the sudden landing
after sea upon sea upon sea
hot dust on the runway
and eerie calm inside
a call to prayer
hovering on air turning cool
turning white walls orange
turning blue sky pink
by the sea, the throngs of people
the shops and cafes
throwing light at their faces
strong shards through soft darkness
officious birds striding through mud
shallow water hissing, tumbling with fish
a mosquito's whine
and the slap. silence. that follows it
quick hands picking through leaf litter
and orange sun suffusing the forest
animals shouting in the night
and the peace inside the noise
It is April now. You can see it in the restless streets, stretching to fit in groups of people meandering in the sun as the last of winter’s rain sits brown and brooding in the gutters. Five in the evening looks soft from the window and then surprises with the fierceness of its heat. Outside, the birds are loud and fast, safe from the languid cats who drape themselves over warm concrete walls. One of them approaches me, speeding up as I crouch to meet him, then crashing into my hand with his hard, thrumming head. I am supposed to be running, but there’s no hurry, after all. Sinewy and glossy, he winds himself around me until I relent and sit on a low wall, and then jumps into my lap, digging damp paws into my legs and showing me his white needle teeth as he looks up and purrs.
Although it is April now, the forest and the mountains don’t know it. The air is almost wet, undeterred by winter layers and clinging frigid to my skin. The clouds sit in thick, rounded banks above the forest; they seem to melt as they touch the mountain peaks, and then they race, smoke-like, towards the ground. The macaques look silver in this cold light, their backs hunched towards the sodden grass as they gather seeds with busy, rapid hands. Some of them pluck the sturdy white flowers that scatter across the green, inspecting them in tight fists before eating them, eating more. There are new babies in the group, the first of the year, hair so dark they look damp against their mothers’ chests as they cling there, tiny but strong. The monkeys continue to move and eat and groom and scrap, and take no notice of the weather, even as it starts to rain.
Back where it is warm, I am running along the corniche as white clouds drift straight from a storybook to rest lightly above the sea. There are people in the water, spluttering and splashing in the shock of cold, and people on the sun-yellow pavement, just walking, with nowhere particular to go. My legs are protesting and it would be so easy to slow down and move calmly with the water and the people and the shadows bumping on the waves, but the cliffs on the horizon are beautiful, and the sun is hot on my skin, and, just at this moment, how can anything be wrong in the world?
Before I run home, I let the breaking waves draw me in, and I walk for a while on the beach, watching the sea lick at the damp sand, leaving white bubbles too numerous to count before they burst and disappear. The sea has left a trail of dubious treasures further up the beach – broken shells, plastic bottle tops and the tired, tangled lines lost from fishing boats all lie half-covered by dry, cloying sand. I break into a run again, stumbling slightly as the sand gives way beneath my feet, but moving with the breeze and the birds, and the sea, never resting, beside me.
On a November morning of confusing sun, we walked along the windswept corniche, with the sea, sand and rows of bright umbrellas painting summer scenery to our right. In the warm air, groups of people drifted, wandering only for wandering's sake as the day got itself into gear. Three women approached us, chatting, and he followed them, pale fur almost the same colour as the pavement beneath his desperate, hurrying feet. We slowed, then stopped, and the women passed us by, crossing the road and leaving him behind. We looked down at him, this tiny scrap of life, and he walked towards my feet. He sat there, squinting into light too strong for his eyes, and we knew he would follow us home, now. We walked on and he walked with us, falling behind as his legs got tired. I picked him up, then, expecting resistance or fear, but he only sat and purred; a deep, pulsing engine in the smallest of fragile bodies.
At home, he drank water, a little bit, and then scrambled back onto my legs as I crouched on the floor. We tried to feed him, and tried again, but he wouldn't take it, and his ears, when we touched them, were cold. He still just sat and purred, and stayed as close to my skin as he could. I sat with him and he slept, deeper than I thought possible; breathing only sometimes, and not deep enough. I thought he was leaving us then, and the sharpness of it hit me, blurring him into a small smear of colour across my lap as I looked down at his little form. I steeled myself, stern inside my head. Suddenly, he woke up and stretched, and finally, sitting on my shoulder, he ate. We hadn't expected him at all, but suddenly he was the centre of things, and we smiled, and talked about him, and smiled again, already fond of his too-large ears and outsize snore.
Later, we took him out with us, because he'd followed us that morning, so we didn't want to leave him alone. When we tried to carry him, he wanted to walk, trotting bravely on his thin baby legs, going as fast as he could despite our slow, steady pace. Finally he relented, and sank, again, into sleep, oblivious to the sunset and the birds gliding by, and the smell of smoke weighing on the air. That night, scared to crush him during sleep, we made him a nest on the floor.
In the hours before dawn, the silence roared around the flat, telling me he'd gone after all; that he wasn't strong enough for darkness and quiet and for minutes upon minutes ticking painfully by. Then I heard him, letting us know he was awake and hungry and alive, and I smiled to myself in my bed; a smile that came from somewhere deep and unstoppable, dragging tears and laughter behind it. That day, knowing he was safe, his character seemed to grow, and his name seemed to fit, and we made plans for him and the cat he was going to become.
We know him now, and we know his funny, infuriating, endearing habits. He was dirty when we found him, and his fur felt like dust and grease in our hands. Underneath, he was all bones; horrifyingly fragile with nothing to protect them but skin. We washed him one day, and he squeaked in indignation, but he didn't bite or scratch, and afterwards, dry and warm, he still purred. He is demanding, and he wants the food he wants, and the rustling of plastic packaging animates him out of sleep. He follows us, and gets underfoot, and almost trips us over, and he likes to sit around necks and shoulders, or sometimes, for a change, on laptop keyboards, and he never wants both hands to be free to type. We shake our heads and complain about him, but we hold him for hours, and kiss his fur where it now lies soft and clean, and even when we're out, we talk about him. He purrs when he hears our voices, after all.
I have known him only six days, this tiny scrap of life. He has fascinated me endlessly, doing nothing much at all, and I find myself loving him fiercely, even as his games go too far and his claws rip at my hair, or his teeth catch my ear. Tonight I said goodnight to him for the last time, because I'm going home tomorrow, and I kissed his warm, fluffy back; his whole body neatly in my hands. I told him to be good, and to stay out of trouble, and to grow big and strong. I think, months and months from now, he will.
From a tall, neat city with straight-backed buildings looking down on wide streets, we travelled on hot roads, cocooned in air conditioning and slightly tinted windows, until we reached narrower tracks and rows of green. Bleary and almost mute with tiredness, we thanked our hosts for jugs of water and clean, soft rice and piles of vegetables clothed in spices, and slept to the whirring of a fan until cockerels broke through the noisy, humming tropical night.
We ate breakfast, quiet with anticipation, then climbed on to the back of motorbikes and headed for the forest. Tensing ourselves for balance as we swept into and out of patches of shade and glided nimbly around roots and rutted mud, we gave in to excitement as the forest closed in above us. The restoration site materialised; a slender cabin on stilts, and rows of new life pushing through the soil around it.
The days there had a rhythm both industrious and peaceful. Early mornings were for planting and tending and combing the primary forest nearby for tiny shoots starting life in the rich safety of elephant dung. We listened and learned and marvelled at what had been done in this new forest resurrected from bare earth in the aftermath of the deforestation that came before. We dug our hands into cool, damp soil and packed it tightly into tubes of plastic sacking, ready to receive the next generation of trees. When it was done, we sat in the still air and listened to the life surrounding us.
The heat at midday cast a spell over everyone, and we slept through the fiercest, burning hours. In the afternoon, the thunder cracked to our left and gibbons whooped and sang to our right, in the forest near yet far. Later, we stirred from our stillness in the relief of a cool breeze that made the trees whisper and tremble, just slightly. The elephants came then, browsing in the distance with heads swinging - characteristically, unhurriedly - as they seemed to glide through the green around them. They called to each other, and it rooted us to the spot. When they melted back into the forest, we returned to our contemplation. A gecko, the pale yellow of butter, with jewel-black eyes, crept along a gap in the wooden slats above, and ants joined forces to move crumbs along the ground. The thunder still threatened over the distant sound of evening prayer, but the ground stayed dry, soil becoming dust as it clung to our feet.
As the fading light drew muted grey over the cabin and the trees, the smell of dusk hung sweetly, darting away if we tried too hard to breathe it in. At night, large spiders with a curious, lumbering gait skittered audibly away from our torch beams as we moved ourselves to bed, and the cabin seemed to sigh with us as we breathed slowly into sleep.
On the last day, we planted trees ourselves, reverent and careful as we guided pale, fragile roots into the ground. We covered them and watered them, and watched insects, more insects than we'd ever seen, go busily about their day in the adult trees around us. Life in all sizes was everywhere we turned; loud and quiet and beautiful and alarming, and just as it should be.
The restoration site featured in this piece is a project of Orangutan Information Centre, an incredible organisation whose staff and volunteers do great things to preserve Sumatra's biodiversity and human health. Please follow their work, and support them if you can.