The Picture

An audio podcast version of this yarn is also available. 

David at the Noted Publishing Fair requested:

Aardvark + Ninja + Quantum Physics


Patient: “Michael” (surname unknown)

Diagnosis: Schizophrenia

Symptoms: Delusions, Hallucinations

Duration: Likely for many years, but at least six months prior to examination, based on physical condition

Appeared: Thin, although not malnourished. He presented wearing little. The clothes he had appeared to be traditional Aboriginal garments.

That’s how Dr Kay dealt with Michael’s sudden appearance and subsequent disappearance. His clinical notes stated that he satisfied two of the five criteria according to the bible of modern psychiatry assessment: DSM-V. Otherwise known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition.

Job done.

Mystery solved.

I spent many lunchtimes staring at those notes, and the drawing Michael left me.

The first time I met him was an ordinary work day, just like any other. I walked into the unit and my eyes were immediately drawn to him. I still don’t know if that was because he was a new arrival, or that he was attempting to remove his t-shirt, for what I later learned was the tenth time that morning. Colleagues were rushing towards him.

“Mike, I told you, you ‘ave to keep these clothes on,” Janey was saying as she reached him. She had only recently started in the unit after moving from London.

“He doesn’t speak English,” interjected Matt, who rushed to her side. “Keith, can’t you translate?” he called over his shoulder.

Keith looked up and smiled at Matt from the other side of the unit, apparently oblivious to the commotion. He was playing chess with another consumer, Nick. As usual, Keith was as cool as his ice blue eyes – eyes that radiated out of his dark skin like laser beams. I often lost my breath when he locked them on me.

I could stare at them all day. Some days I did.

“I told you Matty,” he replied calmly. “Us mob don’t all speak the same language. I’m Ngunnawal. Our Mike there is not. Wherever he is from, it’s not around here.”

With both Matt and Janey gently holding his shirt down, Mike relented and held up his hands, indicating he was willing to stop. Both looked at him sceptically. I walked over to Keith, eager to admire those eyes up close.

“What’s his story?”

Keith sighed.

“Not you too – you think because I’m black I can diagnose all our patients in five seconds?”

My face and stomach dropped simultaneously – I had offended him. Seeing my expression, he broke into a deep chuckle, flashing his white teeth.

“Nah, I’m only jokin’ sis. He arrived yesterday wearing nothing but a loin cloth, covered in dirt, like he walked here from Alice Springs. I don’t know any brothers round here that get around in the traditional gear. But this one….he refuses to wear anything else.”

As Janey and Matt turned their backs, Mike resumed stripping off his clothes. Both rushed back towards him. Keith smiled. It was infectious, and I found myself smiling too.

Involuntarily, my eyes locked with Michael’s, and he immediately stopped struggling; it was as though he recognised me.

His eyes were blue like Keith’s, but not as piercing. I stared back for a moment, until I realised everyone else at the unit had turned their attention to us. At last, Matt spoke.

“Just keep staring at him Karen – all day if you have to. At least then, he’ll keep his clothes on.”

Michael turned his head to consider me further.

“You are Karen?” he asked.

“You do speak English!” Janey exclaimed.

Before Michael could respond, our fearless leader Lil emerged from the nurse’s station.

“What’s going on here?” she exclaimed.

“Karen ‘as managed to calm Michael down,” Janey offered.

“Excellent,” she replied, in a tone that suggested anything but gratitude. “So what are the rest of you doing?”

This was classic Lil. I put it down to some insecurity at her recent promotion, but it didn’t help that even in moments of success, she seemed stressed.

Keith smiled.

“Well, I’m playing chess with Nick here, like you asked me to do at the start of the shift.”

She nodded curtly.

“Good, the rest of you get back to work. Karen, spend some time with Michael please.”

I sat down next to Michael.

“Hi there, I’m Karen, as you seemed to pick up.”

I held out my hand.

“Michael,” he replied, smiling. All of the angst and fight of earlier seemed to have left him.

Up close, I realised how much he reminded me of Keith. Was that some unconscious racial bias or stereotyping on my part? Did I think all Aboriginal men with blue eyes looked the same? Before I could contemplate this further, I realised Michael was responding.

“You are all stressed and busy here,” he said, indicating towards the ward.

I shrugged, trying not to be defensive in my answer.

“Actually, this is meant to be a modern unit where the staff and patients work together on psychosocial rehabilitation.”

“I didn’t mean just in here, but outside as well.”

I smiled.

“With people rushing around putting clothes on?” I asked.

If he understood the joke, he didn’t let on.

“Your clothes are archaic and ridiculous. Their production, and your insatiable desire to be ‘fashionable’ causes irreversible damage to the environment and other cultures.”

I considered this for a moment, and looked down at my denim pants.


Michael rose and stood behind me. I immediately became nervous. I glanced over at Keith, and was pleased to see he was watching us over his game.

“Relax Karen, I’m just going to read the tag on your shirt,” Michael whispered quietly into my ear.

He gently lifted the tag out.

“Made in China. Nylon. Many people were paid little, and suffered a great deal, to make this garment for you. Not to mention the greenhouse gasses emitted in creating the nylon.”

I tried not to bristle. I had worked with many consumers whose illness lead them to be abrasive and difficult.

“So you don’t wear clothes because of your political views?” I asked.

“Where I come from, we have no need of such elaborate clothes. Nor many of the other material possessions I see before me. We have learnt their creation is not worth the cost.”

“And where is that somewhere? Central Australia?”

He leant in closer to my ear.

“More future Australia,” he replied.

Before I could ask him more, Keith called out from across the room

“Are you gonna show Karen your precious paper, Michael?”

Was there a tone of jealously in his interjection?

“Paper?” I asked turning to face Michael.

“It is nothing,” he replied, but I noticed his hand involuntarily moved to his hip.

“Only thing our Michael came in with,” Keith continued. “A folded scrap of paper. Refuses to let anyone see it.”

I would work almost exclusively with Michael over the next few weeks. Lil didn’t like “patients” (as she called them) forming bonds with particular nurses, but she had little choice. Michael refused to speak to anyone else, to the point that I had to act as conduit for any conversations he had with the doctors. He spent his time either speaking to me, or drawing. He was an incredibly talented artist.

We didn’t chat about anything meaningful to Michael. He was very good at deflecting my questions and turning the conversation to my personal life. This was a common tactic of consumers, and something I could usually handle. Yet, something about those blue eyes resulted in my talking far more than usual about such things. Michael seemed to innately understand so much about my life.

“You have little time for life outside this place?” he suggested one morning, when we had sat down to do some drawing. Well, I had sat down to watch him draw. He was amazing, and was slowly creating incredible portraits of the consumers and nurses around us.

“I can’t complain,” I replied. “Do you have many friends back home?”

Michael smiled, his typical rueful smile. When coupled with his eyes, his face radiated an incredible wisdom. As though he had seen so much, but was only revealing a portion at a time to me.

“I told you, I’m not from central Australia. But we weren’t talking about me. I asked you about your personal life.”

I could see we weren’t getting anywhere.

“I’ll answer your question, if you tell me where you are from.”

He nodded curtly.

“Very well.”

I took a deep breath.

“You’re right, I do spend too much time here. I feel very rushed in other aspects of my life, and I have little time for anything other than work, sleep and eating. But, I’m saving for a place of my own, and I’m determined not to spend the rest of my life living in a cramped apartment.”

“You should rush around less, and spend more time making friends. There are people here you could befriend.”

I saw his eyes move slightly away, and as I followed them, I saw Keith standing and talking to Lil outside the nurses’ station. My eyes turned back to Michael’s. What games was he playing?

“Your turn to answer my question,” I said, keen to change the subject.

“Yes, you are correct. I am not from central Australia. I live in Canberra, not far from here.”

This made no sense.

“So why did you appear here in traditional Aboriginal clothes? Having apparently walked a great distance?”

Michael shook his head.

“Those are new questions. I only agreed to answer one.”

Speaking to Michael was like playing chess with Keith. He would toy with me, letting me believe I had the upper hand, and then gently indicate he had me in check mate.

Michael provided Dr Kay even less information, most similarly calculated and pre-planned.

“Tell me Michael, where are you from?” Dr Kay asked one afternoon.

“Not far from here,” was all Michael would offer.

“You once said to me that you were from ‘future Australia’?” I interjected.

Michael glanced at me, and for a moment I worried that I had betrayed his confidence. Then, he smiled and nodded, as though he had been waiting for this moment.

“I am a time traveller, Dr Kay. I have come from the future.”

“I see,” Dr Kay said, nodding understandingly, not a glimmer of scepticism in his face. Although, I knew his brain would already be turning over a potential diagnosis.

“And how do you travel through time?”

“That is classified,” Michael replied. He was for the first time engaging with Dr Kay directly.

“You can’t tell me anything?”

Michael considered the doctor for a moment. At last he spoke.

“You have a slight South African accent, yes. You are from there?”

Dr Kay nodded.

“Then, you will be familiar with the aardvark. My people often describe time traveller using the analogy of the echidna, but the aardvark is perhaps an even better metaphor. It sniffs out ants using its long nose and mouth. My people have developed a technology that allows us to seek out worm holes, in space. I am like the aardvark. I search down into these worm holes, to determine where they lead.”

“If you are a time traveller, from the future, why were you dressed in indigenous clothes?

Michael shook his head.

“I have read much about the white man’s arrogance in this time period, but it is nonetheless amazing to see it up close. You assume that your civilisation was the advanced one, when the Europeans conquered this land. In fact, in the future, we have come to realise that the life of the Indigenous peoples of this land was far more advanced.”

Dr Kay smiled.

“Would it shock you to learn that I believe you are not a time traveller, but are suffering some form of psychosis?”

Michael nodded patiently.

“And what would be the appropriate treatment, doctor? More time here?”

Dr Kay consulted his notes.

“Your involuntary treatment order runs out tomorrow. Would you stay here voluntarily? Perhaps for another week or two?”

Michael met eyes with Dr Kay.

“Will you cure me?”

There was a note of sarcasm in his voice, which I don’t think Dr Kay appreciated.

“We can certainly make progress.”

Michael nodded.

“Very well.”

As Dr Kay walked away, I leant in closer to Michael.

“You want to stay, don’t you?”

“My work here is not finished, Karen.”

And I could have sworn his eyes again darted in Keith’s direction.

Michael became nicknamed the “ninja” due to his quiet demeanour away from me, and the ability for him to disappear for hours at a time. A number of times, when I wasn’t working, the nurses would come close to reporting him missing. Then he would just reappear, in a common space, sitting quietly as though he had never left. He would often divert attention away from his reappearance by presenting another staff member or patient with an incredibly detailed drawing of them he had created.

Halfway through his second week in the unit, when we had again done another dance of him probing for personal information, I decided to confront him.

“Why will you only speak to me?”

Again, he seemed to have been expecting my question.

“I mentioned that my job is to be the aardvark. However, I am not here just for work.”

He leant more closely towards me.

“The passage of time is omnipresent in the human experience. Our bodies’ age, our loved ones dies, and our creations decay. Yet we are equipped, unique among Earth’s creatures, with this brain that almost demands immortality. Our intelligence reveals the awful truth of time – that no matter how much we learn and understand about everything around us, about what it means to be a sentinel creature – will all be lost in that split second when our heart stops.”

I had the sense he had wanted to tell me this for a very long time.

“My people have learnt to cheat that in some ways, to live longer, to change time. But only some things can be changed. Quantum physics has helped us to travel through time, but also to understand only certain particles can be altered, and therefore, only certain events changed.”

He pointed to a blank piece of paper on the table.

“The world is like this piece of paper. Some things we do to it are painted with light pencil and can be erased, changed, altered. Yet others are engraved in pen forever. Many of the things your society is doing to this planet are permanent. Damage that can never be undone.”

He saw my confused expression, and took a deep breath.

“Forget the science Karen, think of the humanity. That thirty minutes you spend with your child playing, or choosing to recycle that plastic bottle, could make a profound difference. Your western style of life is destroying this planet, destruction my people are still trying to repair. That is why I dress the way I do. The Indigenous cultures were far more advanced. They knew how to live sustainably with the land. My job is to go back and fix what we still can. But this time, it is human relationships I am here to correct.

“Think of your most recent regret, the one thing you would change about the past week in your life. Can you still change it? It might matter a great deal.”

I thought immediately of Keith. Something in my face must have betrayed my emotion, as he smiled and nodded.

“You have it, yes? A special someone you want to speak to?”

“There is someone,” I said quietly.

“A colleague?”

At the time, I didn’t find it unusual that he would suggest a colleague so quickly. But, of course, he knew.

“Yes,” I smiled, my cheeks reddening.

“It is time for you to see my paper.”

Thirty minutes later I found myself alone in the kitchen with Keith. We were chatting about something mundane, but I wasn’t really paying attention. I was too focussed on how I was going to tell him what I had seen. I must have drifted off for a moment, because I realised he was staring at me.

“Well?” he asked.

“Sorry, I was a million miles away,” I replied sheepishly.

“Karen, way to lead a brother down. I was asking you if you wanted to check out that new restaurant at Swinger Hill, but I guess the answer is no.”

He’d asked me out…He’d asked me out! Even as my brain slowly made sense of the conversation, I realised he was walking out of the room.

“Keith – wait. Yes! I would love to! I’m sorry, it’s just something Michael said….but yes, I would love to!”

Keith turned back towards me.

“Michael huh? Funny, it was him that put me up to asking you. Sometimes I think that guy is less ninja and more puppet master.”

Michael was not surprised when days later I told him how well my date with Keith had gone.

“Dr Kay is assessing you this afternoon. He may choose to release you tomorrow. Will you show him your drawing?”

“He will want to keep me here for at least another week, maybe two. But that is of no consequence. I will leave today. My work here is done. The only thing left is to say goodbye.”

Surprisingly, he stood up and hugged me. I squeezed him back.

“I need to go now. We will meet again, if you want us to.”

It would be decades before I would see Michael again. As a baby, just hours after my daughter Traci gave birth.

I’m not sure who was prouder – Keith or I.

On that day, I compared Michael’s drawing to my reflection in the mirror. I hadn’t yet aged as much as his drawing of me; but of course, it would be many years before he would learn to draw like that.

“Careful,” I warned Traci. “This one will be slippery. A real ninja.”

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