Dry Rot

Dry Rot

The sky was waning; a great dry gust swept over the arid tillage so the dust no longer settled. Red dirt coated the worn veranda of the farmhouse, baked and caved by years of burdened footsteps and unrelenting heat. John’s knees fell heavy; crouched down with toolbox in tow, he shifted his weight to avoid falling through the rotten planks; they creaked like the pull of a rusted metal swing. John mused on the flaking paint of the house’s façade as the wind whipped around his ears—he held still, easing carefully to straddle a beam in the centre of the deck.

“Careful not to fall through now,” Roger warned from his seat across the porch.

Roger, the custodian of the land and the owner of the withering shack, watched John work wearily. John’s boots creased, bent against the biding decay, with nail poised and hammer mid-swing. He removed a wooden plank, crumbled and devoured by weather, before meticulously setting down a newly lacquered board in its place. Roger held a coin in his hand, pinching the hot metal between his fingerprints so the queen’s head debossed the soft of his skin. The day shrunk away by the harsh striking of metal and wood, clanging together in rigorous carpentry, the sky reaping the hours with every inch of decking that was replaced. The silence hanging over the homestead in between bouts of frenzied battering was quelled only by the movements of Roger’s missus, stirring the house as she made from room to room. Emerging intermittently from the torn fly-screen door, she kept an eye on the fill of the men’s stomachs, with sweet biscuits and billy in hand to refresh their empty metal cups.

At once the sun was beginning to set, pulling through the porch in struts and specks of light. The golden glare stung Roger’s squinted gaze. John’s sun-scorched figure ceased, his brawny shoulders refusing to give. A breeze had caressed the nape of his neck. He trembled, struck suddenly still by a soft, niggling hiss. Roger perched forward at the sight of it, the coin dropping loosely to his lap; a snake had begun to slink its way by the cap of John’s work-boot, grazing the edge of his half-blinded gaze. Roger set his mug to the ground and watched on, shifting his weight so that a low creak forced itself from his old, rickety chair.

“Don’t make any quick movements,” he warned, his voice barely breaking through the howl of the spiralling winds.

The snake inched closer still. John stayed unmoving, his hand suspended mid-air, nail plucked mindfully between fingertips, hammer brandished above it. The snake stretched out, winding around until its head lay directly beneath the crouching tradesman—its length equal to an adult in height and its girth that of a grown man’s calf. It coiled its body, slow and laboriously—its triangular black head, shiny and tessellated by glossy scales—around the edge of John’s kneeling frame. The wind seemed to grow colder. John’s breath was held. He stayed entirely still, unmoving even at the will of the thankless, dry gale. In a jagged clash of metal against snake leather, the snake was stopped short. John breathed out, slow and rigid, the nail from his calloused hands now punctured into the snake below.

Roger’s own breath caught still in the crook of his windpipe, struck by the snake’s untimely massacre. John took the hammer again, and in wide, elaborate arcs, he threw his arm around, striking again and again the nail protruding from the serpent’s skull, spilling blood from the hole in its crown in a series of violent, bloody beatings. Roger leant forward so he almost fell from his seat, his hands shaking and his legs quivering as the snake continued to thrash about helplessly, its head fixed to the porch.

Neither man spoke; Roger was gripped by the serpent’s writhing. Its body twisted and contorted, smacking at the decking by John’s work boots. Roger watched on. The eyes of the snake appeared to roll back into its ugly, frail skull; it was flattened almost beyond recognition, yet its back end continued to thrash about wildly, crazed. John moved soberly away from the snake. He remained expressionless, his crusty reddened brow furrowed in the same curdled look he’d worn when Roger had hired him. Edging sideways to work on the neighbouring wooden panels, he fell steadily back into a lazy pattern of hammering and nailing, hammering and nailing, hammering and nailing. The pounding grew into a haze of white noise in Roger’s periphery. John moved with ease across the deck, dodging the puddles made by the snake’s relentless bleeding. Roger stared on, mesmerised by the squirming beast. Flesh upturned upon itself, pink and exposed by the hole punctured by bloody wound; he felt sick, as if he had never witnessed the bloody slaughters of meaty boars, or the violent labours of new born cattle. These lands were plentiful of snake and mice—they had inhabited the deserts long before the farmhouse stood. But this was horrific. This was intentional, senseless.

The heavy quiet was broken by the whistling of a boiling kettle and the metal clanging of pots and pans from inside the homestead. The dry ochre turned a swollen rust under the weighted lull of the impending dusk, and the squeal of water over hellish flame hushed so the air hung still once more. Roger turned to see the serpent fall still against the dry rot.

“S’pose you’ll be heading back for supper.” His voice cracked.

He spoke in hopes of being rid of the worker before the black chill of nightfall, and was relieved when John hummed a gravelly sigh in response. He flipped the hammer, sliding the claw around the head of the nail, and levering the brad so its hostage came free from the deck. He dropped the blood-soaked nail into his empty mug. The clanging of metal against metal rung clear and loud across the hushed umber plains. Roger flinched back in his seat. Then John took the neck of the snake, twisting its head away from its body so the muffled sound of a whip cracking came from its tearing muscles. He wrapped the reptile into a tight coil, as if winding a garden hose, and tucked the snake into his toolbox, snapping it shut and heaving himself upwards. John looked towards Roger, offering an indistinct nod of farewell, and Roger watched on as John limped off the creaking porch, toolbox and hunt in hand, and faded into the dimming, dusty lands. Roger’s wife was disappointed she hadn’t the chance to offer John a seat at supper, but Roger assured her it was for the best.

The cold of night grew into the dry bones of day once again, the bloated air returning by the absence of water, and Roger made return to his seat on the porch, teeth gritted, as he waited for John to appear by the hour’s end. He arrived once again, parking just far enough away so the smoke running from his exhaust appeared a great mushroom cloud by the brink of the horizon. Arriving as a moving steeple across miles and centuries of sleep, Roger greeted him with a muffled “g’morning,” and John swiftly returned to his work. The image of the impaled snake lingered in Roger’s mind, and the flies which hovered by John’s reddened brow now seemed to signify some kind of death. With John’s toolbox sat opened by his side, Roger peered in—he saw screwdrivers, spanners, hammers, and nails. Nothing more.

Roger watched the deck come apart, his eyes emblazoned in a drunken air. An eery haze was suspended in a dense reflection of sky over the old farmhouse. He took the coin from his pocket and rolled it between his fingers—the light reflecting against the metal in Roger’s hands so it beat against him; sweat beading the band of his wide-brimmed hat. Roger’s wife emerged to greet John, offering him tea and promising to return with hot drinks and sweet biscuits by the passing of the day. The sun moved slowly, suspended as if by wire at the highest point in the sky, and Roger kept a wary eye on John as he crossed the deck one plank at a time. Closing in on Roger’s corner of the deck, John pried up a rotting timber beam, gripping the wood roughly so the splinters broke into his clenched fist. Roger’s legs stiffened beneath him.

In a second-coming, a snake, golden and straight-gummed, sprung from the earth where the panel had been removed. John was stood, his back to the deck’s unravelling, while he threw the debris down the steps leading up to the porch. The snake slithered by the edges of the far flung veranda, moving fork-tongued and slackened in black and brown, keeping to the corners only Roger could see. Roger perked up at the sight of the serpent, slithering gracefully by the homestead’s front. It took all his nerve not to grab a stick and break the nearing beast, an instinct built from years of life in the pest-riddled outback, but he felt that John was more venomous than the creature itself. He turned the coin between his fingers, flipping it incessantly across his knuckles. When he thought John might see the snake by his far side, Roger leaned forward in his chair. The sun’s hands tended the backs of his knees.

“Take a moment over ‘ere, will ya?” His voice was gruff and thick, clouded by uncertainty.

The snake inched further forward in perfect fortuity, hidden by Roger’s keen tongue. John reluctantly pulled back from his work, then turned to Roger expectantly.

“You’ve earned a break.” Roger licked the sweat by his top lip. “Haven’t seen ya take a moment to rest since ya got here!”

John pulled himself up, slow and groaning with the extension of his muscles, and lumbered over to the decaying rocking chair where Roger sat. Lifting a hand as a visor so he could see the old man, he nodded his head forward. Roger swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing unsteadily.

“You movin’ on uh…” Roger trailed off.

As John moved, the snake tailed him, drinking in the sight of his blunt, sturdy figure. It met the edge of his shadow, in one long, slinking movement.

“After you’re, uh, through here?”

Roger flinched back, gripping the coin tight in his palm. John noticed then how Roger’s eyes flickered to the ground behind him. Roger leaned forwards, brushing the trail of sweat from his slicked forehead. The snake had darkened, its head bowing low, its eyes full, hungry, and fixed ahead. Following Roger’s distracted stare, John’s turned back, the creases in his neck running deep. Looking down, he met the gaze of the beast just in time to watch it leap towards him. Snapping open its jaw, it sunk its teeth deep by the large of John’s left calf. Its body remained half-suspended off the ground, biting down deep, so its great, cavernous mouth completely wrapped around the rugged seam of his pants.

Roger stood abruptly, leaning to balance himself by the arm of his chair. With his mouth gaped, he muttered a low “fuck,” at the sight of the snake clinging to John’s leg. Still John remained inscrutable; a fly landed on the corner of his eye. He bent down slowly. Folding his fingers around the snake’s neck, he tugged harshly. The snake remained, firmly attached. He stood straight once more, giving nothing away in his expression as he moved across the deck. His walk was slow, his leg lifted forward and around in small circles so it remained close to the ground. He stopped by his toolbox, reaching inside. Roger stumbled forward, stepping over the open gap of deck, shivering and dry-mouthed.

John picked a small handsaw from his tools. He turned awkwardly, twisting his torso and pulling his shoulder back to press his hand by the far of the snake’s body. He pushed down on its tail, keeping it still and taut with its head clamped to his leg. Then, taking the handsaw, he pressed the metal to its neck, slashing through leathery flesh. He pulled the jagged blade back and forth, back and forth, back and forth until the tail of the snake dropped, falling to the the deck in a tough, meaty slap. Roger felt bile rise to his throat. Blood began to spill from the snake’s head, still securely attached to John’s leg, and then from its tail, gushing thick, clotted, and red across the newly lacquered planks of decking. Roger pressed a hand to his mouth, staggering forward slightly. John pried the head of the snake from his leg, pulling its mouth open, unhinged, so it cracked, its mouth splitting at the corners.

Then lifting his pant up, he revealed a beige plastic sheath in place of hair and flesh. Four distinct holes, the diameter of garden peas, marred the length of his prosthetic limb. John looked up. He held the head of the snake —its beady eyes lifeless in his hands—and turned it to face Roger.

“You saw it.” John stepped towards him.

Roger stumbled back.


The coin fell numbly from his hands.

“You saw this,” John thrust the snake head forwards, “but you didn’t say nuthin’.”

The words spat from his mouth so Roger felt the air knock him back another step.

“I didn’t think it’d… I jus’ thought it’d come ’nd go.” Roger’s skin greyed. He heard the coin rolling across the deck, vibrating against the ridged wood grain. The sound stopped abruptly, the quietude marking its fall between the cracks.

“I saw what you did to that other snake. It ain’t humane, that shit.”

His voice cracked. John continued to advance on him, trudging nearer and nearer. Roger stepped backwards again, attempting to widen the distance between himself and the snake-wielding tradesman. He feared the look in John’s eyes—dark, tense, unscrupulous.

John’s arms fell to his sides. Roger started, his feet clambering back again, again, again. Catching between the open planks of veranda, his foot bent, his ankle wrung and his bones frail. Instinctively, he reached forward, as if flailing for balance, as if reaching for John. John watched on. Kicking upwards, Roger was flung backwards, his body folded in two so he slipped, raggedly, between the unfinished deck. A deep cry pulled itself from the back of his throat. His body hit the land beneath the homestead in a leaden thud, bringing rise to the dust laying dormant beneath the house—it reminded John of the sound of a kangaroo against the bonnet.

John stepped forward, hesitant and jarred. He waited a moment, listening for any sign of Roger below. From the corner of his eye he glimpsed Roger’s wife moving by the window. Passing as a darkened silhouette, he saw her stop still, her head tilting as if straining to hear. John’s hands stretched by his side, his palms widening and his shoulders arching—he felt caught by the silence. A dark groan came from below. John hobbled ahead carefully, the wood bending underneath him. He peered into the gaping hole.

“You fellas feel like somethin’ to eat?” The voice of Roger’s missus travelled shrilly out and through the fly-screen door.

John stopped rigid. Her shadow moved across the wall. John looked down at Roger, cast in red by the glow of the deck.


The door opened, squeaking by day’s end. Emerging by the dark, blood-stained deck, left ajar by the dusky desert sun, her gaze began flitting from John to the veranda’s hole—he stood with severed head and saw in hand, pants crumpled over amputated knee, while Roger’s chair swayed empty in the dry midday gust. And John’s gaze met hers, wide and vague and struck, in return.


About the Author

Helena Pantsis (she/they) is an editor, writer and artist from Naarm, Australia with a fond appreciation for the weird, the dark, and the experimental. Her works have been published in Overland, Island, Meanjin, and Cordite. More can be found at hlnpnts.com.


Photo by David Clode on Unsplash