By Laura Jean McKayFictionScribe Publications

The Animals in That Country

Out on the road, no one speaks, everything talks.

Hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, and allergic to bullshit, Jean is not your usual grandma. She’s never been good at getting on with other humans, apart from her beloved granddaughter, Kimberly. Instead, she surrounds herself with animals, working as a guide in an outback wildlife park. And although Jean talks to all her charges, she has a particular soft spot for a young dingo called Sue.

As disturbing news arrives of a pandemic sweeping the country, Jean realises this is no ordinary flu: its chief symptom is that its victims begin to understand the language of animals — first mammals, then birds and insects, too. As the flu progresses, the unstoppable voices become overwhelming, and many people begin to lose their minds, including Jean’s infected son, Lee. When he takes off with Kimberly, heading south, Jean feels the pull to follow her kin.

Setting off on their trail, with Sue the dingo riding shotgun, they find themselves in a stark, strange world in which the animal apocalypse has only further isolated people from other species. Bold, exhilarating, and wholly original, The Animals in That Country asks what would happen, for better or worse, if we finally understood what animals were saying.

Portrait of Laura Jean McKay

Laura Jean McKay

Laura Jean McKay is the author of Holiday in Cambodia and The Animals in That Country, shortlisted for The Readings Prize 2020. Her work appears in Best Australian Stories, The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, and The North American Review. Laura is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Massey University and the co-host of the Anigram book show.

Judges’ report

Recovering alcoholic Jean works at an animal sanctuary run by her daughter-in-law, Angela. She finds great solace in the animals there, especially a young dingo named Sue; they’re a refuge of sorts from the outside world. When a contagious flu sweeps the globe, the results are unexpected: humans can suddenly understand what animals are saying.

While at first Jean is excited to be able to talk to the animals, the apocalyptic reality that unfolds is far more frightening, as she is forced to leave her home on a search for her son and young granddaughter amidst the chaos, with Sue in tow.

McKay's novel is daring, original and ambitious, with a highly inventive use of language – the dialogue of the animals reads like a strange kind of stop-start poetry. A story about a pandemic is incredibly prescient in 2020 but the novel's focus is largely on the ethics of human-animal interactions, raising pertinent questions in a non-didactic way. The reader is taken on a breakneck journey that becomes more disorientating as Jean becomes almost a wild animal herself. The novel is written with energy and profound empathy, provoking the reader to consider their place in the world, and ensuring they will never see animals in the same way again. McKay takes risks with language and structure to create a unique, brave piece of work that speaks to our world at this time.

Extract

Everyone wants to see the wild ones. Dingoes, crocodiles, stingrays, maybe a snake. That’s what they ask for when they come to the 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. 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 dingoes.

‘Afternoon, ladies and gents, I’m Jean Bennett and I’m a guide here at the Park. Look to your left there and you’ll see a little house in the bush. See those twigs? Blue plastic? Bowerbird made that to attract his sweetheart. Thinking of getting him to do up my place.’

Most days you’ll find me driving the zoo train – sturdy old girl that runs on electrics. 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. 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 pipes and smoke it.

At the dingo enclosure, I ease the train to a stop and turn on the radio. The tourists pile out and stretch their legs like it’s the end of a road trip. Newsreader’s talking about those poor suckers down south, where I’m from. Barely winter and they’ve already 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.

From where I sit up here in the driver’s carriage with my knees  in the late sun, I can see the dingoes 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 – almost as broad as a greyhound but prettier. Long, curved legs and a feather-duster tail. A springiness. A mustiness. Dust and hair. The tourists edge forward. I’ve got three paper bags jammed in the glove box next to the medical supply kit. One has my sandwiches – I’ve got low blood pressure now. One sloshes. One has dog biscuits. The tourists practically skip over to the dingo enclosure with those biscuits.

‘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. Tree-climbers. Hyper-agile fur-police. 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 fish, 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. 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, springs up a sheer 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. Dingoes aren’t 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 a pack before you can blink.

The heat peaks late in the day. It won’t rain for another four months and then it won’t stop. They’re still going on about that superflu on the radio. The sniffle and fever only lasts half a day with this one, but after that it’s visions of pink elephants for they don’t know how long. I turn it off. Fish flick through the lily pond, and the mozzies replace the tiny nipping midge bugs that give you great itchy welts on your arms and legs. The dingoes start parading about, prancing up the rocks like the rangers taught them and play-fighting as if it was the last battle on earth – dingo against dingo, canines to the death. Those three aren’t even wild – half camp-mutt-kelpie-cross, half dingo and living the soft life. We found them cuddled like beans under a bit of tin. When the little female, Sue, opened her eyes to the world for the first time, there I was. She’s a sleek and beautiful thing and hardly feral. Gets cuddles and chow every morning from the rangers, but I’m the one she looks for every day. They’re one-person animals.

Even though these three are mixed, their colouring is dingo and they put on a good enough performance. Last year we brought in a male from another zoo – big, pure-bred dingo, a woolly-headed thing – hoping Sue would fall in love and we could spawn little show-star pups from them. She bit that male on the nose.

The tourists are bent over the rail like they’re at the greatest event on this earth. A row of sweat-cracks. I take my moment. Pull out the hipflask from my paper bag and have a nip, just enough to coat my tongue. Then I get on the mic.

‘That’s right, ladies and gents, you’re at the Park dingo enclosure. Dingoes only came here about 6,000 years ago. Might seem a long time ago to you and me, but people and animals have been here for a lot longer than that, haven’t they. The …’ I check the little post-it note the logistics guy, Glen, has stuck on the dash. ‘The Kungarakan people are the traditional owners here.’

The boy dingoes are hamming it up. Skulking low between the boulders, then scaling the tallest rock with long, low hops.

‘You can see the two males there. One’s saying: “Give me that chow, you mongrel.”’ The tourists titter. The vodka swills and burns in my gut. ‘And then the other one says: “Hey, I’m no mongrel. I’m purebred.” “You might have pure bread, but I got the last dog bickie!”’ Right on cue, big boy Mister shoves forward and gets the last of the chow, then takes off up the rocks to eat it alone. You wouldn’t read about it. The tourists clap and push each other. Doesn’t matter if they’re fatsos from the other side of the world or greenies from up the city: they all like a show. I flick on the mic again.

‘But you know who really runs things around here, ladies and gents? A woman, of course! Here’s sweet Sue.’ The tourists crane their necks as I look for her. Usually spot her right away even if she’s in hiding, because we see one another, me and Sue.

‘How many dingoes can you count in there, kids?’

‘Two,’ shouts one boy with a haircut like I don’t know what his parents were thinking.

‘Count again, kids. There’s three dogs, right?’ The boy shakes his head. ‘There’s two.’

‘Three. I see three,’ says a girl. She might be my granddaughter in a couple of years. All hair and eyes and limbs. She makes me smile.

‘What’s three doing, sweetheart?’

The girl takes a breath of enormous importance. ‘He’s stuck. He’s stuck. His –’


‘His foot is stuck in the fence,’ the boy shouts.

I climb down from the zoo train and go over. The two males are still rooting for biscuits, tails high, eyes on the crowd. Sue is over by the fence. The long luxurious scruff on the back of her neck, the white blaze on the caramel chest, white socks of her feet. She eyes me and moves forward, but she’s pulled up short. I run back to the train and radio in, but the tourists are uneasy, and the sky is threatening dusk, and meanwhile Sue over there with her foot in a fence, no water or nothing.

The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist