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Hometime

I woke up this morning, rolling over onto my side so that I could reach my phone atop the bedside chest of drawers. Each simple gesture was taking place for the final time.


Can’t wait to see you later; Dad had texted, in the group chat with Mum and I.


I love-reacted to the message, then hopped out of bed. Heading downstairs, Jamila was making breakfast.


“Good morning,” she greeted me. “I thought that we could at least try for something a bit fancy, for your last day here.”


“Thank you,” I replied, accepted a plate of scrambled eggs, roast tomato and haloumi.


“What would you do?” Jamila wanted to know.


I shook my head and shoulders.


“You can choose, I mean, I’m grateful that you’ve been hosting me for this last month.”


“I’d like to go into the zoo.”


Jamila smiled.


“Of course, you would. That would be great.”


Whitlam and Hamish walked downstairs, the four of us eating breakfast.


“Are we right to get ready and then head into the zoo for a bit?”


“Yeah.”


We walked upstairs, each getting changed. After that, for one last time, we drove in. Jamila parked, and we signed ourselves in. I thought back to my first day at Werribee, which really wasn’t that long ago. Whitlam and I had driven out onto the savannah. Joel had been alive then. A sense of heaviness leaked into my heart. Whitlam took me for one last trip around the savannah, the animals coming over throughout the journey, to say goodbye. On the other side, we passed through the gate. I hopped out, to open and then close. As I dropped back into the cabin, I handed over my keys.


“I guess you’ll be needing these,” I commented.


“Thank you,” Whitlam replied. “I guess so.”


No longer would I be an employee of Zoos Victoria, a backpacker through Melbourne, Healesville and Werribee. We slowly drove through the savannah. The giraffes came over to the vehicle.


“Hey there,” I greeted them, my voice thin, determined not to cry. “Oh, I’ll miss you. I’ll miss you a lot.”


At least I could drop in to see the giraffes in Launceston.


“Thank you,” Whitlam replied.


I laughed, wiping the corner of my eye. He started up the ute again and slowly motored through the rest of the savannah, so that I could soak in the site.


“You know, next time you come here, this place will be pretty different,” Whitlam reminded. “We might very well have elephants by then, and the rhino retreat will probably be open.”


I nodded, listening to the wild birds.


“Thank you for having me,” I said, as we approached the gate, meaning I had to hop out.


I opened the gate and Whitlam passed through in the ute, before closing it again and securing it, climbing back into the passenger seat.


“You’re welcome.”


Whitlam drove us around to the smaller rhino yard, where he parked, so we could move over there on foot and cross paths with Bailey and Zola, who would be providing a health check for Leroy, the breeding bull. I stepped up onto the bottom rung of the fence, leaning on the top of it. Rain spat against my face, but I was undeterred by that precipitation. Leroy walked slowly across the off-exhibit paddock, where he’d be held when he wasn’t being introduced to Letaba for mating. I wondered what would happen next, for both of them. Once Leroy was closed enough, I tapped him twice on the rump, to say goodbye. Then, I jumped down from the fence.


“Have fun placing your hand up a rhino’s bottom,” I quipped.


“You know, I do wear a glove,” Bailey responded.


“I know.”


“I’m sure that we’ll cross paths again.”


“I look forward to it.”


Leaving the ute behind, I departed with Whitlam. Even though it was my last day, he still had work to do. I heard a rustle amongst the leaf litter, immediately causing me to flash back to my time at Healesville. To be safe, I froze. It came to nothing and we continued on to the hippo exhibit. I felt a little queasy from the stench. Whitlam and I provided food to mother and calf, as I felt a pang of loss for a bull I’d never laid eyes on. I ambled down the slope, while the hippos chowed down on their breakfast. My life felt to be full of endings, but they were changes to open up to new beginnings, as well, like the opening of the zoo. I felt a chill through my body. We ended up at the meerkat exhibit before I knew it. I listened to the voices of little children, who also watched the animals, under a shelter in their exhibit. The little meerkats looked like they were hugging each other. I beamed, staying at the exhibit for a while. Even these creatures whom I’d spent scant time bonding with them, I would miss them. I wondered whether in the future this could become a mixed exhibit, with a pair of porcupines perhaps. While I could dream for the future, that future did not include me. A few rhino statues had been painted in vivid colours, speckled with tiny silhouettes of African animals. I’ve never been to Africa before, but I would like to, one day. Despite being born with the yearning to be somewhere else, to not be across the sea from my loved ones in Sumatra, travel has felt like a one-way street – I’m here or I’m over there. I walked through the Australian section and watched kangaroos hopping around. One of them came over to me, sniffing at me like I might have been bringing food. I allowed the kangaroo, and another joey, to check me out. Listening to a rumble of thunder, I stood from a crouched position, and backed away to return to the zoo’s entrance. Stuffing my hands into my pockets, I glanced out across the gorilla exhibit. I released a breath, while the males moved across their habitat, oblivious of me. Jamila patted me on the back to announce her presence.


“I guess we’d better go now,” I mentioned, ambling off.


I paused near the front gates. Jamila wrapped me into her arms.


“You promise me that you’ll keep in touch?”


“Of course. You have been so, so good to me.”


When we finally parted, I could feel my chest tightening. I was so glad that I wasn’t driving. Instead, Jamila pulled herself together enough to slip into the driver’s seat. The storm commenced, fat drops falling onto the car during the journey towards the airport. For a moment, I feared it might hail. Victoria wasn’t letting me leave without one last bit of drama, but thankfully the rain remained liquid, not ice.


“Have you checked in for your flight yet?” Whitlam wanted to know.


“No, I haven’t,” I confirmed, looking out the window. “I should know.”


Not looking, I retrieved my phone. Rain teemed against the windscreen. As I checked in online, I thought about returning home from Sumatra, after Kakek had been killed. Before I knew it, Jamila pulled into the kiss-and-drop zone.


“Thank you so much.”


I swallowed, determined not to cry. I’d already said my goodbyes. I gathered up my bag and slipped from the car, feeling claustrophobic amidst the traffic banking us behind us. Whitlam blew me a kiss through the window. I laughed, wiping tears from my eyes, and I waved, while they drove away, then turned around. Taking a deep breath, I wandered into the airport terminal, swimming in the bodies and the energy of Tullamarine, lots of important people going to lots of important places. After passing through security, I glanced through the windows, at the gleaming plane on the other side. After taking a breath, I joined the queue. We moved along slowly, my phone in my hand, ready with the boarding pass up so that it could be checked. I felt a little light-headed. With my boarding pass checked, I made my way onto the plane and into my seat. As I fastened my seatbelt across my lap, I started to cry. I burrowed my head into the chair. It had been three months – three months, one week, and three days, to be precise. I’d learned more than I ever could have dreamed of, about animal care and about myself. When the flight attendants came along, I started to pull myself together, because I didn’t want them to think that I couldn’t take care of myself. After two hours, the green expanses of Tasmania came into view. I sniffled, trying to pull myself together before we landed. Unlike Victoria, Hobart had been blessed with sunshine. My earliest memories are of Tasmania, and of animals. My mother and father were never far away, as I tagged along with them. It would have been early 2007, when Dad took me for a ride in the tractor. The plane landed, and I made sure to take a breath. While I was in a great hurry, I would allow the others to leave the plane first. I finally grabbed my bag and scurried down the aisle. Mum, Dad and Tallulah were waiting for me in the terminal. My heart leaping into my throat, I raced through the automatic doors, my feet thudding over the tiles.


I rushed into Mum’s arms. She, Dad and Tallulah wrapped themselves around me, bathed in golden light, streaming through the glass. We stayed in that position, until we needed to return to the car to go home. I breathed out audibly, as Dad pulled out of the carpark. Tallulah rubbed my back while I wiped the tears from my eyes and we made our way back to the new zoo. Dad slowed, to turn left into our road, off the highway. I couldn’t stop thinking about Kakek, and Nanek living on faraway shores. Having been away, I feel the distance more acutely. I would need to make sure that I called her to let her know I’d arrived safely home. Hearing Nanek’s voice would be a balm, that I already knew. I audibly gasped as we drove along the road, towards our driveway, towards home. The structures of the zoo were visible on the landscape, the hills pregnant with exhibits. Once Dad parked, I launched from the back seat. I raced from the car, only held back by the gate. As soon as Mum unlocked it, I rushed through, taking a moment to catch my breath. The macaque exhibit seemed to be completely finished, having been raised from nothing. Foliage was already started to grow to give the animals natural climbing structures, behind the moat. The night dens back onto the exotic nocturnal house. Especially considering that we have a multi-male group, space has been afforded to separate the troop within the night dens if needed. I pushed open the door, finding myself holding my breath for a moment as I stepped into the nocturnal house.


“The glass will be arriving in a few days,” Mum explained, as I surveyed the exhibits fitted out. “Then, they’ll be all done.”


I smiled. It would have been easy to feel overwhelmed. I didn’t voice my worries, about whether or not the plants would survive. The LED lights built into the ceiling – powered by solar panels on the roof – would hopefully be enough, to stimulate sunlight for the animals and plants alike. We stepped out the other end of the nocturnal house.


“What do think you’ve learned from being in Melbourne?”


I grinned.


“Let’s have snow leopards,” I joked.


Mum wrapped her arms around me.


“It’s good to have you home.”


“I missed you.”


Mum kissed my hair.


“I missed you too,” I promised her. “Look, I learned so much.”


I took a breath, thinking.


“There are so many, too many decisions which need to be made, but there are little things, too. I reckon I’d like to put a whiteboard somewhere, because it’s helpful for checklists and stuff like that, with what needs to be done.”


Mum nodded.


“Of course.”


I surveyed the plants and beamed. Now mid-springtime, the anggrek bulan shrubs were in full colour, white orchids blooming, the national flower of Indonesia on display.


“Has Nanek seen photos of the exhibits?”


“Yes, she has.”


This put my mind at ease a little. I noticed more trees planted across our property than ever before. The landscape of Sumatra flashed through my mind, interspersed with images of Melbourne. I waited for the burning heat of trauma. Surprisingly, however, it did not arrive, and I found myself able to return to my surroundings without alarm. We walked back home, as the sun went down. When we slipped into the back door, I could hear my phone ringing. I located it, answering the call from Reuben.


“Hey,” he greeted me. “Have you landed yet?”


“Yeah, I’m home safe,” I confirmed. “Mum and Dad are cooking dinner, it smells delicious. It’s good to be back. Thanks for your call.”


When we got off the phone, I closed my eyes for a moment, holding my phone close to my chest. I only opened them again when it beeped.


Hoping you’re home safe; Patrick had messaged.


Just before we sat down for dinner, I walked my phone into my room. I confirmed to Patrick that I’d returned home, simply through messaging him a photo from within our zoo grounds. Doubts still lingered in my mind. I voiced these to my parents.


“Well, you know, we could add some more foliage,” I mused. “That might make it feel like more of a rainforest environment. It wouldn’t cost that much, you wouldn’t think, not when you take into account the amount we’ve already spent.”


“I’m not against that idea,” Mum assured me, “although we do need to make sure that whatever we put there, isn’t an escape risk.”


She took a helping of her dinner onto her spoon.


“As much as I’d love free-ranging macaques around this place.”


I smiled.


“We will need to figure that out at some stage,” Mum promised.


“What, free-ranging macaques?”


“No, if we’re going to develop an exhibit on this side of the nocturnal house.”


“That’s a long way off,” Dad insisted. “We have a plan, and as long as everything goes alright with the inspection, there’s a planned group of animals we’ll need to bring in. From there we need to take things steady, see how it works with actually having the zoo open, before we seek to build more or bring in more animals.”


“Yeah, alright.”


I could see the issue from both perspectives. It would be a stretch to say that we were going to add, for instance, elephants to the zoo overnight. We also needed to be sensitive to our environment in Tasmania.


“I’d love to see some more photos.”


“Alright.”


I strolled back into my bedroom to fetch my phone again, sitting down on the lounge and opening up Photos.


 

Jumilah Fioray is a recent high school graduate from lutruwita, Tasmania. Her parents, Catherine and Adriano Fioray, met at the University of Melbourne in the 1990s and returned to Hobart after finishing their degrees, where they raised their daughter and worked in agriculture. Jumilah's passion for conservation reflects her grandparents' work running a sanctuary in Sumatra.


Abbey Sim is the founder of Huldah Media. She is a creative writing, law and theology student who lives on the lands of the Dharug people in Sydney, Australia. Abbey has long had a passion for the weird and the wonderful of stories, sport and zoo animals. 'From the Wild' is her first anthology.


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