THE LURI PEOPLE
Jake looked like a goner. His body lay stiff and white amongst the dirt and straw. Eyes rolled back in his head, so you couldn’t see the whites. People stood with hands to their faces, all silent, unmoving and totally useless. Only Charlie uttered a word,
‘C’mon Mate. Just wake up, please.’ Tears ran down the red-haired boy’s face.
‘Somebody help us.’
Just then there was a murmur in the crowd. Onlookers were pushed aside as an elderly man, dressed in khaki and carrying a tiny box knelt down beside the prone boy and administered a syringe of vile-looking liquid. He then sought about making Jake more comfortable while checking all his vital signs.
After an eternity, the boy let out a low moan, and the mob let out a huge collective sigh. Jake’s eyes flickered open.
‘Jake, Mate. You’re O.K.’ Charlie said, relieved. His friend tried to raise himself up on his elbows.’
‘Hang on a moment, m’lad. You don’t want to get yourself into any more trouble. Let’s just wait til the cavalry arrives, eh?’ Charlie turned in the old man’s direction.
‘Thanks Mister,’ the young boy said sincerely. The man flashed a smile at him through watery eyes.
‘The ambulance boys will be here in a minute. Let’s just keep your mate calm til then, eh?’
This had all happened because the two decided to wag school that day. That occurred fairly often; the two thirteen-year-olds hated school and would look for any excuse to take a day off. Thursday was the last day of the Edmore Country Expo. Besides that, it was stinking hot and the Christmas holidays were beckoning. So, Jake and Charlie skirted the school bus and took off on the train.
The expo was in full swing by the time they got there. People were milling around the displays and there were even queues for the food stalls and toilets. Jake bought some hot chips and drinks and they sat on hay bales in the shade.
‘This is so boring,’ Jake said, and Charlie agreed. ‘Too many old farts and bushies. Let’s see if we can liven things up a bit.’
‘O.K. Just let me finish my chips first,’ Charlie said. After some time the boys got up and found their way to the working animal enclosures.
A parks worker was exhibiting a range of lizards and snakes. Jake, fascinated by the reptiles, pushed his way to the front. Charlie followed, and the two watched agog as the keeper produced a wriggling Hessian sack and drew out a myriad of slithering serpents that he held at arm’s length on a long metal prong. After a while, Jake caught Charlie’s eye, and was hanging well over the fence they were behind. He motioned Charlie to do the same, which he did. Then Jake hung over even more, daring Charlie. The boys kept inching, further and further, until two-thirds of their bodies hung over the fence.
‘And this snake I have here is known to be amongst the most deadly in the world,’ the keeper said. ‘One bite is enough to bring down an elephant.’ Suddenly, the viper struck! With lightning-fast movement, the reptile sunk its fangs down in Jake’s arm. There was a scream, but the boy didn’t realise it was his own. All he was aware of was the raging protest of pain that erupted in his arm and the pallid, stricken face of his best friend. Then he knew nothing.
It seemed an eternity before the hospital staff let Charlie see Jake. Their parents had been called and the backlash that ensued was directed at Charlie, but he didn’t care. No punishment they could think of would be worse than what had happened. Finally a nurse walked down the corridor.
‘You can see him now,’ she said, smiling.
‘Thanks a lot,’ he said. He got up and followed her to a room that was sectioned off by multiple screens. Jake was sitting in a bed in the only one that was opened. He broke into a wide grin at seeing Charlie.
‘Mate,’ Jake said. ‘Come over here and see me.’
Charlie sat on the edge of the bed.
‘Shit, mate. I’m really sorry about what happened. I thought…..’ his voice trailed off.
‘Hey, Bud. It’d take more than that to kill me.’
‘Knock. Knock. Can I come in?’ Both boys turned around. It was the old man at the expo.
‘Sure,’ the boys chorused. The man shuffled up to a chair beside the bed and with slow, arthritic movements, lowered his body onto the seat. He smiled at the two, fixing his gaze on Jake. His friend stole a long look at him. The elderly man was dressed in khaki, and wore an old, battered hat. His hair and beard were as white as his complexion was dark. He would have to be at least seventy, Charlie decided. Suddenly, their eyes meet, and the young lad dropped his gaze. For some reason, he felt uncomfortable and he wasn’t sure why. All he knew was he didn’t like it.
‘Do you know who I am?’ he asked the young dark-haired boy.
‘Are you the guy that saved my life? Jake answered. ‘They told me about you. Thanks for that.’
‘Just doing my job, m’lad Just doing my job.’ There was a silence. Finally Jake spoke.
‘Anyway, I’m Jake and this is Charlie.’ The old man smiled his reply.
‘Name’s Neddy. Neddy Fellis. I’m the local snake catcher. I saw what happened. That handler was pretty useless. He’s gotta carry around the anti-venin. I don’t go around anyway without it. You never know if you’re gonna come across a wriggler.’
‘I guess…’ Charlie said.
‘Anyhow, I gotta go. Places to go, snakes to meet, all that kinda thing.’ He smiled through jagged teeth. ‘If you want to come and see me, y’know when you get outta here, I live at the old Donaldson house.’ Charlie shuddered, he knew that place well, all the locals said it was haunted. Neddy rose shakily from his seat and started for the door.
‘Don’t forget. I’d really like the company.’ Then he was gone.
‘Bit of a funny old bugger,’ Charlie said.
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Jake said. ‘I thought he was pretty cool for an old guy.’
‘Really?’ Suddenly Charlie produced a dark, round stone from the folds of the bed.
‘Where did that come from?’ Jake asked.
‘It’s not yours?’
‘What would I be doing with that? Jake said. ‘It must belong to the old guy. Quick! See if you can catch him.’ Charlie took off down the corridor, but the old man was nowhere to be seen.
‘Missed him,’ Charlie said on his return.’
‘Never mind. I’ll take it back to him when I get out of here. It’s a really nice looking thing. Maybe it’s worth money. I think he’ll be upset when he finds out it’s missing.’ Charlie stole a look at the stone. It was coloured gold, like really dark treacle and had three black bands through its centre. It was highly polished and as heavy as lead. Not a cheap trinket at all.
Charlie was shocked when Jake returned to school. His eyes were bloodshot and sunken into his skull. Jake’s skin was white and bloodless, with his hair plastered greasily all over his head. Even the clothes were dirty and dishevelled; one thing that Jake always worried about was his appearance. He would never leave home without a clean shirt and jeans.
That wasn’t all. Jake sat as usual across from Charlie, but didn’t catch his eye. The red-haired boy kept flicking glances towards his friend, but received nothing in return. Jake just sat there, stony-faced, staring straight ahead and seemingly barely breathing. Charlie wondered what he had done wrong. He turned over recent events in his mind: what was said, what happened, but couldn’t find an answer. The hours slowly crept by.
I’ll have it out with him a lunchtime, Charlie decided. If he’s got the shits I at least have a right to know why.
Finally, the class was over, and the students slowly filed out the door. Charlie remained in his seat, ready to move as his friend did. After an eternity, Jake stood up and headed for the corridor. Charlie leapt into action, racing to his side and grabbing his arm. What the red-haired boy saw made his blood freeze. The eyes that stared at him were cold and hard and dead all at the same time. Charlie dropped his hand in shock, and opened his mouth to say something, but the only sound that came out was a timid squeak. Then Jake’s eyes flashed back into what his friend knew and recognised.
‘Hi, Mate. What’s up? Jake said. Charlie let out a titter of relief.
‘Nice to see you back at school, Buddy,’ he said.
‘Thanks, Charlie. It’s good to be back.’ The two walked down the corridor and out the main doors.
‘Did that old guy get back to you about the stone?’
‘Yeah, I went to see him first thing when I got out. I was right about him. He’s really great. Knows a lot about snakes and shit. He’s invited us both up there on Saturday. That’s if you want to go.’ This was a strange development, as far as Charlie was concerned. They had been best mates since kindergarten and always did everything together. Jake had been out of hospital for a week, and hadn’t been anywhere near his mate. Instead, he was running around when some old codger.
I thought he was laid up at home all week, Charlie thought. Just shows you don’t know someone as well as you think.
‘Well? You gonna come or not?’ Charlie snapped out of his daydream with a start.
‘O.K. Saturday should be alright, I guess,’ he answered, a sinking feeling rose in his stomach. He’d heard a lot of strange stories about the old Donaldson house. It’d been empty for years, but the fact that the old man now lived there did nothing to make it more attractive. In fact, if it wasn’t for his mate he’d run in the opposite direction.
Jake rolled up early on the Saturday. Charlie had been sitting at the window, and hoped against hope his friend wouldn’t arrive. He actually felt disappointment when he seen the blue bike racing its way down the long driveway.
‘Charlie! Are you ready?’ Jake called.
‘Yeah, Mate. Just hang on a sec.’
‘C’mon, c’mon. Just move it!’ Jake actually sounded annoyed.
Charlie grabbed his water bottle and his sweater and got on his bike. The two took off for the long ride to the Donaldson’s.
Neddy was waiting for them on the front veranda. Charlie did a double take. Snakes were wrapped around the old man’s arms, wriggling and twisting and flicking long forked tongues. He saw the look on the young boy’s face and laughed.
‘Don’t you know anything about snakes, M’lad? Surely you know the green ones are harmless. They’re only grass snakes. Every kid in the bush knows that.’ The old man and Jake roared with laughter, and Charlie flushed bright red. Of course he didn’t know, and he didn’t think Jake knew it either. He wished he’d stayed at home.
‘Come in, come in’, Neddy finally, gesturing towards the open door. ‘Let’s all have something to eat.’ Charlie looked around wildly, and hoped there weren’t any snakes inside.
Fifteen minutes later, the three were sitting around the kitchen table, mugs of warm apple cider in their hands. The house wasn’t as the boy had imagined, in fact, it was just an average farm home, neat and tidy and smelling like detergent. A pot belly stove was radiating a comforting sort of heat that made Charlie feel sleepy. In fact, he was beginning to wonder why he had any trepidation at all. Then he saw a look pass between Jake and Neddy Fellis, and the sinking feeling was in his stomach once more.
‘Y’know, Charlie, I’m really glad you come today,’ the old man said, as he placed his withered hands on the table. Charlie looked at him, but didn’t speak. He knew something was coming that he didn’t want to hear. Still he didn’t move.
‘Ever heard of the dreamtime, boy?’ Neddy asked.
‘Yeah, the aboriginal stories. We’ve heard some at school. Why’s that?’ The old man looked him square in the face and continued.
‘The Luri were the traditional snake people of the dreaming. Fierce and proud warriors. Brave and stronger than anyone or anything. Legends says that were all killed. But they weren’t. Some survived and live on even today.’
Crazy old bugger What’s he getting at? Charlie thought, panic rising in his chest.
‘Do you know what it means to be chosen?’ Neddy said. The young boy blinked several times.
Hell, I’ve got to get out of here, he thought, but his head reeled and the room started to spin. Shit, I’ve been drugged. I shouldn’t have drunk that apple cider .Shit, shit. shit!’
‘Don’t you realise, young fella. I’m not just a snake catcher. I’m one of them. A luri. So is your mate. Now you will be too….if you just hold still.’ The old man started singing in a low, A flat monotone. Charlie felt tired, so tired. He just wanted to lie down and sleep. Other voices seemed to join in. Many voices, all male, some rising in crescendo and others coming and going. There were other things too, the hum of a didgeridoo, the tap of sticks and the roar of a conch shell. A vision flashed before Charlie’s closed eyes. A fierce battle was being waged. Many warriors lay on the ground, writhing in agony or still in the aftermath of a violent death. And amid the chaos and confusion strode Neddy, the Neddy that now sat before Charlie. Only he didn’t look old and frail anymore. He stood tall and strong, not much older than the two boys, but with a strength and bearing that took your breath away. The dark eyes that peered through the face paint focused on Charlie, appeared to look into his very soul and snapped the red-haired lad back to reality. He saw Neddy and Jake watching him intently across the table and realised he had only one last chance to escape.
Oh, God! Charlie thought. I’ve gotta get out, gotta get out, gotta get out. With one final burst of adrenaline, Charlie rose to his feet and raced for the door.
His two hands grasped the doorknob as Jake grabbed him by the throat and sunk two gleaming white fangs into Charlie’s neck. He heard the roar of the blood rushing to his brain and a million stars explode as his neck was snapped like a green twig and his life force extinguished.
For a long time after, both man and boy stood looking at the prone form lying on the floor in front of them.
‘What a waste,’ the old man said. ‘He would have made such a great snake person.’