a little of water, Joe Blake, she said. I’m thirsty all of a sudden. But when she turned to the bucket, the latches were twisted, untethered, and the lid was off.
* * *
You must come back here right now.
She peered into the bucket but it was very empty.
You never said you were a practical joker.
She knelt on the tiles and checked beneath the cabinet. She clutched her dressing gown tightly and tiptoed through the house, scanning the crevice below the couch, the dark grimace below the shelves of the bookcase, the door of the pantry left ajar.
I could very well call somebody.
She searched through the study, the kitchen, under her son’s computer, by the radiator, inside the shower, the back of the fridge. She paced down the hallway and turned on the bedroom halogen.
Joe Blake lay on her bed.
His tail rested under her pillow, his eyes glittering topaz against the beige sheet.
What is the matter.
He stirred in his sleep, lapping his forked tongue, as long as her middle finger. Then he slithered off the bed, landed with a thump and curved towards the doorway.
I’m asking what is the matter with you.
He rose off the rug and hissed and two drops of venom sprayed onto the plasterboard.
She leapt backwards down the hall and something trickled down her gown and over her shins. There was an acrid stench. The puddle eked between her toes and she lowered her eyes from Joe Blake’s.
As she pressed her pallid ankles to either side of the wooden runner, Joe Blake slithered to the puddle and paused beneath her gown, lapping his tongue in the air. Then he carried on past the joss sticks and back to his bucket.
* * *
She waited for the bath to fill, the bones of her hands aching and their ligaments wrangling her knuckles. She tried to slow her heart but it was ahead of her, out of reach, like arriving at the airport after her plane had left.
She plunged her dressing gown in the bathtub. She scrubbed the stains with a ball of wire and unclasped her beady, beige brassiere, ladling the cups in the sink, filling them with soapy water. She slid her stinking underwear to her ankles and plunged them in the shower.
She turned on all the faucets, gasping between the clouds of steam, smearing soap up her wrists and balling her undergarments in two tight fists.
Afterwards she dusted her pillow and smoothed the bed sheets across her mattress. She checked in the study but the boxes had not moved so she closed the door nervously. She dressed in an old magenta sari, gathered her sopping clothes, and stepped onto the patio, where the laundry line trembled in the breeze.
She pegged her gown and then her black underwear to the line, stretched a meter wide with the elastic groaning between the pegs, then her brassiere, bloated with the bathwater in the cups.
The breeze flipped.
The whistle echoed across the property. She peered between the scaffolding. The inspector leaned sideways on his workbench, his fingers stiffened into a visor on his head, tapping his boots, watching her across the lawn.
She tossed her brassiere over the clotheshorse and hurried inside. Later Vrinda found her fingertips were pasty, wrinkled, and her nails petrified with the last drops of the bleach.
* * *
Somewhere in Salt Lake City, she said, they too are sharing supper.
She unhooked a roach from its trap and tickled its feelers over the rim of the bucket. The doorbell rang. She folded the tweezers and padded through the house and opened the front door and it was the inspector.
Oh yeah g’day, he said. Do you got a moment to chinwag.
She said that she did.
The inspector stepped forwards, creaking in the landing. He was a stubby man but his boots and hair were very tall. Thousands of striations in the fly screen rippled in the wind, turning him inconclusive, a specter.
So I’ve been letting everyone know there’s been an outbreak in The Gully, he said. Supposed to be getting gnarly soon so they’re looking for places to stay warm but they’re cold-blooded buggers, let me tell you. They’re pests.
The inspector blew his whistle.
She blocked her ears.
I’ve even caught a few meself when I’ve been cleaning up, he said, and stepped backwards over the landing, revealing the morning’s bounty: three rainbow snakes, stretched prone across the mat, two meters long, their glassy eyes reflecting the flecks of clay on his vest. I’m here every day, he said. Pleased to meet you.
Her hair unraveled over her eyes and cut the scene in half.
You mind if I come in love, said the inspector. Pretty windy out here. Hard to have a chat through the fly screen.
She drummed her fingers on the handle. She fingered the lock with the ridge of her thumb. Then she shook her head and said she was heading into the shower, yaar, that it would have to wait for another day.
No dramas, said the inspector. I can kickback in the living room. Make meself a bev or two or three. What’s the rush, Tikka Masala. Do you got a man I should be worried about.
She said there was a husband.
Well I ain’t ever seen the bugger, said the inspector. But alright. Alright.
He picked up the snakes and slung them over his shoulder.
So what’s your fella do anyway, said the inspector. Is he working out of town.
She said she would keep an eye out for snakes, yaar, but it was really no problem, they could chitchat some other time. She nodded and stepped down the hallway. The scents of the inspector trailed her to the kitchen: the moist clay; the tang of rusted nails; the ravished beer cans; the blood of the dead snakes, their heads dangling over his back, lolling against the meaty curvature of his muscles and the entrails on his overalls.
* * *
The days began to unravel. The gutters filled with spiky orange firs and poisonous purple moss. The hillside brush, blackened by the summer fires, whispered in the pouring rain. A spritely green hue dotted the loam, saplings sprouting from black trunks and ashen fields.
She dug her son’s sticks of string-cheese out of the fridge, peeling them by the air con vent. A mouse slid down the shaft and stepped into the living room and Joe Blake struck from behind the sofa, swallowing his prey in a single, seething gulp.
She found a cardboard box and wrote, Blake Residence. She fed him more mice and rats and then a tabby she caught in the yard in a coil trap. I’ll make you a biryani, you are not to go hungry, she said, removing the cat’s paws with a kitchen knife.
The phone started ringing in the late hours.
Oh hey, the inspector would say. Just wanted to give you a buzz. How’s everything over there.
He found her phone number in the council database. He started each call to say sorry for calling and then spoke for ten minutes, fifteen, twenty if she answered on the first ring. He told her about his job, the many sites he went to inspect, Carrum Downs to Sydenham and every suburb in between. The Chinese manager paid him five hundred dollars every day. It’s all cash, he said. Tax-free. Then he told her he had a daughter with two bung legs and a wife who ran away with her head full of crystal meth.
But it’s fine, he said. Me mum always said you never know who’s waiting just around the corner.
Usually Vrinda left the phone off the charger and lay on the sofa watching television. She liked watching Law & Order on mute and guessing the villain before the first commercials. When she checked the phone at the end of the episode, the inspector was still talking about his daughter, about her classes at the spakka school, and her fingerpaintings, and wheeling her about the site on Friday arvo, and by then Vrinda would apologize. It was time to sleep, yaar. She had an early morning. Friends to meet for lattes and smashed avocado on toast. She put the phone on the charger, took the television off mute and snuggled inside her cotton lounger, not a speck of skin exposed to the crisp June air.
* * *
She stepped into the yard one morning and found the grass was frosted, covered in a shield of ice, the snails frozen on the gravel and the chilies stiff in their stems. The sun set at four-thirty and the winter, the coldest in so many decades, haunted her at night, left her whimpering between piles of blankets and a buzzing radiator.
It was time for breakfast in New Orleans, but it was too frosty to leave her bed and answer the phone.
Joe Blake nestled in his lair all day, slumped against the cardboard slats. She curled beside the box and hugged the cardboard to her chest and even warmed his chinshields in her fingers. He was so hefty her arms strained to hold him up. They chatted about the winter, that it wouldn’t last forever, yaar, they could expect another rip-roaring summer, just three months until spring, September would bring balmy weather, enough heat to spread their toes, to dust-dust their t-shirts and saris. Joe Blake couldn’t fathom the winter so he lay brooding, saying nothing so as to avoid using energy he did not have.
* * *
Then one day the window shattered above the Nataraja.
Vrinda yelped and hid behind Joe Blake’s box. She peeked around the sofa. The glass was cracked, the hole the size of her head, the shards scattered over the floor by the window. A footy rolled out from under the couch and nudged her feet.
Well fuck me, said the inspector.
He scurried over the fence, into the yard, slapping his shoulders to push the dirt off his gloves.
Oh hey, Tikka Masala, sorry about that, he said. Me left foot’s no good. Kicked that one right the fuck out of bounds.
She said left foot kicks were always tricky and handed the footy back.
I’ll give you some dosh for that, no worries, said the inspector. I wouldn’t want that hubby of yours getting in a tizzy. He unfurled his wallet, revealing wads of business cards and twenty-dollar bills. He passed her one hundred dollars. So have you picked a footy team yet, he said. Big deal here in The Gully.
She said her son liked the Tigers.
So you got a son now, too, said the inspector. A milf. How come I ain’t ever seen him.
She said he was travelling, it was midnight in Chicago.
You wouldn’t go telling any porky pies, would you, said the inspector. You handling this winter alright.
She said she was, no problem, yaar, she was perfectly fine by herself.
So you’re by yourself after all. Who would have guessed. He pressed his hand through the broken window, crunching the shards over the carpet, leaning his head through the fissure. I’m not one to probe, Tikka, but all I’m hearing are porky pies, aren’t I.
She stepped back through the living room. The wind slipped through the broken window, sucking the heat from the house. A streak of gooseflesh coursed up her ankles.
You want to come out now, Mr. Masala, called the inspector, craning his neck towards the corridor. I’m out here ogling your cheese and kisses and why don’t you do anything about it.
She stood and said, that’s enough, yaar.
Funny that, said the inspector. Nothing about you seems to be adding up. One plus one equals one.
He slid out of the window, rolled across the gravel, smearing frost over his bomber jacket. He pinned the footy in his elbow and leapt into the opposite lot and, just before stepping behind the makeshift workbench, he tucked the whistle between his lips and blew.
Joe Blake shuddered in his box, thwacking his tail against the walls. She opened the flaps, stroked his chilly scales and told him he was untouchable.
Already the cold had infiltrated the house. She pressed the sofa to the broken window. Her breath spread in clouds before her face and the fine hair on her chest stiffened under her muumuu.
* * *
The dew on the tomato plants turned to ice and the mice in the attic refused to come down for dinner. She unboxed the space heater from the cupboard, plugged it beside Blake Residence, and insulated his walls with her son’s duvet and a ream of aluminum foil.
She told Joe Blake it was just one night, yaar, the window would be fixed tomorrow, there was plenty of heat in the house if he just knew where to find it, that the cold didn’t really matter because he was hibernating, yaar, in his dreams, imagining his reptilian buddy-boys in a creek or glade.
She told him goodnight and lay in her room.
She fell into a deep sleep, dreaming of the beaches in the northern coast of the country, sunlit, golden sands so private only she and her son were permitted. Then something rustled down the corridor and bumped the doorframe and it was Joe Blake.
He slid over the carpet past her dressing gown, socks, hair ties and mugs and up, up, the side of the bed. He was two meters long, fifteen kilograms heavy. He slid under the duvet, through the saffron and lavender scents. He slid over her legs, across the coarse skin on her calves, under her flowing cotton nighty, around her shaking shoulders.
She said his name and her brow knotted in concentration and her spinning heart became the compass of the bed.
* * *
In the morning Vrinda pulled open the duvet and found the bed empty. She closed the bedroom door and buried her face in the pillow, pushing her eyes into the cushion until bright yellow shame spots seared the back of her eyelids.
She took her nighty and dunked it in the bathtub. She upended a bottle of bleach, scrubbed the stains and picked away the strands of hair with her fingernails.
She stood at the laundry line in the freezing morning without her jacket, wearing just the husband’s flannel pajamas, and suspended the sheets beside her last soiled load. The pegs snapped apart and dangled off the rungs, limp and useless.
But when night fell and the freezing winter entered the house, she told Joe Blake it was his decision what he did with himself, yaar, not hers. Sometime later he slithered down the hallway and up into the icy bed, sans sheets, sans cases, sans pillows. And though at night she nursed shame, in the morning she wondered if shame, too, had an expiry. For death had stripped everything away, and so too would it soften shame, a phantom creature, a ghostly wound, when The Gully was only spots of cold and spots of warmth and how she lasted between them.
* * *
Joe Blake continued to grow. When the first spring pollen burst through the window, she coughed and spluttered her way to the sink, and passing the box she noticed a fat possum dotted with holes and crusty yellow venom.
He was three meters long, then three and a half.
He dozed in the burgeoning sun by the eastern windows. He was as wide as a garbage bin. At dusk, she beckoned foxes out of the hills with cubes of beef and he strangled them on the patio before curling in the bathtub to sleep. Sometimes he slept through the week and until the weekend, when she roused him with two hands down his face, tickling his tongue, telling him he was growing more than ever she anticipated, yaar, that one day he would leave her and hunt among the eucalypts like he was destined.
* * *
She squashed Blake Residence and left it beside the boxes from her husband’s study, spread amongst the recyclables on the lawn. The October sky stretched across The Gully like a canopy over a bazaar. Flies licked the sweat that eked from her neck and diffused across the driveway.
A hand grabbed her shoulder.
C’mon Tikka Masala, said the inspector. Why you always playing on the back foot.
The inspector pressed her into his hips, his belt buckle and his wallet. She held her breath and he chuckled, pushing her onto the tanbark. He stood above her with his shorts unzipped, kneading his penis, clutching a handsaw to his side. Don’t be shy, Tikka, he said. You never had an Aussie hunk before, have you.
She rolled through the lavender bush and to her feet. She sprinted inside, locked the laundry door and ran to her bedroom, and with every footfall the inspector laughed, a hearty chuckle from the plinth of his spine.
* * *
She opened her son’s computer and loaded her email. She drafted everything: the inspector, the broken window, the late-night calls, the scene by the recycling bins. She added a group of recipients to the email: her sister-in-law in Brisbane, an auntie in Nunawading, the hostess at the funeral parlor. She chewed her tongue and refreshed the email and started over, word after word. She added a sentence about Joe Blake, that had they ever seen something like this before.
She hovered over the send button.
The cursor blinked once, and again.
But a photo, she said, and typed “yellow-bellied black snake” into Google and loaded the images and clicked on the first website.
The yellow-bellied black snake was an endangered species in southeast Australia. Herpetologists once believed them so rare as to be mythical. Their venom could paralyze an elephant or one/two small horses. The last human death was reported in a Sydney flat, when Digs, a twelve-year old boy, smacked a juvenile yellow-bellied on the head with a carton of fries.
She slowly scrolled to the very end of the entry. In spring, she read, male yellow-bellied black snakes can engage in ritualized combat for the right to keep breeding with a fertile female, strategically attacking other males for two to thirty minutes or until dead.
* * *
She couldn’t find a discount coupon so she had to pay full-price, another ten dollars for same day shipping. They came that afternoon, folded in a plastic sheath in a purple envelope with her name scribbled on the front like a clandestine code.
She unwrapped the package and a lace thong floated over her lap. She might have missed it if she blinked or laughed but luckily she was paying close attention, eyes adjusted to the gloom of her bedroom. The brassiere hid in the corner of the package. She crunched the receipt for ninety-six dollars and ninety-nine cents in her fist.
She shut all the windows. She turned on the radiator and the oven and switched the clothes washer to a hot cycle. The hair in her armpits started to wet.
She ran the shower and the washbasin. She kept the temperature low, icy.
She opened the door and there was Joe Blake, roused by the noise, lured to the bathroom by the cold air. He bopped his head, nestling between her dripping feet. She stepped over his body and he slivered through the door, four meters long, and hid in the shower. She looped a towel over her shoulder and wrapped herself in an old celadon gown with silver tassels at the hips. She stood by the laundry line in the afternoon sun and the gravel turned to diamonds around her slippers.
The inspector’s handsaw twanged in the lot, pinging between the transoms and the toeboards. She hummed slowly behind her dry lips and the sawing stopped. The inspector pressed his hand to his forehead, fingers stiff in a visor, peering through the glare to the woman at the clotheshorse.
She unfurled the brassiere across the line. The sun caught the clasps and they shimmered. She pinned the thong to the rack, running one hand inside her gown, over her nape and along her collarbones.
Oh Tikka, he said. Why do you keep doing this to me.
The splashing in the shower resonated through the house and into the yard. She draped her towel over her elbow and crept through the door, open now like a wide, enticing smile.