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  Table of contents Issue Twenty-six NORTH COUNTRY



he old man picked through a maze of saplings along the roadside of what used to be High Wycombe and the dog lumbered, as always, just behind.

They stumbled side by side into Roe Highway. Abandoned cars everywhere. Bodies still in the front seats after all these years. Skulls peeking through crispy tatters of skin. Tree roots breaking up the tarmac. The old man and the rottweiler surveyed this ordinary carnage with milky eyes. Seen it all before. Seen it yesterday, seen it today. They’ll see it again tomorrow.

They sauntered into the midday light with the bushy line of the Darling Ranges looming above the decaying suburbs. The old man remembered driving into Midland on this highway when he was just twenty years old and wincing at the bauxite mines eaten out of the sides of those granite hills. Now the wandoos and marris had taken hold again. Forest had healed over the old wounds like scar tissue.

Soon he realised the dog wasn’t at his side and he peered around frowning. It was sniffing around a busted Suburu. The body in the front seat was relatively fresh, maybe a week old, and the rottweiler started to pull at the meat on its thigh. The flesh came away in loose, grey strips. The driver had four bullet wounds in his chest, so the old man sat on the bonnet with the .45 unholstered and watched the road.

Once the dog had finished, they wandered through the overlapping wandoos. The highway was too open, too exposed. The dead man proved there were still marauders hanging around.

After winding through the streets of Woodbridge for a long time, they found the railway tracks. There were two men on the station platform, sitting in the shade. Despite this, the rottweiler sauntered onto the railway without a concern and started sniffing at some pig melons growing in the blue metal. The old man went to call after it, but he knew it wouldn’t listen. He took out the .45 instead and followed.

The two men on the platform both had backpacks, but no guns from what he could see. There was a third figure, a ragged little boy. He couldn’t have been more than nine or ten. One of the men had him on a leash. Every now and then the man tugged at the studded dog collar around the boy’s neck. Seeing this, the old man felt his heart pummel.

"Your dog?" one of the men asked.

"He doesn’t belong to no one."

"He old?"

"Too old to be eaten," the old man said and showed them the .45. "Wouldn’t taste too good, I reckon."

The other man, one arm fully bandaged, raised his hands. "Derrick didn’t mean nothin’ by it. He was just askin’."

"If he’s not your dog, what do you care?" Derrick asked.

"No one’s touchin’ the fucken dog," the old man said.

"Fuck me dead. That thing’d feed a whole family. Look at the size of it."

"He’s not for eatin’."

"What’s he for then? Protection?"

"He doesn’t have to serve a purpose. He is what he is."

"What’s his name?" the man with the bandaged arm asked.


"He doesn’t have a name?"

The old man watched the rottweiler. It was pressing its shiny, black nose through the weeds along the tracks.

"He doesn’t have a need for one."

"Where you headed?" Derrick asked.

The old man watched them carefully. "Northeast. The hills. I hear it’s all wild country now. The government’s stayed clear."

"Yeah, we heard they hardly leave the compound these days. They put the wall up at Claisebrook to protect the city. Just think of all those rich cunts in the CBD. Think of how good they’d have it."

"What about you lot?" the old man asked and looked at the boy on the leash again. He was propped with his legs under him like a fawn resting and picking at moss in the platform. "Where you goin’?"

"Further than you. We’ll stop when we hit red dirt. North country."

The old man pointed at the boy. "Can’t take him up there."

"No? Why’s that?"

"Government’s keepin’ blackfellas as slaves up there. To build the dams."


"What I heard."

"Plus, he’s not an abo." The man tugged at the leash, pulled the boy over and stared at him. "I think he’s Sudanese or some shit."

"Why you got the leash on him like that?"

"So he doesn’t run away. If we lose him, God knows what’ll happen to the poor bugger."

"What happened to his family?"

"His mother wasn’t lookin’ after him right. He’s safer with us."

"Says who?"

The man pulled some damper from his pack and threw it on the ground for the boy. The boy didn’t look at it and returned to fingering at the dry moss.

"I think you should let him off that leash," the old man said.

"You just want it for your dog," Derrick snapped.

"I told ya. I don’t claim no ownership of him. I got no use for it."

"We can’t let him go," the man with the bandaged arm said. "There’s talk of more covens over in Bassendean. People say they eat kids."

"Horseshit. They don’t leave the shanty towns no more. Everyone knows that."

The man stared at the boy, shaking his head. "Better safe than sorry, I reckon. He’s better off with us."

When the old man looked again he saw the rottweiler wandering along the tracks toward Midland, stepping over pig melons the size of basketballs.

"He’s gettin’ away." Derrick chuckled. "Could do with a leash after all, eh?"

The old man trailed after the dog, not looking back at the platform, but seeing the glint of the studded collar around that boy’s neck again every time he closed his eyes.

They avoided Midland station and wended through a maze of wrecked cars. In the distance, the old man could see the town hall tower had collapsed some years earlier, and the rubble was blocking Great Eastern Highway. They set up for the night in the gutted church down from the library. The old man spooned at an open can of baked beans with the rottweiler watching him lovingly. Drool hanging from its black lips.

"You already had a feed today," he told it.

It blinked and watched him.

"Shit me," he said and tipped the second half of the can out on the floor.

The stained windows were mostly broken, and he slept in the corner under their half-formed murals. Sometime in the night the dog came slouching over and leaned into him for warmth. He woke with fleas biting him all over and grumbled to himself. He went to the opposite corner of the church and curled up there with the .45 in one hand.

The rottweiler was snoring now so he couldn’t sleep. He watched its ribs rising and falling with laboured breath like it was a huge, black lion. There was an invidious stink this side of the church, blowing through the open window from outside. He sauntered into the cold night, shivering and holding the .45 out in front of him.

A pack of feral dogs in the alley, pulling at a dead child. It looked like they’d dragged it out of the skip bin. He lifted the pistol and fired once into the air. But the dogs were so hungry, gaunt like greyhounds though they looked like labradors, they paid him no attention. They tore and growled at each other and gulped at the rotting meat.

He could hear the rottweiler inside the church barking now, panicked by the gunshot. The old man thought he should go back inside and calm it down. But he couldn’t move. He was transfixed by the ravenous pack. And one kelpie, in particular, hanging around the outside of the feast, weak and emaciated, waiting for any scraps.

The old man watched the way the useless collar still gripped at the dog’s neck. The way the old leash dragged on the ground behind it.

The rottweiler appeared displeased at the prospect of backtracking and lagged behind panting in the heat like an overweight hog. The old man returned to the Woodbridge station and searched around, but there was no sign of the two men and the boy from yesterday.

It took most of the morning, searching down the streets overgrown with wild Queensland box trees, populated by hundreds of mangy cats, but eventually he found them in the ruins of Woodbridge House by the river. The two men watched the old man and the dog come from the tilted veranda, sucking back homemade grog.

"Look who it is," the man with the bandaged arm declared. "Come to get that leash after all? What happened? The dog try humpin’ ya leg?"

The two of them roared with laughter, stupidly risible with drink.

The old man looked back and saw the dog was sniffing around the tangle of lemon-scented gums. "Where’s the boy?"

"Goin’ on about the boy again. The fuck’s the matter with ya? You like little boys or somethin’?" Derrick asked.

"Just interested."

"He’s tied up. Little shit acted up this mornin", he did. Needs to learn what’s good for him."

"I see," said the old man, looking at the bottle of alcohol. "Where’d ya get that from?"

"Traded for it."

"How much ya got? Got some to spare? I can trade."

Derrick stared at him. "Yeah. What the fuck you got?"

The old man dropped his pack and reached inside. "Got somethin’ for ya right here."

"Can’t spare that much, mate. We’re aimin’ to be shit-faced before midday."

The old man pulled out the .45 and held it to Derrick’s head. The man with the bandaged arm balked. "The fuck you gonna do with that?"

The blast was muffled because the pistol was so close to Derrick’s face. His left eyeball disappeared in a heartbeat, and the contents of his skull crashed across the veranda like thrown gravy.

The man with the bandaged arm screamed and scurried to his feet, vaulting over the veranda’s balustrade, tripping and slapping onto the ground.

"Fuck’s sake," said the old man, aiming poorly and letting off two more shots.

But the man bolted through the high weeds by the river and disappeared.

The rottweiler woofed at him, bristling, ears boxed. The old man waved at it. "Settle down. Don’t make a fuss," he said, trying to stop his hand from trembling.

Brains slid down the wall.

"It’s done now," the old man said.

They settled alongside the dry creek just outside the ruins of the old hospital at Middle Swan, and the old man watched the boy drink a can of spaghetti straight down like it was a thick shake. Afterward, the boy licked the tin and cut his tongue. The old man gave him a rag to hold to his mouth and stop the bleeding.

The rottweiler had kept its distance since the boy had been released, and now lounged in the wild grass, dozing in the midday warmth. The boy crept over, plonked himself beside the dog and started patting its shiny, black coat.

"Don’t do that, little one," the old man said. "How many times I gotta tell ya?"

The boy said nothing and kept patting the dog. The rottweiler gave a low, chesty growl.

"I told ya, he doesn’t like being touched."

The boy kept patting. The brewing growl turned into a bark, and the dog snapped, showing its gleaming teeth. The boy fell away, as if he’d been slapped, and crawled back to the old man’s side.

"He doesn’t wanna be touched, little one," the old man said.

"But I seen you touch him."

"That’s coz he trusts me. Still, he’s not a pet. He doesn’t like being treated like one."

"What is he then?"


"If he’s not a pet?"

"He is what he is."

"Why doesn’t he have a name?"

"He probly did. Before. But I didn’t know it. And he has no use for one now."

"What’s your name?"

"Why would you wanna know that for?"

The boy shrugged.

"Names mean nothin’ now, little one."

"Why do you keep callin’ me that? My name’s Kane." He paused then, moody and glancing back at the dog.

The boy looked at the old man again. "What’s it look like now?" he asked and stuck his tongue out.

The old man frowned. "What am I lookin’ at?"

That seemed to hurt the boy. He sighed and fingered the grass. "Forget it."

The old man ejected the clip from the .45 and counted only three more rounds. The boy watched this with nonchalant eyes.

"Ya didn’t have to kill ‘im, ya know?" he said. "They weren’t bad people. They never…" He paused. "They never did nothin’ to me, if that’s what ya thinkin’."

"Maybe not. But they were keepin’ ya on a leash."

"Didn’t mean ya had to shoot Derrick."

The old man shrugged. "I’ve killed others for less."

"How many people you killed?"

"It doesn’t matter."

The old man pushed the .45 into its holster and inclined back in the grass. He grumbled aloud, not unlike the dog, shut his eyes and relished the heat on his face from the climbing sun.

"Where we goin’?" the boy asked.

"Didn’t you hear me yesterday? The hills."

"But Derrick said that’s where the monsters are."

"That’s what I’ve heard."

"Is it true they drink your blood?"

"I’ve never seen it myself."

"Then why are we goin’ there?"

"We don’t have to go nowhere. You don’t like it, you don’t have to come."

The boy stared at the ground, and his bottom lip trembled. He glanced over at the dog almost angrily. His fingers raked through the grass as if frustrated he couldn’t touch that warm, black sheet of hair.

The old man opened one milky eye and looked at him. "Don’t do it, little one," he said again. "You saw what happened last time."

They camped in one of the old wards that night and the boy propped himself moodily in the corner and didn’t say much. Now and then the old man looked at the pink, inflamed skin around the boy’s neck where the collar used to be. He dragged three mattresses in from the hall, one for each of them. This seemed to lift the boy’s spirits a little, having his own bed.

The old man woke sometime in the night to find the boy snuggling up to him. The old man pushed him away. "No, little one, no. You got ya own bed."

He heard the boy’s bare feet plod over to the dog on its mattress. There was a wild bark and snapping of teeth.

He listened to the boy go back to his own bed, ruffle around in the dirty sheets and then start to cry.

They stuck to the edge of Great Northern Highway for most of the next morning, watching the vines in the old wineries where they’d gone feral and completely enveloped the red brick houses, festering from cracked windows, dropping their spoiled grapes. The boy kept his distance from the old man and the rottweiler, choosing to march about five hundred metres ahead of them, still frustrated with their lack of affection.

Smoke could be seen billowing from the Darling Ranges and the old man stopped to watch for a spell. "That Whadjuk mob are burning again," he said to no one in particular.

He and the dog fell in side by side and watched the shiny, black figure of the boy in the distance, storming away. A government drone hovered above them. They could see the camera lens contract. The dog growled and showed its bare teeth. The old man smiled and showed his middle finger.

By the time they reached the caved-in length of Yagan Bridge, the old man realised he couldn’t see the boy anymore. "Fuck me dead," he grumbled.

He and the rottweiler scurried down the weedy slope to where the clean line of the Swan River plashed loudly against the huge pieces of the shattered road-bridge. The dog started barking even before he saw the gathering of figures by the water.

The boy was cradled in the arms of a buxom woman draped in shabby robes. Piercings in her lips, ears, the cartilage of her nose. The boy buried his face into her neck, and the woman was rocking him up and down and whispering into his ear. There was another woman standing in front and a man behind her with a rifle.

The old man saw the symbol in red, painted on each of their foreheads. His heart raced as he pulled the heavy pistol from its holster.

"Little one, listen to me," he pleaded. "These aren’t good people, mate. I need ya to come back here right now."

But the boy wouldn’t look at him. The woman cradling him gave a smile, showing the yellow teeth which had been filed into sharp points.

"I have a feeling the boy doesn’t wanna go with you," the other woman said.

"Little one, you remember hearing about the covens? They weren’t just stories, mate. All the terrible things people say, it’s all true."

"That’s not my name," the boy muttered into the woman’s chest.

"Okay, Kane. I’m sorry. Kane, please come back here."

But the woman holding him turned and started away through the river red gums.

"Kane!" the old man screamed.

The leader stepped toward him, glancing down at the growling rottweiler and then meeting the old man’s eyes. "He isn’t what you think he is, ya know?"

The old man aimed the .45 at her. "You evil fuckers."

Her teeth had been filed to sharp points as well, her gums black as coal. "Be careful in the hills, old man," she said and eyed the snarling rottweiler. "The blood-drinkers, they’re attracted to the smell of dogs."

The old man started coughing the next day. It was a deep, chesty cough, and it wasn’t long before he was spitting blood. He took off his shirt to inspect his torso where the fleas had been biting him the other night and found his bare chest peppered with red sores, like chicken pox.

"Jeezus, fuck, no," he said aloud and looked at the dog.

The Rottweiler stared back. Its unknowable eyes were a foggy, dark blue. He wondered if it was developing cataracts. He wondered if he’d live long enough to look after the dog if it went blind.

He coughed all that day tramping along the Great Northern Highway. Sometimes he coughed so loud the dog started, turned back and sniffed at him as if it had gone blind already and was unsure of who was behind it. The old man constantly turned to spit into the weeds, because the mucus and blood had left a meaty aftertaste in his mouth.

That taste brought back memories of when he was kept prisoner by the government a few years after the blood-drinkers first attacked and the city fell. He’d killed two guards to escape the bunker where they were holding him. Trudging through the city afterward, he’d found a group of marauders in the ruins of the Perth airport. One of the women, in particular, had taken a liking to him, wrapped his shivering body in a blanket and given him a bowlful of freshly roasted meat.

"I can’t," he’d told her and pushed it away.

But she’d held the white-pinkish meat under his nose. "It’s alright," she’d said. "Just close your eyes and pretend its pork."

They reached the new-growth woodlands in the Swan Valley just after midday and the old man turned towards the base of the Darling Ranges to get out of the open sun. The dog followed him and sometimes woofed at the grey kangaroos which tore away through the growing scrub.

By evening the old man was becoming delirious. Blood and dark mucus had dried along his top lip.

"Fucken told him, didn’t I?" he blathered. "I told him not to go with those fucken nutters. What else coulda I done? He made his decision. There was nothin’ I could do."

The dog watched him from a distance.

"Fucken nothin’ I could do," the old man said.

He nearly collapsed when they reached the base of the ranges and watched the evening sun plummet through the tops of the wandoos. The dog waited impatiently at his side because the old man usually fed it around dusk. But the old man could hardly move now. He fell in and out of sleep.

Each time he woke with a start, muttering, "Come back, Kane. You can’t go with them. You’ve heard the stories. You know what they’ll do."

Sometimes he woke in the dark to the sound of the rottweiler snarling. It was a low grumble, like the sound of thunder resounding in the earth. When the old man peered up, he saw a huge, pallid figure retreat inside one of the granite caves along the slope.

He pulled himself to his feet, coughing again, and stumbled to the dog’s side. He watched the cave mouth but saw no more movement.

The old man turned back through the woodlands. "Come on," he told the dog. "We better find somewhere else to sleep."

That next morning, the coughing was worse. His sweat had soaked through his clothes so it felt like he’d just been for a swim. The blood had dried all through his beard. In this malaise, he heard Kane crying in the hospital again. He saw the faces of those two young guards he’d murdered for freedom so long ago. The way their eyes had watered as he’d pushed the carving knife into their jugulars.

The dog sat on the other side of the clearing where they’d camped last night. Its ears were boxed and it refused to leave the old man’s side.

He smiled at it. "Pretty sure I’m fucked, mate."

A man stepped through the marris sometime later. He was lugging an AK-47 and was closely followed by a woman. Both of them came over and studied the old man — this half-dead mummy, sitting on a rock, ranting, and coughing and spitting blood. The man kept on, but the woman stayed. She took a piece of cloth from her camo uniform, soaked it with her water bottle and wiped the old man’s bloody chin. The dog watched all this curiously.

"He yours?" the woman asked, gesturing to the patient rottweiler.

"Nah," he said. "Don’t belong to no one."

"He doesn’t seem to mind me touchin’ his boss."

"I’m not his boss."


"He’s a good judge of character."

"I’ll take that as a compliment."

The old man’s eyes rolled. He tried to focus on the woman’s face. "You government?" he asked.


"What’s that?"

"Whadjuk Liberation Army."

He nodded. "Aw, yeah. Heard of you lot."

"You’re not well."

"I’m fucked," the old man said.

"Plainest way of puttin’ it." She stepped back and inspected him, then looked at the dog. "It’s carried by fleas, you know?"

"Yeah. I heard."

"Havin’ him around’s probly not a good idea."

The old man shrugged. "Bit late now."

"Good point." She tried to smile. "I haven’t seen a domesticated dog in years. Only the wild ones in the ranges."

"He’s not domesticated."

"How you get him to follow you then?"

"He doesn’t follow me. All this time, we just happened to be goin’ in the same direction."

"Where’d you find him?"

"Went to see my brother a few years back. He was down in Serpentine. Escaped the work camps with his wife and boy. They had a nice place up in the ranges. Near the waterfalls. Hadn’t been to see him for years. When I found them, the marauders had been through. Killed all three. Even the boy. For some reason, they’d left the dog. I’m guessin’ he was my brother’s. Or maybe he just wandered in off the ranges. Or maybe he’s somethin’ else entirely."

The rottweiler looked between the old man and the woman.

The old man went on. "He’d eaten them. My brother, sister-in-law, my nephew. Well, most of them anyway."

"And you still wanted to be around it after that?"

"Wasn’t his fault. When they got killed, they stopped bein’ his owners, his bosses. After that, they were just meat. Plus, by eatin’ them, I think he’s got some part of them inside. Like he’s carryin’ them somehow. He’s carryin’ my family inside him. Sometimes I think I can see them when I look in his eyes." The old man paused and thought about this. "And then sometimes I think he’s just goin’ blind."

The woman knelt beside him, taking his hand. "What you’ve got. I’ve seen it before. It’s not a good way to die."

He stared at her. "What are you askin’ me?"

She just squeezed his fingers.

The old man shook his head. "When I’ve had enough, I can do it meself."

She stood then and looked back at the rottweiler. "Till then, just keep an ear out at night. The blood-drinkers like the smell of dogs."

"We saw one. In a cave not far from here."

"Yeah, we know about him. He’s not well. They leave the sick ones behind. He can’t hunt, can’t feed himself. He’ll probly starve to death."

"I’m not scared of ‘em," the old man said. "I’d just turned twenty-six years old when the miners found them in those caves near here. They didn’t attack at first, ya know? It was the government. They sent in the army. Tryin’ to burn them things out so they could keep diggin’."

The woman watched him.

"We started it," the old man said and smiled at her grimly. "They just finished it."

He used a jagged lid from a can of spaghetti to cut open his forearms. The blood spurted, and he felt it flow down the insides of his hands and drip from the tips of his fingers. The rottweiler watched this frowning, and then licked the blood which had gushed down his elbow. Already he felt like he might faint. He stumbled toward the granite slope coughing so badly now it felt like his lungs were on fire.

The old man peered up at the granite cave etched out in the moonlight. The dog was by his side again, still tonguing the blood as it ran down his arms. He pushed it away without thinking and saw the wet hand print he left upon its shiny coat. The rottweiler didn’t seem to understand and leaned into the old man again, and again the old man pushed it away.

"It’s not for you," he told it.

The old man leant down then and took the huge animal’s head in his hands. He felt the bulky, complex architecture of its skull under his bloodied fingers, like a blind man feeling out the face of his beneficent god. He patted more blood across the rottweiler’s head and stared into its eyes, plumbing deep into those foggy pupils. He wasn’t sure what he was seeing anymore, or if he’d ever seen anything in there at all.

The old man stood again and turned to face the granite slope. "Oi, down here!" he called into the darkened tops of the wandoos.

There was a stirring in the cave mouth. A huge, pallid wing glimpsed, unfolding.

"Dinner’s ready!" the old man barked, and then started laughing.

The rottweiler watched this, wincing a little at the old man’s screaming voice. He turned back and looked at it. "Go on," he grumbled. "Get outta here. Ya don’t wanna see this."

He dropped to his knees and watched the weak figure slowly emerge from the cave, and then drag itself down the slope. The rottweiler saw it too now and started woofing.

"Go!" the old man told the dog. "I told ya to get outa here!"

The blood-drinker tenderly clambered through the shattered jags of granite — the moon shining on its white skin. Its wings battered and hanging limply at its sides. The rottweiler continued to woof, slowly backing up, until it was out of sight, and it disappeared in the dark of the tree-line.

The immense pallid creature slouched before the old man now and he could see the weak pulse of its heart in its hairless chest.

He showed it his open forearms. "Come on then."

Two elongated teeth emerged from its slavering mouth.

"But I’m warnin’ ya," the old man said. "It’s gonna taste like shit."

After the old man was drained, his body shrunken and twiggy, the rottweiler crept back through the tree-line, growling. The blood-drinker saw it but was too weak to feed anymore, so it turned and scampered back up the slope to the dark cave mouth.

The rottweiler stood above the lifeless figure of the old man, sniffing. Its near-blind eyes turned then and watched the cave for any more sign of the thing which had just drained the life from the old man, but there was just the humming of the wind in the marris. The scent of fresh blood filled the rottweiler’s senses.

The dog sat beside the body for some hours before it started to eat the old man, taking his body in its hungry jaws and stripping away the bloodless meat. It was the most food it had had in months, and the rottweiler filled its belly to bursting, the moonlight sometimes glancing across one fogged pupil.

And if there was anything in there, if there were indeed souls being carried by the creature, they were obscured by the dull cataracts forming in the dog’s bloodshot eyes.




Joshua Kemp is an author of Australian Gothic, crime and horror fiction. His short stories have appeared in various literary journals, and he was runner-up two years in a row for the Australian Horror Writers Association Short Story Award.

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