Updated: Jan 30, 2022
CW: Gun violence, death.
The plane touched down on the runway with a thud and I immediately felt a shock of adrenaline to my heart. Finally, I had arrived in Sumatra and my heartbeat was ringing in my ears. The plane raced along the runway until it eventually came to a halt. I gasped quietly when the aircraft was finally stationary. There was no turning back now. I was here and I had started my adventure. The seatbelt light turned off and I hastily unfastened the strip of fabric that had become familiar as I had travelled through the air, from Hobart to Melbourne, from Melbourne to Singapore, and finally from Singapore to Medan. I was about to stand up, but the announcement told me not to, so I didn’t. The rest of the words bounced off my brain; I knew I should have been listening, but I just couldn’t bring myself to. There were too many other things that were dominating my thoughts.
Finally, I was allowed to stand up, so I did so. I was thankful that my seat was on the aisle, as it meant that I could move out straightaway. I opened the overhead locker and pulled out my suitcase, which was as large as it could possibly be for carry-on luggage. I lugged it along the aisle, trying to get off the plane as quickly as possible. Finally, after thanking all of the flight attendants, I found my way to the stairs leading to the tarmac. When I took the first step onto the metal staircase, the sole of my boot made a clang against the surface underfoot. My first impression of Indonesia was the scorching heat. The trendy jacket I had put on in cold, rainy Tasmania would not be necessary.
The swirling wind sizzled, my long, curly brown hair flapping around in my face. As I headed down the stairs, carrying my heavy purple suitcase in one hand, I attempted to tuck my hair behind my ears with the other hand to no avail. When I reached the bottom of the stairs, I placed my suitcase down on the tarmac and pulled up the handle. Smiling to the guards who were directing me towards the terminal, I dragged my bag along behind me until I reached the sliding doors to enter the terminal. I was thankful that the doors did open for me, but I was dismayed to learn that the terminal was only slightly cooler than outside. The large ceiling fans did little; they seemed to only create a din.
I remembered where I was meant to go in the terminal to go through customs from my research on the Internet back at home. The Bahasa I’d been taught since I was young allowed me to pick up what the signs said. Heading through customs was a blur. I made sure I concentrated on what was happening and spoke in my best Indonesian whenever it was required. Finally, I ended up out of the front of the small airport and fetched my sunglasses from the smallest front pocket of my suitcase. Placing them over my eyes, I looked around for my beloved grandfather. Ever since I’d finished school a few months before, I had been anticipating this trip to my grandparents’ animal sanctuary. I smiled slightly in an attempt to look confident.
He planted a kiss each on both of my cheeks, which I reciprocated.
“Selamat datang! Aku sayang kamu.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I must have missed where you were.”
“It’s quite busy today.”
I told my grandfather that I loved him too, before it was my grandmother’s turn to shower me in her hugs and kisses, no matter who happened to be around. Kakek took my suitcase from me. I thanked him, as I would have been able to wheel it myself. For the first time since I’d landed, I felt more at ease with my surroundings. I have visited Sumatra before with my parents, although this is the first time that I’ve made the trip by myself, to mark me leaving school. The three of us travelled through the carpark, to get into my grandparents’ car to head to their place. Kakek unlocked it, placing my suitcase in the back seat. I climbed in after it, fastening my seatbelt. Kanek and Nanek took the driver’s and passenger’s seats in the front, speaking Bahasa with each other. Once their seatbelts were clicked in, he put the car into reverse and checked over his shoulder. Kakek carefully pulled out of the parking spot, while Nanek asked me how the flight was. I leaned forward a little, telling her that I was glad to be there. Nanek beamed and reached out to cup my cheek in her hand.
“Aku saying kamu,” she gushed, and told me that it was so good to have me there.
I felt at peace, and told Nanek that I love her too. Kakek drove through the carpark. When we were just about to pull out onto the road, another driver cut in front of us, and he muttered under his breath words in Bahasa that I’m not meant to know the meanings of. My cheeks reddening, Nanek kept her eyes on the road, thinking of my childhood when Mum would be cooking and making a mess. Finally, Kakek pulled out of the carpark. I started fiddling with my hair. As Kakek accelerated and switched on the car radio, I gazed out the window and took in my surroundings, the trees looking smaller than they used to. I suppose that’s just part of growing older. The journey home was relatively short. Not far from the airport we escaped the traffic and turned onto dirt roads.
“We’re here,” I murmured in a dream-like state when Kakek pulled up the car.
I just sat there in the back seat for a moment, before finally opening the door. Once I opened it, I emerged from the car, closing the door behind me. Kakek retrieved my suitcase from the other side. I took it from him and thanked him, not remembering when he and Nanek got out of the front of the car, listening out for the animals beyond. A smile came onto my lips. I’d been here before, with my parents. Kakek locked the car behind him and I followed him and Nanek, leaves crunching underneath our feet. I could see their house in the distance. We reached the front door, Nanek retrieving the keys from her pocket and unlocking it.
“Jumilah, selamat datang,” she welcomed me, giving me a hug as I approached the doorway to the house in which my mother had grown up.
I stepped over the threshold, then embraced Nanek tightly. She pushed my hair away from my cheek and pressed a firm kiss to my skin, as I felt warm and safe. Nanek told me that she loves me, and that I’m her favourite granddaughter, which could only make me laugh. As we parted from our hug, Kakek came in with my suitcase, closing the front door behind the three of us. He mentioned that he’d show me where I would be sleeping. The house is not particularly large; it has one main room with the combined kitchen/laundry in one corner. On the back wall are two doors, one which leads to Kakek and Nanek’s bedroom, the other leading to the bathroom. It looked barely any different to last time.
Kakek walked across the room to open a window. The shutters parted to reveal the fly screen, which stayed in place but allowed more light into the room. Then, Kakek suggested that we could go and look at the animals they cared for in the sanctuary. We exited the home to head on our way, Nanek staying behind to get my bed ready. Kakek started to tell me the story. A knowing smile came onto my lips. All the words of this story are familiar to me, capturing the magic of my mother’s childhood in the little house in the forest with the animals. We tread through the jungle which provided a soundtrack, providing memories which were not my own with vivid colour.
Kakek paused the story for a moment. I urged him to go on, so he cleared his throat and continued as we walked under the trees together. Kakek placed an arm around my shoulders. Finally, we reached the metal gate to the sanctuary. Kakek ended the story, and announced here we are. I was already grinning, full of wonder. Kakek pulled a key from his pocket. He unlocked the gate, swinging it open with a screech and letting me pass through first. I thanked Kakek, pausing and glancing over my shoulder as he followed behind me. He pulled the gate shut and made sure to lock it again after him. He murmured something in Bahasa which I didn’t quite pick up on, tuning myself to the sounds of the jungle. To the right mesh separates the path from animal areas. The animals in Kakek and Nanek’s sanctuary wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild anymore given what they’ve been through.
“Wow,” I gushed, gazing up at the canopy above.
“Spectacular,” Kakek voiced, and I smiled at him, not doubting that this is impossible to become tired of.
There was a glisten in his brown eyes, like Mum’s, like mine. Like a small child on Christmas morning, I started skipping down the path. I finally removed my denim jacket and swung it over my left shoulder. Eventually I came to a stop when my movements caused my jacket to fall to the ground. I turned around to pick it up, while Kakek was smiling fondly at me, then tied the jacket around my waist. My eyes bulged at a rustle in the trees. A brown gibbon leapt onto the mesh, holding on with one hand, two eyes staring down at me with curiosity. Kakek introduced Ratu, an elderly female, whose name means ‘queen’. She’d come into a vet clinic years ago, having lost her hand, although nobody knew how. Ratu gingerly moved down the mesh, so that she could join us closer to eye level.
I remembered her, from years ago. We continued on, to the next section of jungle where a young pair of Siamangs are kept, even though we weren’t able to spot them. The foliage is dense, and even though these animals were humanised, they often keep away. Maybe Medan and Georgia will be able to be released back into the wild, but maybe they won’t. They have the best shot of any, that’s what Kakek reckons. At the end of the path the group of Dholes are housed, flashes of orange amongst the leaves. I let out a squeal at the sight of a pup, following after his mother, and Kakek hushed me with a giggle. The smile on his face would never leave me. I’d been waiting for years.
I approached the fence, but stopped short. Kakek told me that the group of Dholes numbered eighteen, and they breed. Three young have been bred so far and are, for now, being kept within the group. I asked Kakek whether he would consider swapping them with other places, other sanctuaries or zoos, in the future. He told me maybe, shrugging his shoulders. We’d reached the end of the path, so we circled back to head towards home. The animal enclosures stretched into the forest to give the primates an opportunity to retreat. I gazed into the tall, dark canopy, swaying ever so slightly. The jungle hums constantly, mosquitos buzzing around, the drone soft.
Kakek made sure to drown me in repellent. He led me over to the shed where he found a wrap to put around me, to protect me from bites. I was captivated by the noises that the various primate make, beautiful but unfamiliar songs harmonising between animals which I couldn’t see at first, until I was still. A siamang swung into view, gripping onto the mesh near the corner. Kakek and I shared a smile, holding our ground.
“You know,” he whispered, “you can have a closer look if you’d like.”
The wind picked up, my hair flapping forward and into my face. Thunder loudly rumbled above the sanctuary as I approached the mesh, two dark eyes watching me from overhead. I knew that I was unfamiliar, even though I felt right at home amongst the animals. Perhaps a storm would be coming, although I didn’t know for sure. I looked Medan in the eye, then he swung away. While the encounter was brief, it was enchanting. I was able to race back to Kakek, as it started to rain softly, when three bangs pierced through the dense forest.
Immediately, I sharply spun around. Kakek’s body fell to the hard, dusty ground. Blood spilled across his shirt, as the animals shrieked and fled from the trees. I fell to the forest floor. Kakek reached for me as I crawled across the ground towards his body, clasping my hands and placing them over the wound blooming on his chest. He reached for me, before his hand went limp. Raindrops pelted harder through the leaves. I clumsily fumbled around Kakek’s wrist, then his neck, frantically searching for a pulse. From deep in my lungs I screamed. I didn’t know what else to do, I was not equipped for this sudden situation.
“Aku sayang kamu,” Kakek murmured, while his lips turned blue.
A sob rose within my throat, clinging to him. As I heard footsteps through the leaf litter, my thoughts raced.
“Come on,” I yelled, trying to drag Kakek’s body.
A strangled scream ripped from my mouth as another muscled man assisted. I clung to Kakek as best as I could.
“We need to do CPR.” The man’s voice was clear and I gasped, as Nanek must have been the one to shift me aside.
“I need you to go back to the house,” she insisted. “Get more towels, whatever you can find.”
I nodded my head with haste. Running through the jungle as fast as I could I waited for noises, other than the songs of the animals returning. Siamangs bleated, echoing through the trees, creating safe passage for me back to the house, the front door open. My racing heart made me sway with giddiness. I rushed to the bathroom, pulling as many towels as I could, and seized a medical kit. The heaviness slowed me down. I followed my feet, panting, even though I knew it wasn’t the safest.
“I’ve got--,” I blurted out when I returned, trying my best to not drop the towels into the mud and leaf litter.
Nanek took the supplies from me. The other man remained crouched by Kakek’s body. Nanek wrapped me into her eyes to suppress a scream, clinging to me, frozen in grief. A sob emerged from within me.
Night had fallen by the time we finally got back to the house. Nanek went to bed, while the other man remained, whose name I learned to be Mohammed. I waited out in the lounge room, where I was to sleep. A warm cup of tea was in my hands, although I didn’t feel up to drinking it, despite the swirling of the fan. Mohammed returned from the kitchen.
“Would you like anything else?”
“No,” I replied, shaking my head.
Mohammed sat near me, but kept his distance. He had his own mug, green tea he sipped from.
“You’re their granddaughter, aren’t you?” I wasn’t sure whether Mohammed was questioning me or just musing.
“Yes,” I answered, perhaps a little too firmly.
I hadn’t yet decided whether I was up for a conversation, or just wanted to rest into oblivion.
“That’s what Michael had said.”
A grave expression cast a shadow over his face.
“Jumilah, you need to go home now,” Mohammed instructed me.
My face curved into a quizzical expression.
“Why?” I questioned hastily, in an irritated tone.
Mohammed sighed in a manner that implied he didn’t want to elaborate.
“Because Mohammed was just the first,” he told me, then sipped his tea.
Adrenaline continued to pulse through me. I must have twitched because he shifted a little closer.
“You live here, don’t you?”
Mohammed sipped his green tea again. He seemed calm, but I didn’t know him well enough to make that assessment.
It would have been hard for anyone to be.
“Yes,” Mohammed confirmed. “They’re coming for the animals, we’ve had problems before.”
He shook his head, then sighed heavily.
“You mean poaching the animals?”
“Yes,” Mohammed echoed. “But they’re safe. For now.”
He took another sip of tea, and I wasn’t sure whether or not I should believe him. I had heard his name before, because Mum had told me that Nanek and Kakek had taken on an assistant to help them with the sanctuary, but I hadn’t met him before today.
“I have no clue what we’re going to do,” Mohammed murmured, almost to himself, “especially now with Michael gone, that makes it real now, unfortunately”.
Without even knowing what he was talking about, I nodded.
“Nanek trusts you, I know that,” I committed to him. “If she comes to Australia, you could come too.”
I gathered Mum and Dad would be fine with it. My heart thumped even faster within my chest. I needed to speak with Mum and Dad, but that hadn’t happened yet. Maybe Nanek would tell them, but she shouldn’t have to. It’s not like I want to.
“You live in Tasmania, don’t you, with your parents?” Mohammed checked.
I nodded my head.
“We’ll need to make sure that they’re informed,” Mohammed asserted. “I don’t expect that you would call them, but I don’t think that Jelita has the strength for it, either.”
Even though it felt like a blow, I knew he was right.
“So what are we going to do?”
The answer didn’t come straight away, which made me uncomfortable. Neither of us could truly know. A multitude of unanswered questions remained and still remain, as the answers were not good enough. Easy answers are not good enough. I believe Mohammed that there are poachers. It does make sense, considering what I already know.
“Could I please be there when you call them?” I requested. “I can give you the number if you like.”
Despite my offer, Mohammed shook his head.
“We need to wait for the morning.”
I didn’t understand, and tried to calculate the time difference.
“They’ll be expecting me to call them anyway,” I reasoned, even though I suspected that it would have been late.
“Alright. Are you going to use your phone?”
I did have the credit, so I agreed to, even though my hands were trembling. My chest felt tight and I didn’t know whether or not I had the strength, to be the one to tell my parents that my grandfather had been killed. I made the call.
“Hello,” Mum greeted.
“Hey.” My voice was higher than usual.
I was trying, but to no avail. It would have been one of the hardest things I’d ever done, but it was not the hardest thing that day. They cried, we all cried, and Mohammed continued to drink his tea.
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.