I present this fictional story with acknowledgment of the Guringai and Darug people, the Traditional Custodians of the land on which I set my story and have enjoyed much inspiration. I pay my respects to their Elders past and present. I extend that respect to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people reading my work.

There are footsteps in the damp leaves. One human. One on paws. I hear them only because the frogs and night critters have suddenly ceased their moonlight racket. The sound of the Hawkesbury River lapping against the shore becomes clearer and I can hear the chiming boat masts down at Parsley Bay. I reach for my oyster-shucking knife. My fingers rub the familiar salty handle, which is warm from sitting by the almost extinguished fire. I slide out of my sleeping bag and retreat up into the darkness of the sandstone cave behind me.

‘Euch!’ A squeal is stifled. A hand swats skin. Sticks crack in surrender to clumsy boots and loose earth slips beneath them. They are heading directly toward me. My camp is not hard to find. I am well hidden behind a boulder and surrounded by shrubs. It’s the blue tarp hanging above me that is the giveaway. It usually doesn’t matter. The locals shout my name to let me know they are coming, and the day-tripping bushwalkers move swiftly past as if homelessness is catching. Occasionally it is the bad sort, coming to cause trouble.

A dog gives a low bark. ‘Settle down boy,’ whispers, to my relief, a kind young man’s voice. I stow the knife in my trousers and jump down from my hiding spot just as they enter the clearing. ‘Well, hello there,’ I say.

The young man stands before me like a frozen pilchard, startled by my sudden appearance. His doe-eyed Golden Retriever barks. I chuckle and cross my arms. ‘Now, now, I was just keeping myself hidden in case you were here to ransack my camp.’ The young man is around eighteen years old. Tall, but lanky, not yet having shed the awkwardness of teen years. He has a mop of orange hair. He is sickly pale, and his lips are dry. He tries to smile but his brow remains furrowed. The dog approaches me cautiously, and satisfied the fright is over, gives me a good sniff.

‘Oh, h-hey. I’mDanny, this is Raffy.’ Danny pushes the mop of hair self-consciously off his face.

‘Barry,’ I say.

Danny holds out his hand. I shake it because, well, no one ever offers to shake my hand anymore. His palm is hot and clammy.

‘Best sit down, mate. How long have you had the fever?’

I gesture for him to take a seat. I need more light, so I throw kindling on the fire and start to fan it with a copy of The Big Issue. Danny scratches his legs, which flake in scales of dead skin that fall to the ground like dandruff. Fresh blood trickles down from where he has just scratched.

‘You’re going to need an antiseptic cream,’ I say. ‘Paracetamol. Plenty of fluids. You like Billy tea?’

‘Uh yeh, thanks.’ He looks around at my camp, and I see the doubt on his face. He pauses then says, ‘you’re a doctor… I didn’t expect… but they say you’re a bit of legend.’

My throat tightens.

‘Used to be, mate.’ I clear my throat. There is a long, awkward silence. I notice that the frogs and night critters have started up again.

‘I’d just started med school,’ Danny offers, breaking the silence.

‘Oh.’ This catches me off guard. ‘What kind of doctor do you want to be?’

‘A geneticist, I think. I uh, heard you were Brooklyn’s GP for many years, Dr Barry.’

My right eyebrow involuntarily moves up. ‘Just Barry will do. You are new around here, aren’t you?’ But you seem to know a lot about me, I think.

‘I am.’

‘Why did you come all the way out here to me, Danny? The Doc in town could have helped you with your erm, illness.’

‘Yeh, I did see Dr King. She told me to see you and tell you you’re needed at the clinic. I’m the third case this week.’

‘Oh, I see now.’ The penny drops. ‘You’re my wife’s messenger.’

‘Your wife?!’ Danny looked around at the camp again. I thought to clarify ‘separated’ but didn’t. ‘She said you knew the most about this. You’ve seen this before, haven’t you?’ Danny points to his legs. I nod.

Raffy walks over to my sleeping bag and settles in for a nap. My mind is taken back to the day Pip and I bought it for a camping trip. She wore a green silk top that brought out the green in her eyes.

I focus back on Danny, who is glaring at me. There’s building desperation in his mannerisms. ‘It’s a nasty virus,’ I say, knowing that will not be enough.

‘A virus? I’ve turned into a fucking part-time merman Barry!’ He shouts. Then he hangs his head and mumbles, ‘sorry Barry. I’m upset. I’d hoped… ’

‘That’s understandable. I call it fish flu. I’m not sure if it is a virus, but that’s my best guess. A few people around here have caught it over the years. But there is somewhat of an outbreak this year.’

‘Is there a cure?’

‘Not that I know of. Submerging your lower half in the river will help with the discomfort though.’

‘Right,’ he said sceptically. ‘Why isn’t this in the news?’

‘It’s a local phenomenon that we keep to ourselves. Some people want to transition. They see it as a rite of passage and use their new abilities to protect the area. Others do not, and that’s ok. Brooklyn is a sacred place with many mysteries, we all try to fit into and protect it in our own way.’ I stand and stretch my back. ‘I’m always here if you need help managing symptoms, though Dr King is more than capable.’

I could see Danny was unsatisfied with my answers. He stood as if to leave. He hesitated, then stiffened, looking past me. I slowly turned to follow his gaze. I had thought it was too dark to see. The ancient carvings looked alive in the flickering light of the campfire. Two women with fishtails swam across each other. Their mouths open as if screaming.

‘Are they Aboriginal carvings?’ He exclaimed.


 Danny walked over to the cave. He raised his finger as if to trace them, then stopped. He moved to inspect the circles within circles, that looked to represent bodies of water. Then moved on to the single line that flowed around the figures, a string, with red ochre paint visible in its deepest cracks.

‘Has this virus got something to do with the Guringai? Or the Darug?’

‘Not directly, no. There are stories of mermaids in Arnhem Land, but that is a long way from here. There are merpeople stories from all over the world. Homer had his sirens. The Scots have their selkies. Merfolk from ancient Greece. There are stone age carvings and so on. But the saltwater mermaids in Arnhem Land, the Ji-Merdiwa, are not permitted to be carved, so it does not fit here. I’m working on a theory that this is Guringai documentation of the arrival of fish flu in the Hawkesbury.’

‘Where do you think it came from?’

‘Europe. Though I don’t know how it spreads. It only seems to happen in Brooklyn.’

‘Dr King said if anyone can cure it, it’d be you.’

I felt a familiar tingle run through my chest.

‘You can tell Dr King that I’m working on it!’


A few days later, I watch Danny from my lookout. He is staring into the whitewash, where the waves caused by the postman’s ferry collide with the glistening, jagged rocks of the shoreline. His rubber thongs are useless on the slippery algae, so he holds one arm out as if ready to catch himself. I wonder what he can see. I have seen a red string float to the surface here before, at a low tide. Just like how it is depicted in the carvings. He leans forward as if to jump.

‘Danny!’ I yell and bush bash my way down through the gums.

He turns and narrows his eyes at me.

‘What’s this red string?’ He shouts.

‘That red string might see you drown, so leave it.’

‘How would I drown with a fish’s tail for legs?’

‘Well, you could hit your head on the rocks, for one!’

‘What happens if I get in the water here?’

He scowls and moves to get in the water. I lunge forward and grab his arm.

‘No!’ He pulls back, slips and falls into the water.

I see a flash of silver fishtail, but he doesn’t resurface. I dive in after him.

A spiral of bubbling water surrounds me. Waves throw me in every direction. I am disorientated. I need breath. I see Danny’s tail spinning at a distance from me. Red string wraps itself around me. I grab it, pulling it from my neck. Then I cannot hold on any longer and all light withdraws.


I cough out ocean and suck in air, filling my aching lungs. Danny has a fist full of my hair, holding my head above the water.

‘Let go! I’m good mate.’ I start to tread water, my clothing heavy in the water.

Still coughing, I look around. Clear turquoise water sparkles around us and seagulls squawk overhead. Amber-coloured cliffs hug the familiar shore of white sand and olive trees heavy with fruit. A woman standing beneath one of the trees spots us. Her basket drops to the ground, and she shouts.

‘Monstro marinho! Monstro marinho!’

‘What’s she shouting?’

‘Sea monster. You’re seen, now it’s time to go mate.’


We had quickly returned the way we came and now sat around my campfire, drying off and looking out to the river. Danny looked like a stunned mullet.

‘You think the virus comes through that portal?’ he finally asked.

‘That’s the leading hypothesis.’

‘Where were we?’

‘An island off Portugal. The exact opposite side of the world to where we are now.’


Danny is peering out the window as we trundle along in our train carriage. We’re on our way to his university lab with the hope of slipping in unnoticed and running the virus genome. He looks troubled and violently tries to scratch his legs through thick denim. I stare at my reflection in the glass. I barely recognise myself. I’m showered, shaved and dressed in clean clothes. The old Barry glares back at me. He’s curious. Happy to see me.

‘How much longer am I going to itch like this? I feel like I have a family of mozzies living in my jeans!’ Danny asks.

‘It should be backing off soon. Did you try a good soak in the river?’

‘Yep. Tried that.’

He sighs and returns his gaze to the passing scenery. ‘That lady was right. I’m a freak now. A monster.’

‘I wouldn’t say that. What’s a monster, anyway? You’re not hurting anyone. Look for the silver linings. I’ve seen people grow to like and accept the change,’ I offer. ‘You can use medical science to help people. You may even make a scientific breakthrough! And the ladies… they love a self-assured merman.’

Danny grunted, unappreciative of my humour.

‘It is the psychological challenges that are hardest to overcome,’ I conceded. ‘I’ve had my fair share… The important thing is to reach out.’ I think of Pip. If only I’d reached out.

‘Do you miss her?’ Danny asks to my surprise.

‘What? Who?’

‘You’ve got a crap poker face, Barry.’

‘You should reach out. She lit up when she talked about you.’

‘Really?’ My heart leaps.

‘Really,’ Danny smiles, ‘And you’re looking good… you should drop the test results over to her. I’m sure she’d be interested.’

Diane is a lover of storytelling and sharing the curiosities of science. As a Macquarie University Arts (Creative Writing) and Medical Science (Genomics) student, she enjoys finding ways to combine her two interests. Slay Park was her first published fictional work in The Quarry. Fish Tails is the seedling of a much longer story, so watch this space!