by Dawn Wyndham
Her gentle elongated face was etched with tiredness. Delayed by giving birth two days ago, she was the last to flee. Amid the flames and smoke billowing around her, she held tight to the branch she hung from, high above a forest floor fanged with charred, fallen trees.
Subdued dawn sunlight shone through her long auburn hair, silhouetting her body in a foggy halo. Her instincts were sharpened by the coming of morning and she sensed the presence of danger as vividly as carnal pain. She felt a disturbing change in the rhythm of things as she lifted her head to sniff the acrid air and panic began to claim her. The sound of her baby brought her back to herself. Hearing him keening, she looked down at his tiny new-born face and made soft hooting noises to calm him. He groped the air, feeling her fear and coughing a terror all his own. A slow wind snarled at the hot daybreak like a sinister red beast, goading the fire on. Something evil was happening.
She searched the blackened tree canopy for a flash of orange, a glimpse of ginger fur, for another of her kind, but the smoke was so thick it was all she could do to keep her streaming eyes open. Although she was accustomed to prowling the forest alone, she sometimes made contact with the congress of orang-utan who lived here, especially the other females with their young. Now with an infant of her own she searched for them. Where were they? Feeling the perpetual bond of his hold on her, she cradled her son, lifting him to her breast to encourage him to latch on and cling more tightly; hoping the act of suckling would soothe him. Skin touching skin, she tenderly stroked his head, still shiny from the pickling of her womb, brushing his singed fluff of hair free of ash. Breathing in as he was breathing out, her keen sense of smell told her of the smoke filling his young lungs. He looked up at her with an ancient trust, instinctive and mysterious. His small hand sought the fur around her neck and he covered her nipple with his mouth and closed his eyes.
She had travelled a long way across the jungle canopy, her seven-foot arm span swinging her effortlessly from treetop to treetop, rasping for a full breath of air. The new day revealed the fire was at its worst here. At one point yesterday she’d had to descend from the trees to avoid the flames, but the earth had been on fire. As she relived the trial of it, she made small noises and rocked to comfort herself, as she had last night when darkness fell; murmuring ancient sounds only her kin could make in the hollows of their throats and which, somewhere in her head, fathoms deep, she kept close. Her feet and hands had got burned from just the short burst of speed to reach across the clearing and into the forest again with the baby clinging to her belly, climbing up and up as if the altitude would cool her blistered limbs. Listening out for the deep call of a flanged male, she felt the branches for food, but all she found were shriveled leaves. She was hungry. She must eat to have milk for the baby, to have strength to travel.
Which way? This was an alien place, no longer the lush green habitat that she lived in. Disoriented, her infallible mental map of the forest disturbed, she climbed as high as the charcoaled branches would bear her and gazed across the grey clouds of smoke to the distance. In the faded blue of the far-away, beyond the burned out trees, beyond the ranks of palm oil plantations, she sensed water. It was their only chance. She shouted a loud hoot, listening for the response of an answering call, desperation driving her, instinct and tenacity telling her she would be going in the right direction – towards the river; to the tea-coloured waters that flow in tributaries across Central Kalimantan; to the orang-utan sanctuary where she was raised; to safety.
Retired from a career in the technology industry, Dawn Wyndham is a new author focussed on exploring the use of the animal voice in fiction. This is an excerpt from her first novel. She holds a M.A. in creative writing and is a candidate for a PhD.