Ramon Glazov is a civilizing force that demands respect. His pieces have appeared in Overland, The Monthly, Jacobin, NSFWCorp and The eXiled. He lives between Perth and Italy.
This story first appeared in Issue Nine of Tincture Journal. Please support our work and the payment of our contributors by purchasing a copy.
Once she’d closed reception for the night, Mrs Dott brought out a chair and waited beside the pebbly driveway. Another weekend, another sad little arsonist plaguing the Ranges! Even here at the bed and breakfast it was almost too smoggy to see to the front gate.
Mrs Dott felt woozy and tight-chested. She couldn’t help thinking of the Middle Ages—of warty crones tied to stakes, blanketed by faggot-fumes, swiftly losing consciousness. All the same, she understood it wasn’t fresh air she needed but a well-deserved smoke. She plucked a Horizon from its olive-drab carton. Her vigil resumed in smog she trusted.
An old green Mitsubishi came up the drive at a quarter to ten. Through the haze, its headlight beams looked as solid as rafters. The engine, lucky to last another year, whined like a Papuan singing dog. A spindly Englishman sat at the wheel with a ring of monkish black hair garlanding his bald spot. He wore a clip-on bowtie and a rumpled, lustreless pinstripe suit. Shaking Mrs Dott’s hand, he announced himself as Dr George Harold Gobinot.
He’d called a month earlier, describing himself as an “emeritus psychotherapist, writer and advocate” interested in “highly non-classical traumas”. After reading in the Herald-Sun about Mrs Dott’s daughter Ninian and her baffling ordeal, Dr Gobinot was anxious to visit the Dandenongs and meet her. For that, Mrs Dott showed no enthusiasm, until Gobinot suggested his methods could “help survivors recuperate their voices”.
She wasn’t easily taken in. She assumed her caller was a convenient shaman at best—that any “voices” he managed to “facilitate” would be his own ventriloquism. Yet maybe a talented ghostwriter was Ninny’s only hope. The girl was seventeen now. If she had no other way of living in the real world after what happened, perhaps she could dine off her story. So Mrs Dott agreed to give Gobinot complimentary lodging at Shalott Castle Cottages B&B.
She apologised now that his cottage remained only half-renovated. It had power, running water and (expressly for him) a mattress, but the floor was bare concrete. The Dotts were yet debating whether to render the walls.
“But come, see if you want it,” she said. “Should I carry that?”
“It’s no hassle,” said Gobinot, fighting to steer a sidewinding luggage case.
Inside were his essentials: flashcards, questionnaires, a half-dozen novelty-pattern neckties, several dolls (faceless, anatomically correct) and the final repeat of an antidepressant he’d resolved to quit.
“Yes…” Gobinot considered the room. “I think we’ll manage.”
The cottages stood behind the main building in a big circular clearing. Stringybarks and ferns loomed over the fence, which was made of stone, crenelated and decked with heraldic shields. With stucco, half-timbering and enough Balinese thatch to hide the Permalite roofs, the Dotts had given their rentals a Tudor veneer. A shallow papyrus-filled moat ran, curiously, along the inside of the fence, sometimes behind the units, sometimes in front. Every second cottage had a mock drawbridge at its entrance, with a welcome mat and ornamental chains. To one side of reception, where the slaloming moat began, a ceramic sea-serpent tail poked up from the water; here and there, a coil would resurface, lit by a waterproof spike-light.
The final cottage, where the moat would have ended, was sealed off by a tall security fence, the short-term kind found at concerts and economic summits. Whatever lay behind it was screened completely by leftover thatch. This unit was built much taller than the others and decorated as a watchtower.
“Ninian lives in there. We don’t generally like to discuss her with our regular guests. I’d prefer you didn’t either.”
Gobinot asked, “Was she a typical five-year-old?”
“More or less…”
Mrs Dott invited him inside the main building. Her home was upstairs. Mr Dott acknowledged Gobinot without much fanfare and went to bed. His wife made coffee, broke a loaf of Madeira cake into pieces on a plate and ran through her version of events.
They’d conceived Ninian through IVF, said Mrs Dott; it was their last resort. Doctors had cited the risks that came with beginning life as a frozen-embryo baby. But, except for a quickly repaired cleft palate, little Ninny was a chirpy, robust toddler. As her sixth birthday approached, the family went on a Sunday outing to Cardinia Reservoir Park. While her parents spaced lamb cutlets out on the public barbecue, Ninian vanished.
There was no sign of her by nightfall. Police found no leads, and soon grew tired of suspecting the Dotts. Five weeks passed very slowly, then five months, almost as slowly. Then five years passed a little faster. With each day as fruitless as the day before, the Dotts’ quest declined to a remembrance ritual in all but name. Eventually, they accepted that Ninian probably had been murdered and the less known, the better. Though never putting it so bluntly, the Dotts longed to move forward. They swore never to mention Ninian’s name again or speculate over her fate. Once more, Mrs Dott drew ovulation calendars, took fertility drugs and progesterone boosters, pledging away her atheism to any god who brought her another child.
Seven years after Ninian’s disappearance, the police had news. A girl had been apprehended in a market garden near Woori Yallock, stooped naked, seemingly mute, hissing and chewing kale plants without even caring to uproot them. Her palate scar reminded a sergeant of an age-enhanced photograph he’d seen, which brought his colleagues to the Dotts’ bed and breakfast. DNA tests confirmed it was Ninian and she went back into their custody. It took them two years just to rebuild her five-year-old vocabulary and teach her simple etiquette and cleanliness.
“And that’s when she told you? That she’d been—”
“Adopted and raised by kangaroos,” said Mrs Dott.
“Any likelihood she was joking?” Gobinot inquired.
“I’m not so sure, honestly,” she answered, “that Ninny has a sense of humour.”
She personally found Ninian’s story absurd. The Herald-Sun reporters, nonetheless, treated it with enough mock-seriousness to consult a veterinary science professor. The expert doubted kangaroos could “feel empathy even for another roo’s joey, let alone human five-year-olds. The consensus is they’re very withdrawn creatures, not keen on deep emotional bonding.”
When Gobinot asked Mrs Dott how Ninian’s father felt, she despaired that he never spoke to the girl or looked at her much while leaving fresh vegetables at the tower-cottage.
“I don’t know if he fully accepts…” She paused. “…if he fully believes our little situation even now, but he does his share of the effort.”
The next morning, Dr Gobinot followed the Dotts through a side-door in the main building. Before him stood Ninian’s tower: the moat winding behind it and halting at the wall: the crimson sea-serpent’s head in the expected place, nostrils flared, looking like a draconic Scotch terrier. Mr Dott saw little need to lock the tower, or the door into reception. Ninian was still hopeless with doorknobs, Gobinot learned from Mrs Dott. They’d retrained her to use her opposable thumbs, walk with one foot forward instead of hopping, read a little and even web-surf; but shoelaces and penmanship were beyond her and she’d never been observed turning a knob.
This, the Dotts admitted, was a secret blessing. Nobody, they said, could accuse them of keeping Ninian locked up.
They’d taken her for excursions to Emerald village, but those hadn’t ended well. Dogs turned unexplainably wild around Ninian, leaping over front gates and chasing her. And Ninian turned unexplainably wild around dogs—or at least wilder—making herself tall, rasping, clicking and threatening to tackle them. Several times she’d absconded from the tower, wandering into the village or onto private farmland. After each episode, Mrs Dott accused her husband of leaving Ninian’s door ajar. “I just wonder if Ninny might be slightly better with doors now than she was a year ago…” she’d ask. But Mr Dott was silent. He loathed discussing Ninian, or glancing her way any more than he needed to.
Cattle farmers particularly distrusted the teenager. More than one blue heeler had run off, later to be found floating in an artificial dam on the cleared hillside, its lungs full of muddy water.
From outside, Ninian’s tower had seemed replete with second- and third-storey windows. Inside, not even a first floor existed: just the standard cottage bedroom and bathroom, though with conspicuously higher walls, colder air, extra echoes. Ninian was a thin, pasty, dark-eyed, fidgety girl. All through Gobinot’s first visit, she stood on her toes, never turning her back to him, and clicked her tongue with alarm—“Tsk! Tsk! Tsk!”
“Don’t fret about today,” Mrs Dott told her guest. “Maybe if you started bringing her meals, she’d get used to you.”
Ninian’s favourite foods were kale, dried noodles, banana bread and raw sweet potatoes. She rejected meat completely. The smell of it cooking made her panic and flee, especially if the victual was red and lean. The B&B no longer served bacon to guests: nothing but boiled frankfurters, drained of flavour like onions chopped underwater.
Mrs Dott had been ready to blame vegetable-induced anaemia for her daughter’s greyish complexion, but the locum doctor doubted she was losing much iron. At seventeen, she still hadn’t gotten her period. There were countless possible reasons. Her endocrinology results came back unremarkable.
It pained Gobinot to watch her eat. He could never guess when Ninian had swallowed her kale for good; sometimes she brought it up, like cud, for repeat chewing.
One morning, she spoke to him.
“Do you want to hear Morrissey?” Ninian asked, sitting by her computer. “Morrissey is a good person. He hates smelling meat and fire. Like me. He wants to hug all people and all the animals and make them live with him forever. Truly he does love me!”
Ninian suspected Morrissey was the only decent soul among all of humanity. When he sang the enchanting lyrics, “This beautiful creature must die…” she swooned like certain girls her age might’ve swooned at Nick Cave. She could only fall in love with him from afar. But to her that wasn’t extraordinary; Ninian hadn’t met any of her Platonic friends in person either. She knew them all through Tumblr and Twitter, she said: a dozen like-minded souls who identified as “trans-species”—camels, baboons and rabbits displaced in human bodies.
Gobinot didn’t scoff at her beliefs. To contradict a client—any client—went against his early training. Everything Ninian said got an understanding nod; and the more she saw him agree, the more she confided, gladdened that he never smirked. Soon, she considered him a friend.
“I might already know what happened to her,” Gobinot said over breakfast, “what actually happened—it’s slowly coming together.”
A morning copy of the Dandenong Leader lay on the table. “Emerald residents were shaken yesterday,” it read, “after the body of a Staffordshire terrier was fished out of a fibreglass water tower used to refill the Puffing Billy steam engine. This follows last weekend’s discovery by trout farm manager Rowley Dixon—”
Heavy-handedly, as if wringing a wet dishrag, Mrs Dott rolled the paper up.
“Funny…” she replied. “Who knows if I’m still that curious about what really happened? I’ve gotten rather fond of Ninian and her imagination.”
Imagination wasn’t the bugbear for Mrs Dott. It was Ninian’s earnestness: believing her own story too much to use it gainfully. Why not be a cute kangaroo? A bouncy self-promoter? Ninian only sabotaged herself with people-hating. Couldn’t she pretend to have learned a more cheerful outlook from her marsupial adoptive family—a message of love and fawning for all mankind? A human girl raised by kangaroos: begging us to forget our differences, Mrs Dott thought. Privately she hoped Gobinot would at least teach Ninian some suavity—double a few of her standards. She liked his influence.
Ninian’s trust for Gobinot grew unhindered. She swore she noticed it in his face: that lonely, wretched, regretful ecstasy she’d only seen before in Morrissey. No one—her Tumblrist allies included—had quite respected her like Gobinot seemed to.
Not even his touchier, menses-related queries discomforted her:
“Because,” she answered him, “I’m coming down with a baby! I have a pregnancy!”
“Pregnancy?! But how—? By who—? I mean, by whom—? When could’ve—”
“Well, I must have a pregnancy! I just must have to have one!”
By default, doe-kangaroos were always expecting; and so, Ninian reasoned, was she. Her offspring was merely on hold. Paused indefinitely, the embryo wouldn’t develop before its proper time.
Every day, Ninian continued her saga of life in the mob, reminiscing about her “family” long into the evenings, until bedtime. Then, alone, exhausted, she’d dream of silvery grey kangaroos gathered after dark beside a riverbank, lapping at water the colour of cuttlefish ink. They could’ve passed for a row of marble statues except for their caviar-black eyes. Lowering herself to drink from the stream, Ninian saw that her eyes too were black from corner to corner.
Gobinot’s nights were rather more turbulent: his reward for quitting antidepressants the abrupt way. Jolts and brain-zaps left him half-awake, fearfully paralysed. He’d sense voices outside the cottage, chanting to immobilise him, his doona trying to smother him, poltergeists grabbing him in his sleep paralysis, lifting him, plunging him, facedown, into phantom troughs of ghost-liquid, again, and again, as if interrogating him.
Full consciousness gave little respite. Freshly de-medicated, Gobinot felt old emotions thawing out. He started pining for Margie again. They hadn’t spoken in years. He’d sent her occasional knick-knacks: old concert tickets, Baci wrappers, a teddy bear’s eye, her number written on a tasselled bookmark. A note accompanied each trinket, “REMEMBER THIS? REMEMBER ME?” Margie never responded. Gobinot’s only pastime now was imagining places they could’ve visited together, jokes he could’ve deployed on her, pretending to himself that these were memories. How Margie might’ve loved the Dandenongs!
She’d also been a gangly thing, with a scar down her lip.
He found Mrs Dott in the courtyard, smoking her lunchtime menthol and watching the moat slide under the thatched barrier like an envelope under a door.
“I was right! I knew it from the outset! When it comes to highly non-classical traumas, your daughter is a textbook case!”
“Today she was being a textbook nuisance,” said Mrs Dott.
Ninian had complained all morning that her online friends were liars. They’d misled her over the depth of their convictions. A soi disant anteater now admitted she’d never eaten insects. Another ally said his baboon persona was only an “archetype for success” he’d embraced as a municipal bond trader and “cold-approach artist”.
When Ninian objected, the group’s dromedary spat back that not all “transspecies-identified beings” had her “background privilege” of being raised by real kangaroos, nor the “invisible knapsack” that doubtlessly came with it.
“I’m a bit uncomfortable with these ‘real kangaroos’,” a common cuckoo weighed in. “Can we stop implying that cis-kangaroos are more ‘real’?”
“Go stop YOURSELF! My family was REAL!” Ninian tweeted back.
Her allies gave no quarter.
“Sorry, we don’t need your Morrissey crying about cis-heifers in abattoirs when many of us can’t even be recognised as heifers!”
“Perhaps you haven’t heard—#AnimalRightsAreForCisSpeciesVermin!”
“Why are you doubting us?”
“Why are you siding with the benefiting power structure?”
“Are you trying to push us offline?”
“You don’t think our voices belong on the Internet?”
“No! No!” typed Ninian. “Your voices ARE the Internet’s!”
The menagerie wasn’t appeased.
“You’re trolling! You’re blocked! Goodbye!”
Ninian leapt away from the computer in tears and made a terrible commotion. She pummelled the door of her tower until her eyes were dry. After an hour of silence, she agreed to a red capsicum.
“And I hope you’re not starting to believe her nonsense,” Mrs Dott told Gobinot.
“But I completely believe her! That’s why all the previous doctors failed at diagnosing her! Those pushers, those Prozac Escobars, never tried the obvious: believing her! To them, the kangaroos were simply fantasy—”
“I’m very sorry…?”
“Suppose these ‘roos’ of hers connoted something. Something very distressing and genuine she’s been trying to transmit in her own way.”
“You’re positive on that?”
“Consider how she describes her supposed ‘mob’. Mass gatherings by nightfall in secluded places. Ceremonial duels to first blood. Ritualised ingestion of ordure. Urine-sniffing. This embryo she claims to be holding… Almost a wish, no? To reverse, suppress, unwanted pregnancies… To bury them…”
“Two centuries ago, a brave whistleblower named Maria Monk disclosed how her sister nuns maintained a hidden lime pit for interring their illegitimate—”
“Ninian? In a nunnery?!”
“Of course not! But think about these so-called ‘kangaroos’… The females in a breeding harem… Total devotion to one alpha male: a Manson-figure, we might say… Have you never wondered about Ninian’s language? Words like ‘family’?! It’s staggeringly simple! Acolytes of the Left Hand Path often wear bestial masks during their rites. Her abusers have programmed her with a false ‘kangaroo’ self-state, a dissociated identity into which to retreat. Re-imagining her handlers as marsupials, Ninian has compensated for the trauma. But we can get her back!”
“Get her back?”
“I have some wallaby sausages in the car. If we keep burning them, burning the meat, no matter how her marsupialised identity resists… That might force her into confrontation, trigger her memories… Even lighting candles, wearing robes, drawing pentangles on the ground… burning more meat… triggering—”
Mrs Dott was slapped by déjà vu.
She remembered the months after Ninian disappeared. How people’s sympathy curdled into misgiving. The local would-be Sherlocks and amateur Christies who decided she “looked a bit too unaffected”. The crackpot theories about the cottages’ geometry. Even the Geocities page claiming Ninian’s name meant “offering to the lucerne goddess” in Old Assyrian.
Mrs Dott’s nostrils widened. She started pacing.
“I want you gone this afternoon!” she screamed, not caring to look in Gobinot’s way. “This fucking arvo! Grab all your rubbish and piss off!”
“Please find it in you to listen!”
“Please find it in you to FUCK OFF!”
Mrs Dott ran into reception then came back with the Cottages’ guestbook. She tore out the page Gobinot had filled, crumpled it and flung it into the moat.
“And don’t bloody bother checking out!” she yelled, facing the papyruses, as though they were culpable. “Jump into a fucking lake for what I care!”
At sunset, the green Mitsubishi lurched and whimpered along the hillside road, passing yellow wombat-crossing signs, endless rows of agapanthuses, wheelie bins plastered with “NO MCDONALDS” corflutes. Slowing at a bend, Gobinot saw a familiar lanky girl in his headlights. He pulled over and rolled down his window by hand. The glass had blue tint peeling off it like sunburnt skin.
“So! It’s young Miss Morrissey herself!” he called. “Would young Miss Morrissey be partial to a lift?”
“Have you—tck!—come to take me… back to home?” Ninian asked.
“Perhaps not.” Gobinot beamed. “Perhaps not at all…”
With a flourish, he opened the Mitsubishi’s back door for her. Ninian sat on a pile of receipts, torn envelopes and heat-faded junk mail. In the opposite seat, three heavy sacks of Big K charcoal briquettes leant on each other like dominoes.
Gobinot drove towards the Reservoir Park, braking gently when the empty campground came into view. Ninian was twitchier than usual.
“You’re going to burn—tck!—some meat, aren’t you?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Wallaby sausages,” Ninian said.
“Ah! That situation!”
Gobinot took a well-measured breath, hoping Ninian couldn’t smell the raw chipolatas in the glovebox.
“So you heard me talking to your mother and you’re a bit worried? No Miss, we won’t be burning any meat. Never! I promise! Not tonight… Not too much… Before anything, I want to see if visiting this place brings back—”
Ninian’s door squeaked at the hinges. A red warning light came on next to Gobinot’s speedometer. Encouraged, Ninian yanked the plastic handle again. She dove out of the vehicle.
Gobinot halted the car and ran after her into the bush. When he could no longer see her, he chased the sound of her footsteps, pausing occasionally to listen. The running sound regressed to a hopping sound, then stopped. Gobinot waited, uncertain; then he heard splashing. He staggered downhill to the reservoir shore strewn with granite boulders.
Ninian stood in water up to her elbows. She no longer seemed too unfriendly. Indeed, she was virtually beckoning for Gobinot to wade in, to comfort her, to take her in his arms and even, perhaps, back to shore.
“Ah… Haven’t splashed very far, have we? Silly Ninny! Silly girl!”
Gobinot kicked his shoes off and put aside his belongings where the gravel was dry.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” clicked Ninian.
Underwater, her grip tightened on a rock.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk, tsk, tsk…”