The following is excerpted from Laura Jean McKay's latest novel, The Animals in That Country, which asks what would happen if we finally understood what animals were saying. McKay is the author of Holiday in Cambodia, which was shortlisted for three national book awards in Australia. A lecturer in creative writing at Massey University, McKay is also the “animal expert” presenter on ABC Listen's Animal Sound Safari.
No lights at the row, no TV. The inside of my fridge is warm already in the fuggy night. All over the estate, the sound of the Park’s ute engines charging phones and batteries. I get my Holden going to give my mobile a boost too. There’s a petrol bowser up at the food store that will keep the cars moving for a while. Encoding. Decoding. And here we are, healthy as horses. The animals around us squawk their mysteries and we’re none the wiser.
Without any lights, the night takes over. Owls and magpie geese hoot overhead. Turkey birds scratch up the bush. Wallabies and wallaroos thump all over. Something in my cupboard chews its way into a packet. Let them have it. Let them clean me out. Anything fresh will be mouldy by morning. Even the critters in my yard have come alive. Baby rock-rat Rocky is suddenly grown up and trying to eat his way out the door of his cage. I crouch down level to the pen and fumble with the latch. Don’t even have time for a ‘Hey there, fella’ before he bursts out at my face, bubble eyes glinting in the moonlight. He leaps away and off across the yard, squishes his fat body through the chicken-wire fence and away. No more Rocky. The others are excited too. Without electricity, the whole world has been returned to its proper darkness. Wallamina doesn’t get stuck in the corner. Princess Pie stops making her baby noises and lets out a proper caw, black as the night.
I get the candles going in my flat and hunt out the cupboards and all my hiding spots with a camping lantern. Find a bluebird earring by the bathroom cabinet, but nothing to drink. Sit on the cold bathroom floor and wait for the shakes to start. They don’t. My head is cool as tiles. People start arriving at the gates, wanting to get into the Park. Those of us left in the row come out blinking in the blaze of the hired utes and cars. Ange dashes around, growling orders. The people on the other side of the fence call through the wire. Can they speak to Blondie the python, or Kermit and Miss Piggy the rainbow lorikeets, or Bernie the crocodile? The police and army are too busy explaining to the rest of the country why they can suddenly talk to their pets. They don’t have time to keep the Park safe from every nut-job wants to come in. Angela uses up the juice on her mobile trying to hire extra security for the fence. She starts up one of the Park vans to charge her phone, then makes another call. When she talks to her dad, her accent comes back and her whole voice changes—harder and sweeter at the same time, a boiled lolly. Only a few hours later, white utes with roo lights and bull bars jump off-road and bounce up the gravel past the tourist cars, toward the gate. One takes out a low tree with a sick crunch. The men who get out are built like brick shithouses, wearing loose T-shirts with slogans like ‘Hunt the Grunt’ and ‘Game on’. They station themselves at the gate and the fence.
‘Piggers,’ Ange tells me.
‘Never thought I’d see the day.’
‘They’ve organised. Call themselves Land Patrol now. They were all Dad could get. Also …’ She rubs her face, mashing the tired back in. ‘They’re infected.’
‘Apparently it’s okay. This disease likes to be within spitting distance. Make sure Kim—’
‘I won’t let anything happen to our girl, Ange.’
Next day, Angela throws Kim out of the car on her way past. We go into my unit and stare at ourselves in the bathroom mirror, check our eyes for sick.
I get the candles going in my flat and hunt out the cupboards and all my hiding spots with a camping lantern.
‘You look pretty, Granny,’ Kimberly tells me, standing on the toilet lid.
Eyes clear and grey, skin a bit pink. Fresh bandage around my throbbing hand. Even my head feels sure—a faulty compass come right. ‘I scrub up, don’t I?’
We pull our ranger shirts over our nighties and head down to the fence. The tourists are still at the gate, clumped around their cars.
‘Who are they?’ I shout at one of those pig hunters. He turns his head, a bit slow. Even at a distance I can see he’s sick. Red eyes blazing in the pearly light.
‘They want to come into the Park,’ he yells back.
Nice cars, burnt people guzzling bottled water like there’s no tomorrow. It’s hot and getting hotter.
‘Southerners,’ I tell the guy. ‘Come up from the cold to talk to the animals.’
The fella leans forward to peer at the people. They straighten up like kids at school waiting to be picked for the sports team. Must be about fifteen cars out there, packed to the gunwales. ‘All got pink-eye,’ the fella yells.
‘I had that one time,’ Kim shouts back.
He pulls his mask aside. He’s good-looking. Dark, like my Lee. In different times I might have told Ange about him.
‘Not like this. Get up close and you’ll see.’ He points to his own eyes, squinting with red. ‘Once you’ve got it? You have to be tough. Keep your head or you’ll be a lock-in who won’t leave the house. Either that or some crazy who waits outside a zoo to talk to an elephant. These are people who will have whole conversations with their dogs, you know.’
‘I want to talk to a dog,’ Kim tells him.
The man straps his mask back on. ‘No, you don’t. My hunting bitch was a tough, mean, fighting machine dog that didn’t take shit from nothing. But what she had to say once I knew what it was she was saying—’
‘What’d she say?’ Me and Kim at the same time. Snap. But the guy turns away. A tall woman my age starts waving her arms around, trying to get our attention.
‘How did you get in there?’ she calls.
‘I work here.’ I point at my shirt. ‘I’m a ranger.’
‘Can I take a photo?’
I shrug. Why not? Lift Kim up so she can be in it too, and the woman snaps away with her phone. Then we wave them all goodbye and go back to the row, where the TV sits dead and the backyard bandits just want to eat and eat and eat. Me and Kimberly check each other again for symptoms. She pulls down the saggy bit under my eye and peers in.
I look for myself. ‘That’s just how eyeballs look, mate.’ We check hers: the same. I smooth the wrinkles out of our shirts while Kim has a cold shower and then I brush the nests out of both our hair. Mine ripples silver and gold. Don’t even need any makeup. We’ve only got Weet-Bix with water and sugar for breakfast, crackers and spread for lunch—even that dog kibble and birdseed is starting to look good—but I’m feeling stronger than ever.
We’re late to do the feed. The day is already blasting. A hair-dryer wind down the empty bush tracks to the enclosures. No one minds, except the animals, and all they can do is clamour at the cages when we come through dishing out kibble and dried bugs and seed. The zoo train sits at the café station. I know it’ll be dead, along with all the other electrics, but we climb up anyway, try the button. It doesn’t even chug. It’s tough to get around the Park without the old train.
The fella leans forward to peer at the people. They straighten up like kids at school waiting to be picked for the sports team.
Plenty of Park utes around but they’re locked up, and Glen’s always on the other side of the park with the keys. We scoop our buckets and go on foot, like the other rangers do. The Park roads bend and shimmer in the heat. Me and Kimberly hit up every dinky solar water fountain along the way, wetting our hair and our arms and guzzling the water that doesn’t get chilled anymore. We fling still-cold fish over the fence at the stinger station, shove mouse mix through the wire at the food store, and push seed, defrosting mice, and kibble through the wires on death row. Then we head up to the dingoes. Take the cooler route through the jungle walk—wooden walkways that ex over the powdery blue creek. We spot turtles scooping through the water, in and out under the border fence. The turtles’ way. By the time we burst out the other side at the dingo enclosure, it’s so hot only Mister and Buddy rouse themselves from the shade. They drag their bones back under the trees, barely a wag of hello. I call and crane my neck for Sue, but she doesn’t come out from wherever she’s hiding.
‘Remember to tell the other rangers, Kim. They better check on her later.’
Kim nods importantly. We hold sweaty hands back through the Park. Her ranger top hangs from her like a dress. She refuses to take it off.
Excerpted from The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay. Excerpted with the permission of Scribe Us. Copyright © 2020 by Laura Jean McKay.