Novita Dewi started writing poetry and short stories during her elementary and middle school days. She published in Si Kuncung and Bobo, children magazines, as well as wrote for the children’s columns featured in Kompas and Sinar Harapan (now Suara Pembaruan). She now nurtures her interest in literature by writing articles about literature and translation for scientific journals. Novita is widely published. The short stories translated and published by Dalang Publishing are her first attempts of literary translation.
Pongo’s Caring Tree
Miranti awoke in the middle of the cold night, sweating and short of breath. Lukman’s soft voice still echoed in her head.
“Mir, go to the Caring Tree! Take Kasih with you.” Lukman’s words had been clear in her sleep.
Miranti looked at Kasih, her daughter, sleeping next to her. Unlike her, Kasih was not soaked in perspiration. The air that night was unusually cold for the hot, dry season.
Miranti could not fall back asleep. The night had been too restless, and now, she too felt unsettled. Recently, she’d been dreaming about Lukman often — Lukman, her husband, who had disappeared in the Rimba Raya Sebangau, a jungle in Central Kalimantan, three years ago. For months, numerous search-and-rescue units looked for her husband. But although they searched until they ran out of supplies, they always came back empty-handed — as empty as the half of Miranti’s heart that was usually filled with Lukman’s presence.
A graduate of the Veterinary School of the Bogor Agricultural Institute, Miranti worked as a veterinarian, in collaboration with the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, BOSF, at the Sebangau National Park, a large nature reserve that was carved out of the Rimba Raya Sebangau jungle. She was in charge of the welfare of the orangutan population in the park. The deep sorrow of losing her husband made Miranti reluctant to return to Bogor, her hometown. Miranti inherited her knowledge of siloka, a mystical cultural belief, from her Sundanese karuhun, ancestors. Siloka convinced her that Lukman was still alive somewhere in the Kalimantan jungle. In Miranti’s dream, Lukman was preparing something for their family’s future, for the life they had dreamed of: a life in union with the forest.
Miranti believed that she and their daughter Kasih just needed to wait for the right time. “Lukman, I know you’ll come for us, but when?” Miranti whimpered, holding Kasih. “I’m so tired.”
Miranti remembered their conversation, word for word, the day Lukman walked out of her embrace for the sake of their beloved forest. In her dream that night, it was as if she were thrown into the past. Indeed, lately she often moved back and forth in time, while Lukman alternated between life and nothing. Miranti wished she would never wake up from her dream, where Lukman was with her.
“I’ll be gone for a while,” Lukman had said to her on that terrible day that always darkened Miranti’s heart and saddened her days. “Take good care of our child, will you?”
“Can’t you delay your trip?” Miranti clearly remembered the words that had risen from her troubled mind.
“No, I need to fulfill my duty.”
“But it is too dangerous; the palm oil thugs are looking for you.”
“The Spirit is the light of my life; I am only a reflection of its light.” That was what Lukman always said when they argued about the dangers that threatened him as a forester and conservation activist.
“Yes, but the situation in Sebangau National Park is precarious; the palm oil thugs are still upset because you prevented them from invading the park area.” Miranti remembered her effort to keep Lukman from leaving.
She knew that Lukman was not really ignoring her fear; she knew Lukman was faced with a dilemma. Lukman had stopped his packing to think for a while. She now wondered if he had been remembering then how he and his friends from the Dayak Ngaju tribe had humiliated the palm oil entrepreneurs with evidence of their invasion into the park area.
“The light is leading me to it right now,” Lukman had finally said, after clearing all his doubts.
“They won’t stop trying to expand their palm plantations into the park area,” Miranti had persisted. “Yes, Roh, the Spirit, has already guided you, but can’t you do it later?”
“I can’t, honey.” Lukman had tried to calm her. “It seems that this forest needs my service right now. Trust me!”
“Yes, but the timing is not right.”
Lukman ignored her refutation.
In the silence that followed, they each held their own worries. That night, Lukman disappeared into the jungle.
Environmental activist and forester friends suspected that Lukman had been killed in the midst of the disaster that was sweeping the forest. Some people believed that his disappearance expressed revenge from the plantation foremen against Lukman’s activism. The foremen considered Lukman the perpetrator in blocking the encroachment of the expanding palm plantations into the Sebangau National Park. But they had no proof.
That was Lukman’s last argument with her.
Miranti broke out of her daydream. Kashi started to wake up. Sighing, Miranti rubbed the child’s forehead. She looked up when she heard the screeching and screams interspersed with the soulful calling of the orangutans in the forest.
The senior orangutans were leading the barzanji, a litany of woe. Miranti’s worry heightened. Orangutans were creatures who shared the fate of the jungle. They seemed able to hear the song of the dying jungle. The chorus, which grew fainter and sounded hoarse from time to time. Only orangutans understood that voice.
The morning came and presented Miranti with tasks to care for the orangutans in the national park. Many of the rescued orangutans were weak from dehydration and suffered from severe burns. The Penajam Paser Utara region, at the eastern side of the park adjacent to the state capital area in Sepaku, had caught fire, injuring many orangutans and other wild animals.
Fortunately, these many sad events did not affect Kasih’s childhood. Every day, Kasih followed the rangers as they fed the orangutans. Kasih truly enjoyed this daily activity. In fact, she often saved her fruit from lunch for Pongo, her favorite orangutan. Although she and Pongo were two creatures of different species, they didn’t act like it. They often reached out to each other, as if they had known each other for a long time, and sometimes Pongo exchanged sweet potatoes for bananas. They played together while Miranti and Laksmi, Pongo’s mother, just watched from a distance.
“Mom, let’s feed Pongo and Laksmi!” Kasih nudged her mother. Miranti looked out of the window and saw the two orangutans waiting outside, at the edge of the forest.
Miranti and Kasih went to meet Laksmi and Pongo.
Laksmi had lived in the Sebangau National Park for almost twenty years. Amid her fur, her skin was mottled with scars evidence of the cruel plantation foremen who had arrived in the park along with the development of the palm plantations. Laksmi quickly became a wary orangutan. If a ranger had not rescued her, she would have died from the foremen’s torture. Miranti gave her the name Laksmi. One of the resilient survivors in the park, Laksmi remained vigilant of her surroundings.
That morning’s news had reported that the park fires had spread. The dry peat, a result of the long drought, was a good conductor of fire. The fires did not spread from the tips of green branches, but rather crept uncontrollably along the peat-covered soil. The smell of burning damp wood wafted through the area. A mixture of water vapor and carbonic acid filled the air with thick white smoke, which made it hard for the animals and the village inhabitants at the edge of the forest to breathe.
Laksmi gave Miranti an unusual look. Her brown eyes seemed to reach out with a deep sorrow. Miranti understood. She felt she and Laksmi shared the same feelings about the fire. They were both mothers who worried about their safety and their children’s. It seemed that one question connected the two of them: Would they still be able to find a green forest in the future?
Suddenly, the orangutans having breakfast stopped eating and became very noisy. They seemed to answer a call from the jungle. Miranti looked towards the woods.
Barzanji again? They just did it. Miranti felt goosebumps. When the orangutans repeated barzanji again and again, it was as if they were asking, “What’s wrong with the life of this forest?”
Laksmi became restless. For a moment, she stared silently at Miranti then grunting, grabbed Pongo’s hand, and turned back to the woods.
Miranti saw that Pongo was reluctant to go with his mother. He was still busy munching on the sweet potato Kasih had just given him. But Laksmi’s instinct urged her to move to the other side of the forest. Pongo waved at Kasih, who was disappointed by Pongo’s and Laksmi’s unusual behavior.
Aware of the precarious orangutan atmosphere, Miranti held Kasih’s hand.
“Why did they leave so quickly, Mom?” Kasih asked.
“They must face the Spirit of the jungle.”
Kasih was hardly satisfied with that answer, but her mother was hurrying the two of them back to the Care Centre.
Kasih was still full of curiosity. She kept bombarding her mother with questions about the experience at the edge of the forest. “Who is the Spirit of the jungle?” Kasih probed.
“He is the power of all forces that support everything in the forest. He is the one who regulates everything in the jungle.”
“Including Dad?” asked Kasih.
“Yes,” Miranti replied, slowly and softly.
Kasih’s question stunned Miranti. She had only recently began feeling that Lukman was still alive. In her mind, he lived with the Spirit and, lately, had begun visiting her in dreams that bothered her all day long.
In Miranti’s observations, the hardest time for Laksmi, Pongo, and the other orangutans to survive was the dry season, when many trees burned, filling the forest with smoke. Food was scarce. Laksmi and Pongo often relied on a few sweet potatoes and bananas from the Sebangau National Park rangers, which was barely enough to keep the hunger pangs away. Food rations were given only once a day and left Pongo and his friends still hungry. Starving for the now-scarce tender leaves and sweet fruit of the forest, the orangutans ransacked the palm shoots sprouting from the tree tops at the plantations on the outskirts of Sebangau National Park. If the orangutans weren’t careful, their rampaging for food could result in injury or death. The plantation foremen used air guns, hot water, wild boar poison, or acid to get rid of the hungry apes.
Miranti knew that during this white, smoke-filled dry season, orangutans often gathered at the Caring Tree across the park. Led by the berida, a senior orangutan, they performed a litany of woe: surrendering their starving bodies, suffocated by the smoke and sinched by the fire, to the Spirit, manifested this time as the Caring Tree. It was all the manifestation of the Spirit of the jungle.
The Caring Tree, where they performed their barzanji, was a buni tree, an offshoot of the bodhi tree family. Its delicious seeds were treats for orangutans, squirrels, and birds. The trunk was large, the branches were stout, the bark contained an effective medicine, and the lush canopy was a home for various animals, including orangutans. The roots of the Caring Tree were strong and bored deep into the soil to uphold the tree’s enormous stature. Kasih and Sundanese-blooded Miranti, knew this big tree to be the werkodara tree.
As a veterinarian, Miranti had observed several times how a group of orangutans performed a barzanji to express their anxiety. During the ritual, the elderly orangutans appeared entranced. They swung, screeching, from branch to branch while ripping branches, leaves, and twigs of a big tree which was no ordinary tree. It was the Caring Tree where the orangutans seemed to surrender their entire bodies and souls to the Spirit of the jungle.
During her eight years of working at the center, Miranti had concluded that orangutans were very spiritual creatures. Even though they acted possessed during the barzanji, they were actually facing the jungle’s Spirit. Miranti believed in the orangutans’ sincerity.
During this most recent barzanji, Miranti believed that the old orangutan’s roar said, “The Spirit will surely take care of us. He is present everywhere, in the good, as well as in the bad.” With a strong moan, the elderly orangutan continued, as if saying, “The Spirit is the one we fear and miss at the same time.”
The boisterousness in the forest died down. Miranti imagined the orangutans’ barzanji had finished. In Miranti’s mind, the orangutans were not blaming the Spirit for the prolonged fire and hunger. They never accused. Nor did they plead for punishment of the cruel foremen or the greedy palm oil barons. Orangutans were not vengeful. They merely surrendered themselves to the balance of nature. They believed that nature was just a pendulum swinging between points of equilibrium, and they would simply accept the fact if the pendulum’s movement meant the extinction of their kind.
Miranti was sure that the forest’s hoarse singing was heard by the orangutans who had gathered to perform a barzanji. Humans, with too many demands and preconceived notions, could not hear the song of the forest. Only innocent creatures could hear that song and the raucous feelings of the trees embedded in the jungle floor. Only the forest creatures could hear the baritone of an old mahogany tree, a sturdy ironwood’s soprano, or the tenor of the tall, slender meranti tree. In a healthy forest, the voices would turn into a melodious chorus.
The Sebangau National Park’s forest fires at the peak of the 2019 dry season were enormous. The fires occurred at the same time as the plan to develop Kawasan Sepaku, Penajem Paser Utara, as the new capital of Indonesia. The old capital had become too outdated. The Indonesian government intended to build a new capital, with the idea to juxtapose humans and nature. However, the implementation of these ideas encountered their own problems: fire was the most economical and easy way to clear forests.
The flames were so intense and widespread that they burned the root networks beneath the jungle floor. Now, the forest was dying. The air was stuffy, and acidic substances turned into deadly charcoal. The crackle of burning branches choked the trees’ choir.
The chirpy larks tried to escape the never-ending fire. Fatigued and short of breath from the carbonic acid in the air, the birds fluttered frantically. They finally fell and were roasted.
People fled from the city. Those who did not have the luxury of fleeing to safety hid in their homes.
Miranti was very reluctant to leave. Her sense of Lukman’s presence was even stronger at this critical time. But for the sake of Kasih’s health, Miranti was, miserably, forced to book a plane ticket. Facing this reality, Miranti’s heart split into two.
While Miranti’s rational mind urged her to leave, her emotional impulses urged her to stay near the forest, to stay close to Lukman. His presence had become more and more evident in her dreams and fantasies. He was increasingly present in Miranti’s daily life. It was as if he were keeping her company.
That eventful Wednesday morning, at the peak of the 2019 dry season, the skies of Sebangau National Park were gray. As if she understood her mother’s feelings, Kasih wasn’t interested in leaving the Sebangau National Park housing complex. Kasih was worried about Pongo. Her concern had grown after Pongo and Laksmi had suddenly left her at the orangutan feeding site, a few days ago.
“Come on, let’s go to the orangutan feeding place!” Kasih cajoled her mother that morning, not knowing that the park had temporarily stopped feeding the orangutans due to scarce supplies.
“But there is no ranger to feed them there,” Miranti said.
“I want to see Pongo,” Kasih pleaded.
“The rangers are busy,” said Miranti, trying to convince her. “They’re helping out with the forest fires.”
“That’s okay,” insisted Kasih. “We can go by ourselves.”
Finally, Miranti gave up. However, she used her consent as a bargaining chip with Kasih. “But if after we visit, we are forced to flee to Bogor, you must come with me without fussing.” Miranti spoke half-heartedly; she, herself, was reluctant to leave, despite what her common sense told her.
Kasih nodded, but Miranti doubted that Kasih’s nod was sincere. She wondered if Kasih saw another way of salvation, one she could not verbalize.
Miranti placed an air filter mask over Kasih’s nose and mouth. The orangutan feeding site was only a short walking distance away, but this morning, it seemed to be so far. Feeling very anxious, Miranti placed several small oxygen cylinders in her backpack, along with water and a few snacks.
The Sebangau National Park was dark and dreadfully smoky. The sky was orange, as if it too were on fire. The air was horribly hot.
When Miranti and Kasih arrived at the feeding site, the usually busy place was now deserted and gray. There were no happy orangutan sounds.
“Pongo, come here!” Kasih called out cheerfully.
Miranti remained speechless.
The wind carried the thickening smoke. Parting the gray air, two limping figures appeared in the distance. Pongo and Laksmi were coming closer.
“Are you hungry, Pongo?” Kasih took out a few bananas.
Miranti worried about their safety in the midst of this forest fire’s suffocating air. But her rational mind buckled again under her heart’s impulse. She let Kasih chat happily with Pongo, as Laksmi watched from a distance as usual. Suddenly, Miranti caught Lukman’s aroma — the scent that had once been so familiar, now had become only a memory.
“I can smell your presence, Lukman,” murmured Miranti. His scent seemed to envelope her along with the deadly smoke. Miranti could not resist the scent’s appeal. She realized she needed the oxygen cylinder she carried, but she didn’t reach for it. The scent of Lukman was very strong. It brought Miranti the peace she had been longing for. It didn’t seem to matter that it was a misplaced peace.
The air was getting hotter.
In her confusion, everything seemed to seek its own way of survival. Miranti’s sensibilities tried to move her to save Kasih and herself immediately. Instead, she lulled herself into the notion of peace with Lukman and Kasih in the forest. Meanwhile, her heart and lungs battled oxygen deficiency. Light-headed, she saw Laksmi take Pongo’s hand and walk back into the woods. Not wanting to be left behind, Kasih grabbed Miranti’s hand and followed them without hesitation.
Miranti, still stunned at the crossroads of destiny, lumbered along. In the choking fog, Lukman’s presence was even more apparent. After they arrived at the Caring Tree, his scent grew stronger, overpowering the smog. Through her half- closed eyes, Miranti saw Lukman’s shadow appear from the deepest shade of the woods. Looking refreshed, he said, “I’ve been waiting for the two of you for a long time, Mir.”
Miranti smiled. As she watched Kasih happily greet Lukman, her sensibilities left her completely.
There was no smell of smoke, no crackle of burning branches — there was only Lukman’s voice greeting her clearly. There were no palm oil barons and foremen. The forest was still virgin like the first time the universe made it. All living things were spirits in good health, who had left their frail and problem-riddled bodies behind.
Lukman bent to pick up Kasih. “Let your mother finish her transition, her moksha.” Lukman pinched Kasih’s nose playfully.
The orange sky turned red.
Miranti lay at the base of a large root of the Caring Tree.