Hot Desk Extract: The Animals in that Country
As part of the Wheeler Centre's Hot Desk Fellowship programme, Laura Jean McKay worked on a speculative literary fiction manuscript, The Animals in That Country.
This is an excerpt from the first chapter of the novel, which follows Jean Bennett – zoo guide, secret drinker, grandma – through a world where humans and other animals can talk to each other.
I can see the wild in her. She looks and acts like any dog. Plays, wags, stares into my eyes with her baby browns; does chasey, catch, begs for biscuits. Then the dusk comes, and she lifts her neck and howls the saddest song in all the world, and there’s that wild. Dingo, owl, night thing – that sound is a warning. Loneliest you’ll hear. Wraps around dreams, your face, your sleep. She’s saying:
‘Hey, hey. There’s something coming.’
The rangers here are always telling me, don’t talk like that. They say how dingoes are just establishing territory, checking on their pack. Dingo admin. But stand on the hot road that runs from the gift shop to the enclosures, and listen to the dingo in her cage call out to the wild packs on the other side of the fence. Tell me that’s not special. Tell me she doesn’t know something about the world that you and me haven’t ever thought of.
Everyone wants to see the wild ones. Dingoes, crocodiles, a stingray, maybe a snake. That’s what they ask for when they come to Fauna Park. We’ve got wallaroos with striped faces and fat bums. We’ve got quolls and sugar gliders crouched in dark tree hollows. We’ve got a bird of prey show we do in the morning before the kids get screamy and the dads get yelly. A wedge-tailed eagle who will take off with your child soon as look at it – parents having to hold the kid for dear life, staff freaking out about suing, poor old birdy thinking he’s got himself a meal. We‘ve got water birds and a lizard that‘ll eat out of your hand. End of the day? Tourists just want to stare into the eye of a four-metre croc, hold a blonde python, then sit on the zoo train with the breeze in their faces while I chug them on down to the back of the Park, to where we keep the wild dog dingoes.
Tell me she doesn’t know something about the world that you and me haven’t ever thought of.
‘Afternoon ladies and gents, I’m Jean Bennett and I’m a guide here at Fauna Wildlife Park. Look to your left there and you’ll see a little house in the bush. See the twigs? Blue plastic? Bowerbird made that to attract his sweetheart. Thinking of getting him to do my place so I can meet a special someone too.’
Most days you’ll find me driving the zoo train – sturdy old girl that runs on electrics; fifty-five mixing bowl seats in cream and blue; open-air sides. A sharp metal wheelchair ramp juts from the back. A few years back they talked about replacing us guides with an automated driver. A plastic man who sits in the driver’s booth, moulded in the same ice-cream colours as the seats. A digital toot, music playing. One hand on a fixed plastic lever, looking ahead with forever eyes, and a recorded message that would come over the speaker: ‘The zoo train will leave the cafe station in one minute. All aboard!’ Did a survey and nine out of ten visitors said they liked the real guides better – one even mentioned me. Management had to stick that in their pipe and smoke it.
I ease the train to a stop at the dingo enclosure and the tourists pile out. Turn on the radio. Newsreader’s talking about those poor suckers down south, where I’m from. Middle of winter and they’ve all got the same flu, won’t respond to antibiotics or anything. I remember that. Being sick and sick to death of the rain and the cold. Now I got my knees in the sun, the buzz and flick of the insects around the zoo train, tourists chattering and straining over the enclosure fence. It won’t rain here for another few months and then it won’t stop. From where I sit up here in the driver’s carriage, I can see the dogs before the tourists do. At first, it looks like there’s nothing in there. Just the fenced-in enclosure of low, scraggly trees, rocks and piles of dirt. Then, movement. The tan earth grows, takes shape. The dingoes are long and the colour of sand. Manila folders. Their length buckles out at the ribs and then rises high – prettier than a greyhound but almost as broad. Long, curved legs and a feather duster tail. A mustiness. Dust and hair. The tourists edge forwards. I’ve got three paper bags jammed in the glove box next to the medical supply kit. One has my sandwiches – I got low blood pressure now. One tinkles. One has dog biscuits. The tourists practically skip over to the dingo enclosure with those biscuits.
The dingoes are long and the colour of sand. Manila folders. Their length buckles out at the ribs and then rises high – prettier than a greyhound but almost as broad.
‘Dingoes!’ they holler. ‘Look, Jason! Dingoes!’
The dingoes bunch back by the fence, alarmed. We’re not supposed to call them dogs. Not canis familiaris – your normal domestic dog, but canis lupus dingo – made out of wolf. All the info signs say they’re more like cats. A whisper to us is normal talk to them and they can hear a thing coming before the thing even knows it’s on its way. Then, one of the tourists throws a biscuit and it’s business time. Half of the chow ends up in the moat for the fishes, half in the dingoes’ bellies. Those tourists love feeding the dingoes, and the dingoes love getting fed. Mister, the big male, grinds his paws into the dirt and dips his head low, keeping his rear and tail high: the play position. Tips and rolls to his side. Those tourists should be flattered. They laugh and say, ‘Who’s a good boy?’ Kids nag Dad for a dingo pup until Dad looks like he might go drown himself in the moat. The other dingo boy, Buddy, mounts a boulder and moves down the other side like he’s yellow water trickling downstream. The tourists lean in. A woman lifts her baby high to see. This is noted with alarm. Everything is. They’re not love-drugged or bored like your golden retriever. You can’t pop them in a backyard and expect them to be there when you get home from work. They’ll jump clean over your fence, be out ripping up chickens, finding their pack before you can blink.