Michael the (Snake) Charmer

Michael the (Snake) Charmer

When I arrived at his dilapidated treehouse, I complimented Michael on the taxidermy snake he had draped on his kitchen window sill. I found comfort in its lifelessness, its alien body, the intricacy of its scales.

Michael, slowly dragging on his cigarette and puffing out dragon-like smoke, crossed one thin leg over the other as he sat on his rickety wooden stool.

“The snake has made its choice of home,” he drawled as his metallic grey beard nodded along.

It was alive. The fat black python was a visitor from the outside world, like me. I stammered backwards, drunk with fear.

Michael’s treehouse was my momentary break from farming on the Australian east coast. Swapping my tent for a slightly more stable shelter was a luxury, even if I was still bathing in a waterfall or via fire baths in the forest. I found Michael in the WWOOFing guidebook, and with no work for me on his property, he offered me a temporary home in his plot in a Nimbin commune instead.

His DIY treehouse was as shabby as they come, with all of the internal organs of the house on display. The insulation beamed silver in strange scattered spots around the walls. The house smelt of frankincense and moss, always dank and damp. We played a game in the mornings, guessing if the stove would work for the day, as there was no pattern in its functioning ability. A thin veil of dust seemed to protect Michael’s world from the contamination of modern consumerism. The imperfect sanctuary was off kilter, everything made sense in an entirely non-sensical, commune-y way.

I thought his approach to the snake situation reflective of his romantic and holistic view. Beasts and humans cohabiting, us working in harmony with the local fauna. But when it came time for bed on the first night, my idealism evaporated, as I was to set up a mattress on the floor next to the kitchen; or as I thought of it, sacrifice myself to the snake during the night. Michael instructed me to sleep, adding a tinge of authoritarian sternness to his purring stoner-speak, and I was able to.

He was practically self-sufficient; his power source was the sun, and his water flowed from the waterfall 50 metres away. His friends grew vegetables and bud; he kept an esky instead of a fridge. He crafted simple pots of terra-cotta, with smoothed edges and rounded bodies, sometimes selling them at local markets when money was lacking.

On walks with him through the forest of his backyard, I hastily sped through the knee-high grass, pausing until Michael’s meandering lead him to the same point. Through his ill-fitting prescription glasses, he focused on microscopic bugs, excitedly describing the exotic colours and ethereal movements. I glanced hazily at the blur of nature, with naked eyes that needed assistance. We passed abandoned Volkswagen vans in the commune, almost hidden amongst the vines that had morphed around them. The nature surrounding Michael seemed to fuse with him in the same fashion, in his sensible earthy-toned clothing, he was at peace in the greenery. His understanding of his environment meant that he knew the snake was not venomous, or in his opinion, dangerous.

I baked some gourmet ganja slices under Michael’s guidance and consumed far too many of them. He went out on the town to do hippie things when the solar power ran out and the lights turned off. The snake didn’t seem to like the darkness and made a commotion stemming from an untraceable location, which was building to a crescendo. Strung out and paralysed simultaneously, the long night ended when I ran to the car and clung to a tea light candle, watched the glow worms in the driveway, and listened to Roald Dahl audio tapes.

One day, a bush turkey ran through the house while Michael continued reading his Bolivian handprinted existentialist philosophy volume, sipping on locally brewed organic chai, his brain not even muddling Nietzche’s words. While I squirmed and stared down the bush turkey that I deemed untrustworthy, Michael chuckled to himself.

Adorned in hiking-appropriate clothing at all times, he led me through leech-infested land to the nest of this creature. The mound of the nest was a work of art. Michael, while lazily blinking at a pace that matched his speech, explained the delicate science of the bush turkey’s ability to control the temperature of their nest. The collage of soil and plant litter that had been thrown together by these creatures smelt dank and damp, familiar. After this expedition, both Michael and I remained focused on our books when bush turkeys continued to visit the treehouse.

Along with the guessing game that the stove forced us to play in the mornings, Michael and I would seek out the snake, anticipating its location after noting where it had laid the night before. Some days the fat black python was the first sight in the morning, and other days it wasn’t, and it wasn’t until I was collaging with Michael halfway through the day that I would finally see its scaly body coiled around a rafter.

The snake and I both made our final departure from Michael’s treehouse at similar times, after we’d had about a month-long stint in this alternate reality; we slithered away to different lands. Although Michael and I never named the snake, or played fetch with it, or took it for walks, I felt that a deadly pet had run away from me. Michael declared that it “wanted its independence”.

I wondered if it was safe out there in the wild.

Cover by Michelle Spencer