The priest looked down at the young man in the gutter. They hadn’t even bothered to beat him up. In the South Australian mining town, locals dynamited trucks and dwellings just to make a point. The gutter worked for everything else. If only he could put the boy on the next bus out of town. His gut instinct told him it wouldn’t be that simple.
The young man opened his eyes and held up a smartphone. “Seen this?”
The priest studied the image of the three-headed snake slithering across red dust towards the camera. It reared, lunged then slithered again: some kind of image loop.
“This for real?” Most modern technology gave him the creeps.
The young man tapped the screen. “Duh. You see it, don’t you? Nu-Discovery’s map says it’s somewhere here, but no-one tells me where. Do you know?”
The priest chose his words carefully. “It’s all desert, opals and miners here. Why would any self-respecting snake hang round a noisy mining town, anyway?”
The young man looked away. “I’ve got to find it.”
“It has all knowledge.” The young man spoke with fervour. “In the eyes of the left head lies the past, the middle head the present and the right head, the future. When I master the snake, I will have all knowledge.”
The priest sighed. “You’ve got snake catching skills, I suppose?”
“No. Words of power.” Now fervour had changed to exaltation.
The priest was starting to get the picture. “I take it you’ll head out of town no matter what. Want me to drop you there?”
The young man’s face lit up. “You do know where it is, after all!”
The priest resisted the strong impulse to slap him. “I’m parked on the next street. You’ve eaten lately?”
The young man shrugged. They walked in silence to his old Holden. Several people glanced at them. The priest opened the driver’s door.
“That phone of yours got GPS?” he said.
The young man looked perplexed.
“So we can find you,” said the priest. “After you meet your snake.”
“There will be no after,” said the young man, with conviction. “I will subsume the snake. I will be master.”
The priest shook his head, and they set off in silence. Miles of potholes, machinery, mining rubble and red dirt slipped by. The sun was nearly overhead when a flash of light caught the priest’s attention. The young man pointed.
The priest turned right and followed the intermittent light. Ten minutes later he rounded a pile of rubble. Behind it reared the snake, a good five foot nine, maybe ten, its golden body the width of a man’s hand, its three heads gleaming in the sun. The priest crossed himself.
The young man flung himself out of the ute. The snake lunged. The young man screamed and collapsed. In a minute he wasn’t even twitching. The priest reminded himself that he had a shovel in back, but remained seated. The snake slithered up to the driver’s door.
“Get out, priest,” said the voice of the dead man.
The hairs on the back of his neck prickled. “Why did you kill the boy?”
“He wanted me to.”
The priest considered this answer. “And now?”
“You will get down from the vehicle. I will subsume you. I will drive back to town.”
“You want my body?” The priest almost laughed.
A cloud drifted over the sun. A dust storm descended with dirt so thick the priest could hardly see. Breathing became difficult.
“You come at me with three heads?” choked the priest.
“Your Trinity’s not the only player.” The voice was dry. The priest grabbed his shovel and muttered a prayer for help. If only God would send him something useful, like a dust mask. He opened the door and swung the shovel in an awkward arc. It connected with something. The priest froze.
“You still there?”
He retreated to the ute, and locked the door. Silence. Through the dirt-smeared windscreen he saw a bleeding length of snake slither over the bonnet. A bloody head followed. Sweating, the priest looked round. He had no weapons. What would stop this thing in its tracks, anyway? It had a demonic life of its own. Perhaps his own shovel, severing one body part, had multiplied others. Wait. He’d only seen one head.
“Hello, priest,” said a voice near his ear.
He jumped. A second severed head hung from the back of the passenger’s seat.
“We meet again,” said another voice from the dashboard. The third head. Of course.
With his right hand the priest reached into his pocket for a box of matches.
“Snake,” he used his best hectoring voice, while emptying matches into his pocket, “we must celebrate this death of mine. Permit me to turn on some funeral music. That switch on the dashboard, see?” With a flick of his wrist he flung the matches in the air.
The heads lunged for him.
The priest rolled out of the ute, struck a match and threw it. The wind fanned the flame, which tore through the car. In minutes the vehicle exploded. Pieces of metal, glass and upholstery showered down on him, along with chunks of charred snake. The stink of burning filled the air. The priest hugged the ground, covered his head and gulped lungfuls of foul air. Debris and ash settled on him. Finally he heard an engine, footsteps and felt a hand on his shoulder.
The priest looked up at the heavy-set miner.
“Laszlo?” said the priest, incredulous.
“Give up the smokes, Father.” The miner glanced from the burnt out vehicle to the young man’s body. “Guy found his snake, I see.”
“What are you doing here? You followed me?”
The miner looked solemn. “Old man Hnagy died last night.”
“You want a priest?”
The miner nodded.
Father Doran scrambled to his feet. Back to work.
Brenda Anderson’s fiction has appeared in places like Andromeda Spaceways, A cappella Zoo, Punchnel’s, Penumbra and defenestration. She lives in Adelaide, South Australia. Twitter @CinnamonShops