Nobody will protest if I start with my husband’s creation first. This is the first time John has joined in on one of my projects and I was thrilled but tried to play it calm. If I get too excited he gets suspicious.
Here’s what he says about his creative process: My creative process? I don’t really know what my creative process is. I suspect it has the same bluntness that Robin William’s character in the Dead Poet’s Society had when he had asked his students what the purpose of poetry was for? His answer was that “the purpose of poetry is to woo women”. And for my submission here at least, that was my motivation too. I just wanted to make Laurel happy. I suppose the other driving engine behind my creativity is the desperation of having a deadline fast approaching.
He submitted this short story in response to the prompt: Old Growth Reaching, New Growth Rooting.
The Anak Hutan
(Child of the Forest)
This true is a story… oh wait I got that mixed up.
Well, truly, this is a story.
Once upon a time in a forest far far away…
Even as a young child I never believed in fairies. But I think now that maybe I do. A number of years ago I found myself lost in a forest on the far side of the world and that changed everything. How did I end up in this strange forest so far from home? It was like this. I was working as a merchant marine sailor aboard the steamship HMS Cute Otter. I was on a return voyage from Calcutta, India back to the colony of British Columbia with a cargo of tea from Assam and Ceylon. We were three weeks into the voyage and we were crossing the Straits of Malacca between the island of Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula. This is the quickest way to pass from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. These are treacherous waters and we were suddenly attacked by pirates. I think they wanted to sell us bootlegged DVDs, and we all know how treacherous it can be buying pirated DVDs. Fortunately our ship was able to out run them. I can only assume they made it safely to the wide waters of the Pacific and eventually home to port in Vancouver, because in the confusion of racing through the straits I managed to trip over some rope on the deck and fell overboard. As it was night and as we were running from Pirates… well I don’t know if anyone noticed I was gone.
I’m not much of a swimmer but I noticed in the darkness a small island and was able to swim toward it. I fell asleep on the beach. (One always does fall asleep when crawling ashore in these castaway stories.) When I awoke the sun was high and hot. I was very thirsty and saw a forest ahead of me. The details of how I ended up in these woods I can’t now remember other than the day was (as I said) hot and I think I wanted to escape the heat by a walk in the shifting green light and shadows of a wood. I must have become distracted as suddenly I found that I didn’t know where I was, or how to find the way back out of the woods. I turned around to walk what I hoped was the way out of this ancient labyrinth of giant trees.
After walking for some time I thought I heard the sound of rushing water. It must have been a waterfall or some fast flowing river. If I found the river I could get a drink and then after that, if I followed the river, hopefully I’d come out of the forest sooner or later near some village or at least back to the beach. So I followed the sound. It was difficult walking in the woods as the growth was thick but I kept following the sound of roaring water which grew louder and louder. All of a sudden I came out of the woods at the foot of a great waterfall cascading down from a cliff from a table top mountain above. I took a long drink from the stream and then it occurred to me that if I was to climb this high plateau I would be able view a wide area from the top. Just maybe I would be able to see a route out of the forest. There was a narrow path winding zig zag up the cliff face of the table top mountain. I was nervous climbing for the path was steep and narrow, but eventually I got to the top. I was standing on a vast forested table land and there directly in front of me was the last thing I expect to see. A boy! He looked at me without saying a word and disappeared into the forest.
“Wait, wait” I yelled—“where did you go?” (I hardly knew what to say.) He came back and looked at me. His hair was wild and unkept and he was in rags. He looked like a lost boy from Never Never Land and for all I knew this was Peter Pan himself. But this was a real boy standing before me. He smiled at me and made a noise something like ‘khahh’. I guessed he meant me to follow. And as I did so he turned to the forest and began to run quickly through the forest. I ran behind him as best I could but he was too fast and soon disappeared from sight. But he would turn around and come back into view. Whenever I got too far behind him he would stop and wait for me. So I was able to follow him with some effort. How he could run so fast through the trees in bare feet I do not know.
At last he came upon a big tree. A big tree is an understatement… I’ve never seen a tree so tall. The boy turned around and again spoke “khahh” to me and then began to climb. “You’ve got to be joking! You’re climbing that thing?” I had the choice. Stay on the ground (like any sane rational person) or follow him and climb this enormous tree. The way he could climb! It was amazing—almost like a dance, strangely elegant and graceful. I did not have his skill in climbing but with a lot of grunting, sweat, exertion and the occasional loud utterance on my part, I managed to follow him. We climbed up and up and I was too afraid to look down. He was like a child of this forest. These jungles are known as the domain of the what the Malay villagers call the organg hutan, literally, “man of the forest” or as we say it in English, the orangutan. The orangutans are remarkable in their ability to climb and live in their forest dwelling. This child was like that so I called him the anak hutan, which means literally, the “child of the forest”. And he was just that—so at home in this forest. He might have been born here for all I knew.
Finally we came to a big branch and resting in the branch was a large wicker basket. It was a basket from a hot air balloon. This balloon must have crashed in this tree and this child made this basket in the tree his home. He had fashioned the remains of the balloon’s fabric into a tarp that provided a shelter for the basket. Inside he had fashioned a hammock from the balloon fabric. He was obviously very pleased with his hammock as he sat in it and smiled as he rocked.
He didn’t speak much or at least not very much. It made me think of the story of the buccaneer pirate Alexander Selkirk who was marooned on the island of Juan Fernández five hundred kilometers off the coast of Chile. He lived alone on the island from 1704 to 1709. When he was rescued he had forgotten how to speak. He could only speak in half words, half phrases and sentences. It was sometime before he could again speak his native English.
Was this boy before me like that castaway pirate from long ago? Who was he? How did he get here and where did he come from? AND, how long has he been here? I wanted to ask him all these questions but he could not or would not answer me. I didn’t even know his name.
Looking west, the sun was going down and was a beautiful view from this tree top hideaway. The anak hutan sat in his hammock and I on the floor of the basket. Beside the hammock were piles of coconuts and all kinds of tropical fruit such as bananas, mangos, papayas and rambutan. He shared his food hoard with me and we both ate gladly in silence. As we sat there in the tree to shelter I marveled at this strange turn in events. The burner of the hot air balloon was long spent but as darkness fell the anak hutan suddenly got up from his hammock and was able to turn on a small flame. He had rigged a small wick from I do not know what that flickered like a small candle. As night came I thought of the strange turn of events. I had no idea if I’d ever get rescued and go home, but I was strangely happy in the company of this mysterious companion. Truly I was in the middle of a great adventure.
Morning came. I had slept well but was a bit stiff. I sat up and my companion was gone. The whole thing might have been a dream except I was sitting in the wicker basket of a balloon perched high in a tree. Than I heard whooping and hooting noises from the ground below. The boy was below the tree trying to get my attention. So I got up and climbed down the tree. He beckoned me to follow him. Again I tried to keep up with him but he moved so fast and he had to keep turning around and running back to me to see that I was still following. Eventually, we came to a beautiful lake and he stopped. He looked at me and then with a hoot of joy he pushed me into the lake and jumped in himself. The water was freezing! How he could swim in this water was beyond me. Still it was good to rinse off and get clean.
I was getting hungry but I soon discovered the other reason we came to the lake. He pulled a small wooden cage out of the water. He had rigged a trap and when he opened it, inside were five small fish. We made a campfire beside the lake and roasted and ate our fish. I have a hard time remembering the rest of that day. It fills me with warmth and wonder even if the details are now lost to me.
We had many adventures over the next few months and everyday was a wonder. I would love to tell you of these many adventures if I had the time. For while he couldn’t talk to me, he could talk to animals. He made animal calls and hooting noises and in return received calls and hoots in return. So it turned out I was the one who could not speak. In time I did learn to understand him a little. To speak the language of the anak hutan you must learn to understand the voice of the wind through the trees. You must master the language of laughter and tears and appreciate the sound of rushing water. You must see yourself walking with awe in the faint glimmer of starlight and look with interest at the path of the smallest of insects that crawl beneath you. That is the road to fluency in the language of the anak hutan.
As I said there are many stories I could share, like the time we served as human delegates at a parliament gathering of orangutans, or raced water buffalos, or how we spent a half a day just teasing a tiger. But if I took the time to share all these things this would become a book instead of a short story and that May 17, 2017 deadline is fast approaching as I write this. Not sure what the big deal is about May 17. Hmm, there was something I was suppose remember about that date. Hmmm. Oh well, back to the story.
I must now skip ahead to the last day I had with the anak hutan. I apologize that this tale has a beginning and an end but is sadly lacking a middle. On that eventful day we were walking through the woods and suddenly we smelled smoke. The woods were on fire. There was a great wall of flames advancing towards us. The entire forest on this table top mountain was burning. We turned and fled. Soon the fires were advancing from the left and the right. If we didn’t get off this plateau soon we would be trapped. Finally we came to a waterfall. This was the same one that led me up to this plateau. I couldn’t find the path down the cliff so I grabbed the anak hutan’s hand and jumped off the waterfall.
Somehow as we fell I lost my grip on his hand. We plunged deep into the water and as we came up for air I noticed the anak hutan was holding on to a floating log and he was being carried in the river swiftly away. He wave and smiled at me as he went around a bend in the river and he was gone. Over the next few days I searched for him without success and eventually came out of the forest and to a village. The villagers treated me kindly and took care of me. I must have looked like a wild man to them. I tried to tell them about the boy but they never found the anak hutan and as far as I know no one ever saw him.
In the months that followed I learned another ship would be stopping nearby and I could get passage to Singapore and from there find another steamer to take me across the Pacific home to Vancouver. The day before I was to leave this island I went back to the tableland plateau. The forest was gone. Only burnt trees and stumps remained. Even the big tree which was our balloon basket home was just a stump. I knelt before it and my eyes filled with tears. Then I noticed it. In the burnt and black soot of the stump there was a small shoot of green. There was a small sapling. A new tree was growing. The forest was coming alive again—and I knew that somewhere too the anak hutan was again running joyfully through another forest a long way from here.
Pictured above: Rare archival photo of an actual orangutan and an actual anak hutan
PS (from Laurel) – There is a peculiar challenge that we as parents of kids with extra challenges have faced — how do you imagine them whole and healthy without losing the uniqueness of who they are. It’s one package you see, we can’t separate autism out of Caleb or Emma, who they are includes that. Our sorrow is not from thinking they are somehow less in any way because of that, but at the limitations we see them experience. The gift of this story to me is that John imagined the Anak Hutan as perhaps Caleb unfettered, able but still so very much himself and yes even speechless.
Kevin, another participant of this creative project, whose work you will see in the coming days, said this about John’s story: I am reminded that “a little child will lead them”, is that not the case so often, that we are brought to wonder by what the children teach us and show us, is.
Thank you John — I know too that this shows so much of your heart and so many of the reasons I married you, so happy anniversary today too – I’d do the 26 all over again..but let’s see what adventures are up ahead.
Project 16/50 is a creative project to help me consider the threshold of turning 50 years old. 15 friends joined with me, so 16 or us considering the creative prompt: Old Growth Reaching, New Growth Rooting