If it wasn’t the damned roosters hollering at each other across the yard, it was the pigs squealing bloody murder. And if it wasn’t the smell of burning firewood, it was the smell of the interminable rain. Rain that soaked through Oksana’s thin fleece jacket and lingered in her thick merino socks, the ones with the black and blue stripes.
She waited for her eyes to adjust to the faint light that crept in between the hut’s wood slats before swatting at the mosquito netting. Her phone alarm, tinny compared to the symphony outside, chimed five o’clock. Not too early or too late to ask what had brought her to Borneo.
Why had she come to Borneo?
Oksana couldn’t figure out the answer—even after she left the hut, even after she paid for a blue standard-issue tent, even after she had checked the park maps and started into the rainforest. Maybe she’d find it along the eighteen-kilometer hike to the beach.
Her thoughts clung to the droplets of water suspended in the air. As her boots plodded over moss and foliage, she could hear nothing but her breathing and the collective breathing of all the rainforest creatures. She realized just how alone she was.
She crumpled on the trail the fifth kilometer out, as if a knife had been plunged in her back. Hand pressed over her mouth and cheeks bulging with unspeakable poison, she crawled into the brush and felt her stomach revolt. Oksana heaved up the Sarawak laksa she’d managed to keep down on the ride to Bako, the bitter taste of Malarone, and the weak tea she drank before she had set out. It tasted like bile, like dry heaving, like regret.
She unclipped her canteen from her pack and looked mournfully inside. It was already half empty. She slowly capped the bottle again and tried to keep her mind off the acrid taste, but it was about as useful as willfully ignoring an elephant in the wild.
Water. Water. Water.
The humidity was so thick that Oksana could’ve put a straw into the air and drawn out those precious drops of water. She almost laughed at the irony of her plight: covered in sweat and surrounded by the earth’s sweat yet utterly unable to drink any of it. She carried water purification drops, but there were no bodies of water to be found. And even if she did make it to the beach, the seawater would be just as maddening.
Now she could barely make out a thinly worn path through the tangle of wood. There were no more trail markers in sight, and she wondered if she had taken a wrong turn through the cane. Her instinct told her to turn back, but she pressed on, following the barest of trails over roots and under fallen moss-ridden trees.
It was then that she saw the first of the proboscis monkeys with giant noses hovering over their mouths and giant potbellies hanging from their thin frames. She had just unbuckled her pants to take a bush wee when she looked up and noticed them staring at her. They were monkeys, but the way they peered into her soul seemed uncannily human. Their brown eyes followed hers, and she slowly zipped her pants up again, painfully aware that she’d have to hoof another kilometer or so before she could feel comfortable taking a bush wee in solitude.
A few more paces brought her into a patch of rainforest that felt distinctly foreign. Machete slashes on bark and trampled plants. The mark of exotic animal poachers. Her breathing filled the suffocating spaces between the trees. Trees that blurred together into a mass. Branches and limbs twisting about in a cage that closed her in. Somewhere along the way, the proboscis monkeys had left her. She was on her own again.
She screeched when the branch in front of her face moved and two red eyes peered at her. It couldn’t be a Pope’s pit viper, could it? She closed her eyes and tried to remember what she’d learned years ago. A green pit viper. A venomous green pit viper. A venomous green pit viper with red eyes. A venomous green pit viper with red eyes and…
“Ah, shit.” A red and white stripe. “Shit.”
She lunged through the rainforest, vines snagging her rain jacket and tearing at her boots. Oksana continued running, twisting her way through trees that grabbed at her. Like faithful sentinels, the proboscis monkeys returned and leapt from tree to tree, tracking her as she ran from her predators, real or imagined.
Running. Oksana was particularly good at running. Her new job as a traveling writer was supposed to be a departure from her old job as a cubicle monkey. She’d finally realized her passion. But when they all passed one day, nothing seemed to matter anymore. She drifted.
She’d learned about Borneo before, but it held a new appeal now that she was officially jobless. Instead of spinning in circles, her compass pointed clear towards Borneo. By the end of July, she fit what remained of her worldly possessions into a fifty-liter day pack and set out.
She hadn’t always run. She stayed before. Worse things had happened and she had stayed before. But what was the point now? She rejected the world because she was too afraid that it would hurt her again. Rejected her few passions. And in trampling on her aspirations and dreams, the world would trample her.
Herself. It was the only thing she had left. So, she ran away. She ran because the pain in her legs took her mind off the pain in her heart. She ran from people. She ran from herself.
Oksana kept running even though her lungs cried. The rainforest floor to her right sloped steeply down into a small clearing, and she struggled to keep her footing along the edge. A branch smacked her face and her arms flew about, trying to hold onto something. Anything. Nothing held. Now the feeling of running was replaced with the feeling of falling.
Why had she come to Borneo?
When Oksana opened her eyes again, she found herself huddled in her bright-yellow rain jacket under a Bornean ironwood tree with a grainy trunk so wide she couldn’t wrap her arms around it. Scratches covered her arms and her right knee bled into her black- and blue-striped merino socks. She was paralyzed by the violent cacophony of patters and croaks, the rain that seemed to splash up from the ground and threatened to pull her down into the forest floor.
Primitive fear surged and fought against the passivity that had settled over her life and brought her halfway across the world. She couldn’t die here, not like this. She pushed herself up and nearly bit her tongue in half from the pain that radiated from her left leg.
Her leg…she must have fractured it when she fell down the slope because she could see the tibia peeking out of her swollen shin. A clean break. She delicately pressed against the bones in her leg, but must’ve touched a nerve because she nearly passed out. When she stopped screaming, she tore open a packet of ibuprofen with her teeth and swallowed them dry.
What was the next step? Oksana had learned this before, when she was training to become a wilderness steward in Shenandoah a long time ago. She struggled to reach past these intervening years of cubicle work and remember each step. Sanitation with alcohol wipes. Traction in position. She grabbed a stick and pressed it into her mouth, tasting moss and lichen. Her fingers felt cool, but felt like a live flame against her leg. Her teeth ground into the wood until she tasted splinters. Sweat dripped into her eyes and stung them, but she continued wiping around the bone until the wipe turned rusty and the bone turned white.
She firmly grasped her leg above and below the break, and pulled. Her hands shook so badly that she could hardly hold her leg down. I can’t die out here, she kept reminding herself. Not before…not before she was ready to. When the bone retracted into the flesh, she twisted her lower leg clockwise until the bone found its notch and held on.
Oksana fell back and couldn’t move. The throbbing in her leg had diminished, but she couldn’t tell if it was from the ibuprofen or if, for once in her life, she had done something right.
Is this what it felt like to die alone? She wondered if her friends thought this too, when the car flipped that night. The night they had met to celebrate her decision to leave her life in the cubicle and move across the country. The night she had left early after only one drink, because she needed to pack. The night they had tried to drive themselves home in the blinding rain.
In a twisted way, she blamed herself in the way others had blamed her. She wished she had stayed. They wouldn’t have had any going away celebration if she had stayed. Or if they did, she should’ve been there to drive them home that night. Maybe they would still be here.
She tilted her chin up, trying to collect droplets of rain with her mouth. If she wasn’t going to be done in by her lame leg, she’d die of dehydration. She couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of her situation. She wouldn’t die of dysentery, but she’d die of exposure all the same.
It felt good to laugh. She hadn’t heard herself laugh since that night.
Just as her eyes were about to close, a branch tumbled down and nearly smacked her in the face. Her eyes roved upwards, trying to locate the source.
There. Up in the canopy, a Bornean orangutan sat with her back against a branch, grasping a cluster of leaves like an umbrella. With her other hand, she was holding leaves shaped into a cup, scooping the rain into her mouth. The way the raindrops clung to her fur made it seem as if she was draped in crystal. Fur like burnished copper and diamonds.
She didn’t think she had ever seen anyone so beautiful. With some difficulty, Oksana pushed herself up into a sitting position and watched feverishly. Wait and scoop. She held her own rough palms upwards, watching fat drops of rain collect into a small puddle streaked with dirt and blood. Carefully bringing her hands to her mouth, she sipped the drops and coughed hard as the metallic, earth-flavored droplets hit her raw throat.
The orangutan must have heard, because she shifted her weight on the branch. Her head swiveled around and Oksana caught her gaze. The rain paused in that electric moment, the moment when the orangutan’s chestnut eyes met her own and she could scarcely breathe. She had heard about slow lorises in Bako, but orangutans? There weren’t orangutans in the wild, in Bako. At least not anymore. They had gone a long time ago.
“Caught in this rain, are you?” The orangutan said with a deep chuckle that exposed her crooked brown teeth. “You would think that after living in the rainforest for so many years, I wouldn’t be caught here. But here we both are, yes?”
“Yes,” Oksana said, mouth still ajar. Between her delirium and the hazy rain, she believed that the orangutan was speaking to her. “What’s your name?”
“Sunny,” she said, shifting her leaf umbrella. “They call me Sunny.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Sunny. I’m Oksana.”
“Well, we both know what the weather’s like, and now we know each other’s names, so what I want to know is what brought you into a Bornean rainforest by yourself, without trail markers or tape to guide you back. If I had to venture, I’d say you’re lost, aren’t you?”
“I—I’m not lost,” Oksana said, stammering. “I came to Borneo—I came to Borneo because I thought I could find what I lost.”
“Whatever you’re looking for, it’s not here,” Sunny said and took a slow sip of water. “I’ve lived in the rainforest for years and there’s nothing truly lost in here. Difficult to find, yes, but missing, no. Nothing vanishes into thin air. So why did you come here?”
“When you’re trapped in a comfortable life for so long, you can’t look at it from any other perspective,” she said. “I’ve spent my life reading books dissecting what it means to feel happy, to feel love, to feel angry, but I’m still trying to figure out what any of that means.”
“No, no, that’s not it. You’re indulging in escapism because you’re hurt. You believed in yourself until vicious tongues said your passions were nothing more than silly pipe dreams. And you couldn’t bear it anymore. And instead of the Alaskan wilderness or Pacific Crest Trail, you came to Borneo. Behind every bitter cynic is a broken-hearted idealist.”
Her heart…Oksana pressed her hand against her ribs, just to the left of her sternum, and felt a thud inside her chest. Yes, she supposed it was still there. Then why did she feel broken, so broken that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put her back together again?
“I’m not saying the hurt isn’t real, but you must realize that you can’t find all of your solutions in a place like Borneo. Some people come wandering in here thinking that and never find their way back out,” Sunny squinted into the rain. “I’m sorry you were so lost that you had to travel thousands of miles away to find yourself here. But you have to keep going. Go back.”
“Don’t apologize. It’s not your fault.” Oksana had been broken the moment she had lost the few people who had believed in her. No, it went beyond that. The moment she had gone to the memorial service and let in words that accused her of writing this tragedy. Words that eroded herself and her aspirations down to nothing. Who did she think she was? How could she leave so early? It was the moment she gave her pen away and taped up a box of her dreams.
“God, I’m so tired,” she said, tasting salt in the rivulets that crossed her face and ran across her lips. “I can’t go back there. Please don’t make me go back there.”
“You’re still looking at it all wrong, you see? You can be stepped on but there will always be people complaining that you’re not flat enough. You can show your ugliest side and some people will still support you unconditionally. Only the latter really matter.”
“I should have been there though,” Oksana said, and her eyes filled with sorrow. “I wasn’t there for them that night. Even when they’ve always been there for me.”
“It’s not your fault,” Sunny said. “You don’t have to run anymore.”
Oksana tilted her chin up to the sky again, eyes closed. She felt the raindrops pattering along her forehead, her neck, her body. Comforting her. Absolving her of the guilt she carried.
When she opened her eyes, Sunny was gone and the sun started to shine.
The alarm on her phone rang, a soothing progression of piano notes. Her left foot touched the gray pile rug with a thud, and then the right one joined the left. The cast weighed her foot down like an anchor and kept her from careening into the ceiling like a hot air balloon.
She stretched fingers over her head, arm waving at some invisible mosquito net. Nothing. She smelled the light floral scent of her shampoo that still lingered in the creases of her duvet, felt the strands of hair that stuck to her purple pillowcase in little curlicues. Was it all a dream?
Oksana limped over to her desk, where her black fleece jacket hung on the back of her swivel chair. Grasping it with both hands, she pressed her face into the fabric, nose rubbing against polyester piles that had formed from too much wear. It smelled like rain.
Borneo was real. She closed her eyes. The smells of firewood came back to her and she felt her throat seize, letting loose a flood of memories. The rooster screaming, the pigs squealing, and the sound of her own breathing brought her back—she could see the proboscis monkeys and Pope’s pit viper peering at her. But they no longer peered at her with malice.
And the orangutan. Sunny. Who had a leaf umbrella and was dressed in liquid diamonds.
Her gray headlamp fell out onto the floor. What had happened? She remembered scrambling onto a secluded beach in the dark. Breaking coconuts with a jagged rock. Sipping bits of water out of discarded plastic water bottles. Downing her last few ibuprofen pills. Following a trail back out of the park. Feeling so exhilarated on painkillers and pain that she had been babbling in tongues when she collapsed in their arms.
She’d hardly remembered the bumpy taxi ride to the hospital, or the doctor telling her she had a bad case of jaundice and compound fracture, or the final flight back home. All she remembered was watching the rain on the windows. Feeling alive.
Oksana grabbed her yellow rain jacket and hobbled down the three flights of stairs until she was standing on the sidewalk, staring up at a grey sky shaded out by skinny glass skyscrapers. As the sky opened, she found herself smiling. There was a time when she would’ve been angry at the rain, but that time had passed. In some cultures, rain was fortunate. Rain cleansed, rain understood, and rain forgave. This was her rainforest now.
Her heart beat in synchrony with the raindrops that drummed against her head. She couldn’t believe that after all these weeks and months of drifting, she had finally stopped running. Well, couldn’t run for another month or so, until her leg healed properly. That was enough time to pay her final respects and slow down enough to catch up with people she had left behind. Time to pick dandelions, time to pick up her pen, time to say hello again.
She embraced the rain as it brushed across her lips, her arms, her legs. In the rain, she was someone whole, not entirely unbroken, but patched up enough to become almost perfect.
In the rain, she almost laughed.