– Get out from under my feet and go and help your father.
With help from behind with the straw broom, Frankie was pushed into the late spring afternoon. Knowing that his mother would be watching his progress, he ambled as slowly as he dared toward the old Falcon and the certainty of failure. With the bonnet up, the car looked like it was eating his father and now it spewed him out. He let ﬂy with a string of swear words before he noticed Frankie.
– What do you want?
– Mum said I had to come and help you.
His father was cornered in the game of going through the motions of teaching him or risk Frankie‘s Mum giving him a hard time. Inching under the jacked-up front end, his father grunted that he could sit near the tool-box and pass him things when he needed them. Frankie responded with enthusiasm because he knew that he would be sacked on
his ﬁrst mistake, leaving the rest of the afternoon for exploring. His father’s temper, the well-worn parts of the ageing car and Frankie’s ignorance of the difference between shifters and sockets caused an early explosion.
– Go on, get lost. You’re no bloody use to me if you’re not gonna listen.
Putting on a drooping lip, he turned the corner of the house and headed for his Tree of Secrets.
Frankie’s house was the last on the roughly graded road, which eventually became a walking track into the bush. At the entrance to the track stood a huge gum, with a hollow on the side facing away from his house and towards the Henderson’s dam. It had always been a handy place to hide while staying in hearing distance from the house but it became magical when someone started to use the hollow.
First there was a pocket knife, then a box of matches and then a comic and ﬁnally a bag of marbles. This temptation was too much and Frankie ‘borrowed’ some of the bigger ones to impress the other kids at school. The next day everything had gone and nothing ever returned but every day he checked, just in case. It became his Tree of Secrets but he didn’t say anything to anyone because he knew they’d laugh.
Having been dismissed, it was safe for him to venture into the bush, to his private place. Careful to check that he wasn’t being followed, he left the track and made his way down into the fern-ﬁlled gully and its wetness. Pushing his way through the dense fronds, he found what he called the Temple of the Spring and he was home. He called this his Temple because the temples in the Bible stories always seemed to be peaceful. His Mum said you were supposed to be peaceful and quiet in church and Sunday School but all he felt was cold.
Here he could do no wrong. Starting from a small rise at the head of the gully was a spring, which seemed to come from nowhere and ﬂowed like a twisted rope. Seated on a rotting fallen tree, Frankie sat in a trance and watched the ﬂow and felt safe in a way he could never have explained to anyone. Frankie was having one of his favorite daydreams, about the mistake at the hospital when he was a baby. His parents were arriving in their Rolls Royce to take him to their big mansion in the city when Frankie heard the roar of a real engine.
It was the familiar rumble of the road grader, cutting through the clay and rock. Each time the grader came it deepened the banks at the sides but the road only stayed smooth until the next heavy rains. Along the road were the sawmill, a couple of holiday shacks, some timber workers houses like Frankie‘s and the camp of the Faithful. Only the caretaker of the Faithful camp was there all the time but most weekends and every holiday buses would arrive and leave with the Faithful on board.
The Faithful camp was surrounded by a barbed -wire fence, with signs warning people that trespassers would be prosecuted. Frankie‘s parents had told him that Faithful people weren’t supposed to mix with anybody but the Faithful and that he was to stay away from ‘those weirdos’. They said they had strange ideas about religion but they didn’t tell him what they were.
During these last holidays a Faithful boy about Frankie‘s age had started to appear at the corner post of the barbed wire fence, not far from the Tree of Secrets. Although Frankie could still be invisible, he knew the Faithful boy had seen him come and go and he hated that. But something about the Faithful boy’s eyes held Frankie back from telling him to get back to his camp.
As Frankie came up from the gully to investigate what the grader had done, he watched the Faithful boy emerge from behind the Tree of Secrets and examine the new scar in the road embankment, as though he was looking for something in particular. The boy stopped suddenly, peered into a small hole and span around, searching frantically in the
Seizing on a large stick, he raced to the embankment hole, poked furiously at it and then knelt close, squinting one-eyed. A small black snake’s head jabbed from the hole at the Faithful boy and withdrew at a speed that made Frankie wonder if he’d seen it at all.
Frankie‘s yell was out before he knew and the chalk-faced Faithful boy turned from the neck, as though his body was frozen. The front of his shorts was wet where he’d peed himself. Frankie wasn’t sure whether his fear of getting any closer was because of the snake or the Faithful boy. He wasn’t supposed to speak to the Faithful and he wasn’t supposed to disturb snakes. These messages from his father rang in his ears. A quick glance towards the house convinced him that he could see someone coming in time to disappear back into the bush if he had to, so he moved forward cautiously.
– Did it get you?
The Faithful boy looked down at himself as if uncertain and then shook his head. He seemed smaller up close.
– You better come away from there. My Dad reckons snakes can run faster than anyone for the ﬁrst hundred yards.
The faithful boy remained unmoved except for the tears that began to fall and the hands quickly put together in what Frankie recognised as prayer. Frankie ran forward, yanked the boy roughly by the arm to the opposite side of the road, to the protection of the Tree of Secrets.
The way the Faithful boy went straight to the hollow of the tree told Frankie who had ﬁlled it with the secret treasures. He didn’t want the boy to ask him if he was the one who took his marbles. All Frankie could think of to do was to ask him his name. The response was a whisper.
– I am one of the Faithful.
– What were you doing mucking around with the snake?
The Faithful boy suddenly turned red.
– It is a serpent and belongs to Satan.
Frankie knew this was another word for the Devil.
– It is the duty of the Faithful to slay the Serpent in all his forms.
Reciting this seemed to give the boy back his strength. He stood up, moved quickly to the fallen stick and began again poking furiously at the hole in the embankment. Without thinking, Frankie followed him and was about to tell him to cut it out when his father roared behind them.
– What are you up to?
Strangled by fear, he turned to the Faithful boy for support but he was off running through the bush towards Henderson’s dam.
– What the bloody hell was he poking at in that bloody hole‘?
Frankie could only get out one weak word.
As Frankie turned to go, he felt the boot in the backside he’d been half expecting and ran crying to his mother. The muffled sounds through his mother’s apron and his own sobbing still let through the tail-end of his father’s response to his mother’s question about what he’d done.
– …..mucking about with a bloody snake. I’ll have to go and ﬁnish it off.
After much slamming of shed doors and cursing, he was gone. For such a simple job he was gone a long time and from his room Frankie heard his mother ask where he‘d been.
– I’ve been talking to Wally Bayliss. A kiddie’s just drowned in Henderson’s dam. One of the Faithful boys, the one that was with Frankie. Apparently he had a bit of a hidey hole in that big tree on the edge of the dam. Must have slipped and fallen in and couldn‘t swim.
Frankie made a sound that didn’t seem to come from his mouth but from somewhere in his stomach. He couldn’t take his eyes off the marble bag on the dresser, with the bigger ones bulging on the bottom. His mother came to stand in the doorway and turned back to his father.
– He must have heard you, he‘s gone as white as a sheet.
– Come in here, son.
His father’s voice had softened in a way he’d never heard before. Walking into the room he saw his father pat his thigh and tell him to come and sit with his Dad for a while. Frankie hesitated and his parents looked at him helplessly. Death wasn’t ever talked about in their house.
He ran from the house to the gully and crashed into the Temple of the Spring and watched the water ﬂow, until he felt safe again. Suddenly Frankie knew where he needed to be and what he had to do.
He raced back to the house and grabbed the bag of marbles and ran out again. At the embankment he forced himself to pick up the headless snake his father had killed and walked to Henderson’s dam. He stood on the edge of the dam and called out.
– The serpent’s dead now.
He threw the dead snake into the water and threw all the marbles
– I’m sorry I took them.
Turning around, he saw where the boy must have found a new hiding place under the tree hanging over the dam. He curled up in there and started to cry like a baby. He was still there when his father found him and carried him home, without a word.
(An earlier version of this story was read on 5UV Radio Adelaide ‘Short Stories’ on 20/8/93 but no rights apply to these readings.)